Address: The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland TD15 2SE

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Lindisfarne History

Whilst it would probably have been home to wildlife and a few locals before, Lindisfarne’s history, as known today, started in the 7th century with the arrival of St Aidan. King Oswald, who was king of the area between the Humber and Forth estuaries at the time, converted to Christianity and to spread the gospel in Northumbria, recruited the services of Aidan, from the Scottish island of Iona. This was in 635. As a base for his monastery and teachings, Aidan chose Lindisfarne, as the island provided the ideal location as its tidal location gave him a degree of solitude. Also, it was fairly near the capital city Bamburgh, and this offered protection.

Aidan built a church and a monastery, and Lindisfarne became the heartbeat of the Northumbrian religious community. Indeed, from the humble beginnings of Aidan’s teachings, missionaries moved around the country and evidence of this can be seen in many places today.

The sixth bishop to succeed Aidan became the figure with whom many associate Lindisfarne today. He was a local shepherd and his name was Cuthbert. He first became prior at nearby Melrose, before isolating himself for nine years on Inner Farne to meditate and pray. Cuthbert became bishop of Lindisfarne for two years (685-687), before returning to Inner Farne. Such became his power of thought and prayer, following his period of isolation, that miracles took place and people flocked to the island. Cuthbert died on Farne but his body was returned to Lindisfarne and buried on the south side of the altar of the priory.

A peaceful community continued for over a century in what had previously been an area of infighting. But that all changed in 793 as the Vikings arrived, plundering the riches, destroying the buildings, killing many of the holy men and causing devastation to the community.

Following a further Viking raid in 875, and recognising the constant threat from the Vikings in such an exposed location, the monks fled the island, takings with them the bones of St Cuthbert, the skull of King Oswald and the Lindisfarne Gospels, a collection of holy manuscripts. The bones are now buried in Durham Cathedral and the Gospels are in the British Library in London.

The priory was re-established in 1093 and continued until the dissolution under Henry VIII, after which it lay in ruins.

The causeway gains mention in Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Marmion’, published in 1808. It reads “Dry-shod, o’er sands, twice every day, The pilgrims to the shrine find way; Twice every day, the waves efface Of staves and sandalled feet the trace.”

 

Lindisfarne Visit

What an amazing place! – it’s got a bit of everything – castle, beaches, ruins, dunes, harbour etc etc and this in a place that’s only a few square miles in size!

To get there, the first thing you need to do is to get across the causeway that connects the island to the mainland at low tide. At high tide you can’t get across as the sea floods it, but you can check the tide timings on the Lindisfarne website. A local told me that at certain times of the year tides are generally lower with the actual length of time cut off from the mainland only an hour or two, whilst at times of the year when tides are generally higher, the cut off time can be over five hours.

For a visitor, once water can be seen on the causeway, you don’t take a chance, but it would be interesting to know when the experienced locals would last cross! The causeway has a small building on stilts at the midpoint for anyone stranded. There’s also a route called ‘The Pilgrim’s Causeway’ – this was the ancient path that the pilgrims took in getting to and from the island. You’ll see it marked with posts and also see another safety hut on stilts.

This isolation is something that the locals are obviously used to and comfortable with, but as a visitor you do have a couple of ‘what if’ thoughts. They soon go away as you explore the island and find that it’s actually a place that you’d love to be stuck on for a while.

In a nutshell, it’s a place that was founded by a religious community, attacked by the Vikings, commandeered by Henry VIII as a military base, before evolving into twentieth century life with the conversion of the castle into a private residence and the emergence of normal village life. All’s on show and they really do it quite well. I suppose you would if your livelihood depended on it, but the commercial side comes across as available with you seeking it out, rather than the ‘in your face’ type often seen at attractions.

Geographically, once over the causeway, there’s a drive of perhaps two and a half miles past the dunes on your left and the sea on your right. There are a few small car parks along the way, allowing visitors to park and explore the north beach and the dunes and wildlife of ‘The Snook’. Many camper vans were here during the day, although camping and caravanning aren’t permitted at night. If you wanted to use this type of accommodation, there’s a free car park next to fields within a couple of hundred yards of the causeway on the mainland side, or there’s the Beal campsite and visitor centre a mile or so away. The free car park can be seen in the background on a causeway pic, showing a couple of camper vans.

When over the causeway and, after a drive, just past the Holy Island sign, you’ll find the visitor car park on your left – this saves the small number of village street spaces for the residents. This is a good place to start your visit as you can then see all parts of the village from this initial point.

I suppose there are three main attractions on the island – the Castle, the Priory and museum, and the Heritage Centre. Walking into the village, at the ‘T’ junction, you’ll find the Priory to the right and the castle about half a mile to the left. The Heritage Centre is in the middle of the village. There’s a shuttle bus to the castle, but it’s a great walk, so best to stroll over if able.

