Durham Cathedral to Iona Abbey: Coast to Coast

previously… day 1: Le Grand Départ

Holy Island to Holy Island
(wot no hills?)

Tuesday, 17th March: I was clean and warm, my clothes were clean and dry, my bicycle was clean and ready to roll. Thank you very much Paul and Pauline for putting me up for the night and giving my bicycle shelter. I joined St Mary’s church community for morning prayer to start the day, and then in more light drizzle and overcast misty skies I cycled away from Holy Island back across the causeway towards the Scottish Borders.

The road climbed steadily away from the coast as I headed inland but my views of far reaching Northumbrian hills were impeded by low cloud, and the sort of misty rain which settled on my glasses and stopped me seeing anything clearly. I regularly wiped the accumulated water off the lenses of my glasses, but I was fighting a losing battle. I had a sense that there was more to see around me, but I was passing through arable farmland and only really able to see ploughed fields.

South of my route is the Cuthbert Way – a walking pilgrimage route. This walking route passes St. Cuthbert’s Cave, but I’d decided not to visit this because St Cuthbert only ever went there after his death, as the monks took his corpse on tour looking for a final resting place. Given that Durham Cathedral currently holds his mortal remains I figured the extra miles to visit a cave on a hillside was unnecessary.

After a couple of hours cycling I stopped in Cornhill-on-Tweed for a rather excellent “Scotch Pie” and cup of coffee; but neither the name of the town “-on-Tweed”, nor the Scotch Pie clued me in that I was about to cross into Scotland.

I was surprised to pass over the Tweed and find myself in Coldstream (Champion of Champions; Borders in Bloom), but as I’d just stopped once I carried on through the town. The military echos in Coldstream are fresh; many war memorials and a long history of defending the United Kingdom.

Passing on further into Scotland I found it was interesting to be cycling along the border, and I saw several anglers in boats along the Tweed as I looked south to England.

I noticed that I was passing through yet more arable farmland here in the Scottish borders and it was starting to dawn on me that the Tweed valley must have been a very wealthy place in medieval times, with the Tweed as a trade route out through Berwick-upon-Tweed. A friend later told me how the English and Scottish had fought over Berwick to control the lucrative taxes paid for shipping the goods from the Tweed valley out overseas.

In Kelso I came across another set of Abbey ruins. There were a great many abbeys in the Tweed valley in medieval times, all supported by communities living in the profitable land around.

The route from Kelso to Melrose was via a traffic free road beside the Tweed, with a hidden gem of a bridge crossing by Dryburgh Abbey. I popped out onto the A68 for a short section before turning towards Old Melrose.
Although there is a magnificent set of abbey ruins in Melrose, I was interested in the site St. Aidan may have founded. Old Melrose isn’t signposted as a town or historical site; there is a small sign to “Old Melrose House” which is a private residence with a tearoom nearby. Following the dirt track towards the summer house I came to a knoll overlooking a bend in the river.

This area is where St Aidan may have established an abbey, although there is nothing there now, no remains at all. The area itself is like a magical little dell, stunningly beautiful and it is easy to imagine why an abbey might be built there. 

Today I was cycling into the unknown: I had not booked accommodation and a total stranger had reached out to me via social media to offer me bed and breakfast. Hans, a member of the Northumbria Community and preacher within the Church of Scotland, arranged to meet me here in Melrose and have some cake. What followed for the rest of the day was an act of unparalleled hospitality which I found deeply moving. Hans really didn’t know me at all, and yet he put himself out to help me on my journey. That is “smudge” pretending not to be inside a cafe – where dogs shouldn’t be.
We agreed to meet again at Stobo, about 7 miles short of Broughton where I’d planned to finish. Hans knew someone who would look after my bicycle so that we could go to a Northumbria Community meeting in Wooler.
I was mixing up cycling on roads with following cycle paths, and near Galashiels there is a brand new cycle path alongside the also brand new “Borders Railway”. This railway line is going to be a brilliant boost to the Scottish borders and from an audaxing perspective, will give access to all the Audax Ecosse events run from Galashiels.

Further on, following the cycle paths out of Galashiels towards Peebles I found the most wonderful section of traffic free roads, weaving either side of the A72 and undulating up and down through unending farmland alongside the Tweed. There were no difficult roads here at all, and although the general trend was to climb away from the coast inland, there were no significant mountains to ascend.

The constant misty rain, mixed with the grit on the roads, and the need to take it easy on twisty little descents combined to eat my brake blocks. I discovered a friendly little bicycle shop in Walkerburn called Ariel Cycles (sorry I can’t link to their website). It only took 45 minutes to replace front and back brake blocks, set the toe-in, tweak the tension in the cables and ensure I had tip-top braking performance for the next few days. Ariel Cycles are mainly a MTB shop, and I understand the area has numerous World Champions for the MTB disciplines. Impressive stuff.
I continued to Stobo, where I met John and Sharon, who brought me in out of the rain, fed me with biscuits and coffee and looked after me until Hans arrived. John and Sharon hadn’t met me before, and it was a mark of their friendship with Hans that they took in a stranger for a couple of hours.
Hans then took me over to a Northumbria Community meeting in Wooler for the rest of the evening, where there was poetry, dance, singing, spoon-playing and storytelling, together with good food and drink. It was nice to meet everyone and be made welcome after a long day cycling. I hope they didn’t mind that I was still in my cycle specific clothing!
Wednesday 18th March dawned bright and sunny and I was filled with enthusiasm for the new day. I was also filled with coffee and poridge! The simple fact that the clouds had lifted from the ground and I wasn’t going to spend a day soaking wet filled me with joy. Hans drove me back to Stobo, returning me to my bicycle and a chance to say thank you to John and Sharon. On the way I read the Daily Office and Hans said the Lord’s Prayer in German – a deeply touching moment.

