on the subject of – what else? – western Christian pilgrimage (clink on the following link) https://vimeo.com/183303404
on the subject of – what else? – western Christian pilgrimage (clink on the following link) https://vimeo.com/183303404
Some fences mark a human boundary, some a physical frontier. This fence was one of the latter. Instead of keeping apart two rocky fields that are otherwise indistinguishable, or two similar flocks of sheep, the fence at the lower field boundary marked a sharp dividing line between field and forest, between hillside and deep valley, and between sunlight and shadow.
Our group of six crossed the stile, the first across uncharacteristically waiting on the other side of the fence until we were all together. By unspoken consent joviality had been replaced by solidarity. The overgrown path and lack of certainty made us pack animals.
For someone who grows up in the Canadian west, crossing a fence inevitably means grasping strands of barbed wire in hand, stretching the space between the lowest and middle strands as wide as possible, and then squatting and pivoting your back end while you lift a foot and squeeze through, back straight and derriere high, in hopes that no piece of shirt or pants will catch a barb and tear. There are very few stiles in Canada because there are very few public walking paths on private land. In England the history of the stile and the history of the citizen fight to keep public paths open are one and the same. Most UK stiles – certainly the ones we crossed – are built by property owners under legal compulsion.
Most stiles are ingenious in their simplicity. Usually, they consist of a post and a step on both sides of a fence: one step up, then hold the pole for support, swing one leg over to the step on the other side, then the other leg, and Bob’s your uncle. With a stile there’s no need to remember to close a gate, and there’s never any concern about a jammed lock or unworkable mechanism. The livestock have no chance to get out and repairs consist only of replacing a board every few years. The wooden step stile may be primitive, but it’s hard to improve on a model of such basic efficiency.
Perhaps my favourite gate is the one on St. Cuthbert’s Way, at the dry-stone fence, edged by thistle and grass, that marks the border between England and Scotland. It was a bit lonely a location, on the top of a knoll and across a valley from a Bronze Age ring fort, but the day I reached it I felt a sense of occasion crossing, and missed having someone there to share it with. There should have been a pub, as there had been, and a good one, back in Kirk Yetholm. Instead there were cattle, and stinging nettle, and burnt-yellow grass, so I kept on.
Another common form of fence crossing in the UK is what is known as the ‘kissing gate’, so called because there is a gate in the fence that swings free between two fixed posts, just to the point of being able to touch, or ‘kiss’ each post. If you were looking at a kissing gate from above, you would see a walker step to the gate, push it against the far post, step into the small space at the open end of the “vee”, then push the gate back against the post just crossed, and exit through the cleared path on the other side. The point of a kissing gate is that a person can step into and through the pocket that is protected from the swing. But any four-legged creature cannot.
For the walker, the most reassuring thing about a stile or a kissing gate is that it’s proof, physical evidence in wood and sometimes steel that this is, if not the path, at least a path intended for walkers. From where it crossed the fence into forest, the Northdale trail we had decided to take led sharply downhill. As our eyes adjusted to the gloom we stepped carefully over exposed roots and clean river stones that skittered and clattered and slid underfoot. There was a close, fragrant feel to the air. I could feel the suddenly coolness on my skin; despite the trees there was a slight breeze from the north; the valley acting as a funnel for air from the high moor country, perhaps from whatever springs fed the stream we could hear below us.
For a path we had chosen because of a lack of options and not for any particular markings, this one at first seemed quite promising. When we had walked only a short distance we saw that were stairs cut into the earth and banked by wood, and because of the steep descent someone had installed first a wooden railing, then a rope alongside the path at waist height. Just when we were feeling heartened the stairs split, each path descending a different direction. It was the classic dilemma: left or right? We chose left, descending another two sets of earthen stairs to a wooden bridge that couldn’t have been more than a few decades old. The stream would likely have been passable without the bridge by jumping from boulder to boulder across the pools and alternating rapids, but the cool forest air and shadow meant that most of the rock surface was slickly moss-covered. Boots would not have held. Someone would have gone in, or bruised or snapped a bone.
