Following 9th century monks as they flee from invading vikings with the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels – and undertake a momentous journey that helps shape England
I’m lying on the grass facing late afternoon sunshine, listening to birdsong and grass that rustles in the breeze. Every so often a visitor drives back across the causeway or an islander returns to their home before the sun sets and the sea comes in again, gentle to the ear as air that seeps slowly out, deflating the day and settling eventually into night.
Paul and I didn’t know where we would be putting our heads down tonight and had forgotten to eat all day. So we had instant rice sandwiches with healthy brown bread and decided to stay at the causeway for a second night and enjoy the beautiful view of the now sharp blue sky and brush-stroked clouds that dominate the vista here, taking up almost all of the space around and above us. The trees are twisted and angled here, trained after so many years of self-defence against what must be at times a seemingly never-ending wind. The ground is dry, very dry. It needs nourishment. It needs the heavens to open and unleash some sodden pity. But for Paul and I, sitting down here under the early moon, it is perfect.
The view to the island is flat, sectioned in different shades. Pale green grass, a simple line of dark green causeway, an expanse of light brown grass on either side spreading outwards, skimmed with a stripe of darker brown where the wet sands are, and a layering of Lindisfarne from a distance. Bamburgh Castle is smaller than a thimble, the white-washed cottages of Lindisfarne just little stitches. And I don’t care if you think I’m mixing my metaphors – Pearl was right; it may be a bold statement but Lindisfarne does change lives.
I want to say a Thank You, to everyone who came today, to those who just enjoyed being out here in the open air, at the mercy of the weather and what it might bring. I was relieved the heavens didn’t open as the forecast suggested. Charlie my friend, I know one of your favourite walks was along the pilgrims way in a terrible storm, and that you felt you were in the middle of a Turner painting. But you are one of a special breed. Today, we needed it to be dry, and it was.
Lindisfarne is a place where everyone should feel free and I think everyone did. Thank you Pearl Saddington, and everyone you brought with you from Bede’s World. Thank you for your passionate and beautiful speech that was a soul-stirring joy, and your smooth handover for Adam Bushnell to steal the show with his amazing goat spewing food story.
Thank you to all those who couldn’t make it and apologies if you didn’t know about it but would have come if you did. Special thanks to Nick Malyan of the Lindisfarne Gospels team for his hard work, dedication and support, and to all the staff and students at Durham University who have been so helpful.
Thank you to Look North, BBC Newcastle, BBC Tees, The Northern Echo and The Journal for showing an interest and featuring this journey. Thanks to Paul Alexander Knox, great photographer and great friend, for agreeing to come along with me, and thanks to his beautiful wife Dawn for allowing him. The pictures that Paul puts up here are just a tiny selection. Our exhibition, part of the Lindisfarne Gospels Exhibition in Durham in July, will be a beautiful visual experience from Paul with a few specially chosen words from myself. Thanks to the Turner’s and the Farmery’s, great friends who brought their beautiful children and my beautiful family. Thanks to those who came up, explored and found freedom from everything that makes today’s society smothering at times. Thanks to the artist Alan O’Cain and his wife Juliet for their warm company and engaging conversation. And a particular thank you to Adrian Simpson, Principal of Durham University’s Josephine Butler College and Professor Maggie O’Neill, Principal of Ustinov, for their support, their company and the hard work they have put in to make this happen.
It was worth it, staying here another night. Norham and Cavers are a short trip inland, or at least they are when you have wheels. And staying an extra night here, two instead of one, has definitely had the desired effect. Because although I could never really imagine how the Community of St Cuthbert would have felt upon being forced to leave their island home and their entire way of life, I will in my own way be really quite sad to leave this very special place and venture out into what is for us, in our own way, the relative unknown.
I rise from the grass and take my Grandpa’s walking stick out for a walk; through the lines of concrete military blocks that stretch away from the causeway car park. Under the Poplar tree that has not only survived the often harsh exposure this place brings, but has thrived and become magnificent. I wonder if my Grandpa’s walking stick has been out this way before. Surely it’s been to Lindisfarne many times? I swing it up into the air and plant it into the earth, pushing myself forwards. This must be its first walk for more than thirty years. My Grandpa made it himself, a long straight branch topped by a bone handle, the joint of which is perfect for the hand, a whistle chiselled into its lower limb. I give it a blow. It sounds natural, like a bird call, and so I smile and push his walking stick into the ground and walk along the sands northwards, where I know nobody else will be.
A flat, golden, pale brown expanse, like a desert squashed, quick sands that once trapped an entire Scots army on its way to besiege the castle, then held them until the sea came in and took them away. The mud here is soggy, the grass damp and marshy, teeming with quiet wildlife, unlike the rock hard ploughed field above a small ridge on my left that you couldn’t plant your foot into. Nature hasn’t given this place up yet; it probably never will. I walk northwards, collect some more driftwood, turn things over with my Grandpa’s walking stick and look out to the vast expanse of marshland, sand and sky.