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Lindisfarne priory

Dear friends and readers,

I am slowly becoming startled at all the material I have to write about, all the pictures! The Road Scholar guides took us to see and experience a remarkable variety and number of places over the two weeks. I had intended at most 5 blogs and now it seems to me I have matter (could this be?) for 7! I also intended to rearrange my travelogue so as to group thematically similar places together (Roman Britain, the violent Reivers at the borders) but the experience I want to convey would be lost. It’s the intertwining of the disparate in the same landscape that makes for variety and therefore fun. I had come to see the Lake District and if I could have chosen would have gone home after the first week, but I admit that this second week was more riveting, the buildings more moving and the whole ambiance of the place redolent with deep past history


Cumbria lake

We have reached the remarkable 8th day, the Monday during the day when we traveled to Otterburn Castle, and went through a scenic Troutbeck around Ullswater lake, visited Carlisle, saw the castle, cathedral, spent a couple of hours in its Tullie Museum (just stuffed with treasures and art) and we will move through to the 10th day when we drove across the Northumberland coast and crossed into what’s left of Lindisfarne priory, its castle, lighthouse and church (not just a ruin but an active place).


This middle twentieth century statue of four monks carrying St Cuthbert in his tomb around Northumberland and Cumbria is also found in Durham Cathedral — one must be a replica or facsimile

We might make a central theme out of the stories told of St Cuthbert, first a reclusive monk, then a hermit, then a corpse fought over by warring factions of ethnic tribes (Romans versus celts, Romans versus saxons), whose relics were scattered as sacred sites around Cumbria. In many of the churches or museums we visited were monuments to him, his history re-told, a relic on display. Or Mary Queen of Scots, whose name came up now and again as this fleeing romantic figure (forgetting she meant to be a politician, was a writer, a poet of considerable ability, a failed intriguer and queen), someone who a particular site is “sacred” to (or built around to lure tourists). The Percys were mentioned again and again — a powerful family.

But I’d like to mention two writers: Walter Scott who was mentioned unobtrusively now and again as saying writing border ballads about the Reivers, visiting and writing poems or novels situated in this or that place or around this or that event. He unites lowlands with highlands, Hanover Protestant capitalism with nostalgic Scots customs. He collects folk verse as the “minstrelsy of the Scottish borders.” Marmion is “a tale of Flodden Fields.” And Basil Bunting, one of Jim’s favorite poets (I have a volume of his work and a slender literary study of him), from Northumberland. A poem he would recite:

A thrush in the syringa sings.

Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things
fear, hunger, lust.

O gay thrush!

Winding all about the coast (Toutbeck, Lowther Castle, the ruins of one of Anne Clifford’s fortresses), we began to find ourselves in the 20th century as the large city of Carlisle came into view. We stayed in the center where one of the castles used to protect the place during the seige still looms over the highway


Carlisle Castle — it reminded of the Sforza castle in Milan without the relics and museum art

Walk in a circle away from the castle and you come upon the vast large cathedral, still going strong as a center of that part of the city’s community: a huge place very proud of its stained glass windows which survived many a war, some directed at them too. It goes back to the 12th century and probably took several centuries to reach its present form:

Walked through streets, small shops, bookstores, empty places too (parts of Carlisle are suffering economically), and we saw very ordinary kinds of attached houses that I remember in Leeds — and lived in myself. With bow windows, green sills, all red brick. Then the fabulous museum. It has several floors and different corridors. The exhibits ranged from burial grounds and relics from neolithic times, to the vikings, to several rooms of Roman life (one rebuilt piece of wall with a tape of life on Hadrian’s wall); one moved through the 15th to 17th century, with pictures of battles, people captured, time capsules of villages, and paintings from the wars between England and Scotland (stolen church bells). Skip past the 18th century to the 19th, with insides of trains replicated where one could sit. Sculpture and pictures of 19th century industrial areas, fishermen areas.

The 20th century was treated as history too, with costume and furniture areas. High art like the Pre-Raphaelites, romantic painters, and pictures going up into the 21st century of the local landscape. Everything chosen with care, taste; there was too much to see before it was time to have the best lecture of the tour: by a young lecturer-curate of the museum on the Reiver culture of the area.


A Peel tower we visited where one of our group got stuck up on top —

Brief summary: from the 14th to the 17th century the area south and north of the borders was dominated by local violent family groups who stole and murdered from one another for a living — the farming land was very poor. It’s a history of successive gov’ts attempting to repress these people by arrest, execution, and finally negotiations and treaties and extradiction, forced emigration, clearances. He told of famous battles whose names I had heard of. I had not realized that the Percys in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays were part of these Reiver clans, and Hotspur one of them. Cattle raids are not romantic as a way of life. He claimed there was a code whereby the women were not raped but I don’t believe that for a moment. Imagine giving birth in such a culture? Women led a hard life. Few people could be long lived: kidnapping, ransom, with fierce uses of symbolic weaponry. I suddenly understood better those parts of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where Cromwell threatens nobility who are not doing their “job” of pacifying the local population. The specifics of these local wars are found in Alistair Moffat’s The Reivers, and John Sadler and Rosie Serdiville’s The Battle of Flodden (1513), which place we later visited.


A memorial on Piper’s Hill overlooking Flodden field, near Branxton church — the day we walked it was very windy and cold even if sunny

The lecturer used phrases like “semi-idiocy” of the way many of these encounters were conducted, in several cases just like Culloden, a huge slaughter which could easily have been avoided (1542 Battle of Solway Marsh hundreds faced one another and proceeded to kill). Flodden was an absurdity brought on by Henry VIII having gone to fight in France (at great expense to no real purpose), so the Scottish king thought he could just take over without planning, care, or sustaining his army. He named names and told of historical figures and legends. The ascension of Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James VI who became James I of England began the end of the era as he proceeded methodically and consistently to abolish flexible border “laws,” execute, arrest, transport people, also take down the Peel towers (thick narrow castles for protection and from which people attacked one another, and where there were dungeons photographed above). The landscape and ancient buildings we were about to see were the remnants of these peoples.

