Island panorama, from the Heugh
Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, is, in my view, one of the most magical places in England. A small 'semi-island' (that is, an island only at high tide), it has been a centre of spirituality since St Aidan founded a monastery here in the seventh century AD.
Whatever your religion, or none, you will surely be captivated by the unique charm of a place that seems largely untouched by the modern age. Yes, there are cars, and phones, and even wifi – but there are no chain coffee shops, no bank or ATM, no supermarket. And with the exception of the small stone-built village clustered around the ruins of the priory, the island is undeveloped. No roads serve its northern shore, and the dune-fringed beaches are visited mainly by birds, not people.
But to experience Holy Island at its best, you must see it as the locals see it – without the hoards of visitors that descend at low tide. So plan to stay overnight, and as the cars stream away over the causeway and the sea closes above it, the island will become a different place – one of peace and tranquillity, the haven it has been for centuries.
So, why ‘Holy’ Island? You will also hear it referred to as Lindisfarne, the name given to its small castle. But locally the island is rarely referred to by this old Anglo-Saxon name. Following the murderous and bloodthirsty attack on the monastery by the Vikings in 793 AD, it obtained its local name from the observations made by the Durham monks: ‘Lindisfarne - baptised in the blood of so many good men - truly a Holy Island'.
St Aidan and St Cuthbert – two saints who define this island
Statue of St Aiden at the Priory
St Aiden with the castle behind
The first monastery on Holy Island was founded by St Aidan in 635 AD, and thus he can be seen as the person who first established the island as a centre for Christianity and spirituality, setting a pattern that would continue to this day. Without him, this could be a very different place indeed.
Aidan was an Irish monk from the monastery founded by St. Columba on the now Scottish island of Iona. The Romans had previously brought Christianity to Britain, and the British had taken it to Ireland (most famously through the missionary work of St. Patrick). But when the Romans left and the Anglo Saxons invaded, they brought their pagan religions with them.
In the northernmost kingdom of Northumbria, however, the ruling warrior family came under the influence of the Irish monks of Iona. When Oswald became king of the region in 633 he chose to base himself at Bamburgh and to invite the monks of Iona to reintroduce his people to Christianity. Aidan arrived in response to this invitation and chose nearby Lindisfarne as the home of the new monastery because of its similarities to Iona and proximity to Bamburgh.
Here Aidan established an Irish-type monastery of wooden buildings with a small wooden church. Here the monks lived a life of prayer, study and austerity and from here they went out on mission. They used Aidan's only method as a missionary, which was to walk the lanes, talk to all the people he met and interest them in the faith if he could. His monks visited and revisited the villages where he sowed the seeds and in time local Christian communities were formed.
After 16 years as bishop Aidan died at Bamburgh in 651. But the monastery survived and grew in influence, and his memory is still strong here on the island. One of its most well-known sights is the statue of him in the grounds of the Priory.
St Cuthbert's Isle seen from the Heugh
Unlike St. Aidan, St Cuthbert was a local Northumbrian boy; some sources say he was a shepherd, others a warrior. His life changed when he was about 17 years old. He was looking after some neighbour's sheep on the hills one night when he saw a light descend to Earth and then return, escorting, he believed, a human soul to Heaven. The date was August 31st 651 - the night that Aidan died. Perhaps Cuthbert had already been considering a possible monastic calling but that was his moment of decision.
He went to the monastery at Melrose, also founded by Aidan, and asked to be admitted. He is thought to have moved to Lindisfarne at about the age of 30, where for about ten years he ran the monastery. But when he was 40 years old he felt the call to be a hermit. After a short trial period on a tiny islet just off Lindisfarne (today known as St. Cuthbert’s Isle) he moved to the more remote and larger Inner Farne island where he built a hermitage and lived for 10 years.
