I walked six miles this morning” messaged BordersCrone a couple of weeks before our proposed hike, “and am absolutely knackered”. “My foot doctor said I should keep off it for five weeks,” replied BucksCrone, “but it’ll be OK in a boot.” DevonCrone’s hip hurts (that’s me) but she decided not to say anything. After all, the die was cast with the three Old Crones committed to walk the 97-mile St Oswald’s Way in Northumberland.
As a group of friends – two octogenarians plus one youngster of 78 – we keep each other motivated for our weekly Saturday parkruns, but this would be much more challenging. We hadn’t meant to get so old before tackling it: 2019 was the plan but then came lockdown. We enlisted the help of Mickledore Holidays to produce for us a not-too-strenuous itinerary and sort the accommodation. The longest day was supposed to be 11 miles, which we reckoned we’d manage. Just.
Saint Oswald’s Way starts in Lindisfarne (Holy Island), and joins the Hadrian’s Wall route on the last day. Gloriously scenic and varied, it follows the Northumberland coast past two ruined castles, then swings inland along the River Coquet to the historic town of Rothbury, up and over Northumberland national park and into the dreadful Harwood Forest, from which you might or might not emerge to complete the walk in another couple of days.
Lindisfarne reminded me of Lundy, where day visitors are known as bluebottles because they buzz in, buzz around, then buzz off. Here they are controlled by the tides, and most drive over the causeway at the morning low tide and return in the afternoon. Those lucky enough to stay the night, as we did, have the place more or less to themselves, and there is plenty to see. The castle, defensive for many centuries but modernised by Edwin Lutyens in the early 1900s, provides a dramatic background to the Gertrude Jekyll garden, designed by the architect’s friend to replace the original vegetables with flowers. Genuinely old is the ruined 11th-century priory, its sandstone weathered into Henry Moore shapes.
The first day’s walk was enough for us to doubt the wisdom of this enterprise, enticingly called the Pilgrims’ Way and supposedly a three-mile stroll across the sands. We battled a keen headwind as our bare feet grumbled at the rippled sand, mini streams, and black, ankle-deep mud. But there were distant views of grey seals and a moving tide of sanderlings trickling over the shallows. We stayed in a pub in Lowick. Next day, as we searched for red squirrels in Kyloe Woods, we met two rangers who advised us not to take the official path through the trees because “it’s boggy and you’ll trip”. So we took a longer, safer route along a stony track, where I tripped, hit my head on a boulder and bore a phone-shaped bruise on my hip for the rest of the walk.
Day three, after a night in Belford, featured stiles. Crones don’t do well on stiles. “Can you lift my leg over” Fields of yellow wheat and oats sloped down towards distant Bamburgh castle, hazy in the sunshine. A man walked towards us, arms spread wide to encompass the view: “You don’t get this abroad”
Dunstanburgh Castle, always in view on the following day, was our favourite ruin, its silhouette changing as we walked close to its walls through harebells and cranesbill. If anything illustrates the pointlessness of great wealth, this castle does. Built in the early 14th century by the irascible Earl of Lancaster and covering 4.5 hectares (11 acres), it was intended as a retreat from his enemies. He forgot to avoid making more enemies, however, and launched a rebellion against King Edward II, which failed and resulted in his execution – so he never actually lived there.
By now we were following the coast and motivated by the promise of a swim after kipper-scented Craster, when the route traverses a broad sandy beach. A family was playing cricket – the adults with huge enthusiasm, the children grumpily. “They wanted to do it on their computers,” we were told. Two large women were opening a bottle of prosecco. “Well, we’ve been in the water!” they explained cheerily. As had I.
Kate (BucksCrone) left us at Alnmouth for some family duties, leaving the two octogenarians, Roz and me, to complete the remaining six days. We almost immediately got lost. Warkworth to Weldon Bridge should have been 11 miles, but ended up at nearly 14. Not our fault – a recent building spree has changed the route and obscured the trail markers. Walking up a farm track across a ploughed field, I anxiously watched a tractor bouncing towards us. Were we going to get told off for trespassing. No, this was Northumberland, not the south, and all the farmers we met wanted to chat. “Yes, this is my land – and that’s my new house and all this will be a wildflower meadow. Expensive, mind you. The seed costs £500 a sack. You’ve missed the path,” he added as an afterthought. Not wanting to retrace our steps, we used a compass and guesswork to get back to the trail and eventually arrived, exhausted, at the Anglers Arms.
Still tired from the previous day, we trudged sulkily across huge, lumpy meadows under relentless rain, to the River Coquet and into Rothbury, a substantial town and our base for the next three nights – and the best and worst day of our walk. First the best: living in Devon you’d think I’d be spoiled for heather, but I’ve never seen such a swathe of purple as greeted us the following day in Northumberland national park.
Even in the mist and drizzle it made our hearts soar and our legs feel strong. Then we came to Harwood Forest, 13 square miles of tightly packed, hostile conifers, networked by recently constructed logging roads. With no trail markers to help us, and nothing matching our map or guidebook directions, we plunged into the heart of the forest in a roughly plausible direction. If we hadn’t met a couple who had downloaded the OS map to their phones we would probably still be there. They put us right, but right isn’t necessarily nice: already tired, we were confronted by a mixture of boringly straight stony tracks and squishy bog through chest-high wet bracken. A total of 12 miles and I’ve seldom been so pleased to see a waiting taxi.
After that it had to get better. It did. The route became obvious again, through sheep pastures with chatty farmers. “I’m 85. Just do the sheep and cut the grass these days. Been here 70 years,” said one old boy on a tractor. We were on the final stretch, certainly fitter – no more “oofs” over stiles – and experienced sheep-turners. Three times we found a ewe struggling on its back, weighed down by all that wool. One looked close to death, eyes glazed and no movement, but when we set her on her feet she trotted off as though just disturbed from a spot of sunbathing.
Unlike the rest of the country there was no shortage of rain as Hilary and friends took on St Oswald’s Way. Photograph: Hilary Bradt
The final day was along the Hadrian’s Wall path. As we joined the trail we stopped to greet a man dressed in running gear getting out of a car. He was about to do a recce of Saint Oswald’s Way, he told us. I warned him about the poor waymarking and especially the challenge of Harwood Forest. “Very hard to find your way,” I told him. “It won’t be easy running.” He interrupted me. “I don’t want to boast but actually I’ve already done Saint Oswald’s three times without stopping. I’m hoping to beat my best time, which was 23 hours 8 minutes. I go through Harwood Forest at night – and it’s the darkest place in Britain.” I shut up.
Standing outside Saint Oswald’s Church at Heavenfield, the designated end of the trail, we felt that wonderful smugness and relief that walkers can only get after achieving one of the UK’s long-distance footpaths. A bottle of champagne and a congratulatory card from Kate awaited us at our final B&B in Humshaugh. We sat on the balcony in the sun, sipping our bubbly, and discussed the next Old Crones challenge. After all, Kate will soon be 80.