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The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Published
July 2, 2022
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AFTER visiting the Farne Islands, I drove to Lindisfarne, the ancient monastic retreat that is also known as Holy Island, the Holy Island, or, as in this road sign, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, a name that removes all confusion.

A winery named after a saint sounds like a bit of a contradiction in terms, but there you are anyway!

Here is a map, which shows the Farne Islands in the east and Lindisfarne, called Holy Island on the map, at the top. The distance from the Farne Islands to Lindisfarne/Holy Island is only about ten kilometres over the water.

Holy Island in relation to the Farne Islands, Budle, and Bamburgh. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

As the alternate name Holy Island suggests, Lindisfarne is indeed an island; though, these days you can get to it by a causeway that floods at high tide. The road to the island starts at a village called Beal. There was a good place to stay near that village, called the Barn at Beal, which lets you pitch a small tent for eighteen pounds a night. You can’t camp on the island (though there is permanent accommodation), so this is as close as you can get if you are tenting or in a van.

Barn at Beal sign

You drive over to the Holy Island via a causeway, which floods at high tide. They have the tides on a notice board, letting you know what times to drive over. That was pretty important.

The causeway vanishing beneath the tide

Here is a short video I made, of my arrival on the island via the causeway.

In the video, I say that the monastery on Lindisfarne was founded in 685 CE. But it was actually founded in 635. Along with a history that extends at least that far back, much of the area around the island is also a coastal wetland nature reserve.

Nature reserve sign

The nature reserve
Sunset over the nature reserve

One of the main attractions on the island is its remarkable Lindisfarne Castle, restored by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who turned it into a residence, presumably for someone who was quite rich. It would certainly be the place from which to watch the sun go down. These days, the castle is owned by England’s National Trust and is open for visitors.

Holy Island and Lindisfarne Castle at Sunrise. Photo by Chris Combe, 25 October 2014, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Like the Farne Islands, Lindisfarne was a centre of early Northumbrian Christianity in the days when Christianity, the state religion in late Roman times, was being beaten back by waves of invaders who worshipped the old gods of the Germans and Scandinavians: Woden (or Odin), Thor, and all those other colourful characters, after whom several days of the week are still named in English to this very day.

To the followers of the old German/Scandinavian religion which the Anglo-Saxons brought over to Britain, the material world was called Middle-Earth, midway between what Christians would call Heaven and Hell in other words, except that as for many northern peoples, Hell was thought of as a frozen place rather than a hot one.

Woden, lord of the heavens, sometimes wandered the surface of Middle-Earth in disguise, winding his way down to its surface on an eight-legged horse via a sparkling pathway wound around a sacred tree.

Woden or Odin as a wanderer. Artwork by Georg von Rosen (1886), public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know if Woden was called Gandalf in that incarnation. But you can certainly see where Tolkien got the idea for his stories.

(As for the tree, the sparkling path, and the eight-legged horse, these live on as the Christmas Tree, its tinsel, and the reindeer, with Woden now Santa Claus.)

It’s surprising how much of all old stuff survives, even in the names of days of the week. Tuesday, from the Anglo-Saxon god of war, Tiw. Wednesday, short for Woden’s day. Thursday, after Thor, the thunder god with the hammer. And Friday, after Frigga whose job it was to spin the clouds.

Frigga Spinning the Clouds. Artwork by John Charles Dollman (1909), public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

These names were added to the days named after the moon, the sun, and the Roman god Saturn.

There were other spirits in which the old-time Anglo-Saxons believed, such as the rye-dog. When the wind seemed to open a path through a field of grain for a moment, that occurrence was ascribed to the passage of an invisible dog!

This all seems rather delightful. But to the monks of Northumbria, it was paganism and therefore a Bad Thing.

The monks sought to re-found Christianity in their part of England, using the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne as their base, under the patronage of the Saxon but Christian king of the region, Oswald, who later became St Oswald.

The early monks on Lindisfarne are famous for producing the Lindisfarne Gospels, created around the year 700 CE, which are now in the British Library in London.

The Incipit, or starting-image, from the Book of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The re-foundation of Christianity among the Saxons was going quite well, until a more ferocious group of Odin-worshippers turned up in the form of the Vikings, a name that begins with V, along with Valkyries and Valhalla.

The Viking version of the old religion seems to have been less Gandalf-like, and worse for the monks.

Although earlier raids by ‘Northmen’ had been recorded, the hugely destructive Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 is generally counted as the start of the Viking Era. The Viking raid on Lindisfarne is a major part of the plot of series one of Vikings, and there is at least one snippet of the relevant scenes on YouTube, though it is quite gory so I have not embedded it here.

These early Vikings mostly came from Denmark and were thus called Danes by the English once it became clear where they were from. The Danes fanned out into the land and overpowered the kingdom of Northumbria, making York the capital of a new Danish colony in northeastern England called the Danelaw.

