I am lucky enough to live close to Hadrian's Wall, on the south side where the land drops sharply down into the valley of the Tyne. From my front door I often walk up the steep hill above the village to enjoy amazing views. To the south across the valley, the North Pennines rear up massively, their whale-backs dominating the horizon. To the north, the view is closed off by the ridge of volcanic rocks called the Whin Sill whose jagged edges serrate the sky. It carries the Roman wall that strides across the lands of Cumbria and Northumberland connecting east coast and west at this narrow neck of England. In front of that you can glimpse a road that runs parallel to the wall a mile or two to the south. This is the Stanegate, a Roman Road built earlier than the wall to link the strategic sites of Corbridge, Vindolanda and Carlisle.
Yesterday I took time out from EU-scanning the media to enjoy some fresh air. It's fascinating to read so much stimulating stuff, but after a while your head does begin to spin. Alone in this beautiful landscape washed by winter sunshine, I found myself musing as you often do on a walk, gathering wool as I say (hence the name of this blog). Here's where my thoughts were leading me.
I found myself thinking about what it means to live on a frontier. Northumberland has always been border country, long fought-over by Scots and English. We live in what used to be called for many centuries England's Middle March that sits between the English East March and the West. These were matched by the three Marches on the Scottish side. They were patrolled by wardens who sought to impose a degree of order in these often lawless territories where border reivers would sweep down the valleys to pillage and plunder at will. Not far away in the West March is an area that was officially known as the Debateable Lands. That name says it all. From the middle ages to the eighteenth century, you were careful whom you chose as your friends.
But long before all this, the Roman wall stood as an unforgettable symbol of a boundary. Bede, lover of most things Roman, knew about it, living as he did close to the military base of Arbeia whose impressive remains you can see laid out in the middle of South Shields. Why Hadrian's Wall was built in the first place isn't altogether clear (and the same goes for its Scottish cousin the Antonine Wall). But defence was certainly one reason, for the fortified milecastles proclaim only too clearly that in the early centuries of the Christian era, this was contested land. But both walls probably had a symbolic function, to delineate the north-western boundary of the Roman Empire. When the Antonine Wall was abandoned, Hadrian's was reinforced as if to say, here now is the settled border. To the south you are within the Pax Romana. To the north, its jurisdiction ceased, even if Romans often had military, social or trading reasons to venture frequently beyond it.
As I pondered on my walk, I thought about the symbolism of a boundary. What it does to its hinterland on either side is to impart a sense of liminality. You are on a threshold in these places. You straddle different worlds. Sometimes you are clearly pulled one way or the other, but often borderlands carry a sense of uncertainty where you have to stop and think about your belonging, even your very identity. That's why historically, liminal places are always marked out so that you pay attention to this fundamental activity of crossing-over: walls, watersheds, bridges, entrances and exits, even your own front door. These are sometimes happy places, sometimes uncomfortable and even painful, depending on what the threshold means. They can speak of welcome and homecoming. Or they can speak of alienation and exile, even death.
Walking on for a couple of miles, the Whin Sill was my constant northward companion, glowing green and gold in the clear clean light. How close to the 'edge' we are, I thought, the edge of an ancient civilisation that once embraced the whole of what we now call Europe. It felt oddly reassuring to think that Britannia was a province of Rome, part of a world that cherished learning, philosophy, law, politics, culture, sport, so much of what in medieval and Renaissance times would go into the shaping of our continent and our country. From this vantage point, it was as if I could look south across lands that shared the same values, the same sense of belonging: Britain, Gaul, Germany, Spain, Italy towards the Mediterranean that was Europe's cradle. And from this northern border, even this became more clearly just a part of an even longer story that also originated around the Mediterranean shores that I could, so to speak, see far off: the Greek and Hellenistic worlds, the Persian, and still more ancient, the Semitic that gave birth to the Judaeo-Christian-Moslem matrix that has been so influential in creating the Europe that we know.
Why I am I telling you this? Because a boundary has a way of imparting depth to a landscape of the mind. It stops you foreshortening the view because it draws attention to the extent and character of that prospect before you and your own place within it. Standing at the 'top' of Europe on this remote northern border was helping me to see the continent in its wholeness. And it underlined the importance of my sense of connection to it, my European belonging and identity in geography, culture and time. Nowadays the European Union doesn't notice this particular border, extending as it does (and how good this is) into Scotland and across the sea to Ireland. But I'm speaking symbolically here. (And just in case you're wondering, I am definitely not likening the EU to the Roman Empire or medieval Christendom. It's the symbolism I'm talking about.) I suddenly thought, how could these English lands that I love, for centuries tied umbilically to the 'Continent', become severed from our common European homeland which I also love, which I know and feel I belong to? It was an awful prospect.
I remembered something that G. K. Chesterton said about situations we think of as utterly incongruous. His example was William Gladstone smoking a cigar in the presence of Queen Victoria. It's not that it would be impossible. It could happen in theory. But it would be incredible. That's what I suddenly thought about the UK if it were severed from the EU. Brexit could so easily happen. But if it did, it would go against our history, our best interests, all our common sense. And that would make it incredible, absurd. Which is why I am supporting the case for our country to stay in the EU and not make this leap in the dark that any intelligent risk analysis must show threatens to do irreparable damage to our flourishing as a nation. Self-interest obviously comes into it, though a Christian case for the EU will want this to be enlightened self-interest.
But better still, with a stronger claim to be 'Christian' in its values, is to recognise how 'civilisation' is about the welfare of others as well as ourselves. Despite its weaknesses, the EU can be a force for good in building a more just and peaceable world. It's unthinkable that the United Kingdom, with its long history of aspiration, fairness, kindness, shrewdness, creativity, toleration and native wisdom would not want to play a leading part in this project. It's not just what the EU can do for us. It's what we can do for it, and through it, for the human race and the planet itself. At this ancient border, gazing back across the memory of a common civilisation, I realised just how insular it is, how self-serving, only to think only about what's good for us. And how un-British and un-English to think that way!
So I'm praying that the worst won't happen. For the next four months, the whole of the UK will become 'debateable lands' once again as the battle of ideas about the EU is fought out. Maybe what's at stake is nothing less than the identity or soul of Britain, even the soul of Europe itself. And that's about my own soul, my own identity too. I care about all these things. If I'm right, it will be worth investing time, effort and prayer at this unique time in our history. Indeed, I'd say it was vital.
If you'd like to, please join a (very) broad church of Christian support for our membership of the EU by following on Twitter: @Xians4EU or logging on to our Face Book page. I've written on this subject in a number of previous blogs on this site.
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.