The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Monday, May 18th, 2020. Today we arrive at the principal destination of our pilgrimage. It is an island off the Northumbrian coast, connected to the mainland by a causeway that is passable twice a day at low tide. There are frequent tales of motorists taking a chance of getting across at the last possible moment, forgetting that the water comes in very fast. There are refuges built up on stilts at intervals, where the unlucky drivers can sit out the next four hours contemplating the fact that, though they will get back to their car when the tide goes out, their car won’t be going anywhere quickly.

The reason for our overnight stay in Bamburgh was to allow us to make the crossing well before the latest time of 11.25 a.m. You can always check the crossing times on the Holy Island crossing times website.

Holy Island gets lots of visitors in the tourist season. It is at its loveliest during high tide, when many of them have hurried back to the mainland, leaving a quieter place for those who are lucky enough to be staying. We are staying at The Open Gate, the main house of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, who run retreats and conferences there, and provide accommodation for visitors at other times. When we’ve checked in, found our rooms and taken up our suitcases, we head off for a walk to the north shore.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is shaped like an axe, and legend has it that when there was war in heaven (Revelation 12.7) and Michael and his angels fought against the dragon – that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan – and the devil’s battle-axe was struck from his hands and fell into the North Sea, forming this holy island as a constant reminder that the evil one is defeated.

It is one of those sacred places that draw down the presence of God: ‘thin places’ they are called, like Iona, Skellig Michael, and Bardsey Island. Here St Aidan founded Lindisfarne Priory. And here, on June 6th 793, one of the first Viking raids on England took place. The raiders were astonished by the monasteries they found scattered along the coast in sparsely populated places. Full of wealth and extraordinarily precious works of art, and inhabited by peaceful people who bore no arms and were unable to resist.

Lindisfarne North Shore

Walking on the sand, we reflect on how our 8th century Christian forebears must have thought about these events. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, [a scribal error?] the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.

And St Alcuin wrote: Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.

A new unknown terror was unleashed upon them. Perhaps it seemed to them something like 9/11 has seemed to us, or the numerous terrorist attacks of our times, or the COVID-19 pandemic. For the monks of Lindisfarne, the arrival of the Vikings was not a looming uncertain anxiety about what might happen. It was about certain death: perhaps even more terrifying than the experience of the most seriously ill patients of our own times when they are rushed into hospital, treated by masked and gowned strangers, intubated and sedated and attached to ventilators.

I have wondered often, during these days, about what it is like to face death so immediately, to know that one is dying. And I come back to what I think is one of the most brilliant imaginings of it (for none of us can know) in Christian writing. It’s in C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Chapter 31. The devil Wormwood’s Christian ‘patient’, serving as an air raid warden, has just been killed in a World War Two air raid. The senior devil Screwtape writes in rage, threatening the most terrible retribution and describing the patient’s experience of death, as his eyes are suddenly opened and he sees not only his angel guardians, but also Christ his Lord:

Did you mark how naturally – as if he’d been born for it – the Earth-born vermin entered the new life? How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous? I know what the creature was saying to itself! ‘Yes. Of course. It always was like this. All horrors have followed the same course, getting worse and worse and forcing you into a kind of bottle-neck till, at the very moment when you thought you must be crushed, behold! you were out of the narrows and all was suddenly well. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke. You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?’

As he saw you, he also saw Them. I know how it was. You reeled back dizzy and blinded, more hurt by them than he had ever been by bombs. The degradation of it! – that this thing of earth and slime could stand upright and converse with spirits before whom you, a spirit, could only cower. Perhaps you had hoped that the awe and strangeness of it would dash his joy. But that is the cursed thing; the gods are strange to mortal eyes, and yet they are not strange. He had no faintest conception till that very hour of how they would look, and even doubted their existence. But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not ‘Who are you?’ but ‘So it was you all the time’. All that they were and said at this meeting woke memories. The dim consciousness of friends about him which had haunted his solitudes from infancy was now at last explained; that central music in every pure experience which had always just evaded memory was now at last recovered. Recognition made him free of their company almost before the limbs of his corpse became quiet. Only you were left outside

He saw not only Them; he saw Him. This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him. What is blinding suffocating fire to you is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man.

Further to The North

We wake up on Sunday, May 17th. The Fifth Sunday After Easter, and Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

We’re going to be driving further north today, but first we plan to join the congregation of St Paul’s Jarrow for their Sunday Eucharist. To receive the Sacrament in this place where Bede and all those other Anglo-Saxon and later monks, and congregations of Christians ever since, have received it, gives this time of worship an extra dimension. It is bread and wine, yet shared with the sense of all it has meant and means to all the believers who have gone before us. It colours the words we say, that we join in worship and praise of God “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven”.

