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Spotlight: Lindisfarne - England's Holy Island

By Dawn Rainbolt
More by Dawn

Visiting Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne.

The name has become a household name, engraved into English history. But what makes this sleepy little island home to castles and monasteries something so special?

Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, is a tidal island clinging to the coast of Northumberland on England’s northeast coast. Jutting out into the North Sea, Lindisfarne is a small, craggy island home to a handful of people.

Lindisfarne is a small place. The latest census puts the number of residents at a mere 180 souls. The island itself measures just 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, home to roughly 1,000 acres of land. Lindisfarne is a tidal island (like Scotland’s Eilean Donan or France’s Mont Saint Michel), and is located .8 miles or 1.3 km off the coast of Northumberland in northeast England.

Biking across the tidal causeway that whips across the mudflats forming the Nature Reserve is a unique experience.

At low tide, the island can be approached by a causeway stretching across the sand and mudflats that are covered over at high tide. This causeway traces the route of what was once a popular ancient pilgrimage route to the Holy Island, and is open roughly from 3 hours after high tide until 2 hours before the following high tide. It’s always best to check the tide tables and the weather before attempting to cross, or better yet, to visit the island as part of an organised trip.

Today, the mudflats separating Lindisfarne and the mainland are protected as a nature reserve, ensuring the delicate ecosystem here is allowed to thrive in peace.

Where is Lindisfarne?

By Car: From the mainland near the village of Beal, just off the A1, you can cross the Lindisfarne Tidal Causeway. Though just over one mile, the crossing can only be made when the tide is low, and high winds can also be a factor. You have to check Northumberland’s tide table here.

On Foot: Lindisfarne Pilgrim’s Path. There is a separate walking path for foot traffic that follows an ancient pilgrim’s way. However, Northumberland County Council recommends that the tide table does not apply for walkers, and the crossing should only be made with a local guide. Hike to Lindisfarne on our Wilderness Walking – Northumberland & the Lakes guided trip.

By Public Transport: No car? You can also take the 477 Permans Bus from Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is about 11 miles away, and accessible by railway.

By Bike: One of the most exciting and unique ways to explore Holy Island, the coast and the mudflats of the nature reserve is by bike. Join our Self-Guided Plus+ Cycling – Border Crossing trip or perhaps the Self-Guided – Northumberland trip to bike Lindisfarne and more.

Lindisfarne’s Holy Heritage

Starting from the 6th century, Lindisfarne became a notable place, producing several saints such as St Aidan, St Eadfrith, St Cuthbert, and St Eadberht.

St Aidan

It was St Aidan who is credited with founding Lindisfarne Priory in 634. Trained at the large monastery on Iona on the west coast of Scotland, St Aidan made his way to this unsettled little island in order to build a new monastery. First in timber and thatch and eventually in stone. Lindisfarne would remain Northumbria’s only bishop seat for the next three decades.

St Eadberht

Eadberht is probably the least significant of Holy Island’s saints. St Eadberht, a bishop from 888-98, is perhaps best remembered as having founded a holy shrine to his predecessor, St Cuthbert. He was buried in the spot in which Cuthbert’s body had previously lain until it was exhumed and moved to Durham Cathedral on the mainland.

St Cuthbert

And Cuthbert? This third saint has the honour to be Northumbria’s patron saint. Cuthbert’s other claim to fame is the impressive biography written about his life while he was at Lindisfarne.

But what is so interesting and impressive about this text is that it is the oldest still surviving historical writing scribed in Old English. Using the mentions of current monarchs, the manuscript has been dated to 685 – 704 AD. Though he died at Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert is buried in Durham Cathedral.

St Eadfrith

Monasteries during the early middle ages were recognised sources of learning and knowledge (of a largely religious nature). Many monasteries, particularly the larger ones, had a scriptorium in which scribes and illuminators worked together to copy and produce great texts, usually of a religious, Biblical or historical topic.

The most famous of these texts is probably Ireland’s Book of Kells, but England’s most famous illuminated manuscripts are the Lindisfarne Gospels. These beautiful Latin manuscripts were likely created by St Eadfrith, one of the four saints associated with Holy Island.

