The 29-year-old barista from San Luis Obispo, California, is one of a small band of pilgrims who, this Holy Week, have walked through blizzards from Lanark to Lindisfarne, a 110-mile stretch linking South Lanarkshire to Northumberland, a demanding journey at the best of times but especially so in such poor weather and while carrying, as they do all the way, a nine-foot pine cross in honour and memory of Christ’s crucifixion.
The journey concludes with a barefoot walk, three miles across the low-tide sand and shallows, to Holy Island. This is no pleasant spring ramble. They struggled through the Scottish Borders knee-deep in snow, wind scouring their faces as red as the crosses strung around their necks. “Pilgrimage,” one tells me, “is a shower for the soul.”
These pilgrims are one of six “legs” forming part of Northern Cross, a group which since 1976 has walked various routes from Scotland and the north of England to Holy Island. There are around 65 in total walking this year. One leg starts in Haddington and hugs the coast; another, the St Cuthbert’s Leg, begins in Melrose, but this year had to be abandoned part of the way through when the ice caused too many of the walkers to slip and hurt themselves.
The St Baldred’s Leg is a solo effort, with the emphasis on effort. Matt Gindele, from Edinburgh, a rangy, silver-haired fiftysomething, intended to walk from St Andrews to Lindisfarne, camping out as he went. He brings an Iron Man sensibility to Christian worship, had trained extensively for this, and so feels a deep sense of failure that he managed only – only, he says – 80 kilometres in 24 hours before the weather closed in. Coming through St Monans he was waist-deep in sea-foam, his tweed plus-fours quite engulfed, and in Methil his tent was buried in a snow-drift. Still, he is undaunted and is already planning next year’s odyssey – Anglesey to Lindisfarne on a bike. “You really have to make a pilgrimage to understand it,” ,” he says.
Well, quite. Which is why I decided to do so. At a time when church attendances are continuing to fall, indeed when organised religion is regarded by many with cynicism bordering on hostility, it is fascinating to note that pilgrimages appear to be growing in popularity. Lourdes attracts five million people each year, and an estimated 200,000 walk the Camino to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. In Scotland, there is an annual pilgrimage to St Ninian’s Cave in Whithorn, and last year saw a revival of the route from Edinburgh to St Andrews, last walked by pilgrims in the 12th century. There seems to be something about the idea of expressing faith or simply seeking meaning through the act of walking that has clicked with the 21st- century mindset.
I meet the pilgrims on the afternoon of Maundy Thursday, on Flodden field, by the stark granite memorial to the 14,000 who died 500 years ago in the battle between Scots and English forces. The stone cross rises like a gravestone from bleak farmland. Snow-dusted furrows give the impression of a comb dragged through icing sugar. Frost-burned snowdrops genuflect towards the frozen ground. It’s a cheerless scene, empty of human company, and then suddenly here they are, the pilgrims, singing Flower Of Scotland. There are nine of them on the Lanark Leg – seven men and two women – walking along a single track road, having departed Kelso that morning. Two bearded men in woolly bunnets take one end each of the wooden cross, the man at the front a little bent under the weight. “The first cross we used was much heavier than this,” one of them, Les Haden, tells me. “It was a real brute. It took three people to carry it.”
Retired postman Les is 67 and comes from Penrith, where he is an active chorister. He is the elder statesman of the group, this being his 18th pilgrimage to Lindisfarne, and is held in great affection by all concerned. It is, he says, better than Butlin’s. Les is an ecclesiophile who likes to spend his holidays visiting English churches, ticking off notable fonts and brasses. This pilgrimage, for him, is about the company. It is an antidote to loneliness. The destination is not important especially, nor is the cross; what matters to Les are the friendships forged on the road. They keep his mind off the arthritis in his hips.