At the age of about 50 he was asked to give up his life as a hermit to become a bishop, and reluctantly agreed. For two years he was an active bishop but then, feeling the approach of death, he retired back to his hermitage on Inner Farne where, in the company of Lindisfarne monks, he died on March 20th 687 AD. His body was brought back and buried on Lindisfarne.
Following his death he was sainted and the island became a place of pilgrimage. But in 793 AD the first Viking raid devastated the monastic community here, and from then on they lived in a near-constant state of fear, threatened by regular attacks. Around 875 AD the monks decided to leave, taking St Cuthbert’s body with them. After over 100 years spent in various places in the north of England, his body found was laid to rest in Durham Cathedral where it is still visited by pilgrims. But Holy Island too will always be associated with St. Cuthbert.
'The Journey' of St Cuthbert's coffin, in St Mary's Church, and statue of him in the priory
Situated in the heart of the small village, the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory define what Holy Island is all about. The first monastery here was founded by St Aidan in 635 AD, and his statue stands among the ruins as a memorial to the Irish missionary who restored Christianity to Northumberland after the Anglo-Saxons had driven Roman Christian beliefs from the land.
The Priory ruins
But the rich monastery on an isolated island was a prime target for Viking raiders who pillaged this cost over the succeeding centuries. Indeed, it was one of these raids that gave the island its epithet, “Holy”. The Anglo-Saxons had called it Lindisfarne, but following a particularly murderous and bloodthirsty attack on the monastery by Vikings in 793, Durham monks observed: 'Lindisfarne – baptised in the blood of so many good men - truly a Holy Island'.
The Priory ruins
Priory ruins with 'rainbow arch'
Today only a skeleton of the formerly imposing church remains, its so-called 'rainbow arch' an evocative remnant of a vault-rib of the now-vanished tower. Around it are the foundations of the monastic buildings – kitchen, refectory, chapter house, cloister etc. With a little imagination you can start to visualise what life would have been like for this remote religious community – devoting their lives to the worship of God in this magical, spiritual place.
St Mary’s Church
St Mary's Church and priory ruins
Immediately next door to the Priory is the parish church of the island, St Mary’s. This stands on the site of a wooden church built by St. Aidan in 635 AD, which was later replaced by a small stone church. When the Benedictine monks of Durham began to build the second monastery in the 12th century they decided this should be the parish church of the village, a role it has performed ever since. It has been enlarged several times (in the 12th and 13th centuries) but parts of the original Saxon church still remain in one wall.
St Mary's Church from the Priory
St Mary's Church
Stained glass in
St Mary's Church
Over the centuries it fell into some disrepair but was thoroughly restored in the 1860s, largely to the state we now see, though the plastering of the interior walls, done then, has since been removed. The church oozes history, and is in fact the oldest building on the island with a roof on it! There is no charge to visit, and a leaflet describing the main features can be picked up for free – however, an old building like this costs money to maintain, especially when battered by the harsh North Sea winter winds, so do leave a donation.
There is a lot to see in the church. I especially like ‘The Journey’ – a modern wooden carving (by Fenwick Lawson) of six monks carrying St Cuthbert’s body from the island on a journey across the north of England to keep it safe during the times of the Viking raids on this region (see photo above). Look out too for the carpets designed by local women, inspired by the Lindisfarne Gospels, and for the many reminders of Saints Aidan and Cuthbert, including the reredos (altar screen).
Up on the Heugh
Priory and village seen from the Heugh
The spur of higher land south of the Priory, known as the Heugh, offers wonderful views of the island (especially the church and Priory), and the surrounding seas. From here you can easily see the small group of islands known collectively as the Farnes, a little to the south, and the castle at Bamburgh.
At the highest point are the ruins of an old coastguard station and its lookout tower, which when we last visited (summer 2012) was being repaired and apparently having a glassed-in viewing platform added – this should be a very welcome addition in winter though it might be argued that its modern appearance is a little incongruous here.
