Our Lady of Mercé

First written for Time Out Barcelona Guide.

Our Lady of Mercé
Our Lady of Mercé

You’d have thought that being mother to God would take up all of your time, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as with her Son, not even death has been able to put a stop to the activities of the young woman from Nazareth, and on 1 August 1218 Mary appeared in a vision to a young Catalan named Peter Nolasco, instructing him on how to continue his work of redeeming captives. During the seven-and-a-half centuries of conflict between Christian and Muslim Spain a common feature was the taking of captives for ransom. Now this was all very well if you were a member of the nobility and had someone to pay for your release, but many Christians from poor families were also captured in the general trawling for profit and plunder that took place during a gaza (a religiously sanctioned raid into the dar ul harb or house of war, that part of the world that had not accepted Islam). To be captured during a gaza was by definition to become a slave, a state which could be escaped only by conversion to Islam (which many prisoners did) or redemption. It was this work of buying out of slavery the ‘poor of Christ’ that Peter Nolasco embarked upon, helped by his background as a merchant. In fact, Nolasco switched from buying goods to buying people, but all his efforts seemed only to swell the number of captives held in Muslim hands.

It was at this point that he received his vision of the Blessed Virgin, who advised him to form an order dedicated to the redemption of captives. The next day Nolasco sought an audience with the king, Jaume I, who received him well and agreed to help in the foundation of the Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives (or Mercedarians as they are called). The order set up a redemption fund to buy back captives but, if all else failed, each member of the order took personal vows to hand himself over in place of a prisoner. The best estimate we have is that the order brought 11,615 slaves out of captivity between 1218 and 1301.

If that wasn’t enough, Our Lady of Mercy delivered the whole city of Barcelona from a plague of locusts in 1637. A grateful city adopted her as patron and celebrated her feast on 24 September, or at least it did until Franco clamped down on all things Catalan. But sometimes things suppressed simply wait for an opportunity to burst forth, and that’s precisely what happened with the Festes de la Mercé. What had been a simple religious feast turned into a week-long celebration of Catalan identity, all inextricably bound up with a long-dead Jewish girl. But then, what else would we expect of her?

A Walk Around Mersea Island

First published in The Great Outdoors magazine.

A wild walk can be an excursion into time as well as place. I’ve always been fascinated by how the geography of Britain has changed over the centuries, with generations of farmers nibbling at the sea, while the sea gnaws the coast elsewhere. Mersea, a tidal island in the Colne Estuary, demonstrates this vividly. And who wouldn’t want to walk around an island?

View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn
View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn

To avoid the July heat, I crossed The Strood, the causeway linking Mersea to the mainland, at dawn. Now tarmac, and regularly inundated at high spring tides, The Strood is itself a link to the past, for the causeway was first laid around 700 AD, when an Anglo-Saxon magnate ordered three to five thousand oak pilings to be sunk into the underlying clay. Oak pilings don’t talk, and later Viking invaders destroyed pretty well all written records in East Anglia and Essex, but one candidate as builder was the monk-king, Sæbbi of Essex, who abdicated to devote himself to prayer.

View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn
View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn

The rising sun drew a morning mist from the ground and sea. The tide was coming in, and in the dawn silence I heard it slow swirl through the channels of the mud flats. Continuing across the island to West Mersea, I parked and set off clockwise around the island. Walking away from the harbour, seaweed shaggy pilings rulered out into the slowly filling channel and, when I again reached the causeway, the lunarscape of mud flats had been replaced by flat sheets of grey water.

Anti erosion pilings near West Mersea
Anti erosion pilings near West Mersea

From here, a short detour inland made for a long walk into the past. At the top of the rise overlooking the causeway is a barrow dating from the start of the second century AD. Now topped with an oak tree, it would once have been the most visible feature of the landscape for people crossing the causeway. When the mound was excavated early in the twentieth century, archaeologists found, at the heart of the barrow, a lead box containing cremated bones, creating a conundrum under the hill. For the Romans did not raise barrows, and the Britons did not cremate the dead. But here were both.

The oak tree atop the barrow
The oak tree atop the barrow

Returning to island circumnavigation, I followed the Pyefleet Channel. The sun had burned off the morning mist and the water sparkled in the early light. Saxon invaders, in their shallow-drafted boats, used these channels as highways into the country’s heart. Not far up the coast, at Sutton Hoo, an Anglo-Saxon king was buried in one of these boats, accompanied into the next life by some of the most magnificent jewellery and armour ever made. It was not hard to imagine the creak of oarlocks and the hiss of oars as the dragon-prowed boats moved stealthily upstream. Indeed, the settlers and invaders of 1,500 years ago were accompanied by much the same soundtrack as I was: the harsh croak of seagulls, the piping whistles of curlews, and the hiss of water and wind. For a few miles I walked in a soundscape unaltered for thousands of years.

