I wouldn’t describe my first visit to Lindisfarne as romantic, but it certainly started with a clang that I won’t forget. We were filming a reconstruction piece for Countryfile with some actors dressed as Vikings.
It was the marauding Vikings who shattered the peace on this tiny tidal island in AD793 and our aim was to recreate a little bit of history on a stretch of pale beach. I’ll hand it to our thesps – they threw themselves into their roles. It was entertaining seeing half a dozen of them thrashing about with enormous swords dressed in chainmail – it must have been absolutely terrifying when the real thing happened more than 1,000 years ago.
The 12th-century monk Simeon described the event in his book The History of the Church of Durham, “On the seventh of the ides of June, they reached the church of Lindisfarne, and there they miserably ravaged and pillaged everything; they trod the holy things under their polluted feet, they dug down the altars, and plundered all the treasures of the church.
“Some of the brethren they slew, some they carried off with them in chains, the greater number they stripped naked, insulted, and cast out of doors, and some were drowned.”
The raid was the first recorded Viking raid on Britain, and the attack was sudden, unexpected and devastating.
It was so shocking because Lindisfarne was one of the most important centres of early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England. The Holy Island is still a place of pilgrimage today, and the dramatic approach across the causeway only adds to the the fascination that lies behind this little outcrop.
This site is the earliest Christian monastery in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria and the ruins are atmospheric; they
echo with history.
Standing on the old priory walls you take in panoramic views of the Northumbrian coast. Placed perfectly on Beblowe Rock, the highest point of the island, is Lindisfarne Castle. First built in 1550 (long after the Vikings landed), the castle has never witnessed any major battle or Border siege.
It was converted into a private residence by the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1903 and has belonged to the National Trust since 1944. It’s the perfect place for a picnic or, if you’re up for a windswept ceremony you can get married or have a civil ceremony at the castle – but you and your guests had better beware of the tides.
Tackling the tides on this tiny island (it measures 2¼ miles by 1½ miles) has always been part of the allure of Lindisfarne; whether you are walking across Pilgrims’ Way or motoring on the more recent road, there is an element of risk in getting there. Warning signs show a 4×4 sinking beneath the waves.Visitors are urged to check tide times and the weather, and to seek local advice if in doubt.
Life here is governed by the currents, and locals are cut off twice a day from the mainland. But despite all the warnings, about one vehicle a month is stranded on the causeway.
It really put us under pressure filming because we had to have everything done by 3pm – which didn’t leave us any faffing time – and there’s a lot of that in telly.
But it was this isolation that was the attraction for the monks and Sir Walter Scott described it beautifully in The Holy Island.
The monastery was founded by St Aidan in AD635, on land granted by Oswald, king and saint of Northumbria. Today, this miniscule atoll whispers with history; monks, holy trails and vikings – Lindisfarne has it all packaged away in its past.
For visitors, it’s a mythological experience well worth
watching the tide tables for.
HOW TO GET THERE
By car, travel along the main A1 road to the crossroad at Beal, which is eight miles South of Berwick-upon-Tweed. The ‘Holy Island’ is signposted East from Beal and is reached via a tidal causeway that is flooded twice a day. The nearest train station is at Berwick-upon-Tweed on the London (Kings Cross) to Edinburgh line, which is 14 miles away. A bus is available from the station to the Island via the tidal causeway.
FIND OUT MORE
Northumberland TD15 2RX
The Crown and Anchor
The Market Place, Holy Island, Northumberland, TD15 2RX
The only locally run pub on the island, offering good-quality food and drink, complete with a roaring fire and beer garden.
The Lindisfarne Hotel
Holy Island, Northumberland
Grand exterior eight bedroom hotel offers self-catering facilities including communal use of the kitchen, living room and en-suites with all rooms.
Marygate, TD15 2SD
The visitor centre has exhibits about the history of the island and the famous illuminated manuscripts, the Lindisfarne Gospels, created here (now in the British Library). It also has an excellent gift shop.