When Lionel Stander (Dickie) pushes a stolen car, with dying Jack MacGowran (Albie) at the wheel, into the picture at the beginning of Roman Polanski’s 1966 film, “Cul-de-sac,” he probably wasn’t thinking of St Aidan and the early Christians in
, but he was most definitely following in their footsteps. It is a weird, and wonderful, causeway that links Lindisfarne, or Britain Holy Island, to the mainland, (and it still traps a few incautious travellers every year).
Once the tide begins to rise, however, the majority of visitors slip away and peace returns. If you have timed it right, and the tide cuts the island off for the evening, you can almost feel you have the place to yourself (and a few seagulls) and the sense of isolation that St Aidan must have found here in 635 AD when he founded the Priory can be imagined. It becomes an island. There is peace. The wildlife, which can flock as much as the trippers, at least keeps itself to itself, or flocks in the more remote areas. A seal, head above the water, bobs in the waves. As seals do. As seals have done since the Ice Age or before. It watches me, camera inadequately pointed, inadequately lensed. This is no David Attenborough crew, and he (or she) knows it. God, I love a seal.
So what was going on?
It was St Columba (or Colmcille) who, with twelve followers, founded the monastery on
Iona in about 563. He was born in Donegal in 521 (and is not to be confused with St Columban, who was born in Leinster in 540 and who ended up in Bobbio, in Italy) and died in 597. Among his many achievements which impressed the northern Picts was the expulsion of a water monster from the river Ness. Anyway it is unlikely that St Aidan knew Columba, but he was originally from Ireland and was certainly on Iona in 635, as it was in that year that he was sent to Lindisfarne, with the specific remit of replacing his predecessor who was reputedly too rough in his missionary tactics.
At this point, on August 31st 651, a seventeen year old Northumbrian by the name of Cuthbert had a vision of angels accompanying Aidan’s soul to heaven and he became a novice at the monastery at
. In 664, in the company of St Eata, he went to Melrose Lindisfarne, but in 676 he went to live as a solitary on one of the remote Farne islands some distance off the Northumbrian coast. He was called back to the mainland to become a bishop in 684, deftly swapping Hexham for Lindisfarne with his friend Eata, but only managing two years there, before, sensing his imminent death, he retired finally back to Inner Farne, where he died on March 20th 687. St Cuthbert had a touch of the St Francis about him, with a keen interest in birds and wildlife, but also a very charming and practical nature. Bede refers to him repeatedly as, “a child of God,” and he was deeply attractive to his flock.
As an aside, in the meantime, there had been an ongoing problem between the Celtic Church (following from St Patrick, but illuminated by the Ionians) and the Roman Church (stimulated by Pope Gregory) about the date of Easter, which reached something of a conclusion at the Synod of Whitby in 664, when King Oswy of Northumbria voted in favour of Rome and the Celtic die-hards retreated to Iona. Although the fixing of the date of Easter is still being discussed to this day, it was the Venerable Bede, born in 673 near Jarrow, (and who died in 735) who wrote on calculating time and it was by using his exposition of the Great Cycle of 532 years - the interval between two ‘identical’ years – that the Church was able to calculate the date of Easter. Bede’s scholarship covered many areas beyond Christianity and although his most famous work, a key source for the understanding of early British history and the arrival of Christianity, was “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum” or “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” (which is also the first work of history in which the AD dating system is used), he also wrote of nature, of how the earth was a sphere and
Anyway, when Cuthbert died in 687 the monastic community on
Lindisfarne started a cult in his name. It is known from the history of other cults, such as those of St Wilfred, St Columba and St Brigid, that a major cult would have required a beautiful Gospel Book. The Lindisfarne Gospels was probably begun as the major icon for the cult of Cuthbert. This work is one of Britain's greatest art treasures, and it was almost certainly made on Lindisfarne between 680 and 720. The gifted artist-illuminator was called Eadfrith, who was bishop after Cuthbert, until his death in 721. Although it was written in Latin, the manuscript contains the oldest surviving translation of the Gospels into English, added between the lines by another hand around 970. The Lindisfarne Gospels reflect many influences: native British, Celtic, Germanic, Roman, Early Christian, Byzantine, North African and Middle Eastern, as Britain was a land of many cultures, with an emerging national identity and enthusiastic new forms of learning, literature and art. The Lindisfarne Gospels was a stunning creation of this new 'insular' culture and is an amazing testament to the fact that, far from being a dead end, Lindisfarne was in touch with the rest of the world. To stand there today, after the tide has washed away the trippers, is to experience something of the insular solitude that Eadfrith must have relished. He would have risen early and, between prayer and sustenance, laboured in the scriptorium, the high stone windows filtering in the chilled light from the sea, the cries of gulls and the washing of the waves, the music in his ears. According to the British Library, “this work is evidence of its time, showing a fusion of the beliefs, politics and challenges of the day. But it is also timeless. It offers us clues to the past and inspiration for the future….. Eadfrith employed an exceptionally wide range of colours, using animal, vegetable and mineral pigments. It was an enormous act of faith.” It is most unusual that the whole work seems to have been all his own, as most illustrated manuscripts were the product of team work, but in some places this manuscript remains partly unfinished, suggesting that Eadfrith's cherished work was ended prematurely by his death.