Salt marsh on the north coast of Mersea Island
Salt marsh on the north coast of Mersea Island

The north shore of Mersea Island is quiet. I saw a handful of people, mostly on boats, but many swifts, the birds of eternal summer, jinking over the salt marshes, and, along a thistle-lined stretch of path, a cortege of butterflies accompanied me on my way.

View from eastern tip of island
View from eastern tip of island

Reaching the tip of the island, the North Sea opened out, unusually blue and tranquil, to the south, the land marked by shallow orange cliffs. The sea is hard gnawing the land here. Tree roots jut out into empty space, clawing against the inevitable, and then, finally, tumble down upon the beach. The cliffs were laid down 300,000 years ago, when elephants, rhinos and bear roamed the area, and fossil hunters still turn up remains.

Cliffs edging Cudmore Grove country park
Cliffs edging Cudmore Grove country park

The sun was up and I was thirsty and hungry. An advantage of this walk was ending it at one of the excellent seafood shacks in West Mersea, eating the wildlife – oysters, cockles, shellfish – that had, unseen, underwater, accompanied me around the island.

Belgian Beaches

The unlikely fact of Belgian beaches produced a couple of articles, including this one for the in-flight magazine of BMI airlines.

Mention Belgium, and beer, chocolate and Poirot are likely to come to mind. Beaches probably won’t figure. In fact, it might come as a surprise that Belgium even has a coastline, but it does, some 69 kilometres of it, squeezed in between France and the Netherlands, and from one end to the other, the land slides gingerly into the North Sea via miles of carefully tended, perfectly manicured sand. Add to these unexpected beaches Belgian expertise in food, design and fashion, and you have the ingredients for a surprisingly varied get away.

The coast tram (de Kusttram)

The Kusstram
The Kusstram

Sitting by the North Sea, Belgium can’t rely on its weather, so it has to try that bit harder to attract visitors. A Eurostar train ticket carries with it free onward railway travel anywhere within Belgium, so no queuing to pay for a connection at Brussels station. Even more remarkable, however, is the coast tram (www.dekusttram.be). This runs the length of Belgium’s shore, from De Knokke in the east to De Panne in the west, with 70 stops along the way and a journey time from end to end of a little over two hours. With nowhere more than a short walk from a stop, all the resorts become easily accessible. During the summer services run every five to ten minutes, so should the crowds become too thick on one particular stretch of beach, it’s an easy matter to hop on the tram and alight a short time later among grass-covered dunes and stroll down to a relatively empty shore.

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Travel Northumberland

I first wrote this article for Time Out magazine. Since our first son was one at the time, it’s older than I thought!

Bamburgh Castle and beach - at high tide!
Bamburgh Castle and beach – at high tide!

‘It’s perfect, isn’t it?’ My gesture took in not one but two castles, three lighthouses and a beach, broad and empty as the moon.

‘If perfection includes sand blasting and freezing water,’ said my wife.

And there you have it in a nutshell. The Northumberland coast produces extreme reactions. People either think it the most wonderful place they’ve ever seen, and make annual visits as faithfully as the pilgrims to Holy Island, or they get on a plane to a country where toes dipped in the sea don’t turn blue, and wind defences are not a prerequisite for a day at the beach.

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The Weird of Alderley

This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.

England is tame. It’s been shorn of mystery, its wildness cut away as mercilessly as Aslan’s mane. But there are places where something wild and mysterious lingers on, and some of these places lie hidden in plain sight, side by side with all the excesses of modern-day England. Of these, none is stranger, nor juxtaposed more jarringly with its surroundings, than Alderley Edge in Cheshire.

What is Alderley Edge? In the blunt fashion of so many English place names, the answer is given in the asking. It’s a sandstone ridge, an edge that, depending on how you look at it, is the last ripple of the Pennines before it sinks into the Cheshire Plain or the first step upward from the flat lands. As such, it is border country, and this quality of strangeness is still palpable today. It was this strangeness that made the Edge the ideal setting for Alan Garner’s classic children’s books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. 2010 is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Weirdstone, and the book has remained in print throughout.

Beeston Castle from the Cheshire Plain.
Beeston Castle from the Cheshire Plain.

To get an idea of the geography of the area there is no better vantage point than Beeston Castle (Tarporley, Cheshire, CW6 9TX; 01829 260464; www.english-heritage.org.uk; £5.30 adults, £4.50 concessions, £2.70 children), which is about 25 miles south west of Alderley Edge. The ruins of the medieval castle stand atop and around a great rock crag jutting some 500 feet out of the plain – it may be the best view for the shortest climb in the country! To the west are the Welsh hills, south lies The Wrekin and east is Alderley Edge, marked out by the unmistakeable circle of Jodrell Bank just in the foreground, with the Pennines lying beyond (the visibility of the dish does rather depend on where it is pointing though). But what the view also shows is that this is a settled land, one deeply embedded in history and legend. And it is this that makes the British Isles so much more evocative than their size or comparatively gentle landscape would suggest.

