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‘Baptised in the blood of so many good men’

Holy Island

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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

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Statue of St Aiden at the Priory

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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.

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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.

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'The Journey' of St Cuthbert's coffin, in St Mary's Church, and statue of him in the priory

Lindisfarne 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.

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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'.

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The Priory ruins

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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

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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.

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St Mary's Church from the Priory

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St Mary's Church

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cuddy’s beads

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.

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Chris searching for Cuddy's beads

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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

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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.

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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.

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The Ouse

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’:

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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.

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Boat sheds

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.

The Castle

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Lindisfarne Castle

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.

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Castle and old jetty

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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.

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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.

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Inside the kilns

There’s a good, detailed description of the process in the National Trust’s leaflet about the kilns:

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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.

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The castle garden

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

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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.

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The north shore

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So much space in which to play!

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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

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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.

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On the causeway

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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!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:33 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged beaches boats islands castles fishing history ruins statue views church village garden holy_island lindisfarne Comments (9)

A saint, a heroine … and a lot of wildlife!

The Farne Islands

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Inner Farne

The group of islands known as the Farnes lie a few miles off the Northumberland coast and include some of the wildest places in England. The islands are divided into two groups, the Inner and Outer Farnes, and vary in number from 28 at the lowest tides to only about 15 at the highest.

As well as wildlife there is a lot of history associated with the islands – they have been home to several hermits over the centuries, of whom the most famous is Saint Cuthbert, and it was here that probably the best-known sea rescue in English history took place, when a young Grace Darling and her father set out from the lighthouse on Longstone to go to the aid of sailors when the paddle steamer ‘Forfarshire’ ran aground on nearby Harcar Rock in 1838.

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Billy Shiel's boats in
Seahouses Harbour

Naturally, the only way to reach the Farnes is by boat, making a visit here rather special. Three companies (as of 2016) run a variety of trips, all from Seahouses and differing only a little in terms of what is on offer and price: Billy Shiel’s, Serenity and Golden Gate. Of these, the first is by far the best known, having been in operation since 1918 and featured on several UK TV programmes. It is a family business currently run by the third generation Billy Shiel, and famously once carried the Queen on a Farne Island trip.

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Path on Inner Farne

Whichever company you choose (and we went with Billy Shiel’s), you will then also need to decide on the particular trip you want to take. One factor in your choice will be the time of year – for instance, landing on Staple Island is possible only in the breeding season (May 1st through to July 31st), presumably because there is nothing to see on these rocky crags the rest of the year. On the other hand, it is possible to land on Inner Farne throughout the season, April to October, but on afternoons only during the breeding season. If you aren’t especially interested in landing, or want a shorter tour, you could opt for the 90 minute Grey Seal cruise which sails round the islands to view these fascinating animals. Or between April and July keen bird-watchers can do a full day (6 hour) trip which includes landings of two hours on Staple Island in the morning and two hours on Inner Farne in the afternoon.

Prices obviously depend on the tour you choose – for example, the Inner Farne landing trip costs £15.00 (adult fare, August 2016 price). But note that if you’re not a member of the National Trust you will also have to pay a landing fee of £8.00 for adults in breeding season and £6.50 at other times. Non-landing trips work out cheaper because there’s no National Trust fee to pay.

The boat tours are suitable for anyone but note that the walking route round Inner Farne is a little bumpy and hilly in places – I watched one family really struggle to wheel their child’s buggy around and give up! Also note that the tours don’t go out if the weather is bad or the seas too rough. We went on quite a windy day and some locals were unsure whether we would have been able to go, although apart from some slightly choppy waters and a lot of spray, it was not a problem.

Inner Farne

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Inner Farne: on the cliffs

This island is home to St Cuthbert's Chapel (named for the saint who once lived here as a hermit), a lighthouse and a visitor centre. Most tours land here so you can explore these sights and see the seabirds.

Although there are a number of buildings on Inner Farne, it is the bird life that brings most visitors here. This is at its best during the breeding season, May to July, when the island is the chosen nesting place of Arctic Terns, Puffins, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Shags and many other species. The National Trust, which owns the islands, employs rangers who are based here for nine months of the year to protect the birds and educate visitors about them. When we visited in August the main nesting season was over, and the Puffins and Terns had left, but we still saw lots of birds – mainly Shags and Kittiwakes, but also a few Gannets and Fulmars. As you walk around the island you will find rangers stationed at key viewing points who will be happy to answer your questions about the birds.

