15 August 2011



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 Britain, but he was most definitely following in their footsteps.  It is a weird, and wonderful, causeway that links Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, to the mainland, (and it still traps a few incautious travellers every year). 

The BFI one-line synopsis of this film reads: “An eccentric couple living on a small island are terrorised by gangsters,” and there is something about this statement which resonates beyond the film and into the reality of this romantic outpost of civilisation.  When the tides draw back in summer the gangsters, in family sedans, mobile homes and charabancs, flood into the car park, and trail around the village, swarm over the ruins and wind their way into the castle, intimidating and intruding upon the eccentric locals, of whom there are more than a couple, but less than a couple of hundred.  On the website http://www.lindisfarne.org.uk/general/welcome.htm you can read the following statement:  The small population of just over 160 persons is swelled by the influx of over 650,000 visitors from all over the world every year,” and although these visitors bring prosperity, and perhaps happiness, the disparity of numbers can be quite terrifying.


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.

But, back to the past.  Hard to really get the picture of 635 AD.  The Romans:  long gone (Flavius Stilicho, c.365 – 408, was the General most responsible for the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain).  The Vikings:  not yet really up to much (their raids on Britain didn’t begin ‘til the end of the 8th century).  Picts:  having disposed of the 9th Legion they seem to have slipped into Art and Design in northern Scotland (spectacularly as it happens).  Martyrs:  past their heyday (though the custom was still alive).  And St Aidan.  Represented in art by a stag (so perhaps quite a chap?) – born in Ireland, trained on Iona (a small island just off the south-west tip of Mull in the Hebrides) and sent to sort out Northumbria by his friend King (later Saint) Oswald who had recently (633) defeated (and killed) the Welsh King Cadwallon of Gwynedd at Hexham and reclaimed his father (King Ethelfrith)’s kingdom.  So Aidan walked across the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and set up camp (in 635).  It must have been quite a journey.  I have just checked and from Iona to Lindisfarne would probably have taken weeks if not months!  It is 272 miles, according to the AA, and though the roads are probably slightly better these days the traffic is more intense!
So what was going on?

The Dark Ages (roughly the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance – though scholars still dispute the Dark/Middle definitions)?  A time of extraordinary artistic production (e.g. “The Book of Kells” - but don’t try and get that on your Kindle, or the motherboard might erupt - but also e.g. “La Divina Commedia.”)  A time of consolidation and reformation (if that word hasn’t been misappropriated?)  The Romans had left the islands of Britain without a core in any sense and yet Christianity was becoming something of interest.  In 597, a Roman monk named Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to England (the land of the Angels) and in 601 he was enthroned as the first Archbishop of Canterbury.  Though Augustine died in 605, and despite his lack of success in converting the indigenous population to Christianity, he started a trend which did eventually catch on, though Ireland, having been evangelised by Patrick (385 – 461), was way ahead at the time (it had become almost exclusively Christian by the early 6th century). 

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.

Aidan was consecrated Bishop and made his headquarters on the island, where he set up a monastery which specialised in training English boys to become missionaries among their countrymen.  According to the Venerable Bede, St Aidan “was a man of remarkable gentleness, goodness, and moderation,” and his practice was to recycle, rather than accumulate, any wealth, so that any surplus went to the benefit of the poor.  Aidan survived the death of his friend and patron King Oswald, and was fortunate in having the continued support of his successor, Oswin, but when he was murdered in 651, Aidan died of grief a fortnight later.

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 Melrose.    In 664, in the company of St Eata, he went to 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 how the moon influences the cycle of the tides – very advanced stuff at the time.

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 Farne Islands.  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. 

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.)

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