After the service we return to the car and leave The Old Rectory behind us. We haven’t given much thought to lunch, and a Google search of ‘Best Sunday roasts along the A1 north of Newcastle’ doesn’t shed much light. So we stop at The Jolly Bowman in Wallsend, which has a carvery. I’m still not sure whether it was the best choice, but it’s done.

Skirting the north-eastern edge of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (and being careful to call it Nyuhcassell, not Nyoocarsell – that’s what you get from marrying a lass who was born in County Durham) we pick up the A1 which we follow as far as the B1341, where we turn off for the final stretch to Bamburgh. We are booked for one night only at the Sunningdale Hotel, so after checking in and finding our room, we set off for a short walk around Bamburgh.

On this virtual Sunday afternoon there is plenty of time to visit the Castle on its commanding height, and then walk back to St Aidan’s Church in time for Evensong. Before entering the church we look at the grave of that great Victorian heroine Grace Darling.

Grace Darling is buried here
St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh

According to Bede, St Aidan died close to this place, and his shrine in the church is another reminder of our fellowship in the communion of saints with those great Christians of the early British Church.

Shrine of St Aidan

Jarrow and the Venerable Bede

Saturday, May 16th, 2020. Today we are thinking about a man you could claim was the most significant Englishman of the first millennium: the Venerable Bede. Though it’s thought he hardly ever travelled outside of his native Northumbria, his fame spread throughout Christian Europe. Two centuries after his death, a Swiss monk wrote “God, the orderer of natures, who raised the Sun from the East on the fourth day of Creation, in the sixth day of the world, has made Bede rise from the West as a new Sun to illuminate the world.”

Bede was born around 673 A.D. on the lands of the monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. At the age of 7, he became a boy scholar there, under the founding abbot Benedict Biscop, and his successor Ceolfrith. His education and studies there went on throughout his life, and scholarship was so important to him that, though it is thought he should have become abbot in turn, he insisted that his primary calling was study and writing.

His most famous work is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, still widely read today. It is a primary source of much of our knowledge of Britain in the first eight centuries, on the strength of which Bede has often been called ‘the father of English history’. But he was far more than just a historian. He wrote numerous biblical commentaries, saints’ lives, and hymns. He was also a man of science, and wrote a treatise called De Natura Rerum, which had chapters on

1. De Quadrifario dei opere (on the fourfold work of God) 2. De mundi formatione (on the formation of the earth) 3. Quid sit mundus (what the world is) 4. De elementis (on the elements) 5. De firmamento (on heaven) 6. De varia altitudine cœli (on the differing height of the sky) 7. De cœlo superiore (on the upper sky) 8. De aquis cœlestibus (on the celestial waters) 9. De quinque circulis mundi (on the five circles of the earth) 10. De plagis mundi (on the climes of the earth) 11. De stellis (on the stars) 12. De cursu planetarum (on the course of the planets) 13. De ordine eorum (on their arrangement).

He understood the influence of the moon on the tides, he knew the world was round, not flat, (though I’ve always believed the idea that people of the middle ages believed the world was flat is a complete myth), he invented ‘A.D.’: Anno Domini,the system of dating years from the Birth of Christ.

The first time we really realised the extent of Bede’s Europe-wide fame and influence was when we visited Melk Abbey, and saw proudly displayed in its wonderful, wonderful library, a manuscript of De Natura Rerum. But in fact his works were sought after even further afield, and can be seen on display as far away as St Petersburg, where they were in the possession of monasteries. One of these is thought to contain the earliest example of a portrait within an illuminated capital.

Our first visit this morning is to St Paul’s, Jarrow, the site of the Jarrow monastery.

St Paul’s Jarrow
St Paul’s Jarrow. The Nave, looking towards the Chancel

Much of the church building is later than the time of Bede, but the chancel is the original chapel of the monastery, dating from 681. It’s one of those special thin places where you can reflect that Bede himself prayed the Offices there, and though separated by centuries of time, we are united with him and his eighth century brethren in the communion of saints.

For lunch, what could be a more fascinating sounding place than The Viking Tandoori? Alas, it is ‘only’ an Indian restaurant, rather than one with a peculiarly Nordic flavour. Curried pickled herring, anyone? Not a chance.

After lunch we visit Jarrow Hall, the Anglo-Saxon farm, village and Bede Museum. Anglo-Saxon fun for all the family, with reconstructions of 8th century houses, people in costume weaving baskets, children dressing up as monks and practising their illuminated letters.

Later we go for a drive as Alison has a hankering for the sea, and we take a stroll along Marsden Beach.

Marsden Beach

Tomorrow we head further north. It’s a long road, and somehow The North is always beyond you, so that you wonder whether you will ever actually arrive… Perhaps that too is a parable of Life.

