Through the last days of the Great Heatwave, fourteen walkers and two “support staff” shared in the 2018 Synod Pilgrimage.
We walked nearly forty miles (probably the most interesting miles) of the 68 mile Borders Abbey Way, beginning at Melrose and ending at Denholm, and calling on the way at the four great abbeys of Melrose, Dryburgh, Kelso and Jedburgh. If the going was tough at times (though every day we were thankful for the breeze, and for the fact that Scottish temperatures never rivalled those of the south of England) we enjoyed at the end of each day the very comfortable accommodation provided by the student village at Galashiels, and we found good places to eat together and reflect on the day’s journey.
Our moderator Dave led the pilgrims each step of the way, giving us prayerful pauses and times for silence as well as times for conversation. Linda as ever took care of day by day admin, while Ron drove us confidently to and from each day’s starting and finishing points – and then frequently took a run to meet us somewhere along the way. Linda and Mary led our prayers at the beginning and end of each day, and Dave gently shared with us his own reading on new monasticism – a very relevant topic as we encountered the inspiring ruins of an earlier monastic age. By the end of the week we all knew at least a little more about the Rule of St Benedict. More important perhaps, we had found through the shared pilgrimage experience new resources for our own life journeys.
Here is a brief précis of each day’s walk, with photos to illustrate. Whether you find yourself walking as part of a pilgrim band, or individually, the Borders Abbeys Way has much to recommend it.
DAY 1: MELROSE TO DALCOVE MAINS
The sun shone, as it did for most of the way, as we started out from Melrose, stopping just to look through the railings at the ruins of the great Cistercian abbey, founded by King David in 1136 and built by the monks who came up from Rievaulx in Yorkshire. Our next stop was at the village of Newstead, said to be the oldest continually inhabited community in the country, and from there we walked on to the Rhymer’s stone, in the shadow of the Eildon Hills. A moment here to reflect on a very different rhyme as Dave read to us from The Dream of the Rood.
At Newtown St Boswells we found ourselves briefly on the St Cuthbert’s Way, which several of us had walked on previous pilgrimages. The path reaches the Tweed with a glorious view up the river, but our way soon took us over the Dryburgh Bridge to the Temple of the Muses, dedicated to local poet James Thomson who is now best remembered for the words of Rule Britannia. Reaching Dryburgh Abbey we stopped for lunch, and had time for those who wished to visit the ruins. Again, King David had a hand in the foundation, but the white canons who lived and worked here belonged to the Premonstratensian order. Tombs we noted among the imposing ruins included those of Walter Scott and Field Marshall Haig.
The afternoon walk kept us close to the river for much of the time. Sand martins accompanied us for much of the way, and there were occasional sightings of herons and swans as we shared a time of silence during which we were urged to reflect on our own wellbeing, our relationship with others, our relationship with creation, and of course our relationship with God. Eventually we left the river and climbed a hill to the very welcome sight of the minibus parked at the end of a farm track, ready to whisk us back to the comforts of Galashiels.
DAY 2: DALCOVE MAINS TO KELSO
The farm at the end of the track was livelier than the previous afternoon; but eventually the barking dogs let us on our way without misadventure. The paths and roads we followed during the morning were high above the valley, and we enjoyed views to Smailholm Tower and back to the Eildon Hills, as well as across to the Waterloo monument at Peniel Heugh. Pausing at Makerstoun we noted how the humble village war memorial replicated the monument we could see in the distance. We also noted that for this village the Great War ended in 1920 – the date of the death of one of their fallen.
As happens on the best of pilgrimages, we had moments later in the morning when we were not quite sure just where we were. But eventually Linda found where we had stopped for lunch; and we managed to bear the disappointment of having a mile further to walk in the afternoon heat than we had first thought. The paths leading on to Kelso took us through fields of ripening wheat and barley, and eventually past the Racecourse and then the gateway to Floors Castle.
We now dropped down to the river again for the last stretch leading into the town centre, stopping for a while in the square in front of the Kelsae Stane and the town hall before heading on to the abbey. Kelso is the most ruined of the four abbeys: in fact there is so little to see that Historic Scotland does not charge admission. Its monks belonged to the Tironensian order, and had originally settled at King David’s invitation at Selkirk. But just fifteen years later they were on the move and building their new abbey here at Kelso: church life, we mused, coped with change and developments more readily than we sometime manage today.
