A simple sight to record today: nothing more. A bevy of beautiful castles greeted us on Bamburgh beach this sunny morning at six. Untouched by the tide, so high and so difficult to negotiate for the last few days, these lovely creations are a credit to a particularly British habit of holiday competitiveness. King Oswald’s fortress smiled above them, benignly.
It is one of those days when the best came early. Bright sunshine, an empty beach – only two ‘people’ and Jackie seen on our run – no dogs; fantastic fun. We even saw our first curlew – though failed to capture it clearly on this photo – newly returned from the high ground inland, ready to reclaim the beach for the winter months. August is indeed weary. When we spotted him, he was silhouetted against the sea, at the edge of the rocks and he is still there – somewhere, like Oswald, whose feast day we recently celebrated.
It is with something like delirious joy that we can report the return of the sand martins to our dunes. Forerunners – we hope – to the house martins we’re just longing to welcome back to our part of the world, the first sand martins suddenly turned up last Thursday, resuming their domestic duties in their perfectly preserved and previously abandoned little nest holes which pock-mark the dunes above our sandy morning trail. Increasing in number every day since then, the sand martins’ aerial dances are becoming more hysterical and expressive as families are reunited and old friendships renewed: how relieved they must be to have completed such a marathon safely, having made it back to the land of Oswald and Aidan once again, all the way from the other end of Africa. Unfortunately, the wind turned northerly today, so sand martins still on the wing – and there must be thousands of them – will find it tough to push north, if our little kingdom is their desired destination.
At the end of our run along the beach, the sky blackened with impending rain and, by mid-morning there was a tiny blizzard, which we thought was cherry blossom blown upon the wind. How fond we are! Despite the gales, the sun has supervened and it’s been a cheery day. Christopher Wren checked out his nest box and was dismayed to find the blue tits well ensconced therein; he helped himself to a consolation prize of dried meal worms and then disappeared into the hedge, probably to check out another favourite site. Above us, on our chimney stack, the jackdaws are content and busy, much more relaxed since last year’s gulls have found another nest site and stopped staring down into the jackdaws’ nest. You can see how intimidating these intelligent creatures find the herring gulls, staring with their beady eyes and daring them to move towards the entrance.
It is remarkable how much pleasure the birds give to us all. We watch the bulky wood pigeons, so patient and so ungainly, yet so capable of stillness, and chase them into flight when we get the chance. We wish that the starlings, so numerous, so noisy, wouldn’t eat all the fat balls, put out for the sparrows, our loyal little friends. We long, one day, to see a raven for real – the magic corvid who found St Oswald’s severed arm. Every day we notice more and more of the wonderful in the entirely ordinary. Every morning, winter and summer, the sands below the massive fortress of Bamburgh are our palette, on which the imagination works its colours and, on the anniversary of his birth and death, the words of the most famous of all famous poets come, once again, to mind: The blessed gods, Purge all infection from our air whilst you Do climate here!
The sheer magnificence of the beginning of this week’s weather – sheer, clear sunshine, summer at winter’s door, the sun’s rays on our backs from dawn till dusk – has been a complete joy and our spirits have soared in gratitude. Only last week, after I’d posted my previous piece, as if in retribution the calm I’d been talking about was shattered by two days of the worst north winds we’ve endured in three years and, what is even worse, not a mention of it or its intensity on the national weather forecast – as ever. It really as if the extreme north east has no existence for the rest of the country, as we batten our cat-flaps and protect Nicholas from being blown sideways as he toddles out into the garden for a wee.
Then things changed and, as quickly as the wind arrived, after battering us constantly for well over twenty-four hours, it dropped and an early July settled in January’s place. In celebration we ventured forth across the causeway to Lindisfarne, careful to note the safe crossing times, close by the poles which mark the ancient pilgrims’ footpath from the mainland to the island. There we careered through the dunes until we emerged on the north side of the island near the Snook, where low tide had left us miles and miles of empty sand to run on. Joy and over-excitement abounded; care was taken lest young Nico find a rabbit-hole he fancied and follow his nose down it like Alice but he proved sensible and obedient, always keeping everyone in view with that cheeky, intermittent sideways glance of his.
