One night back in the ninth century, a young monk called Brother Barnard had a vision.
Frankly he’d have rather had simply vision. He was the only blind monk in the monastery, so found being the one singled out for celestial insight a bit insenstitive. And said so.
The Angel in the vision shrugged and said it was a test of his faith, religion’s standard reply to questions about why crap happens to good people. She then told him that he was to found his own monastery where, and the Angel had the grace to blush here, he was to cure the blind.
She then added, almost apologetically, that he was to build it in the Far North, just short of where polar bears live, in a dark place where rain, winds and Vikings would howl in from the North Sea.
Barnard sighed and went to pack his bags. He went up north, a long way north, but stopped not along the way, nor spoke to any living soul, because he had a mission and a horse that he had luckily fed to capacity just the day before. He found a tiny hamlet comprising a few small cottages, a shop selling keyrings, and an inn. It was here that he built his monastery.
He called it Barnard Castle and put up a sign outside saying “blindneƒse cured”.
The sign generated little interest, its very written nature precluding it from reaching its target market. Barnard thus lived for many months in solitude, in darkness and in a cassock that he had put on back to front.
Then one night came a loud hammering at the huge wooden door. Barnard found, with his toe, a man lying outside.
“I’m blind!” wailed the man.
Barnard helped him to his feet, noticing as he did so a strong smell of alcohol.
“Have you been quaffing mead?” he asked sternly.
“No,” mumbled his guest. “Just a few pints of the local brew.”
Barnard was shocked. “Not Newcaƒtle Broon Ale?” he gasped. The man nodded, then instantly regretted doing so.
Barnard was about to send him on his way, then stopped. He thought for a long moment, then put his arm around the man and led him inside. “Your eyesight will return,” he said quietly. “This I promise.”
And return it did, though not for three days. The man wept in gratitude and then, as Barnard had anticipated, went to celebrate in the inn. Where he told everyone of his miracle cure.
Soon Barnard built up a steady clientele of the blind-drunk. He prayed with them, fed them a breakfaƒt roll, and made them drink a tonic of hog’s pee, since he reckoned they deserved a good old faith-test too.
Word spread. Other monks came to join Barnard. He changed the sign to read “Was Blind But Now I See”. Pilgrims came from as far away as London.
And Barnard prayed with all of them. He knew that he could not offer actual miracles, but he could offer hope and belief, and sometimes, some rare, wonderful, magical times, that was enough.
Barnard Castle is still a place of pilgrimage today, by people seeking seeking. There are many optical ailments beyond its sphere – it can’t, for example, help you tell the difference between Earthen Cream and Vanilla Mist on a Dulux paint chart.
It cannot help with blind ambition, being the eye of the storm, or looking after number one. It does not offer the benefit of hindsight.
But if you are worried about your vision and have a morbid fear of opticians, then before continuing with your watch engraving, javelin throwing or heart transplanting, visit Barnard Castle. Sit for a while on the Bench of Enlightenment and stare across at the forest.
If you can see it, you are fine. Turn to your companion and embrace them in joy.
You will, of course, have a companion with you, because they will have driven you there.
For you to have driven yourself would be madness.