On the far side of the bridge was an ascent as steep as the bank we had just come down. After a few yards of climbing, the path disappeared under high ferns. We slowed, wading through the green, unwilling to risk falling into a hole, or worse, down some unseen rock face. For a few minutes we slowly tested the brush for any hint of trail, but it was clear no one had been through in some time. Whatever path was once there had disappeared. We turned back, first descending to the bridge, then back up again to the forest junction, somewhat anxious. Now there was only one option.
There’s something about Lindisfarne, Norway and Ireland that connects all three in history, art, and memory. And faith. Cuthbert (634-687) was an Anglo-Saxon shepherd boy trained by Irish monks from Iona, who accepted the decision at Whitby to go with Roman customs, and whose remains were troubled by Viking raiders, whose Danish descendents in the Danelaw, later Northumbria, eventually honoured him as their patron saint. Life is indeed strange. Over thirteen centuries later, a descendent of Norwegians, I arrived by foot at the cave of St. Cuthbert, accompanied by my Northumbrian friends Chris and Clare, after having marveled at the intricacies of Viking art and archaeology in Celtic Dublin and walked through Norway’s St. Olaf Way, to pay my respects at one of the resting places of an Anglo-Saxon saint.
Mostly that morning I’d been worried about keeping up with Chris. His lanky frame and long legs, combined with a love of walking, an interest in history and an excitement for the path ahead, mean that he is a wonderful pilgrimage partner – when he doesn’t mind slowing just a bit. In any case we had to slow to find the place. The signs to Cuddy’s Cave, as it is sometimes known, were not all that clear. The property is managed by UK’s National Trust, but unlike some of the Trust’s other locations there is little infrastructure – just the sandstone rock formation, stairs cut into the rock on either side, some blackened soot on the cave wall from someone attempting a campfire, and the cave itself. Standing in the cave, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the rock overhead. Here, according to which report you believe, was where St Cuthbert actually lived for a short time as a hermit seeking even more isolation than Holy Island could provide, or where centuries after his passing the monks of Lindisfarne hid out from the Vikings with the coffin of the unfortunately mobile saint. Or both.
Both Chris and I are in our 50s. When he was in his early 50s, St. Cuthbert realized that death would soon be on him, and left his post as Bishop and Prior of the active monastery at Lindisfarne/Holy Island to die in his hermit’s cell on Inner Farne Island. He left specific instructions that he did not want to be buried at the monastery because he did not want the monks to be bothered by all of the pilgrims he knew would come to his tomb. But his friends insisted and so that is where he was first laid to rest.
It was almost as if Cuthbert knew what would happen. Centuries later, the vikings raided rich Lindisfarne and laid it to waste. While the sea marauders were not interested in the saint’s spiritual blessings, they were very interested in the kinds of riches that typically adorned saints’ tombs. So the monks fled with the coffin of the saint, and wandered the countryside for seven years before eventually being led by a dun cow to the site of what became Durham cathedral.
Caves are places of shelter, life and death, despair and fear, and hope. The ferns along the path nodded at the lightest touch of a warm wind, and cicadas started up here and there in the trees to accompany our bright and lazy afternoon. As we shared a cup of tea I tried to imagine Cuthbert right there, where our packs were set against the sandstone. An ancient saint, rocks more ancient still.
In his early 50s. The nature of shrines is that we all carry something not only to, but also past such a place. I hadn’t quite finished my tea but Chris was pacing. I got up, brushing the crumbs of cake off my chest. What do you think, I asked him? Can we still make it before sunset?