 

History of Lindisfarne – The Holy Isle

 

Lindisfarne and the Vikings

While Lindisfarne is a quaint little monastery and a picturesque spot great for photography, the real reason that this tiny place is renowned throughout the world is because of its history with the Vikings.

The Vikings were Scandinavian raiders from across the sea. Though farmers and labourers back home, every year the warriors among them would pack up and head into the world in search of treasure, goods, and people. While they had previously headed to the better-known lands of the east (such as the Baltic states), in 793 they did something different: the Vikings went west.

But what made them so fearsome? It was largely to do with their incredible boats – which could safely sustain them across long sea voyages. They are credited with later discovering Iceland, Greenland and even America. The boats were also shallow-bottomed meaning they could sail in shallow waters and up rivers. The Vikings were well-trained, well-organised and well-equipped, meaning that even a small band of seasoned warriors could invade a large settlement. Particularly if they had the element of surprise.

And surprise is exactly what they had at Lindisfarne. The Lindisfarne Raid of 793 is today considered the “start” of the Viking Age. Those at Lindisfarne were doomed. Largely isolated from the greater world, they had no idea about other peoples living across the sea. As monks, they would have enjoyed a certain level of protection as the Christian communities would have never thought to harm a monk.

Pagan raiders from across the waters though? They had no fear of Christian ‘hell’ – in fact, in their religion, it was thought that in order to reach their afterlife Valhalla (their version of ‘heaven’), they had to go out fighting bravely.

The Vikings arrived on the coast of England and discovered not only land but also the concept of a monastery. Which to them was a building full of treasures and goods, whose only protection was a group of monks. It was like taking candy from a baby.

Most say the raid took place on June 8th, 793, as quoted by the Annals of Lindisfarne. It shocked the English to their core, as they had largely forgotten about the sea, establishing their religious settlements in isolated places to escape mainland politics and power grabs. It must also have been shocking to the Scandinavians, for who would allow such treasures to rest in such isolated and vulnerable places, practically unguarded?

Though the Vikings continued to raid the coasts, the common view that they came time after time is false. Instead, the Vikings headed north, even going so far as to establish themselves a port at York sometime later (around 866 AD).

Lindisfarne Priory did not survive much longer either. The Kingdom of Northumbria fell and the monks, having lost their protection, abandoned the island, taking their beloved St Cuthbert with him. Well, his bones anyway. (They were reinterred at Durham Cathedral, where there is now a shrine).

The Middle Ages at Lindisfarne

The monks had gone, but the island wasn’t completely forgotten. The Bishop of Durham, a Norman fellow called William of Calais established a new monastery at Durham. (As a side note, Norman comes from “North Men” or the Vikings who also raided northern France and Paris. They were eventually granted what we now call Normany, integrated into the local society and then in 1066 raided England. Again.)

The island now hosted an outbuilding of this new Benedictine monastery, continuing until 1536 when everybody’s least favourite monarch King Henry VIII created a new Protestant version of Christianity so he could divorce his various wives. The remaining architecture one can view today stretches back to Norman times.

The Castle at Lindisfarne

After the monasteries were dissolved, the Crown cheerfully took possession of many lands once under the control of said monasteries, and Holy Island was no exception.

Stones from the priory were repurposed to build the small fortified Lindisfarne Castle, circa 1550, perched atop a craggy hill. This space was used as a naval base, first by Henry and later by Elizabeth, until its relevance declined when King James unified England and Scotland. It was briefly claimed in 1715 by two Jacobite rebels when they realised the castle was largely unguarded, and though they lost the castle and were quickly caught and imprisoned, these enterprising and lucky men escaped the noose by managing to tunnel to freedom.

Lindisfarne’s Industrial Revolution

Like most of England, Lindisfarne entered the modern age of industrialisation and technology in the mid-1800s. In the case of this tiny island, it was through the building massive lime kilns, which can still be seen today, and the “Waggon Way” walk from the old quarry to the kilns makes for a short, pleasant walk.

