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Wild Spaces



There's something about the ocean. It’s so peaceful here. So quiet. I had spent the previous night in my car by the beach at Cheswick. It was incredible, so wide and open. The sand seemed like it went on forever, in all directions. The sky too. There was nobody there. I was totally alone, just me, for what seemed like miles.



I walked along the beach, endless stretches of pale, fine sand, crashed over by the waves of the North Sea. The beach is backed by dunes: rolling hills of sand covered in sharp marram, woven through by a network of interconnected paths. I walked for hours, and didn’t seem to get closer to either end of the beach. It just rolled on. This part of England is so open and immense. It feels like it might have 100 years ago, like nothing would have changed.


I’d never thought of England as being so wild. While I was camped out at the beach at Cheswick, I could hear the train going by in the night. It runs the 400 miles between London and Edinburgh in 4 hours and 45 minutes, speeding through the cities further south, and across the wild expanses of England’s far north. I heard the train, but it doesn’t stop anywhere nearby. Its presence doesn’t make the landscape any more accessible, any closer to civilization, to city life.



The next day I visited Lindisfarne, which is a small tidal island off the coast of Northumberland. You can drive there at low tide. A normal highway runs across the salt flats, bits of seaweed clinging to the concrete edges. It smells like ocean, salty and raw. The muddy sand stretches out on either side and disappears slowly into the North Sea. Twice a day, the water comes up over the road, and the island is cut off from the rest of the world.



The fact of being cut off is not unusual in itself. I’ve been on many islands where entry and exit is limited by infrequent ferry schedules. Perhaps it’s the ease of it - that the road is there, and I could simply drive home. Only that it’s underwater, and there’s nothing that I, or anyone else can do to make it drivable before the tide goes out. There are signs all around the island with pictures of cars semi-covered in water, with mottos like ‘You can’t beat the North Sea, so don’t try’. Every year, cars get caught on the causeway, trying to make it off the island before the tide comes in. It’s coming right up close to the realities of nature - the realization that even though there’s a road, a man-made way to achieve something, nature is more powerful.


This week marked the beginning of Cop26 - the United Nations Annual Climate Change Conference. Thousands of delegates from all over the world descended on Glasgow for two weeks of demonstrations, negotiations, and leaders of member countries trying to decide how to limit the average global temperature to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-Industrial levels. The conference has been met with mixed criticism, but either way, it feels momentous. Everybody, from Prince Charles to President Biden, has been pictured walking the streets of Glasgow, and everyone is talking about the climate crisis.



I sit and watch videos on the news showing people’s homes flooded and communities gutted by fires. Often it feels far away. Generally it is far away - somewhere else, someone else. Even the Prime Ministers, sitting six miles away from me in the Cop26 Blue Zone, discussing the future of the planet, feel so far away from my lived reality. But sitting on Lindisfarne, waiting for the tide to uncover the road, the reality of nature was very clear.



When I came to Lindisfarne, right at low tide, the parking lot was packed. But 30 minutes before the tide came up, everyone just left. The tourists moved on, the shop workers closed up and went back to their homes on the mainland. There was only a string of people left, having tea in the only cafe left open on the island. It stayed that way until 6:40 pm, when the tide was low enough to drive off again. The pace of the island totally changed, and I set out for a walk.


I walked a loop around almost all of Lindisfarne. It’s not often that you can walk around an entire island, but Lindisfarne’s small size and gentle coastline make it possible. First you pass the castle, perched on a rocky hill above the flat island. The shore along the eastern edge is rough and open, you can hear the rocks being thrown against the shore with every wave. The northern stretch is wild with sand dunes, invisible trails snaking their way through waist high marram. It was up and down and you couldn’t see around the next corner.



But then the path opened up and cut straight back to the village, a straight line across the whole island. Endless fields fell out on either side. I walked between two stone walls, past hawthorn trees that must have been hundreds of years old. It was like there was no time, no 2021 holding me here. It could have been 1900, and I don’t think much would have changed. I’ve been to so many coastal towns in Scotland, highland villages with ancient histories, but this felt totally different. It felt calm, and expansive, like time stood still.



