It isn’t often that I’ve had reason to keep tide times on me, but those hours and minutes had been printed back home, written down several times, stored in my phone and recounted in my mind over and over.
Lindisfarne is only accessible at low tide. Even the road causeway that cars drive across falls completely underwater when the water rises. At least once or twice a month a car thinks it can best the tides. At least once or twice a month the Royal National Lifeboat Institute saves someone from the roof of a submerged car after they thought they could best the tides. Northumberland Council prints the safe crossing times for each day on their website but, for those on foot, those times are even narrower. Confined to only the first half of each safe crossing section, the walker must only cross the sands on the ebbing tide.
Today, I was allowed to cross from 0655hrs. I was packed up and down at the sands by 0650hrs, my hiking boots stripped from my feet and tied to the back of my bag and my trekking pole in my hand.
The causeway road was only built in 1954. Before that, for centuries, crossing to the island could only ever happen on foot or by boat. For those travelling by foot, stakes had been placed in the water marking the safest route over. It was those stakes I would be following today.
They rose, tall and bare, metres high, above the tidal sands. Sands which were now exposed in the early morning’s low tide. A path where travellers had walked for centuries. The water was cool and the sand was soft, firmer than I had expected. Slowly I covered the distance between one stake and the next. The whole walk across is only two miles, but the walker should give themselves at least 75 minutes to cross. Even for the most sure footed, sand can be a tricky terrain.
The stakes passed me one by one, as the rest stretched out to the far shores of the island. The morning cloud was still low above me, dark lilac beneath the blue skies. I soon fell into a tranquil rhythm, counting the poles as they passed and breathing in the coastal air. The silhouette of Lindisfarne became distinct and then became colourful; the grassy sand dunes undulating on the north side while the village’s buildings clustered on the south.
The first Priory on the island was started by St Aiden, summoned by King Oswald from Iona to institute a centre of Christianity in Northumbria. When Cuthbert arrived, the Priory and the establishment of Lindisfarne was still relatively new – only forty years old. It was under Aiden, and then under Cuthbert, who only reluctantly took on his eventual title of Bishop, that the reputation of Lindisfarne was created. After Cuthbert’s death, his shrine became associated with miraculous healing and the pilgrimages started, bringing wealth and high regard to the island.
The sacking of Lindisfarne by the Vikings was more than a physical ruination, it was a spiritual and psychological attack on the people of the North East, who saw their holiest of places plundered with no apparent interruption from either God or his many saints. The Priory was only able to be re-established under Norman rule, after monks at Durham had fled, this time, ironically, to Lindisfarne, to escape the Harrying of the North. This new Priory was an outpost of the Durham community and served as a link between the Anglo-Norman and the Anglo-Saxon monks.
Though Cuthbert’s remains stayed in Durham, the new monastery was built with an empty cenotaph where his body would have been. When Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, took the English throne, the Priory was fortified against attack – both from England and Scotland.
It was with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII that the Priory was finally closed in 1547 and, over the next few hundred years fell into ruin. It is these ruins which visitors now see.
I was about two thirds across when the howling started from the south. I initially thought it was a puzzling wind caught in some land trap or tunnel I could not see, but then realised it was the seals basking on the beaches, calling in unison, echoing around the tidal sands like a mournful keening.
The path ended and I climbed onto the beach, sitting down for a while at the bench.
The path was at a close, but my journey wasn’t quite. Not yet.
In the years before he died, Cuthbert felt called to a hermit’s life and had an anchorite’s cell built on a small island off the south of Lindisfarne. He would eventually still feel too close to the invasions of the activity of others to be able to be fully spiritually confined and contemplative and would move his cell further out, to the island of Inner Farne which is where he would die.
I could not reach Inner Farne but the first island, St Cuthbert’s island as it is known, is still accessible at low tide and, later that day, after the tourists had filled the island and then dissipated and I had checked into my hotel, washed up and changed into my charity shop batik dress, at the time of the second low tide in the evening, I climbed up onto the island where a simple cross now stands.
I would normally place my backpack at the end point of a trail for a picture, but as my backpack has a Viking rune sewn into it, it felt a little inappropriate. Instead I just thought back over all the last five days had brought me – to forests, to mountains, to rivers and abbeys and castles, through a millennium of history, more; from hillforts to pillboxes. Through stories of immense bravery and terrible bloodshed and the wasted, sad futility of so many last stands and the perseverance despite it. The communities that grew together and grew strong together through their endurance. In this part of the country that was just so beautiful, which had been a visual joy from the first glimpse of the Eildon Hills to this last look out from Lindisfarne. This trail on the in between, on the borderlands, which is a whole world and a complex history unto itself.
And this may have been St Cuthbert’s Way, but it had been Ron Shaw’s path. Put together by the will and the vision of that one man who wanted to show the world his amazing and wonderful corner of the country and let it steal the skin off their feet and a part of their hearts.
Well Ron, it worked.
- Distance: 3 miles
- Ascent: None
- Terrain: field paths and tidal mud
- Toughness: 4/10
- Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: St Cuthberts Way
Day T-1: Melrose to Bowden (4 miles)
Day 4: Wooler to Beal (13 miles)