Hard lives

Beached up on the north Northumbrian cliffs, we are exposed to all that the weather can throw at us.  Over this winter so far we have endured violently squally and bad-tempered Southerlies bringing rain, rain and more rain. Recently the winds have changed to sea-salty and much colder Easterlies.

But whatever the weather throws at us, we sit tight in our small sandstone cottage, and are good at keeping busy and toasty.seaview cottageMy eye is always drawn out – when the grey allows ( and we’ve had a lot of grey this winter)  – to Holy Island on the horizon, and to wonder how the monks there coped with the wind and the cold and the rain.Sunrising behind cloudsWe know about these monks because some of them were so exceptional, so saintly, that Bede (himself an exceptional early historian) recorded their history. In the early 7th century,  King Oswald of nearby Bamburgh had summoned the monks from Iona to bring Christianity to his kingdom.  It was St Aidan who stablished the monastery, and St Cuthbert was to follow there as bishop.LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMatt

We don’t have Bede’s histories alone to tell us about these early monks.  We have inherited from this place and these early years one of the most remarkable and beautiful illustrated books of all time, the book of the Lindisfarne Gospels, apparently made by the later Bishop of Lindisfarne, Eadfrith, in honour of God and St Cuthbert.

First page of St Matthew’s gospel.  Image made available to the public domain by Wikipedia.

These are the ruins of the monastery church on Holy Island today.  Life in these buildings would have been hard and rough enough, but, in fact, these aren’t the buildings Cuthbert, Aidan and others knew. These are 11th century buildings. The early monks would have had oak buildings thatched with reeds.Holy Island ruins of prioryFrom the security and warmth of our windows, I often look out on Holy Island and wonder about the monks’ lives.  And that manuscript – how on earth could the scribes do this skilled, delicate work in such bitterly cold conditions – no windows, remember?

Hard lives. Hard and dangerous lives.

Extreme danger, in fact, with the earliest known Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793.  Eventually (in 875) the monks fled, taking with them what they valued most: the body of their beloved St Cuthbert.  A life-size wood carving in the church on Holy Island commemorates their journey.  It gives a sense of the struggle to carry the coffin and body, but what of the panic, the fear, the gut-wrenching terror.wood carving of monks carrying Cuthbert's bodyFrom our small cottage we can see the sea and down the coast to Lindisfarne, and when there are large bonfires on Holy Island, we can often see their smoke too.  Farmers here might have seen the approach of those terrifying Viking longships, or the smoke from their destructive fires.view out of garden to seaSkip through the generations to the 13th century, and people here endured a new menace: the Reivers.  The Border lands, the ungovernable country between the separate kingdoms of Scotland and England, experienced years of lawlessness (right up to the Union of the Crowns in 1603) because of the depredations of the Reivers.

Novels have been written and ballads sung of the Reivers, the wild lawless men who grabbed and took whatever they wanted – especially if it belonged to another family that they were at odds with.  It was Sir Walter Scott who really put the Reivers on the map.  His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border established the tales of the Reivers as romantic, glamorous, and exciting.  Actually, they were nasty, cruel and vicious.Minstrelsy of the Scottish BorderThese Border lands were divided into six Marches, and Berwick lay in the English Eastern March.  It was better governed than most.

