Tales from End to End
The Venerable Bede’s Tale
retold by John Grundy
St Cuthbert is the North East’s favourite saint. He spent time as a hermit on the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast and he was the Bishop of Lindisfarne but the thing that made him remarkable, the miraculous thing that turned him into a saint, was that after he died his body didn’t rot. For some reason, to be honest I don’t know the reason, the other monks dug his body back up twelve years after his death and found that it was uncorrupted. Obviously he became the monastery’s key asset and when the monks had to flee from Viking invaders a couple of hundred years later they took Cuthbert with them. They wandered about with the coffin for a hundred years or so before finally settling at Durham where Cuthbert’s reputation and power became the driving force behind the extraordinary Cathedral that stands today.
The Venerable Bede, the North East’s other great Saxon son, the genius who spent his whole life at Jarrow on the banks of the Tyne, wrote a book about Cuthbert which includes a great story. Bede says that it was Cuthbert’s habit to disappear rather mysteriously from the monastery every night after the brothers had said the evening office and only return the following morning. Nobody knew where he was going so one night one of the other monks secretly followed him to see where he was going and saw him go down to the sea shore. Without hesitation Cuthbert then waded into the water, up to his neck and stayed there all night praying and singing praises to God, only coming back to shore in the morning when it was time to go to the morning service.
The assumption I’m making about this story is that Cuthbert was using the sea as a way of distracting himself from the pleasures of the world; he was, in fact, mortifying his flesh in order to save himself from naughty thoughts. Now, I need to remind you that we are talking about the North Sea here, not the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean. I myself have braved the waters of the North Sea and I have to tell you that parts of my body were so thoroughly mortified by the experience that they were rendered useless for long periods of time.
There is one final element to Bede’s story and that is that when Cuthbert returned to the shore after his vigil “two four-footed creatures which are commonly called otters” came up to him and dried him with their fur and warmed him with their breath. Now, I’m not totally certain that this use of otters wouldn’t contravene some Relations With Wild Creatures Act nowadays but what the story is clearly intended to reveal is that our favourite North Eastern Saint loved animals and like St Francis of Assisi was totally in tune with nature. We like to pretend that we have only discovered nature and the environment recently – that until Wordsworth and his chums pointed it out to us we had never been aware of the beauty round about us. Bede’s story proves that this is wrong; it shows clearly that Cuthbert turned to the glorious natural beauty of the North East for the salvation of his soul and the comfort of his body – however cold the water might be.
John Grundy is a retired English teacher but is still an active writer and broadcaster. Architecture is his main subject.