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
The sound of nature settling down, having its last swansong before the dark comes, safe in the knowledge it will be at least another hour or so before it starts to tighten, longer still until it takes its grip.
It’s more open than last night on the Cleveland Hills, higher up with longer views, colder as well. The sheep are further away in the near distance. Here you can see all around and if I walked to the top of the dale behind I’d likely see another green dale curving away from me. There won’t be any light pollution tonight, way up here, in between Reeth and Brough on Arkengarthdale, the northernmost of the Yorkshire Dales.
The grass is short and dry, apart from the patch down in front where the ground is boggy, the grass longer. Creatures are hiding down there. A rabbit hurtled past a minute ago. Something is softly clucking, probably a partridge or grouse. Above, silhouetted against the sky, a lone curlew flies back to its nest, its curved bill emulating the shape of the dale as it flaps its wings and silently pushes on home.
Something else is flying further away, possibly lapwings. I saw some earlier when we parked up, but the sun is fading away behind the farmhouse to the west, the only visible sign of humanity except for our van on the other side of the boggy marsh, and it’s getting too dark to see down there.
Paul comes out and waves. I wave back, stand up and climb higher up the dale. The cold is getting bitter now and I need to go back and get warm and eat something but I want to know for sure what I’ll see if I climb just a little higher up.
The desire to get away from everything; something clicks inside when you have tasted it the once and then, upon further venturing, it gets stronger and stronger each time until the pull is constant. I could be mistaken for acting like Lord of the Manor up here, marching with my Grandpa’s walking stick, all thick shouldered and deep breaths. But I can, because I belong here as much as anyone else. This is part of me, my history. We are made from the same energy.
It gets boggy in places. The dark settles further as I climb higher. I stop and look back for a moment, think about going back. But I haven’t reached the top yet and I don’t have a clue how much higher it is. And so I go further, and there’s just more of the same. I think about Cuthbert, wandering around these dales for weeks on end, often alone, until he spotted villages down below in the valleys and climbed down to preach the word. And I understand. I understand how he wanted to come back here, time and time again. Inspired by St Martin write the historians and hagiographers , but they always used the comparison of desert and Farne. Here’s Alan Thacker writing in ‘St Cuthbert’ by Bonner, Stancliffe and Rollason:
“Like Martin too he had to be compelled to accept episcopal consecration and ever afterwards retained a yearning for contemplative seclusion: there is an obvious resemblance between Martin’s attachment to his desert-like retreat at Marmoutiers and Cuthbert’s love of Farne.”
I agree the Farne Islands are remote and it would have been harder for people to reach Cuthbert there so solitude was more guaranteed, but the North Sea could not possibly look more like the desert than where I stand now, with these curls and deceiving summits of all one colour like solid waves of sand.
The sun and light start to slowly dissolve away, the sky fades paler and the grass starts to glow. Shapes start to blur. Distances become hazy. I love the places where nobody will find me. I love feeling small, like a rabbit that has just scampered out of its hole in the earth. I love feeling part of all this, being part of all this, blurring into it so I walk and become part of the picture, rather than a viewer.
Curves in all direction encompass me, encouraging a sense of helplessness, of being lost. I can’t see the van now and I can’t see the farmhouse and it makes me grin from ear to ear. I can see green and I can see fading blue – and little else. It brings to mind Rebecca Solnit and her ‘Field Guide to Getting Lost”:
“For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, the color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains. “Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.” Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in…”
Unfortunately though, I have to walk back down. I get the angle wrong and tromp through boggy land so my twenty year old walking boots allow the dampness to spread between my toes. And I come back to the dry stone wall by the van, rest my Grandpa’s walking stick on it, made of this earth from wood and bone, and I decide two things; one, that I’m part of nature, even though I already know it; and two, that I should write a children’s book called My Grandpa’s Walking Stick, about a little boy who takes his late Grandpa’s walking stick out for a walk in the country and learns about nature and about his Grandpa’s life.
And then the dark finally does descend. It always takes much longer when you’re aware of it, when you’re part of it. And I hear that up and down comedy song again, now I can’t see what it’s coming from. And there’s a scratching over to my left but I don’t know what that is either. And that other noise, that zooms over my head so fast, that makes me want to shrink my head down into my shoulders for fear of whatever it is crashing into me. I put my writing pad and pen into my coat pocket, try and rub some warmth into my frozen hands, smile and shake my head, both bemused and frustrated at my own ignorance, and take shelter for the rest of the night.