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
It’s getting dark quickly. I’m leaning on a viewing platform on the edge of a forest, looking down a valley, then up again at Bilsdale, about the same height as I am, perhaps a touch higher. The odd car winds its way cautiously down behind the trees below me. Above, over on the top of the dale, pricks up Bilsdale Aerial, like a scene from a different world; half the height of the dale, tall, thin, needle-like, with a bright white light at the bottom and four bright red ones pointing vertically upwards into the sky. Heaven knows what the Anglo-Saxons would have made of this. At more than one thousand feet high, it’s one of the tallest structures in Britain and transmits radio and television to Teesside, North Yorkshire and County Durham. The view over Bilsdale weren’t always so tranquil though. Monks of Rievaulx Abbey, founded in 1132, mined for iron ore and used the woods over there for charcoal to do the smelting.
We’d pulled in as soon as we reached the top of the dale, driving up Newgate Bank through forest, then turning sharp left and finding a parking space amongst trees, somewhere between Chop Gate (pronounced Chop Yat) and Helmsley. I turn around. ‘You are being watched,’ says a sign. ‘Walk slowly and quietly and you can watch too. Roe deer, foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, mice and vole live here.’ Once again, I try to imagine how life must have been for the Community of St Cuthbert. This forest wouldn’t have been here; it’s a pine conifer forest, planted in 1964 by the Forestry Commission, a publicly funded but unaccountable and unelected organisation that manages over 12% of Britain’s land surface. Founded in 1919 due to a fearful post-war realisation that there were insufficient timber reserves in the country, the Commission has proved controversial, foresting over a great deal of Northern England and Scotland for financial purpose and often destroying ancient woodland and degrading precious habitats in the process.
It’s possible there would have been no forest here when the Community of St Cuthbert were on their travels. But at times they must have hidden inside forest or woodland surely. I stop and listen; nothing, not even the sound of birdsong. A snapping of stick could have meant wolf or bear. It could have been an invisible enemy, Viking or otherwise, creeping up to attack. It could have been evil spirits sent by the devil to tempt their faith. I can’t imagine so many terrifying possibilities, not these days. And of course, trees brought so much more than hiding spaces; they brought materials for home-building, for shelter from the wild, from enemies and from weather. Trees were turned into tools, sculpted into beautiful works of art. Boats and carts for were made for travel, looms for weaving. Wood turners made cups, bowls and plates, beads and playing pieces. Trees provided food in their fruit and nuts. And animals took shelter there, providing good hiding places for hunting men. And then of course, there was fire. The burning of wood brought safety and warmth. It brought light into darkness and enabled food to be cooked.
I walk back to the small fire we’ve started and sit down next to Paul. How many of us have spent hours taking in the warmth from a fire, staring wistfully at the flames as they lick and dance, mesmerised and soothed by something so simple and beautiful and yet so powerful and awe-inspiring?
And yet, this is not all that trees represented in the early medieval world and before. Here’s a passage from Delia Hooke’s ‘Trees in Anglo-Saxon England: Literature, Lore and Landscape:’
“Life, death and rebirth – these are all aspects of the symbolism attached to the tree, and are united in much mythological tradition. The symbolism of trees is complex: their roots and branches evoked an image of the link between sky and Underworld; their longevity represented continuity and wisdom; the seasonal behaviour of deciduous trees gave rise to a cyclical symbolism, an allegory of life, death and rebirth. Some early European traditions envisaged a World Tree, called in Norse mythology askr Yggdrasill, the ash tree on which the God Odin was thought to have hung in voluntary sacrifice in order to acquire hidden knowledge and wisdom: by undergoing ritualistic death he learned the secret of the runes. Christianity substituted a wooden cross for the living tree, but through death Christians believe that Christ suffered for all and gained redemption for all. The World Tree linked the Underworld to the heavens and the gods to mankind, the dead to the living – it was, indeed, the backbone of all worlds, an idea met with in a number of ancient religions from across the world.”
I wake in the morning, take my coffee outside, smile at the fact Paul and I stayed up far too late by the warmth of our little fire. Over I go to the embers, using my Grandpa’s walking stick to poke and prod. And then I walk into woods while Paul sleeps. Birdsong comes from the canopy high above me. A pheasant couple wander slowly past, out for an early morning stroll. A rustling in the bracken; I stay perfectly still awhile, see nothing and so carry on walking into the forest. The wind picks up, but not down here on the ground. I hear it in the canopy above; a soft roaring that sways the top of the pine trees.
I wander for an hour or so, pick up some pine cones to take back home with me. Paul will sigh and smile; they’ll go in the van with my six foot length of driftwood from Lindisfarne, my stones and shells from St Cuthbert’s Isle and St Ninian’s Cave, my solid piece of limestone from Nidderdale Quarry and my section of an 1860 church window from Lorton in Cumbria. And then we’ll batten down the hatches and make our way to Chester-le-Street.