Lindisfarne & Fauna

Surrounding Lindisfarne is a substantial sized area designated as the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve (for those curious, it’s 8,750 acres large!). This estuary of receding tides and mudflats is ideal for bird-watching, as the island hosts many migrating birds. There have been over 330 bird species identified on the island at one point or another.

The Priory Ruins

Just beyond the modern church stands the wildly impressive ruins of Lindisfarne Priory.Built some 1,400 years ago, it was here that was raided by the Vikings in the early Middle Ages. Walking under the dramatic Rainbow Arch, the present ruins date back to the 12th century, the heyday of elegant and intricate religious architecture.

The Castle

The castle at Lindisfarne is a lot newer than the Priory. Built from 1550 -1570, the fortified structure was erected to house a garrison for defensive purposes, though it saw little action and made it through to the modern era largely unscathed. In 1901, it was “rediscovered” and turned into a holiday home by Edwin Lutyens, softening many of its original defensive features.

The Village

It might be easy to forget that the island is more than just a jumble of pretty ruins – it is home to a small population too, living in a quaint village at the edge of the island. It was once a sleepy fishing village, and while the aura of that past life remains in the quaint stone cottages and winding lanes, today the village is a vibrant hangout.

The Lime Kiln

Just a five-minute walk down the shoreline from the castle are the old Castle Point lime kilns, built during the 1800s when the Industrial Age made it all the way to little Holy Island. Their point? To turn limestone – which was quarried on the north side of the island – into valuable and quicklime or slaked lime, for uses in agriculture and construction (including to make whitewash, mortar, limelight, bleach, soaps, water purification, and more).

Emmanuel Head

On the far side of Lindisfarne, there is a large pyramidal beacon marking the island. The stretch of waters beyond Lindisfarne was a known danger area for ships, causing many shipwrecks – particularly on “false” Emmanuel Head (a geographical formation resembling the real headland). Hence around 1801, the great white beacon was installed. Follow the windblown paths along the shore to the quiet side of the island.

The Lighthouses & Lookout Towers

The stretch of waters beyond Lindisfarne was a known danger area for ships, causing many shipwrecks – particularly on “false” Emmanuel Head (a geographical formation resembling the real headland). Hence around 1801, the great white beacon was installed.

St Cuthbert’s Island

Accessible by foot at low tide via a natural causeway, this tiny island is just off the shore from Lindisfarne Priory. On this teacup-sized island, St Cuthbert once lived as a hermit. St Cuthbert offers some lovely views of Lindisfarne, the nature reserve and a peek out towards Bamburgh Castle, an iconic, fairytale castle on a headland a few miles south of Holy Island.

The Beaches

There is a small, often frequented beach on the near side of the island just past the village and car park. For those who want a quieter beach – and a nice walk – they can visit the much less visited beaches of the North Shore. Following the island’s coastal path, you can visit three overlooked, beautiful beaches on the North Shore.

The Heritage Centre

There is a small but detailed museum covering the island’s 1,000+ years of history, from the ancient saints to the Viking raids, the building of the monastery and writing of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the later the 16th-century castle.

What to Wear on my visit to Lindisfarne?

Jutting out into the sea, it’s best to come prepared for the weather. This windblown little island is home to a rolling green landscape and plenty of sheep. It can be quite wet and boggy, so pull on your wear study, waterproof boots and waterproof top layers such as a jacket and perhaps trousers if rain is forecasted. Be sure to wear layers too so that you can whip on or off a layer as you amble about the island. It can be windy so a hat and gloves might come in handy. Remember to clean your boots and clothes after you finish your visit, as saltwater can be very damaging to such materials.

Learn More

Visit the Magic of Lindisfarne Island

Lindisfarne is an enchanting place full of heritage from medieval to Victorian times. Explore it on one of our trips below.

Hiking – Northumberland & Lakes   Self Guided+ Cycling – Borders    Self-Guided Cycling – Northumberland

Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture, intriguing history, ancient castles, cheery locals and sweeping landscapes of Ireland.

View profile More by Dawn

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