Lindisfarne is one of Northumberland’s ‘thin’ places, where heaven and earth mix freely in a magic water-colour of thought and feeling. Over thirteen hundred years ago St Cuthbert came from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to be Bishop in this place, and though the priory itself is but a physical ruin now, emotionally and spiritually much medicine thrives there still. Twice every day Lindisfarne is cut off from the mainland. Reaching it is always special, as though the sea’s encroaching and drawing back has cleansed one’s path. None of us would dream of running off in such a holy place, guarded by such natural magic.
I like this time of the year, when the crowds diminish and our area regains some of its characteristic emptiness and peace. The sea this morning was gentle and still, high tide nipping at our toes as we dodged the seaweed and the temptation of eating it. The end of summer is a fitting time to celebrate one of our most significant saints, perhaps the most important man in the history of Northumberland and, when it comes to the history of our country, one of its most unlikely but profound influences. For it was St Aidan who, as a man of God and an ascetic in a time of self-servers, brought Christianity to the people of the north, and from here a different view of life spread out across the land.
The beautiful shrine in this picture was erected over the spot where Aidan, Irish missionary to the English, declined and then died in 651. Bamburgh church, where you will find it a stone’s throw from the high altar, is rare if not unique in housing the very spot where its patron saint departed his life, under the tent which was thrown over him where he lay exhausted by a life lived for others, leaning against the beam which remains within the church. This time last year the Archbishop of York inaugurated the new shrine which beams with lovely candlelight reflecting the great saint’s continuing presence in our midst. Yesterday was St Aidan’s feast day so, after a liturgy in which his work and legacy were recalled and pondered on, the congregation gathered around it to hear Bishop Frank White read St Bede’s narrative of how the dear man died.
In life, Aidan knew both rags and riches, identifying with the needs of the poor by meeting them on foot on his perambulations throughout what was then the kingdom of Northumbria. There cannot be a pathway around here he has not walked before us; indeed, his spirit on the beach is very strong, his footsteps still visible to those who look for them. Kindness, generosity and compassion guided St Aidan’s telling of the Scriptures, whose loving message he knew to be so vital if people were to move forward together into a future free from barbarity and in-fighting. These were messy times and odd bedfellows found themselves on the same side. Aidan’s patron, King Oswald, had himself been supported by pagan tribes when at Heavenfield near Hadrian’s Wall he took on Cadwallon of Gwynedd, a British leader of Christian descent who had allied himself with the pagan Saxon, Penda of Mercia, and threatened the independence and values of Northumbria. With Aidan to lead him, Oswald was able to bring unity and peace, mutual respect and freedom to live and think, governing from the mighty stronghold of Bamburgh from which, through St Aidan’s influence, the poor of this area were provided for, both in body and mind. The monastery of Lindisfarne, founded by Aidan, became a lasting legacy of teaching and learning during a golden age which endured until destroyed by Viking invasions in the eighth century. Every day when we look out across the sea we think about the little craft which brought Aidan here; the mooring place at Monk’s House, where stream and sea significantly meet, is a place I jump for joy.
This morning, as is our custom, we trundled along the beach once again, hearing the waves gently kissing the shore and greeting the few folk who were about with a gentle word. We are lucky. Ours is a peaceful, quiet life, cushioned by routines. A lovely run on which I found a perfectly formed tennis ball to add to my collection – always a treat – was followed by a lovely breakfast, with jellies and pate. Everything was as it always is: I am loved, cared for and safe in the home I love. Now we are full and resting, and I ponder further on what was running through our minds as we were trundling across the sands which have seen so much conflict in the distant past; we only have to gaze across at Lindisfarne to remember what havoc the Vikings perpetrated there and we do indeed just that, often. You do not have to look far to find a fight.
Today, the 4th of August 2014, is the feast day of St Oswald, the warrior-king of Northumberland. This seventh century leader, known for his prayerfulness and generosity, defended Christian values and the independence of the north when he led his polyglot army under a Christian banner against the ambitious British leader, Cadwallon, defeating him in battle at Heavenfield, near Hexham. He fought and it was ugly, no doubt. Thus was established the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, its capital being Bamburgh, under the ramparts of which great castle we enjoy Oswald’s peace each day. Peace, care for the poor, the ministry of St Aidan and the monks of Lindisfarne – all flourished because of Oswald and the fight he’d undertaken. No saint, they say, without a past.