With a gentle climb from Stobo to the top of Tweeddale, I found myself in Broughton which had been my original goal for day 2 but was now a nice way to start day 3.
Here in Broughton is a small cell, believed to have been a refuge for St Llôlan who escaped the Battle of Chester in 613, The cell was reconstructed in the 1920s and the visitors book has it’s first entry in March 1927. It is doubtful that much of the cell is as St Llôlan would have known it, although the floor space would have been similar and the “auld door” is marked against one wall.

The “Visitors Book” is held at the village shop, just round the corner from St Llôlan’s Cell, and the key has a dramatically old fashioned look to it.

The cell is behind the ruins of a parish chapel in the middle of the old graveyard, so totally not spooky at all then. Not. The floor space looks small, but once inside it could be imagined to be cosy; perhaps with a small fire in winter. There would not have been much room for luxury in this space.

Leaving Broughton over a slight rise – but still no significant hills – I shortly found myself looking down on the Clyde. I’d moved from Tweeddale to Clydesdale or what is now called Lanarkshire. The continuation of rich arable farming which stretches from the east coast in Northumberland was going on and on towards the west coast in Ayrshire. A few miles south and this crossing of the country would have involved the Pennines and some strenuous climbing, but up here in the Scottish borders, I’d found a way coast to coast without all the sweat of going up hill.
Sadly it was around here that a new trend emerged; litter. Beside the road at an interval of about 2 to 3 metres there would be a drinks can, plastic bottle or food container. This wasn’t fly-tipping, it was carelessly discarded litter thrown from passing vehicles. Thinking about the challenge to ‘judge others as I would judge myself’ I realised that the road itself could be considered litter – a blight on the landscape. More personally, I was riding a titanium bicycle; something for which I expect the manufacturing and shipping process would have been damaging to the environment. Finally there was the little sat-nav device on my handle bars; getting its location from multiple satellites which are hugely expensive and polluting to put into space. In the light of all the damage I was participating in, it seemed a bit churlish to be upset about the odd soda-can or plastic bottle. These thoughts would haunt me for a lot of the ride.
I crossed over another major blight on the landscape, the M74 at Lesmahagow. There were signs on the south bound carriageway of a significant crash. It looked as though a truck had crashed off the motorway into the embankment. After all this glumness I needed some food and I found the perfect place: Route 74 Truckstop; time for an ‘all day breakfast’. I don’t remember seeing this truckstop in 2012 when I cycled through the night from Teesside to Glasgow.
It had been nicely sunny all day so far, but now the skies were clearing of any cloud and I could remove some of the cold weather clothing and feel like a summer cycle-tourist for a bit. From the top of one hill I now thought I could see the west coast of Scotland and it felt like I was going to be riding downhill to get there.
There had not been many Celtic Christian sites on this section of the journey. I was heading for Holy Island (also called Holy Isle) off the coast of the Isle of Arran. There was one very significant Celtic Christian site south of me at Whithorn, but being almost 100 miles south I chose to skip it.
I was following a series of quiet country lanes south of Strathaven and the A71, mainly traffic free with great views of the surrounding countryside, but inevitably I was going to join the crowds as I reached the built up areas around the coast. I rejoined the A71 just east of Darvel. Perhaps it was the time of day, but I had no traffic troubles at all as I worked hard to keep a high pace along this trunk road. I would probably only recommend this choice of route to experienced long distance tourists, there must be quieter ways off the main road.
I did notice several peculiar church buildings though, including this octagonal church building, although I forget where I saw it!
I was on route for Ardrossan and the crossing to the Isle of Arran, when my sat-nav directed me off the A71 at Galston. I thought perhaps the road would be unpleasant ahead so followed this quieter route hoping it would be just country lanes – but no – I suddenly found myself on the Chris Hoy Cycle Way! Complete with solar powered night lighting running down the centre of the path. Between Galston and Hurlford the path was perfectly smooth and a pleasure to ride. The downside to these paths happens when they arrive at towns, so in Hurlsford there was broken glass littering the tarmac. I’d risked getting a puncture enough and chose to simply follow the road from now on – how hard could it be.
Very hard. The roads between Kilmarnock, Saltcoats and Ardrossan were busy and hectic. Lots of traffic lights which I stopped at, like the well behaved cyclist I am. I never shook off the feeling I was unwelcome on the road though, especially when the cars and lorries were stop/start and I felt resented for simply being there. There is a cycle path alternative… and I have no idea how good it is, but I was suspicious that it would be covered in broken glass.
What a relief to arrive at Ardrossan, buy a return ferry ticket for £7.30 (my bicycle travels with me free of charge) to the Isle of Arran. Dinner on the seafront before the ferry departed.

Thanks to the absence of any wind all week, the crossing was mill pond smooth, and only took 50 minutes. I enjoyed being the only cyclist on the ferry and having the ‘cyclist’ section to myself.

Dusk had arrived and I rolled round to the Shore Lodge Youth Hostel, 2 miles north of Brodick on the Isle of Arran.
To all intents and purposes, I had cycled from Holy Island to Holy Island… albeit that I wasn’t actually going to be able to reach Holy Island off Arran due to being out of season. Photographs were going to have to wait until the following day. I was tired and went to bed early; tomorrow I had a rest day on Arran.
To continue the story… day 4: Rest day on Arran


  1. Wonderful to be allowed to share your journey – so much appreciation for this beautifully illustrated and well-written account. I was particularly moved by the old-fashioned hospitality offered by the Northumbrian community!

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