They came from across the North Sea

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They came from across the North Sea, sliding over waves in their graceful longships, outcasts and outlaws from the harsh lands of vast forests and mountain ranges, pushed out by overpopulation and freezing winds to seek new pastures. Perhaps the monks and islanders of Lindisfarne had received word that Vikings were coming once again. Or perhaps the sea was in their favour, giving them time to escape once they’d spotted those dreaded dragonships crashing up and down on roaring mists and foaming spray. They gathered up their most precious belongings and, taking the advice of their hallowed saint, the community of St Cuthbert left their holy island for what was destined to be a seven-year journey that helped shape England and keep alight the flames of Christianity that were in imminent danger of being extinguished.

Only seven monks were allowed to touch the cart that carried their precious belongings on the one-thousand mile journey over the hills and dales of what is now Northern England and Southern Scotland. On the back of the cart was the coffin of St Cuthbert, his body inside, still preserved after his death almost two-hundred years earlier. Alongside him; the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most beautiful and important books in world history; the head of St Oswald, the king who brought Christianity to Northumbria, once the most violent kingdom in the land; and the bones of St Aiden, the missionary from Iona who converted Oswald’s people.

They criss-crossed all over ancient Northumbria, a kingdom that had already been dissected by in-fighting and invasion. But this was not blind panic taking hold; far from it. By 875 AD, when the community of St Cuthbert left their vulnerable island home, the Vikings had taken control of much of the landmass right up to York and had permanent military outposts along the Tyne River. This journey of the monks and the community of St Cuthbert was vital in maintaining belief in a victorious future, underpinned by a still fledgling Christianity. St Cuthbert had performed miracles around these hills when he was alive and they brought his body, almost two hundred years later and completely undecayed, a miracle in itself. They made strategic decisions at times, heading towards and right into enemy territory. In Crayke, near York, they staged a bloodless coup, saving the young Dane Guthred from slavery and helping him depose the current Viking leader. This paved the way for negotiations with King Alfred, who was using guerrilla warfare tactics down South and would eventually become known as the first king of the English nation. Eventually, after seven exhausting years, they settled at Chester-le-Street with Guthred’s blessing and were given Wearmouth and Jarrow as properties, where Bede had written the previous century. 113 years later, fears of further attack took the community of St Cuthbert on another much smaller journey, until they finally settled in Durham, where St Cuthbert’s body still lies in the great Norman Cathedral.

Lindisfarne Gospels - Durham

Richard W Hardwick, Durham University’s new writer- in-residence, is researching the route and the history around it. And then he’s taking award winning photographer Paul Alexander Knox with him, as they travel the thousand mile route in April 2013. Together, they will record the landscape, describing it today and imagining how it would have been for the monks in the ninth century. They will visit the forty-seven places the community of St Cuthbert took refuge in and, aided by students from Durham University, Richard will write a history of each place from the time of the original journey until the current day. The photography and writing will then be exhibited at The Festival of the North East and also as part of Durham’s Lindisfarne Gospels Exhibition, which celebrates the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham, from July 2013 to September 2013. Additionally, the writing and photography will be published in a beautiful hardback book, with the aim of turning the route into a national trail that people can walk, cycle and drive. And then, in 2014, the plan is to take the books and photography back around the route for a touring exhibition that will unite the communities that once gave shelter during the ninth century – and help them realise and celebrate what a pivotal role they played in a vital part of England’s history.

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The Emergency Book Shelter

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It was at the Sunderland Book Project Exhibition in Durham that Dawn came up with the idea. We were wandering around, looking at all the beautiful handmade artist books.

“I’ve got an idea,” she said. “You know all those copies of Kicked Out you saved from being pulped? Do you still have all them stashed somewhere?”

“Mmmm…”

“Could I make art with them?”

I gave her one of those looks. “You can bugger off. You’re not cutting up all my books to make some art thing.”

I moved away from her, picked up an artist book, wanted to show her how beautiful it was. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer, kept following me.

“Listen, you’ll like it, I promise. Kicked Out is about a homeless kid isn’t it? You’ve got nine hundred copies. I can make a homeless shelter with them.”

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Fast forward two months and we’re spending a cold December night in Byker, Newcastle. I’m taking books out the boot of my car and stacking them on the wall. Dawn Felicia Knox, beautiful friend and artist, is arranging them in slow curves. We both agree it doesn’t really resemble a homeless shelter but we’re happy with the way it’s developing organically, and how it fits into the landscape so well that some people walk past and don’t even notice.

“It’s looking a bit like a bunker,” says Dawn, “the way it’s camouflaged into the wall. I’ve been thinking a lot about the cuts to art funding and the scheduled closure to libraries, I keep thinking we need to take a stand against it all. Perhaps those ideas crept into your homeless shelter….”

When it’s completed, Dawn’s camera and tripod alert most people walking past that something different is happening. They follow its direction, frown or smile. A group of lads stop, on their way to a gig in The Cluny. “Are they real books?” one of them asks. I give them a free copy each from leftovers in the boot of my car and we stop to talk. Three are local lads, one a flutist from Italy and the fifth a classical guitar player from Egypt. They invite me to their gig at the Head of Steam. A middle aged couple walk past and speak with Dawn. The woman is from Romania and the man from Newcastle. They spent a couple of years sleeping on the streets but now have a flat and they’re delighted to receive a free signed copy of Kicked Out. Next come a group of girls, leaving The Cluny and on their way to The Tanners pub. Giving books away is liberating and like others, they’re delighted to receive a free copy and think Dawn’s structure is beautiful.

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Half an hour later Dawn has jumped in a taxi to look after her little Ayla and I’m starting to dismantle the structure when this drunken feller staggers down the hill.

“Are you an artist?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “I’m the writer.”

“Ah right. It’s just I was having a few pints in The Tanners and these lasses came in, sat round the table and all opened the same book. I thought it was a fucking book club or something but they said there was this bloke down here that was giving away free books.”

I sign a copy for him and then he asks if he could have one more.

“Of course,” I say. “Who should I sign it for?”

He hesitates a few seconds. “I can’t remember his name,” he says. “Just sign it to the beardy landlord out The Tanners.”

We chat for fifteen minutes while he helps me put them all back in the boot, all piled much higher than before, now they’re out of their shrink wrapping. I give him a lift back up the hill to The Tanners and drive home, thinking how it would be good to do it all again, but build the structure in the middle of Northumberland Street in Newcastle, give out books to raise awareness of homelessness and of the fact that more than forty per cent of books published end up getting pulped; and this at a time when libraries are closing and schools struggle to find the money to buy books. Maybe I’ll wait until my third book is published, so I have a new book to publicise.

Then I arrive home and open the car door, and a whole stack of them fall out onto the rain soaked drive. I shake my head and bend down to pick them all up. At least I have a loving home to come back to, unlike a lot of people this Christmas, and the young people that inspired Kicked Out.