Last autumn Kathy Tiernan led a study tour in the footsteps of St Cuthbert, the 7th century Christian saint. The journey began by tracing the saint’s life on Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, with Bede’s ‘Life of Cuthbert’ in hand. It then followed the saint’s journey to Chester-le-Street and Durham, St. Cuthbert’s final resting place. Kathy Tiernan is author of ‘Place of Repose; a tale of St Cuthbert’s Last Journey’
Here we publish two personal recollections of this opportunity to draw closer to the meaning of this venerated saint of the north.
A personal recollection by Suzanne Bartlett…
Toes curled over the wet ridges of slippery mud as we followed the marker poles guiding us to the distant shore at Chare Ends. We had dispensed with socks and shoes in order to follow the Pilgrims’ Path across the sands to Holy Island, the final destination of St Cuthbert’s Way. Earlier we had met outside Berwick upon Tweed station, having travelled from near and far – Bristol in the West, Oxford and London to the South, Cambridge and Suffolk in the East, the Borders and beyond from the North. There were joyful reunions with friends and introductions made with those we had not met before. With rucksacks and suitcases, boots and poles, we piled onto the bus to make our way to the first undertaking of our tour, to walk across the causeway to Lindisfarne. Conversation was rife and progress slow as we headed across the mudflats. Kathy had to hurry us along towards the end, as the tide was rapidly approaching from both sides and was in danger of cutting us off. Swimming the last leg of the journey to the isle was not on the agenda! This start to our trip was one of the highlights and was followed by many more. There was much laughter at our evening supper on the first night and after our meal we were graced with the presence of the Venerable Bede at the St Cuthbert’s Centre. Tall, gaunt and dressed in black, he gave readings from his Life of Cuthbert during Kathy’s introduction to St Cuthbert and his journeys.
Waking early the next morning I crept out of the B&B to watch the sun rise behind the castle. It was a spectacular moment, with the silhouette of the building black against the red sky. Afterwards a few of us attended Matins in the church of St Mary the Virgin, a simple service held in the choir stalls with just a handful of people present. Breakfast followed and then we had a tour of Lindisfarne Priory and Museum before climbing up the Heugh, with a view of Hobthrush Isle on the way. This is where St Cuthbert went for retreats before he established himself at Inner Farne. The old coastguard station, now converted to a look-out, gave us panoramic views of Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands to the south.
We left Holy Island on the third day and from Seahouses Harbour took a boat trip out to the Farne Islands. The sea was quite choppy as we took a tour round some of the further islands to observe the wildlife. No puffins at this time of year but we were greeted by inquisitive seals who raised a smile as their heads bobbed up and down out of the water around the boat. We disembarked on Inner Farne, where we had a chance to walk round the island and imagine how it must have been for St Cuthbert to live there in retreat for eight years. Following on from here we went to St Paul’s Church, Jarrow where the verger, Jimmy, gave us an enlightened talk in the Saxon Chancel about the history of the building. One of the original windows contained Saxon glass that was made in the Monastic workshops. It was amazing to think that Bede worshipped in the very same church all those years ago and may even have sat on the Ancient Chair that is situated next to the altar. Outside the church we wandered round the ruins of the Monastery. Little is left of the Saxon buildings, although the layout of the original site has been depicted by using stones that contrast with the later Norman remains.
The approach to the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street did not prepare us for the magnificent interior. Built on the site of a Roman fort, and later becoming the home of St Cuthbert’s original shrine, the church exterior belies the beauty hidden with. As soon as you enter through the west door you are faced with the rich colours of the stained glass window behind the altar, with the lower lights illustrating the life of the Community, beginning with the arrival of St Cuthbert’s coffin and continuing with visits made to the shrine by royalty and religious dignitary. The three chancel paintings document the final departure of the Lindisfarne Community to Chester-le-Street, with the Lindisfarne Gospels window depicting Eadrith working on the Gospels and the journey these and St Cuthbert’s body went on before ending up in Durham. The jewel in the church, however, was the facsimile edition of the Lindisfarne Gospels shown to us by a church officer with such passion and dedication that one felt he was handling the original. We crowded round the glass case where it is held as he carefully turned over the pages, revealing intricate designs and richly coloured illuminations that radiated warmth and raised wonder at such beauty. The Anker’s House, where the incumbents may well have copied manuscripts when not at prayer, gave us an insight into the Anchorite tradition, of which St Cuthbert was part. We took turns to look through the Squint towards the church altar. This allowed the anchorites to take part in services without being seen. The house is now a museum, containing artefacts from the Church’s past and includes Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval objects.
