Durham Cathedral to Iona Abbey: Le Grand Départ

Durham Cathedral to Holy Island
(getting some distance under my tyres)

I left Durham Cathedral at 5:30am on Monday (16th March) in light drizzle, cautiously slithering down the cobbles into the market square, over the river Wear and underneath the railway line high above on the viaduct. As I passed my home, I wondered whether this was a sensible way to spend the next two weeks.

After weeks and months of planning, my Celtic Christian Pilgrimage/Tour 2 Week Placement had started. The thing about planning is that it all seems so much easier from the comfort of the home, in the warmth. Planning a ‘100 mile day one’ makes sense from the sofa, but in the cold rain of the early morning I’m questioning myself. I am reminded that I actually enjoy cycling, and that I wanted to do this. Family tucked up at home; I know that I’m leaving my wife to be a single parent for two weeks and that will be hard on her. Justifications for my choice of placement, and guilt that it is all too selfish, add to the sense of unease I have riding alongside the A167 towards Chester-le-Street on the cycle path.

I do find cycle paths more hazardous than roads; not only is there the inevitable broken glass and the thorns from the carelessly cut hedges, there is the fact that you have to give way at every side junction. On top of this, the path is not always straight-forward to navigate and my pilgrimage nearly came to an end when the cycle path passed a driveway, was off-set a little, and I’m trying to bunny-hop sideways up a series of stairs outside a house, in the dark and the rain.

Although my pilgrimage was to visit Celtic Christian sites and inject some reality into my academic understanding of the Celtic saints who brought Christianity back to Britain; at this time in the morning I was more concerned with making progress. I arrived in Chester-le-Street and the church where St Cuthbert’s remains had laid before being transferred to their final home in Durham. I obtained a proof-of-passage in the form of the photograph below and jumped back on the bicycle to carry on.
My mood tracked the weather quite closely, and as the sky brightened I felt a lot more optimistic about the journey ahead. Just south of Gateshead is the ‘Angel of the North’; I’ve been here before on an overnight ride to Alnmouth and this time I thought about how future archaeologists might try to piece together what sort of gods we believe in – that we build massive statues to winged men overlooking trade-routes like the A1. Or will we remember that this is an expression of art?

After a particularly heavy hailstone shower in Gateshead I sheltered on a bridge over the Wear before stopping at a coffee shop for breakfast; strong black coffee and a pain au raisin, together with morning prayer read from an App on my mobile.

The opening section of this bicycle ride was on familiar territory; having ridden between Teesside and Alnmouth numerous times. I chose a direct route this time and headed directly north from Newcastle to Cramlington where I joined an excellent cycle path beside the A1. The day had started to warm up, the sun was shining and my spirits were high as I approached Morpeth – just as well given the school traffic and the queues of motorists anxiously struggling to get into town.

Beyond Morpeth I followed A and B roads to Amble and approached Warkworth while it was still only mid-morning. It is amazing what progress I feel I’d made, but it was simply an early start and occasional warm sunshine pushing me on.

I knew I would like some more food by now, aware that one pain au raisin wasn’t going to do for the whole day. Alnmouth beckoned and I headed off-route down into the beautiful town for a cafe stop at the small shop. Here I wolfed down a bacon sandwich and followed it up with a Cuthbert Cake – at last I was embracing the Celtic Christian experience, cake that St. Cuthbert would have eaten! I think not. I had a lovely chat with the shop assistant and explained what I was doing for the next two weeks. She recommended that I also call in to the cafe on Holy Island which is owned by the same person, and that I could have more Cuthbert Cake there.

I left Alnmouth on the wiggly coastal route heading towards Seahouses and shortly noticed a helicopter hovering just above the beach in the distance. I hoped it was just a practice exercise they were involved in, as I was very close to RAF Boulmer. I had been reading in Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” that when the Romans retreated from Britain they took with them any men young or experienced enough to fight. This left Britain totally defenceless and we were raided and plundered time and again. The people of Britain wrote to Rome to ask for support, but after a couple of brief periods of assistance and the building of a wall to defend against the Picts of the north, we were left to our own devices.