Today is also the day on which we commemorate the United Kingdom’s declaration of war on Germany a hundred years ago, when Belgium was invaded. It is a day of enormous solemnity and thought. So many people were affected by that conflagration – a total of 36 million, either killed or wounded – and the lives of countless others touched by the loss of those they knew and loved. In Kemo Sabe’s own little family, great uncles on both sides brought down in their youth. Names on memorials we will never see; a grandmother’s losing her only younger brother she will have a hundred-year lifetime to mourn.
Today we all can hear the prayers said and hymns being sung. As light falls, to commemorate the lamps going out a hundred years ago, households in this country have been asked to light a single flame. There are no words a humble soul can utter which would adequately express the overwhelming emotion of this terrible day, when the dogs of war (so alien to my simple self) were unleashed. No sinner, they say, without a future.
I enjoyed new excitements this week: as promised, we accompanied a visitor from the south on the obligatory boat trip out to the Farnes, on a brilliant blue-sky day, with the sea only swelling gently; fortunate as the newcomer warned about a tricky tummy. It was a week for returning to familiar places – churches, castles and eateries alike – and putting on the spectacles of a new perspective which, of course, always brings novelty.
Kemo Sabe chose me as her outrider as I am small, nimble, and hadn’t been on a sea trip before, so that very fact – and the uncertainty of our guest’s stomach – made things more interesting from the start. I found the whole thing exhilarating and set about concentrating quietly, staring up at the puffins as they flapped with determination across our path and peering fixedly at the seals as they lazed, banana-like, in the wash.
Andrew’s catamaran makes for a spacious look-out both on to the waters (where there is always the hope of seeing porpoises or minke whales – already around the area) and the islands themselves, once you arrive at them ten minutes away from the harbour. From my perch I could enjoy the myriad scents from near and far, of fur and feather and guano a-plenty, as well as Newman’s beloved seaweed, which washed in Freudian tangles around our keel. NuNu himself is never considered for a boat trip since he almost fell between jetty and deck on his first attempt to board, blessed enthusiastic and clumsy beast that he is. Life with him is full of rapid eye movements, as someone famous once said, so certain things – like wearing contact lenses – are not recommended. The sea bird colonies of the Farne Islands – guillemots, shags, puffins, little and Arctic terns, razorbills, and the great gannets plunging into the deep – are all familiar to us here, so a trip to our islands, which we can see from upstairs, feels like a kind
of homecoming to the world of St Cuthbert, who had even more reason to welcome the returning migrants to his hermitage. Occasionally, he would have had a rare visitor, like the roseate tern. Their only breeding colony is further down the coast, on Coquet Island, just offshore from Amble though it is so protected and special that it might as well be in uncharted territory. Today we heard the cheery Helen Mark, who has an unmatched gift for succinct depiction of scene and setting, describe her very special time on that particular holy island – in a land of many holy little islands – and the encounter with the endearing and enthusiastic Wesley, who with his volunteers protects and provides for the birds that breed there, stopping prospective nest-raiders from landing.
You will find this absolutely delightful piece from the Open Country series on Radio 4, on the BBC’s website:
When I was close to the islands myself I felt that I was trespassing upon others’ territory, gazing upon a land where I could not think of surviving and where, in a sense, none has a right to roam. We borrow the islands, from St Cuthbert and the hermits of another kind who, for a few months a year, serve creation humbly and wait upon nature’s wishes.
A dead seal greeted me as I ran from the dunes first thing, the first casualty of crueller seas. Bless its bulkiness, its simple smile. What could have brought it so low other than perhaps the affliction of weariness to which Uncle Jonny succumbed. To every thing there is a season. Along towards Bamburgh, on the other side of the rocks, a camera club amazed us with their unexpected encampment on a normally deserted stretch of sand. Six tripods topped with cameras all pointed towards a non-too-promising dawn – their chosen exercise, it would seem. We hoped they hadn’t travelled too far for the watery manifestation which developed over the next twenty minutes. Nothing special, you might think, but a miracle nevertheless, and nothing to take for granted, as Bertrand Russell once said. Later, another act of faith brought us to a green and pleasant hill among the Cheviots. The cows were surprised that we had found such isolation to interrupt but watched in welcome as we drove to the top to find the hermitage with its Byzantine chapel. Like a miracle, it transforms a ruin into a place where saints and sinners meet. As a small, simple creature, my place is always in the heart of those who love me and who seek for truth, whether by sight or sound or in the imagination. Like a king or prince before the Lord, I saw St Cuthbert with his otter and raven, also looking up in expectation towards the light on this dim and dingy day. We were not disappointed.