Jarrow and its Saints

Friday, May 15th. We wake up in Jarrow. For a Deep Southerner like me, it’s a name that conjures up ideas of bleak, run-down towns, poverty, boarded up shops, derelict factories. ‘Memories’ of stark events that happened years before I was born: the Jarrow March of 1936, when 200 men marched to London with a petition asking for the reopening of the shipyard, the major employer, which had closed in 1934. Somehow it was an event which moved the nation, and was still a potent folk memory when I was growing up. ‘The North East’ was already a deprived area, not enjoying its share in the wealth it could see in the rest of the country, especially in the South East where all the power was concentrated. How can you not reflect on how little seems to have changed in 85 years? In the Brexit referendum of 2016, South Tyneside voted by 62% to leave the EU; though unlike many other north-eastern constituencies, Labour did succeed in holding Jarrow in the 2019 General Election.

Yet back in the 7th century, Jarrow was a thriving, prosperous seaport and a world-renowned centre of learning. It would have ranked as the Oxford University, or the Sorbonne, of its day. This was because of the twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, the homes of two of the most important saints of the Anglo-Saxon church: Benedict Biscop and the Venerable Bede.

Benedict Biscop (628-690) was a well-connected and well-travelled man, who became a monk at Lérins and later an abbot in Canterbury, before returning to his native Northumbria where in 674 he established the first foundation in Monkwearmouth. The monastery buildings were among the first in Northumbria to be built of stone. Biscop also wanted them to have glass windows – a technology as yet unknown in this country – and he brought over expert craftsmen from France to make the stained glass and teach others. Sunderland was for centuries a centre for glass-making and is still the home of the National Glass Centre.

So we begin the day with a visit to St Peter’s Monkwearmouth.

St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth

Just like the last time we tried to visit, we find the door locked. But as we turn away in bitter disappointment, a strangely dressed little man comes round the corner of the church carrying a key. He seems to be wearing some kind of habit, though that can only be our imagination: at most it could be a verger’s cassock. “Let me open the door for you,” he says. “We’ve been expecting you.” He lets us in and waits for us to walk a short distance down the nave; but when we turn to thank him, there’s no sign of him. Probably just slipped off into the vestry. There’s so much we want to ask him, let’s hope we catch him when he comes out.


It feels a comfortable, prayerful place – perhaps because it carries this imprint of a history we love. We can sit here for a long time with our reflections and prayers, and we do. When we have looked around we leave the church to explore the outlines of the monastic buildings which have been excavated on the south side of the church. Now and again we catch a glimpse of the little man who opened the door for us, but he always seems to be hurrying away round a corner on some business or other.

Outline of the abbey

By the time we’re ready to leave it’s time for lunch, which we enjoy at Bear Natural, where (unusually) we both choose the same dish from the menu, the Keralan curry, “A creamy, aromatic South Indian coconut, chickpea and lentil curry served with lime and coriander rice, and soya mint raita.”

We wander slowly back to the National Glass Centre. We’ve been before, but it’s always fascinating to learn more about Sunderland’s glassmaking history, and wonder at the skill that produced these beautiful objects. It’s a tragedy that religious communities were regarded as places to envy and plunder – by Vikings and Tudors and many others through the ages. So much has been lost through the accidents of time.

But sometimes lost things can be found again, in extraordinary ways. The abbeys of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow produced three manuscript bibles which were supreme works of art. Two of them have been lost. But the third was sent as a gift to the Pope. It too was thought to have been lost, but in 1888 it was established that a copy of the Vulgate in the possession of the Laurentian Library in Florence was in fact the Bible mentioned by Bede, that had been sent to the Pope. For centuries it had belonged to the Abbey of the Saviour at Mount Amiata in Tuscany. (Hence the name by which it is known, the Codex Amiatinus.) It is thought that the party of monks carrying the gift to Rome had been delayed (by winter? illness? death? the threat of robbers along the way?) and those who survived had simply stayed there, along with the priceless manuscript. At some time the inscription on the dedication page, “Ceolfrith of the English” was altered to “Peter of the Lombards”. But the original can still be faintly seen. Ceolfrith was the abbot of that distant Saxon monastery who had commissioned the manuscript and sent it to the Pope.

“Ceolfrith of the English” was altered to “Peter of the Lombards”

It is a huge volume, the oldest surviving complete text of the Latin Vulgate, and still regarded as the definitive text of Jerome’s Latin. We saw a reproduction of it when we last visited Jarrow, but later saw the original when it was on loan to the British Library last year. If only you could actually touch the exhibit… For me that would be something more wonderful than seeing most of the other relics of the saints that Christians have venerated through the years.

