The Holy Island of Lindisfarne sits just off the North-East coast of England in Northumberland. St Aidan founded the first Christian monastery on the site in 635 AD and the island subsequently became connected with pilgrimage, saints, enlightenment, and serenity until the famous Viking raid of 793 obliterated the monastic community. Many centuries later, Lindisfarne is still a place of great tranquility and natural beauty. Though often overlooked by travelers, Holy Island, with its Viking connections, cliff-top castle, gentle beaches, and sense of ancient mystery, is a favorite among visitors who love England’s history and scenic Northern coast.
The day of my visit began early in the morning in order to drive from Newcastle to the island and not get caught in the tide, which happens to a number of individuals every year. Twice a day the road linking Holy Island to mainland Britain is covered by several feet of sea water, so it’s important to check tide tables before crossing over to the island. Lindisfarne is a bit of a remote location, but there are several places to stay on the nearby mainland or on the island itself. I stayed in Newcastle, as a visit to this well-known Northern city is easily combined with a day trip to Lindisfarne, if you don’t mind a bit of an early morning start.
Lindisfarne is an excellent retreat for visitors who enjoy exploring nature on foot. The island is mostly untouched and composed of sand dunes, rocky beaches, and gentle hills covered in tall sea grass. Apart from a light rain, the sound of cows grazing, and the sea washing against the cliffs, I was struck by the absolute stillness of the island. With such peaceful surroundings, it’s difficult to imagine this place as a scene of slaughter and upheaval so many centuries ago. Lindisfarne jumps dramatically into the historical record in 793 when Vikings devastated the monastic outpost in a characteristic pillage and plunder raid, an event which many consider to be the beginning of the Viking Age in England. The horror felt by the native community is captured by the writer of the quasi-historical Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in his entry for the year 793:
Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God’s church in Lindisfarne Island by looting and slaughter. [Translation by Michael Swanton]
A beautifully decorated priory established in 1150 by Benedictine monks currently occupies the site of the Viking raid. Visitors can walk amidst the priory ruins and take in the deep sense of age and history, as well as the coastal scenery. As stated by the English Heritage site, ‘Lindisfarne Priory will stay in your memory forever’.
Lindisfarne Castle is a short walk from the priory and may be the most alluring of Lindisfarne’s attractions. Built in 1550, the castle sits on a rugged seaside hill known as Beblowe, which is visible from every point on the island. The castle is approached via a long cobbled path that winds around the sea and sheep pastures. Overturned boats near the castle entrance serve as rough shelters from the rain and are a reminder that the castle has never seen conflict, only peaceful days of fishing and entertaining guests. After walking around the island in a consistent misty rain all morning, the castle provided a surprisingly cozy and welcoming atmosphere with its large fireplaces and stunning views of the sea. As the castle was mainly used as a residence rather than a fortress it is warmly decorated and, in keeping with the attitude of the whole island, is a tranquil space, even when filled with many visitors.
Lindisfarne is a small island that can be traversed and experienced in a few hours. The timing of the tides will likely leave you with some time to spare, which, especially on a rainy day, is best used in the village shops. It was misty the whole day on my visit, which did set a rather atmospheric scene, but also meant that I was soaked completely. I was told by the lone National Trust representative on duty in the island’s deserted car park that Pilgrim’s Coffee Shop makes the best coffee in Britain. I don’t know about that claim, but it was certainly a friendly place to spend a few hours drying off, drinking tea, eating home-made cakes, and discussing Vikings.
Lindisfarne is the site of many more activities not discussed in this overview of a day trip. If you have more time on your visit, and are possibly a wayfaring pilgrim at heart, you should consider walking St Cuthbert’s Way . The 62 mile (100 km) journey, named after the 7th century Lindisfarne saint, follows a varied route across the Scottish Borders and concludes with a dramatic crossing of the causeway road from the mainland to Holy Island.
Holy Island with its ruins and lively village is both ancient and modern and, like the account given by the writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, drifts somewhere between fantasy and concrete history. A place of natural beauty, of reflection, and deep connection with its past, this unassuming little island is likely to endear itself to your heart and become the highlight of any journey to England’s North Coast.
Written by Erin Connelly for EuropeUpClose.com