Saturday, 28 June 2014

II England: Passion Tide

‘No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.’[1]                                          

   Soon after our low-key arrival in Northumberland, we stopped for lunch underneath a viaduct, then ambled a few miles to the battlefield of Flodden.

    In the history of the British Isles, virtually all kings with the name ‘James’ have proved to be either seriously deficient, or else dismal, military leaders. At dawn on September 9th 1513, aided by local knowledge, misty conditions, and probably a lack of mobility on the part of Scotland’s forces, the Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Howard, succeeded in getting his slightly smaller English army into position behind the Scots, thus facing them from a completely unexpected northerly direction, and blocking their way home. James IV of Scotland seems not to have seen any need to change his basic plan however, adhering to the Swiss doctrine in vogue at the time: first, to use his more powerful cannon to wreak as much havoc on the English lines as possible, then to deploy four massive blocks of pike-men called schiltrons, each several thousand strong, which would descend on the enemy in a tightly choreographed sequence, from left to right. But James failed to take account of the wet ground that now lay between his forces and the English (a factor incidentally which helped Robert Bruce’s Scottish army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314). The first schiltron did its gruesome work relatively effectively, but the second, third and fourth got mired in thick mud, or what is known locally as gla. A massacre ensued, estimates for Scotland’s death toll ranging from about 8,000 to 12,000 (including King James IV himself and a significant part of the ruling class of the country), while around 1 to 2,000 of those killed were English or Welsh[2]. Thousands more were wounded and hundreds of prisoners were taken. Sometimes referred to as the last great mediaeval battle on British soil, for Scotland, the Battle of Flodden was a calamity of truly staggering and inconceivable proportions.

   After meeting up with a journalist and photographer from a Scottish Sunday newspaper in the car park, we made our way to the Flodden Monument, a large granite cross on the top of Piper’s Hill. Jessica did a pre-prepared station, reading a text about the futility of war and signal desirability of peace, after which we all, English, Scots and Californians, sang a few bars of Scotland’s unofficial national anthem, Flower of Scotland, paying tribute to the heroes of Bannockburn. Though I had no idea at the time, and Jessica can hardly be blamed for not knowing, this wasn’t in fact the best possible ‘Flower’ - or ‘Flowers’. Also known as A Piper’s Lament, and sometimes played at funerals and Remembrance Day services without words, The Flowers o’ the Forest recalls the tragic aftermath of Flodden. The following two lines are probably the best known: 

‘The Flooers [Flowers] o’ the Forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The pride o’oor land lie cauld in the clay.’                                                                                                   

   From Piper’s Hill we made our way to nearby Branxton, where I visited the small 15th century parish church, dedicated to St Paul, in which King James IV’s body was laid after the battle, before being taken for burial in London. One of Branxton’s chief claims to fame is its old-fashioned red telephone box, containing a tourist information panel, making it a strong candidate for the distinction of ‘smallest visitor centre in the world’. We were well provided for tea and biscuits in the parish hall by a very engaging Northumbrian lady in her 70s, who insisted somewhat incongruously that the car park near the battlefield was a crime hotspot, persuading our new journalist companion to go off and rescue his motor. As we walked on he was back to interview each of us in turn, for the purpose of writing a feature article that would appear in Easter Sunday’s edition of the paper.
Bee-bop-era tractor, with trailer
   Taking up the trail again we came to a pathway where, after some searching, it was possible eventually to find a signpost we’d been told to look for, to the village of Etal. In true Indiana Jones style however (as the Scottish journalist was first to agree), a layer of moss first had to be removed, before we could see the letters ‘ETAL’, with an arrow. Cutting across an open field or two, upon reaching the river Till an otter, bobbing up and down in midstream, presented a superb photo opportunity, but sadly my camera-button-pressing skills let me down at the crucial moment. Following hard on the heels of that adventure though, anon we were all conveyed in a bright red trailer, towed by a classic bee-bop-era tractor, across a ford in the river. The tractor was driven by a gentleman farmer from central casting, clad in what might have been Harris Tweed – Harris ‘n’ Ford, perhaps.

