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 drive back and forth through Overton a few times, can’t spot a church anywhere, wonder if we really do have the right Overton this time; there are eight in my road atlas. Paul smirks but I insist I haven’t got it wrong again and point to a sign saying Church Farm and another saying Vicarage House. And so we stop and ask a woman throwing a ball for a collie in her front garden. She’s interested in our story of St Cuthbert and the possibility his body rested and was given sanctuary here. And there used to be a Church of St Cuthbert she says, but it was demolished in 1969. If we head down the path though, by the side of the old Parish board, we can find the graveyard. Under the trees we go, in between huge gardens either side, a tree house that would be the envy of any child, until we arrive at a walled and nettle strewn graveyard, occasional clumps of daffodils amongst numerous trees. Paul reckons the church must have stood in the middle because there are no gravestones there. I’m not so sure; it must have been a very small church.
And then Paul wanders away a few metres and swears, unusual for him, even on non-consecrated ground.
He looks up astonished, slightly disturbed, points back down to the ground.
“There’s a human jawbone down here.”
I walk over to inspect. It has two molars on either side but there are no incisors left, and it’s definitely a human jawbone. The teeth are in good condition but the jawbone itself is deteriorating. I look around and there are other scattered bones about too.
“Something’s been digging down there,” says Paul, pointing to a hole next to the nearest gravestone.
“It’s too big for a rabbit,” I say. “Must be a fox.”
We read the gravestone: ‘To the Sacred Memory of Elizabeth Pool, wife of Samuel Pool, who died 1819.’
“That’s Elizabeth’s jawbone,” says Paul. “Something’s dug her up and eaten her.”
“I doubt it,” I say. “Probably just digging itself a home and chucking out things that get in the way.”
There are other holes nearby and they’re all too big for rabbits. And more holes, towards the back of the graveyard, that look too big for foxes. Paul finds another jawbone, this time an animal, but then we spot a human femur. Nature is taking over again, freed by man deserting this place. Elizabeth Pool has not been allowed to rest in peace, or at least her body hasn’t, but she doesn’t need it anymore. We consider putting her jawbone back into the hole where it came from but decide there’s no point; whatever animal has made a home in her grave will only drag it out again. We explore a little further, find a gravestone covered in ivy. It’s climbed up and all around it, shaped itself into a bush shape on top of the stone, though it’s been pruned back by someone at some point. And then we walk back to the van for our drive to Crayke and wonder if the neighbours with the huge gardens realise there’s human bones hanging around right next to them.
St Cuthbert’s Church at Crayke is just about to be locked when we arrive but the key-holder happily lets us wander around inside first.
And then we take in a neatly trimmed graveyard and admire the views from this village that’s perched on a hill with flat lands all around. I’m sure the surrounding area was flooded at one time. I can imagine Crayke being an island, a refuge for people who once lived on the flat lands, people trading and travelling on boats over North Yorkshire fields. Crayke and the land three miles around it were given to St Cuthbert in 685, by the King of Northumbria, King Ecgfrid, with whom he had a close and supportive relationship. Cuthbert founded a monastery here, presumably on the site where this current church stands. “In Anglo-Saxon times, Crayke was a lonely hill” in the forest, and would have been a resting place for Cuthbert on his many journeys from Lindisfarne to York and back again.
Time is ticking. We drive into the hills to find our own place of refuge and silence for the night but stop a few miles from where we were heading, simply because we spy somewhere and decide in an instant that it’s the perfect place. We’re in a valley with hills all around and much closer than we’re used to; not distant mountains or flat topped moorland. There’s a small field of grass on one side and an upwards sloping field on the other, both with a good scattering of sheep and lambs that baa and bleat continuously with the joy of being alive. Birdsong in the wood that stretches upwards alongside the field can’t compete and doesn’t try – until the sun starts to fade, and the sheep get quieter and begin to calm, and then the shriek of pheasant and poetic sing-song of the thrush pierce and dance through the air.
I climb the hill a little, just into the wood, sit on a tree trunk, rest my Grandpa’s walking stick on the ground. A squirrel rustles the dry leaves all around us and spirals up to the top of a tree. Another birdsong glides into the air from somewhere and the odd tired baas come yawning through. Four beautiful curved hills, two with the fading sun on their rounded tops, draped in woodland around their necks, show through the few trees in front of me. The lambs have a few naughty minutes, encouraging each other to make as much noise as possible while the sky is still pale blue. A squirrel chatters way up high and my hands start to feel the cold coming in. My Grandpa would have been here before, many times, for this was just a short drive from his home in Marton. This is Cleveland, unfairly stereotyped as being nothing more than industry when in actual fact it is so much more.
