The “Old Crones” tackle the 100 mile Saint Oswald’s Way in Northumberland

The “Old Crones” tackle the 100 mile Saint Oswald’s Way in Northumberland

The “Old Crones” tackle the 100 mile Saint Oswald’s Way in Northumberland

“I walked six miles this morning,” BordersCrone wrote a couple of weeks before our excursion proposal, “and I’m absolutely blown away.” “My foot doctor said I should keep it off for five weeks,” BucksCrone replied, “but it will fit in a boot.” DevonCrone’s hip hurts (it’s me) but he decided not to say anything. After all, the die has been cast with the three Old Crones busy traversing the 97-mile St Oswald’s Way in Northumberland.


As a group of friends – two octogenarians plus a 78-year-old – we keep each other motivated for our weekly Saturday parkruns, but this would be much more challenging. We weren’t going to get old that much before we faced it: 2019 was the plan, but then the lockdown came. We enlisted the help of Mickledore Holidays to produce a not too strenuous itinerary for us and to arrange the accommodation. The longest day had to be 11 miles, which we thought we could handle. Alone.

The Via di Sant’Osvaldo starts in Lindisfarne (Holy Island) and the last day joins the route of Hadrian’s Wall. 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 beyond Northumberland National Park and into the terrifying Harwood Forest, from which you might whether or not to 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 away. Here they are tide-controlled and most drive on the causeway at low morning tide and back in the afternoon. Those lucky enough to spend the night, as we did, have the place more or less to themselves, and there is a lot to see. The castle, defensive for many centuries but modernized by Edwin Lutyens in the early 1900s, provides a dramatic backdrop to the Gertrude Jekyll garden, designed by the architect’s friend to replace the original greens with flowers. Truly ancient is the ruined 11th century priory, whose sandstone has taken the form of Henry Moore.

Would we have been scolded for trespassing? No, this was Northumberland, not the south

The first day of walking was enough to doubt the wisdom of this feat, temptingly called the Pilgrim’s Way and supposedly a three-mile walk across the sands. We battled a strong headwind as our bare feet rumbled from the rippling sand, mini streams, and ankle-deep black mud. But there were distant visions of gray seals and a moving tide of sanderlings dripping onto the shallows. We stayed in a pub in Lowick. The next day, while looking for red squirrels in Kyloe Woods, we met two rangers who advised us not to take the official trail through the trees as “it’s swampy and you’ll stumble”. So we took a longer, safer route along a stony track, where I tripped, hit my head on a boulder, and got a phone-shaped bruise on my hip for the rest of the walk.

The third day, after a night in Belford, was characterized by styles. The old ones don’t go well with styles. “Can you lift my leg?” Fields of yellow corn and oats sloped towards the distant sun-shrouded Bamburgh Castle. A man came up to us, his arms wide open to embrace the view: “You don’t understand that abroad!”

Dunstanburgh Castle, always in sight the next day, was our favorite ruin, its silhouette changing as we walked close to its walls through bells and crane beaks. If anything illustrates the futility of great wealth, this castle does it. Built in the early 14th century by the irascible Earl of Lancaster and covering 4.5 hectares (11 acres), it was intended as a refuge 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 of him, so he never actually lived there.

Related: A coastal walk to a great pub: the Jolly Fisherman, in Nortumberland

By now we were following the coast and motivated by the promise of a swim after the smoked herring scented Craster, when the path crosses a wide sandy beach. One family played cricket: the adults with great enthusiasm, the children grumpy. “They wanted to do it on their computers,” we were told. Two large women were opening a bottle of prosecco. “Well, we were in the water!” they explained cheerfully. As I did.

Kate (BucksCrone) left us in Alnmouth for some family duties, leaving the two octogenarians, Roz and me, to complete the remaining six days. We almost immediately got lost. From Warkworth to Weldon Bridge it should have been 11 miles, but in the end it made almost 14. It’s not our fault: a recent construction spree has changed the route and obscured the trail markers. Walking on a farm path through a plowed field, I anxiously watched a tractor bounce towards us. Would we have been scolded 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 is my new home and all of this will be a flowery meadow. Dear, mind you. The seed costs £ 500 per bag. You’ve lost your way, ”she added as an afterthought. Not wanting to retrace our steps, we used a compass and guesswork to get back on the trail and eventually arrived, exhausted, at the Anglers Arms.

Still tired from the previous day, we pouted through huge, lumpy meadows in incessant rain, to the River Coquet and Rothbury, a major town and our base for the next three nights – and the best and worst day of our walk. First of all the best: Living in Devon you’d think I’d be spoiled by heather, but I’ve never seen such a swath of purple as it greeted us the following day in Northumberland National Park.

Even in the fog and drizzle it made our heart beat and strong legs. Then we came to Harwood Forest, 13 square miles of dense and hostile conifers, networked by newly built forest roads. With no signposts to help us and nothing that matched the directions on our map or guide, we plunged into the heart of the forest in an approximately plausible direction. If we hadn’t met a couple who downloaded the OS map to their phones, we’d probably still be there. They got us right, but the right isn’t necessarily pretty: already tired, we found ourselves faced with a mix of boringly straight stony tracks and soggy swamps through chest-soaked ferns. A total of 12 miles and I have rarely been so pleased to see a cab waiting.

We plunged into the heart of the forest in a roughly plausible direction

After that he had to improve. She did it. The route became obvious again, through sheep pastures with talkative farmers. “I am 85 years old. Nowadays it is enough to make sheep and mow the grass. I’ve been here for 70 years, ”said an old guy on a tractor. We were at the last stretch, certainly in better shape – no more “oofs” on uprights – and experienced sheep turners. Three times we found a sheep struggling on its back, weighed down by all that wool. One looked almost dead, eyes glazed and motionless, but when we put her to her feet she trotted away as if she had just been disturbed by a tan spot.

The last day was along the Hadrian’s Wall trail. When we joined the trail, we stopped to greet a man dressed in racing gear getting out of a car. He was about to do a reconnaissance of the Way of St. Oswald, he told us. I warned him of the poor road signs and especially of the Harwood Forest challenge. “It’s very difficult to find your way,” I told him. “It won’t be easy to run”. He interrupted me. “I don’t want to brag but I’ve actually done Saint Oswald three times without stopping. I hope to beat my best time, which was 23 hours and 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 in Heavenfield, the designated end of the trail, we felt that wonderful complacency and relief that hikers can only get after reaching one of the UK’s long-distance trails. A bottle of champagne and a congratulatory card from Kate awaited us at our last 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.

Mickledore Holidays supported the trip and has itineraries suitable for most levels of walkers, including St Oswald’s Way

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