Monday, October 27, 2008

Last blast of light

‘You’ll be the last this year’, the landlords of pubs and B+B’s kept saying to us ‘pilgrims’ along Saint Cuthbert’s Way. Certainly we saw no-one else who seemed to be doing the full 62 miles from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Holy Island in Northumberland, or the reverse. And yet it seems to me the perfect season in which to walk it, when the tree colour is mesmerising, particularly in the early stages of the walk where it’s reflected in the Tweed River, then flaming up from the monumental beeches and oaks of Dere Street and zig-zagging bright cloisters of leaf through the plains of farmland that lead towards the Cheviots.

Just before the clocks change in late October, daylight is just generous enough, and it feels to me exactly when we need some long days outside, to refresh the body with physical movement, to feel the spark of sun and rush of the wind on our skin, before we give in to the dark. On the way, I came across a poem called ‘The Invitation’ by Charles Kingsley, in which he invites a friend to walk with him in places close to home, ‘Washing brain and heart clean/Every step we take.’ I also loved his lines about what one can discover on a walk: ‘See in every hedgerow/Marks of angels' feet,/Epics in each pebble/Underneath our feet.’

This territory was relatively unfamiliar to me, and I loved the sense of discovery, of not knowing what to expect as the waymarks led us forward, out of the woods and onto the muscular Cheviot hills – St Cuthbert’s beloved ‘high, rugged places’ – towards the coast. The pebbles under our feet certainly cast up stories. The elfland under the Eildon Hills where the Fairy Queen carried off Thomas the Rhymer for seven years, feeding him a red apple which meant he was only able to speak truth. ‘Lilliard’s Stone’, commemorating a wonderful fiction about a woman who fought on her leg stumps following terrible injury in the Battle of Ancrum in 1545. A legend of leg ends, so to speak. Bede’s stories of St Cuthbert’s affinity with wild creatures and birds in particular, took flight with merlins, owls, and waders as we approached the mudflats around Lindisfarne.

Our crossing of the ‘Pilgrim’s Way’ over the sands at dusk with an incoming tide took on it’s own ‘epic’ quality. We were blessed with a couple of days of sparkling clear skies, and with that particular east coast clarity, the dusk light washed over the wet sands. It looked as though we were walking on water as we followed the marker posts across, our destination a narrow strip of land between lilac sky and lilac sheen as seals sang us in from St Cuthbert’s Isle, and the barnacle geese squabbled loudly behind us, neither groups visible. Diverting at one point to avoid the licking tongue of tide, we rejoined the marked route, not fully realising how night had taken charge until we arrived amongst the lit-up windows of stone cottages, winding through the narrow streets of Lindisfarne village towards our final stop at The Crown and Anchor.

The year's final blast of wind and sunlight, violet skies, moss-coloured seas, out in the world with the stalk and strut of wading birds. Then home, to the change in clocks, the darkness, the hermit’s life.

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