Cliff Land is what the Vikings called it. They loved this part of the land and settled down here, for they saw the landscape for what it was; absolutely beautiful with a good port at the mouth of the Tees, rolling hills and cliff edges not too high and inaccessible, lush grass for grazing.
I pick up my Grandpa’s walking stick and climb higher into the woods. And then I spot what Paul told me about earlier when he came back down a little spooked and showed me some pictures he’d taken. A small part of the wood has been enclosed off with wire fencing, a padlocked gate in the middle. Six plastic barrels with lids of wood stand on pallets, next to a few smaller plastic containers, also with lids on. But that’s not all; I’m being watched from the inside of a trap. It starts to panic as I walk slowly closer, echoing the shrieking of pheasants that seem much louder now the dark is starting to come through. The trap is in three sections, and in the middle is a raven or a crow, fluttering helplessly in its tiny cage, desperate to alert me to its plight, or more likely petrified that I’m about to come forwards and kill it.
In the Middle Ages, druids, wizards and shamans were believed to understand the language of birds. Anglo-Saxon pagans, the Celts and Britons before them and before they converted to Christianity, the Vikings who invaded; they “watched their flight patterns, noted whether they appeared alone or in a flock, on the ground or in a tree, and at what point in the sun, moon or seasonal cycle they arrived. In ancient Viking legend, Odin, god of the wizards had two ravens named Huggin and Munnin, which means ‘thought’ and ‘memory’. They perch on his shoulders and whisper into his ears every scrap of news which they see or hear tell of. At crack of dawn he pushes them off to flap all around the world” (The Real Middle Earth, Brian Bates).
I wonder about the symbolism of it all, try and manipulate a metaphor out of the situation and then come back to the hard fact that this is one of God’s creatures, nature’s creatures, however you want to define it, lured and trapped as live bait.
I want to go over and release it, let it fly back to where it should be, at the top of the trees with its family and friends, squawking at the rest of the world. I move forwards and look at the trap more closely. The crow starts to panic again, flying around continuously in its tiny space, banging off the wire caging, returning to a tiny perch of a branch, a pathetic reminder of what it once had, that’s been pushed through the middle and tied with string. The trap is an elaborate one. The crow must have gotten through a little trapdoor in the top of the central part, but this wasn’t an accidental capture for a trap that was hoping to catch something else; the trapdoor has been tied shut with string and there are two grubby containers set in the bottom, one with water and another which presumably had some kind of food. Lying next to those is the rotting carcass of a rabbit; the bait that lured the bird. On either side of the central section where the crow is trapped are openings, propped up by sticks that will soon fall away and close the trap once the desired target prowls up. I’m presuming a fox is what the trap is set for, and if all is successful there could be two in there by the morning. I’m tempted to release the bird now but I’m conscious that the farmer or trapper will be awake before us and will come to the obvious conclusion when he realises the string has been untied and the crow set free. And who am I to judge another man’s actions, so far removed, as I am, from the real ways of the country, as most of us now are. Foxes can do a great deal of damage and country life is not all idyllic. I wonder what my Grandpa would have done but the truth is I have no idea. I’m guessing he wouldn’t interfere and would pass it off as the harsh reality of living with nature. I decide to leave my decision until the morning. That way if I do decide to release the crow, we can scarper immediately after.
And another truth is that, now the dark is almost upon me, I’m feeling a little spooked up here. Sara Maitland, in ‘Gossip from the Forest’, writes beautifully about ‘the tangled roots of our forests and fairytales’, how the terror of the dark woods is embedded into our psyche with tales of wolves and witches, of twisted trees that grab the innocent traveller, of spirits and wild animals hidden by trunks and overgrowth.
And so I come back down as the last of the sun fades and the sky is still blue enough not to show the stars. And those hills are in front of me and the warmth of a gas bottle and a friend shelter by the field. All starts to go very quiet now, the land much darker, the sky a thickening blue. A few lights twinkle over in the hobbit hills. Everything is softer, except the temperature, but unlike the moors and dales where we stayed out on the tops exposed to the elements, here we are perfectly nestled in. And then the stars come out, tiny pin-pricks in heaven, a few at a time until the whole sky is perforated.