Main house at Hethpool (photo by Fern Smith)
A couple of weeks ago I was preparing for our summer trip to the US when I got an email from an old NYC friend saying, “I’m writing to invite you to spend a few days with me in the north of England this summer.”
How could I pass up an invitation like that? So I soon I found myself in Northumberland, immersed in the successive waves of early medieval history amidst the bleating of sheep.
Top: The Scottish border is a sheep fence overlooked on either side by prehistoric hill forts. Bottom: Atop another hill fort, Yeavering Bell, looking down on the site of one of the seats of the Saxon kings of Northumbria, Ad Gevrin (lighter field in foreground).
My friend Amy had been to Northumberland before, so it was she to introduced me to such personages as the Saxon king Edwin, his queen Aethelburga, the Roman missionary Paulinus, St. Aidan, and St. Cuthbert. We hiked along St. Cuthbert’s way to the Scottish border one day, and the next we climbed Yeavering Bell, one of the myriad Cheviot Hills topped by ancient hill forts. Down below Yeavering Bell one can see the field where Ad Gefrin, the local residence of King Edwin, once stood. There Paulinus baptized the local residents in the adjacent River Glen. These stories come to us from The Venerable Bede, who lived at the nearby Jarrow monastery.
Lindisfarne: (Top) The Norman priory’s only remaining cross rib vault. (Middle) A relatively modern grave marker modeled after a traditional Celtic market cross. (Bottom) The ruins of the Norman priory as seen from above at the Heugh.
On another day we walked at low tide to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, where the Celtic St. Aidan, on land granted by the Saxon king Oswald, founded a monastery. Riding on the popularity of Aidan’s successor St. Cuthbert, the monks (or their bishop, Eadfirth) produced the splendid Lindisfarne Gospels, now housed in the British Library in London. Not long after the manuscript was finished, however, the Saxon monastery was attacked by Vikings (several times), causing the surviving monks to move St. Cuthbert’s relics to Durham.
The next centuries brought more invasions, and a successive Norman priory based on the new gothic Cathedral at Durham, on the site of the original Saxon church. This monastery, too, flourished for a time until the Scottish border wars reduced its viability. Eventually Henry VIII suppressed it and it fell into ruin. Its most recent pilgrims have been the Romantics, such as the painter William Turner, and modern tourists.
As Amy and I hiked stretches of St. Cuthbert’s Way and walked across the mud flats from Lindisfarne, we were each making a sort of personal pilgrimage. For one thing, we were renewing a friendship that had been interrupted by distance and difficulties in both our cases. We shared our spiritual journeys, at least partly by attending each other’s Sunday services, which turned out to be remarkably similar.
And lastly, we shared our (for me newfound) delight in the country life of the English/Scottish borderlands–a life of bare windswept hills and spritzing rains, in which stone houses face away from tiny lanes and towards wild-ish gardens; a sporting culture of walkers, riders, dogs and sheep (and more sheep); and naturally, huge breakfasts and an occasional summer fire with evening tea.
And finally, despite being almost 100% British in ancestry and having forebears from Northumberland, this was my first ever trip to the UK. As I surveyed the parishioners with their raincoats, wooly hair and apple-rose cheeks during the local Anglican service at St. Gregory’s, I decided that they were taller and blonder than myself. But as I admired their needlepoint kneelers with Saxon-inspired designs, and chatted with them over coffee afterwards (instant, but their hospitality earned them a likewise instant indulgence), and listened to them recount the long history of their church, I decided we were kindred spirits nonetheless.
(Top) The exterior of St. Gregory’s church: with its traditional churchyard. (Middle) The long presbytery at St. Gregory’s, which I discovered was typical of English churches in the late 13th C. (Bottom) A bas relief of the Three Magi, in kilts!