Lindisfarne, the Holy Isle

By Peter Porteous

We had talked of going to see Lindisfarne and in one September past, we managed to get there!  It is 400 miles from Axminster so after staying with friends for the first night and a hotel in York for the next, we arrived on the North Sea coast of Northumberland for a week’s holiday.  Lindisfarne or ‘The Holy Isle’ is twelve miles South East of Berwick-Upon-Tweed and once home to the medieval monastery of St Aidan and St Cuthbert. 

The main part of Lindisfarne is about a mile square and lies a mile off-shore.  The route across the sands is a tarmacked causeway which is exposed at low tide for about six hours twice each day.  There is a population of about 200 on the island which, as you might imagine, is focused on tourism with the three main attractions being Lindisfarne Castle (National Trust), Lindisfarne Priory and museum (English Heritage) and the Lindisfarne Centre (Local Community Development Trust). In the summer it gets crowded with thousands visiting by day in the height of summer.

The Causeway

Much of what we know of Lindisfarne comes from St Bede who lived less than 100 years after the founding of the Church and Priory in AD 635.  The king of Northumbria was Oswald (634 – 642) who had been brought up in Celtic Iona and was reportedly a pious man.  The local Anglo-Saxon population had reverted to paganism and the king sent for Aidan, an Irish Monk from Iona to re-introduce Christianity.  Aidan became the first Bishop and Lindisfarne became the seat of his Northumbrian Diocese where his relationship with Oswald at Bamburgh Castle were cordial.  Aidan was an inspired missionary and the Island became an important centre for the evangelization of Northern England. Aidan died at the church in Bamburgh Castle in AD 651.

In AD 665 St Cuthbert, an Anglo-Saxon monk from Melrose Abbey arrived at Lindisfarne as the Prior. It took 4 days of walking a route now called Cuthbert’s way, a pilgrimage route of about 65 miles which apparently is very beautiful. Cuthbert was a powerful evangelist and travelled the length of Northumbria and was held in very high regard.  He became Bishop in Lindisfarne but chose to live the life of a hermit on the Farne Isles where he died. In AD 687.

Although from the Celtic church, it was St Cuthbert who accepted the dominance of the Roman tradition which was agreed at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664 and helped to settle the rift between the Celtic and Roman traditions.  After his death, the island became a place of pilgrimage and within 30 years St Cuthbert had a cult following. 

An early Viking raid on Lindisfarne in AD 793, shocking in its brutality, entirely destroyed the first community which rocked the Christian world and has unsettling parallels to our present time with the persecutions of Christians in the Middle East.  The Island was a targeted for attack by Norsemen whose own culture was under threat from Christianity in the Low Countries.

To avoid desecration by the Viking invaders, St Cuthbert’s body was removed by the monks from Lindisfarne and there it began a long and eventful journey, finally arriving in Durham, causing it was said, a Cathedral to be built. St Cuthbert was an important figure in a united England’s fight with the Danes and was said to have inspired and encouraged King Alfred.  

I became captivated by the story of The Holy Island which is well told at the Lindisfarne Centre and there is also a section on the Lindisfarne Gospels of AD 698 (the originals are in the British Museum).  One day on the island is not nearly enough!

The Castle on a basalt plug, Holy Isle

Northumberland is full of castles from the days when the English were subduing the Scots as well as protecting themselves from them.  Lindisfarne Castle, built in Tudor times (AD 1550) was no exception in the task of keeping the unruly border people at bay but in its recent history it was converted to an Edwardian family home by Lutyens and has a great feel and character about it.  Looking west from the battlements we could see the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory which was constructed in AD 1150 during the time of the Norman kings but destroyed at the Reformation.  The Priory was left a ruin and its stone plundered for the harbour defences. 

