The last day, the final push on St Cuthbert's Way. Our concluding leg is a seventeen mile jaunt from Wooler to Lindisfarne, otherwise known as Holy Island. A morning perusal of the guidebook offers some heartening information: after we reach Fenwick (11.5 miles), the terrain will be essentially flat, tending a little downhill toward the sea. The miles before Fenwick offer a mere 853 feet of altitude gain. Not bad after yesterday's 2,000 feet.
The jolly man on the BBC weather forecast predicts a much colder day. We can expect the chill of a declining temperature to be amplified by increasing gales as we approach the coast. The sun pokes through for a few minutes at dawn, but it is quickly obscured by the thickening clouds.
Tides will be our most significant problem today. Lindisfarne is a tidal island: twice a day the water floods in from the North Sea, covers the access road, and cuts it off from the mainland. We need to reach the high ground of the island by 5:00 PM or face being unable to reach our final destination. I wanted to pad our margin of safety with an early start at 6:00 AM, but David could not bear the thought of skipping our morning breakfast. Since this wouldn't be served until 8:00, 8:30 would be our earliest opportunity to start our last day's slog. It will be more interesting, a sporting challenge, to spend our last day hiking against the clock. Having walked 13 miles yesterday in a little under six hours, it should definitely be possible.
The first leg of the trail, rather predictably, runs up a long hill out of Wooler. As noted above, our guidebook had asserted that our altitude gain would be smaller than any other day on the trail. If this is true, it would appear that the trail planners were intent on packing it all in to the earliest miles. Up we go, threading a narrow track cut through the bracken. Near the peak, we begin to see clumps of heather, a sure and certain sign that we were moving into the higher altitudes. We hike across the top of the hill, and then plunge down the other side, toward the Weetwood Bridge. Built in the sixteenth century, this stone bridge crosses the River Till, and played a minor part in the Battle of Flodden, one of the bloodiest encounters between the English and the Scots.
It is an elegant bridge, with a lovely arch. It must have a problem supporting great loads, because barriers have been built to deny crossing to all vehicles save bicycles and the narrowest of cars. Pedestrians are fine, and we cross the bridge in style. We follow a paved road from Weetwood Bridge for a few miles, winding up another hill to West Horton, a cattle ranch. Pavement gives way to gravel, and then to a dirt path that will lead us to St Cuthbert's Cave.
When St Cuthbert died in 687, his body was interred in a stone coffin in the Church of St Peter on Lindisfarne, next to the high altar. Nine years later, the brothers opened the coffin to move the body. According to Bede, they had expected to find only Cuthbert's dried bones, but to their astonishment, his body was incorrupt, clothed with flesh, and his joints still supple. He looked as if he was simply having a long nap.
News of this miraculous preservation spread, pilgrimage traffic increased, and Lindisfarne became one of Britain's most sacred sites. Visitors would come to pray near Cuthbert's remains, and Bede recorded a number of miracles performed at the tomb of the saint. In 875, with the Vikings attacking vulnerable monasteries on the English coast, the monks of Lindisfarne decided to move Cuthbert's body for safekeeping. For the next century the saint lived an itinerant existence, moving from hiding place to hiding place, until he ultimately ended up in Durham Cathedral, where he remains to this day. St Cuthbert's Cave, which we are approaching, is said to have been one of the sites that sheltered Cuthbert's remains during his exodus.
A narrow trail runs through a grove of pine trees, like the central aisle in a great cathedral, dividing the marble columns on either side. We turn left at the end of the trail, and the land falls away in a great stone bowl. At the upper end of the bowl is the cave. Element-carved out of native sandstone, the dark recesses surely could have been used to conceal Cuthbert's remains. Generations of tourists have visited since Cuthbert's time: graffiti has been scratched into the stone, and a charred circle at the mouth of the cave marks a late night campfire. Crosses, fabricated from limbs stripped from the surrounding pine trees, stand in every spare niche and hollow.
Sitting beneath the overhanging cave ceiling, rain begins to fall and the freshening breeze whips around the empty spaces. Outside the pine trees begin to sigh, needle-clad limbs resisting the growing gale. Rain spatters on the rocks. The cave is a lonely place today, devoid of visitors, a fine place to hide a body or, as becomes clear when David begins unpacking his backpack, to have a cup of tea.