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 it eventually, after driving to Great Salkeld instead of Little Salkeld and finding out you haven’t been able to go directly from one to the other for hundreds of years because of the River Eden that flows between. It’s only a few miles from our next location and is perfectly quiet. Long Meg and her Daughters is England’s third largest stone circle, built during the Bronze Age near to modern day Penrith in the eastern end of the Eden Valley, on its route to the Tyne Valley, and named after a 17th century witch. Long Meg herself is a 3.6 metre high monolith of Red Sandstone, standing just outside of a circle that consists nowadays of just fifty stones but was said to have contained sixty-nine at one point. It’s been said the circle was once called Long Meg and her Lovers but was thought to be inappropriate and therefore changed. Regardless, it’s all modern reflections on an age and practice we know little about.
I wonder what the Community would have thought if they came past here. It’s quite possible it was on their route and even if it wasn’t, there are 1,300 stone circles in the British Isles. Would they have dared to step inside or even touch the stones? Long Meg, who’s carved with cups and spirals, aligns herself with the midwinter sunset when viewed from the centre of the circle. But I guess the Community didn’t hang around to find out. Perhaps they shuddered instead, and hurried along at the thought of pagan sacrifice and invocation of evil spirits…
Paul and I walk slowly around the whole circle. Patches of lichen cover them all. One has a coin on top. Another has flowers at its base and yet another a written note that can no longer be read. Birdsong. The odd farm machine in some nearby field. These are only audible sounds of life, although there is a farmhouse situated behind the trees not too far away. I wander over to the two oak trees inside the circle. People have tied ribbons, stones and beads to their branches, a blue plastic dolphin. Offerings, like at St Ninian’s Cave and St Cuthbert’s Isle, to a belief that there is something greater than us, something else other than this life of so many contrasting emotions. I want to hang something on one of these trees. I take my notepad out my coat pocket, rip the bookmark ribbon out and tie it to a branch while an owl chatters with a lapwing.
We walk out again when the dark has completely settled in. There’s a perfect starry night sky that sees the moon illuminating the stones. Something moves in the small wood next to us. Perhaps it’s just water from the afternoon’s half-hour hailstorm frenzy filtering its way through, but I prefer to think of it as a fox, or badger, or deer. I stand at the nearest stone, just a few feet away from the van. We could have driven into the stone circle but thought that might be a bit too cheeky and were a little conscious that we were on a farmer’s land. And then I walk out into the centre of the circle, stand there in the dark and turn slowly around, looking at each stone, wondering.
Down through Cumbria we drive, onto the Furness Peninsula, visiting Aldingham and Ireleth, before heading westwards to Over Kellet near Morecambe. All three have churches dedicated to St Cuthbert and as usual, they’re open and free to explore, with nobody else present. I smile at the wall hangings of him, marvel at the stained glass windows that portray him in different multi-coloured situations. The shepherd boy from the Lammermuir Hills who rose to be a leading light for Christianity with both the landowners and the land workers, who became Bishop of Lindisfarne, healing and inspiring others for generations to come. It doesn’t actually matter whether places like this are on the actual route the community took, and we’ll never know anyway. What matters is the connection they have with St Cuthbert and the role they perform in their communities.
Paul spots something over a large stately wall on our way out of the Furness peninsula and so we stop. It’s a Buddhist temple, situated within a stately home and its grounds that have been bought as a Buddhist retreat. We wander around, peek through a glass door and see people chanting to a bright gold Buddha, then meet Dave Povey on our way back to the van. Originally from Manchester, he moved here in the seventies with his wife Irene, who came over from Borneo to train and work as a midwife. Dave tells us this great stately home, decadent in places, was built by an ironmaster who had his own railway line built to it too. It was used as a Miners convalescent home at one point, before being bought and used as a Buddhist retreat. We walk through the woods with Dave, Irene and their visitors from Malaysia, down to the beach at Morecambe Bay, where we look at the sands and think of those Chinese Cockleshellers who lost their lives, trapped when the tide came in.
Dave points out the Glaxo building on the furthest inland shore.
“I worked there since the seventies,” he says. “It used to employ two thousand people, but now there’s just four hundred. He points out Heysham power station towards the sea, tells us there’s a good butterfly farm there. Then he turns around slowly, points out Helvellyn to the East and the Yorkshire Dales to the North. “That flat topped one is Ingleborough,” he says, “the second highest mountain in the Yorkshire Dales.”
Paul and I walk back to the retreat with his wife Irene. She’s interested in us, in where we’re from and what we’re doing, and she’s full of chatter. She moved to Carlisle to train to be a midwife in 1970, which is where she met Dave. Parts of her life are let loose with big smiles. She had a heart operation at Seaham Harbour in 1972, has two replacement knees made of real bone; her previous ones were made of carbon fibre but only lasted a few years. It’s been the amount of skiing in the past forty years that has damaged her knees. Still, her voice box is in good order.