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Shag and Kittiwake on Inner Farne

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Shag on Inner Farne

Note that if you visit at the height of the season you are advised to wear a hat, as the Terns in particular can be very aggressive in protecting their nests and have been known to dive down on people’s heads – not to mention the habit that birds have of dropping their 'fertiliser' from above as they fly overhead!

One of the most prominent of the few buildings on Inner Farne is St. Cuthbert’s Chapel. The saint after whom it is named lived here as a hermit for about ten years before, in 684, he was called to be Bishop of Lindisfarne – a call he initially resisted because he wanted to stay on this island. He had lived a life of great simplicity here, living entirely off the land, and after only a couple of years as bishop he came back here to die in 687 before being buried on Lindisfarne. While here he formed an attachment to the sea birds, especially the eider ducks which he sought to protect and which are still known locally as Cuddy’s Ducks.

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St. Cuthbert's Chapel

Cuthbert’s cell has long since disappeared but the chapel dedicated to him is nevertheless pretty old in its origins, having been built in 1369 as part of a small monastic complex here dating from the early 14th century. The Benedictine monastic cell based here was dissolved in 1536 under Henry VIII, but the chapel building remained. It was extensively renovated in the 19th century – the windows date from then as do the wooden pews along the sides and the panelling, which was designed for Durham Cathedral in 1665 and brought here in 1848.

When we arrived on Inner Farne one of the National Trust rangers met our boat and told us that he’d be giving a short talk in the chapel for those that wanted to hear it before heading off to explore the island. We went along to listen and found it informative – and not too long!

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In St. Cuthbert's Chapel

Opposite St Cuthbert’s Chapel across a small courtyard is another stone building. This was once another chapel dedicated to St Mary and designed to be used by any female worshippers, but today it serves as a small information centre and shop. And behind the chapel is Prior Castell’s Tower which dates from about 1500 and is named after Thomas Castell, Prior of Durham (1494-1519), who was probably responsible for building it to house the monks who lived here at that time. It was originally four stories high (now only three) and has served as a fort and, in the 17th century, as a lighthouse, with beacon fires lit on its roof to warn passing ships. Nowadays it is home for some of the National Trust rangers who live on the island for nine months of each year.

The first lighthouses on the Farnes were beacon fires lit on the top of existing towers, and the first of these was probably Prior Castell’s Tower next to St Cuthbert’s Chapel. The first purpose-built lighthouse was on Staple Island, in 1776, but this only lasted a few years, being destroyed in the Great Storm of 1784, after which for a while shipping had to again rely on the beacon fires. But in the early 19th century Trinity House erected two new lighthouses, including this one on Inner Farne in 1809, known as the High Light.

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Path to the lighthouse

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The lighthouse from the sea

Like its counterpart on Brownsman, built the following year, this was designed by Daniel Alexander and built by Joseph Nelson, with a cottage attached to the tower and a revolving reflector that burned paraffin oil. This lighthouse is still in use but a second one built on Inner Farne the following year (called the Low Light to distinguish it from this one) in order to warn of the presence of the nearby island of Megstone, was pulled down in 1911 after the High Light was automated.

Longstone Island

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Longstone Island

We didn’t land on Longstone Island but we did sail past it. It is one of the Outer Farnes, and one of two islands in the group to have a lighthouse (the other being Inner Farne). The Longstone lighthouse was built in 1825 as a replacement for the one on Brownsman and continues to warn passing shipping of the dangers of the Farnes to this day, flashing every 20 seconds. It is no longer manned however, having been automated in 1990 and was converted to solar power in 2015.

This lighthouse is the island’s main claim to fame, as it was from here in 1838 that Grace Darling and her father William set out to the rescue of sailors on the paddle steamer ‘Forfarshire’ which ran aground on nearby Harcar Rock. William was the second generation of Darlings to be lighthouse keepers on the Farnes, as his father had kept the light on Brownsman Island.

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Lighthouse on Longstone Island

I grew up with the story of Grace Darling as my grandmother was called Grace and often talked about her namesake. In the early hours of 7th September 1838 Grace looked out of her bedroom window in the lighthouse (the upper window in the white ring in my photos) and spotted the wreck of the ‘Forfarshire’ on Big Harcar, a nearby low rocky island. The paddle steamer had foundered on the rocks and broken in half, and one of the halves had already sunk. She also spotted some survivors on the rocks and, realising that the seas were too rough for the Seahouses lifeboat to come to the rescue, she and her father set out in their traditional Northumberland coble, a type of rowing boat, to see what they could do to help. Have rowed the mile to the wreck Grace kept the coble steady while her father helped five survivors, four men and a woman, into the coble. The rescued men helped row back to the lighthouse where Grace stayed with the woman while the boat returned and picked up four more survivors.