The Abbeys of Yorkshire – 3

It’s Thursday May 14th and today we’re making an early start. We have miles to go before we sleep, and we want to make four stops along the way. So it’s a full English breakfast to keep us going, pack up the suitcases and the car, and we’re on our way. Goodbye to the capital of Northern posh, as we head north on the A61 to Ripon, the A168 to Sowerby, then a short stretch of the A19 before turning off on some miles of minor roads to reach our first stopping place, Byland Abbey (shown above). This was founded in 1135 as a Savigniac abbey, but was absorbed not long after by that Borg among monastic orders, the Cistercians.

The ruins are impressive, especially the remains of the West front with a rose window which was the model for the similar window at York Minster. We also read about one of the manuscripts owned by Byland Abbey in the Middle Ages, now held by the British Library (Royal MS 15 A xx). Primarily a 12th-13th century copy of the Elucidarium and some tracts by Cicero, it also contains a collection of twelve ghost stories. These have been edited by M. R. James, leaving us to wonder how much his own wonderful ghost stories were influenced by those old tales, and what those old monks thought of them. Did they hear them at mealtimes in the refectory? Tell them to one another in the Chapter House? Read them secretly in the scriptorium, when they were supposed to be studying medieval theology and folk belief?

From Byland it’s a short hop of nine miles to Rievaulx Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in the north of England, founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey. Under its second abbot, it became a large community of around 140 monks and 500 lay brothers. And this was a man we’ve heard of, Aelred of Rievaulx, who is celebrated in the Church of England’s calendar of saints on January 12th. He is remembered largely for his writings, some of which are still in print, the best known of them being De spirituali amicitia (Spiritual Friendship). It’s not a subject I’ve heard preached or spoken about as much as it deserves to be. Aelred’s shrine was in the abbey church until the Dissolution, and though we don’t find where it might have been we say a prayer in remembrance of him, and give thanks for the gift of spiritual friendship.

By this time we’re feeling peckish, but we’re not going to eat just yet. First we drive the 23 miles to Mount Grace Priory, where in addition to the ruins of the abbey church there is a mansion, adapted from the priory’s guest house, and extensive gardens. First, a bread and soup lunch in the Orchard Café, then to explore.

Ruins of Mount Grace Priory church

Mount Grace Priory was one of the few Carthusian monasteries in England and is the best preserved. The Carthusians lived and worshipped communally, but differed from other monastic orders in that they were semi-hermits. Each monk lived in solitude in one of the cottage-like cells that are ranged around the Great Cloister. One of these has been reconstructed and looks quite comfortable. Maybe if you had to choose, it’s the Carthusians you would want to join?

There’s lots more to see in the gardens and house, which was remodelled in the early 20th century on Arts and Crafts principles, but little time to see it before we have to set off again. Alison has specially asked that we include the Saxon church at Escomb on our way.

Here it is. Built around 675 it is one of the oldest and most complete Saxon churches in Europe. It’s also still in use for weekly services, so it has more of a holy feel to it.

Then we leave on the last stage of today’s journey, to drive the 35 miles to Jarrow where we have booked a two-night stay at The Old Rectory. We’re pretty tired by now so we check in, unpack and wander out to eat at the nearest place we can find which is Martino’s Italian restaurant. That’s OK by us.

And so to bed.

York Minster and St Mary’s Abbey

Today’s plan is to drive to York to visit the Minster and St Mary’s Abbey. We set off early so that we can be back in time to explore Harrogate, on our last day here. We drive 24 miles to the edge of York, and park in the Askham Bar Park & Ride, taking the bus into the city centre. We’ve been to York before, but it’s always good to see it again, to walk on the ancient city walls and through the medieval streets around The Shambles. When we arrive at the Minster, we’re faced with the usual annoyance of having to pay to enter the house of God: it’s £11.50 for adults and £10.50 for seniors. It’s not so bad, when this is only virtual money. But in the real world I guess Jesus would have had something to say about it. At the very least, what about a means tested admission charge? The poor widow could get in for a farthing, which was ‘all her living’. (Mark 12.44) And the billionaire tax-dodging financier would be assessed at the same rate. That would surely fund the whole Cathedral for a few years, and until that contribution was all spent, they could let visitors in free of charge.

Approaching the Minster through York’s medieval streets
York Minster, the Nave

Cathedral websites in the virtual world are different from the ones we see in the real world, too. They show you not only the location of the gift shop, the café and the toilets, but also the places where you can pray quietly. That’s what we’ve come for. It’s often great to pray at the shrine of a favourite saint – like those of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede in Durham Cathedral. The only shrine in the Minster is that of St William of York, about whom we know nothing except that the purpose of establishing his shrine was chiefly to compete with Canterbury (who had Thomas Becket’s relics) as a centre for pilgrimage. So we pray briefly, before setting off on the 7-minute walk to St Mary’s Abbey in the Museum Gardens.