As I leave the village of Kirk Yetholm, striding up toward the bare yellow hills of the Scottish Borders, I walk past a sign announcing The Singing Donkeys Hostel and Soup Kitchen for the Soul. It is hand-drawn. I stop despite myself, and think about singing donkeys, trying to remember if I’ve heard anything overnight that might be a braying animal. All I can visualize are the Bremen Town musicians, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean that. The sign, and the motley collection of boots underneath, conjure other images between memory and imagination, that I realize are probably not accurate even as they keep floating to mind: a young man in Rasta hat and beard, stirring soup in a communal kitchen, long and lazy afternoons in the sunlight with indistinct plans, someone playing guitar in another room and the sweet-sour tang of pot drifting in an open window, the feel of sex in the air, dream-catchers and crystals and Buddha prayer corners. A part of me wants to knock on the door, tempted by whatever “soup kitchen for the soul” might mean. But it’s too early in the day to begin detours, real or metaphysical. I wasn’t a hippy even when there were hippies. Although my bed at the Borders Hotel was too soft and the beer too tempting, it felt more like home. I take a photo and move on.
Months later, back in Canada, I read in a book about the St. Cuthbert trail that the hostel in Kirk Yetholm was, centuries ago, built as a schoolhouse for gypsy children.
As I’ve discovered on pilgrimage, morning inevitably means climbing. It’s 8 am and the sun is already feeling just a touch too warm for what I had only ten minutes before decided would be perfect wear. Upset with myself, I strip off a layer of merino wool and add it to the weight in my sack. This portion of the trail coincides with the Pennine Way. Probably because I’ve read accounts from those who’ve walked the Pennines, and every story stresses how difficult the path is, I keep expecting to be overtaken by long-legged, weathered, grim-eyed hikers, a different, hardier species, even though I’ve been averaging 25 km a day myself. There is a Pennine Hikers’ Inn, to my surprise looking much more luxurious than my Borders Hotel, and then a corner marked, mysteriously, Halfwayhouse. Half-way to where, I wonder? And where is the house? There are sheep everywhere, unfenced and curious, but no sign of human life. And oddly enough, no walkers, even though this is supposed to be one of the busier parts of the route.
Something happens in the mornings when you’ve been walking day after day: you begin to get eager – almost impatient – for the rhythm that sets itself up in your body after a kilometer or so on the trail. It’s something that stays on, most evenings, even when you’ve dropped your pack for the night and had your solitary meal, when you’re lying in bed trying to remember what day it is and why you were so stressed back home. Maybe it’s a rhythm of breath, or of the feet, or of both. There’s something in it of feeling your lungs tighten under the pressure of taking ever-larger breaths to handle the climb, or noticing the increase in heart-rate, knowing without any doubt that it will drop again as soon as you’ve taken a moment to rest. I’ve read that happiness is doing what you’re designed to do. Humans are designed to walk.
It’s probably that happiness that leads me up the first big hill of the morning, an imposing bare challenge of a knoll planted right in front of the road. The hill is called Green Humbleton on the map, had I been smart enough to look at my map. It’s only 268 meters, but when what I’d thought was the trail becomes indecisive and finally peters out about three-quarters of the way up, I assume that the cairn of stones I can sort-of see is my next marker. The way goes neither left nor right, and so neither do I. The top quarter of the hill is steep, so steep that at times I’m forced to scramble on all fours, burrs and seed spears digging into my soft palms. Bottle flies sit in black swirling columns of air that I pass through, forcing myself to breathe in through my nose so as not to inhale too many insects at one go. Horseflies discover the exposed flesh of my arms and legs, wet with sweat and red with exertion; I swat as best I can, but each swivel, because of the weight on my back, threatens to tip me over. When finally I stand at the summit of the hill, the warm gusts of wind are a blessing.
But there is no trail down. I sit for a second to catch my breath and scan the hills for the trail from which so clearly I’ve strayed, but sitting is just an invitation for more horseflies, and I’m bitten twice. So I stand again, and begin the descent. I’m a bit jittery, the way the weight of the pack jolts with each footfall, and with a mild curse at myself for almost making a mistake even worse, I slow down. This would be the way to lock a knee, or step in a hole. Eventually, I spot a sign to my right. The path has wisely sidestepped the hill. I’m happy to be on it again, even though it rewards my happiness by leading, honestly this time, straight up yet another rise.
