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Carry on, Cuthbert

By Paul Knowles

Dead or alive, St. Cuthbert was known for his travels. Visitors to North-East England will find great adventure in following in his footsteps... or the trail of his casket. (Photo: Lindisfarne Priory, on Cuthbert's "Holy Island")


Once upon a time -- in the seventh century AD, to be precise -- there was a holy man who just wanted to be left alone on one of the remote Farne Islands off England's North Sea coast, to pray and contemplate and do . . . well, whatever it is that hermits do. His name was Cuthbert.
But Cuthbert was seldom left in peace. He was ordained bishop, admired as a leader, and in his life, travelled much of northern England. After his death on March 20, 687 AD, his travels continued, as the faithful reopened his grave on Lindisfarne --­ "The Holy Island" -- and carried him off, seeking refuge from the marauding Danes.
Almost from the moment of his death. Cuthbert's tomb on Lindisfarne was the site of reported miracles. And as the story goes -- recorded by The Venerable Bede -- when Cuthbert's grave was re-opened, 11 years after his death, his body was not corrupted: "Opening the tomb, [they] found his body entire, as if he were still alive, and his joints were still flexible, as if he were not dead, but sleeping. His clothes, also, were still undecayed, and seemed to retain their original freshness and colour. When the brethren saw this, they were so astonished, that they could scarcely speak."
In 875, the monks of Lindisfarne carried St. Cuthbert away, to save his body from the Danes. These travels around northern England with a carry-on coffin continued until 883, when Cuthbert was placed in a church at Chester-le-Street, and then was moved to Durham.
Two centuries later, Cuthbert had a bit of a holiday, moving back to Lindisfarne for some years during that unpleasantness with William the Conqueror, but after William had well and truly conquered, the saint returned to be enshrined in the eastern end of Durham Cathedral in 1104 (Bede is buried at the other end).
Cuthbert's final resting place is just one of many fascinating "Cuthbert" sites in northeast England that make a great itinerary for a traveller today.
This need not be a spiritual pilgrimage; the sites are interesting on every level-- from the historical to the purely entertaining. Let's start at Cuthbert's final resting place, Durham, and travel north through Durham and Northumberland to complete the journey in Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands. Our trip hits Cuthbert highlights; there are dozens more natural, cultural and historic sites well worth your attention in the north-east of England.
Durham -- called Durham City by the locals, to distinguish from the surrounding County Durham -- is a beautiful, small English city, home to Durham Cathedral, once voted Britain's favourite building in a BBC survey. More than 51% of voters chose the Norman Cathedral.
The Cathedral is the heart of the city, built over 40 years in the eleventh century, with 60,000 tonnes of stone. It faces Durham Castle, now one of the Colleges of the thriving Durham University, the third largest university in the U.K. The Cathedral, with its strong but ornate columns, is everything one might expect in a cathedral.
Cuthbert's grave, in the east end, was once astonishingly ornate, but the riches of the shrine were stripped by Henry VIII. However, Cuthbert's grave remains, simple yet striking in that very simplicity.
Durham Cathedral also includes some sites of more current cultural interest -- although the Cathedral authorities are loathe to discuss it, bits of the Cathedral were sets for several scenes in the first Harry Potter movie.
County Durham was the Land of the Prince Bishops. Hard evidence of the lives of these overlords of church and state exist today to delight tourists, from the Cathedral itself to sites such as Raby Castle, which includes a Baron's Hall, once occupied by 700 plotting knights-- not unlike Canada's federal Liberal party.
The entire north east includes large areas of natural beauty. Visitors adore the Durham Dales, with beautiful rivers, rolling hills, and the occasional friendly pub. And speaking of pubs, inside information suggests that two very fine pubs in Durham City are The Dun Cow, and the Victoria.
Not surprisingly, Cuthbert is the patron saint of several Northumberland towns and cities, including Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne. There is an interesting stained glass window of the saint in Newcastle Cathedral. The Cathedral, say the locals, is the second most important religious site here, albeit a distant second, after the soccer stadium that is home to the Newcastle United Football Club.
I confess: the chance to visit the northern industrial city of Newcastle Upon Tyne was not one I embraced with great enthusiasm. I was wrong. Recent waterfront and downtown revitalization projects have made this city one of the most beautiful and interesting in the country. The harbour on the River Tyne is becoming an important cultural centre, home to the new Baltic Centre for the Arts, a new music centre, many upscale hotels and condominiums, and the intriguing new Gateshead Millennium Bridge, named for the community on the opposite bank of the Tyne.