Grace and her father were later awarded the Silver Medal for bravery by the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (which was to become the Royal National Lifeboat Institution). She became very famous, receiving gifts from all over the country and even several marriage proposals. Sadly she died very young, aged just 26, from tuberculosis, and is buried at nearby Bamburgh where a museum tells her story.

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Seals off Longstone Island

Brownsman Island

As I mentioned above, the first lighthouses on the Farnes consisted of beacon fires lit on the top of existing towers, such as Prior Castell’s tower on Inner Farne. The first purpose-built lighthouse was on Staple Island, in 1776, but this only lasted a few years, being destroyed in the Great Storm of 1784. A 40 foot beacon tower, below, was built on Brownsman Island shortly afterwards (in 1795) to serve as a lighthouse for the Outer Farnes, and was used until 1810 when Trinity House erected two new lighthouses, the High Light on Inner Farne in 1809 and another on Brownsman the following year.

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Beacon Tower on Brownsman Island

The first of the lighthouse keepers here was Robert Darling, grandfather of the famous Grace. In 1795 he was appointed keeper on the Outer Farnes and for his first 15 years in the job was in charge of the beacon light on this tower, burning timber and coals in a fire basket on the roof. Darling and his family lived in the bottom part of the tower. In 1805 his son William, with his wife Thomasin, came to join his father. When the new lighthouse was built in 1810 William took over the job there and with Thomasin brought up their nine children in the attached cottage.

However, the Brownsman light did not succeed in stopping the numerous wrecks on the islands to the north of this island, so in 1825 Trinity House decided to scrap it and build a new one on Longstone. William, Thomasin and the children moved there, and it was from there that he and Grace made their famous rescue of the Forfarshire survivors.

Big Harcar Island

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Seals off Big Harcar

Big Harcar is famous as the island where the paddle steamer ‘Forfarshire’ ran aground in 1838, leading to the rescue by Grace Darling and her father William, the lighthouse keeper on Longstone, about a mile away. Today though it is significant for the large seal population here. These are grey seals, and thousands live on the Farnes, having hundreds of pups here each autumn. An annual count has taken place each year, administered since 1970 by the National Trust – in 2013 (the last year for which I’ve been able to find figures) 1,575 pups were born on the Farne Islands in total.

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Big Harcar seals

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If you want to see pups you need to come in the autumn, but our August visit gave us plenty of seal sightings and around Harcar the numbers were particularly strong, with quite a few swimming in the waters around our boat.

The National Trust website for the Farnes gives the following facts about the grey seals:

~ Males grow up to two metres in length and weigh 230kg. Their lifespan is 20-25 years.
~ Females grow about 180cm in length and weigh 150kg, with a lifespan of 30-35 years.
~ Grey seals feed on a wide variety of fish, squid, and octopus.
~ They spend 80% of their time below water, 20% on the surface breathing.

Historically the seals were both respected by the monks and hermits who lived here, and also exploited by them. And not only by those living here, as they would regularly catch seals to send to their parent house in Durham. The seals were valued because of the oil that could be extracted from their carcasses, and also as a luxury food. In a rather nifty bit of thinking, as creatures of the sea, they were considered to count as fish and therefore could be eaten on a Friday when meat was forbidden.

Staple Island and the Pinnacles

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The Pinnacles, off Staple Island

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The Pinnacles

Alongside Inner Farne, Staple Island is the main focus for bird-watching trips in the Farnes. This is one of the rockiest islands, noted for its vast seabird colonies, especially those of the Auk family such as Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins. During the season, May-July, you can land here as part of an all day bird-watchers’ tour with Billy Shiel’s, or make a visit just to Staple. Visiting in August however, this island was closed to us, but a sail-past was included in our tour and provided some of the best photo opps for both sea-birds and seals, in particular at the Pinnacles, isolated rock stacks situated off Staple Island. These were liberally spattered with rather smelly guanao, and even late in the season had plenty of birds perched on their highest points – mainly Kittiwakes and Shags. We also saw a few Gannets flying past the boat and even a Puffin!

