I recently went to the Holy Island and wanted to walk the Pilgrim’s Way from the Holy Island. Everything I could find online was about walking the Pilgrim’s Path from the mainland to the island. As I have just completed this walk, I will share all my tips on how to do this safely.
What Is the Pilgrim’s Way?
The Pilgrim’s Way is the 1,300-year-old sand and mudflat, pole-lined path that Christians have trod to get to the Holy Island. Until 1954 when the causeway was built, it was the only way to get to the Holy Island. Today, tourists and pilgrims continue to walk the path for various reasons.
In my experience, a pilgrimage has some sort of sacrifice or danger built in. There are long distances, harrowing stairs, isolation, or something to keep the uncommitted out and give the daring a story to take home. On this pilgrimage, the danger is the North Sea.
The path is accessible twice daily. Then, as the tide comes in, the North Sea submerges the road and the footpath, making it impossible to cross. An average of twelve cars per year are “lost” to the sea each year by drivers who underestimate the speed and power of the tide. In fact, during the time that I was there, rescuers were called out and two cars were submerged by the sea.
This means it’s very important to be aware of tide times, weather conditions, and how much light is left in the day before you undertake the Pilgrim’s Walk. There are danger signs everywhere. Still, a conscientious walker should have no problem doing the walk with a little preparation.
Timing the Walk
If you are leaving from the island, the best thing to do is hop on the Berwick-Upon-Tweed bus and ride it across the causeway. The driver will let you off on the mainland where you can begin your walk. If you start then, you should have no problem timing the walk perfectly. Easy peasy!
The walk is 3 miles. It should take somewhere between 75 minutes and two hours. I am a fast walker, and it took me 90 minutes. Some speedy hikers raced past me, so you can definitely make better time, if that is your goal. I wanted to do it in a meditative way and have a meaningful, spiritual experience, so I advise slowing down.
Some ask if you can walk it both ways. It’s possible, but not advised. You should start two hours before low tide and time your walk so that you are always walking with an outgoing tide. This means you will be slogging through a lot of mud and walking very slowly in order to leave early enough to get back in a timely manner. It probably won’t be very pleasant.
That said, there were more than a handful of people who walked it both ways the day I was there. They started from the mainland side, which floods first and drains last.
(Note: there are safe crossing times posted everywhere, but these only apply to the roadway. The Pilgrim’s Path floods before the roadway and takes longer to clear. So use tide times, not the causeway times when planning your route).
If you time it wrong, there are two safety huts built along the poles that highlight the way. You can stop there, but why risk it? The huts have no roof or climate control. You will be very uncomfortable if you have to wait there. It’s much better to take the bus and walk one way. Still, if you get stuck and you have a cell phone with you, dial 999 and ask for the Coastguard.
Once the bus driver lets you off on the mainland, it’s best to walk along the road until you get to the first escape hut, then head to the poles that you see on your right that mark the Pilgrim’s Way.
The causeway is a tiny two lane road built for cars. Like many roads in England, it has no shoulder, so there is nowhere for you to go when cars come speeding by going 60 miles per hour in both directions. I don’t advise walking on the road any longer than you have to.
And besides, you’re here to walk the path anyway, right?
Once you get on the path, it’s a clear and straight shot to the island. You shouldn’t get lost.
Tips For the Pilgrim’s Way Walk
Bring water, a sun hat, sun screen, and jacket. The sun was behind the clouds the day we walked, but I still got pretty roasted. The day started out cool, then warmed significantly, so it’s best to prepare for all weather as it changes quickly on the water.
Most people recommend doing the walk barefooted. One of the people from our group did that and was comfortable doing so. As the North Sea is cold, even in the summer, (It was 51 degrees the day we walked it), I opted for boots. They kept my feet warm and dry.
However, be aware that there are places where the mud is deep and sucks cheap, flimsy wellies right off your feet. If you’re going to wear boots, make sure they are long and good quality. Better still, walk around the mud altogether, but expect to finish the walk muddy.
There are points where the water is about a foot deep. It’s nothing to get excited about, but it’s best to be mentally prepared for it. The water isn’t moving, so it shouldn’t scare you.
Walkers are warned to stay near the poles as there is quicksand. If you walk just far enough away from the poles to avoid the mud, you will be fine.
Do not walk across in poor weather or in low or waning light.
It sounds scary, but it isn’t. You don’t need a guide. You will be fine if you follow these guidelines.
Should I Walk the Pilgrim’s Way?
My group and I stayed on the Holy Island for a week. For me, the Pilgrim’s Way walk was one of the highlights of our time there. I walked it in contemplation of what it must have been like to do it back when St. Aidan was given the land to start a monastery. I wondered what it must have been like to have been walking for days, or even weeks, then to see the outline of the Priory signaling that you are almost there!
It was a moving, meditative experience to walk the path of so many for over a thousand years. Don’t miss it.