I remember eating in a lovely cafeteria (with that comical statue of someone riding a bike high up) after which we drove to Lannercost Priory, without doubt the loveliest of all the churches I saw during the trip: it is high Anglican done in quiet good taste, late Romanesque. The windows were paid for by a patron of the Tullie Museum and were done by various Pre-Raphaelite painters:


This might be Edward Burne-Jones

The church is still in use, and inside is recorded recent history, but behind it are ruins where we saw a touching burial monument for a young child

All around outside a garden with flowering trees leading to a graveyard and back to the church. It was a quiet place, hardly any tourists (but us), and one could hear Gregorian chanting in the central nave.

We then drove onto Otterburn, the renovated 10th century castle we spent the next five nights in. In the common areas was a fire in the reception area, a small library like bar, a large common room, and the dining room. All around back, meadows and a small lake or pond. In the first blog I included a photo of my magnificently sized room with the tapestry over my bed


Kieder Forest —

On Tuesday we drove through Kieder Forest (huge old forest, with moors, meadows of flowers, also burnt woods, and sheep), saw the Keider castle once used as a Percy hunting lodge, now a place to have lunch and walk by the water,

and then onto the 13th century Hermitage castle, an astonishing building in Liddesdale, a guardhouse whose form was actuated by the felt terror of those inside against those outside and those in their dungeons. The most famous story is of Mary Queen of Scots visiting a wounded Bothwell here; there is a painting of Walter Scott sitting on some stone stairs and contemplating the place.


The hermitage looking up from one of the dirt floors

I surmize the picture of Scott at the Hermitage is an image of him superimposed onto one of the building stairs, so it seems to me just as appropriate to put here one of the 19th century illustrations to his novel The Black Dwarf where the Hermitage plays a role:

The building dates from the 1200s and was in active use until the late 16th century. It could never have been very comfortable, though an official guide fills the Douglas tower with imagined rooms of people going about daily ordinary activities of eating, sleeping, reading, entertaining themselves.

We drove on into Scotland the abbey town of Jedburgh where we visited a Norman abbey (ruined), a Victorian house said to be in which Mary Queen of Scots had stayed for an afternoon (numinous person), a grim jail (no longer in use) set up so you can see some of the desperate nature of the condition people were kept in, with their pathetic crimes life histories, and egregious punishments put down in different cells. The town seemed in good economic shape


We walked all around the abbey

We had quite a way to drive back from Scotland into Cumbria and Otterburn and broke the journey by stopping at a church which the guides took us inside. This below is not that church but another we spontaneously explored another day, similar in age and surprisingly also still in use


A twelfth century church — inside it is unheated, very plain

Dinner, rest, read, and now it was Day 10. Lindisfarne had been built up as truly special place and it took some trouble to get into — you had to plan to go through when the causeway was not flooded and to return before the waters rose again. Nonetheless we meandered through the landscape, driving by Bamburgh castle and looking at people bathing on the shore of the north sea it might have been.


Lots of tourists all around

Lunch in a small town and then onto Lindisfarne, which one of our guides persisted in calling “the holy island,” in honor of St Cuthbert, a central nowadays mythical figure


Lindisfarne estuary or causeway — crossing over into the island

The central story of Lindisfarne is of St Cuthbert told in a museum:

Lindisfarne became the base for Christian evangelism in the North of England and also sent a successful mission to Mercia. Monks from the Irish community of Iona settled on the island. Northumbria’s patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, was a monk and later abbot of the monastery, and his miracles and life are recorded by the Venerable Bede. Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. An anonymous life of Cuthbert written at Lindisfarne is the oldest extant piece of English historical writing. From its reference to “Aldfrith, who now reigns peacefully” it must date to between 685 and 704.[30] Cuthbert was buried here, his remains later translated[c] to Durham Cathedral (along with the relics of Saint Eadfrith of Lindisfarne). Eadberht of Lindisfarne, the next bishop (and saint) was buried in the place from which Cuthbert’s body was exhumed earlier the same year when the priory was abandoned in the late 9th century. Cuthbert’s body was carried with the monks, eventually settling in Chester-le-Street before a final move to Durham Cathedral

It was very crowded, worse than an amusement park, with children everywhere. At first I was put off, but after a while wandering about the shore I could try to imagine what the place might have been like with only a very few quiet people living here under rules of silent and ordered activity. The island has been inhabited for centuries


You walk up to the castle and then wander inside


The church windows from within

Our day was not ended. Late afternoon still around the borders of Scotland, we visited Etal castle (placed in a once strategic position), another heavily built this time 14th century dungeon like structure — though it had more of a feel of a place one could imagine people living in because of the wider floors — Flodden field is however nearby. In all these places there was a museum and a corridor of objects, history, maps and art objects one could look at. We learned of a rich woman who was responsible for single-handedly (with her money) lifting the impoverished abysmal lives of the people in the area to modest prosperity in the middle of the 19th century


The afternoon had turned sunny

I end with Bunting:

Weeping oaks grieve, chestnuts raise
mournful candles. Sad is spring
to perpetuate, sad to trace
immortalities never changing

Weary on the sea
for sight of land
gazing at the coming wave we
see the same wave;

drift on merciless reiteration of years;
descry no death; but spring
is everlasting
resurrection.
— Basil Bunting


One of several bookstores we passed by, one I did walk into …. Very good, lots of well-chosen books, a room for reading them ….

Ellen

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