Thursday, December 24, 2009

Northumberland Trip

In my capacity as a student, I am (supposedly) working on a writing project dealing with ruins (namely, ruined houses, churches, salt distilleries and ruined poems). This project will help to fulfill the requirements of our (mostly superfluous) "Research Seminar," which the university administration has decided is essential to our soul or some such thing. Thankfully, said administration leaves us pretty well alone otherwise and doesn't stipulate what specifically must be included in a "research" project. Thus, I am writing poems about ruins and "researching" ruins by taking trips to see ruins. Hurray!

Last week Thomas More and I journeyed to a foreign country! (namely, England), to look at 1. the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, 2. Hadrian's Wall, and 3. Iron Age hill forts--ruins all. Hadrian's Wall didn't happen, due to coldness of weather and laziness of student/husband, but much other joy happened to make up for it. Here follows a brief photo account with commentary.

We rose in the morning here in Fife, greeted by a thick blanket of fog which covered the whole county and all of Edinburgh. When we finally got past the city we drove out of the fog--like driving out of a dark house--into a perfectly clear world, the sun piercing (if thin), the fields diamonds in frost. Gorgeous light! (Note: this incident may seem of small importance to you who dwell in more southerly climes. But for those of us who live in the Northern Wastes where the day hardly happens in the Depth of Midwinter, where the sun is either just rising or just setting, dawn and twilight blending, and any clouds or mist blocking the tiny white coin as it narrowly clears the this kind of world, sunlight is a major event, and clearing the fog a Triumph.)

After entering ENGLAND we went immediately to Alnwick, where the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland have their Great Big Castle and where (more importantly) there resides one of the BEST BOOKSTORES IN ALL MERRY ENGLAND: the famous Barter Books.

After wandering blissfully amongst the books we drove off to our romantic holiday cottage in a nearby hamlet. (The cottage is owned by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland.)

The next morning we rose freezing with the frosty dawn (which isn't really that early) and drove to Lindisfarne to catch the tide.

Lindisfarne, for those of you who don't know, is a tidal island which is connected to the mainland by a sand bank or causeway which is covered in water at high tide. We crossed the causeway in fog (very spooky!) just before the waters returned--trapped now on the Holy Isle until 2 pm. Little did we know that EVERYTHING on the island was closed (because what fool comes to tiny Lindisfarne in the middle of winter??). Fools indeed to come to this place in subzero temperatures--on the coldest day I have experienced in Britain. And not a shop open. Alas, no espresso.

We wandered around the ruins of the Norman era abbey (in ruins) and looked in the old parish church (with Saxon stonework), and then walked out to the Elizabethan fort on its dramatic crag rising from the sea:

Lindisfarne has a very old and venerable tradition of holy Christian communities dating back to 635 when St. Aidan went there to found a monastery at King Oswald's request. Later St Cuthbert, an ascetic hermit and (unwilling) bishop, made the island famous (see the Venerable Bede). The Lindisfarne Gospels were made in honor of Cuthbert and contain some of the most sublime examples of English art. Here are two pages from the gospels (though it's impossible to see the detail and artistry in these tiny clips):

Going to Lindisfarne was a strange experience. I was expecting to feel all sorts of emotions and have brilliant insight into the lives of holy medieval saints (and speakers of Old English!), but mainly I just felt cold.

But--I suppose this is how St Cuthbert felt in November in the 7th century--freaking freezing! in the winter with no heating and no food (he was famous for eating onions). So...I guess...insight gained.

The next day we went in search for Iron Age hill forts! But as we drove we started seeing these tantalizing signs which announced the presence of WILD CATTLE just off our path. And who could resist Wild Cattle? So we went in search and ended up in a vacant little town with a thirteenth century church, no humans, no cattle, and a castle, mysterious and dark, just visible through the forest:

Though we didn't see any wild cows, we did get to meet the Warden of Cattle:

Intrigued by the castle hulking through the trees, we set off through the enchanted wood to investigate...and we found this:
After gaping a bit we noticed a man approaching from behind one of the 3-feet-thick rampart-wall things. He spoke to us kindly and asked if we knew we were trespassing (No...) and did we know that Sir Humphrey Wakefield and the Duchess of Northumbria were staying in the castle and could we please bugger off and all that... (Yes we could!). The man (who was the estate manager) soon realized that we were harmless and ignorant Yanks with a cute dog (hurray for the cute dog!) and asked if we would like to see the Italian Garden (yes!) if we promised not to go around the the Front of the house (so as not to sully the view for the Duchess). He took out a huge iron key and unlocked a huge oak door in a huge stone wall and we wandered forth into the very bare but very grand and Exclusive-looking formal garden:

Then we left.

After Not Finding Wild Cattle, we journeyed on to find the Iron Age hill fort. This was the best part:

We didn't exactly find the ruins...which are so much in ruins as to be invisible to all except areal photographers, but we looked out at the Iron Age view and admired their taste:

After this we went home, lit a fire in the stove, ate Northumbrian lamb and dozed in perfect bliss. The next morning we headed back to the Kingdom of Fife. And thus ends my post on Northumberland!

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