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’re driving up the A1 in silence. Gone are the winding country lanes and death defying pheasants. It’s plain sailing now; full steam ahead to Durham. I glance across at Paul, concentrating on the road, and he looks like I imagine I do. I feel like crying. And this long road from Ripon isn’t long enough. Cuthbert had to be persuaded to return to civilisation. He wanted to remain at his hermitage on Inner Farne, not become Bishop of Lindisfarne with all its social responsibilities and duties. I’m not comparing myself to him, but there’s no doubt there’s a connection there now, at least on my part.
Of course, I’m so looking forward to seeing my beautiful family. But the truth is; if it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be coming back at all, certainly not for much longer. I’d arrive at Durham; that’s the journey’s finale. In fact, the whole fabric of Durham is sewn up in this journey. The Community of St Cuthbert helped create Durham, helped it become the tremendous city it is today, with its fascinating history. But after Durham and its Cathedral, my mind would turn to the hills and dales again, to Lindisfarne and the tide that comes in, day after day, year after year, as the island and country move forward into what they call progression. I understand now why monks and nuns, saints such as Cuthbert and Hilda, were pressured and expected to remain chaste. Family is a pull so strong, a love so deep; or at least it is for us lucky ones.
Signposts flash past. Durham 12 miles. It’s a well-worn route this one, going way back beyond the building of the modern A1. Crayke’s on the route and so is Barton, safe resting places all the way from Lindisfarne or Bamburgh down to York, perhaps further down South. It’s part of the Roman Empire’s Dere Street, named after Deira, the southern half of Northumbria before it was forced to merge with Bernicia. Roman centurions would have marched up and down it, traders with laden goods carts, criminals on the run. If you want to read any further on this I’d suggest stopping over at Because they’re there…, quite possibly the greatest blog I’ve ever had the good fortune to find.
The Community of St Cuthbert were on their way back to Chester-le-Street, or so the story goes. But, according to Symeon of Durham’s ‘Libellus de Exordio,’ written in the early 12th century, they stopped at Wrdelau because the coffin came to a standstill and refused to budge. There have been a number of suggestions as to where this place is, but the truth will never be known; appropriate for this part of the story as we’ll soon see. According to Symeon, St Cuthbert appeared in a vision and stated he wanted to go to Dunholm. Only then could they proceed. The problem was, none of them had ever heard of this place. Thankfully though, they overheard two milk-maids talking about it and were able to follow one of the maid’s Dun Cows there. The more cynical might suggest a miracle was used to cover up a political decision. Like many Anglo-Saxon priests, the Community’s bishop was married, and so was his daughter – to Uhtred, who had become Earl of Northumbria and was busy building a new stronghold, at a place called Dunholm, later to be named Durham.
The car park is full. Or rather there’s one slim space but we can’t fit into it. And so we drive to the coach car park because there’s loads of space there. It says free parking for coaches and minibuses. We’re neither, but we are the same size as a minibus – so surely that’s okay? I read the sign and it doesn’t say campervans can’t park there, but we buy a ticket just in case.
Up the streets of Durham we walk, thronged with the usual tourists, with students and locals. “A perfect little city,” Bill Bryson wrote. “If you have never been to Durham, go there at once.”
A busker plays a welcome home song and for some reason I feel like crying again. Tired and emotional is how I’d describe myself right now, and I can see that in Paul too. We can hardly look at each other. Our personal journey can’t begin to compare to a seven year journey to Chester-le-Street, with all its drama and importance; it’s a million miles away, I know that. But our journey has been epic in its own personal way; the forty-six locations that the Community of St Cuthbert stopped at with his body and the Lindisfarne Gospels – and all those places that weren’t on the route, such as St Cuthbert’s Cave, Flodden Field, Smailholm Tower, St Ninian’s Cave and Long Meg and her Daughters Stone Circle. Then there are all the places we stayed overnight, often way out on top of the dales. A myriad of beautiful places and emotions and a trip of over 1,600 miles on the clock, and that’s before all the walking we’ve done.
And then Durham Cathedral stands huge and impressive in front of us, a statement of power in more than just the religious sense. Cuthbert’s body was placed in a stone church, finished in 1017, for the first time. This cathedral, voted Britain’s best-loved building in 2011, was begun in 1093 and completed in 1133, although there have been later additions to it. The bells chime, perhaps not especially for us but that’s how it feels. A crow patters across the green in front of us.
The lovely tour guide Pamela takes Paul and I and the small warm welcoming group on an official tour of the cathedral, finishing at Cuthbert’s shrine. I look down at his shrine and it seems amazing, ridiculous almost, that his body is right below me.
We pay our respects to Fenwick Lawson’s Pieta, as always, before Durham University’s Ustinov Principal Maggie O’Neill buys us coffee and cake and allows us to say our personal thanks for all the work she has done to make this project happen.
And then it’s time to go home to our families. We wander back to the car-park, shattered. There’s a parking fine on our windshield. What would have happened in Anglo-Saxon times if you left your horse and cart in the wrong place? There’s a few choice words from the both of us, but somehow it seems an appropriate return into today’s normal world of work and responsibility.
But even though our trip is over, something has changed within me because of it. Will I respond differently to seeing the gospels now, after my own trip over these lands of Northumbria? Undoubtedly I will. It’s amazing to think they survived such a journey, this amazing and beautiful work of art, suffused with devotion, from a different time. And there’s another thing too; something inside of me that will always remain, that perhaps will grow and start to throb unless it is pacified and respected. It’s an urge, or rather a need, to leave society; not forever, but certainly with some regularity. Cuthbert knew this. He knew the way to enrich one’s spirituality was to spend time alone with nature, that it helped deal with personal demons and issues too. And conversely, he also knew that solitude helped us serve society too, upon our inevitable return, whether willing or not. Time out. Exercise. Different pace and different sounds. Horizons and space. At the mercy of a greater glory before a return with fresh impetus and initiative.
I drop Paul off with his beautiful family, then drive home. My children and wife come running out, all hugs. I bring out my Grandpa’s walking stick and smile. It won’t be kept inside like it has been for the last thirty years, not anymore.
Very interesting that, and thanks for the link. By the way, I didn’t realise that Dere Street takes its name from the ancient kingdom of Deira. So that’s something I’ve learned today.
Thanks Alen. The writing in the blog is more personal reflection and obervation than anything else. The eventual book, as well as having this and Paul’s excellent photography, will have much more historical context, with our journey weaving through the middle of it, alternating with histories of all the places upon the route. I’m quite happy with my writing here, but it will be much better when spaced into a book with the historical stuff.
And as for the link – ‘Because they’re there’ is my favourite blog of all. It’s an honour sir.
“Thank you” Richard & Paul for allowing us to journey with you. I’m not surprised you were both emotional at the end (and I don’t mean the parking ticket).
I don’t think I can get to Durham for the exhibition celebrating your journey but I look forward to the book once it’s written and published.
God bless you, Paul, and your families for this wonderful time traveling with St. Cuthbert’s body, his monks and community.
And God bless you too Heather, for all your kind words and support – because they do make a difference…