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.