Ruins of St Mary’s abbey church

St Mary’s Abbey used to be the richest abbey in the north of England. The first church was founded in 1055 and dedicated to St Olaf of Norway; but it wasn’t long before the conquering Normans put their own mark on it. The land was given to some monks from Whitby, who established a Benedictine monastery on the site. Apart from the ruins of the church, all that remains is the Abbot’s House built in 1483, which became the seat of the Council of the North in 1539. In the Museum you can also see one of the former treasures of the Abbey, the 13th century figurine of Christ.

The Abbot’s House
The St Mary’s Abbey figurine, 13th century

It’s time to talk about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, especially after reading The Mirror and the Light. The great project of tackling the wealth and supposed corruption of the medieval Church, embodied in the monasteries and other religious houses, features largely in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy as one of the major schemes masterminded by Thomas Cromwell. At the same time it must be one of the greatest acts of vandalism, corporate greed and theft in the whole history of England, rivalled only by the enclosures of the common land. (About which George Orwell wrote, ‘Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.’ Quoted from his essay On the Origins of Property in Land, 1944.)

It would have been one thing to legislate so that excessive wealth held by the Church should be shared with the people of England. But no: the Dissolution of the Monasteries was all about stealing that wealth and sharing it out among the rapacious King and his cronies. You could argue (perhaps) that the wealth of the Church belongs to all God’s people; that’s certainly not true of the same wealth once it had been seized by the rabble of dukes, earls, barons who are the self-styled ‘aristocracy’. Some of the wealth may have been used to provide hospitals, hospices and schools – which had often been provided by the monasteries – but more of it went to line the pockets of the rich and powerful.

So, was Thomas Cromwell a Good Guy, or one of the baddest of the Bad? It’s yet another example of the truth that there are no easy, simple answers. There is no good intention in human history, but that it’s capable of producing evil results. I’d like to hope there is no act so evil that it cannot equally have some unintentional good result. But I’m not so sure. Cromwell’s passion for Reformation and for making the Bible available in English were admirable. But the Dissolution of the Monasteries was not the only ill effect of the Reformation, after all.

Where will we have lunch in York? wagamama is a favourite, so we go to the one in Goodramgate, where Alison has a Yasai Pad Thai and I a Ginger Chicken Udon.

Then we get the bus back to the Park & Ride and drive back to Harrogate where there’s plenty of time to explore. Harrogate is ‘the capital of northern posh’, according to a character in Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. So we take a stroll around the Valley Gardens and the Montpellier Quarter. We’re looking forward to teatime, so that we can visit Betty’s Café and Tea Room, one of Jackson Brodie’s favourite places. (In the same book, we read about his project of visiting all the Betty’s Tea Rooms in Yorkshire. It’s a different kind of pilgrimage.)

Betty’s Tea Rooms

We won’t need any more to eat for the rest of the day after enjoying Betty’s set tea. Well, maybe an evening drink before bedtime…

The Abbeys of Yorkshire – 1

Tuesday, May 12th. And suddenly, all my mind is clouded with a doubt… What’s the point of a virtual pilgrimage, anyway? Surely pilgrimage means travelling, physically, in time and space, to actually inhabit the same holy space that something or someone has made holy? For a moment I think of packing everything up and driving straight back home.

Then I remember the words of the Tao Te Ching (which I also venerate as a kind of Scripture):

Without going outside
one can know the whole world
Without looking out the window
one can see the ways of Heaven
The farther one goes
the less one knows

Thus the Sage does not go, yet he knows
He does not look, yet he sees
He does not do, yet all is done
(Chapter 47)

And in a similar vein the ancient Celtic saying which I try to reconstruct from memory, something like:

To go to Rome is much trouble, little profit:
you will not find the Lord you seek, unless you take him with you.

So we will continue. We’ve come to Yorkshire to visit some of the great abbeys of the county, and at this point I realise that, unless a virtual day is like the TARDIS – much larger inside that it is outside – it’s just going to be an impossible task. There are so many of them – I gave up counting Wikipedia’s list of them – that visiting them all would be the work of a lifetime, not of a pilgrimage of a few days.

Today we have decided to visit just three, driving north of Harrogate to start with probably the most famous of all, one of the largest and best preserved ruins of Cistercian abbeys in England, Fountains Abbey. It was also one of the wealthiest, owning large and profitable estates which made it a highly covetable prize for the powerful and greedy who profited from Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Fountains Abbey
Bare ruin’d choirs?

On a fine day it’s lovely to walk among these beautiful ruins, and on a virtual pilgrimage, we have it all to ourselves, without the usual crowds of visitors. We wander around and think Romantic thoughts about ‘bared ruin’d choirs’.

