We haven't encountered many other hikers on the trail. Perhaps it is the time of the year: late September with the grim winter beginning to close in. As we are packing up the remains of our lunch, four hikers who have been shadowing us on the trail arrive. We passed them yesterday morning, climbing Green Humbleton. We'd stopped to share trail stories for a few minutes, and then walked ahead of them. We saw them again this morning leaving Wooler, but had left them behind us on the first hill. This was our last meeting.
The weather deteriorates rapidly. The wind is backing into the North and picking up a wintry quality. Rain begins to fall. While David fusses over his portable stove, working far too hard to brew a cup of tea, I snap photos of St Cuthbert's Cave.
Lunch over, we ascend the hill behind St Cuthbert's Cave, and are rewarded with a first glimpse of our ultimate destination: Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, object of Cuthbert's journey and the end of our walk. A stray sunbeam pierces the clouds, momentarily catching the island and fixing it like a green jewel in a dark grey sea. A heartening sight, to be sure. It looks close, and more importantly, downhill from where we stand.
With lighter spirits, we set off down the hill, through Shiellow Wood and into Fenwick. A torrential cloudburst intercepts us on the outskirts of Fenwick, but we laugh it off. In a few minutes we will put our feet under the table of a cozy British pub for an afternoon break. Unfortunately, the laugh is on us. As we hike through Fenwick, rain soaking into our boots, it becomes evident that this lonely collection of houses lacks a pub, a store, post office, or even a public urinal. With tears in our eyes, bedraggled in both spirit and clothing, cheated of a few moments of warmth and an alcoholic pick-me-up, we totter on through the rain.
One last hill, and then we reach Beal Sands, the beginning of the great causeway that crosses the estuary to Lindisfarne. Intermittent rain squalls smite us from the Northwest, and a strengthening gale, no longer blocked by the undulating hills of the Borders, now batters us with its entire force.
Well, at least the path ahead is flat.
There are two routes to the Holy Island: a road with no shoulders, used by vehicular traffic; or the direct path, across the wet sands, the so-called Pilgrims' Path. The Pilgrims' Path is marked by a line of wooden stakes, pounded into the usually submerged plain. "Twice a day," wrote Bede, "The tides rush in and the place is enclosed by the sea like an island; twice a day the shore dries and the island rejoins the land." Twice a day it is safe to cross, and twice a day the tides rush in and submerge both road and Pilgrims' Path. For those who have begun the walk too late in the tidal cycle, there are two elevated refuge stations, where one could huddle in the cold while water races with surprising velocity below.
By my calculation, the Pilgrims' Path is about 2.5 miles long. It is a direct route, as opposed to the road, which traces a long slow curve to the island. As we knocked off the final miles to Beal Sands, the Pilgrims' Path appeared to be underwater, and David and I had agreed not to chance it. Better the hard pavement of the longer road. Unfortunately, that meant we would be sharing a narrow ribbon of tarmac with a steady stream of cars, trucks, and tour buses. Discouraged after a few minutes of being buffeted by passing trucks, we realize that the only true course for a pilgrim lay along the Pilgrims' Path.
The Path stretches across a great flat that is a mixture of sand and mud. Sinking in to our ankles in places, we quickly decide to remove our boots before they became completely soaked with saltwater. In bare feet we slipped and slid on the mud and bits of seaweed like automobiles on an icy hill.
The gale grows stronger. Rain and shotgun blasts of light sting exposed flesh. It is as if demonic minions are conspiring to keep us from the island. Struggling to keep my feet, I decide to put my boots back on: I need the traction. I wash my feet in a tide pool, and then drag reluctant, damp socks back over my clammy feet. Not a pleasant experience. It was a good decision, however. Their rough rubber tread offered a significant boost in traction, and I was able to make better time.
After about a week on the Pilgrims' Path, a few minutes before the inrushing tide effaces it entirely, we reach the far shore. The foul wind, now at our back, drives us into the small fishing village, and we hurry through the tourist-deserted streets, making our way to our evening's lodgings.