For centuries, pilgrimage has been the life-force of Christianity, strengthening the Church and bringing ordinary worshipers closer to God. The beating hearts of Rome, Constantinople, Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury and so many others are connected through the arteries of pilgrimage; along those well-worn roads have flowed the devout, the guilty and the curious, continually breathing life into the Christian faith.
But what is it actually like to undertake a pilgrimage? Together with my good friend Terry Lee, we will be trekking from St Andrews, the mediaeval hub of Scottish pilgrimage, to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of northeast England, the backdrop to one of the most dramatic pilgrimages of the mediaeval era. Along the way, we’ll discover the pains of such a monumental journey, take in the benefits and rewards of our experience, and uncover some rather unexpected twists that neither of us could have predicted.
In this episode, we complete the final stretch of our journey, leaving the sanctuary of Melrose and crossing the border into England, heading east to the coast of Lindisfarne before making the perilous crossing to Holy Island. This is The Journey of Project Pilgrimage, Episode Five.
Day five of our journey began with yet more bad news. Our night spent clean, well fed and in the most comfortable beds I have ever experienced had done our timetabling as much harm as it had done our bodies good. Though rejuvenated and refreshed, we had overslept and were now majorly off schedule. Cheating through the wonder of modern technology, we deduced that we would never have enough time to make it to Lindisfarne that day before the island was cut off completely from the coast by the tide. Our first instinct was to add an extra day to our trip, which we agreed most pilgrims would do under these circumstances. We were forced to quickly rule this out, however: the difficulty we had encountered previously in arranging accommodation on an ‘ad hoc’ basis left us doubting if we would be able to find anywhere at such short notice. We also realised that, thanks to restraints which are perhaps more prevalent in modern life than they would have been in the Middle Ages, we both had prior commitments to keep the next day, and so extending our journey would be catastrophic for other elements of our lives back home. We decided that, once again, a modern conundrum required a modern solution if we were to reach Lindisfarne that day. We parted from our hosts rather glumly – it had been a pleasure to get to know them, and they had hosted us as if we were their own children, which had left a profound impact on me.
Time was ticking, however, and soon we were scrambling down the hill towards town in the hope of catching the next bus. In a moment of such desperation, the various injuries we still carried could not hold us back, as our equal measures of worry and adrenaline forced us to break into as close to running as we could manage. At the nadir bottom of the hill, we suddenly realised that we had no idea where the bus stop was. Tearing through the town centre, once again we were saved by the spirit of human kindness – hurtling past the sweetest old lady, she who guessed what we were after and simply pointed across the road where a bus was pulling into view. Thirty seconds later and we were on our bus, bound for the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
The causeway between the mainland and Lindisfarne stretched out as far as we could see, onto the horizon where the hazy brown island itself and the famed priory atop it sat like a giant downed man-o-war, leaning to one exposed side. In front of us, the scummy yellow of the ocean floor lay carpet-like, dotted with pools of seawater and what seemed to be small rivers which whipped themselves up in the wind. Unsure how sensible this idea was, we descended from the mainland and started walking the final stretch of our journey.
The ground beneath our feet was incredibly bouncy and giving, making it easier for me to walk on and much easier for Terry: the pain in his knee was not exacerbated nearly as badly as we had both feared would be the case. It soon became apparent, however, obvious that completing this stage of our journey in shoes would not be possible. The most direct route to the island was broken up by what I had thought earlier to be miniature rivers, but which turned out to simply be gullies in the sand where seawater had become trapped. Some of these were impossible to trace completely, meaning that we had no idea how long it would take us to fund the narrowest point to cross. Amid a few loud protests from Terry and many more unspoken ones from me, we took off our shoes and let our aching feet embrace the ice cold waters of the North Sea.
This chaos of cold waters and girly squealing continued for a long time. The causeway was so uniform that for the third time on this trip I felt like we were walking but not making any sort of progress. Lindisfarne itself was perfectly in sight and seemed to be taunting us with how close it appeared, only for it to recede from our reach. The mixture of sand and sea felt weirdly liminal, as if we were about to walk off the edge of the earth and just disappear down an endless waterfall. Occasional patches of clustered seashells littering the exposed seabed meant that at times we took large detours, until finally we realised that the owners of the shells had long since departed, and so we gingerly walked over them. The entire experience was a wet, cold test of our determination and willpower, forcing us to prove ourselves worthy of reaching the island.
This Purgatory quickly devolved descended into hell, however. What had been cold but ultimately clean sand gave way to black tar-like filth, the product of the causeway’s grassy fenland being swept into the ocean by the tide and winds. A faecal stench covered us, as the muck was caked in the droppings of mice, gulls and the larger excrement of seals. Desperately searching for a way round, we found no choice… but to force ourselves through the mess.
Eventually, mercifully, we made it to the other side, clambering up the bank onto Holy Island. The entire stretch of three miles had taken us 4 hours, slowed down as we were by the inhospitable nature of the terrain. We cleaned the black muck our feet off as best we could with some of our drinking water and some grass, before limping off through the island in search of Lindisfarne Priory.
Once again, we were charged an arm and a leg for entry, but making our way through the main gates queues of tourists and screaming children we came, at long last, to our final destination. The world-famous priory of Lindisfarne Holy Island.
Or, what was left of it. At the risk of sounding a bit stupid, I had rather naively been imagining slightly more to greet us than what we saw before us. A few modestly sized red stone towers, gates and arches tottered not nearly as grandly as the equivalent at Melrose, and all the rest of the foundations seemed to have been utterly flattened. Mostly we had paid entry to what seemed like an empty garden, filled with a few bits and pieces. Whereas at Melrose we had seen the bones of a colossus, here felt more like the skeleton of a decrepit old man, bent and broken by time beyond all recognition. Aghast, Terry and I circled the perimeter of the remains, shoulder to shoulder, together in our sense of achievement but alone in our grief.
Thank you very much for joining me on our journey. If you’ve enjoyed this series of podcasts, and I do hope that you have, I would like to recommend to you the other podcasts on this website, which deal with pilgrimage in a less chronological and more thematic way. So if you’re interested in the history of pilgrimage, or the people we met, or the physical and spiritual effects of our journey, please do be sure to check those out.
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