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Kittiwakes

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Shags at the Pinnacles

If you time your visit better than we did and want to land here, note that as with Inner Farne you have to prepay a National Trust landing fee (unless you are a National Trust member) of £8 for adults, £4 for children. The island is quite exposed, so not accessible in bad weather, and its rocky nature makes it less suitable for disabled visitors than Inner Farne.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:42 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged boats islands wildlife history ruins lighthouse photography seas chapel seals seabirds Comments (9)

Villages by the Coquet

Warkworth and Amble

Warkworth

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Warkworth

I think Warkworth is one of the most attractive villages in Northumberland, with its long main street dominated at one end by an impressive castle and at the other crossing the pretty River Coquet in the shadow of the spire of St Lawrence. There are traditional pubs and tea-shops, some interesting shops and a pleasant walk to the sea.

The village is almost completely contained within a loop of the river – it is almost like being on an island. Built in the local honey-coloured stone it is a pretty sight as you look down from the top (near the castle), although parked cars somewhat mar the view.

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The River Coquet in Warkworth

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The medieval bridge gatehouse

At the foot of the main street the river is crossed by an ancient bridge with a fortified gateway. A plaque on the bridge reads:

‘This XIV century fortified bridge over the River Coquet has carried all traffic for almost 600 years and replaced an earlier stone arched bridge on the same site. The bridge and the tower are scheduled as ancient monuments.

The new bridge was built by Northumberland County Council and opened on the 8th May 1965 by Alderman D Dawson O.B.E., chairman of the Highways Committee’

The new bridge mentioned in the plaque today carries all road traffic, but it’s still possible to walk across the old bridge. From here you can get some lovely views of the river and the village beyond.

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View from the bridge

Nearby is the village church, dedicated to St Lawrence, which you can see in my photo of the view from the bridge, below.

This dates back to Norman times, having been built in the 12th century on the site of an earlier wooden Anglo Saxon church which is thought to have been destroyed by Viking raids in 875 AD. Perhaps partly because of this the Normans built their church to serve not only as a place of worship but also of shelter, providing sanctuary for the villagers in times of danger. It has very thick walls, with very narrow high windows to keep out the enemy.

Sadly, however, this didn’t prevent the deaths of 300 inhabitants who took refuge here when Donnchad II, Earl of Fife entered Warkworth in 1174 and set fire to the town.

The spire and belfry below it were added in the 14th century and the porch in the 15th.

Warkworth Castle

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Warkworth Castle gatehouse

The origins of Warkworth Castle are a little uncertain. Traditionally its construction has been ascribed to Prince Henry of Scotland in the mid 12th century, but it may have been built by King Henry II of England when he took control of England's northern counties a little later in the same century. In the 14th century it came into the hands of the eminent local family, the Percys, at first Barons and later Earls of Northumberland. It was the first Earl who commissioned the building of the castle keep.

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The castle wall

The castle has played its part in English history. During the Wars of the Roses the Percys supported the Lancastrian cause and for a while, under King Edward IV, Warkworth was confiscated, although he later relented and restored it to them. The castle formed the backdrop for several scenes in William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. Later it came under royal control again, under Elizabeth I, because of the part the Catholic Percys played in the northern rebellion against her. Again it was restored to the family, but after the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the 9th Earl was imprisoned for his connection with Thomas Percy, one of the plotters. With the unification of England and Scotland under a single ruler, James I, the Earls of Northumberland had no need for two great castles near the border and maintained Alnwick at the expense of Warkworth, which gradually fell into ruin.

The last Percy Earl died in 1670. In the mid 18th century Hugh Smithson married the indirect Percy heiress. He adopted the name ‘Percy’ and founded the dynasty of the Dukes of Northumberland, through whom possession of the castle descended. But it was never fully restored, despite some efforts to repair the keep. Today the castle is under the care of English Heritage and is open to the public.

Beach near Warkworth

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Chapel by the path to the sea

If you cross the Coquet at the foot of the main street (whether by car on the new bridge or on foot via the old one) you will see a lane leading off to the right. A short drive along here is the car park for the beach, but it’s just as easy to walk from the village. You will pass the attractive cemetery chapel which dates from the mid 19th century and reminded me of Welsh chapels – I later read that its roof is of Welsh slate. Just beyond this is the long stay car park and from here you need to continue on foot unless you are heading for the caravan park that lies behind the dunes or the golf course.