Downtown, too, is an intriguing and vital mixture of old and new, with a hip restaurant located in the ancient Blackfriars monastery, excellent art galleries, covered markets, theatres, museums and shops, shops, shops. And did I mention the most important religious site, home of the Newcastle Football Club? On game days, the singing and the cheers of the fans sweeps through the streets like an audible tidal wave.
Unless you are very, very hip and very, very up to date, everything you believe about Newcastle is wrong, and you should follow Saint Cuthbert's example and visit this amazing city.
And just outside Newcastle is a new religious symbol, "The Angel of the North", a huge, astonishing sculpture that soars above the countryside, declaring the revitalization of Cuthbert country to all who see it.
In Cuthbert's travels -- dead and/or alive -- he would have crossed a historic relic, old even in his time: Hadrian's Wall, which crosses the north of England, through Northumberland and Cumbria. And although the Wall has nothing specific to do with the Cuthbert legend, it would be wrong to be in this area and not see one of the most striking examples of historic architecture anywhere in the world.
Hadrian's Wall, built under the orders of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, marked a northern boundary of the Roman Empire. There are many sites associated with the Wall; outstanding among them are Chesters Roman Fort, operated by English Heritage; Vindolanda, a private foundation where archaeological excavations are ongoing, and where astonishing finds have been made, including, recently, an early Christian church, pre-dating Cuthbert by several centuries; or Housesteads, one of the best sites with fortifications, the the wall itself running atop the dramatic hills.
Cuthbert spent much of his later life in a retreat on one of the Farne Islands ­-- Inner Farne, still home to the tiny Chapel of St. Cuthbert -- which you can reach only by boat, from the coastal village of Seahouses. The Farne Islands voyage is worth the trip, not only for the Cuthbert connection, but because the Farne Islands are home to thousands of sea birds, including puffins.
And then there is Lindisfarne. The Holy Island is truly an island only at high tide. Visitors can drive across a causeway at low tide. But the tides are strong and sure -- the day before my most recent visit, two cars were caught in the tide, and while the travellers were able to wade to the mainland, the cars were ruined. The Lindisfarne Islanders have trouble keeping a chuckle out of their voices as they tell such stories. Of course, they need their defences against the onslaught -- 200 people live on Lindisfarne; 200,000 visit each year.
Lindisfarne may be a small village, but it is more than normally blessed with intriguing sites. There are the ruins of Lindisfarne Abbey, home to St. Cuthbert and St. Aidan and the site where monks produced the spectacularly beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels, written and illuminated in the eighth century, not long after Cuthbert's death.
That very important book is now housed in the British Library in London, but thenew Lindisfarne Heritage Centre has the next best cyber-thing: a computer program that allows you to see samples of the Gospels, and to turn the page by running a finger along the screen.
Also on the Holy Island is Lindisfarne Castle, notable less for its 16th century origins than for its renovations by Edwin Lutyens in 1902. It is always amazing to visit a "homey" little castle, carefully redesigned with comfort and convenience in mind -- but unalterably a fortification. One whimsical addition to the castle is a walled garden, quite distant from the castle itself, but designed to be viewed from the fortified parlour. The garden was designed by Lutyens' dear friend, the famous Gertrude Jekyll. It is open to visitors -- those who are prepared to climb the steps to the castle, high on the rock, borrow the key to the garden gate, descend the steps and rocky paths and cross the bog, visit the garden, and then retrace that path to return the key. You just gotta love the British.
Locals insist, with some justification, that the only way to properly visit Lindisfarne is to check the tide tables, come across when it is thoroughly safe, and then stay through to the next low tide. Better still, stay overnight at a bed and breakfast, enjoy the island at a leisurely pace, visit the sites and the two interpretive centres, and take time for some bird watching. You will relax -- you will have no choice.
You may even have the chance to spend some time with St. Cuthbert -- or at least, his statue, a modern representation in the grounds of the abbey. He is pictured with one of his symbolic animals, an eider duck, still be to seen on Lindisfarne. They are also known as Cuthbert Ducks or, to use his local nickname, Cuddy Ducks. The duck is nicely portrayed in the carving, but as for the likeness of Cuthbert -- well, you may conclude that, if the saint really looked like that, maybe he wasn't wrong to seek utter solitude, after all.
For further information on Britain, see