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Pilgrim Awheel: cycling in pursuit of St Cuthbert

Sunday, 9 Nov 2014

Cuthbert's Cave on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn The slow, low gear climb out of Belford, past the mock-castle of Sion Side, gave me ample time to ponder upon events that shaped this land over a thousand years ago; of the year 875, when the Danish king of York, Halfden Ragnarsson, carried fire and sword across Northumbria, burning churches and monasteries, killing their inhabitants. The once-great Christian country was then at the mercy of the heathen. The monks of Lindisfarne fled, taking the relics of Saints Cuthbert, Oswald, Aidan and the Lindisfarne Gospels with them. Their journey in search of a new home for Cuthbert lasted for seven years.

The monks climbed the hills to the south-west of Holy Island, vowing not to put their blessed Cuthbert down until they were out of sight of any Viking coastal raiders. They picked their way carefully, over the ridge and down to the small copse, the weight of the saints and the precious gospels upon their shoulders. As they did they saw the mountains ahead in the dusk, and understood then that God would be testing them with more than the little one-day journey they had undertaken so far.

Down past giant rocks they went, through the tall pines, and into the shelter of the cave, returning Cuthbert to that place of great solitude and beauty that he visited in life, away from the wind that roared in the trees. They stayed for a few days, perhaps longer, and the place has been a sacred place of pilgrimage ever since.

A bright breezy day marked my abandonment of the plusses until Autumn. From now, come what may, it would be on with the shorts for the Summer ahead and Hebden Cords would be between me and the saddle leather. The Greenspot jacket would remain fully zipped up that day however. The clear blue sky belied a chilly north-westerly breeze, the gusting head-wind foe with whom I jousted allthe way from my touring base on the coast. It had been an exhilarating tussle, even if it did make the pull up to the lonely heights of Belford Moor more arduous.

The hills the monks had climbed were the Kyloe Hills. My route to those same eminences had taken me along the ridge that passes between the precipitous crags of Dancing Green Hill and Bowden Doors. The mountains ahead that filled the monks with dread were lofty Doddington Moor and, beyond, the peaks of the bleak Cheviots.Those same peaks I could peruse with contentment rather than fear, from my sun-filled picnic hideaway, amongst the rocks in front of Cuthbert's Cave, within the fold of sheltering trees.

For I had pushed my mount along the muddy bridle way leading out of Holburn Grange, through the gate at the top, where the short, springy turf makes for good cycling rough stuff. And thus, full of the joys of Spring, this pilgrim awheel was conveyed to Cuthbert’s Cave under the sandstone overhang, topped with murmuring pines. It remains a sheltered place, a holy place,in which to contemplate the hazardous journey ahead of the refugee monks, who roamed far and wide, in fear of their lives, over the hills and mountains of northern England, looking for a sanctuary safe from the Viking threat, where they could lay their saints and the Lindisfarne Gospels down to rest.

There could not have been a greater contrast than with my own departure from Cuthbert’s Cave. With the breezy foe-turned-friend at my back, the free-wheeling descent to the old Great North Road at Belford was one of unmitigated eye-watering joy.

There is a post script to this story. Those faithful monks wandered for seven years until finding a resting place first at Chester-le-Street and then, after another Danish invasion, at Durham where a new stone church was built, the predecessor of the great gothic cathedral, to house St. Cuthbert’s shrine. That was not the end, however. After the 1066 invasion, in anticipation of William the Conquerer’s laying waste of the rebellious North, the relics of St. Cuthbert were taken for safety from Durham back to Lindisfarne. The route taken passed through the tiny hamlet of Tughall, where Cuthbert was set down for the night. On this site a chapel was built to mark this last resting place before the saint’s return home.

If the cave had been the first resting place for Cuthbert’s bones on the flight from Lindisfarne, then Tughall was the last stop before their hasty return, a place no less holy. To commemorate this fact, a chapel had been erected in the Middle Ages.

I approached this site by cycling along a lane amidst the fields of ridgeand furrow near Swinhoe, past the much chimneyed Tugg Hall, until I reached a sharp left turn in the road. To the right at this point is the little lane to Tughall. This I followed for a few yards until there, ina field, over a wall and beyond a grassy bank, over which I clambered, lay before me the ruined remains of the chapel. There was but a stump of stones, from the chancel end I think, and a visible outline of the chapel foundations in the field. Not much to see for sure, but evocative of troubled times nevertheless, and it did round off my cycling pilgrimage with a symmetry of sorts.

There is a further footnote.Once installed at Lindisfarne, the Norman threat quickly passed. Cuthbert’s remains were returned to Durham within a year where they still remain enshrined to this day.

© John Dunn

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