If on foot it will take you about 15 minutes to reach the sea from the bridge. The lane dwindles to a path which leads over the sandy dunes to a wide beach from which you have views across to Coquet Island with its lighthouse. This island is protected as a bird reserve and can’t be visited, although boat trips from Amble encircle the shore and are popular especially during the puffins’ nesting season.

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Path through the dunes

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Dune landscape

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Warkworth beach, looking south
(you can see Coquet Island on the horizon)

Amble

Just downstream from Warkworth, at the mouth of the River Coquet, lies Amble. This is the base for boat trips to Coquet Island (although as I mentioned above, you aren’t able to land on the island). It has a fair-sized marina tucked into the shelter provided by the river’s estuary so is popular with the boating fraternity.

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Harbour scenes

In the past Amble served as a port for the export of coal from nearby collieries but its harbour was never large enough to compete with rivals along the coast. Sea-fishing and shop-building or repairs also supported the local economy, and both of these continue to some extent today, although the main focus is on boating and tourism.

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The Coquet estuary in Amble

It’s a nice place to stop for a walk if driving in these parts, with fine views of the river and Warkworth Castle beyond, several pubs offering refreshment and local award-winning ice cream makers Spurelli.

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The estuary with Warkworth Castle in the background

Posted by ToonSarah 03:53 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged beaches bridges boats castles history ruins views village river Comments (9)

Outpost of the Empire

Hadrian’s Wall

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Hadrian’s Wall

Some history

In the early years of the second century AD the northern limit of the Roman Empire lay in what is now the north of England. The Emperor Hadrian commanded a Wall to be built in order to keep ‘intact the empire’, but probably also to assert the supremacy of Roman power.

It was an impressive piece of engineering for its time, stretching from the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west – from what is now Wallsend (Roman name Segedunum) on England’s north east coast to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria on the west coast. It was 80 Roman miles in length (73 modern miles or 117.5 kilometres) and varied in height between three to six metres. It is thought that the Wall was covered in plaster and whitewashed to make it visible for miles around, reinforcing the belief of some historians that its purpose was less defensive and more a statement of power – not only Rome’s, but Hadrian’s. It probably also served as a series of customs points, much like present day borders, with taxes being charged to anyone who passed through one of its gates into the Empire to trade.

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Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads Fort

The Wall was built from limestone, except in the far west where it was initially of turf, although later this too was reconstructed in stone. It doesn’t run in a straight line but follows the contours of the land and in places takes advantage of these to strengthen its defences. There were forts at approximately five mile intervals to garrison the troops who guarded the border, and milecastles at approximately – guess what? – every mile. Most of the forts straddle the Wall; one, Housesteads, is unusual in sitting totally to one side (the south) due to the terrain.

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Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads

After the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain in the early 5th century the Wall, though maintained and garrisoned for a short time afterwards, gradually fell into disuse and into ruin. Its stones were reused in the construction of other buildings (many an old farmhouse in this area can boast of having some stones from the Wall) or in road-building. The nearby modern-day B6318, which you will have driven on to get here, follows the line of the 18th century road built by General Wade to move troops during the Jacobite Rebellion, and local people still refer to this as the Military Road.

In the 1830s a Newcastle man, John Clayton, took an interest in the Wall and started buying up the land on which it stood to prevent farmers from taking any more of the stones. Eventually he owned a considerable area of land, including the sites of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, and Vindolanda. He carried out some excavations and also employed workmen to restore some stretches of the Wall, of which the best example is at Housesteads.

Today Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most visited tourist destination in the north of England. It is also the route of a popular long-distance path and you will see many walkers following the line of the Wall (walking on it is discouraged to avoid further damage).

Don’t expect however to see the Wall standing for its full length, is in many places today it is little more than a rampart. It is partly because the stretch around Housesteads is so relatively well-preserved that it is also one of the busiest parts – so don’t expect to have the place to yourself either, except in the bleakest of weathers!

Housesteads Fort

Of those forts that still have some remains, Housesteads, or Vercovicium to give it its Roman name, is probably the best known and most visited.

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Housesteads Fort, looking south

Relatively little remains of the fort today, but there is enough for you to be able to trace the layout of the buildings and learn something of how those soldiers would have lived.

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Housesteads Fort - outer wall and barracks

But more impressive than those few remains perhaps is the setting. With sweeping views over the Northumberland hills and one of the most intact stretches of Hadrian’s Wall nearby, in good weather it is a glorious place to stand. Imagine it though in the depths of winter, with icy winds blowing and snow falling. How must those Roman soldiers, many recruited from much warmer parts of the Empire, have felt in what must have seemed to them to be the ends of the earth?

