THERE are not many walks in Britain best undertaken barefoot – but crossing the two-and-a-half miles of mudflats to the island of Lindisfarne is one of them. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and today I have the chance. Not only is this a walk through mud, it’s a walk through turbulent history that transformed the English and their beliefs. And it comes with the added thrill that if you tarry too long or miscalculate the tides the North Sea will sweep in and claim you . . .
Some call it Lindisfarne, some Holy Island – but whatever its name, this small hump of sand, mud, earth and intrusive volcanic rock is a piece of Heaven on Earth just off the Northumberland coast. I’ve been visiting the island since the 1970s, but always by the conventional route – by car along the causeway at low tide.
Today I’m taking the traditional route, the pilgrim’s path, which has been used since the late 6th Century when Celtic monks from the Scottish island of Iona established a religious settlement with a view to converting the pagan Angles and Saxons. Both routes disappear beneath the North Sea twice a day. It’s an interesting fact that more motorists are rescued than pilgrims. (Click pictures for high-res versions)
An unwavering line of posts marks the pilgrim’s route across the mudflats. The route commences a short distance along the modern causeway close to a tiny refuge – basically a shed on stilts – erected for the salvation of motorists who gamble with fate and lose. From this refuge they can gaze across the incoming tide and reflect on their misfortune while their car disappears beneath the waves, and in the certain knowledge their plight will be recorded for posterity by all the local newspapers and featured on BBC1’s Look North the following day.
So I stand on the tarmac in my bare feet while my car rumbles off across the causeway with my wife at the wheel and granddaughter waving happily from a window. And I gaze at the line of posts disappearing into the vanishing point where the mudflats meet the sky, and at the rainclouds gathering as night approaches on a cool easterly wind.
I missed the morning low tide, and now my watch says 7pm. It’s gloomy; the world is wide and empty; and the last thing I feel like being is a pilgrim. Oh well. He who would valiant be, ’gainst all disaster.
As I clamber inelegantly from the causeway into the soft and strangely comforting mud I am reminded of a Roman Polanski film I watched many years ago called Cul-de-Sac. It was filmed entirely on Lindisfarne and starred Donald Pleasence as the neurotic owner of a clifftop castle held hostage with his flirtatious wife by a couple of desperate robbers whose getaway car has succumbed to the tides. It was one of those bleak, monochrome 1960s films with a bleak jazz soundtrack. I think the term is film noir. In fact, despite being a low-budget movie it did bleak on a Hollywood scale. It was almost as bleak as my surroundings tonight as I plod reluctantly into this vast mudness towards the first post.
I decide I’m in one of those situations where a long-cherished idea – something you’ve always dreamt of doing with fondness and eager anticipation – turns out in reality to be something quite different to what you expected. I’d always imagined bright sun, blue skies and miles of golden sand on this adventure. I’ve got gathering night, rain showers, and mud stretching to the horizon.
Within a few hundred metres I encounter a pilgrim’s shelter perched on stilts above the endless mudflats. This is similar to the shelter for motorists on the causeway only it does not possess a roof. I suppose the thinking is that pilgrims are hardy folk who do not require a roof when caught out by the tides. I can see where the authorities are coming from on this one but I don’t necessarily agree with the end result. Just because St Cuthbert used to spend his nights in meditation while immersed up to his neck in these waters doesn’t mean we are all keen to suffer such hardship.
I plod onwards through soft brown mud and tidal streams that ripple around my ankles. The marker posts pass one by one, but still their endless line stretches to the vanishing point. Then, after a mile or so, I reach a section of the path that looks, from a distance, to be firm ground covered in a thin layer of grass. The marker posts cut straight across this greenness. But the grass is growing on filthy black mud – the type that smells and swallows feet. This is a suitable place to break off and dive into the history of Lindisfarne.
So the monks set up their community. And in the early 7th Century, under the guidance of St Aidan, and with the blessing of Oswald, king of Northumbria – ruling from his nearby stronghold at Bamburgh – they spread the word of God among the heathen Anglish settlers and the pagan Picts to the north.