Over the five days of the holiday we walked and talked, listened and reflected over all the sights and sounds that we experienced. There was the walk up the hill with David Herbert to St Cuthbert’s Cave, an impressive sight nestling amongst tall pine trees and bracken. One could truly imagine what a welcome shelter the sandstone cave would have provided to the monks as they began their journey carrying St Cuthbert’s tomb away from Lindisfarne. We then continued on St Cuthbert’s Way towards the coast, some of us tempted to climb to the top of the hill to fully experience Mons Gaudium at the point where the Holy Isle comes into view. On another day we followed some of Cuddy’s Corse Way, from the ruins of Finchale Abbey to Durham Cathedral. We were again greeted with dramatic views as we emerged from the enclosed footpath into the valley below the castle and cathedral.
Visiting the cathedral was another special moment, savoured particularly when on the last morning I returned alone to appreciate the tranquillity of the Galilee Chapel without the crowds. Bede’s tomb made a bold statement with its solid marble top, in contrast to the finer stonework of the chapel. This was reflected in the exquisite artwork of Judy Hurst, displayed on the walls and pillars. Using gold leaf and bright colours on vellum and unusual wood, she captured the spirit of the Celtic tradition of the region. After our tour of Open Treasure, the new exhibition centre in the former Claustral buildings, I attended one of the special prayers at the shrine of St Cuthbert that take place twice daily. This was a fitting end to the pilgrimage tour. On my way out of the shrine, I passed again the magnificent Transfiguration Window by Tom Denny, which was created in 2010 in memory of former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who had been Bishop of Durham in the 1950s. Light poured through the south-facing window, reflecting the different shades of blues and browns of the glass. St Cuthbert has a presence there, as too do some pilgrims on their way to the cathedral. I can now count myself as one of them.
Reflecting on this study tour, the Seven Stages of Pilgrimage as identified by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) – Mindfulness, Journey, Companionship, Illumination, Immersion, Observation and Metamorphosis come to mind. By following in the footsteps of St Cuthbert I believe that as a group we fulfilled all these stages. We were mindful of the journey we were taking, with each section being complete in itself; we remained conscious of the whole group and communicated with each other; we immersed ourselves in the places we visited and remained aware of the reasons why we had come on the journey; we deepened our knowledge of life religious in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria and returned from our journey with a wealth of images and emotions that will stay with us for a long while. Kathy Tiernan, with her dedicated research, huge enthusiasm and efficient organisation brought St Cuthbert to life for us as we travelled from Lindisfarne to Durham, visiting churches and monastic ruins, walking along footpaths and taking to the seas. It was a memorable and most enjoyable trip.
A personal recollection by Dee Mitting…
My introduction to the universe of St. Cuthbert was a pilgrim’s initiation, crossing over the seabed to Lindisfarne on foot, following the route staked out by tall posts from the mainland across the inlet. Both the straight line of this way and the curving road to the north succumb to the beautiful sculpting of tidal ebb and flow and remind one with humbling immediacy, how much life on earth is subject to the balanced arrangement that Nature provides.