Looking south to the mainland
At one time there would have been a fort here, known as Osborne’s Fort, built in the 17th century to protect the harbour from Dutch privateers. It didn’t last for long and was already in a state of disrepair by 1742. Only a small ruined tower remains, at the eastern end of the point overlooking the castle, but this is enough to give you a sense of how the island was protected by the combination of fort and castle.
Ruins of the old fort
Also on the Heugh is the island’s War Memorial, a Celtic Cross in pink sandstone designed by Edwin Lutyens (the architect who rebuilt Lindisfarne castle) and erected in 1919 to commemorate the eight islanders who died in the First World War. Later, the names of three more, victims of World War Two, were added.
From the Heugh you can look down on the small islet known as St Cuthbert’s Isle. If you make your way down to the small beach opposite, you can search for what are known as ‘Cuddy’s beads’, a local tradition. These are tiny (some very tiny) fossils, portions of the ‘stems’ of carboniferous crinoids (a marine animal). They do indeed look a little like beads, and legend has it that St Cuthbert (‘Cuddy’) used them to make his rosary when living as a hermit on the islet. It was even said that his spirit created them on stormy nights so they could be found on the beach the next morning. More prosaically, it is likely that many were released from the limestone that encrusted them when it was quarried and lime burned on Holy Island in the 19th century.
Chris searching for Cuddy's beads
Our finds (the 50p coin is for scale!)
To find yours you will have to look very carefully. Look among the stones and shells for the giveaway circular shape, and remember – some are little bigger than a pin-head! And if you find some, please don’t bring away more than one or two, leaving the rest for others to find and enjoy.
The Ouse seen from near the Castle
It is easy, but inaccurate, to think of the stony beach to the east of the village as Holy Island’s harbour. In fact, the sea to the south of the island is known the Harbour, while this is known locally as the Ouse, or even referred to by locals simply as the Beach.
At its southern end is a low stone jetty which you walk along for more good views of the harbour. This is also where the boats bringing day-trippers from Seahouses (a small coastal town to the south) moor. At low tide the sea retreats to leave a bay of mud-flats, a haven for sea birds and waders.
And the Castle seen from the Ouse
For me this is one of the most photogenic spots on the island. The old boats are full of colour, there are great views of the village and even more so of the castle. But this is not a tourist attraction – the people of Holy Island have been fishing these waters for centuries and continue to do so today, much as they have always done. This isn’t industrialised fishing, but somewhat small-scale and local. Nevertheless it forms an important part of the island’s economy, and local fish (especially crab and lobster) are a sought-after item on all the island restaurants’ menus.
Traditionally though the fishing here would have been for herring, as it was along much of this north east coast, using the local 'keel boats' immortalised in the Geordie song, ‘The Keel Row’:
Old boat & flowers
‘As I came thro' Sandgate, thro' Sandgate, thro' Sandgate,
As I came thro' Sandgate, I heard a lassie sing:
“O, weel may the keel row, the keel row, the keel row,
O weel may the keel row that my laddie's in.”’
[Sandgate is part of the Newcastle Quayside, and ‘weel may the keel row’ means ‘well may the keel boat row’]
The herring fishing trade dried up in the early part of the 20th century, as Holy Island lost out to bigger ports in the region, but some remnants of the old keel boats can be seen, adapted for use as sheds. These sheds, made from the traditional keels inverted and cut in half, are one of the characteristic sights of Holy Island. There are quite a few around the Ouse, and the National Trust has also preserved an old 19th century one (and added two new ones) to use as storage for visitors to the castle.
This custom is not unique to Holy Island (Charles Dickens describes a similar boat-house in David Copperfield, set in Yarmouth) but I don’t know of anywhere else where so many have been preserved, not where they are still so prevalently used. They make a really photogenic feature of the Holy Island landscape.