The problem with virtuality is that you can do an instant search for the phrase, which you always thought was Wordsworth, probably from Tintern Abbey, and find that it’s actually from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. And is not about ruined abbeys at all – the ‘bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’ are actually the leafless branches of the trees in autumn, to which the poet likens his declining years. Don’t say you can’t learn something, even on a virtual pilgrimage.

Our reflections take the form of a Wonder. What was their life like, these monks of one of the wealthiest Cistercian houses in the country? Were they faithful, devout, zealous in their prayers, offering all those Offices for the world and for the glory of God? Or did they just enjoy a soft and luxurious life, eating and drinking in plenty, while the common people of Yorkshire struggled and often starved? Leading up to the Dissolution, Abbot William Thirsk was accused of immorality and inadequacy, and was removed as abbot. Was he really guilty as charged? Or was it a ruse to find the whole Abbey corrupt, needing to be dissolved? Wikipedia is silent about this.

Leaving Fountains Abbey, we drive a few miles into Ripon to visit the Cathedral.

Ripon Cathedral, West Front
Ripon Cathedral, the Nave

The present church is the fourth on the site and was built between the 13th and 16th centuries. It became the Cathedral of the new diocese of Ripon when the diocese was founded in 1836. But before that there was a long history of a monastery on the site. Founded first by Scottish monks in the 660s, it was refounded as a Benedictine monastery by St Wilfrid in 672. We do not speak of St Wilfrid in our household, because of his role in the Synod of Whitby where he advocated the Roman point of view which eventually ‘won’ against the native, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon position. (There we go again, choosing the ‘Good Guys’ in history.) In truth, Wilfrid must have been an uncomfortably prickly character, often disagreeing with his superiors in the Church (and probably making life uncomfortable for his clergy, too) but there’s no denying he was zealous for his Lord, a missionary, and is said to have introduced the Rule of St Benedict into England.

The Cathedral boasts a colourful rood screen, full of more saints than you could possibly name.

The Rood Screen

We’re feeling like eating Italian today, and our choice is the nearby Uno Momento in Kirkgate. Pizza or pasta, or? Hmm, we fancy all of them.

And then it’s 15 miles further north-west to Jervaulx Abbey. More beautiful ruins in a beautiful setting. I long for that frisson of awe, of the Numinous. And find you can’t just summon it up for wishing. An abbey needs a praying community – the ghosts, however many and sincere, somehow just don’t do it.

Jervaulx Abbey

And so we drive back to Harrogate. Must explore the town more before we actually have to move on. Maybe tomorrow.

The Great North Road

The next part of our planned pilgrimage is to drive up to Yorkshire and explore some of the ancient abbeys there. We’ve visited some of them before, but others will be new to us.

And so we pack our bags again, say Goodbye to the Charming Old Chapel, and head off to join the Great North Road. It sounds so romantic, but there’s something about the greater comfort (to say nothing of the speed) with which you can make the journey in the 21st century, which takes away some of that romance. The A1(sometimes M) largely follows the older route of the Great North Road, except that avoids the towns and cities which used to be the major staging posts. We could cover the 84 miles to our next overnight resting place in less than two hours, but we’ve decided (this is Alison’s influence working already!) to stop along the way to see something new.

So we turn off the A1(M) near Doncaster, and join the A19 to take us to Selby where we will have lunch and visit Selby Abbey. If you can’t make a real pilgrimage on foot, perhaps horseback will do as it did for the Canterbury pilgrims. If you haven’t a horse, maybe a car is just about permissible, but you should probably choose to take the B-roads, or as a last resort the A-roads, in preference to motorways. Google Maps is less helpful than I hoped. Its preference is to make you take the motorway. When I tried to drag the proposed route so we could go by the A19, it really has something against the A19, and there was one small section that it absolutely would not let me take, and instead proposed to take me miles around the middle of nowhere to avoid:

Google Maps doesn’t like that bit of the A19

We ignore Google Maps and stay on the A19, without mishap.

Selby is a small Yorkshire town about 12 miles south of York, yet its parish church is one of the greatest of the surviving medieval abbey churches. The abbey was founded by Benedict of Auxerre in 1069 – another work of the conquering Normans, then, imposing their power over the conquered Anglo-Saxons – and was such an important foundation that it was granted the status of a ‘mitred abbey’, which it retained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Why did some of the dissolved abbey churches continue to serve as parish churches, while so many others were allowed to fall into ruin? I suppose there isn’t one single answer to that question, though I guess it had something to do with whether the church was in a town, and was valued by the townspeople, rather than being in the middle of beautiful countryside that was coveted by one of Henry VIII’s henchmen, and didn’t have a large local population to save the church for its proper purpose.

