For five days, August 20-24, 2015, Trina and I walked the pilgrim path called “The Way of St. Oswald”, 50 miles along the northeastern coastline of England to the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne. We began this pilgrim walk from Nether Springs Retreat Center run by the Northumbria Community (see Northumbria Community blog post), just north of the village of Felton, Northumbria, U.K. Our total journey along the Way of St. Oswald took us on foot a little over 50 miles in five days: Felton to Warkworth: 7 miles; Warkworth to Embleton: 15 miles; Embleton to Seahouses: 8 miles; Seahouses to Belford: 11 miles; Belford to Holy Island of Lindisfarne: 11 miles.
Our journey along the Way of St. Oswald ended on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, one of the top pilgrimage sits in all of Great Britain with over half a million visitors annually. We arrived on a Monday afternoon, in bright sunshine, across the final two miles along the Pilgrims Way, following the Waymarks, tall poles every 100 feet or so, marking the path across the tidal flats to the Holy Island.
Why journey on foot to Lindisfarne? We seek to connect with and learn from several great heroes of the Christian faith from the 7th century, who walked this same way 1400 years ago, including Aidan, Cuthbert, Oswald, and Hilda. I’ve been reading about these amazing believers who had such a profound influence upon hundreds of thousands of people in their century. I’m also taking a retreat on the lives of St. Aidan and St. Hilda while on Lindisfarne from one of the well-loved writers and researchers on the lives of Celtic saints, Pastor Ray Simpson. But I get ahead of myself.
Our pilgrimage along the Way of St. Oswald began on a Thursday morning just north of the village of Felton, Northumbria. We left the Northumbria Community, walking southward to Felton to pick up The Way of St. Oswald. This way trail, launched in 2006, begins further south at Heavenfield, near Hadrian’s Wall, site of a famous battle in the early 7th century where Oswald (604-642) was victorious with a much smaller army over the bigger army of Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd in 634. Before the battle, Oswald had a wooden cross erected to devote his life and kingdom to Christ if he was victorious. Oswald relied upon the promise of God from Joshua 1:9, “Be strong and of good courage, do not be frightened nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” Oswald was victorious at Heavenfield and was crowned King of both the north and southern portions of Northumbria. One of his first royal acts was to invite a missionary from the renowned missionary monastery of Iona to come and assist him in leading his people in the way of Christ. St. Aidan came in response to this invitation in 635, as the Apostle to the English, with St. Oswald as his translator and guardian for this mission to the Britons, English and Anglo-Saxon peoples.
The total length of The Way of St. Oswald is just shy of 100 miles. We chose to walk half of the way, beginning in Felton. After a lovely coffee at The Running Fox Bakery Café in Felton, we crossed the Coquet River on a 15th century stone bridge and started headed eastward through the forest and fields, along The Way of St. Oswald. We followed the Coquet River nearly all day, eastward toward the sea, on our first leg of the pilgrimage, a 7-mile journey on foot. We got off track, missing one of the signs at a crossroads for St. Oswald’s Way, on another public path, coming out in Acklington, meeting a local cheerful elderly resident with two Yorkie dogs. We stopped off at the famous Morwick Dairy for ice cream cones, then back on The Way of St. Oswald into Warkworth, home of the Warkworth castle, and St. Laurence Church where John Wesley once preached, also home church to Sir John FitzRobert, one of the 25 English Barons who opposed bad King John back in the early 13th century, forcing the king’s hand to sign the world famous Magna Carta. This human rights document not only changed the face of western civilization, but also celebrates its 800th birthday this year.
We stayed each night in local Bed & Breakfast establishments, with a carrier service picking up our big backpacks each morning, and delivering them to our next B&B (Fairfield Guesthouse in Warkworth; Jubilee House in Embleton; Wyndgrove B&B in Seahouses; The Old Vicarage B&B in Belton). Much of our journey was along the beach, or within sight and sound of the sea, by several castles (Warkworth, Dunstanburgh, Bamburgh), medieval churches, alongside or through working farms, scenic river valleys, and through quaint seacoast villages including Alnmouth, Boulmer, Craster, Low Newton by the Sea, Beadnell, Seahouses and Bamburgh. Though rain was expected along much of the way, it held off most days, allowing for cool and refreshing journey interspersed with brilliant sunny days among God’s good creation.
After five days of pilgrimage, we arrived footsore on Lindisfarne on Monday afternoon in bright sunshine. The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is a tidal island, just 1 X 3 miles with only 160 year round residents has a rich and deep Christian history. Though you can also drive across the paved causeway over the tideflats at low tide to get to this island, we walked the pilgrim way along the waymarks, a 2 mile crossing to get over to Lindisfarne, which turns into a peninsula every low tide, but then becomes an island once again twice a day at high tide. There is something beautiful about the daily ebb and flow of the tides to remind us of the two great commandments: Love God by withdrawing from others onto an island of God’s grace, where you can enjoy quiet communion with the God of the universe; but also, love others by joining your life to the mainland, allowing others into your life by welcoming them and connecting with people out of the love of Christ. This was the way of St. Aidan.
Along the way, Trina and I practiced the spiritual pattern of St. Aidan as he walked these same paths in the mid-600s, that of meditating upon the Book of Psalms as we walked, marching from Psalm to Psalm, singing psalm-songs as we remembered them, reciting passages or verses from each Psalm, beginning in Psalm 1, moving through the Book of Psalms in five days. Aidan knew the Book of Psalms for memory, and taught the Psalms to younger monks as they journeyed on foot to other parts of King Oswald’s realm in the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria. We arrived on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, checked into our lodging in time to head off to St. Mary’s Church for Evening Prayers, featuring antiphonal reciting of the Psalms, and prayers for the pilgrim people who come daily seeking rest and restoration.