Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A damp pilgrimage to Lindisfarne

I awoke before the dawn; as I dressed, a faint red glow seemed to emanate from the entire clouded sky. Dawn itself did not arrive.
By the time I arrived at the train station, I was already soaked from the pooled rainwater on the roads (and my own sweat - almost late for my train!). The weather was not improving. Should have stayed in bed, I kept thinking. Then, hurry up, you've come this far, don't miss your train now.
More rain along the journey - the sea was not even visible from the coast. I disembarked in Berwick, had a diet Coke from the station's single cafe, waited for the bus. There is only one bus service to Lindisfarne -the "Holy Island," home of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels - and it only ran one day this week. That would be, you guessed it, today. Thanks to the lonely nature of this island, and the unruly tides which periodically separate it from the mainland, it is difficult to get there. The bus arrived, I paid my return fare (I had but one chance to get there, and one chance to return, unless I wanted to wait for the next bus... on Saturday), sat, and waited. It was impossible to see anything from the shuttle save the small patch of road immediately ahead; the large side windows were all plastered with sand and seawater, and the rain kept coming. We were dropped unceremoniously at the single bus stop on the island, just outside a large shop where you could sample the famous mead.
I grumbled my way around; first a small fee to English Heritage to visit the remains of the Lindisfarne Priory (rather windswept and cold on a day like today) and, after lunch, another fee to the National Trust for the privilege of touring the iconic castle (did you know - someone lived there after it was a garrison?). It was wet and cold and miserable, a terrible day to be out and an even worse day to be out on an isolated island in the North Sea. Why did I come today? Why didn't I come last week when the weather was better? The wind tugged at my jacket and pulled my umbrella like a petulant child; unwilling to be placated, it wailed and screamed through the rigging of the ring of beached sailboats along the small harbor. But it only occurred to me as I stepped out past the shelter of a sandy bank and directly into tiny rain droplets driven until they stung like needles that this was precisely the day to visit the island. I suddenly understood.
For sixteen hundred years, this tiny island has been inhabited, mainly by cloistered monks, in weather just like this. They not only survived on this harsh strip of sandy soil that rises barely above sea level and is subjected to the full brute force of the harsh North Sea winters, they were able to create some of the most beautiful Christian works ever made - and here I was, unable to even keep myself dry, let alone a parchment! I was soaked to the bone, eventually conceding to the rain and humid wind as I walked the completely exposed mile between the minuscule town and the converted castle (of which the interior was surprisingly cozy, though humidity damage and drafty windows have plagued it all its life). My jeans had soaked up enough water to turn a different shade of blue. But these monks, they lived here, and they worked here, too. I was overwhelmed with the effort.
Even the myth of St. Cuthbert takes on an altered hue when seen in this unforgiving, damp light. Legend has it that Cuthbert's body, after being entombed for 11 years (in a process similar to the Jews, the saint was dug up after a predetermined amount of time to retrieve his bones as relics), is found to be in perfect condition, without decay. The story takes on a tone of believability if we assume it takes place somewhere arid; "unassisted" mummification is not unknown. But here, on this dreary, waterlogged island, for remains to be lacking any sign of decay? It's impossible. But perhaps that's the point. The monks opening Cuthbert's casket knew as well as I that it simply wasn't feasible for his body to remain intact after all that time. But the story wouldn't be a miracle - and the saint wouldn't be a saint - if this essence of disbelief is absent.
I stood on the upper garrison of Lindisfarne Castle, the melody of "Lone Shanakyle" running through my head, and learned what I would from the sea. Things I would not have learned had the weather been clear, the ruins dry.
Sad, sad is my fate in weary exile
Dark, dark are the night clouds round lone Shanakyle
Your murdered sleep silently pile upon pile
In the coffinless graves of poor Erin...
I boarded the return bus several hours later with a weary, clammy happiness. And just south of Newcastle on the train journey home, the rain dissipated, and the clouds parted just enough to reveal a spectacular sunset.


  1. Beautiful. That's exactly the kind of experience I'd always thought of in visiting Lindisfarne. I'm glad you got to go there in such conditions. I wish I had made it. One day I will.

  2. It was quite an experience, just as soon as I ceased willing it to be one. I plodded around the Priory trying to imagine the monks illuminating pages a thousand years before, but found no inspiration. It was only in realizing the tenuousness of this place - down to the high-walled, boxy garden where cultivated plants were barely coaxed from the soil, and the overturned hulls of decrepit ships they continue to use as storage sheds - that I discovered its worth.


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