From a distance Lindisfarne Castle looks to be an ancient impregnable fortress, but appearances can be deceiving. Closer inspection reveals a building of two parts – its fortified ramparts crowned by an Edwardian era family home! The castle was originally a Tudor fort, built in Henry VIII’s time from the stones of the monastery he destroyed, and part of the national defence for three centuries. Left to fall into ruins when no longer needed for defence, it was converted into a private house in 1903 by the then-young architect Edwin Lutyens – a holiday home for Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life magazine (though rather grand by the standards of most holiday homes!)
You can visit the interior and see the largely intact Arts and Crafts movement designs of Lutyens. But this is something we’ve never yet done, preferring on the whole the outdoor attractions of the island. But whether or not you plan to go inside, a walk along the one mile track that leads here is well worth doing in order to get a closer look at the building, and some great photo opportunities.
Castle and old jetty
To get shots like these of the castle with the remains of the old jetty (once used to bring coal to the nearby lime-kilns), come at low tide and scramble over the rocks to the right of the track, just before the castle gate.
The castle sits on the highest point on an otherwise pretty flat island, adding to the sense of drama and making it visible from pretty much anywhere on the southern side of the island. This is an outcrop of the Whin Sill, a line of very hard igneous rock running across northern England (nearby Bamburgh Castle sits on another outcrop, as do stretches of Hadrian’s Wall).
Bear in mind that there’s a steep climb up to the castle so it probably isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or anyone of limited mobility. However the path to it from the village is flat, and there’s a shuttle bus which runs during high season, though only when the causeway is open.
Castle Point lime-kilns
If you follow the path from the village past the castle (rather than climb the hill up to it) and look to your right, you will see a fenced off area and a sign warning of danger around the tops of the lime kilns. Walk a little further and down the slope beyond, and you will be able to see and access the kilns in safety.
Castle Point lime-kilns
These lime kilns were built in the 1860’s and were the largest of several similar operations on the island during the 19th century, and the only ones to be preserved. Also still evident are the remains of the staithes or jetties where ships would bring the coal for the process and take away the lime (see my photos above of the castle). And you can still trace the old wagon-ways linking the jetties to the kilns, and the kilns to the north side of the island where the limestone was quarried – one of these wagon-ways now forms a track used by walkers to access the north shore and its dunes.
Lime kilns were used to produce quicklime. A carefully controlled burn reduced limestone to powder. This was used mainly as fertilizer and for mortar and lime-wash for buildings. You can easily see, inside the kilns, the old ovens where coal was burned to heat the limestone. Horses would have carried the limestone from the quarry on the north side of the island here to the lime kilns on the south (built here to be near the harbour) and labourers would push the cart to the top of the pots (the area now fenced off) in order to spare the horse the heat coming from the kilns. Horses would also drag the coal from the ships moored at the staithes to the kilns, where it would be burnt at exactly the right temperature to create the reaction and separate the quicklime from the stone. The latter would then be carried back to the staithes for export.
Inside the kilns
There’s a good, detailed description of the process in the National Trust’s leaflet about the kilns:
Lime kiln oven
‘In the kilns, limestone and coal were added in layers at the top of each pot at a ratio of about five to one, to allow for even burning. As quicklime was removed from the drawing arches at the base of the kiln, another layer of stone and coal was added at the top. Once loaded (which took several days) the kilns were lit and the fire would spread upwards. The hottest part of the kiln was the ‘burning zone’, just above the top of the drawing arches. Air entering the kiln was carefully regulated - a highly skilled operation. The kilnsman’s eye was critical to the success of the venture; too hot or too cold and the desired reaction would not take place.
The limestone (calcium carbonate) was heated at between 800-1000 degrees Celsius. This produced quicklime (calcium oxide). Adding water to quicklime would result in a violent reaction and produce slaked lime (calcium hydroxide). The work was dangerous, and men at the kilns would have often received caustic burns. The dust if inhaled caused lung damage and could in some cases cause blindness.’
But the industry didn’t last. While one in five of the island men worked in the industry in the 1860s, by the 1880s only one man was working at the kilns and four at the quarry. This is probably because the lime industry on the mainland was able to use the quick and efficient coastal railways for transport, and Lindisfarne couldn’t compete. The kilns fell into disuse and by the end of the 19th century operations here had ceased.