“I was in the Special Forces in Borneo when I was nineteen,” she says, “attached to the British Secret Service. There was a truck filled with hand-grenades and there is so many of them I think you won’t miss just one, so I take one, pull the pin out and throw it into the sea to see if anything will happen. And boom! All the fish and prawns, they come flying right up in the air.” She laughs infectiously. “Boy did we eat well that night.”
“You got a court martial for that,” says Dave. “And lost two weeks wages.”
“Let me tell you about my Great Grandfather,” says Irene, now jumping from subject to subject. “He was a hunter. He has the head of a British officer in his house.”
“It’s true,” says Dave, smiling softly.
“This British officer comes to him and says ‘you must pay taxes.’ He says ‘we don’t pay your taxes around here’ and cuts his head off. Really. He has also five Japanese heads.”
“They’re shrunken,” says Dave. “They smoke them to preserve them.”
“If you come to Borneo in September,” says Irene, “we bring them out and clean them up and make offerings.”
I want to ask her what or who it is that she makes offerings to, but they’re wandering into the temple and we have to leave and find Over Kellet. And so we shake their hands and thank them for their company.
“Tell people you met the wild woman of Borneo,” says Irene smiling.
We drive to Over Kellet and then head upwards, parking the van on top of the fell at dusk, next to a wind turbine farm, with the Yorkshire Dales to our East and the Forest of Bowland to our South, although we can’t see any trees at all from where we are. We walk up to the top of the hill, startling pheasants and rabbits. Sheep stare at us and move further away. And then we’re stood with the giant wind turbines, looking down at the orange glitter of Lancaster reflecting in the sunset over Morecambe Bay. On the other side of that bay, which is now fully covered in water, is the Buddhist Temple and Retreat. Ulverston is nestled out of sight in the hills above it, like Whithorn. We look up at the turbines; only four of the eight are turning around. The breeze would be silent up here, but the turbines that are working amplify the sound of the air, or perhaps create it, so they sound like the roar of waves in the distance.
Nature communicates with itself. Lapwings, pheasants, other bird sounds I’m not sure of; they respond to the call of each other. There’s five minutes silence or so and then one of them sounds and the other species follow, even the odd baaing of a sheep. And then silence again, except for the faint roar of wind turbines.
I feel tall when I’m stood up high on top of a fell or dale or mountain. I feel taller than I am and more confident. I presume that’s where the saying ‘on top of the world’ comes from. I actually stand up taller when I’m somewhere like here. My spine is straighter and I breathe deeper. This is what Robert MacFarlane writes in his book ‘The Wild Places:’
“In a land as densely populated as Britain, openness can be hard to find. It is difficult to reach places where the horizon is experienced as a long unbroken line, or where the blue of distance becomes visible. Openness is rare, but its importance is proportionately great. Living constantly among streets and houses induces a sense of enclosure, of short-range sight. The spaces of moors, seas and mountains counteract this. Whenever I return from the moors, I feel a lightness behind my eyes, as though my vision has been opened out by twenty degrees to either side. A region of uninterrupted space is not only a convenient metaphor for freedom and openness, it can sometimes bring those feelings fiercely on.”
Out in the fell a hidden bird makes an unusual comedy kind of call, repetitively. I smile but I’m frustrated I don’t know what it is. My Grandpa would have known.
And then Paul grabs my attention.
“What’s that?” he asks, pointing to a small light in the fell just in front of us.
“I don’t know,” I admit, and wonder if it’s a luminous sheep.
“Is it a fire?”
I look into the dark at this glowing object and wonder who would light a small fire in the middle of the damp and boggy fell.
And then Paul remembers there’s a farmhouse that way, the only sign of civilisation we could see around us when we arrived. And we realise that small light isn’t in the fell just in front of us but is on the side of a mountain miles and miles away. And that’s not the only perceptual adjustment we have to make. Sound carries further up here, much further when there is nothing to block it. And so, just after we watch a fireworks display in Lancaster from about ten miles away, we hear what we think is a shout for ‘last orders’ from a village down the fell. It must have been someone using a microphone as no other sounds come to us.
We stand in the middle of the road at half past midnight, look up to a myriad of stars, see one shooting across the sky, though it is in reality a meteor burning itself out in the earth’s atmosphere. The moon is highlighting a thin layer of cloud that stretches across the top of the nearby mountain like a lazy cat. Birds call to each other. Nature is not asleep. There is a life that continues in the moonlight. Paul brings his camera out and sets up his tripod in the middle of the road. I look at the moon and listen to nature’s conversation, wonder if the comedy noise comes from bats, smile at the sound of wings that buzz over my head back and forth like a giant dragonfly at full speed. And then we use a torch and Paul’s camera to play with the light until two in the morning, before settling down to sleep and wake up with wind turbines instead of ancient stone monuments.