Next door to the abbey lives one of our retired ministers, Bill Nicol, whom some of us knew from his time in our synod when he served for some years at Ashington. We stopped to greet him, before moving on across the bridge to Springwood Park. David had been promising us all day a sight of the Holy Grail – and what finer pilgrimage destination could any of us imagine? At last all became clear as we found the minibus parked beside a tourist information board headed, yes, The Holy Grail. But what we discovered was no sacred relic, but a description of the salmon fisher’s greatest longing to cast their line just here. Junction Pool, at the confluence of the Teviot and the Tweed, is it seems the spot to be – but you need to be a millionaire to be fishing here!
DAY 3: KELSO TO NISBET
This was the day where sticklers for fair descriptions might have pointed that there were no abbeys to be seen – but for all that, the first section of the walk along the bank of the Teviot was among the most beautiful of the whole five days. The path was narrow and quite rough, which led to our failure to keep together in the way that pilgrims really ought – but it was hard not to stop from time to time just to enjoy the river, the flowers, the bird life and the exhilaration of the journey. Again, as so often, we were reminded that this area had seen plenty of troubled times: Roxburgh Castle whose ruins we passed had seen plenty of skirmishes between the English and the Scots over the years, and witnessed the death of one of Scotland’s monarchs when James II was killed by his own exploding cannon.
We stopped for lunch on the river bank at Roxburgh, just before the Roxburgh viaduct. The railway to Kelso was closed down in 1964, but we joined its route a couple of miles later and particularly enjoyed the first few hundred yards in the shadow of trees. From there the path changed into a less welcoming hardcore farm track, but the discomfort underfoot was compensated for by splendid open views especially to the south and east of the Cheviot Hills. And eventually the track led us to the edge of the village of Nisbet where Ron and the minibus were waiting for us.
DAY 4: NISBET TO BEDRULE
This was the hardest day’s walking, but for those who were daunted by the challenges of the afternoon Ron offered a less demanding programme. But we were all together for the first stretch of the day, and began by following the river upstream before rejoining the St Cuthbert’s Way for a section along Dere Street, which once linked York with the Antonine Wall far to the north. From here we could look back to the Eildon Hills for the last time and across to the Waterloo Monument on Peniel Heugh. Then the path dropped down to the outskirts of Jedburgh, and led us along the Jed Water to our lunchtime destination of the abbey.
This more than made up for the previous no-abbeys day: Jedburgh is the most extensive of the four abbeys on the route, and again was built through the initiative of King David. We learned that it housed Augustinian priests; and after we had eaten our sandwiches opposite the entrance, some of us snatched twenty minutes for a quick tour of the impressive ruins.
Then as the afternoon heat increased it was a case of “onwards and upwards” for the eleven remaining walkers. Eventually we came in sight of Black Law and its collection of masts, and after a welcome section on the flat climbed up on to the shoulder of the hill where, we were told, at 320 metres we had now reached the highest point of the pilgrimage. By now we were well behind our carefully calculated e.t.a., and the sight of Ron in his fluorescent running top waiting for us as we made our way down the hill towards the war memorial of Bedrule was as welcome as ever. The longest leg of the pilgrimage, and our last full day’s journey, was now behind us.
DAY 5: BEDRULE TO DENHOLM
By comparison with the previous day, this was a walk in the park. Actually a 2½ mile walk – not quite in the park but over undulating country that gave us good views back to Black Law and across to the even more commanding feature of Rubers Law. But first we visited Bedrule Church and learned a little about the Turnbulls and other prominent Borders family, and saw more reminders of the conflicts of the last century that seemed to have marked our way ever since Earl Haig’s tomb back at Dryburgh.
After an hour or so walking we descended into the attractive village of Denholm and made our way to the parish church – a much simpler and less ancient building than we had visited at Bedrule. The inscription over the door confirmed what we would have guessed – that this had been a Free Church, built at the time of the Disruption of 1843. Inside the atmosphere would no doubt have been quietly welcoming, but in fact we were afforded a warm welcome by the session clerk and one of the elders and the current locum minister. They joined us for a simple service of communion led by Dave, in which together we gave thanks to God for the way we had travelled and for our companions along the way.
It only remained for the minibus to take us back to Galashiels. The 2018 Synod Pilgrimage was complete. Where will we be heading next year?