Priory Ruins from the Castle

Lindisfarne is not the same place as the Farne Islands which on a reasonably clear day you can see eight miles to the south east as a cluster of rocks that sit off the coast at Bamburgh.  The Farne Islands are an uninhabited nature reserve which can only be visited by boat from Seahouses.  The remains at Farne is a Chapel and the hermitage to which St Cuthbert retreated and eventually died but that is for another visit.  The National Trust advised us that the best visiting months for the Farne Islands are in the summer when you may be able to land and see the nesting sea birds (May to July).

The Roman Catholic Centre on Lindisfarne comprises a youth hostel belonging to the Society of St Vincent de Paul where groups of children can come and enjoy their summer holidays.  The Parish church of St Mary the Virgin (C of E) is built on the site of St Aidan’s early monastery and well worth a visit to see Fenwick Lawson’s large sculpture of six monks carved in elm carrying the body of St Cuthbert on a journey across the North during the time of the Viking raids.

First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 9: 14-15


When I was a seminarian, I remember being advised to watch television soaps. “If you do this” we were told, “you’ll always have a topic of conversation for any pastoral visit which you might make.”

I’m not sure the advice was good, but I am able to blame the adviser for the fact that I do watch both “Coronation Street”, and, I’m ashamed to say  “Emmerdale.”

And I’m continually amazed at the way in which the residents of Emmerdale live. Murder, robbery, rape, deceit, lies and sexual immorality is the lifestyle in which I think, every villager is immersed And this includes the lady Anglican vicar who’s just condoned the murder of the man with whom she was having an affair, before secretly burying him in a fresh church yard grave and subsequently digging him up for reburial in a local wood!

And yet, would you believe it, in one episode this week, I heard a particular villager claim that she was giving up chocolate, for Lent!

I’m glad I saw that episode because it reminded me just how common it is for people to say that they’re giving something up for Lent. Often when they have no idea what they’re talking about.

And it was with these thoughts going through my mind that I began to reflect anew on the whole business of “giving something up “for Lent. What does it mean? Why does anyone do it? How necessary is it? And should we perhaps bring a fresh look at the whole practise of fasting? Because “Giving something up for Lent” is just that. It’s the practise of Fasting as a part of your religious commitment.

Now, the Gospels recount how the followers of John the Baptist came to Jesus, in the earlier part of his ministry, and asked him why his disciples didn’t fast in the same way as they did. They also pointed out that the Pharisees practised fasting as well.

Jesus replied that wedding guests didn’t fast whilst the groom was present, but he went on to say that when the groom was taken away, then they would begin to fast.  Jesus was saying that after his death, those who followed him would fast, and in the next part of the conversation he pointed out that this was a new time and called for a new approach. You’ll probably remember his teachings about new skins for new wine.

So; should we practise fasting?

The answer is “yes”, but we need to be very clear about what fasting is and why we should do it.

We don’t do it just because it’s the kind of tradition often practised in Lent.  We don’t give something up in order to tell other people what we’re doing this year. That would put us right back into Emmerdale, and who wants to go there?!

We do it because Jesus said that his followers would fast after he’d been taken away, and the only reason this makes any kind of sense to me is that fasting is a way of drawing closer to the Lord whose historical bodily presence was taken away by his death, and whose presence we long for.

It means going without something in order that its loss will be a way into a greater awareness of the presence of Jesus in those new ways which God has given us.

There’s a strong tradition in the church which advocates the pain of fasting as being a sign that we put God before the hunger for physical food, and that therefore in some strange way, prayer in this condition is somehow more valid. I don’t personally find that particularly helpful. I don’t think that hunger for food would bring me any closer to Jesus, but I do think I could get up a bit earlier and start to say the morning office without convincing myself that I should first read my emails and look at the news headlines. And in this case, the giving up of the pleasure of an extra half hour in bed and the luxury of an early cup of tea and a biscuit whilst flipping through my iPad, would indeed help me to get a bit closer to Jesus.

