On the map the causeway out to Holy Island is like an unspooled line of tracery from one of the Gospel pages produced there. Once the car joins it, the undulations of the journey to that point disappear and the line of the road becomes one of the horizontals all around.
In the middle distance are the dunes of the island, and closer at hand the rickety-looking refuge hut for those who’ve lost the gamble on the tide. Everything else had the colours of the sky – pale blue, pale grey – underlain by mid-darkness. We pulled over while other cars sailed past, and got out into the hard wind.
Such landscapes make my eyes work hard. I’m looking for something to fix the location, to delimit what makes the sight beautiful. I could decide that it’s the sudden rise of hills on the mainland from the silty levels of the tidal zone, the change in the encircling scene – green, sky mixture, green again. I could choose the barely visible movement of birds, which deepens the intricacy of the view – an incipit carpet page to the island. I think, though, that the indefinability of the view is what keeps me looking: there are no clear lines to be drawn, though I try to draw them. There is no clear end to the place despite the horizon line. Like the sand in “Ozymandias”, the level mudflats seem to stretch on beyond the earth’s curve.
We looked and looked, and breathed clear air. Then we ducked back into the car and made our way onto the island proper.
History and wildlife are the substrates of my interest in Lindisfarne, but my eagerness to go was sharpened by two modern responses to the Gospels manuscript that bears the island’s name. One is a tiny book that would be easily lost inside the 8th-century vellum of the source. This is Good News from a Small Island by Andrew Waterhouse. The other is a CD (perhaps not that modern any more) a good friend bought me, knowing I would love it: In St Cuthbert’s Time by Chris Watson. Both are carefully wrought, like the Gospels themselves, but also dwell on the first book’s underlying culture – the monks’ hard, simple lives on the island before the first Viking assault in 793.
I can’t do either work justice here. The pamphlet is funny as well as moving, and explores a parallel making between that of the “Book” and the poet’s engagement with wit, exemplified in “The Illustrated Calf”, in which the calfskin pages return to life, wearing the Gospels’ jewelled binding “like a saddle or stunted wings”. I try to avoid reading the poems through the prism of Waterhouse’s early death, but there is a sense of something being reached for and not quite grasped – a bit like that created for me by the view from the causeway. This was one of my favourite poem sequences before I went to the island – and is more so now.
The CD is an attempt at recreating the sound world of the monks in the seventh and eighth centuries – within the limits imposed by 1300 years’ distance. Watson says that the call of the great auk could not be included because it has since been hunted to extinction. He needed digital layering to build up the sound of birds from those audible now in order to represent past population levels.
In the soundscapes the sea is always close. The birds change with the seasons, but their voices fill and immense space between the washing of the tide and the ringing of the monks’ handbell to call them in to their daily hours.
Both works are excellent, but both set me up for a Lindisfarne that does not exist. Or perhaps it does. Going onto the island and into the massive car park was a let-down on a par with arriving at the Avebury car park. When I mentioned later to a colleague that I’d been to Holy Island, he said “I bet it was rammed on a sunny day”. He seemed quite sceptical when I said it was, and yet it wasn’t. As at Avebury, it depends on where you go.
We’d booked a hotel but couldn’t yet check in, so we drifted with the crowds down into the village. This upset my (silly) sense of the ideal of the place, despite the presence of a birds of prey display from a local refuge. I wouldn’t argue that everyone who goes to Lindisfarne should proceed in reverent silence, but it was a relief to get out past the castle and feel the crowds dissipate as we approached the shore.
We were still in the south of the island, where lime kilns recalled an industrial past, and the castle the military aspect of this shoulder of England. Knowing the history, I should not have been put off by the crowds. The monks came for isolation, it’s true, but the royal fortress of Bamburgh is visible over the water, and Yeavering, Northumbria’s Beowulfian palace was a day’s ride away. The “world” was always close by.
Except – St Cuthbert had retreated to the island now named after him, and then to Inner Farne (a long boat ride out towards the sky), and Eadfrith, scribe of the Gospels, had found enough peace on Lindisfarne itself to work the Gospels up into a knotwork close to perfect:
unsmiling he leaves one wing
without feathers, that interlace unreddened,
those few letters empty; in order to remain imperfect,
in order once more to please his God.
