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
We find St Cuthbert’s Church at Cavers in the morning; around a couple of sloping tracks above the village. Given how many churches have been open so far, a lovely sign of trust and understanding, we’re surprised to see this one fenced off. A handmade wooden sign outside the wire fence states “Cavers Auld Kirk.” Out the van we climb to explore. Inside the grounds of the church sits a man, with a bull mastiff dog next to him tied up with rope. Paul shouts across, asks if we can come through and take some pictures.
Trevor, his name is. He bought this church in 2005 and has lived in it with his wife and son since 2009. Before then he had his own scrapyard down in Yorkshire.
“It was derelict,” he says. “There was nothing inside. The roof had caved in. It stopped being a church in 1822. It were a Village Hall, Sunday School place in the fifties. Then somebody stored hay in it, which totally knackered the boards, as it rotted the floor. It were in the buildings at risk register.”
Trevor and his wife Pauline moved up from Bradford in 2005, although it wasn’t an empty church they were looking for. “We were looking for a barn conversion in Northumberland,” he says, “but the prices were astronomical, and then I seen this place on the internet and it were a lot cheaper.”
I shake my head and smile, a little bemused that empty barns are more expensive than a beautiful empty church, built in 1662 on the site of a previous one, and then I tell Trevor and Pauline why we’re there. They’re interested in the story of St Cuthbert’s final journey, at the idea that the Community may have stopped where they live now, been given shelter and food, that they are part of a link that helped keep alight the flames of Christianity, and keep intact some of its most important Saints and the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Their son, a big strong lad, keeps his distance, circling us with a mug of tea or coffee in his hand, never looking at us directly but occasionally glancing back over his shoulder. I get the impression he’s always staying at a safe listening distance. When Trevor explains to us about Cavers House nearby, how we’d find it interesting, and we move away so he can point out the direction, their son comes back to the dog that’s been lying on the floor all the time. Trevor tells us where to go, then says he’d better return to the dog. “It went blind last night,” he says, “all of a sudden. It’s only seven years old.” And then Trevor and his wife wave us off smiling as we walk through the impressive conifer wood.
We stand to the side as a Land Rover approaches at dangerous speed. The driver scowls at us and carries on past on the uneven track, sending clouds dusts up in his wake. Five minutes later we turn back, unsure, and then I spot it, in amongst the trees. I have to point it out three times before Paul can see what I can, for its fading walls stand quiet and neglected and match what little grey sky can be seen through the tops of the trees. We enter through a small doorway and look up in amazement at walls that are five stories high. Only the outer walls remain and there is little sign of what the interior must have looked like, except the occasional ornate fireplace and chapel window, and the wooden panelling with remnants of horse-hair lined plaster.
All empires come to an end eventually, and in their own way the Douglas family had their own empire. Up here in what is now Southern Scotland, they were one of the most powerful of the Border Clans. Tales of their clashes with the Percy Family on the English side of the border are legendary. I look up at an outer shell overgrown with plants and trees, nature reclaiming its place in the order of things, breaking down slowly what was once a formidable home to a formidable family.
Power is only temporary. Historians imagined Angles and Saxons moving into this county and looking up in awe at Roman buildings and ruins. Too frightened to live inside them, they said, too unworthy, as they carried on making their small wooden homes and halls and left nature to reclaim from an Empire. The Dark Ages, living in the shadows of a great civilisation, before the light of Christianity was truly aglow. But according to some historians, experts in pagan beliefs, the Anglo-Saxons who moved to this country would have been scared of the amazing ruins for another reason; they would have seen the amount of stone used, ripped out from mother earth, and they would believe that such actions were dangerous, that such tears on the land would unleash spirits from the Underworld. They would see the Roman roads, how they cut right through hills instead or circling around them, and they would shudder. Crossroads were not only places where human pathways intersected, but “were also entrances or exit-places connected to the realm of the dead. Spirits travelled along trackways made by people, by animals, by nature. And criminals were hung on crosses at crossroads because the location would speed their souls’ journey down into the Underworld, avoiding the unpleasant possibility that they would hang around among the world of the living, haunting them with evil intent” (Brian Bates, The Real Middle Earth).
We climb out the ruined shell and Paul points out a third floor balcony that curves out, covered in ivy until it falls away to nothing. The wind picks up and drops rubble onto my head, blows dust into my eyes. And then we walk back and find the fallen tree that Trevor told us about. Village folklore tells how the Douglas family tied its branches up with chains, believing that one of their clan would die if a branch touched the ground. The chains are still attached, the whole tree slumped on the ground, rotting, covered in moss and fungus. I look back at the house and I wonder what came first, the destruction of the tree, the touching of a chain upon the ground, or the slow degeneration of a house and its collapse into ruin.