But it was bad enough.  It’s not hard to find examples of defensive architecture.  In our adjoining parish of Ancroft, the church itself had a secure tower to offer safety when the Reivers swept in. The walls are 1.35 metres in thickness, the upper windows are tiny.  You can climb to the top of the tower, and there are fine views around.  It might have been used as a look-out, and it’s possible warning beacons may have been lit from here.  This tower is certainly no ecclesiastical adornment.Ancroft churchEven in more recent times, life was miserably hard in these parts.  Coal was mined under the neighbouring fields, and the tramway bearing coals to transport ships runs across our view ( it’s the uneven shrubby line of trees running from the top right of the landscape across to where it meets the modern Eastcoast Mainline running along the coast).old railway trackIn the local churchyard, there are several sad gravestones which tell of deaths at the colliery.  One of them is for John Harbottle who was accidentally killed on the 21st November 1865, aged 45 years.  We don’t know how he died, but you can read more on these accidents at Scremerston Colliery at the Durham Mining Museum webpage.  No Health and Safety Inspectorate in those times.  John Harbottle's grave stoneBut of all the troubles in this part of the world, it was surely the sea that caused most grief.Spittal beach promenadeJust up the coast at St Abbs, these small statues stand as a reminder of the terrible cost of fishing disasters.  These are the wives and children of Charles Purves and James and William Thorburn who lost their lives in the great storm of 1881.  189 fishermen from the east coast of Scotland perished in that storm.St Abbs statuesAnother extremely dangerous (but potentially very lucrative) sea-faring enterprise was whaling.  Berwick’s last whaling ship, the Norfolk, left on its last voyage in 1836.  She sailed over to the North American coast in the spring, but come winter, found herself trapped by ice in Pond Inlet (of Baffin Bay) with several other ships.  The Captain of the Norfolk recorded on 15th January 1837: “…The frost is very severe and the ice has been pressing to a great height all around us.”  They did not escape the ice until mid-March.  Many, many men died of scurvy as well as frostbite.

One Berwick whaling-ship owner proudly announced his trade on his front door.No 1 Wellington TerraceThose are harpoon heads on the front door panels.Detail of door of no 1 Wellington TerraceThese balustrades on the roofs of local Spittal houses are sometimes know as widows’ walks.  From them pacing wives and ship-owners might scan the sea, looking for sight of ships.widows' walksThe whale oil was processed in the manufactories where the last Spittal chimney now stands.  It was a foul-smelling and obnoxious process. Spittal chimneyIs it surprising that people fled, leaving this beautiful area for places where they hoped they might have a better life?emigration noticeI am left to reflect on my twenty-first century luck to be living here, safe and warm and healthy – so as to be able to enjoy it in comfort.

Oh, alas for all those poor souls who lived in these parts for whom life was such a miserable and dangerous struggle.Poe in front of fire

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The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

I will let you into a secret.  It was for this view that we moved the 400 miles from Devon to live in Northumberland.evening light on Holy IslandYou are looking out of the window, over the fields, over the Eastcoast railway line, over the sea, towards Holy Island.  That bump that you see towards the right of the picture is the Elizabethan castle standing proud on Beblowe crag.  In differing lights the island looms grey or shimmers as a mirage. Sometimes it is wrapped in mist.  It is always fascinating.

It is as though one is glimpsing Avalon, the Isles of the Blest, a place associated with deep yearning and longing – and peace.

Although I have always felt drawn to this distant vision, I haven’t always enjoyed going to Holy Island.

Our first visit was in August 2004.  Like the rest of the day-trippers, we’d checked the tide tables and driven over the causeway in a busy queue of holiday makers.  We were directed into a huge busy carpark, and followed the stream of people walking into the village where it’s all busy and bustling, and you can join the rest of the crowds in the tiny Lutyens castle, the mediaeval priory or the usual mish-mash of touristy shops.

Nothing special there.  Just busy, bustling and bustling.  How to reconcile this with the spiritual intensity of St Aidan and St Cuthbert, to draw near to the harshness of life that those amazing monks experienced who produced the Lindisfarne Gospels, to understand the holiness of the place?

Well – we have learned the way.  Now I can feel the island calling to me when we have not visited for a while.  It has worked its magic on me, and I am a disciple.

So – let me tell you about our visit earlier this week.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is not really an island.  It would be much more accurate to call it  a peninsula.  Peninsula – from paene meaning nearly in Latin and insula meaning island.  It is just that: nearly an island.

