When the Covid19 restrictions were at last loosened enough for we two to go out, where should we head on our first expedition? Luckily, the North East has a very special place. It’s the early centre of the Church in Northern England and origin of the earliest surviving English writing. It’s also very quiet and peaceful, at least since the Viking stopped sailing in and slaughtering all the saints who lived there.
Of course, I am talking about Lindisfarne or Holy Island, a tidal island off the coast of Northumberland and across the bay from Bamburgh.
The Irish monk St Aidan was brought down from Iona to spread the Gospel in the Northumbrian kingdoms by the dynamic and innovative King Oswald, who had became a Christian as a child exile brought up in a Christian household. St Aidan set up a monastic cathedral on Holy Island in the 7th century but spent more of his time walking from village to village, talking to everyone he met – rich and poor – about the gospel and taking keen interest in their lives and communities, setting up churches across Northumbria.
Our summer trip was a last local visit for a theology student from Bulgaria, who had been staying with us while he studied in Durham. His studies in Durham had been the early years of the arrival of Christianity in Bulgaria, so it was important to visit Lindisfarne and experience the hearth from which Christianity lit up northern England. During the lockdown had become our support bubble and a wonderful friend. Studies complete, he was eventually allowed to travel home on 7 July.
Before you visit Lindisfarne, consult the tide tables for the causeway from the mainland. Reportedly on average a visitor car a month gets caught by the tide. We crossed before midday. To our right stretched in solitude the line of posts set up to guide those who cross the sands on foot, often at the end of a long pilgrimage walk. Sailing boats along the North East coast must be beautiful but watch out for some ferocious storms.
There were only three other cars in the carpark, and the streets of the village were empty. We knew that the ruins of the abbey and the churches were still closed, as were the pubs and hotels and lodging-places for pilgrims. As I sat waiting on a bench, a lady walking her dog came to talk to me. She said: “The person who really knows the early history here is Kate Tristram”.
Kate was Head of the Religious Studies Department at St Hild’s and St Bede’s College where my husband Robin first started working when he moved to Durham in 1974. She moved to Lindisfarne in 1978 to become Warden of an ecumenical retreat centre called Marygate House and in 1994 became one of the first ordained women Anglican priests.
She is an Honorary Canon since she retired from the church in 2001, a year after she was awarded MSc in Medieval Language and Text at Edinburgh University. Since then, she has travelled the world giving talks on medieval Christianity as a leading expert. According to various websites, she is editor of the monthly “Holy Island Times” and has written two books: “The Story of Holy Island” (Canterbury Press) and “Columbanus: The Earliest Voice of Christian Ireland” (Columba Press).
Kate was home – hardly surprising during the lockdown – when we called her. The lady and her dog walked us to her house. I was enchanted by the diversity and creativeness of what was growing in pots outside people’s front doors. In School Road outside one house I counted 14 white arums, mixed with a profusion of blue poppies, and the whole road was a blaze of colour. In addition, carpets of scarlet poppies were growing wild wherever there was a patch of long grass.
We sat and chatted in Kate’s tiny garden, under the watchful eye of a brown hen called Victoria who belonged to the school and perched on the wall to check us out. Kate told a neighbour: “Come and meet my visitors, I’m observing the distancing, I’m not allowing my guests indoors” and to us “So far no one here has had the virus… but I do miss meeting people in the street to talk, everything here happens in the street, normally.”
We looked at, but could not visit, our favourite places – the parish church, the ruins of the Benedictine abbey, built on the site of the Celtic monastery where the Lindisfarne Gospel scribes had worked. Outside St. Mary’s Church the banks of the lane leading towards the sea were a tall phalanx of wild flowers and long grass, mixed with flowers escaped from people’s gardens.
Then we sat on a bench looking across to the island where St. Cuthbert had spent so much time in prayer, and to the mainland. I remembered some of the beautiful Greek monasteries on islands we had seen in our sailing trips across the Mediterranean in the 1950s which had a similar “thin” feeling, where you feel closer to the mystic (written up in my sailing memoir).
Georgi made his way across the low tide causeway to explore it. On the way home he said, “I was so pleased to have come. During these past weeks I have seen on news bulletins people gone wild and furious, marching in protest. I was worried to leave the house. But here I see people just getting on with living.”
For more on Kate Tristram https://lindisfarne.org.uk/canon-tristram/kate0.htm and https://theoldie.co.uk/blog/pearls-of-wisdom-from-kate-tristram