The dark silhouettes of the silent houses glide by above us as we motor slowly out of Eyemouth harbour. It is 0430, and we are the only ones about as the town continues to sleep. We pass the looming bulk of the dredger tied up in the small dock to the side of the main channel, and enter the Canyon, the eerie red and green glow from the navigation lights on our bow reflecting off its steep walls. For a moment it reminds me of a deserted alley in a horror movie.
We need to leave at this ungodly hour two hours before low water at 0630 to make sure that we don’t ground ourselves on the rocky bottom on the way out. We could also have left two hours after low water at 0830, but that wouldn’t have given us enough time to get to our next port of call, Amble, where we can only enter at high water at around 1230. All this planning around tides makes it tricky when sailing on the east coast, and often guarantees leaving or arriving at unsociable hours.
As we leave the harbour, I follow the track of the GPS that we made on the way in to make sure that we don’t hit the Hurkar Rocks that caused the horrific loss of life in 1883. Another ship wreck at this time of the morning wouldn’t look good. When we reach the cardinal buoy marking the presence of the rocks from the sea, we turn southwards and set a course for the Farne Islands. The sails fill with a slap, we pick up speed, and soon the street lights of Eyemouth are receding into the distance.
The First Mate makes us hot cups of tea, and together we huddle in the shelter of the cockpit watching the grey horizon give way to the brilliant reds and yellows of the sunrise as a new day dawns. It is moments like this that make us feel that the early starts all worthwhile and that life is worth living.
The young shepherd awakes sweating, and pulls his cloak closer around him to keep warm. He had taken shelter in the cowshed the night before and fallen asleep almost straightaway, exhausted from driving his sheep down from the north. He had slept soundly for most of the night, but had been woken by a vivid dream in which Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne, the head of the church he worshipped under, had died and had been carried off to heaven by angels dressed in white. One of the angels had turned around and pointed to himself, saying ‘you will follow’. He shivers and tries to go back to sleep, but the otherworldliness of his dream stops him. He lies awake, his mind in a whirl, listening to the movements and breathing of the cows around him, their thick, earthy smell almost suffocating him. Why should he, a humble uneducated shepherd, have had such a dream of someone so far above him, so respected, someone he had never even met? And what did he mean by saying that he would follow? Was he going to die too? Nothing made sense.
Dawn comes, and the young shepherd decides that he can only find the meaning of his dream by travelling across to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. It was a long way, but he is sure he can do it in a day if he doesn’t stop. He leaves his sheep with the owner of the cowshed, saying he could keep them in place of payment for his sleeping place, and sets off. By late evening he is nearly there, and falls in with a friendly monk on the road just outside the village.
“You won’t be able to go across to the monastery today, you know”, the monk says when the young shepherd tells him where is heading. “Bishop Aidan, the founder of the monastery, died this morning, and the monks are preparing for his funeral. In fact, that is where I am going myself, to give a hand, like.”
The monk’s words hit the young shepherd like a thunderbolt. His dream was real! But how could that be?
“The castle looks beautiful. Do you remember when we were there, quite a long time ago now?”.
I am woken from my reverie by the First Mate, bringing out some fresh mugs of hot tea. We are just passing the Holy Island of Lindisfarne with its castle rising out of a rocky promontory of the otherwise flat island almost as if had been fashioned naturally rather than built by humans.
I had been recalling the story of St Cuthbert, which I had read when growing up. From humble origins as an uneducated shepherd, but with the convincing power of a vision that had come true, he had decided to become a monk, and had worked his way up the orders until he eventually become the Bishop of Lindisfarne. After his death, the Lindisfarne Gospels, a beautiful illuminated illustrated version of the four gospels, were made to celebrate his life.
“We rented a cottage in Northumberland one Christmas, and visited Holy Island. Don’t you remember we walked across the sand at low tide?”, continues the First Mate.
She is right – we had been on the island before, and I can remember sampling the mead made there, and rushing back along the causeway across the sand flats to the mainland before the tide came in again. Our son had only been six then, and we had tobogganed together down the snow-covered slopes outside our cottage.
The monastery on Lindisfarne had been established in 634 AD by Aidan, who had come across from the Holy Island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland, which we had seen during last year’s voyage in Ruby Tuesday. Aidan had brought with him the Celtic brand of Christianity that St Patrick had introduced from Ireland. For a while it had been the centre of Christianity in the north of England, but eventually lost influence to the Roman brand of Christianity in Canterbury further south. One of the differences between the two brands was the style of haircuts the monks had, and many bitter arguments ensued. Apparently God finds these things quite important when he is not running the universe.
A little bit further on, we pass the imposing Bamburgh Castle. The Northumbrians certainly loved building castles – in addition to the one on Holy Island that we had just passed and Bamburgh Castle, there is another on a little bit further on, Dunstanburgh Castle. Turbulent times need secure defences, no doubt.
We pass through the narrow stretch of water between Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands stretching like a chain of beads out to sea. Many years ago, I had dived off the Knifestone Rocks, the last in the chain, amongst the seal colony there. I still think it was one of the best dives I ever did, watching the seals underwater pirouetting and jumping as they showed off their skills to us.