Northern Cross is an ecumenical pilgrimage. They get Catholics, Anglicans, members of the Kirk, and even the occasional curious atheist or Muslim. There are remarkably few religious arguments. Disputes are more likely to be over which particular species of goose has been spotted on the road – “Canada!” “No, Barnacle!” – than the finer points of catechism. We set off from Flodden for the village of Etal. There is a protocol for carrying the cross. The person in front, after their shift, moves to the back; the pilgrim at the back takes a break and a new volunteer joins at the front. You carry it for as long as you are able. I take my turn. The weight of the wood digs into my shoulders and leaves them bruised. You hear stories about kids chucking stones at pilgrims or taking the cross and throwing in into a pond, but everyone we pass is respectful. They say hello and tut about the weather. Drivers wave and flash their lights. These crosses, as they pass through the country, are leaned up against the walls of pubs, tearooms and sweetie shops. This is a very British pilgrimage that runs on tea and ale and soor plooms. Whenever the cross is put down, the pilgrims kneel before it and pray. It was made, I later learn, in a garage in Kidderminster.
To enter Etal, we must ford the River Till, which is in spate. Andrew Joicey, a flat-capped farmer, takes us over in a trailer pulled by a tractor which, dating from 1955, is the same age as himself. He has performing this kindness since for more than 20 years, ever since the footbridge was lost, and he says he admires the stamina and companionship of the Northern Crossers. Plus, it is an excuse to get his beloved old tractor out. “I feel like Moses,” says one pilgrim as he cross the roaring water.
We pass the evening in the village hall, bunking down in sleeping bags on the floor. Most nights of the pilgrimage are spent roughing it like this. Prospective pilgrims are told, when they enquire about Northern Cross, that earplugs are an essential bit of kit, snoring being endemic. And really, the noise is incredible. Onward Christian Snorers would be an appropriate anthem.
The next morning we are on the road at five. We have to be at the Beal sands, ready to cross to Holy Island, by half-past ten, and that is more than 10 miles away. It is still dark as we leave, torchlight throwing bright halos on the snowy ground. The crows are up, croaking in their trees as we pass, but the village is still in bed. We walk past drawn curtains, each sleeper unaware that a pilgrimage to Holy Island – a thing that has happened for around 1,400 years – is passing their home. Later, when the sun rises, the shadow of the cross is thrown on fields and back roads and, eventually, on the A1 as we rush across.
On the sands, we meet with the other legs and with the coordinator of the pilgrimage, Margaret Williams. Her parents were founder members of Northern Cross. She is 29 and has made this journey every year since she was eleven. “I have walked across in rain and snow and wind and hail, and in a gale,” she says. “I have ran it, and meandered across. I have only fallen in a couple of times.”
Although there is a causeway which allows vehicles to travel to and from Holy Island at low tide, we are going by the three-mile crossing that pilgrims have taken since in the 7th century. Tree-trunks, spaced 100 feet apart, show the safe route, avoiding the quicksand. The water is bitterly cold on bare feet, the sand muddy, the shells sharp. Bamburgh Castle hulks hazy on the horizon and the crosses are reflected in the shallows. The arrow-like prints of wading birds seem to point the way.
Singing and chatter mingle on the breeze.
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound…”
“Don’t worry your feet will soon go numb and you won’t feel the pebbles.”
“That saved a wretch like me.”
“All right, children, stop complaining or no Easter eggs.”
“I once was lost, but now am found.”
“Holy crap, this is cold.”
“Was blind, but now I see.”
It is quite a thing, after an hour or so, to arrive on the beach at Lindisfarne. We are chilled and weary, but the expression on every face is unmistakable: joy. It is a joy which comes from doing something for the first time – this particular journey – while at the same time walking in the footsteps of the thousands, long dead, who trod the path before. As we arrive the tide is already obliterating all trace of our own steps, but that’s as it should be. Pilgrimage is a continuum – as much about what lies before as what lies behind.
Lori Moore, in her Californian way, puts it more simply. “That,” she says, “was awesome!” And yeah, she’s right, it was.