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The Call of the Wilds

This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.

Mountain, sea, forest, desert. Each has its devotees, people who repair to them again and again, forsaking all other temptations. For some it’s the wish to test themselves, for others it’s exploration and the lure of the unknown over the brow of the next hill. For some it’s strictly business, whereas for others it is simple pleasure. For me, it’s mountain, hill and moor, for you – given that you’re reading The Great Outdoors – it’s likely the same. But why should this be the case? Why is that these places call us – for it is a call and, notoriously and tragically, a siren call for some.

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Anyone who has knocked around with climbers for a while will have a similar story. This is mine. I met Yossi at university and he took me climbing a few times. But what for me was a passing interest became for him the key question of his life. So when he survived a 3,000 metre fall off Mont Blanc he had to decide what was more important – climbing or the journalistic career he had set out upon. The mountains won. Yossi gave up his job, moved to South America and became a mountain guide in the Andes, only to perish a few years later in a stupid little avalanche. His climbing partner on Mont Blanc predeceased him. In Mike’s case, an overhanging cornice broke off, fell and snapped his neck. Neither man made it to thirty.

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New Blog Post – Elsewhere

I have, I know, been a little lacking on the blogging front lately, but we have been away, in Northumberland and Scotland. To see the odd photo of our adventures there, see my Facebook page. But I have not been entirely quiet on the writing front, it’s just I’ve done it for the kind, and very tasteful, people at Penumbra magazine. To see my guest blog there, go here!

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What’s more, ‘When Animals Spoke’, the story that inspired the blog, is now available in Penumbra’s Revolution issue. Go here to buy it for a piffling $3.99.

When Was the World Widest?

We live in a narrow, constricted age. The blank spaces on the maps have all been filled in. Where before there were dragons, there are now caravan parks. When I read 19th century novels, it is easy to sense the suffocating constriction of the middle class social mores of the time. It was against this incapacitating blancmange of expectations that Nietzche raged and, from a completely different angle but with a similar analysis, Kierkegaard reimagined Christianity. But at least, there were still mountains to climb, oceans to sail, rivers to trace to their source and the possibility of wonder around the next bend or over the next ridge. But now, we’ve been there and done that.

I wonder, though, when the world was at its widest. In one sense, it must have been when that first band of humans left Africa – everything but home lay before them. However, because it was so completely unknown, the world may have seemed no wider than the next horizon.

During the Neolithic, humanity had spread over most of the world, but most of the world remained empty. But Neolithic remains – cairns, standing stones, barrows and the like – are markers as well as memorials, telling wanderers that this land belongs to us by right of the bones of our ancestors.

At the time of the early civilizations through to Rome, the world grew in one sense wider, although more explored, as strangeness dwelled in new cultures and different ways of life.

In the Early Medieval Period, travelling, raiding and piracy reached their apogee with the Vikings, and the spread of Islam and then the Mongol Empire allowed a greater degree of travel through Asia than had ever been possible before. The world grew broader still.

The world in 1513
The world in 1513

But I nominate the Age of Exploration, when navigators such as Columbus, Da Gama, Magellan and Drake found lands unknown to antiquity as the time when the world was widest, for then its extent was at least roughly known, but the vast majority of it remained terra incognita, and a thus a theatre of possibility.

Hermit Islands

This is the text of an article that I wrote for the now defunct Catholic Life magazine. I hope you like it.

Although the retreat from the world and its buzzing, tempting distractions was present in Christianity even before Christianity existed as a separate religion – think of John the Baptist’s voice crying in the wilderness and Christ’s withdrawal into the desert for forty days of fasting following His baptism by John – yet the main foundations of Christian monasticism and eremiticism were not laid for some four centuries. Early Christians seem to have felt little need for the ‘white martyrdom’ of withdrawal when the ‘red martyrdom’ of public and prolonged execution was easily available. But with toleration of the Church granted by the Edict of Milan in 313 and its subsequent favoured status as Imperial religion, the lions were no longer an option. Other paths to Christ had to be found; perhaps less direct but, usually, less bloody.

This path had already been blazed by St Anthony, who set off into the Egyptian desert in 270 AD. As a twenty-year-old man, Anthony had heard the Gospel read in church: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and come and follow Me.” Anthony did. He was reasonably well-off, but he gave away what he had, save what was necessary to ensure the upkeep of his sister, and went off into the desert, striving in solitude against the temptations and attacks of demons for some twenty years. Only after that did he begin to see people again, and what started off as a trickle quickly grew into a flood, with hundreds of men living as hermits near him and crowds coming from nearby towns to see him. And thus Anthony lived the paradox of solitude: so often those who flee into aloneness are pursued relentlessly by those who would no more live alone than they would cut out their tongues.

