The weeks after their visit to the Alnwick market seemed to pass in a flash. There was always work to be finished, but they at least had the satisfaction of seeing the results of their day's labour, of being able to stand back after long hours and see a job well done.
After a few weeks, Edna the farmer's wife gently chided all three of the young men to get their hair cut. She singled out Bram whose unruly hair seemed to grow overnight, much to the annoyance of the unit barber when they were in the army. After a small amount of nagging, all three of them allowed the good lady to trim their hair, returning them to the "short back and sides" cut they had sported during much of their military service.
The culmination of their labour was getting the harvest safely home. Everyone on the farm regularly working late into the evening, in the long twilight, cutting the wheat and bringing in the crops. They all enjoyed the traditional Harvest Festival, with the usual thanks offered in the parish church. There was a more informal celebration as well, with a fete held on the village green. This was followed by very energetic, or at least noisy, festivity in the village pub, involving drinking rather too much beer and probably too much barn dancing as well. During the festivities, Tom noticed that Bram gave the impression of being something of a bystander, which was very unusual since he was normally the life and soul of any party.
Thinking about it later, Tom considered that Bram must have felt a little flat after the celebrations, or maybe he thought that he could not put off the return to his family for much longer. In any event, it was the following morning that he announced his intention to make his long-delayed visit to his parents, and invited Tom and Alistair to join him. The two young men were enthusiastic about making a trip, with Alistair quipping that a change was as good as a rest. They set about gathering up the things they would require for a journey.
"Let's travel light, boys," Bram advised, "No need to carry things we'll not use. We'll only have to carry them back again. And let's not take anything too valuable with us."
Bram specifically advised Alistair to leave his grandfather's watch behind. This was part of the small inheritance he had collected from the solicitor while he was in London, one of a number of things left to him by his mother. Bram did not exactly say why, but suggested indirectly that the combination of sea air and rough travel might not agree with the delicate workings of an old watch.
Later that morning, the three young men approached John the farmer to make it clear that they had a little business elsewhere to attend to, without being specific on their actual destination. Bram did most of the talking.
"We'll be away for a night or two at most," he explained, "You'll hardly know we've been gone. Now that the harvest's in, I'm sure you can spare us for a few days."
Bram was at great pains to stress that they all expected to return very soon.
"We'll leave most of our belongings in the barn," he suggested, "We've got a fair old walk in front of us."
Without being asked, Edna made up a few bundles for the young men containing, they were to discover later, some bread, cheese and apples from the garden. These they accepted gratefully, and packed them carefully in their knapsacks, along with their water bottles freshly refilled from the spring.
The companions set off shortly after breakfast. After ten minutes walking along the farm road, they took a different way from their usual course down to the village with its congenial public houses. Following Bram closely, the party struck off along a narrow footpath across the fields, finally joining a larger track by means of a stile of worn stone blocks which allowed passage over a well-maintained dry stone wall.
Bram looked around, apparently satisfied.
"This way," he said, indicating the road to their right, "I knew this path had to be around here somewhere."
The road was surprisingly shady, with mature trees at intervals and high hedgerows and stone walls on either side. For the most part, it was very difficult to see the surrounding countryside and, when they caught a glimpse through the hedges, there was nothing to see except open fields and the occasional cow. It was almost, Tom mused privately, as if the way had been intended to be secret.
"So what is this road?" Tom asked Bram.
Bram hesitated for a second, then grinned broadly.
"It's called St. Cuthbert's Way," he answered, "Named after a Saint Cuthbert, of course. In olden times, it is said, the way was built to allow pilgrims and travellers to travel to and from the crossing to Lyndesfarne quickly and discreetly. Cuthbert himself is supposed to have come this way many times, passing here and there for the working of his famous miracles. And, long after his death, his body, or at least his bones, were whisked away along this path by his followers."
Tom could certainly imagine a small group or even a single individual travelling this way extremely circumspectly, with no one the wiser of their passage.
At one point on their walk, the three companions were overtaken by a man on horseback at the canter, and there were a few travellers coming in the opposite direction.
They had to scramble onto the bank a couple of times to stay clear of horse-drawn wagons and caravans. But, for most of the journey, the road was very quiet, with just the singing of the birds in the hedges for company.
Even so, the way was more well-travelled than it looked. Looking down, Tom could see many ruts and tracks in the ground, with footprints in the muddy patches. There was some evidence of recent maintenance as well, with some potholes freshly filled with firmly tamped gravel, and ditches and drainage channels newly cleared of weeds and soil.
The sun was shining as the young men walked over a slight rise and caught their first glimpse of the sea between the trees. As they made their way down the hill, they admired the bright blue of the sea against the grey-blue of the skyline and the near-cloudless sky above. Closer to the shore, they could see a line of white breakers shining brightly in the sunshine, indicating that the tide was a long way out.
"I hadn't realised that we were so close to the sea here," Alistair said.
Bram laughed again.
"Still a fair way to go, my friend," he said, "Quite a few miles. But we should be able to see our destination soon."
As they rounded a bend in the road, they caught their first sight of Lyndesfarne. The island itself appeared as little more than a mistily blurred region of green and grey, the haze over the isle contrasting strongly with the clear views out to sea in other directions. Tom found it very difficult to make out any kind of features on the island. All he could see was an area of scrubby grass with no signs of habitation, edged by rocks and mudflats.
From their vantage-point, they could make out all three arches of an old masonry bridge, reached by a long causeway constructed in the same weathered stone. There was a suggestion of a similar causeway on the other side, but it was not at all clear whether it was even passable. Somehow, the far causeway seemed to disappear into the haze, even in the bright sunshine.