Reluctant to doff my shoes and remain cosy-toed, I was soon persuaded otherwise when confronted by a too-deep stream and joined my companions, as a traditional pilgrim, to squelch through mud barefoot. Two alarmingly tall ‘tree houses’ on stilts provide refuge for any caught out by the fast flowing influx of a monthly spring tide, and also provide incentive to stride at a speedier pace in this liminal landscape. The eerie wails of a clutch of seals out on a sandbank further seaward and hosts of birds swooping and flocking, announced that we entered their world. Our pulses quickened as we abandoned the fast submerging pilgrims’ two and a half mile route in favour of paddling through rivulets closer to land, before arriving numb-toed on Holy Island’s western shore.
I realized that the passage from mainland to island serves to accentuate and further a journey in consciousness, whether it be from ‘profane’ to the ‘sacred’ or from an outer to inner world – indeed, it felt like crossing over to my essence.
I had joined 18 others on a five day study tour arranged and led by Kathy Tiernan, ably assisted by her husband Michael, which took place at the end of September 2016. The subject centred on St. Cuthbert as we travelled in his footsteps through the gently rugged land and seascapes of Northumbria. Our author-leader spent her childhood and much of her adult life in this part of the world and, happily for us, was inspired to share her deepening awareness of Cuthbert’s protective and unifying presence, stretching well beyond his lifetime and the places of his birth and death.
We spent the first two nights on Lindisfarne – skilfully planned to make the most of high-tide island time when few residents and visitors remain, followed by two nights in Durham where Cuthbert is buried.
My muddy initiation into an ascetic approach was a fitting introduction to the life that Cuthbert embraced, as well as to the monastic life taken up by those who came here from Ireland and Iona with St. Aidan in the early part of the 7th century.
A famous story taken from Bede’s account about St. Cuthbert illustrates his mode of praise:
“Here also, as elsewhere, he would go forth, when others were asleep, and having spent the night in watchfulness return home at the hour of morning-prayer. Now one night, a brother of the monastery, seeing him go out alone followed him privately to see what he should do. But he, when he left the monastery, went down to the sea, which flows beneath, and going into it, until the water reached his neck and arms, spent the night in praising God. When the dawn of day approached, he came out of the water, and, falling on his knees, began to pray again. Whilst he was doing this, two quadrupeds, called otters, came up from the sea, and, lying down before him on the sand, breathed upon his feet, and wiped them with their hair after which, having received his blessing, they returned to their native element. Cuthbert himself returned home in time to join in the accustomed hymns with the other brethren. “
Bede; Life of St. Cuthbert, Ch 10.
The following morning we were privileged to be on Lindisfarne ‘overtide’, so were able to enjoy in a contemplative manner the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the ruined Priory, the Museum and a great 360 degree view from the Heugh, all of which are sited on the foundations of much earlier Anglo-Saxon buildings. Some of us had been up early enough to attend the morning prayers in the beautiful and atmospheric church, where the reading was about Elijah and his heir Elisha, which with hindsight, underlined an emphasis on the infusion of spirit which coursed as a current throughout the trip.
As the crowds of day-trippers moved onto the island, we left for the mainland and a rendezvous with Revd. David Herbert, who was at the time of meeting, the Minister of the local United Reformed Church dedicated to St. Cuthbert – he is now the Moderator for the Northern Synod of the URC. He regaled us with illuminating experiences and stories from walking the Camino de Santiago and leading many along St. Cuthbert’s Way. He took us to a striking outcrop of sandstone rock known as St. Cuthbert’s Cave. This was the place where the monks who carried St Cuthbert’s remains took refuge on their first night when they took him out of Lindisfarne when it was raided by Vikings in 875. Kathy’s short novel ‘Place of Repose’, tells in full and colourful detail the story of the seven year journey taken by the Haliwerfolc (those entrusted with St. Cuthbert’s body) transporting Cuddy’s (Cuthbert’s) corse (coffin) from island monastery to Chester- le-Street where it resided for over 100 years.
