Thursday, 27 August 2009

Holy Island: Northumberland’s Sacred Spaces / Tourist Honeypots

Holy Island could have been one of those places that promises much and inevitably disappoints. After all, I was visiting in July. Usually islands guarantee some limitation on the number of tourists, but Holy Island is a tidal island, linked to the mainland by a causeway that is flooded for only a few hours a day. As a result, imagine my wearied astonishment at discovering a main thoroughfare clogged with people heading back to the main car park, towing children and licking ice creams, mostly in the kind of shorts and sandals-with-socks that pass as holiday gear in Britain, a solitary saffron-robed monk accompanied by a little clutch of dreadlocked purple-weave hippies for visual relief. But I am getting ahead of myself, for the buildup to this singularly disappointing moment (not seeing the monk, I hasten to add, but experiencing the press of the crowd) was considerably more dramatic - and things rapidly improved after the pedestrian nadir.

I am of two minds as to whether to continue, having written the phrase ‘pedestrian nadir’. But I shall press on...

I was really impressed with the friendliness of the people of Northumberland. I had been told that complete strangers could strike up a conversation as if they had known you your entire life, and indeed this proved to be true. Only a slight conversational opener with the lady at the petrol station in Wooler, and I found myself hearing all about how she needed a holiday to recover from her week’s holiday, including the visits from the children and how her daughter had rung that she had just missed the bus but luckily her husband was just heading in that direction in the truck. From there it was only an easy jump to selling me the Ordnance Survey map, and advising me in the strongest possible terms to check the tide times before setting off for Holy Island. ‘People get caught by the tide all the time,’ she said. ‘We tell them, and tell them, but they just don’t listen. Last month someone got caught on the causeway, and you’re supposed to go wait in the hut and let the car flood, but the woman’s husband was disabled and he couldn’t walk to the hut, so they had to bring in the helicopter to airlift them out. It’s ridiculous, last year the council spent £11,000 on helicopters to lift people off the causeway because they were careless, and we have to pay for it.’ I absolutely promised her that I would be well careful of the tide times, which I promptly recited, for the next 24 hours. Two days later she checked on me when I called in again. ‘Did you get caught out?’ she asked anxiously, despite the fact that I was standing in front of her, having arrived in a functional car. It was nice to be the object of concern, though. ‘No, I was parked back on the mainland an hour before the tide came in.’ ‘Good, good,’ she said, and then continued the exchange she was having with what appeared to be a nephew, son, or possibly friend of the family. It was hard to tell. There was the adorable baby nephew, captured imitating his dad in all things, including attempts at auto repair, tyre-kicking, and axe-wielding. How much time she spent on Facebook disseminating pictures of these things. ‘Oh, you’re from Wales, where? I went down last year, and put a thousand miles on the car, following the rally all around the south Wales valleys and Pembrokeshire.’ This the nephew/son/friend of family. ‘I got all the way back and the car died on the hill above D-, so I just put it in neutral and coasted down the hill home. That was lucky,’ he added. ‘The car was scrap after that.’

It can be difficult to get away from such entertainment, but I could feel the tide coming in even as he was speaking and was becoming reluctantly restless to get away and go back again. For indeed such was the pull of the island, tourists or no tourists, that I went for three separate visits during my stay in Northumberland.

The lady at the bunkhouse, having duly advised me also about the tide times and the dangers of being stranded, was more than willing to provide information about parking. ‘I bet they make you pay through the nose to park on the island,’ I said as she stood chatting with me, coffee mug in hand. Indeed, she was most willing to tell me about the free parking, which meant only a slightly longer walk. At last I headed off, taking a cross country route that led me over a big rise some eight miles inland, from which I had an unexpected and breathtaking view of the island and the entire coast below me. The island continued to tease me as I followed National Cycle Route 1 north of B-, and found it lurking down below my right elbow, in a view that would have been impossible from the lower A1. Past the petrol station & friendly services (open til 8 every night), over the rail tracks, over which a surprisingly frequent service sprints between Newcastle and Edinburgh, up over a final rise, round the bend and suddenly, the causeway, before which something looking oddly like a city centre bus station - three identical signs so people could pull over in their cars and check those all important tide times before crossing.

The road - two lanes of tarmac, raised a few inches above the sand, narrowing to a single lane on the bridge over the river that wends its way through the endless beach, above which a wooden sentry box on stilts sits surveying the seabirds and the endless line of wooden posts that mark the pilgrim’s route to the island over the sands, the way of St Cuthbert. The way of Margaret remained along the tarmac, dunes and reed grasses spooling by as I hurtled along at surprising speed along one of Britain’s most scenic three-mile stretches of road. From the line of seaweed it seemed that the road would flood way past the causeway. Eventually I spotted what I thought must be the free carpark (‘No overnight camping on island’ warned the sign) and pulled in, to accompany three other cars dotted about, including one with a man sitting with the passenger door open, smoking a pipe as he contemplated the bay past the dunes. I realised I was still at the far north of the island, well away from the abbey and castle, but decided to have a bit of a walk anyway. The track led to an isolated farmhouse and what had once been a traditional windmill, but now sported a tiny modern eco-model spinning gaily. I turned into the dunes, seeing a man out working by the barn, and emerged onto yet another endless beach, populated only by a distant couple walking a dog. This is what islands are all about, I thought, looking down at my feet and discovering and compulsively photographing a flattened handbag washed up by the tide. (There is no accounting for the effect of watching the six-DVD series of The Genius of Photography.)

Upon my return to the car, the man was still smoking his pipe and contemplating the horizon.

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