"Well, that's our route," Bram cried, indicating the bridge and causeway, "And the weather still looks fine for our walk."
There was much shipping passing well out to sea, as well as numerous inshore boats visible to the north and south. Strangely, thought Tom, there were no boats visible in the straights between the island and the mainland, no one fishing or collecting lobster-pots.
The only feature which did seem to be clearly visible on the island was a ruined castle. This appeared to be a little more than a few broken walls and towers which clung to a natural outcrop at the end of a narrow peninsula. The tumbledown nature of the Lyndesfarne castle contrasted the other fortifications Tom could see in several directions.
"Why are there so many castles around here?" Alistair asked suddenly, apparently having been following much the same train of thought as Tom.
"Ah," Bram replied, "This area was once famous for its brigands and highwaymen, not to mention being frequently invaded from both sea and land. At one time, almost every building of any significance was fortified in some way."
There were large and impressive castles in a good state of repair dotted along the coast. Tom could see how these would allow a local garrison to repel larger invading forces. Bram pointed out Bamburgh castle to the south, the sunlight glinting on its walls and towers, and the rugged keeps of Haggerston and Scremerston to the north.
As the companions followed the road further down the hillside, the island and the castles were lost to view, obscured by the trees and hedgerows.
"Well, boys," Bram piped up, "I think we're coming up on the north road to Edinburgh."
"So how much further is it then?" Tom asked.
"It's just five miles to the causeway," Bram replied.
A few minutes later, they reached the main road, a modern stretch of smooth tar macadam extending as far as the eye could see. There was a fair amount of traffic, mostly heavy lorries, with a few cars and the occasional motorbike.
"Let's rest here awhile," Alistair suggested.
Bram shrugged his shoulders, apparently indifferent to the thought. Tom was more enthusiastic, and pointed out a sheltered spot just at the end of the lane, between the hedgerows and shaded by a mature oak tree. He sauntered over, threw down his pack, and subsided gratefully on the grass. The other two joined him almost immediately, and they started pulling out cigarettes and the water flasks from their baggage.
As Alistair lit his fag and Bram drank deeply from his flask, Tom studied the road junction. He could see no evidence that any car or lorry ever turned down this way; wheeled transport taking this route was horse-drawn. There were no signposts, no houses, no sign of anyone around at all.
Across the road, there was a wider track, not asphalted but obviously used by powered vehicles. As they watched, a lorry appeared in the junction, stopping well back from the main road, being barely visible between the hedges. The companions instinctively shrunk back into their hedgerow hiding place as they watched. The lorry waited for a gap in the traffic - no, realised Tom suddenly, waited until there was no traffic in sight at all - then pulled out and sped away.
After ten minutes to rest their legs, the three companions stood up and make ready to continue their walk. They crossed the main road and walked down the lane where they had seen the truck pull out earlier.
"Is this still St. Cuthbert's Way?" Tom asked.
"I believe so," Bram replied, "It's certainly the main route to Lyndesfarne."
Tom noticed that the road became asphalted about half a mile after the turning, well out of sight of the main road. They crossed a small bridge, with parapets built surprisingly high, so that is was not easily possible to see over them. Tom got Alistair to hoist him up, to look over the parapet. There was little to see, just a pair of railway tracks sunk into a deep cutting, with heavily overgrown banks on either side.
"It's just a railway line," Bram commented, "We probably came this way from London."
As they walked along, Tom noted that there were only a few houses, all set back from the road, and usually shielded by high hedges. Curiously, Tom peered through the gateways and entrances as they passed. Usually, there was no one about, no sign of anyone at all.
The only resident they saw on the entire walk from the main road was one old man, tending the garden at the front of his house. When Tom spotted him, he was bending slowing in an arthritic kind of way, and wearing what Tom was beginning to suspect was the official old countryman's uniform of moleskin trousers, ancient waistcoat, a kerchief at the throat and topped with a battered panama hat.
When he saw the three companions, the old man stood up straight, stretching his back, and then touched his hat politely in greeting. The travellers returned his salute, equally politely. Neither party said anything. Looking back, Tom was convinced that the old man watched them carefully until they were out of sight.
A little later, the young men stopped for lunch on a rustic bench under a spreading horse chestnut tree that creaked alarmingly in the light breeze. The conkers had already started falling, and Tom picked up one, fascinated by the cracked green hull and the shiny brown kernel within. He put the conker in his pocket, dimly remembering childhood games he had enjoyed long ago.
Their picnic spot was set on a bend in the road where a small stone bridge crossed a stream. As they ate their bread and cheese, and bit into the small sharp apples they had been given, they watched the traffic passing. There was not a lot of it. A few lorries went by, all of which seemed heavily laden, although it was not obvious what was being transported. Some of the trucks looked ex-army, re-painted less military colours. Others were definitely pre-war, while still others appeared to still be in active army service.
Tom and Alistair smoked a cigarette apiece. As the young men relaxed in their sheltered spot, they were passed by a horse-drawn caravan clip-clopping along, heading away from the coast. Tom speculated idly that it would be making its way up the overgrown lane, rather than chancing the main road with its fast-moving motorised traffic.
Their lunch completed, and cigarettes extinguished, the companions walked on. Finally, they crested one last low rise which gave then a vista over the sea coast. The view of the bridge and the causeway was clearer now, although the island itself was still shrouded in mist. As they approached the beach, Tom noted a line of concrete defences, tank traps left over from the War, and probably too big and solid to easily remove or destroy. The whole area must have been very carefully defended, he mused.
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