We’re walking down a back lane in Bellingham, looking for St Cuthbert’s Well. Emma J Wells told me this may have part of a pilgrimage route, with other dedicated wells at Lindisfarne and Farne. And then I look up a path and smile. St Cuthbert’s well is up there and a man and wife are filling up a dozen or so empty water bottles. Felicity and Mike James are on their way back to Washington from their caravan in the Lake District. They come here every six weeks or so to fill as many bottles as they can with water that comes pure from the ground and blessed by a Saint. “You get a slightly metallic taste,” says Mike. “And if you leave it for a few weeks you get a pinkish sediment. There’s the remains of an old iron-works upstream.” There’s another well in Teesside, he tells us, but that one has sulphurous water rather than iron. They’ve told friends about the well at Bellingham and they come regularly too. Paul takes some pictures of them and I bend down, cup my hands, and pour water into my mouth. It does taste pure.
We spend the night on top of the Northern Lakes, high up above Bassenthwaite Lake, two miles from Uldale, the dark mountains to our south great sleeping beasts. We think the mist has descended with the rain when we wake in the morning, but then, when we start driving, we realise we were simply in the crowds. We meet Robin and Mai Guthrie outside the Church of St Cuthbert at Embleton. Robin shows me the gravestone of a local lass, murdered in 1860 whilst she worked at the nearby Beck House as a maid. “The murderer was hanged at Carlisle,” he said. And then they point the way to Lorton, where we meet joiners taking away an old window from the Church of St Cuthbert, as they’ve just made and installed a new one. Colin Burrill has been a joiner since he left school in 1964. His son Geoff works alongside him, although it seems work is harder to find these days. “I did my six year apprenticeship with a village craftsman,” says Colin, “doing everything from Dutch Barns, to windows and coffins for the undertakers. I set up my own business in 1974. I couldn’t stand the repetition of working in a factory, or even working for a company as a joiner doing the same thing over and over again. And we’ve always had enough work here until two years ago, but then the bottom collapsed out of it.”
They give me a piece of curved wood from the original window, dated to 1860. The window was made in two halves and then stuck together with animal glue, made by boiling bones, skin and joints. The original joiners had stamped their name into the flat insides before gluing them together. An elderly feller with white hair and a gentle smile joins us in conversation. He tells Paul he made a wooden cross inside the church as a memory to his late wife. And then he takes away a large part of the old window so he can use it as a stand for a coffee table he’s making.
Down by the mouth of the Derwent River. The tide’s out. Fishing boats are stranded in mud on the old dock that peels off the main river towards the North. The Derwent flows steadily past it, curving though modern day Workington and out into the Irish Sea. It passed industrial estates, cranes and container warehouses used by Freight ships. On our side is a green hill that overlooks a couple of council houses, two closed down pubs and a row of rusting multi-coloured sheds. Two men are leaning on the railings, looking down at the boats. Richard Fell is one of them, a fisherman who saw an otter on his boat this morning, eating the bait from his lobster pots. He points out the remains of a railway bridge that used to bring iron to the steelworks from the ships, then railings back in the other direction that were shipped out from the dock all over the world. The bridge was damaged during the floods of two years ago so had to be taken down. The steelworks was closed down seven years ago.
“Can we get a view of the old steelworks from up on that green hill?” I ask him.
He laughs; not heartily, but rather in a shrugging kind of way.
“You can,” he says. “That hill’s full of slagger.”
I look confused so he carries on.
“The spoils of the steelworks,” he says, “from the furnaces. They used to tip the ladles out and it ran down the bank all glowing. I used to work there. I was the last one out.”
Along the mouth of the river we go, spotting a man ankle deep in mud. We pick our way over seaweed and rocks, occasionally sinking our feet where we have no choice, and start talking to him. He’s checking pipes all around him that he’s sunk into mud.
“Peeler Crabs is what you want,” he says. “They shed their shells and leave a soft inner core, which is what the fish are after. If they aren’t peeling we just put them back again.”
There must be more than one hundred pipes sunk into the mud, the work of three or four people according to this man, who’s happy enough to talk but won’t give us his name and remains slightly suspicious throughout that we might be from “the Fisheries.”
“I’ve been fishing for forty odd years,” he says. “But these crabs are no good. They only shed their shells in warm weather so it’s still a bit early really. I’d be happy for a couple of dozen.”
We say our goodbyes and climb the grassed over slag-heap, take in views of Morecambe Bay, the Solway Firth and the mountains of Galloway, where Whithorn shelters. The expanse of sand and sea is huge, much larger than at Lindisfarne. I look across to the sands in the North and imagine a huddle of Monks, dragging a cart along with their most precious treasures, leaving behind a broken boat, battered by the sea, looking desperately around for the Lindisfarne Gospels.