Armchair exploring 4: Holy Island & Bamburgh: By the utmost margin of the loud lone sea

Probably our last trip of 2019/20 was to have been this past weekend, to either Bamburgh or Holy Island (Lindisfarne).  Both are reachable by public transport β€” with careful homework into tide-determined bus timetables for Holy island πŸ™‚ β€” though not in the same day! (deciding between the two was going to be a challenge…)  Both are major Northumbrian highlights, steeped in history and legend and central to the story of the region’s 7th–8th C golden age and the establishment of Christianity.  They also both happen to have some of England’s best beaches….

Our visit to Bamburgh in 2017, where after a bit of history we were lured to the seashore! (picture credits: Elizabeth Cooper)

Far too much to write about in a short post.  For Bamburgh, the legend of the Laithly Worm, the golden Bamburgh Beast (look these up!), the 140ft-deep well bored down through the great castle rock at Bamburgh long before explosives were invented, heroic women (Matilda Mowbray, Queen Philippa, Dorothy Forster, Grace Darling)….   In medieval times the castle was identified with Sir Lancelot’s castle Joyous Garde (as in the Swinburne poem from which this blog’s title tag is taken).

For Lindisfarne, tales of saints, ducks and otters; the romance of the tidal causeway; the evocative medieval abbey ruins and traces of the famous Saxon monastery where the Lindisfarne gospels were created (exciting recent excavations have uncovered more).  And an Elizabethen castle remodelled by Sir Edward Lutyens (which also features in a film of The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Ian McKellan as the villain!).

For both sites, the history of King and saint Oswald, ‘White-blade’, and St. Aidan.  Oswald grew up in exile on Iona (he was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings) and, after he reclaimed his father’s kingdom, invited missionaries from Iona to come and settle in Northumbria and assist in spreading their faith.  Aidan is one of the more attractive saintly figures: after the first Ionan mission had hit the rocks and its leader returned home complaining of the ignorance and intractability of the Northumbrians, he is said to have responded to the effect, “Brother, couldn’t you have been a little kinder?”  And when challenged to do better, stepped up to the task.

Oswald, though a king and a warrior, comes across well too: once at an Easter feast at Bamburgh, presented with a crowd of beggars, he ordered the silver plates from which they were eating to be broken up and distributed among the poor.  (How exactly do you break up a silver plate….?!)  And he had a pet raven who heped preserve his head after his death in battle…

Sadly, we can only visit ‘virtually’ just now.  But we will be back.


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