Saturday, 16 August 2014

Saint Cuthbert's Way - Borders of Imagination


Woods near Fenwick, Northumberland

If we do not know about some administrative or political division of territory, will we feel the difference, apart from the landscape, the changes in topography, as we move from one region to another? A long time ago different areas were divided according to influence and allegiance to one king/prince/baron or another such as Bretagne,  Normandie, Anjou, Aquitaine, Ile de France, Languedoc etc in what is now France. These regions or kingdoms were not set in some harmonious unalterable pattern, but their borders shifted constantly as one area of dominion pushed and stretched its influence and control. Some areas joined together, others separated, split off. Territorial claims and the wars that accompanied them, continued through history and of course are still going on today.

Today, the peaceable border between Scotland and England is marked by simple signposts on roads. St Cuthbert, walking from Melrose to Lindisfarne, would hardly have been thinking about borders for in those days the kingdom of Northumberland stretched as far north as the Firth of Forth. After leaving the shelter of the magnificent natural cave now named after him, and climbing through the wood of Scots pines to the top of the hill, he would have looked out across the intervening land to the sea, and that tiny strip of a sandbar, Lindisfarne, that became his home. Though it was hardly a settled home for he was a wanderer an itinerant a missionary and performer of miracles, a visionary and ultimately a hermit on one of the Farne islands off the Northumbrian coast. An account of his life strongly resembles that of the 11th and 12th century Cathar parfaits of the Languedoc, known as Bonhommes who were also itinerant preachers, who lived simple austere lives, who travelled around the country ministering to the poor and the sick. St Cuthbert's cross interestingly enough is also equal armed, like that of the Cathars.  

Saint Cuthbert's cross and the Cathar cross on my keyring

I like to imagine that St Cuthbert first saw Lindisfarne from that rise of ground one sunny day when the sea was deep blue.  And that he saw the way the coastline seems  to shudder a little and spill over into the water, neither sea nor land, that amphibious quality which appealed to the saint who loved animals, birds at home in flight and on the surface of sea and land, and the wingless ones, seals and other sea creatures who inhabited edges and shorelines and felt no need to limit themselves to one element only.


That rise of ground is topped by several rocks some flattened, some curiously shaped.

If he were to look back, he would have seen the ground falling away scooped out in a hollow, with hills on the distant horizon.

After my first failed attempt to reach St Cuthbert's Cave, I studied the weather forecast and planned it for a day when it would not be raining. I took the bus from Berwick to Fenwick road end, not far from the turnoff to Holy Island, armed with an Ordnance Survey map. Clear signposts began in Fenwick village. Surely I could not get lost this time? And, astonishingly, I did not. There were a couple of times when I was faced with decisions about which route to take and started thinking of Dorothy and the yellow brick road. Why is it marked St Oswald's Way and not St Cuthbert's Way, when the last sign clearly said St Cuthbert's Way? Has St Cuthbert changed his mind? Did he wander off into the woods at this point? Should I take another trail marked public bridleway? Why does my map not seem to correspond with the landscape here? I try to banish these nagging doubts and continue, now on St Oswald's Way. And lo and behold, at the next signpost it has miraculously become St Cuthbert's Way again. And remains so.

I'm heading south west, away from Lindisfarne so that after the rocky – and windy – top of the knoll the path leads steeply downhill into a grove of pines. Their trunks are long, red-brown and almost bare of branches until the top, a flurry of waving dark green needles. That's when I see St Cuthbert's cave to the right,  with a big rock just in front of me.

I take a picture from the rock then walk in front of it, to find a line of people sitting by the cave entrance. They'd been screened from view by the rock so I was surprised to see them. One reads a paper, another a book, a third has earphones in and is gazing at a mobile phone. They seem to be quite oblivious to my presence as if we were in a park in the middle of a bustling city instead of in remote countryside far away from any road or human habitation. But when I walk past to take more photographs, I'm relieved that the woman reading a book looks up and says hallo.

The path continues downhill, through the pine-bordered passageway. The sun began to emerge from behind the thin covering of cloud as soon as I came out of the wood that shrouds the cave. 

I leave St Cuthbert's Way behind and take the path that curves left round the forest, heading south east.


My plan is to meet up with the path I took the other day, starting from Belford, and follow it in the opposite direction, to end up in Belford. At Swinhoe farm I find the path I should have taken, which passes the farm buildings and along the edge of the riding school. A piebald pony munches hay in its field. 

Following the signs from this direction I then discover where I got lost. I missed a turning through a small unmarked gate which I don't remember noticing the first time, with the result that I made a long detour in the wrong direction.
How different it all looks in sunshine!  