Lindisfarne is also called Holy Isle. In 635 CE, an abbey was founded here by St. Aidan, from where Christianity was spread through much of Northern England. The monks lived a solitary life here, cut off from the world twice a day by the tide. One of the monks even went to live on a smaller tidal island nearby, totally alone with the water and G-d. You can feel how special it is, to be so reliant on nature. For the monks who lived here 1400 years ago, it would have been a perfect place to keep the mind clear, to focus on the basic physicality of living, and the higher spiritual realms. But even today, I was surprised by how relaxing it felt, how distant, once the tide came in and the day trippers took their leave.


Life on Lindisfarne felt completely connected to nature - to tides, to winds, to the grass. It was apparent and obvious, and there was nothing else to do but react to the realities that nature presents. Back in the city it’s very different. In the city we build roads to take us where we want, regardless of what the land tells us. We eat the food we want regardless of the season. When the tide comes up we build a bridge. We make ourselves the masters of nature, rather than entering into a relationship with it.



And I don’t mean it to preach, because I eat my bananas year round, and drive a car, and too often recycle rather than reduce. Cop26 has given me a lot of things to think about, has caused me to reflect on the actions I’m taking to help the planet, and find my place within it. But I find myself thinking back to the windswept sands at Cheswick, and the underwater road to Holy Isle. I find myself trying to watch for the subtle cues of nature I find in the city - the slow changing of the leaves, the chill in the morning air - and I try to live my life with it, rather than against it.


Practicalities

I drove down the east coast, stopping first in Coldingham Bay, where there’s a coffee shop, and sometimes dolphins in the bay. I then did the 4-mile loop around St. Abbs Head, from the National Trust parking lot above St. Abbs (£3). The walk was beautiful, but quite a bit of up and down, as well as muddy clifftops, so I wouldn’t like to do it in wet weather. From there I continued down the coast to Cheswick Beach.


The next day I crossed to Lindisfarne. You can find safe crossing times online. Most of the restaurants and shops close outside of the daytime crossing slot, so best to bring food to be safe. But I really recommend staying over high tide. It was so much more peaceful without the crowds, and there are beautiful walks along the coast. I did the 5-mile loops which circles most of the island, which was quite beautiful. Parking is £7 for the day. The priory is English Heritage, which is great if you’re a member. There’s also a castle which was closed. I loved the harbour area, there were so many old boats to explore, and it was a great place to watch the sunset.



I then headed down the coast, stopping in Bamburgh to see the outside of the famous castle. There were lovely beach walks which would have been nice if I had more time, but I headed south to Craster, where there’s a 4-mile (return) walk to Dunstanburgh Castle, which is English Heritage. There’s not so much to see in the castle, but since it was free (I’m a Historic Scotland member), it was a nice place to walk around. If you’re not a member, you can also see a lot from the outside.


I then headed inland to Hexham, where I stocked up on groceries and petrol, before setting out before sunrise the next morning to walk along Hadrian’s Wall. I hiked the 8-mile loop from Steel Rigg to Housesteads. The linked walk starts at Housesteads, but I parked at the Sill, which is a sort of visitor centre near Steel Rigg. Parking is cheaper there (£5 for the day, as opposed to £10 at Steel Rigg), and there’s bathrooms, a cafe, and a really well done exhibition (for kids mostly but still great for adults) on the idea of landscapes, how we shape them, and how they shape us. There’s also an interesting roof walk with information about the local geology, so worth a visit. From the Sill, it’s a 10 minute walk to the start of the hike.



The hike itself was beautiful, taking in many different views along Hadrian’s Wall, including the famous Sycamore Gap. The wall is really beautiful, with incredible views and rolling hillsides. Parts of it were surprisingly steep, with stone steps heading down almost vertical hillsides. I was there very early, so there were fewer people, and it was a dry day, but I don’t think it would have been enjoyable in the rain. I walked to Housesteads (English Heritage), which is a Roman Fort, interesting enough, with lots of info about how the Romans would have lived in the area, and some background about Hadrian’s Wall, so probably worthwhile. You can walk back below the wall, but the woman at Housesteads said that it can be very boggy there in the winter as the sun never reaches down, so I came back the same way I went. There’s a slightly lower, grassier path that runs parallel to the wall, to avoid some of the steeper sections. There were lots of free-roaming cows in the area, but I managed to stay away from them after my recent unpleasant cow encounter.



From Hadrian’s Wall, I headed south to Gateshead to visit the Angel of the North (which was lovely), then to Seaham for picking sea glass, down to Yarm (for Shabbat), York, and finally to Manchester, and back up to Glasgow.









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