   Etal is notable for the beautiful ruins of its castle, whose portcullis is flanked by a pair of cannons. Arriving there, it happened that I was helping to carry the large cross with the member of our party whose surname is Wallace, and whistling the tune to ‘Flower of Scotland’ as we went along. From the expression on the face of the Scots photographer who took pictures of us, I don’t think he quite believed that I was entitled to whistle that tune, but in any case he almost certainly didn’t realise that the pictures he was taking might have born the caption: ‘Wallace and Bruce carrying their Cross’.

   That Maundy Thursday evening we had a service of washing each others’ feet, following the example of Our Lord; I washed my neighbour’s foot, and my feet were washed by another member of our group. Then before supper, we had the best part of a ‘Seder’ Passover service; “…based on the Biblical verse commanding Jews to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt: "You shall tell your child on that day, saying, 'It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.'" (Exodus 13:8)” [Wikipedia]. In this I was strongly reminded of the sort of informed DIY spirituality that was cultivated in its better moments by the Movement for Faith and Justice Today. Then we had a specially prepared Passover meal, with lamb for carnivores, and a delicious nut loaf for us vegetarians, courtesy of Derek from Lincolnshire. Afterwards, Amy asked us to share those things that we considered highlights of the pilgrimage. When it came to my turn, Geoff mischievously suggested that my high point was crossing over from Scotland into England; but I put that allegation firmly to rest, and instead recounted the story of how Jessica had rescued me from the hole I had dug myself into, with my ‘Scotch trifle’ faux pas in Kelso.

   On the morning of Good Friday, we had an exceptionally early start, getting away under cover of darkness ca.5.30am, but it soon dawned on everyone, and we reached the village of Lowick for breakfast. Before leaving there I did a final ‘station’, about some words which were part of an outstanding homily delivered by Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Cape Town, South Africa, at the World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005; an injunction from Our Lord, told to the Cardinal when he was a student in Ireland: 

“Follow Me I’m right behind you.” 

   Holy Island and the North Sea came into view soon afterwards. Having already begun to meet pilgrims from other groups, near the village of Beal all the merry bands coalesced in a big palming throng, and were joined by a miniature ‘press pack’, in readiness for the final part of the journey.

   When the tide is in, Holy Island is truly an island, but when it’s out, vehicles can gain access via a causeway, and pilgrims can walk in bare feet, across 3-4 kms of sandy gla. To the accompaniment of various upbeat hymns, sung to keep everyone’s spirits aloft (including numerous children, for whom it was all quite hard work), several times I nearly got stuck, but generally we made sure to stay on the safe side of a row of posts, beyond which there exists a potentially mortal danger of quick sand. Geoff cracked the best joke of the day, asking one of the organisers, “So, how many photographers have you lost over the years?” The other thing about the mud was that it was cold, and the soles of my feet being so unpractised, little bits of broken shell caused a certain amount of pain, but one was compelled, above all on Good Friday, to put this firmly in perspective by thinking of the cruel nails that were driven through Our Lord’s feet, as He suffered His Passion. I was also conscious of the parallel here with the tradition of walking the last Holy Mile in bare feet to Walsingham, and of being bare-footed as a pilgrim on Station Island in Lough Derg, Ireland. Finally reaching Lindisfarne, the opportunity to wash feet and don shoes and socks conferred a wonderful feeling of being truly home and dry.
Holy Island - Lindisfarne
   From Ireland originally, St Aidan was chosen from within the monastic community on Iona to go to impart the Gospel to the pagan tribes of Northumbria in about the year 635AD, at the invitation of St Oswald, the local king. Making Lindisfarne the Episcopal seat of a diocese of which he became the first bishop, he had a great deal of success, and is recognised as a Saint by the Anglican Communion and Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as by Catholics. Much of our knowledge of his life and work, as well as that of St Cuthbert and others, has come down to us from the Venerable Bede’s outstanding Ecclesiastical History of the English-speaking Peoples, written in the early 8th century.

   On my first visit to Holy Island, a day-trip on August 27th 2012, I visited St Aidan’s Catholic Church, and was able to attend a Mass in his honour which was about to take place. This was especially memorable because St Aidan’s feast is actually on 31st August, but the tide times that year made travel for some Geordie pilgrims who were there, from Newcastle, impractical on the 31st, so the celebration was brought forward. It gave particular resonance to a sign on the exterior of the church, next to a crucifix, which reads “Quo fas vocat”, with an English translation underneath: “Go wherever Divine Providence calls”.