In the morning, setting out, I’d asked an older woman where the path out of the village began. She’d looked at me in silence for a second, as if debating whether to answer, and then stretched out one arm, almost like a curse, to point at the hills. “That’ll be for the likes of you, walking,” she’d said. Then she smiled.
I remembered that when I reached a gate in a stone fence. There’s a sign. It reads, on one side “Welcome to Scotland” and on the other “Welcome to England”. I open the latch, and step through to another country.
Where the long, hot, dusty path finally drops out of the Cheviot Hills into the town of Wooler, Northumberland , every B&B and hotel room is booked. Eventually I manage to get hold of someone at the Youth Hostel. A voice on the other end of the phone answers my by-then desperate plea: “Sure, we have a place.” As if it were a silly question to ask. My room is spartan but fine, and there’s a shower at the end of the hall.
Being a youth hostel, I expected youth. But in the morning I find myself at table with an English man and a Scottish woman of at least my age. Although separated by the length of the table, they are already deep in conversation when I sit, perhaps not wisely, in the middle.
There is a small map on the table between them. The Pennine Way starts here, declares the man, pointing to it. I know; I’ve walked it. You’ve walked some path, corrects the woman. But it wasn’t the Pennine Way. That starts here. She jabs her finger on another spot. I try to find a place for my tea that is not on the disputed piece of paper. Well, I know what I walked says the Englishman. You’re wrong, answers the Scot, and they both lapse into what to me would be charged, but seems to them to be a comfortable, silence. I wonder if they’re a couple.
Edinburgh is a lovely city I volunteer. I was there in 2006. Loved the old town. The Scot answers back crisply. It’s nice to look at. But I grew up there and I’d never move back. They all ask what schools you’ve been to. As if that’s what’s important. First thing they want to know. It’s not a pretty place. She shakes her head as if to rid her mind of some memory. Dark local sandstone, pipes up the English man from his end of the table. That’s what makes Scottish buildings ugly. Northumberland too, he adds after a pause, with a nod to her.
When the Englishman finds out I’m walking the St. Cuthbert Way to study walking pilgrimages, a discussion ensues on the decline of long-distance trail-walking in England. Foot and mouth disease, he pronounces. That’s what killed it. Ever since then the trails are less busy. And the hostel movement has suffered too. The Scot nods. Yes, foot and mouth. It’s a pity. We need the social movement of hostels more than ever in this world.
This world, the Englishman repeats, with feeling. As if that says it all.
I tell them about the World War II vintage bomber that surprised me in the hills, coming up out of nowhere and then gone again as I struggled to pull out my camera. Was that the ghost bomber, asks the Scot? There’s silence for about 30 seconds while I try to digest the question. Umm. It was real enough, I say finally. Loud and low. Just not what I was expecting, you know, in a long day of walking by myself. Oh yes, those low flying fighters, says the Englishman, looking up from his book. They’re over you before you even hear the sound. Scares the hell out of the wildlife. No, I heard this one, I insist. The fighters – I’ve seen those too, the last couple days. RAF. This was different. Some hobby pilot I guess. It was an old prop plane. It came around the hill and banked right above me. By the time I got my camera it had flown over the next hill. It was beautiful.
The ghost bomber repeats the Scot. I was in the Cheviots, the summer before last, and I saw it then. Passed right over me, low. I never heard a thing. Just saw it. That’s when I knew it was a ghost.
The Englishman looks down at his tea and says nothing. I start thinking about the trail ahead. Can you pass the marmalade, I ask?
By about 2 pm on the first day of walking through the Scottish Borders it was becoming clear I’d been wrong imagining the dots on my map to be quant Scots villages full of local eccentrics, well-crafted beer and heavy, happy northern food. The two areas of settlement I’d passed were small clusters of squat and shuttered houses, grey sandstone window frames, darkened slate roofs and doorways offering no welcome. They were perhaps bedroom communities for Edinburgh. Whatever they were, they were barely inhabited: there would be no conversation of any sort, quaint or otherwise. Likewise no cafe or store to pick up lunch.