By the time I reach Belford, almost all the clouds have disappeared. Sunshine all the way back on the bus to Berwick.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Saint Cuthbert's Way - Berwick Belford and Lindisfarne

At Berwick, the sky drizzles, and seagulls wheel and shriek. They are quite tame here and fiercely vocal as if they have to contend with rivals – whistling thundering trains (there are few and near silent) or yelling woad-painted natives drawn up in battle lines (no sign of them, the public gardens and back streets near the station are almost empty.) The seagulls' screams perhaps fill the vacuum history appears to have left. But the main street is busy and the Tourist Office has bus timetables as well as a book describing walks around Saint Cuthbert's Way. I choose a walk that looks quite possible for an afternoon and take the next bus to Belford.

The rain continues, not heavy, but persistent. I feel a sense of excitement as I pick up the trail leading away from the small town. A gate leads to a paved path by a stream,  

then across a field where cows are grazing, over a stile that follows the edge of a field already harvested. A dark butterfly moves towards me as if in greeting. A flock of birds flies up from the field, dark against the tawny stubble. A knoll ahead, with a few friendly-looking trees.

A mile or so further on, approaching Swinhoe farm, I lose the way because I cannot see a stile that is supposed to be there, according to the booklet St Cuthbert's Way – Short Walks. I continue along the edge of a harvested field with a tractor at the far end picking up the round bales.   

I find an exit to the road then follow a sign saying Bridle Path for almost a mile through dripping woods, but it ends abruptly in a field. So I walk back along the track heading for the farm buildings. The tractor is heading for the exit from the field so I wait for it and ask directions from the driver. He has to turn round and speak to me from the back of his cab, which is open. He does not seem surprised to find a lost walker, he is so helpful and speaks slowly, twice repeating the instructions. Just past the triangle of trees – there's a sign, turn left for the riding school, but you go straight on, and there's a path on your right...

There's a choice of two paths, but I had lost time in the dank woods and the persistent rain was dispiriting. So I take the shorter one. The place I really want to see – Saint Cuthbert's Cave – that will wait, I decide, for a sunny day.

The shorter path skirts a small lake  

then goes through a wood. It's hardly raining now, and the sun can be seen behind a flimsy gauze curtain like an actor too impatient to get on stage to hide himself entirely but is bursting to leap out and say Look! I'm here, I'm here! But the curtains are entangled and pile up, increasingly opaque. By the time the path leaves the woods, there's a scene of damp moorland, with tame sheep grazing who barely look up as I go past. At the top of the rise, there would have been a wonderful vista over to Holy Island, but it is dim as a blurred old photograph, time always rubbing at the edges and outlines, as if objects really were less clearly-defined a few decades ago, as if there really was less colour or – that colour did not soak so deeply into objects, but remained superficial, and faded quickly, so that everything reverted to paleness, the way paint or dye becomes bleached from exposure to sunlight. Only nature's colours retain their depth, the blues  yellows and pinks of flowers and all the shades of green, from the darkness of pine needles to grey-green of willow leaves.  

The tiny island looks carefully moulded, a blurred and smoothed rock or a semi-mythical promise risen out of the sea. It hovers in a dun-coloured mist, that could be sand or shallow sea, depending on tides, imagination, or hopes of peace and sanctuary.

Rory Stewart writes about the importance of Lindisfarne when Christianity came to Northumbria.
From Middleland our lost Realm of Beauty, Art & Blood

Then, after two hundred years of obscurity and chaos, there was a miracle. Within two generations from 630 AD, the pagan, illiterate, Kingdom Middleland – then called Northumbria – became briefly the greatest Christian civilisation of its time. It attracted and brought together Byzantine sculptors and Scandinavian jewellers, Catholic missionaries from Syria and Italy, and Irish ascetics. It changed our understanding of astronomy, of tides, and of the nature of history. It produced the finest sculpture in Europe; and masterpieces such as the illumination of the Lindisfarne gospels. This revolution in scholarship, spirituality, and art, stretched from the Firth of Forth, down to the Humber, and included Edinburgh as much as York.

Saint Cuthbert, he wrote, in The Golden Age of the Middleland

– an Anglo-Saxon monk, born in what we now call Scotland, dying in what we now call England – was the ultimate symbol of our Middleland civilisation. He retained an almost pagan delight in animals – he was fed by sea-eagles, and communed with ravens. ... On that island he suffered alone as a Celtic ascetic. But he had a great reverence for scholarship, acknowledged he was part of a broader European civilisation, and died as an orthodox bishop, encouraging his disciples to follow the customs of Rome.


I follow the path that heads to the sea. It leads past a sawmill, joins a road which passes the village of Deschant and goes on to the road the bus takes, almost back at Belford, where I'd started. 

There's a line of cottages near the bus stop. All of their front doors are painted black. Some gardens are well-kept, others are overgrown. An elderly man leans on the wall of his immaculate garden and we exchange greetings as I pass. He stands there, watching the traffic go past. It has stopped raining now. When the double decker bus comes, it swoops down the hill towards me and once it has reached the A1 it hurtles along it, to Berwick. Where the sun comes out, briefly. The seagulls look fat and claim dominion on rooftops and chimney-pots.