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Countryside near Housesteads

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A tourist admires the view

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Photographing the views

Life at Housesteads

At its height 800 soldiers would have been based here at Housesteads – or Vercovicium, as they would have known it (the name means ‘the place of the effective fighters’).

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Barracks (on the left) and granary (right

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Outer wall with oven

Although the environment would have seemed harsh to many of them, especially in winter, they were relatively well-housed and were self-sufficient. The ordinary soldiers lived in barracks and the remains of some of these can be traced here today. These barracks were where they slept and also relaxed when off duty. They ate bread and other food that was cooked in the ovens on one side of the fort. The supplies for these meals were stored in granaries with stone pillars that supported a raised floor to keep the food dry and free from rats and mice.

There was a workshop and hospital, and at the heart of the fort a headquarters building known as the Praetorium or Principia. This had a courtyard where ceremonies (both military and religious) took place, a shrine where the regiment’s standards were displayed alongside altars to the gods and a statue of the emperor, and offices with a strong room to store valuables, including the soldiers’ pay.

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Part of the Principia

A note about access

Housesteads Fort is jointly operated by English Heritage and the National Trust. The latter’s website says ‘A cleared path is provided for the short walk from the visitor centre to the Wall and Fort’ and I noted that ticket seller didn’t explain the walk needed until after people had bought their tickets. The English Heritage website is more helpful: ‘The fort lies uphill from the car park (a fairly strenuous 10 minute walk on steep gradient). A disabled car park is available. Please ask at the visitor centre for directions to this car park.’ They also have a full page devoted to access to the fort: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/housesteads-roman-fort-hadrians-Wall/access

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The start of the path

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Reaching the top

The fact is that the fort is about half a mile on a gravel footpath with quite a steep climb at one point. The path crosses the Vallum, the large ditch that was dug by the Romans south of the Wall to reinforce the defences. Incidentally the name comes from the Latin word which was actually the origin of the English word ‘wall’; it meant ‘stake’ rather than ditch and reflects the fact that the defensive walls built by a Roman army on the march were of tree branches planted upright on an earthen barrier.

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Looking back
The car park is in a dip behind the trees, which is the Vallum

This path presents no problem for the averagely fit but is a challenge for anyone unsteady on their feet and (I imagine) very hard work indeed for anyone pushing a wheelchair. Someone with significant mobility difficulties would find it very hard-going and would probably not be able to visit the fort using this route without help from a friend or family member. So have a look at the path if you can before committing to buying a ticket, and ask for the advice you need, as from what I observed it may not be offered. And do ask about that disabled car park as it may make your visit a lot easier.

The Wall at Steel Rigg

Another good place from which to view or walk on Hadrian’s Wall in this area is Steel Rigg. You can walk here from Housesteads Fort, or drive and park in the pay and display car park nearby, using the same ticket bought for Housesteads. You can of course also do the walk in reverse, starting at Steel Rigg.

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At Steel Rigg
Peel Crags and Crag Lough, with Hadrian's Wall beyond

Whichever way you do it, it’s about eight miles (13 kilometres) roundtrip, depending on the route you take, and the parts on or near the Wall are very undulating with a few steep climbs. It is many years since I did this but the rewards for your efforts are great, with some of the best views in England out over the Cheviots from the top of the Whin Sill on Hotbank and Peel Crags, above Crag Lough. The National Trust website has route instructions, based on starting at Housesteads: Housesteads to Steel Rigg circular walk

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Hadrian's Wall from Steel Rigg
You can clearly see the path alongside the wall

But even if you have no time for the walk, a detour to Steel Rigg is well worthwhile as you can really appreciate the drama of the Wall’s setting and the efforts the Romans made to locate it in the most strategic position. A very short walk on largely even ground will bring you to the point where my photos were taken. You can see the Wall snaking over the rocky ridge of Peel Crags, with Crag Lough beyond. If you’re up to tackling just one climb you can walk over Peel Crags and dip down to the much-photographed Sycamore Gap beyond (so-called because a solitary sycamore tree grows there in a great position for photos) – this spot featured in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. We ran out of time, having spent too long at Housesteads, to do even this short walk, so will have to return.

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Near Steel Rigg

Posted by ToonSarah 07:00 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes history ruins views fort national_park romans Comments (11)

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