We arrive in Amble just after midday, just on high water. The marina is up the River Coquet about a mile, and we have been told to follow the course of the river around, sticking closely to the southern wall, as that is where the deep water is. On the north side, although covered at the moment by water only about a metre deep, are extensive mud flats that will be dry in an hour or so. It is easier said than done to hug the wall, as the southern bank is also where all the fishing trawlers tie up, and we have to swing in very close to them to stay in the narrow deep water channel.
We finally reach the marina, and see in front of us a man in shorts on one of the pontoons waving energetically at us. Thinking that he is one of the marina staff wanting to direct us, we pull in as best as we can to the pontoon, not the easiest thing to do in the strong crosswind blowing us off. Eventually we are tied up securely.
“Phew, that wasn’t easy”, I say. “So, which is our berth for tonight?”.
“I have no idea”, the man replies. “I am just another berth-holder. You need to talk to one of the marina staff.”
“But we saw you waving us in”, I say. “We thought you had come down to show us where to go.”
“No, I just saw your wife waving to me, and I waved back”, he says.
It transpires that we have inadvertently tied up to the fuel berth. Luckily a real marina man arrives. I decide that we need to top up our fuel tank anyway. It has the advantage that (a) we can pretend that was our plan all along, and (b) that it will save a job later, and (c) we can leave when the tides are right rather than when the marina is open.
We eventually find the berth that has been allocated to us, tie up, and have lunch. I settle down in the cockpit for a snooze, and am soon dreaming of executing the perfect tack, or some such thing. A sudden shout from the First Mate wakes me abruptly.
“Watch out, watch out”, she shouts. “The idiot. He doesn’t know what he is doing.”
It was probably only a few seconds before I realised that it wasn’t me she was referring to, conditioned as I am. I leap up and see a small motorboat in the middle of the narrow fairway between the pontoon where we are tied and the neighbouring one. The driver is trying to get into the small gap between two other boats. To be fair, the wind is very strong and it is not easy to position the boat with any accuracy, as we ourselves had found when we came into the marina. The motor boat makes two to three attempts without any success, on all occasions being blown past his slot. Then, whether in frustration, panic or confusion we’ll never know, the driver rams the throttle forward and careers wildly around in the fairway between the two pontoons, heading for the side of Ruby Tuesday. The First Mate and I both see a potential accident developing and grab the boathooks to try and fend him off. Too late! His boat hits ours and scrapes its way along the side in a sickening graunch. My boathook catches in the front of the little boat somehow and pitchpoles in a graceful arc like a javelin, and disappears into the water in the fairway. The little boat continues it course of mayhem, careering from side to side of the fairway, narrowly missing two other boats and grazing the end of the last finger pontoon, ending up on the main fairway from the marina entrance facing the way it had come. For a moment I wonder if the driver is just regrouping for another attack to finish off the boats he missed first time around, but a look at his face shows that he is more shocked than we are. I even feel a bit sorry for him.
We exchange insurance details and metaphorically shake hands to avoid transmitting any viral particles. These things happen, there are no hard feelings on our part. Later on, a neighbouring boatie brings us our boathook which he finds floating near his boat. At least all is not lost. Later I clamber into our little dinghy and take photos of the damage. Luckily it is not a deep scratch and can probably be fixed with a little filler and sanding. It could be worse.
Later in the afternoon, we explore the town.
“We can’t come here without going for an amble around Amble”, I say, feeling rather pleased with myself. I had been waiting for the opportunity to use that one. The First Mate looks at me witheringly.
Amble was once a port for the coal industry in Northumberland, but has since declined in that respect, and now relies on its small fishing industry and tourism. It is pleasant enough, not spectacular, but has seen some redevelopment work around the town square and the riverside harbour.
We come to the Northumberland Seafood Centre that sells the freshly caught fish coming directly from the boats. It also has a lobster hatchery, but unfortunately it is closed to the public because of the coronavirus.
We talk to the owner who is standing outside the Centre.
“We sell a lot of our fish to Europe”, he says. “Brexit is going to be a disaster for that. I am not sure how we are going to survive.”
“But the north-east here voted en masse to leave”, I say. “And the fishing industry in particular want to get back control of our waters. I don’t understand.”
“People were just manipulated by the politicians to believe that no-one was going to tell Britain what to do. It’s a north-eastern thing”, he says morosely. “But no good will come of it, you see.”
We end up at a café on the river front where we decide to have a drink. The First Mate looks at the menu and decides to order squid rings to go with her drink. The drinks arrive, but no squid rings. After half-an-hour, we ask the waitress what has happened to them.
“They are just coming”, she says. “The kitchen has been really busy.”
Twenty minutes later, they have still not arrived. We are getting cold. We ask her again.
“They’ll be here in a couple of minutes”, she says.
Ten minutes later we ask again. “I am so sorry”, she says. “For some reason, the order didn’t go through. It’s my fault. Give them five minutes.”
This time they do arrive. There are only three squid rings. The First Mate gobbles them up. We ask for the bill. It arrives, and we are charged £16.40 for two snacks instead of one. I complain to the waitress.
“Not only did our snacks take more than an hour to arrive, we only get three squid rings for £8.20, and then to top it all, you charge us for two snacks instead of one”, I say.
“I am so sorry”, says the waitress. “Tell you what, you can have the drinks free.”
It’s been quite a day.