This would be a Lenten Fast for me and `I’ve no doubt that you could think of Fasts which would suit your own particular journey as well. You see, I think we need to listen carefully to what Jesus is saying. We fast in order to get closer to him and it might be good to begin to think how this understanding of fasting fits into the story of fresh skins for new wine.

And perhaps we might also consider what other bodily habits we might deny ourselves in order to get closer to Jesus. Maybe we might consider a fast of speech when we meet someone whom we feel needs to be put straight with a few well-chosen words.

Or indeed, maybe a fast of the eyes from viewing Emmerdale would draw us nearer to the Lord by giving us some extra time in which we might reflect more deeply, on just what God has done for us through his Son.

May God support you all through your Lenten observances.

Forde Abbey

by Peter Porteous

A hooded boy stands in front of the Cistercian wall painting of the crucifixion in the North Undercroft.  We were sheltering from the humidity and fierce July sun during the Forde Abbey Summer Fair in what may have been a chapel for the novice monks built more than 700 years ago.

The frieze was discovered in 1990 during renovations and is thought to be the earliest Cistercian figure painting in England.  It is on the East wall of the Eeles’ pottery shop, in buildings that have been radically altered since the Reformation and the visitor must look hard and use imagination to understand the history and the original layout of the old Abbey.

If the Cistercian monks and lay brothers returned today, they may still recognise their quarters, their kitchen, refectories and their chapter house but their abbey church and many other buildings are gone with the stone reused to build the English Baroque architecture of the main house. 

Today, those monks might have been amused to see people of the 21st century watching the ferret racing, the falconry displays and their participation in archery and fly casting (all leather and prunella), but no doubt would be bewildered by the display of classic cars and people’s mobile phones!

It was by happy chance in 1141 that a small group of dispossessed monks on foot and carrying a lofty cross were spied making their way over the ford on the old Roman Road by Adelicia de Brionne.  Adelicia lived at nearby West Ford (near South Chard) and was none other than their former patron’s sister and heir.  She offered the monks land by the River Axe on which to build a monastery which, after much prayer and fasting they dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Adelicia’s descendants were the Courtenays, Earls of Devon whose bones still moulder in the earth about the house and were the abbey’s munificent benefactors.

Forde Abbey flourished as a monastery for four hundred years during which time it became one of the richest and most learned institutions of its kind in England. By the end of the 13th century, around 30,000 acres were owned by the abbey.  During its 400 years, Forde had 32 abbots, some achieving greatness like Bishop Baldwin who became Archbishop of Canterbury and who is thought to have accompanied Richard the Lionheart to the Holy Lands.

The last abbot was Thomas Chard, born near Awliscombe in 1470 and educated at Oxford. Though a man of influence under the Bishop of Exeter, he resigned his various duties to become a monk at Forde Abbey and was then elected Abbot the following year.  Abbot Chard devoted himself to a comprehensive overhaul of the abbey and much is owed to him for how it appears today, in particular, the Great Hall and Chard’s Tower.

But the times were troubling and would have kept Abbot Chard in a constant state of alarm with the unscrupulous character of Henry VIII.  The Reformation in England was driven by the rise of the new English middle class with its disaffection with Church authority but the catalyst for upheaval was the Henry’s petulance with Pope Clement over his marriage difficulties.  His attack on the Church led to the theft and redistribution of its wealth. In 1536, the first Act for the dissolution of the monasteries was passed and within two years, over 3000 religious’ buildings, colleges and hospitals were annexed to the Crown.

To win over the population amidst this destruction, the people were promised to be relieved of their taxes and that there would be raised and maintained new earls, barons and knights for the better provision of the poor with new preachers to proclaim the new religion. Needless to say, these promises were wholly unfulfilled and led to great mischief and extreme poverty, particularly in Devon, not seen before.  There was great increase in domestic hardship by the oppression of poor tenants at the hands of new landlords who were as harsh and exacting as the monks had been kind and generous.  The Reformation brought with it, widespread poverty and wretchedness.

