Even in these post-War times, it seemed to Tom that there was still a considerable military presence in the vicinity of the crossing to Lyndesfarne. As the three young men walked on towards the island, they passed the entrance to an army camp, quite small, as such things went, but still obviously in active service.
The base itself was surrounded by a high wire fence supported on rusty metal poles, topped with barbed wire. What Tom took to be the main entrance to the camp was sited a few hundred yards from the coast, and guarded by a couple of bored-looking sentries. The companions nodded politely to the men on duty, but did not attempt to engage them in conversation; Tom suspected that chatting to passers-by would earn the soldiers a severe bollocking from their duty officer.
Beyond the fence, there were a slightly ramshackle collection of buildings, all of which looked as if they had been rapidly constructed during the War. There were some low brick buildings with flat roofs, as well as a clutch of those semi-circular constructions Tom knew as Nissen huts, which always struck him as like an oversize sewer pipe embedded half-way into the ground.
As he looked through the fence, Tom could see the usual military activities of painting and cleaning being undertaken. He recalled the important advice to recruits, as conveyed by his very first Sergeant when he had joined up: "If it moves, salute it. If it doesn't move, paint it."
Tom found it difficult to imagine what was of such strategic importance around here that demanded a military presence even now. Or perhaps it was just happenstance - just one of the large number of military installations established during the War, and which had so far escaped the notice of the powers that be.
Just beyond the seaward edge of the camp, when the companions could see the point where the causeway reached the coast, there was an open area of grass on their left, partially occupied by a small tented fair. The fairground proper was edged by a low dry-stone wall, beyond which was an open area of rough grazing punctuated by a few sheep.
As well as the tents, there were a handful of horse-drawn caravans, similar to the one which had passed them while they had lunch, with their horses grazing nearby. This rustic scene contrasted neatly with the motorised vehicles, mainly ex-army lorries, parked at one edge of the ground.
In one area, there were a few stalls set out, although Tom could not quite make out what was being offered for sale. In another part, stock pens had been constructed from the same stones used for the boundary wall. The trade in livestock was obvious from the handshake and folding money was changing hands between farmers and outdoors types in their work-a-day clothes.
Despite the flapping of canvas and the slightly rickety appearance of some of the tents, it seemed to Tom that there was a feeling of semi-permanence about the whole fairground. Its slightly shabby manifestation made it seem a bit like a miniature version of the fair the companions had attended in Alnwick all those weeks ago. Indeed, Tom was almost sure that he recognised one or two of the faces which turned in their direction as they approached.
A principal function of a fair like this, Tom thought amusedly - quite apart from the buying and selling of course - was to update one's friends and acquaintances of the goings-on of one's other friends and acquaintances. Certainly, there were several groups of men standing around, gossiping and smoking everything from old-fashioned clay pipes to American cigarettes.
Unexpectedly, Bram excused himself from the other two for a moment. He made his way casually through the open gate in the low stone wall that separated the fairground from the road and wandered over to one of the groups of smokers. Taken slightly aback, Tom and Alistair strolled over to the wall, dropped their packs and drew out water bottles and cigarette packets. They could not hear what was being said, although it seemed that Bram was accepted into the group without question. As they watched, Bram also produced a packet of cigarettes and offered them around.
Tom was intensely curious at this point, since he had never seen Bram smoking and he certainly had always declined the offer of a smoke. A few of the other men accepted the proffered smokes. Bram appeared to be making some kind of enquiry. There was a general nodding of heads and several of the men pointed at a nearby tent.
Both Tom and Alistair were watching intently from their vantage-point. Bram appeared to thank the assembled company and walked the few steps to the indicated booth. There were no signs or marking, as far as Tom could see. The flap of canvas that acted as a door was tied back, and Bram stooped and entered without stopping.
As far as they could tell, Bram was getting some money changed. He had handed over a white five pound note, which was an immense amount of money and rather more than Tom had ever held in his own hands. In return, Bram received a cloth bag with a drawstring top, which emitted a clearly-audible clink when he concealed it inside his jacket.
Nodding politely in farewell, Bram returned directly to the other two young men.
"What were you doing?" Alistair asked.
"Oh, just getting some change," Bram replied airily, jingling the money bag inside his coat, "I've been meaning to break that banknote for ages."
"Well, drinks on Bram, then," Alistair retorted, nudging Tom in the ribs.
They all laughed.
"Right then," Bram said, "Still a fair way to go, lads. Shall we get on with it?"
They shouldered their packs and set off.
There was more evidence of Wartime installations on the coast itself. A series of immense concrete blocks lined the high-water mark, tank traps to make it hard for an invader to get vehicles ashore from landing craft. The shore was littered with the remains of barbed wire defences: coils of wire supported on rotten-looking wooden cross-pieces. To one side, they could see a squat tower of grey-painted metal latticework conveying the unmistakable aura of military usage. The tower was equipped with various lamps and aerials, and looked like it was still in regular use.