There might have been advantages even in the comparative isolation of Lindisfarne, but also perhaps advantages in not being quite as remote as
Iona. Perhaps it benefited from being on the north/south route (very close to the A1 indeed) and yet anyone stopping off there had to stay for more than a glass of mead! Miscalculate the tides and you could be stuck for at least a night! And so, possibly, scholars and thinkers, artists and traders, brought fertile interruptions to the tranquillity of this island. Far from being a cul de sac, it might have been a lay-by of great interest.
It certainly has a lure to it. Whether it is religion or architecture that is your personal metier, or whether you are a bird-watcher or a walker, the island is rich in resources. Roman Polanski returned only five years after shooting “Cul-de-Sac” there, using the castle (sixteenth century in its core, but remodelled by Edwin Lutyens in 1903) as a location this time for Glamis Castle (with some cardboard additions) in “Macbeth” (and nearby Bamburgh castle for both Cawdor and Dunsinane).
The crabs that scuttle through “Cul-de-Sac,” a jokey symbol of the cancers in society, are no longer present. The Beckett-like dialogue, representing the tragedy of pessimism, such as in the lines croaked by Jack MacGowran, “Well, here we are.” Which prompts Lionel Stander to query: “Where?” And Jack MacGowran to reply: “In the shit….” are replaced by Shakespeare’s tragedy of optimism, (“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.….”)
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, to give it its full title, is a glorious place to visit. In some respects, it is a cul-de-sac, as you have to retrace your steps to leave it, but that’s no defect. In fact it is a positive, as you have to make the effort to go there, and your arrival, and departure, will be affected by the rhythm of nature in the tides. And so is the presence of others, so that if you come to stay, you will find there is plenty of space and the stillness of early morning or the calm of evening can be savoured. Natural England staff a 3,500 hectare Nature Reserve here, with a constantly shifting landscape of sands and a coastline of dunes, mudflats and saltmarsh – heaven in the autumn and winter for drifts of birds from the arctic - though you are warned to beware quicksands and unexploded ordnance.
It is a wild, natural place. I stay at the Ship Inn, wander the shore line, take in the views – across to the Cheviot Hills, to Bamburgh, and out to the
. The skyscapes and seascapes are breathtaking. The air is invigorating, fresh and salty. The wind pushes and pulls me, powerful and elemental. I feel cleansed and inspired, without complications of having to be somewhere else, of having to meet any deadline or catch some appointment. I think of the Celtic past, of the Anglo-Saxon world. The stones of the ruined Priory stand firm, despite the destruction they signal. The castle stands proud, like a crowned molar, defying the decay of nature. Farne Islands
I think again of the term cul-de-sac, and am then reminded that when originally picked-up for American distribution by Filmways, the film “Cul-de-Sac” carried the advertising tagline, “Sometimes There’s Nothing Left To Do But Laugh!” and I wonder how much those elders of the early Church liked to laugh? For a moment I sit in the bar of the Ship Inn and imagine Saints Aidan and Cuthbert in the corner, sharing a conversation over a warm glass of mead. The tide is up, the causeway flooded, and I believe I can hear them chuckle.
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne’s name originates as the island of the people from Lindsey or Linnuis (OE Lindesege) which was the name of a small Anglo-Saxon kingdom, which lay between the Humber and the Wash, absorbed into Northumbria in the 7th century. The name Lindsey itself means the '
island of Lincoln' which derives from the fact that it was surrounded by water and was very wet land and had Lincoln towards its south-west corner. A fitting name all round. (The picture shows old friend Lindsay thinking about St Aidan, and the dangers of water.)