On the destruction of ‘the old religion’ and dissolution of the monasteries, John Bale said at the time: “…that neither the Britons under the Romans and Saxons nor yet the English people under the Danes and Normans, had ever such damage of their learned monuments as we have seen in our time. Our posterity may well curse this wicked fact of our age, this unreasonable spoil of England’s most noble antiquities”.

It was also said Abbot Chard had “built himself a dwelling on a scale to justify the reformation and dissolution”. He succumbed to fate and surrendered Forde to the Crown in 1537. For the next 100 years the Abbey had various owners who dismantled the Abbey church.  In 1649 it passed to Edmund Prideaux, Esq., but that’s another story!

Mark 1: 40-45

The leper came to Jesus and asked for healing and he believed that Jesus could heal him.

The faith of the leper and the compassion of Jesus allowed Gods healing love to work the miracle.

And have you noticed that pretty much every healing through Jesus involved this same combination of compassion and faith? Sometimes the faith was small and frightened, and sometimes it was simply the faith of someone close to the sick person.

Think of the lady who crept up behind Jesus and just touched his cloak. Think of Zacheus who climbed a tree in order that he might just see Jesus. Think of the men who broke through the roof of a house in order to let their paralysed friend down into the presence of the Lord. And think of the Syro-Phoenecian lady who approached Jesus on behalf of her troubled daughter.

It seems that where faith was lacking Jesus was unable to bring the healing love of God to bear. His own people at Nazareth just couldn’t accept him and we’re told that he could do very little there.

Today, healing in response to faithful prayer is more common than we might think. And yet you will know from your own experience that you will have prayed for someone with as much faith as you can muster and healing hasn’t taken place. But all faithful prayer is answered. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane that he might avoid the suffering which was to follow his betrayal “Father”, he said, “Take this cup from me.”

But he also prayed that God’s will, not his, might be done. The cup wasn’t taken away, and Jesus endured not only the suffering, but also the terrible sense of God forsakenness which was a part of it. His prayer in Gethsemane asked that his will be subjected to God’s will and this was the answer.

God’s Will was that Jesus should suffer and die and we know the reason why. The prayer of Jesus was answered and he passed through death into a glorious life which his death made available to us all.

Sometimes our prayers are answered in ways which we think might be best, but sometimes God answers them in different ways which often puzzle and confuse us.

We see such a small part of the overall scenes of our lives, but at all times we need to remember that “All things work together for the good of those who love God” and that in the end “All things, all manner of things, will indeed be well”.

Even when it seems to us that perhaps God just doesn’t understand. May God bless us all to a deeper acceptance of this.


By Peter Porteous

I had never been to Rome so it was about time I matched the ancient ruins and heavenly basilicas in my head with the reality of a modern city aware of its extraordinary heritage.  For a stay of less than a week, we knew we would only see a fraction of what we wanted, so my wife Prue and I decided to settle for enjoying the cultural challenge of two or three tourist destinations between some relaxed dining.   It was November 2017 that with our Lonely Planet guidebook, we flew EasyJet to Fiumicino Airport to go exploring.

On the way to the Colosseum

Our B&B was just ten minutes from the Vatican and called ‘Sweet Dreams in St Peter’s’.   Behind its quirky name it was impeccably run by Ivanca Corlone, whose English was better than our Italian and she helped us to decide what to do and where to eat.  Our first restaurant was the Osteria dei Pontifici which is close to the walls of the Vatican and the two of us had a bottle of wine and a meal for less than 40 Euro.  The atmosphere inside was of Toulouse Lautrec, except that here there were large oil paintings of popes in their red robes staring down at us from the walls. “Bless me father ….!”

Security in Rome this year was extraordinarily tight with armed soldiers at street corners leaning on their Landrover Defenders and watching the crowds.  It was the week an Italian politician had warned the public against shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ in public so we were careful to remember not to do this.   We arrived at St Peter’s Basilica before ten o’clock our first morning and were fortunate to join a queue of only 50 to be checked for explosive devices. And then at last we had arrived on the portal steps of St Peter’s in Rome.

