a lightning visit to the island of the saints, fear of loss and a gift of cake
5th July 2013
It is a long morning washing clothes at the campsite laundrette and trying to catch up with (some of) the backlog of email over a late breakfast. So, by the time we walk along the beach to, it is quarter to three and the man selling tickets to is worried that it is too late and we will not get our money’s worth and so he knocks a few pounds off the ticket price.
The boat leaves from the beach below with the derelict on top. Since its military days, the fort has been a private home and a zoo and there are now plans to connect it permanently to the headland by a suspension bridge and reopen it as a tourist attraction.
The current access is via (barricaded) steps from the sand bank that connects the island at low tide. I recall from when we stayed inone summer for two weeks, how we often came down to this beach, but the lifeguards would warn when the tide was about to overtop the sand bank. It did not cut off the beach, but the rush of water over the bank could easily sweep a child off their feet and out to sea.
We have the boat to ourselves, just the crew and two young girls, who I assume are relatives of the skipper, sunbathing on the bow. The water near has that over-silken-smooth look, like a photograph taken on slow exposure, blurring out the fine details, leaving it oily heavy; maybe literally oily heavy as this is the same sea you see in the wake of boats.
The journey is short, just three-quarters of a mile, with views of the far side ofand ever approaching , its wide beach and small jetty. We double-check the time of the last boat as we get off, five o’clock. I wonder how often someone gets left behind and the monks have to entertain an unexpected guest.
From the boat it is barely ten minutes up to the and sort of ‘village’ green with shops and small café. The way leads past a small, but impressive, red sandstone cliff under which is parked an even more impressive vehicle. It is one of those amphibious ‘ducks’ that are sometimes used for river and road tours – I want one! A notice says that it is used when the tide is too low for the jetty and I mentally resolve to revisit some day at low tide.
It is likely (reading) that ‘ ‘ is a name meaning "isle of the fresh spring", as there is a good water supply on the island. This would have been important for the for whom taking on water on an offshore island would be a lot safer than making camp on land.
I recall I was on holiday in and wondering where the ‘ford’ was at , when for the first time I realised that this was not a ‘ford’ but a ‘fjord’, as occupied and named places both there in and in : , .
The spring will have also been the reason thathas been occupied since , soon after the last , with flint working dating back 8000–9000 years; and for the early monastery and later priory on the island.
Thewas occupied until the dissolution of the monasteries under , and was in private hands until it was sold to monks in 1906, and later handed to the community who are there today.
It is barely five minutes from the beach to the small village-green-like area of shop, tea-room and post office with thebuildings rising behind. Although we didn’t see the spring, there is a large duck pond.
Theitself does not feel as if it belongs on soil, instead a combination of white-rendered walls and slightly convex red-tile roofs that would look more in place on an slope – very much . I guess that the monastic orders in times may have been a bit like today, building to a standard pattern across , although maybe the colouring and roof shape are more recent.
We do not have much time to wander the whole island, but we visit the main chapel. At one point I almost walk into another small wooden chapel, but just in time (who actually reads notices) saw that it said ‘private’. During the summer months the monks must long for 5pm when the last boat goes back and they can have the island back to themselves for prayer and work.
Thewere founded at the end of the as a reaction to the growing riches of the monasteries of their time, returning to a pattern of life focused around manual labour and prayer. The monasteries of the period, such as , were critical in transforming the landscape of as they created huge upland farms.
Today theof do not transform landscapes on quite the same scale, but the same ideals of manual work are apparent in the various products they make, in particular the perfume, which is one of the principal products of the island, and also the chocolate in the gift-shop, another signature item.
We decide gifts of chocolate would not last long in the heat, but we do buy a few soaps, and in the gift shop I succumb to a few books:
The last of these is the latest of a series of poetry books written by one of the monks, mostly about the island and his walk with . Much of the verse is of value mainly for the sentiment it expresses more than its form, but every so often one stands out.
Along the Ridge (p. 61)
no word is spoken
in the sunset’s afterglow.
Self Portrait (p.55)
take up again
the once discarded canvas.
Youth’s agressive style
softened now with age;
Maybe most topical for the walk is ‘Fear of Losing You‘ (p.54), written not about a lover, friend, or favourite pet, but a new mobile phone. I’m writing this about 2 months after the event and a recent report on ‘Mobile phobia‘ gives this a name nomophobia and reckons that, according to a study, over half of workers live in fear of losing their phone. ends up looking back to who:
… is always there for us
to receive us.
… and presumably his battery does not run out.
Having not gone for a walk around the further parts of the island due to the limited time, we suddenly realise we still have loads of time before the boat is due, so we go to the tea shop; we are both peckish by now, having not eaten since breakfast, albeit a late one.
It is too late for hot food, and the last of the fruit cake has gone, so, lacking a sweet tooth, I struggle to find something to eat, when a lady comes in and says "you can have my cake" and hands me a small plastic box with cake inside. She had bought it with her meal earlier and it had been too much.
It is a small act, and unexpected, but yet maybe not so amongst visitors to an ‘‘.
When we return her box later she and another visitor are sat talking to one of the monks whom they are evidently visiting for the day. Maybe he is a relative or perhaps a spiritual adviser from a previous retreat on the island.
Still in fear of missing the last boat, we pass back through woodland, past the duck and red cliff to the shore, wandering slowly amongst those who simply came over to sit or play on the beach, and yet we are still twenty minutes early and catch the last-but-one ferry that is about to set off.
It is full, unlike the one we took on the way out, and we wonder what happens at the very last run of the day if there is not enough room. Do they do an extra trip, or leave some on the beaches?
I come away with maps for theand areas and also a couple of relevant books by local authors:
The first of these is about a woman who goes out to, in search of the connections there. This was a voluntary exile in the by a group who believed that their culture and language were so under threat in itself. This was of course a period when the language was still being actively suppressed, as it was well into the .
The second is by a woman whose husband died and as a way of dealing with grief she set out to run around the world as a memorial to him. My childhood imaginings of walking round the world were one of the inspirations for my own (relatively) short walk around , but no, I am not getting any ideas.
We ate in one of‘s many fish and chip shops and then walked back to the van along the now cooling sands.