“Making the Book”, Andrew Waterhouse
This was the island I was looking for.
The paths beyond the castle first led to a shingle bank, I presume an artificial barrier meant to keep storm surges at bay. Along the top stood rows of cairns, some single towers of flat stones, others like the way-finding mounds constructed on moorland paths. They rose like strange life forms, pale and enigmatic against the horizontal backdrop of the near-black sea. I wondered if the urge to build one (I joined in myself, stacking four or five smooth rocks) was a reaction to the flatness out ahead. Perhaps the cairns are semi-permanent markers of human presence in the vertical plane – a primal urge to say “I woz ‘ere”. Whatever its source it made an eerie landscape that felt ancient but which was rebuilt by the day.
As we headed north along the shore we found ourselves almost alone. We passed a group of sleeping eider in an inlet – St Cuthbert’s, “Cuddy’s” ducks, whose calls always remind me of Frankie Howerd’s “Ooh!” Sklylarks rushed up into the air ahead, and the sea’s volume seemed to increase, underwriting every sound, even the hurtling of the wind.
The dunes run along Holy Island’s north shore. They have a coat of mar ram grass, except where lacework of paths expose the yellow sand. Dune habitats are unstable, in the face of weather and erosion from walkers’ feet, but are clung to by species that do not live elsewhere. I’m no expert, but in among the mar ram we encountered yellow, purple, white flowers, some almost as small as the dust-like flies in the air. There were also fungi sprouting from driftwood, in a range of shapes and brownish shades.
Dunes, like all habitats, are subject to succession as the sand stabilises under the roots of plants, and the species they support change. Lindisfarne’s dunes seemed on the verge of becoming settled, except where the paths cut great channels through the loose grains. We wandered for a while, out of sight of the sea or the landmarks to the south. Despite the well-worn paths the place was deserted and no sound from any distance reached us. It was a walking from which time was draining, a borderless landscape of truncated views under a cap of clouds.
Then we climbed a small rise and found the sea. Its sound and movement, even at a distance, clearly marked our entry into another kind of place. Down the slipping sand and onto the soft, level surface of the tidal zone. Our prints were the only ones on the dark bands of the beach. Like mirages great pools of water stretched between us and the surf. Shells glistened. We heard snatched calls of gulls. At the sea’s edge, many steps away from the path into the dunes, the curve of the bay completed the circle of the horizon. There seemed nothing else, only sea and shore. The wavetops scattered light and moved on, but the last dregs of time had gone from the day, and the shift and interplay felt endless, startless, simply here.
I imagined my self blowing like rage across the beach’s curve – dream of oblivion before a greater power:
and the cantor’s arms
with the weight
and the torches flare
with a breeze
that turns the pages
spilling and shining
in the last
of the light
“Our Saint’s Day”, Andrew Waterhouse
It’s never quite like that. We had to check into our hotel, so we picked our way back across the dunes, down a path between fields. We went among the sparrows, which chirped and bustled in the trees, along the hedges and in the eaves of houses on the outskirts of the village. Their feathers fluffed up in the wind, and we saw one sitting above a street turning its head and cheeping in different directions as though testing the acoustics for a grand recitation. Sparrows replaced the people – the tide had come in and covered the causeway at 2pm so almost everyone else had left. Now the roads were quiet and all the cafes closed.
We took two more walks outside time. On one, we walked the causeway where the tide had left its uneven line on the tarmac, and fell in step and breath while the mud flats stretched beside us. Then we cut across the dunes again and found another beach as empty as the first, except for a sandcastle just at the tide’s furthest reach – one unstable human mark on a landscape that seemed barely touched otherwise. The other was after dark, behind the castle and as far as the line of cairns. Everything was smell and sound until we reached the sea. There, lights came out of blackness on the mainland coast. On the way back a bird set up an eldritch screeching and seemed to be edging closer and closer to our unsighted shoulders.
“If you weren’t,” said my wife, “of a rational mind, that might be quite horrible.”
Also half-seriously, I thought of this:
“Even as we looked a high whickering cry, the call of some weird animal, rang clear out of the darkness. It was the very voice of Maple White Land bidding us good-bye.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World