Long-distance walking into unknown or lesser-known territory means reaching a series of decisions without full information. You expect to make some mistakes, and hope they’re neither major nor cumulative. You trust to luck and the kindness of others, if others happen by. Going a bit hungry your first day isn’t the worst that can happen – by far – although in that moment my stomach didn’t necessarily agree.
What was worrying was that it was already the middle of the afternoon, and my guidebook told me I had 15 or so kilometers still to walk before arriving at a closed tourist centre from which I might, if everything worked, be able to contact a ride to come pick me up for my hostel. All of which probably meant a very late meal indeed, should there be anything to be purchased at all by the time I got there. In the bottom of my pack I found the broken remains of a two-day old baguette given to me in London, and some packaged cheese I had forgotten to throw out. The cheese was long past sweating, but my hunger convinced me it might still be okay despite hours in the heat.
Dryburgh Abbey was further off the route than I had expected, a set of foundation stones and half-walls all that remains of an important medieval structure. The detour had already cost me a couple of kilometers and an hour or so and my feet, unhappy with asphalt, needed liberation from the boots. So I took them off, set my socks in the sun and stretched out my toes.
Where we choose to sit and eat can say a lot about us. There was a bench on the grass beside a very low stone wall with a plaque that read “transept side altar”. Barefoot before the altar, feeling the grass between my toes, squinting at where the monks would have filed out from their dormitory to perform the first office of the day, I felt more at home than I had in days. The river Tweed flowing slowly by, the sweat-sweet wetness of my tee-shirt drying on my back in the yellow sun, my stomach happy for, literally, crumbs: part of the joy of walking pilgrimage is the re-sizing of what is needed in life. Even home is re-defined, a sacred flagstone to sit my plastic bag on, in that moment, was enough.
Maybe it has always been so, but it seems to me that the starting point for modern Euro-North American pilgrimage is almost never a sacred destination. The starting point is somewhere and everywhere along the unfamiliar trail, in the awkward freedom of being able to go left or right and not knowing exactly which is best or how long to tarry, in the slowness of footfalls in a motorized world, and in the unfamiliar Google-free uncertainty of a path where the next way-sign might be knocked down or misleading and the next person encountered might forever remain a stranger or perhaps become a dear companion. The world shrinks and expands at the same time: we smell the greenness in whole fields of clover, feel each raindrop in a translucent summer shower, and curse the nail clippers we forgot to put in the Velcro pouch under the flap of our bags, or the single black seed pod that, rolling beneath the sock, turns to a blister on our foot. I ate in a hurry, packed up and walked quickly back over the bridge, striding back onto the path.
One of Blake’s drawings shows a pilgrim striding purposefully forward, walking stick in hand, much as I was walking toward my unknown future. At Blake’s destination awaits a monster, Death, whose maw is the final destination of no escape.
What if he is right?
I was not bereft; anyone who has a Visa card and money in their wallet, a mobile phone and a road nearby is never truly in danger. But I’m more and more convinced from my own experience and from talking to others that there is something in the practice of smallness and absence that is part of the appeal of modern walking pilgrimage. Something very powerful happens in practicing the stripping off of the layers of who we are and what we own. Maybe it simply gives us the chance to see what might be there, in us, at the nub.
In the last pages of Tomas Espedal’s ode to a vagrant life, “Tramp”, after all the poetry and late nights, the alcohol and the sex, the solitude, the philosophy and the history, he writes these words: “the path takes off to the right, through a wood, you cross an electric fence and suddenly find yourself in a clearing, you have to stop; I am brought to a halt by the sudden, soft light and the stillness.”
Maybe, I hope, that is what it might be, at the nub. That would be a nowhere to walk to, fast.