And all went well. A welter of saints continued the works of Aidan – including Cuthbert, Eadfrith and Eadbehrt – the north of England rejoiced in its newfound faith, and miracles became so plentiful that even otters, ravens and porpoises flocked to hear the preaching of these evangelical people. It was the Golden Age of the North, the sun shone continuously and there were no clouds on the horizon.
Well, actually, there was one cloud. And it swept in from the sea in 793 in the form of angry men with Norwegian accents and little sense of social cohesion. The Viking dawn had arrived. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles state, in a journalistic style that continues today in the Daily Express:
In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.
One Northumbrian chronicler, who could have landed a job as leader writer on the Daily Mail, wrote:
Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.
Despite these early raids, the monastery continued to flourish for the best part of a century. But in 866 an army of Danish Vikings captured York and established what has become known as the Danelaw – that large part of England ruled by Danes for many decades. The Viking army pushed northwards into Northumbria in 873, and two years later the monks of Lindisfarne abandoned their settlement and fled to the mainland bearing the remains of St Cuthbert.
St Cuthbert’s coffin was carried around the north of England for many years before finally being interred in Durham Cathedral. There is a general rule that states that if a northern village or town has a church dedicated to St Cuthbert, then this is a place his remains rested on their travels in their flight from the Vikings.
From my front window in Barton, North Yorkshire, I can see St Cuthbert’s Cross, a scheduled monument which is little more than a finger of stone set upon slabs. St Cuthbert rested here in front of my house. If I’d been around in those days I’d have invited the monks inside and made tea.
I leave the smelly black mud behind and enter the final mile of firmer brown mud, which is sprinkled with tiny shells that hurt the feet. I’m sure the monks would not have complained. They were hardy folk. Hardship was a way of life.
There is an eerie sound out here on the mudflats. I’ve been aware of it since I left the causeway. At first I assumed it to be the continuous whine of trials bikes, perhaps half a dozen riders scrambling in the sand-dunes. But there are also higher pitches, reminiscent of winter winds in telephone wires, and the occasional guttural bark – or a moan that sounds uncannily human. I have heard old tales about sailors being lured onto rocks by the cries of the shipwrecked – and that’s what this noise sounds like. It’s human but not human.
I gaze south across the mudflats, and about a mile distant spy a vast colony of seals. There must be several hundred of them in a long line. And they moan and bark and whine and whistle and grunt and scream and fill the evening air with the most unearthly racket.
Approaching the firmness of Lindisfarne I meet two walkers heading for the mainland along the pilgrim’s path. They tell me they made the crossing before the morning tide, spent the day on the island, and are now returning to their vehicle. That’s a pleasant way to spend a day. We pilgrims haven’t lost the knack of self-entertainment.
Reluctant to spoil the ambience of my walk by pulling on my trainers, I limp up the road to the Lindisfarne car park in my bare feet. I must admit, this is more bravado than homage to the original occupants. But, as John Major said, where there’s no pain there’s no gain.
If you fancy having a crack at this walk, and I thoroughly recommend it as something different if you’re in the area, it takes about an hour. There is plenty of time between tides, and with the posts to follow, direction finding is no problem.
The pilgrim’s route to Lindisfarne is more than just a walk – it’s a journey through a history that links the best and the worst of human endeavours to the splendours of the natural world. It’s an experience.
Oh, and the Christians returned to Lindisfarne after the Norman Conquest and erected a priory which survived until the Dissolution. Then in recent years another bunch of pirates called English Heritage moved in and now charge the public £5.40 to gaze at ruins. Children as young as five are charged £3.20. I’m not sure what St Cuthbert would have thought about that. I expect he would have immersed himself up to his neck in the North Sea and not come out again.
- RICHARD W Hardwick’s blog St Cuthbert’s Final Journey follows the route taken by the Lindisfarne monks in their flight from the Vikings around northern England and southern Scotland. With words by Richard, Durham University’s writer in residence, and pictures by award-winning photographer Paul Alexander Knox, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read.
- TIDE and time wait for no man – and no woman either. Mudflats and estuaries are dangerous places. Check out the safe Lindisfarne crossing times, courtesy of Northumberland County Council, here.