Before I leave Iceland, I am entrusted with a very important message for the Holy Islanders, pressed on me by my landlady. Tell them we are VERY sorry, yes, so sorry!
Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, is a small, low slip of land barely 8 miles across off the north-east coast of England. A sacred place – an evangelical base -a monastery was founded there in the early 600s and churches proliferate to this day. It is the birthplace of the Lindisfarne Gospels, those intricately illuminated pages that leap from the dark ages and cast doubt on their era’s name. Lindisfarne was ransacked by the Vikings in 793, which Wikipedia helpfully tells me defines the very start of the Viking era: and Magnea tells me they are very sorry about it.
I arrived on Holy Island on Sunday evening after a very indirect journey from Reykjavik starting at 4am on Saturday morning. I flew to via Gatwick airport, got the train to West Croydon (where the spirits of England’s Christian past mistake me for a raider and try to deter me with a biblical deluge just as I get off the train and hunt for the car containing my friends). We drove to Norfolk for the most magical party held by my dear accomplice Phoebe’s family in their garden of Eden in the countryside. It was a whirlwind of people very dear to me and it was extremely special to be there, a pilgrimage of sorts, to celebrate the Beatles and love and family and friends.
My pilgrimage continued the next day, with a hangover that became a brewing cold, the kind I always get when I work without much rest for weeks and then stop and relax. End of term-itis. I got a lift to the station, took a train to Peterborough then changed to a train heading to Edinburgh. I hopped off at Berwick-upon-Tweed, hazy and sleep deprived, lulled by the old familiar English landscape. My parents were there to meet me with the dog, who was bemused but quite pleased to see me. We drove in the gloaming to the sea and then seemingly over it, down a narrow causeway that opens and closes with the tide. Dunes rose in the darkness. I was excited to see the landscape the next morning. We arrived at a little terraced cottage, home for the week, and I slept with night as dark as it should be for the first time in months.
What follows are mostly notes I made on the plane home, fresh in my mind.
Lindisfarne is in between, sometimes open, sometimes closed to visitors, coastal, on the edge. Liminal. Rhythms of tide dictate life. Seals wailing at sunset. Crowds flooding in then out via the causeway. The island quietens when the tide is up, sighs, relaxes. It takes a deep breath and bustles with visitors when the tide reveals the road.
Wildflowers everywhere forming natural patterns, varying heights of vetch, clover, meadowgrass making a tapestry, moving in the wind. Strength in diversity. But not a complete natural paradise especially if you are a furry little dog: the pirri-pirri burr, an invasive species (or very successful plant), clinging to poor Daphne’s fur on our dune walk. Luckily there were swathes of soothing seaweed to roll in.
Slowing down, switching off social media, finding a presence and simplification in dealing with here and now.
Birds flitting everywhere, lining stone walls already draped in lichen and studded with ferns, living, breathing, wing-beating stone.
We ate mackerel at the Ship Inn, smoked kipper cakes at Craster. Full flavours linked to place. Heather honey ice cream in the car in the rain. Dark chocolate ginger slice for breakfast on the last day. Cheese and ice cream from Doddington’s Dairy in their little milk bar off the road. Coffee at Pilgrim’s coffee house where unbelievably the tell tale now familiar smell of roasting coffee emanates from a yurt in their garden.
We ate also home cooked plant based delights, masala and millet, pasta puttanesca, lentil curry.
We were on the island in the first place because my mum was volunteering on an archaeological dig in search of the original monastery, decided to make a holiday of it and invited me to join them. Dad, the dog and I walked the dunes while Mum was scraping down the trench, finds-washing white quartz pebbles, grave offerings from very long ago.
Back on the mainland, back even further in time, far further, we traced the curves of carved cup and ring marks, softly gouged labyrinths scattering a huge, possibly erratic boulder. Was it a map? Neolithic way-finding. There is wonder that sites like these exist without fanfare, obscured by bracken off a non-descript road. Mysteries yet to be found by the hordes.
Sniffling and morose at the airport on my return I wondered: Can I learn to swallow the sadness of leaving? To go through the tunnel, as the theory goes, feeling all the feelings until I reach the light again. The lump in my throat and the tears pricking my eyes are evidence of how good the time I had was, which is reason to be grateful.
Grateful for the time spent with family and friends, in quiet and in party time, for the time spent in nature, for the time spent reading and learning and imagining. Grateful for the one waiting for me at home in Iceland. Perhaps to focus on these means I will keep moving through the sadness without denying it’s there. Shifting attention to what I want to feel and remember. So I think back and list more:
Upturned boat hulls becoming roofs, ropes curling through daisies, buoys and lobster pots and crates and a wetsuit down to the hoots folded limply, with care. Castle bristling with scaffolding, feather light needles of it extending far beyond the stony nucleus. A walled garden full of blooms in the middle of grass, sweet peas tied in strongly against the sea breeze.
How the tide crept out so suddenly leaving loops of seaweed marking the shallows.
Scanning for seal heads dotting up and down and settling in sandbanks to coo at the setting sun.
The paths around the Heugh and the view from the top.
Beautiful in between land. So many good memories. Thanks Mum and Dad!