Arriving in Selby we decide to have lunch before visiting the Abbey. We fancy some Turkish cuisine today, so we choose The Olive Branch in Gowthorpe, where we share the mixed mezze for two. My mouth waters as I write…

Mixed mezze for two

Then to the Abbey, which is indeed grand. It would be easy to make the assumption that it was a small cathedral, and if it’s reminiscent in some ways of Durham Cathedral, that’s because it was modelled on Durham. We would love it for that fact alone. Do we have a strong sense of the beauty of holiness here, then? It is tempered by the fact that we often find small village churches, which tiny congregations struggle and work hard to lovingly maintain, have more of that sense of Presence. So I reflect on how it is that all the parish churches of England are equal in God’s eyes, but in the sight of the world, some of them are much more equal than others.

After a short wander down to look at the River Ouse we return to the car and take the A63 to rejoin the Great North Road. We follow it as far as Wetherby, then turn off onto the A661 which takes us in to Harrogate, where we book in at the Majestic Hotel.

The Majestic Hotel, Harrogate

We’ll take the easy option and eat in the hotel restaurant this evening.


May 10th, the Lord’s Day, the Fourth Sunday after Easter. So we can still proclaim the Easter greeting: Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

We’re planning to be a bit holy today by going to worship at Southwell Minster, a cathedral we first visited last August, and which, during this virtual pilgrimage, is still open for business.

It’s the most extraordinary cathedral we’ve come across in England, in that it serves the city of Nottingham and the county of Nottinghamshire, while the actual town of Southwell, some 30 miles from Nottingham, has a population of less than 8,000. You find your way to it on B-roads, expecting to be able to see the cathedral from a distance, like you do with Salisbury; but even when you’ve found a car park, it’s not obvious where the Minster is. By this time you’re in among the streets of the town with their buildings, and you’ve still no sense of where the pedestrian route to the cathedral is. You can tell we really are urbanites, not expecting to find a car park anywhere near the Cathedral. What you need to know about Southwell is that you simply let your satnav guide you to the Cathedral, and there is plenty of room to park in the street.

By Steve Cadman from London, U.K. – Southwell Minster, CC BY-SA 2.0,
The Nave

The congregation may be quite small, so you may find yourself being directed into the choir, rather than a seat in the nave. But they’re a friendly lot, and the service is simple, dignified and ‘done properly’. Since our first visit they have a new Canon Precentor, the Revd Richard Frith. Richard served his first curacy at St Mary Magdalene’s in Oxford, while I was Vicar of Marston. They don’t have very many funerals at Mary Mag’s, so I was asked if I’d let Richard come and take some of mine, to get the practice. That was fine by me, and I hope he had a good experience – though I don’t recall that we had very many requests for funerals during that time, either.

Do stay for coffee after the service, and tell the Dean, and Richard, Hello from me.

Among the things to see in the Minster: this Green Man, carved in stone.

The Green Man

The Katyn Memorial in the RAF Chapel.

Why does Southwell Minster house this memorial to the 14,500 Polish officers – probably the entire Polish officer class – who were massacred at Katyn in 1940? For many years the Soviets blamed the Nazis for this atrocity, when in fact they were the guilty ones. In fact more than 22,000 Poles, intellectuals and leaders of society, were murdered here. Many Polish airman who managed to escape were based with the RAF in Nottinghamshire, and continued to fight for their country’s freedom.

The Great War Memorial Window by Nicholas Mynheer:

If you’re in Southwell on a Sunday, and looking for the best Sunday roast in Nottinghamshire, you must go to The Bramley Apple in Church Street.

The best Sunday roast in Nottinghamshire at The Bramley Apple, Church Street, Southwell

The other major thing to see in Southwell is the Workhouse, now owned by the National Trust. It was built in 1824 when the local vicar conceived a plan to help the poor and destitute. It became a pioneering model for similar institutions throughout the Victorian era and beyond; in fact Southwell Workhouse was still functioning as late as the 1980s. It’s a horrible reminder of how even the best of human intentions (“Let’s do something to help the poor”) can turn into something harsh, dreaded, often even cruel. And why? Because now, just as much as then, we ask the wrong questions. The good vicar and his contemporaries shouldn’t have been asking “How can we help the poor and the destitute?” but “How can we change the system so that there are no poor and destitute, so that poverty doesn’t exist in the midst of such wealth, but everyone has the means to live decently?” It’s another example of how we try to solve the first problem we see, instead of looking for the questions that explain why the problem is there. It’s emergency first aid, instead of prevention.

We’ve had enough of the Workhouse long before it’s time for Evensong, but that’s no problem. We can enjoy the walk back to the Minster, then sit quietly inside until it’s time for the service.

Then back to Charming Old Chapel. Tomorrow we head off towards the North, on the next stage of our pilgrimage.


