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.


Anonymous said...

The 'Cathar' cross is a misnomer. The cross is actually the Cross of Toulouse.
I know the monument at the foot of the pog of Montsegur has the
cross and it's used (and sold in great numbers) all sorts of places but the Cathars really had no use for crosses...
In the Inquisition register someone is asked about the cross and the reply was something about 'if your father had been hanged would you wear a noose around your neck to remember him by?'
Since they did not hold that Jesus was man, then he couldn't be the cross had no real meaning to them. A small statue of a dove (of the Spirit?) was found near Minevre but with so few records from the Goodmen (and Goodwomen) themselves we can't really ascribe that icon to them either.
I personally like the Cross of Toulouse because it represents (to me) the independent south that existed at the time of the Cathars...
It was some time ago but we met (yourself, Philippe Contal and Yves Maris) and had lunch in Couiza (at the appropriately named Restaurant Cathare...the next day we met to go to a 'coffee' in Mirepoix to celebrate the release of M. Maris's latest book. I have very good memories of those times and do enjoy following you on your travels...such wonderful places you find...and share.

dritanje said...

How lovely to hear from you Lynda! I too have great memories of those days spent in Couiza and Mirepoix and how we travelled around Cathar country.

Of course you are quite right, the equal-armed cross is the Toulouse Cross and can be found all over the Languedoc. And the Cathars did not go for any kind of crosses because of the reasons you give above. But I am interested in the less specific and more generally esoteric meaning of the symbol- as the cross of matter, and particularly when it is surrounded by the circle - representing the spirit. As can be found in some Celtic representations of the cross, though admittedly that is also Christian symbolism though I suspect existed long before that particular religion.

Most interesting to me is the way that the Toulouse Cross is sometimes depicted, with each end of the 'arms' dividing into 3, and all of them equidistant. So that they form, instead of a cross, a circle really, with 12 points. Which immediately makes me think of the astrological circle, with its 12 zodiac divisions. So that in a way it incorporates the qualities both of the cross - of matter - and the circle - of spirit - as astrology does, a Way of bringing the two together.

I wonder if you've come across 'The Cathar View' (ed Dave Patrick), lots of intriguing stories there, by different writers.
All good wishes to you,

Forest Dream Weaver said...

I like your sympathetic descriptions of land and history. I recently saw a TV programme by someone walking pilgrim routes,he visited here,but seemed unable to bring the places he visited to life.You have engaged with the spirit of place brilliantly.....thank you!


dritanje said...

So glad you can feel the spirit of the places I visited. I felt the closest connection when I was on this particular part of the walk, I really enjoyed it. The fact the sun was shining helped too I'm sure.
M xx

Anonymous said...

Hello again,
I didn't know about the book but I shall certainly get a copy.
I find that what I experienced and learned there becomes clearer and less dependent on memories.
Chez Costes (Montsegur) has closed, poor management. Some friends have opened another restaurant, he's English, she's from Brittany.
With your travels I'm sure you've stood before an Orthodox icon and felt the power within it. They are covered in precious metals and jewels not just for beauty but because (I think) they absorb the power of the prayer directed at the icon. That is how I see/feel the stones of certain chateaux (and other places). And so, I also think, Montsegur increases in strength because people come with their own beliefs. The stones don't care what belief system it is from, it is that those beliefs reach out and the waiting stones accept.
I agree with your comments about the 12 astrological's not just the Cathars we know litle about, that whole time is a motheaten patched garment of poor records, forgotten events and political lies. Toulouse had been a Goth city and was Arian for a long period of time....who can say what the cross really meant back then...we can do with it what we will...I just dislike shoddy history in the name of commercialism (especially when made in China).
I really enjoy following you in your travels...