In the steps of St Oswald........possibly
Oswald’s Way is a 97 mile trail in Northumberland which opened in 2006. It was originally an initiative of the church council at Embleton, though it is not officially described as a pilgrimage. But it is a splendid walk with close associations with the saint. We completed it in September 2016.
But who was St Oswald?
He was born a prince in about 605, his father being king of Bernicia, an area stretching from the Tyne north across what we now know as the Scottish border. Following a dynastic struggle he was exiled to Scotland in 616 and there, under the influence of the monks of Iona, he converted to Christianity.
The trail links Heavenfield, a remote site on Hadrian’s Wall where in 634 Oswald reclaimed the crown in a famous battle, Bamburgh, the site of his royal palace and the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, which Oswald gifted to St Aiden, whom he invited to come from Iona to establish a monastery and bring Christianity to his people. Oswald, saint and king, became “beloved of God” according to the Venerable Bede and the ideal of a Christian king.
As was the way at the time, his reign was short and his death violent, dying in battle with his pagan enemies from Mercia and Gwynedd in 642. Subsequently the places and relics associated with Oswald inspired numerous miracles and a cult spread throughout mainland Europe.
All that remains is what is purported to be his skull, buried with St Cuthbert behind the High Altar of Durham Cathedral.
We started our walk on Holy Island at the priory and left by the traditional pilgrims’ path across the sands, having carefully consulted the tide tables beforehand. The causeway is for motorists and wimps!
The first few miles of the walk are shared with St Cuthbert’s Way and are notable for the unique- to us at any rate- experience of having to telephone the signalman to obtain permission to make a foot crossing of the busy and very fast East Coast Main Line. St Cuthbert’s Cave, where his remains were hidden from marauding Vikings, is worth a short detour.
Essentially the first half of the trail is along the spectacular Northumberland coast and full of interest with castles at Lindisfarne, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Warkworth (Alnwick is not far away), wide empty beaches, the RNLI’s excellent Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh, fishing villages and smokeries at Seahouses and Craster, vibrant seabird colonies offshore at the Farne Islands and Coquet Island, and just off the trail, Howick House and Gardens, the ancestral home of Earl Grey. A stop for tea is recommended.
It’s at Warkworth that the trail turns inland and follows the valley of the River Coquet to Rothbury, a pleasant market town, well-placed at around halfway for a breather and for a visit to the splendid National Trust property of Cragside.
The Coquet Valley is rich farming country, with frequent concrete pillboxes evidence of the time the gentle river, now popular with anglers, was seen as a “stop line” against invasion from the broad beaches of Bamburgh and Lindisfarne.
The last 30 or so miles is over the high moors and forests of the Northumberland National Park. On the coast we were regularly passing the time of day with walkers and holidaymakers: on the moors we barely saw a soul.......until we reached Hadrian’s Wall.
There the peace and tranquillity of the moorlands was replaced by a procession of walkers and the roar of the traffic along the adjacent Military Road, a relic of Jacobite days. But it’s only about 5 miles to Heavenfield.
Here the battlefield and the end of the trail are marked by a small mediaeval church isolated in the middle of a sheep pasture, and a large wooden cross by the side of the road. It’s a modern replica of the cross Oswald raised before the battle, having been inspired by St Columba in a dream. The prayers of the army were answered in victory.
For those unfamiliar with the area, the landscapes of Northumberland are highly recommended. Always spectacular and it has to be said that when we were there the weather matched the scenery, with the exception of one foggy day. In itself it was an atmospheric experience as we were in an area of sand dunes, caravans and beach chalets. And the odd golf course. Accommodation is readily available (with a bit of planning), waymarking comprehensive and reliable though, speaking of navigation, two heads are generally better than one and two pairs of eyes always better. Our compass proved useful on the moors and in Harwood Forest. Shepherd’s Walks, a Rothbury company, organised our itinerary, we used a baggage service, and would recommend the Harveys map over the guidebook.
Unlike St Cuthbert’s Way, which is a route along the borders which credibly replicates the route he would have walked between Melrose Abbey and Holy Island, St Oswald’s Way does not follow a route which can be ascribed in confidence to him.
But it does link the principal sites associated with him, is an opportunity to learn about and reflect on that period of English history we used, foolishly, to refer to as the Dark Ages, and it’s a wonderful walk. Is it a pilgrimage? It is if you want it to be.
And it would be a shame to leave Heaven field without walking the four miles into Hexham, where one can visit the Abbey and descend to the Saxon crypt built by St Wilfred. But that’s another story.....
George and Dorothy Derbyshire