It’s Saturday May 9th and I’m feeling confused about the anomalies surrounding this virtual world. The BACC meeting I was expecting to attend has been cancelled in the real world, and it’s not happening in the virtual world either. But in this virtual world we’re still able to go shopping, eat in restaurants, and explore the usual attractions. It’s almost like I’m making up the rules, here.

Anyway, this leaves us free to choose what we do today, so we decide to visit Newark. We weren’t very impressed when we first visited the town last August, but it seems only fair to give it another chance. We park, again, in the Riverside Car Park and head off on foot across the River Trent. Over the river rises the impressive outline of Newark Castle; but it’s all an illusion.

Newark Castle and the River Trent

During the English Civil Wars, Newark was one of the most important centres of the Royalist cause. It was besieged by Parliamentary armies three times, and after it fell, Parliament commanded the Castle to be destroyed, leaving only the shell of its wall above the Trent, like a cheap film set.

Newark Castle interior
By Martinevans123 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Within the wall is a municipal garden, that’s often used as a photo opportunity after weddings that have taken place in the nearby Register Office. There’s a wedding party there as we walk through. The bride, beautiful in white; the paraplegic groom in a wheelchair. You know how you can’t stop yourself making up stories about the lives of people you don’t know and will never know anything about? We imagine this young man is a veteran of one of the Middle East wars, flown home with terrible life-changing injuries after his vehicle was blown up by an IED. Or maybe was paralysed after a quad-bike accident on someone’s stag weekend. His loving fiancée insisted that the wedding they planned must go ahead anyway; she’ll marry him for better, for worse, even though the worse has already happened. We’re amazed by such love and devotion. We pray that love will be enough to sustain them through the lifetime that lies ahead, and that they really will be happy and blessed and true to each other.

Last time we visited Newark on a Friday and had a longing for fish and chips. Sadly we chose the wrong place, which I won’t name. I’m now pretty sure that the right place for fish and chips in Newark is the Castlegate Fish Bar. This looks like the real thing, mushy peas and all.

The right fish and chips

After lunch, though, we didn’t find that much to do in Newark. The town has known great days: in 1377 it was one of the 25 largest towns in England, with a population of 1,178. Now it has a run-down feeling. The parish church of St Mary Magdalene is grand and imposing, clearly expressing the town’s earlier wealth and status. But I didn’t find that frisson of the numinous that I look for in the churches we visit.

Alison doesn’t share my interest in the English Civil War, so she wasn’t interested in paying a return visit to the National Civil War Centre with me. It won’t tell you whether the right side or the wrong side won. (My answers are a) Yes, and b) We might know, when it’s finally over.) But it does include what must surely win a prize as one of the most tasteless items you’ll ever find in a museum gift shop:

Want a tasteless gift for a loved one?

I decide I don’t need a political chopping block. (You’ll see why in a minute.) I meet up with Alison who’s had enough of the shops, such as they are. We walk back to the car and drive back to Charming Old Chapel where we relax with our books And maybe look forward to a glass or two of wine later?

I’ve brought Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light away with me, and I’m determined to finish it this weekend. It’s the concluding volume of a trilogy begun with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, telling the story of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of King Henry VIII from 1532 to 1540. Meticulously researched and brilliantly imagined, it’s a fascinating read. The final volume, published in March 2020, appeared two years later than its author planned, because, she says, it was ‘difficult’. But it was worth the wait. It’s very entertaining, and will keep you entertained for a long time – I think I read that it’s as long as both the previous volumes put together.

One of the things I love about it is the way that Thomas Cromwell comes across as such a hero, so human yet also admirably intelligent and gifted. I’ve reflected elsewhere about the way in which I somehow absorbed history, in my younger days, as if it were a tale in which there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Is that just me? Is that the way history has always been taught? Is it that history as we were taught it at school – written as we know it is by the victors – is little more than a propaganda exercise in support of the status quo? The prime example of this is the way we were taught the English Civil War as if the Royalists were the Good Guys.

It may be through reading A Man For All Seasons at school, in which Sir Thomas More is obviously the hero, that I picked up the idea that Cromwell was the Bad Guy. Hilary Mantel’s trilogy turns that around. Here it is More who is the villainous reactionary, while Cromwell is the champion of true religion, a Gospel man whose great cause is to make the Bible available in English so that every man, woman and child can read it in their own language.

Henry VIII is also a more sympathetic character than I’ve tended to think. Clearly he is a sort of monster, but we also see that that is the very nature of kingship: the king is the nation, and his health, well-being, faith and fertility are all determinative of the nation’s well-being. With such a burden of responsibility, it’s no wonder he is a tortured soul; but he’s also intelligent, devout and very human.

If you’ve read it, let me know what you think. And the key thing is: Reader, I finished it.