   Our board and lodging was arranged at a hostel named after Blessed Frederic Ozanam, next door to St Aidan’s Church. After garlic bread for lunch, overcome by weariness I slept for much of the afternoon, though I have a recollection of waking up briefly at 3pm, when the faithful are encouraged, on a Good Friday at least, to give a thought to Our Lord’s agony on the Cross. My going more or less straight back to sleep however made it a less than perfect way to spend the Hour of Mercy on such a holy day, and later in the pilgrimage I adopted a policy, whereby in normal circumstances I would try to avoid sleeping between 3 and 4pm on Fridays. In the early evening I went out for a stroll, glad to have my camera in order to take some better-than-usual snaps from the grounds of the ruined Abbey, especially in the direction of Lindisfarne castle. Later we had a very good, rather ‘MFJT’-like service, except… It was obvious that the pre-prepared bidding prayers, including one for Pope Francis, but conspicuously not one for the newly-installed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, would cause a bit of a stink. A fellow who had been involved with Northern Cross from its beginnings in the 1970s, and a Protestant obviously, interposed a prayer for the new Archbishop after the ‘official’ ones, but he was understandably not best pleased when I spoke to him afterwards. You see, the great thing about Northern Cross is that it is ecumenical, and really, whoever drew up those bidding prayers needed only to remember the Christian precept which is arguably above all others: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’. And when one thinks of the hospitality from all those people of different denominations…

   Later in the evening there was an opportunity to spend time in the company of Our Lord’s Cross, with some Taizé[3] chants, helping no doubt to salve any lingering crossness in the camp. After a sound sleep, on Holy Saturday morning I did the Stations of the Cross in St Aidan’s Church, then met up with other members of our group, swapping email addresses, and getting more generous sponsorship. I was also handed an envelope, sent by my mother, containing a beautiful Easter card, illustrated with a goldfinch, which I mention especially because goldfinches would prove to be a sort of recurring motif in the weeks and months that followed.

   Most Northern Crossers were staying until the morrow (Easter Sunday), but my plan was to get back to Berwick-upon-Tweed, in order to make a few arrangements before resuming my journey on Easter Monday. I was kindly driven across to the mainland by the same fellow whose ecumenical sensibilities had been offended on the previous evening, accompanied by Bernard from our group, and by a Swabian chap from Stuttgart and his English partner, from whom I learnt the phrase ‘Gute Oster Fest’ – Happy Easter in German.

   The 13 or so kilometres along the A1 to Berwick were covered in bright sunshine, though I was carrying all my gear for the first time in over a week, and by the time I reached Tweedmouth (on the historical as well as modern English side of the Tweed), I could feel the odd twinge from my right knee. I elected to follow a sign to Shielfield Park, home of Berwick Rangers FC, the only English team that, on account of its proximity to Scotland, plays its football in the Scottish system. A third round King Cup match had just started between Berwick Rangers Reserves and an Edinburgh side called the Civil Service Strollers. Entering the ground, and crossing a ticket seller’s palm with silver as I did so, an abiding memory from the first half was that the Strollers had a single black player, incessantly referred to by his team-mates as ‘Yaya’, in reference no doubt to Yaya Toure, the Cote d’Ivoire and Manchester City midfield player. My leaving at half-time was perhaps unfortunate though, as it meant I missed all the goals of a game in which Berwick ran out 4:0 winners.

Berwick Rangers Reserves 4:0 Civil Service Strollers
   From Shielfield Park I made my way to the Tweed estuary, getting a fine photographic portrait of the 17th century ‘Old Bridge’, from which can be seen an assortment of waterfowl including Eiders (aka ‘Cuddy’s Ducks’, after St Cuthbert) and swans. The town itself is policed by an irascible and vociferous community of seagulls.

[1] "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength." Moltke the Elder. Abbreviated version quoted in ‘The Battle of Flodden 1513’, by John Saddler and Rosie Serdiville.
[2] It should be noted that the English had been mustered almost entirely from northern and central areas – the young Henry VIII was occupied at the time with another army in France.
[3] Founded by a Protestant, Brother Roger Schutz in 1940, Taizé in SE France is a major pilgrimage destination, as well as being a place of refuge for all and sundry, and noted for its distinctive and easy-on-the-ear chants.

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