St Cuthbert’s Way is the celebrated long-distance footpath associated with the life of St Cuthbert. But once a year there is an opportunity to walk a related but less well-known route which has a particular association with the childhood of St Cuthbert. This year the walk is on Saturday June 8th. It starts at the remote hamlet of Channelkirk at the head of the Leader valley and finishes in Melrose.
Why is the area associated with St Cuthbert’s childhood? What do we know about it?
Bede tells us little. The only reference is to a foster-mother called Kenswith who brought him up from his eighth year, who lived in a village called Hruringaham. The earlier Anonymous biographer is a little more informative, telling us he was brought up in the Leader Valley, north of Melrose. He also reveals he was a warrior before he became a monk. And that’s it.
With the building of Durham Cathedral in the early twelfth century, the cult of St Cuthbert enjoyed a huge resurgence of popularity and prosperity. Thanks to Bede’s ‘Life’, a lot was known about the saint’s adult life and about where he had lived and worshipped. Pilgrims were keen to venerate the sites. Lindisfarne, which had been abandoned since the Danish raids of the ninth and tenth centuries, was adorned with a magnificent priory, while Melrose, where the saint first took holy orders, had a great abbey (though not on the same site as the original, which the builders deemed too cramped). Even Inner Farne sported a chapel and a small cell of brothers. How they must have cursed Cuthbert’s eremitical inclinations.
In one respect however Bede had let them down. People wanted to know about Cuthbert’s family, about his birthplace, about his childhood
The lack of information proved to be no obstacle. A new source appeared, entitled The Book of the Nativity of St Cuthbert, taken and translated from the Irish. It was adopted by Reginald of Durham, the monastic chronicler of the mid-twelfth century. The Book of the Nativity is based on popular romance legends, adapted for the saint. According to this life, Cuthbert is the daughter of an Irish princess, abducted and violated by a neighbouring king. She gives birth to Cuthbert in Kells, then travels with him to Britain on a stone which miraculously floats on the water. After various adventures they come to a place in the Leader Valley, where the princess leaves Cuthbert in the care of a holy man while she departs to Rome on pilgrimage. A church was built here for the saint, known as Childeschirche (Child’s Church) Here the Book of the Nativity ends, having landed Cuthbert at the point where Bede takes up.
The present-day kirk at Channelkirk (a corruption of Childeschirche) proudly proclaims itself as being on the site of the childhood home of St Cuthbert. At first glance, this might seem to be an entirely apocryphal claim. But Channelkirk is worth a second look.
It stands at the head of the Leader, where the valley narrows and the hills rise up towards the Soutra pass. The kirk stands almost alone, with only a farm-house for company, at the end of a long single-track road up into the hills. It seems utterly remote. But a glance at the Ordnance Survey map reveals that it was not always so. On a neighbouring hill are the outlines of an early British hillfort. Close by runs the route of Dere Street, the great Roman road connecting York with Hadrian’s Wall, and from thence north via Melrose to the Antonine Wall. Dere Street runs right past Channelkirk, and there are the remains of a Roman camp / way fort not far from the church. Long after the Romans had gone, their roads continued to be used. The British and Roman forts both mark an important staging point on the journey into the hills and beyond, to the fertile lowlands around Edinburgh. It is easy to believe that there would have been a settlement here in Cuthbert’s day and it has to be at least a plausible contender for the site.
There is one last clue. The church at Channelkirk is sited on a hill, which drops away steeply to the west. Early Anglo-Saxon burial remains have been found in the church-yard, so there’s no doubt that the site is ancient. Gouged out of the side of the westerly slope is a cleugh – a deep cleft in the hillside carved by spring-water bursting out of the side of the hill. It is a striking spot. A glance at the Ordnance Survey map reveals that it is called Holy Water Cleugh. It’s likely it would have been used as a site for outdoor baptisms. Clearly, this has been a holy place for many centuries.
Whether Cuthbert lived at Channelkirk or not, he must certainly have known it. The unspoilt loveliness of the countryside can have changed little since he grew up in the Leader Valley. It is certainly worth a visit.
But what of Hruringaham, you ask. Didn’t Bede name it specifically as the home of Cuthbert’s foster-mother and hence as his? Shouldn’t we be directing our searches there?
Hruringaham is rendered into contemporary English as Wrangham, or Wrangholm. The only Wrangham village still marked is near Wooler, in the Till valley. It is a long way from the Leader valley and the wrong side of the Cheviots; it is an unlikely contestant. However, an early map produces another possibility. Armstrong’s map of the Borders of 1771 marks a small hamlet, now vanished, as Wrangham. It is next to Smailholm, not far from Melrose. It is at the opposite end of the Leader valley to Channelkirk, but nevertheless, it is a possibility.
The site is hard to access, on private land close to a busy, narrow road where it is difficult to pull off. After due consideration I’ve decided to give my vote to Channelkirk.
DOING THE WALK: if you’d like to join the walk, here’s the link:https://www.borderevents.com/events-search/eventdetail/24498/-/walk-with-st-cuthbert-channelkirk-church-to-melrose-st-cuthbert-s-walk