Retracing the steps of St Cuthbert's final journey
PUBLISHED: 00:44 17 June 2013
To herald the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North East, two men have retraced St Cuthbert's final journey, as Helen Johnson reports
Events are being held across the North East to celebrate the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels this summer. And two men have already marked the occasion by retracing the journey of the Community of St Cuthbert.
Writer Richard W Hardwick and photographer Paul Alexander Knox published a blog as they went, and plan to follow that with a book and an exhibition of their work, with the aim of turning the route into a national trail that people can walk, cycle and drive.
The story began when Bishop Cuthbert of Lindisfarne died in 687AD. He rapidly achieved sainthood, and while pilgrims flocked to his graveside, Bishop Eadfrith honoured Cuthbert by producing the Lindisfarne Gospels.
The gospels were lavishly embellished and housed in a jewelled cover. But Eadfrith’s labour of love very nearly didn’t survive. In 875, following Viking raids, the monks fled, taking their beloved saint with them. Richard said: ‘Inside the coffin, they had the Lindisfarne Gospels, with other treasures and relics.
‘When their journey started, the Vikings had control of most of the country King Alfred was hiding in the marshes down south.’
But Alfred was King of Wessex, and Northumbria was the Kingdom North of the Humber. So in following St Cuthbert, Richard and Paul ventured into what are now Scotland, Cumbria and Yorkshire, as well as the North East, stronghold of the Earls of Bamborough, once Kings of Northumbria.
Cuthbert was an icon of Christianity, and as the Vikings were pagans, religion and politics were intertwined. So, Richard added: ‘St Cuthbert’s body would have had an uplifting and reassuring presence on the people they visited.
‘Our route is based on a list made in the 14th or 15th century by Prior Wessington at Durham. He suggested that these places had churches of St Cuthbert because the body of St Cuthbert had rested there.’
Cuthbert’s progress took seven years, but with only two weeks for their journey, Richard and Paul used a campervan, sleeping along the way. Richard said: ‘I’ve been to Lindisfarne plenty of times, but this time, we stayed at the causeway, with nobody else there. There was nothing but ploughed fields, grassy marsh, miles of sand – which filled up with the sea – stretches of dunes, and massively open sky. It was absolutely peaceful.’
It was this other-worldliness that originally attracted the monks and Richard and Paul have been impressed by other landscapes on their journey.
Paul said: ‘I was struck by how beautiful the north is. I’ve travelled all over the world, and I was shocked that I’d see a sign that said 30 miles to Newcastle, but I was in this beautiful countryside that I hadn’t explored.
‘In the same manner that the monks would have met different people along the route, so did we – we met some canny folk. I can’t photograph the ninth century, so my aim was to document the people and places we encountered. We met people from all different walks of life. Strangely, we often had more interesting conversations in quieter places – places that were two hours’ walk from the road.’
Richard added: ‘These communities would have been refuges for St Cuthbert and helped preserve the Lindisfarne Gospels. Without them, the Gospels wouldn’t have survived.’
‘St Cuthbert’s community helped Guthred to become leader of Northumbria, and in return, Guthred gave them the Roman Fort at Chester-le-Street where St Cuthbert rested until he was removed to Durham in 995.
‘They’re a vital part of English history. Without St Cuthbert, they wouldn’t have helped Guthred, and Guthred opened negotiations with King Alfred.
‘I think Cuthbert, once a hugely powerful saint of the north, and now forgotten in many places, is still an example to us because of austerity in times of greed, and of humbleness when faced with others and their difficulties. He was able to unite two competing factions, the Celtic and the Roman Church, after the Synod of Whitby. He lost, but unlike some others, he didn’t storm off.
‘And he loved nature. He understood that to be able to help others, it was important to have time alone as well.’
Cuthbert spent ten years as a hermit and it is this relationship with the landscape of the North East that has left the most lasting impression on Paul and Richard. Paul said: ‘I grew up in Sunderland, travelled the world and chose to come back. It’s great to explore the beauty and history of places that are on my doorstep.’
Where to see more
Read the blog of Richard and Paul’s journey at www.stcuthbertsfinaljourney.com, and see more of Paul’s photographs at www.paulalexanderknox.com.
Their work will be exhibited at the The Festival of the North East and as part of the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, see www.festivalne.com, and www.lindisfarnegospels.com/lindisfarne-gospels-durham-exhibition.