We then followed Cuthbert’s Way for a few miles through wood and field, hill and dale with half an hour of silent contemplation as we negotiated tree roots and muddy hollows. David spoke of Cuthbert’s presence being “hefted” in the land – a new word for me, vividly describing a sense of being rooted in and fluent with the landscape. He delighted us with his welcome to the onset of colder months as these bring the “whiffling” of the migrating geese as they descend into the Northumbrian fields to overwinter. The route took us to a Mons Gaudium – the hill of joy – so named to highlight the spirit of the pilgrims’ first sighting of their destination: Lindisfarne! At one point, I was treated to a short rest on the long branch of an uprooted tree with a clear view of the island of Inner Farne, which we were to visit the next day. Here St. Cuthbert had lived for several years as a hermit from the age of 41. From my vantage point the island looked as though it rises up like a whale or submarine from the deep, perhaps bringing with it the plentiful devils he battled before harmony reigned.
“To learn the first steps of the hermit’s life he retired to a more secluded place in the outer precincts of the monastery. Not till he gained victory over our invisible enemy by solitary prayer and fasting did he take it on himself to seek out a more remote battlefield farther away from his fellow men. The Farne is an island far out to sea, cut off on the landward side by very deep water and facing, on the other side, out towards the limitless ocean. The island was haunted by devils; Cuthbert was the first man brave enough to live there alone.”
Bede; Life of St. Cuthbert, Ch 17.
The next day, it was lovely to be on the first boat going to the Inner Farne and meander around these islets amidst diving gannets and countless seagulls. We were greeted by curious seals, as we sailed past rocks smothered with shags, some with wings outstretched to dry in the wind. The prompt start also ensured that there would be few people on the largest of these islands where Cuthbert became a hospitable hermit. People would come to ask his advice, perhaps bring provisions and stay in a small guest house which was built in addition to Cuthbert’s cell of stone and turf. Although Inner Farne is now a famous bird sanctuary and place of research, with no mention made of Cuthbert’s history to present day visitors, it is still possible to get a sense of life here in the late seventh century. He lived here between 676 and 687 with a two-year interlude as Bishop of Hexham from 684.
What is striking about the locality is that ‘his’ island lies closer to Bamburgh Castle on the mainland than to Lindisfarne, from where the monks kept an eye on him and responded to his requests to bring building materials and the like. When the boat gets close to the island, its shape suggests a protective’ back’ of high cliffs nearest to the mainland and a receiving ‘face’ with small sandy beach toward the North Sea, as though designed to be openly receptive to the infinitude of the eternal and at the same time within sight of, protected by and affecting the temporal.
Here is what Kathy says about the relationship of temporal and spiritual power in the Bamburgh area at that time: “There would have been a wooden fort and palace on the castle rock in Anglo-Saxon times. …. Royal support was critical to the Christian mission in Northumbria and Aidan chose to found his monastery on Lindisfarne, close to royal protection and influence. Inner Farne lies directly opposite the castle [at Bamburgh]; Cuthbert’s presence there would have been a continual reminder to the court of the Christian values of poverty and renunciation.” Kathy Tiernan (from tour notes).
It was in this area that I felt closer to Cuthbert’s personal presence, whilst in the latter half of the trip what came to light was the pervading quality of his help and beneficent influence throughout the time since his death on March 20th 687.
I also had a keen sense of why Cuthbert embraced the mode of the hermit, standing in the world between the life of the eternal and the life of the temporal. It impressed me as a wise way to strongly establish the Spirit of Christ in a time when controversy about how to live a Christian life was so prominent. The Synod of Whitby in 664 brought to fore the forces in play, initiating a passionate discussion about which calendar to abide by and whether to be guided by St. John and the Celtic personal and ascetic order, or by St. Peter and St. Paul, the patrons of Rome. Romanisation won the day, resulting in a tradition more concerned with social, hierarchical and religious forms. Those who did not acquiesce returned to Ireland and the western fringes, although the Celtic spirit lived on long enough in the eastern lands to produce the Lindisfarne Gospels in 710-720. It could be argued that Cuthbert’s gentle persuasion of his fellow monks to adopt the Roman mores both protected them in the face of the inevitable and also maintained a spark of the universal spirit not swayed by the dictates of custom and dogma.