You have to cross a causeway to get to Holy Island, and the causeway is flooded by the tide twice a day.  So for approximately eleven hours of each day it’s inaccessible by road.driving over the causewayBefore the causeway was built in the sixties, you had to approach by boat, or else walk with your donkeys over the sands as these two good ladies did.Holy Island ladies crossing the causewayWere you to cross when the tide was high, you would be unable to drive right over the causeway. You would have to take refuge in this rickety little wooden hut and wait for the tide to go down.crossing the causewayYou are still directed into the huge busy carpark.  Even though it’s a long way off the school summer holidays, the carpark is crowded and busy.  Holy Island is an immensely popular visitor attraction. crowded carpark But it is from here that we diverge from the masses. Holy Island mapWhile most people walk into the village (or catch the local hopper bus), we back-tracked and walked along the road to a footpath that takes you over to the dunes.   Stephen striding ahead from the carparkThe expedition has begun!!  You can immediately see how different this area is.  The wild flowers are fantastic.  There are poppies and daisies….Poppies and daisiesand cowslips and orchids and buttercups and vetch…..cowslips and orchidsThere is also piri-piri.   At this time of year it is young and green and harmless. Young pirri-pirri plantsThere are warnings about piri-piri, and rightly so as it is most tiresome and we definitely do not want it to spread.Pirri-pirri burr warning signOne year, later in the summer, I unwisely trampled in the piri-piri and this was the result.  This plant has the best survival tactics of any I have ever known – it attaches itself with little wiry hooks which are the very devil to remove. and then it travels with you until it finds a nice new uncolonised spot to invade. pirri-pirri on Katherine's shoes After you leave the meadows, you climb up into the dunes, and there is the sea!  The vegetation is different here – more sparse and lower growing.  Everywhere the birds are calling.  I cannot capture the many larks we see as they fly up and up and up with their glorious singing.  But believe me, they are there, and their song is beautiful.looking for birdsWe sat on the edge of the dunes and looked down on this wonderful white empty beach.  Not a lot of birdlife here today, and no people at all.  Strange – there are usually oyster catchers, curlews and redshanks, and at least the odd beach-comber competing for finds.sandy beachesThere are, however, quite a few kittiwakes chicks in nests on the cliffs.  We can see one nest quite clearly.  There is a very demanding chick there!  You can see its open greedy beak, and boy, could we hear it!  When parents arrive with food, the chicks go wild and make an unholy din.kittiwakesAfter watching the birds, we turn inland again and head for the castle. glimpsing the castle aheadIt is fascinating how many different sorts of terrain there are on one small island.  We call this part the Moon Landscape.  It is actually what was once Nessend Quarry.  This is where, in the 1860s, they quarried for limestone.  The extracted limestone was fed into the limekilns (at the foot of Lindisfarne Castle) where it was roasted into quicklime (commonly used as an agricultural spread for neutralising acid soils).lunar landscape You clamber out through sandy dunes and are back in meadowland again.  We are once more in the land of verdant greenness.meadow flowersThere are traces of old dykes and ditches. The monks farmed here so these may be very old indeed.traces of old ditchesWe turn onto the old tramway that once carried the limestone to the Castle lime kilns.  This is very comfortable walking after the rough terrain of the quarries and dunes.  They’ve clearly been shearing the sheep – bits of their fleece are scattered all over like snow. walking the old tramway But it’s a coarse fleece – I shan’t be taking any home to spin.  fleeceNow we’re beginning to draw closer to the castle, and we can see the sheep whose fleece I’ve been inspecting.Lindisfarne castle from the distanceI love Lindisfarne castle.  The washed colours remind me of an Uccello painting.Lindisfarne castleIt is not an old castle as British castles go – nor did it see important action.  A castle was first built on the protruding rock of Beblowe Crag in the 1570s as part of the English defences on its unruly Scottish borders.  But in 1603 the crowns of England and Scotland were united under James (1st of England, 6th of Scotland), so after that the castle was rather unnecessary (although a small military garrison was maintained there for another three centuries).

It was reborn into modern life in the early 20th century when Edward Hudson (the owner and founder of Country Life magazine) acquired the building.  He appointed the distinguished architect, Edwin Lutyens, to convert the castle into a home.  Lutyens made a magnificent job of it.  It is enchanting inside – simple magnificence combined with a strong eye for detail.

