Residential Pilgrimage to Holy Island

Residential Pilgrimage to Holy Island

 Monday-Friday, 12-16 September 2016

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A group of seventeen pilgrims, Friends of St Gregory's Minster and parishioners, gathered in St Gregory's Minster at 10.30 a.m. on Monday 12th September for a short act of dedication to the pilgrimage, concluding with the Kirkdale Pilgrim's Prayer (Forth we now fare: may we meet with friends, / And ever dwell in the Almighty's peace, / Defended from foes that would fetter the soul, / Safely encompassed by angel hosts, / And held in heaven-Ruler's holy hand / for the while that we wend in this world. Amen) - and a blessing.

The party then departed in several cars to reassemble at St Hilda's Church, The Headland, Hartlepool, which is on or near the site of the double monastery ruled over by the Abbess Hilda (later of Whitby) in the 7th century. There a warm welcome and a generous buffet lunch awaited us, followed by a guided tour of the ancient and beautiful church dedicated to Hilda, which served as valuable groundwork for the programme planned for Holy Island.

Thus well fortified in body and spirit we proceeded onwards and northwards to Holy Island. Since our last visit, Marygate House has been extensively refurbished and upgraded - notably with new and additional toilets and showers. No longer could we pose (if we were ever tempted to) as pilgrims fittingly roughing it a bit on our spiritual journey: we were on the brink of being well and truly cossetted by Wardens Sam and Don Quilty and their staff.

Most of our programme was followed through as planned - organised communal events being interspersed with periods for pilgrims to choose their own occupations on the Island. It was a disappointment, though, that a sea-fret - which might better have been called a dense fog - rolled in on the afternoon we had planned to make the crossing to the Farne Islands. All sailings were cancelled. There were compensations, however. One carload set off to visit Lord Armstrong’s remarkable residence at Cragside. The others decided to look for St Cuthbert’s Cave high in the mainland hills near nowhere in particular - and it was there (near nowhere in particular) that we came close to admitting we were lost. But finally, with the guidance of a wonderfully helpful Parcel Force van - the only other sign of human life we met on our lonely way - and after a sturdy uphill walk through moorland and forest, we found it - the place where, according to tradition, the St Cuthbert community had rested overnight with the precious body of St Cuthbert, on one of their long wanderings before Cuthbert himself indicated he wanted his permanent resting place on the headland over the River Wear where Durham Cathedral now shelters his grave. An impressive natural cave at the foot of a great limestone cliff, it proved well worth the trek to reach it.

And as for the seals we didn’t get to see out among the Farne Islands - well, we were convinced they came to see us instead. In their hundreds, all along the sandbanks uncovered by the receding tide, all whooping in an unmusical and yet melodious chorus - specially for the benefit of us, we felt sure, clustered on Hobthrush island. And when we walked round Holy Island to Emmanuel Head and gathered on the low cliff-top to sing together out into the North Sea, there was our audience of seals again, bobbing their heads up out of the water - and sea-birds of various sorts, flying back and forth, skimming and plunging, or swimming, singly or in flotillas, seemingly well entertained by our ad hocchoir. One thing we learned there: St Cuthbert could never have felt lonely out in his hermitage on that little island among the Farnes. Nor was he wanting for supporters in voicing his wonderment at God’s creation: little fleets of eider ducks - Cuddie’s Ducks - bobbed about, making their endearing Ooooh! calls, as though expressing amazement at every bit of seaweed they encountered on their way.

We took the Island’s blessing with us when we left and we in our turn took gifts for St Cuthbert - a few flowers and shells from his Lindisfarne, to lay on his grave in Durham Cathedral on the way home. Nor did we neglect to stand and commune a little while with the bones of Bede the Venerable in his tomb in the Galilee Chapel there. Hac sunt in fossa Bedae Venerabilis ossa - the bones in this tomb are those of the Venerable Bede - Bede, who, during our pilgrimage, had given us so much to learn and reflect upon about our national history and the laying of the foundations of the Church of the English.

It was in the magnificent cathedral of Durham, raised to shelter the body of Cuthbert, in the feretory, around his grave, that we formally ended our pilgrimage.