The basilica is a delightful assault on the senses and it is hard not to be in awe of the centuries of craftsmanship to be found in every corner.  As an Englishman I felt for the tragic destruction in our own country of the centuries of craftsmanship during the Reformation.  And then the Anglo Saxon in me baulked at our guide’s explanation of the corporal incorruptibility of some of the dead Pontiffs as they lay in their tombs.  But otherwise what was before us was quite sumptuous and beautiful.  Inside St Peters we found the chapel of St Joseph where we went to Mass, celebrated in Italian behind white ropes which separated tourist from worshiper.

St Peters: the nave showing the gilt bronze baldachin standing 29m high

In the north east corner of St Peter’s basilica is The Pieta (meaning piety), carved out of a marble block by Michelangelo in 1500.  This quite amazing piece of work is now displayed behind a thick glass screen after the hammer attack in 1972 by a 33 year old madman who broke off the Virgin Mary’s left arm and damaged her face.

Later in the Vatican Museum complex, I had booked to join a party of 35 English speakers wearing radio receivers to be welcomed by our young Italian guide who carried her green chiffon scarf aloft on a bamboo cane.  She chided us for the Protestantism of our little northern country on the edge of the world and after the telling off, we were away down the long exquisite marble corridors with what seemed like the history of the world travelling past us.  We were just a tiny group in the 20,000 visitors in the museum that day and for two hours inside those 20 miles of corridors; we followed the history being given below the green chiffon scarf.  There was no time to stand and stare as our guide had to get us to the Sistine Chapel on time.

A pre Covid scrum in a museum passage

Rome is small enough for us to visit The Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon , the Piazza Navona and buy a piece of Italian Leather in a span of a few hours. The Navona is shaped as a long oval and is the old open air chariot racing stadium of Domitian (AD 51-AD 96 and son of Vespasian) where we sat at a pavement trattoria on a cool afternoon having lunch and watching people of different nationalities walking by.  Everywhere touts were selling selfie camera sticks and everywhere they were being unselfconsciously used by their owners. 

The Colosseum showing the hypogeum below the arena floor

On another day we visited the Colosseum built by Vespasian in the years before 80AD and had a sunny walk around the historical Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills with its towering pine trees and old Roman buildings, once the home of Emperor Augustus.

The statue of St Peter stands 4.7m tall

Fr Michael Koppel used to talk about the basilica of St John, Lateran and we resolved to see it.  It is still Rome’s official cathedral dating back to the 4th century AD and sits on the south east boundary of the city.  It was the principal pontifical church until the papacy moved to Avignon in 1309 AD. As with St Peter’s basilica, there has been approaching a thousand years of building without any reforming destruction, so from the gilt ceiling to the ancient marble floor, the sense of wonder is profound.

The wide central nave of the Lateran with the baldachin above the main altar said to contain the relics of Ss Peter and Paul.

On our last morning the city transport was on strike so we took a taxi to visit Trastevere.  This is a very old part of West Rome below the heights of Pza Garibaldi and outside the old Roman walls.  The Basilica Di Santa Maria in Trastevere is yet another amazingly beautiful church but where isn’t in this extraordinary city?  I slide my camera on its back across the floor to look straight upwards at the dome in the Lady Chapel and capture the ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ by Domenichino (1616).    

S.Maria Trastevere – The Lady Chapel ceiling

Outside in the Piazza we have a delicious brunch omelette billed for 16 Euros but by some mysterious legerdemain which is so common in Rome, we end up paying our smiling waiter 24 Euros and a tip.  We catch our taxi and before long we are at the airport which is right next to Ostia, Rome’s ancient port.  Inshallah, we will return to Rome one day, perhaps having learnt some Italian but not before having read more about this fascinating city.