On the shoreline below the castle people make cairns with the local stones.  We may not all visit Holy Island as Christians, but without doubt many people find in the place a deep spirituality.  I think this couple were building a cairn to commemorate the scattering of cremated ashes. building cairns I can well understand why you would wish to leave the ashes of those precious to you in the care of these little islands on the Northumbrian coast. 

You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid  (T S Eliot: Little Gidding)

On the distant horizon is the Inner Farne Island, whither Cuthbert retreated when he could no longer cope with the busyness of Lindisfarne.  cairns by the shoreNow we are rounding the shoreline and the old tram road path leads up to the Castle (those arches on the left are the Lime Kilns).  The castle sits like a galleon sailing in these magnificent Northumbrian skies.walking round to the lime kilns and castleWe are nearing civilisation …Stephen walking round castleBut first, glance up at the golden lichen on the castle approaches.  Lichen thrives where the atmosphere is pure.lichen under castle And look down, at the banks of valerian on the lower castle reaches.valerianWe are back now with our fellow tourists.   The ruins of the Priory are in our sights.joining crowdsA sunny lunch in the local pub.  It’s quite an ordinary little  pub, but how many other pubs sit so casually next to such magnificent ruins? Stephen in pub It was St Aidan who brought Christianity to these islands at the request of King Oswald of neighbouring Bamburgh Castle.  St AidanThe sainted Aidan was much loved and is still revered as a great saint, as is his successor, Cuthbert.  But in many ways it has to be said that Cuthbert has overtaken Aidan in the popularity stakes.  St Cuthbert amid ruinsThis is Cuthbert’s country.  He was – and still is – hugely special to Northumbrians.  They remember him locally as Cuddy.  If you look carefully you’ll see the Cuddy duck (actually an Eider) nestling at the foot of this rather curious statue of Cuthbert.  Crinoid fossils found on the beaches are Cuddy beads, and were once used to make rosaries.  Today there’s a ginger cat asleep nearby, oblivious to everything but the sunny warmth.  cat amid ruinsAidan and Cuthbert never knew this stone built Priory.  Aidan came here in 635, and Cuthbert is thought to have arrived here some 30 years later.  They lived and worshipped in wooden buildings which have completely disappeared, but are thought to have been on the same site.   LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMattGiven the simplicity of the monks’ lives here on Lindisfarne it is truly extraordinary that one of the finest books extant, the Lindisfarne gospels, was copied and illustrated here.  The Lindisfarne Gospels are thought to be the work of Bishop Eadfrith, Cuthbert’s successor on the island.  They are now one of the greatest treasures of the British Library.  First page of St Matthew’s gospel.  Image made available to the public domain by Wikipedia.wood carving of monks carrying Cuthbert's bodyThe monks left Lindisfarne in disarray when Viking raiders began a series of attacks on the monastery at the end of the 8th century.  But they took the body of their beloved St Cuthbert with them, and a fine wooden carving in the church commemorates their devotion.

In the 12th century monks returned to build the Priory that we see today.  It is a beautiful building, and despite the exposure to the elements still looks amazing.  You can still make out the details of the chevrons on the columns.  priory ruinsEven in the Priory, it is the Castle perched on Beblowe Crag that dominates.  It intrigues me that when I speak of gazing longingly at Holy Island, it is a conflation of the image of the Castle and the ethos that the monks created that sits in my mind.  The Castle is the stronger visual symbol of the place, but without the history of Aidan, Cuthbert, Eadfrith, and all their fellow unknown monks, it could just be another castle.  Of course, Mother Nature has a strong part to play in making this place remarkable too!looking from the priory ruins to the castleTime to face the world again.  There’s the whole Lindisfarne/Holy Island retail experience.  Lindisfarne shopsAnd then we join the pedestrians walking back to the car park.  I hope they will return to the mainland as refreshed by their visit to Holy Island as I have been. walking back to the car