But how do you disappear into the solitude of the desert when you live in a land where drowning by rain is a greater danger than dying of thirst? That was the problem faced by the first monks of Ireland. Never having been part of the Roman Empire, the human geography of the island was completely unlike the Romanised parts of Europe. There was hardly anything that could be called a town, let alone a city. The people were tribal and diffused, and thus the early Christian monasteries had no rivals as centres of learning and civilization. So monasteries grew large, and noisy, and oftentimes less prayerful. From them, men withdrew into the wilderness that Ireland did provide, a wildness of wind and water, physically cut off from human contact by the sea: islands.

Pilgrimage became one of the key features of Irish Christianity. Putting their trust in God and their goods in boats so small they wouldn’t even qualify as a dinghy today, groups of monks or even men alone would set off. Some, no doubt, foundered. Others founded new communities, or found the solitude they were searching for.

On Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean eight miles west of Kerry, are the remnants of one such community: six huts, made of slate and looking like nothing so much as stone beehives are perched 714 feet above the sea. It’s hard to tell what is more overwhelming here, the sea or the sky. The Vikings, though, made their own unique bid to be more overwhelming than the elements by repeatedly pillaging the monastery. However, the monks endured and, according to some accounts, had their ultimate revenge on the Viking raiders by baptising the future king of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason. The island is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But even in this extraordinarily remote spot, there can still be a desire to withdraw into even greater solitude. This is illustrated perfectly on Skelling Michael by the even more remote hermitage, perched atop the south western peak of the island.

The Cambrai Homily, the earliest known Irish sermon, dating from the seventh or early eighth centuries, reveals quite precisely how these monks at the world’s end understood their calling:

Precious in the eyes of God:
The white martyrdom of exile
The green martyrdom of the hermit
The red martyrdom of sacrifice.

Combined with pilgrimage, it was a transforming and transformative package. But sometimes, relocation was forced. St Columba was exiled from Ireland for his involvement in a pitched battle over the ownership of a psalter – books were literally a matter of life and death then. He landed on the island of Iona in 563 and founded there one of the most renowned monasteries of the period. From Iona, missionaries spread out, taking the Gospel around the coast of the British Isles and on, into those parts of northern Europe that had lain beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire.

Perhaps the best example of this skipping-stone effect is provided by St Aidan. A monk of Iona, he was sent to the kingdom of Northumbria at the request of King Oswald to convert his heathen people. In the early days of Aidan’s mission, the king had to translate the monk’s Irish into the local language, but Aidan and his companions soon learned the language that would become English and set about creating a civilization. The luminous fruit of the monks’ labours are the Lindisfarne Gospels, on show in the British Museum but present in facsimile, physical and virtual, on Lindisfarne at the Lindisfarne Centre (01289 389004, www.lindisfarne-centre.com). The Lindisfarne Gospels themselves had been moved before finding their final home in the British Museum, hurriedly carried into hiding when the Vikings came calling to Lindisfarne too.

Even more precious to the refugee monks of Lindisfarne than their books was the relics of the greatest saint of Holy Island, Cuthbert. They carried the saint’s body with them on a meandering journey across Northumbria until he was finally settled in Durham Cathedral, where he remains to this day. But one suspects that Cuthbert might have preferred that his mortal remains stay on the little island, within sight of Lindisfarne, to which he in turn withdrew to escape his fame and focus more clearly on God. His fame was very great though, and for good reason. Soldier, visionary, missionary, ecologist, orator and ascetic, Cuthbert was all of these things, but in an era when miracle nestled up against the common place, Cuthbert’s reputation as a worker of wonders was unequalled. It’s hard now to tell how much credence to place on reports, but Bede, writing in a time when there were still eyewitnesses to Cuthbert’s deeds alive, reports him calming storms, stopping a house burning by prayer, healing and expelling demons, even turning water into wine. And when, on exhumation 11 years after death, his body was found incorrupt, his reputation as a wonder worker grew further.

The Farne Islands, to which Cuthbert escaped for eight years of relative peace, are still wild and uninhabited, save for the hundreds of thousands of sea birds who nest there over the summer, and the National Trust wardens who monitor them. St Cuthbert, who passed laws protecting Eider ducks and other nesting sea birds that were probably the first piece of wildlife conservation legislation in the world, would be pleased.

The Farne Islands, Lindisfarne, Iona and Skellig Michael are all, to varying degrees accessible today. But even the easiest journey, across the causeway to Lindisfarne, still takes modern-day pilgrims away from the bustle of the mainland and to places where different rhythms prevail.

Over the last few decades, more people have been called to the eremitical life, to such an extent that the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983 makes provision for them. It is perhaps not surprising that in a world that daily becomes noisier and busier, the song of solitude is being heard as it has not been heard for centuries.