It seems incongruous to visualise such ‘heavy industry’ taking place in this peaceful rural setting, but to do so gives you a vivid sense of a particular period of life on the island – a contrast with the early spiritual time of the monks; the violence of Viking raids and later, the dissolution of the monastery by Henry VIII; and with today’s buzz of visiting tourists.
Gertrude Jekyll's garden
A short distance north of the castle, across a field, is a small walled garden. This was formerly the site of a vegetable patch which provided the soldiers with food. When Lutyens was commissioned to convert the castle to family home, he brought in his friend Gertrude Jekyll to design a new garden. Although originally she intended this to be a vegetable garden like its forebear, she later changed her plans to create instead a flower garden, and it is these plans that the National Trust gardeners still follow and plant to today.
Because this was a holiday home for Edward Hudson and his family, the garden is designed to be especially colourful in July and August. When we last visited, in late August, it was a riot of colour, and all the more striking for its location on this fairly bleak, rocky island.
Admission to the garden is included in the price of the visit to the castle. If you want to visit the garden alone, there’s a fee of £1.50, collected through an honesty box at the garden gate. You can in fact see quite a lot by just looking over the low walls, but it’s better to support the work of the National Trust by making the payment just the same.
The north shore
North shore from the dunes
Only a small percentage of the many visitors who come to Holy Island ever visit its north shore. All of the visitor 'attractions' (village, priory and castle) are on its southern side, and with limited time before the next high tide closes the causeway, few have the time, even if they had the inclination, to explore further afield.
But for those staying a night or several, a visit to the north shore offers a chance to really get away from it all and to see another side (literally!) to Holy Island. The shore here is lined with dunes, which are home to many wild flowers, insects and birds. Many more birds visit the shore, either year-round, as a stop-off on their autumn and spring migrations, or in the winter as an escape from harsher conditions further north. At this time the island is a focal point for birdwatchers, who come to see the waders, ducks and sea-birds that flock here in great numbers.
The north shore
So much space in which to play!
A north shore wedding
But as a general rule this part of the island is never as busy as the area around the village. My photos were taken in August, during the main holiday season, and at low tide when the island is invaded by hundreds of visitors. In the hour or so we spent walking here I don’t believe we saw more than a dozen other people.
But ... rather amazingly, we did see a wedding! Just a bride and groom (the latter in a kilt, the former in full white wedding dress), a vicar officiating, a photographer and a piper. No guests, no other witnesses. The sound of the pipes as the bride crossed the dunes, and later as the wedding party returned the same way, was a wonderful bonus for us, adding to the magic atmosphere of this spot.
There are two main ways to get here. To reach the eastern end of the north shore, take a walk across the island from the village, following the old wagon-way known as Straight Lonnen or the longer route via the castle and small lake (the Lough) on the eastern shore. To reach the long main beach shown in my photos, you can drive almost back to the start of the causeway and park in the small car-park (not signposted) on the right-hand side of the road, on the spit of land called the Snook. From here it’s a short walk through the dunes to the shore itself.
Heed the warnings – don’t get stranded
Warning by causeway
The very thing that makes Holy Island special is also the thing that visitors need be most aware of – the tides. The island is connected to the mainland by a causeway several miles in length. This is covered for about five or six hours each high tide, i.e. twice a day.
On the causeway
Refuge on the Pilgrims' Way
As the tides vary, so do the safe crossing times. It is essential that you consult the tide tables before your visit and plan accordingly. And don’t trust your eyes – the causeway may look clear but if you are already past the advertised safe crossing time, don’t start to cross – the tides here are unpredictable and can sweep in very suddenly indeed. It is not for nothing that a small refuge is provided halfway across the causeway – many drivers have been caught out in the past and forced to abandon their vehicles and seek safety here while the waters inundate their car!