The Danelaw lasted until the early Middle Ages. It implanted many Scandinavian placenames across northeastern England and many Scandinavian words into the evolving English language, words that soon spread to the south. Thus, we are still living with the legacy of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 every time we say egg, or take, or anger, or wing, or any of what seem to be hundreds of everyday words brought to England by the Vikings. It all began on this little island.

In 875, after more than a century of living in fear, the monks permanently abandoned Lindisfarne, not returning for another couple of centuries. The monks may have taken up residence at St Cuthbert’s Cave, close to the island but safely inland and hard to find, near the modern village of Holburn. The cave is shown in the photo below and in the map above.

St Cuthbert’s Cave, near Holburn and Lindisfarne. Photo by Phil Thirkell, 19 July 2004, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There is another St Cuthbert’s Cave, near Wooler. But the one near Holburn is thought to be more likely to be the real deal, either occupied by the ex-Lindisfarne monks, or in earlier times by St Cuthbert himself, or both.

Once I got to the island, I discovered that there was actually a village there, with inns and other places to stay. The next photo is of one such place called Town View Cottage (the views are on the other side).

Town View Cottage, on Holy Island

There was an attractive public garden called the Lindisfarne Gospels Garden. According to the website visitlindisfarne.com,

"This pretty garden is easily overlooked, but well worth a visit. Its design is inspired by the Lindisfarne Gospels, the world-famous illuminated 8th century manuscript produced in the monastery on the island. The garden’s theme is 'darkness into light.'"

Here is a photo looking over a wall into the garden, with a sign that spells its name slightly differently.

The Lindisfarne Gospels Garden: wall, sign and seat

Inside the Lindisfarne Gospels Garden

Here’s a photo of the distinctive yellow frontage of the Lindisfarne Centre, the local information centre, shop and museum.

The Lindisfarne Centre

Here are some buildings which look like farm buildings, wonderfully massive, with a well-lit phone box outside.

After the threats of Viking raids receded, a religious community returned to Lindisfarne and erected new buildings. The complex, now ruined, is called Lindisfarne Priory, meaning a place where the leaders of a religious order live. In that sense, Lindisfarne had actually been home to a priory since Saxon times.

The mediaeval priory was closed on the orders of Henry VIII, after which it was transformed into a border fort to see off the Scots. It fell into rack and ruin thereafter with the collapse of a church tower in the 1700s and a wall in the 1800s. A rather Spanish-looking belltower is one of the few parts to survive more or less intact from mediaeval days. It has probably survived because of its ample base.

The Spanish-looking belltower

Another view of the ruined priory

One of the most famous sights among the ruins is the so-called rainbow arch, which has miraculously survived everything falling down around it.

The rainbow arch
A selfie with the rainbow arch

The next few photographs all show some further views of the ruined priory.

Finally, here are some more photos of Lindisfarne Castle.

Lindisfarne Castle information panel

Lindisfarne Castle and its roadway

A closer view of the castle showing the family home installed on top by Sir Edwin Lutyens

I mentioned the Barn at Beal as a good place to stay, plus the accommodation on the island. Indeed, according to campsites.co.uk, there are 27 campsites in the vicinity of Budle Bay, which takes in the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne.

Which makes it all the more ridiculous that I ended up at an illegal campsite run by a local farmer, which I had been told was a cheap place to camp. But it wasn’t really. It was fifteen pounds a night with no security or toilet facilities nearby, or twenty-five pounds a night with security and toilet facilities, which I thought was a lot for just camping. As I say, I could have camped at the Barn at Beal with all the proper facilities for eighteen pounds.

I did get a good view from my illegal campsite though, as Budle Bay is very pretty in itself.

Along with the Lindisfarne’s English Heritage pages and Visit Lindisfarne, there is more information about the island on the site holy-island.info, though the layout is a bit old-fashioned.

As to the mystical connotations of the place, a band called Lindisfarne was founded in the sixties and there is also a Lindisfarne Festival, though it was established more recently.

Postscript: The Northumberland Coast Path

As a PS, I would just like to reiterate that the Northumberland Coast really is a beautiful coast! Along with visiting Alnwick, Bamburgh, the seaside villages and the islands, you might also want to hike the Northumberland Coast Path. According to the website,

"The Northumberland coast offers some of the finest coastal walking in Europe. The Northumberland Coast Path follows this stunningly beautiful coastline for 100 kilometres (62 Miles) from Cresswell in the south to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north. Alongside sandy beaches, over rocky headlands, past dramatic castles and through attractive coastal villages, the Northumberland Coast Path offers a constantly changing landscape which is a pleasure to explore."

It was signposted locally as the England Coast Path, a larger network of which the Northumberland Coast Path is a section.

The website for the England Coast Path says that, when complete, it will be the longest coastal walking path in the world.

In my next post, I cross over into Scotland!

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