St Bees head in Cumbria is a quiet costal place tucked away from the heavy tourism of the central Lakes. It’s a lovely stretch of coast, and the starting place of the very popular Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk. Any time of year the car park is full and the beach café, offering views out to sea, is busy. From the car park you can walk up the grassy cliffs to see the sea birds who nest in this secluded spot. There’s a campsite here and its access to the northern fells makes it a popular place for holiday makers.
I suspect that most people visiting have little idea of its spiritual past, but the name St Bees is an obvious clue to an association with an ancient saint. If you explore a little further you will find a local statue of the girl Bega with a small coracle boat or in the parish church a stain glass window showing a royal princess disembarking from a larger boat. This is St Bega, an Irish princess who arrived on these shores sometime in the early medieval period; she is St Bee of the place name.
The sources we have tell us that St Bega, an Irish princess, was fleeing an unwanted marriage and crossed the Irish sea alone, landing at this secluded spot and making it her home. Medieval sources tell us that she lived here as an anchoress, eventually fleeing to escape Viking raids. When she went she left behind a bracelet that was later to become a relic associated with many miracles. We no longer have the bracelet but there is plenty of mention of it in later medieval sources, enough to suggest it was the focus of pilgrimage here.
In the 12th century, several hundred years after Bega first came to Cumbria, a Benedictine abbey was established at St Bees. By this time the place was bearing her name (Kirkby Becok / the church of Bega) and a priest was already established to take care of the shrine where pilgrims came to ask her to pray for them. The abbey was dissolved in 1593 but the building is now the parish church. You can visit it and see its magnificent Norman doorway and some lovely old stone crosses in the gave yard, but to contemplate St Bega I still prefer to sit on the beach looking out to sea for a sense of who this solitary female saint could have been.
The Holme Cultram manuscript, now kept in the Bodleian library in Oxford is a twelfth century life of the saints. It is our main source for Bega. I love the language of the story-telling and the atmosphere created around the place and the saint. It gives an account of how she arrived, saying:
“Bega found the place covered with a thick forest, admirably adapted for a solitary life. Wishing to dedicate her life to God she built for herself a virgin cell in a grove near the seashore, where she remained for many years in strict seclusion. In the course of time the district began to be frequented by pirates. The good saint however dreaded not death, nor mutilation, nor the loss of temporal goods, of which she was destitute except her bracelet (armilla), but she feared the loss of her virginity, the most precious treasure with which heaven can endow her sex. By divine command Bega hastened her departure from the place, but she was induced to leave her bracelet behind her, that miracles in ages to come might be performed in that neighbourhood in testimony of her holy life.”
Sitting on the pebbles between the groynes that divide the beach, listening to the sea, this is what I imagine; up beyond the cliff and further inland where the fields and moor stretch, thick forest where she hid herself away, living close to the earth and the creatures of the woodland, foraging for food and establishing the habit of a prayerful life in solitude. I look out to where the shore meets the headland and imagine the changing shape of this place formed by time and tide. I consider where she might have built that cell in a grove by the seashore. I even imagine the night she pulled her boat up on to the beach, dragging behind her a few processions, still stunned by the trauma and the loss of the events that cast her out. in all of this she consecrating her life to God as best she could in a place that was beautiful but in so many ways inhospitable.
This inhospitable world and all the challenges of living in it and all the ways in which we find enough beauty and enough meaning to make our way.
This is a different kind of relationship to history and a different way of relating to landscape and place. its one that recognises the spiritual without demanding from me more faith than I actually have. As if the softness of the hills and boldness of the sky are inviting to enlarge the places of my heart, to entertain angles and saints and more beauty ways of being human in the world.