At RAF Boulmer there is a fighter jet on display. It struck me that the freedom I enjoy to study at Durham University, the freedom to undertake a cycling pilgrimage, the freedom to be rich or poor, to complain or be grateful – all this freedom came at a price. A price others have paid on my behalf, it was something I would notice time and again on this cycle, the memorials at each village and town commemorating those lost in war. Right now in countries all over Africa and the Middle East, the idea of a leisurely cycle around the countryside is a distant dream. What I am doing would seem unobtainable to many young people running scared from the fighting in their land. There is unresolved conflict in my own mind – we have freedoms because we have the fighting strength as a country to defend those freedoms. But the strength to defend clearly comes after the strength to overcome opposition, and in many countries one person’s freedom is another person’s oppression.

Celtic Christian pilgrims lived in a time of violence and struggle too. Moving around northern Britain sharing the Gospel would have been fraught with danger, something I am pleased not to replicate. I recall reading that St Cuthbert, St Aidan and others travelled and encouraged other Christians they met, and shared the Gospel with those who hadn’t heard the good news. I wondered how much my journey could possibly be similar? I arrived in Seahouses in time for a spot of lunch at a local Co-Op.

While standing in the street, having my lunch, two gentlemen came up and asked about the bicycle. Neil and Ramon were on holiday from Harrogate, home of Spa Cycles and the specialists who built my touring bicycle. We chatted about cycling and why I was riding, what a lovely coincidence; they are both Christians too and were heading up to Holy Island. It was brilliant to take a break from cycling and have time to chat about Celtic history, being a Christian today, and also as Ramon is a keen cyclist; about how cycling can bring Christians closer to Christ. Ramon and I have both been looking at the combination of physical exercise and meditative prayer.

Leaving Seahouses and heading north on the final section of the day to Holy Island, I cycled past the Farne Islands, where Cuthbert had a hermitage. With the wind howling down the coastline, and slight drizzle in the air they did not look like welcoming places to visit.

Cycling to Holy Island requires some navigation of tiny country lanes, all of which are beautiful and necessary to avoid the A1, which I had to cross twice. As I approached Holy Island the causeway was there in front of me and although bleak and windswept I enjoyed crossing it by bicycle and seeing the walking route away to my south marked by poles in the sand.

I was welcomed to Holy Island by Paul, the vicar of St. Mary the Virgin, and his wife Pauline who were putting me up for the night. After getting changed and having a walk around the island, I visited the ‘practice hermitage’ just off the coast of Holy Island. This tiny little piece of land only becomes an island at high tide and is cut off for 8 hours It is likely that Cuthbert (and others) would have used this as a practice hermitage in preparation for longer periods of isolation on the Farne Islands. Although there is no evidence left of their accommodation, later medieval remains can be found, and the outline of a small building. All this was within sight of the remains of the Abbey which is also a later addition to Holy Island probably built on the site of the earlier Celtic Christian Abbey.

Paul had invited me to evening prayer, which was well attended. I enjoyed the reverence with which the thankfulness for the day was celebrated and the parish church is a peaceful place to pray.

To continue the story… day 2 and 3: Holy Island to Holy Island


  1. Thank you so much for taking the trouble on an arduous trip, to share these pictures and reflections. God speed & may the wind be at your back! You have been a source of much encouragement today!

  2. Wonderful, thank you for sharing. I'd like to hear more about your studies re: physical exercise and meditative prayer. I have practiced yoga for many years, and always my prayers are enhanced by the movements of my practice.

  3. Thanks Kim – everything I have at the moment is half-articulated personal experience, but I'm thinking of making it the basis of an Independent Learning Project from Sept 2015. It is interesting the way people are drawn to 'monumental' events; Coast to Coast, Lands End to John o Groats, Bryan Chapman Memorial, Fred Whitton Challenge. There is a sense of rising to and meeting a physical challenge. Events bring people together – sometimes for fund raising, but also for community cohesion reasons.

    Pilgrimages have long been ways of expressing a spiritual journey physically. But from a meditative perspective I find it liberating to spend time in prayer while my body is engaged in a familiar exercise. I'm also interested in how the physical and spiritual can be brought together to worship God with all our hearts, soul, mind, and strength.

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