The second half of our trip took us to buildings to do with the legacy of Cuthbert and the flourishing of his influence. We learned of the Venerable Bede’s life at St. Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, which together with its twin, St. Peter’s at Wearmouth close by, became as Kathy puts it: “One of Europe’s most influential centres of learning and culture in the 7th and 8th centuries.” (from tour notes)
Bede wrote the ‘Life of Cuthbert’ in prose and poetry in 721, drawing on material from an unnamed Lindisfarne monk who had written about him in 700, just 13 years after his death, perhaps prompted by the discovery of the saint’s uncorrupted body and vestments in 698 when the relics were brought out of their sepulchre on the orders of Bishop Eadberht, which action was said to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The second church we visited is found in modern Chester-le-Street, which lies three hours walk north of Durham. It sits on top of the site where the Haliwerfolc settled, having fled Lindisfarne with ‘Cuddy’s corse’ under the threat of invading Vikings. Although there is nothing left of the church, scriptorium and accommodation from the time the community lived here between 883 and 995, the present day building with remnants from the 10th century, commemorates this once “sole surviving monastic community foundation in Northumbria” (Kathy). Beautiful 18th-century stained glass windows celebrate the story of the Lindisfarne Gospels, including the translation by Aldred into Anglo- Saxon, which took place here. A painting from the 1920’s, depicting the arrival of the ‘corse’, with the small band of monks after their seven year journey, attests to the current of interest and dedication that continues to this day.
This Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert also houses a modern facsimile of astounding quality of the Gospels complete with bejewelled front cover. We were treated to seeing many illuminated pages of the extraordinary artwork, with the bold original Latin script interspersed with Aldred’s translation written in ‘minuscule script’ between the lines. Kathy explains:
“ The Benedictine monastic reform of the late 10th century in the south of England did not reach Chester-le-Street. Standards of education had declined and by the mid-9th century members of the Community no longer spoke fluent Latin. Many of them could no longer read their most famous literary asset, the Lindisfarne Gospels, so a priest named Aldred made a translation of these Gospels into Anglo-Saxon. …. It is the earliest surviving translation of the Gospels in early English.” (from tour notes)
Our last port of call was Durham Cathedral, built on the 10th century village of Dunholme, where Cuthbert’s shrine is today. It was here that the coffin halted and refused to be moved any further. Many people have written vivid and informative descriptions of this imposing yet intimate space. Our guide, Lillian Groves, with evident love for her subject, brought to our attention the playful decoration and innovative architecture amidst a fine appreciation of the cathedral’s nearly 1,000 year history. I was grateful to her showing the list of dignitaries on the wall leading to the shrine. Amongst these was Hugh Whitehead, who was Prior of the Benedictine Monastery until its dissolution in 1539. He then went on to become its first Dean by 1541, bringing with him 12 monks who became canons. This constituted a ‘smart move’ considering the mayhem and destruction that happened elsewhere during the Dissolution, and perhaps could be seen as yet another occurrence effected by St. Cuthbert’s unifying influence well after his death. At this time, the people who came to ransack and destroy his tomb were thwarted when they found the body and vestments yet again in pristine condition. The man who had the job of breaking into the casket expressed sorrow at having broken one of Cuthbert’s legs! As a result Henry VIII allowed that he be re- interred under a simple slab marked ‘Cuthbertus’, and as far as we know, this is where he remains to this day.
Interspersed with these visits we enjoyed refreshment in some delightful places including the river setting of Finchale Abbey, overlooking the harbour at Seahouses and the exquisitely wall- papered Prior’s Hall in the Cathedral precinct amongst others. We also walked a further stretch in the Weardale countryside into Durham with the Cathedral in view for much of the way.
As a latter-day pilgrim, I found that the many miracles that appear with St. Cuthbert, both during his lifetime on earth and after his death, together with his continuing guidance and presence in peoples’ consciousness, affirm a closeness to the Christic Spirit which is still with us today. This universal meaning applies to each person directly, and points to the potentiality and opening of this present time.