Picture a vast expanse of wet shore, punctuated by trailing salt water streams abandoned by the retreating tide. Wooden posts, sunk in the silt of centuries and streaked with green, mark a pathway across the flats. Across this empty landscape curves a causeway, at the halfway point of which is a small cabin on stilts for the relief of travellers caught unaware by the incoming tide. The causeway meets then with an area of sand dunes, covered with spiky grasses and inhabited by rare and solitary birds. Running parallel with these dunes for a while, the causeway finally becomes a full road on solid ground and leads to the only village on this almost-island.
We had crossed this expanse of soggy sand , in the drizzle of late April and the bitter North Sea wind. It was a struggle, even in full walking gear, and we were frozen by the time we reached our hostel. Someone had bought a bottle of the local mead which we swallowed with gratitude. Although we were chilled and damp, we were high in spirit because we had completed our pilgrimage. In four days we had walked from the Venerable Bede's home at Saint Paul's Monastery in Jarrow to Saint Cuthbert's Holy Island. We had raised nearly five hundred pounds for our friends in Chile struggling to find out the truth about the Disappeared. Carmen, who had accompanied us, thanked us on behalf of her brother and cousin, and we cheered weakly before making for showers and beds.
Leo pulled me aside as I headed for the female dormitory. "I've a surprise for you. Meet me here in half an hour!"
Forty minutes later we were seated at a quiet table by the window of the best restaurant on the island. Beyond the statue of Saint Aidan in the churchyard close by, we could see the harbour and, across it, the castle, rising dramatically from a rock outcropping. The statue reminded us that the heritage of this isle was bound up in religion, dating back to Christianity's golden age, when the two centres of Christianity were Rome and Jarrow.
We ate smoked salmon, and spinach soup; sauteed fois gras and sweetbreads, with pommes Anna and white truffle sauce; fillet of red bream with celeriac puree, wild mushroom and red wine sauce; we shared lemon cheesecake, chocolate mousse and strawberry flan. Never had I had such an appetite for a meal.
Later, we stood in the churchyard by the ruined Priory where the walls of the nave still stand, and a single arch curves high, intact, like a poem to the sky. Here, the feeling of saintliness was strong. Some spiritual nerve had tingled inside me from the moment I set foot on the rocks at the start of the causeway and the path. There was a tangible sense of faith here, a presence from the distant past. No eerie ghost, but a benevolent, peaceful presence.
And with the ancient chants of Celtic monks ringing around us, and the chill April wind whipping up the hair on our heads, Leo asked me to marry him.
And I said: "Yes!"
Part of this work was submitted as the Dissertation for the MA in Writing
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Last amended on 10th September 1998 / copyright H. M. Whitehead