This was the first opportunity for the companions to get a close-up view of the crossing that stretched ahead of them. Tom could now see that it was constructed of vast stone blocks, now weathered and worn in places. There was a bend in the causeway which was clearly visible, but the bridge itself still seemed engulfed in a sea haze, despite the brightness of the day. All around, the salt marshes and sandbanks stretched away, the straights widening rapidly on either side. It seemed to Tom that the crossing had been carefully constructed at the narrowest point between mainland and island.
There was a small stone-built building right at the very entrance of the causeway, with a couple of older men taking their ease outside. One of them stood up straight as the travellers approached, and greeted them cheerily.
"Helloo. So where are you young men off too, then?"
"We're visiting my parents," Bram responded for all three of them, "Still got a fair walk ahead of us."
The older man nodded.
"Well, don't let me detain you unnecessarily," he responded cheerfully, "Enjoy your stroll."
Touching their caps, the companions resumed their walk, watched incuriously by the lounging blokes.
"When was this causeway built?" Tom asked Bram curiously, looking around at the stone bocks that formed the causeway, and then over the side of the low walls that edged the construction.
"I don't know exactly. But it's certainly been around for centuries," Bram replied.
"It must have taken quite a bit of building,"
Bram nodded silently, lost in thought for a moment.
"Originally, I was told, the causeway was little more than a line of stone markers indicating a reliable path over the marshes," he resumed, "It was only safe to cross when the tide was out and, even then, one had to take care not stray from the marked trail. The danger of wandering into a sinkhole when crossing was terrifyingly high. Legend has it that this was the route taken by St. Cuthbert on his travels to and from Lyndesfarne."
"Anyway, over the years, the stone markers were replaced by larger stone blocks which marked the safe passage. Later still, a local lord ordered the construction of the causeway that you see now. Of course, it's been maintained and reinforced several times since then. Still rather impressive, though, don't you think?"
As they crossed, the tide was coming in. They could observe the water flowing over the sands and lapping against the base of the stonework. The tang of the salty air was a tangible presence, and the sounds of the sea and the cries of seagulls riding the air above them lifted their spirits and gave Tom a very real sense of freedom and opportunity.
Movement over the causeway and bridge was brisk, with horse-drawn wagons representing the bulk of the traffic. Tom could not see a single motorised vehicle, although he could see that the causeway was so narrow that it was only with difficulty that two carts could pass in opposite directions. He could also see the ruts worn in the masonry underfoot, suggesting that the causeway had been in regular use for hundreds of years.
One horse-drawn wagon passed them, with five black-and-white border collies lounging insouciantly in the back. The dogs watched the travellers with bright intelligence, causing Tom to think that the five animals were, collectively, easily as smart as any three people.
There was also a fair bit of foot traffic, with some people pushing handcarts and a few others with large packs on their backs. These porters appeared to be in direct competition with several strings of heavily-laden donkeys. There were also herds of domesticated animals - sheep, cows, even goats - being driven over the causeway. Men and dogs attempted to direct the unruly herds, with much whistling and shouting, and the liberal use of flexible switches of wood freshly cut from the hedgerows.
It would be only later that Tom would realise that, while carts and pack animals were travelling in both directions, the herds of cows and flocks of sheep were in transit only towards Lyndesfarne, and not towards the mainland. He would later indignantly realise that the people here were exporting domestic animals from a post-war Britain where food rationing and shortages were still an everyday fact of life.
Only as they rounded the bend in the causeway did the true scale of the bridge itself become apparent. The bridge consisted of three arches, with a huge central span crossing the deepest part of the straights. The figures on the bridge were dwarfed by the immensity of the arches underneath them.
The main arch seemed incredibly long, at least two hundred feet across and sixty feet high. There were smaller secondary arches on either side, perhaps seventy feet or more. These vast arches were supported on either side by massive buttresses that seemed to pin the bridge immovably into the sands around it. The whole bridge was approached by a long sloping section of the causeway which allowed wheeled vehicles to cross.
The traffic on the bridge was much denser than on the causeway. Tom could see that the bridge was only wide enough for a single wagon at a time, and there was a queue of skittish horses and impatient carters waiting to cross. There was much shouting and swearing, although he did not recognise all of the curses blistering the air.
The three young men edged their way past a cart heading down the slope towards them, and which looked dangerously overloaded, and made their way towards the centre of the bridge.
Tom was fascinated by the whole experience. He stopped dead at the very apex of the central arch, and looked around him. Both coastlines looked hazy, even blurred, by the distance and, strangely, the weather seemed to be quite different when looking towards the island and to the mainland.
"Look at the clouds," Tom exclaimed, pointing.
Behind them, a clear blue sky with just a few white wisps of high cirrus. Ahead, the sky was grey and overcast, with the suggestion of rain in the air.
"It's almost as if there's a line drawn in the sky across the straights," he continued.
"The weather is notoriously variable hereabouts," Bram said carelessly, "I think it's the proximity of the sea, or something."
Tom was not really listening. He was staring down into the swirling water below the centre of the bridge, nearly hypnotised by the movements of the sea under the bridge.
Tom's reverie was interrupted by a coarse shout from one of the wagoners.
"Look, we can't wait here," Bram said, more urgently, "We're just getting in the way."
Reluctantly, Tom allowed himself to be dragged onwards, entering Lyndesfarne for the first time.
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