It is the mystery of the stones. Like all mysteries, it has several layers and fuzzy boundaries. And right at this moment the boundary, fuzzy or not, is everything. For that was the purpose of these stones. For the Romans, this was it, their northern boundary. From here on out, abandon hope. Give up on sub-floor heating, olive oil or mosaics. Expect to rub shoulders with Picts who were still dressing in skins and hadn’t even heard of the Kilt Factory. Enough to make a man build a wall, keep his tunic pressed and keep his eyes peeled.
Never thinking that 2000 years later, more or less, Britons would be drinking tea and staring at Hadrian’s Wall and drinking more tea. Me among them. The mystery? How these stones were fitted together in a way that endured two millennia. Were they cut? If so, how? As for Hadrian’s Wall, portions of which actually followed us through Newcastle, one mystery has been partially solved. How could such a structure keep out the Scots? It didn’t, I now understand eyeballing the Roman garrison’s fort to the west. The wall was patrolled, a point of defense. It was Hadrian’s legions in conjunction with this stone structure that did the job, or tried to. In fact, my question proceeds from a very American source. The assumption that a physical barrier, a thing or a technology, could suffice to control people. Such as to keep the Mexicans in Mexico. No, this wasn’t just about stones piled atop stones, but Romans piled atop stones. And now only the stones are left. And that they are left seems remarkable. They don’t build walls like they used to. They don’t build stones like they used to. I’m going to have another cup of tea.
Northumberland rolls in the most pleasant of ways. It rolls with the vales and the rivers. It rolls with the punches, historical and otherwise. I confess to never have heard of the Battle of Flodden. But even I can grasp what it must have meant to lose 10,000 lives, including the king and ruling class of a small country. And, okay, so today’s Scots have not been defeated by the English but by their secret weapon: fried food. Never mind, for there is no evidence of fried anything making our green and gentle way toward the Northumbrian coast. Man’s relationship to this land is old and rich, that is the point. And it continues to be, that is the other.
Jane says she likes islands. Which brings us to Lindisfarne. Separated from the mainland by the tides which rhythmically cover, then uncover, a half mile causeway. I kept thinking about the tides during the hours we spent there. What if we were cut off? What if the causeway became submerged, having got our signals crossed regarding the tide schedule? What if we were trapped here, gentle breezes blowing off the North Sea, a ruined castle shaking its fist toward Denmark and beckoning a long line of tourists out to view it? What if we were stuck among the ruins of the ancient monastery? What if? What if? We would have to sit and stare at the gentle place and take it in, that is the what-if. We would talk to some people, such as the National Trust man who showed us the wheelchair route into the monastery ruin. And showed us where seeds planted decades ago had sprouted in a recently tilled garden. The vibes are good on the holy island of Lindisfarne. And from the point of view of an ever-nervous quadriplegic, my anxiety may bring me closer to the real experience of those who conducted their lives on this island. Mind the tide.
The feeling is still there off the island, looking at it across the coastal plain from the restaurant that faces Lindisfarne on a slight promontory. The terrace is long, the diners are few and the weather is perfect. The views of the island are unobstructed. No buildings or even people separate us from Lindisfarne. In fact, we can see the tide moving in, even tell when the roadway has been covered and the last car has made its way toward us. If we came another time, we could almost see the green algae that cling to the pavement after the tide recedes. For now, we have this time. In fact, we have all the time in the world. The peace of this place, on or off the island, lingers. In crowded England, it is not to be taken for granted.
Which is why I have mixed feelings about the newspaper clipping posted near the front door of the restaurant. The owner has a dispute with the local council. It involves a sign. He has proclaimed his restaurant in the usual fashion, its name set in stones in a wall just outside the car park. His problem, according to the Council, is the sign that precedes it, 100 meters or so from the entrance. Why not? He wants approaching drivers to know where to turn. The ‘sign’ couldn’t be more environmentally attuned, made as it is of Northumberland stone set into a wall. Still, signs of this sort just don’t happen here. A sign outside a pub. A sign proclaiming a greengrocer. But all just in front of the business premises. Signs warning of the advance of the business…well, there just are not very many.
And here we see in this Northumberland microcosm a battle between the proud British entrepreneur and what he doubtless perceives as a stodgy bureaucracy. Whatever the outcome of this dispute, I admire it. People love this region. They want to preserve its essence. They also need tourists, for the local economy seems pretty thin. It’s a necessary tension. This sort of battle that must be fought, pushing and pulling, regardless of who wins.
And as though to comment on the whole proceedings, every few minutes we hear a whoosh. Sometimes we barely hear it at all. And we never hear from very far away. In fact, from the restaurant terrace we sometimes see the trains before we hear them. Or see them and barely hear them at all. We are a quarter-mile away from the main north/south rail line in Britain’s Northeast. From London to Edinburgh and on to Aberdeen. This is what trains, some of them very long, sound like doing more than 100 mph. Without knowing it, beneath our eyes, in the last hour 10,000 or maybe 20,000 people have hurtled past us en route to Scotland or England. The electric rail line barely makes a dent in the landscape. The trains barely make a sound. Right here in the shadow, in fact the orb, of Lindisfarne.
Back home in Menlo Park, the locals are in an uproar over just this sort of thing. Electrifying the existing rail line. Running trains at this speed. They all need to come here, spend an hour on this terrace, and talk to the owner about his sign.