The Castle is at the south east corner of the island and is built high up on volcanic rock. It looks pretty well preserved on the outside, and, being centuries old, you then become amazed at the level of domestic comfort that awaits you on the inside. It was purchased in 1901 by the founder of Country Life magazine, Edward Hudson. He employed the services of famous architect Sir Edward Lutyens who transformed it into a country retreat that welcomed royalty. It was sold in 1921 to Oswald Falk and then to Sir Edward de Stein, who gave it to the National Trust in 1944. He continued to live there until 1968.

You pay about £6 to get in and it’s then a place that’s good to take your time to enjoy the detail and views. It’s staffed by National Trust volunteers who really are most helpful – they’re experts on the history of the place and give the impression that they love to impart their knowledge – ask them all you need. Looking towards the mainland, you’ll see Gyle Point and the mainland harbour. It’s a notorious stretch of water and you’ll see two markers. They mark the deep water points and ship’s navigators line them up on their way in and out of port and pass by them.

The Priory’s run by the English Heritage and apart from the building ruins, there’s an adjoining museum, giving a story and showing various artefacts from the past – it’s very informative and well presented. There are some small, engraved Viking gravestones that certainly stand out. The priory ruins are quite spectacular with the remaining arch and surrounds giving an idea of the scale and size of the place historically. And the manicured grass gives a stunning contrast to the reddish stonework. Next to the Priory is the relatively modern St Mary’s church. The entry fee of about £5 to the Priory is payable in the museum, a building that has an adjoining shop.

The Heritage Centre is a modest looking building in the high street. It looks like a converted house, but really is quite impressive in content. You enter into the ‘shop’ part and, on paying about £3, move into the display rooms. They give a detailed account of the history of the island and it’s done remarkably well. In the end room, there’s a film show that gives a great account of Holy Island from the old days. The displays are stunning and it all feels great value for a few pounds.

In exploring the island, the weather’s a big factor. It may be wonderful to explore the dunes of the north coast, but if you don’t visit in summer, or if it’s raining, it can be more pleasurable staying warm and dry inside the castle etc. The shuttle bus could be a good option on a day like this. A factor here is that the shuttle bus doesn’t run every day – make enquiries if dependent on it before you go.

Assuming a fine day, there’s an awful lot more to see on the island. After crossing the causeway, the first track you come to on the left hand side takes you to the entrance towards the private Snook House, but before that there’s a small, free car park. A quick hop over the dunes and you come to the north beach. At low tide the sea goes out a long way and allows you to walk for miles. Just don’t get caught out as the beach is very flat and the water could come in fairly quickly. On a summer’s day, this offers an amazingly beautiful and tranquil walk.

You can also walk over to the north beach from the village, but it takes much longer and is over grassland. There are a couple of stunning bays to the east, and these can be accessed either by a path from the village or by continuing your walk to the right when you get onto the north beach from the free car park mentioned earlier. You can also get to the bays by walking past the castle and continuing anticlockwise along the coast path. If you go that way, it’s about a mile or so to Emmanuel Head, a headland with a large, white stone marker. Going this way, from the castle, you go past St Coombs farm fields on your left and then further on, past The Lough. This is a small lake with a ‘wildlife watch’ building by the side.

Going past Emmanuel Head, and the white marker, you’ll find a haven of beautiful bays, beaches, dunes, caves and rocky outcrops. Being so far from the village, they’re totally uncrowded. On a warm day, the word ‘idyllic’ springs to mind.

Nearer civilisation, and near the castle, you’ll find the Lime Kilns. This is a derelict building near the sea where the lime was burnt many years ago, being part of the industry of the island at the time. Between the village and the castle is the harbour. This is used today by a small number of fishermen, with hundreds of lobster pots stacked on the side, ready for use. Living on the island and going off fishing every day would seem paradise for many, although maybe not in winter! Presumably, these fishermen would also come into their own if there was an emergency at high tide. Kippers seem a speciality of the island and the fishermen are obviously part of this industry.

Near the priory and the harbour is ‘The Heugh’. This is the high point of the island and is near the harbour entrance. There’s a building and a memorial to mark the point.

Looking down from The Heugh, you can see St Cuthbert’s Isle, the abode of St Cuthbert at one time and accessible on foot at low tide. There are chapel ruins on the island with a cross marking the position of the altar.

Elsewhere on the island you’ll find normal village life. You’ll find pubs, hotels, restaurants, cafes, shops etc, even a post office. Many of the local community seem elderly, and that fact epitomises the place. It has a leisurely pace of life and you can imagine the friendliness and close-knittedness of the community.

The island has a winery, with mead being the popular local brew. There’s a finely stocked shop selling all types of wines, spirits and beer. Great for the tourists and locals alike.

All in all, a great place to visit, certainly in warm weather. Very highly recommended.