Time and tide on Holy Island

As with a lot of islands, life on Lindisfarne – northeast England’s Holy Island – grows on you. Its medieval priory ruins and skeletal castle frame a charming stone-built hamlet of 160 people, while quiet beaches, seals and seabirds await those who wander through the lanes and strike out across grassy fields filled with wildflowers.

But if you’re not careful you can end up spending longer here than you’d bargained for, because when the tide comes in – twice a day – the causeway is covered and that’s you stuck for the day or the night, whatever your plans.

It makes sense of the rather lurid signs at either end of the tidal causeway, and also adds a frisson if you’re racing to get on or off close to the deadline. Many a hapless traveller has  underestimated the speed of the tide (or overestimated their driving abilities) – and that’s a very awkward conversation to be having later with the rental or insurance company.

“It’s not a tow truck exactly we’ll be needing…”

Maybe you should play it safe and take public transport. It is, after all, one of the few – only? – islands I know that you can get to by bus; the trusty #477 from Berwick upon Tweed, which is itself one of the few – only? – buses I know where the timetable is different every day, because of the tides.

Intrigued yet?

Holy Island is a captivating place, and no mistake. I’ve been several times, in varying seasons, and done something different each time.

The ruins are beautiful, in a haunting, end-of-the-world kind of way. Irish monk St Aidan founded the first monastery here in the 7th century AD – it’s where the glorious ‘Lindisfarne Gospels‘ were later produced – and despite devastating Viking raids and border squabbles, there was an almost continuous religious settlement here until Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries in the 1530s (for which read ‘knock down their buildings, steal their money and persecute their monks’).

The 16th-century castle is different again – a tiny hilltop fort that was refurbished in a modish Arts and Crafts style in 1901. Like most things on the island, it’s open when the tide allows – and a little shuttle bus runs you down there and back.

The village itself sees thousands of visitors each year now, and not just because it’s cute. The big sell is Lindisfarne mead, prepared to a secret recipe, so they claim, and available in industrial quantities in the special visitor centre. Mead, in case you didn’t know, is basically alcoholic honey.

That’s acoholic honey. I know. What were they thinking?

They definitely weren’t thinking that someone might have a glassful or three, get back in their car, look at their watch, and think, “yeah, plenty of time for the causeway, easy”.




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