A walk on Lindisfarne
Posted: 09 Oct 2009
The holy land
Pictures copyright Graeme Peacock
Michael Hamilton returns to a childhood haunt to check out if the magic is still intact
I first got my feet on the holy ground of Lindisfarne as a 12-year-old on a week-long visit to the St. Vincent de Paul boys’ camp.
This year, on the Holy Island Discovery Trail, I walked in the footsteps of saints again.
Driving over the causeway on a day blessed with brilliant sunshine cherished memories of halcyon days flooded my brain.
In the way that everything is magnified to young minds, that week-long summer holiday seemed to last forever for young Tynesiders away from homes and families for the first time.
As schoolboys we revelled in the fact that we were insiders, residents marooned there for a week. We were disdainful of the day-trippers who only visited the island when the causeway was exposed at low tide.
Now I was simply joining the many thousands who flock here to enjoy this area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Northumberland coast close to the Scottish border.
There’s a huge car park on the outskirts of the tiny village nowadays to prevent hundreds of cars clogging up the narrow streets.
In my day the smaller coach park next to St. Aidan’s church – where our tents were pitched in the garden behind – was all that was needed for the handful of visitors who made the pilgrimage then.
The church grounds still house a holiday centre – now with dormitory chalet-type accommodation for boys and girls – largely intended for children who might not otherwise be able to have a holiday.
Passing the coach park and turning right then left the ruggedly stunning and picturesque castle still dominates the landscape like it did all those years ago. At the very eastern end of the island it’s perched on a rocky windswept crag. It’s an outcrop of the Whin Sill, a line of very hard rock running across north east England.
As I walked towards the castle I couldn’t resist a quick detour to the delightful harbour – known locally as the Ouse. This is where we boys whiled away the hours mucking about, watching the fishing boats come and go, scanning the murky waters for grey seals, or just skimming flat stones across the surface.
As it was low tide the mud flats were thick with feeding birds, common, herring and blackheaded gulls and oystercatchers.
From there as you look south towards the mainland you spy the tall beacons on Long Ridge sands that once helped sea-going vessels chart a course out of the natural harbour.
Set back from the water’s edge are the quirky upturned boat sheds. The use of old boats as sheds once their sailing days are over is an east coast tradition that has survived here.
The castle commands an impressive view over the village (which today only has a population of about 150 as it did when I first visited), bay and surrounding coastline.
It was built in the 1550s – using stones from the demolished priory – to secure the bay where English ships sheltered during the wars with Scotland.
In 1902 it was refurbished by the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens for owner Edward Hudson as an Edwardian country house. The castle is also well known for its walled garden designed by celebrated landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll. The castle and garden are in the care of the National Trust and open to visitors.
As you pass through the castle gates (at post 2) you are standing at the end of a 19th century waggonway which brought limestone, quarried in the north of the island, to be burned in the lime kilns by the castle. The vertiginous castle walls make ideal breeding ledges for cackling fulmars who have colonised this rocky outcrop.
From the shadow of the castle you can see the fabulous Farne Islands – home to grey seals and thousands of seabirds including guillemots, puffins and kittiwakes – and, in the distance on the mainland, majestic Bamburgh Castle.
I continued along the waggonway (to post 4) taking time to gaze across the foreshore and watch more wading birds, sea ducks and terns.
Further north along the track (at post 5) you come to the Lough. From the hide inside I spent a happy half hour watching little grebe, shoveler, mallard, moorhen and coot.
Back on the track and further north to the Reserve ( post 6) I couldn’t resist another detour. This time it was to the stunning northern golden beaches beyond the sand dunes and another trip down memory lane. This is where we lads played football and swam in the chilly August waters of the North Sea.
Back to the Reserve path beside the farm wall the grassland meadows were full of flowering plants like bird’s foot trefoil and silverweed.
I recalled the frequent history lessons we received from the novice priests. The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded by Irish-born Saint Aiden, who had been sent from Iona off the west coast of Scotland to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald around AD 635.
We were told how it became the base for Christian evangelising in the north of England and also sent a successful mission to Mercia. Monks from the community of Iona settled on the island. Northumberland's patron saint Saint Cuthbert was a monk and later abbot of the monastery and his miracles and life are recorded by theVenerable Bede. Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne.
At some point in the early 700s the famous illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels – an illustrated Latin copy of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – was made probably at Lindisfarne and the artist was possibly Eadfrith, who later became Bishop of Lindisfarne.
Here endeth the history lesson.
At post 8 I turned left and found myself back on Straight Lonnen. This was the route we would take from the camp to the beach usually as an early morning cross country run punishment devised by the priests – because we had been up half the night scaring each other with ghost stories. Or perhaps some boy had smuggled some potent mead (known locally as ‘nectar of the gods’) from the Lindisfarne Winery into his tent.
This time it was a more leisurely, sober pace and I stopped to marvel at the cornucopia of insects, moths and butterflies some attracted to the bright yellow flowers of ragwort.
My journey through the past was back where it started at the children’s Catholic holiday camp. But my island visit was far from over. The tide was coming in fast but my plan was to stay a while and let the day-trippers depart.
To witness the real essence of the place is to enjoy it like an islander away from the marauding hordes: the name Lindisfarne derives from farne meaning ‘retreat’ and lindis, a small tidal river adjacent to the island.
Back close to the causeway I stood on the foreshore as the last tourist cars disappeared off the island. I looked back towards the mainland from Pilgrims' Way – marked with wooden posts – the route of the early saints. It also has refuge boxes for the careless walker, in the same way as the road has a refuge box for those who have left their crossing too late.
I watched the sea slowly creeping across the sands while listening to the cry of sea birds. Solitude.
This tiny speck of an island – just three miles long and one and a half miles wide – was magical in my youth and more than 35 years later the cradle of Christianity is still bewitchingly beautiful.
Walking up an appetite
With the day-trippers gone, I booked into the dining room at the Crown and Anchor pub. It serves up delicious, hearty, freshly prepared dishes such as fish and chips (wonderful, light batter) with salad and rib-eye steak. Puddings include locally made ice cream (my wife’s choice) and a selection of Northumberland cheeses (mine).
With a pre-dinner pint of Black Sheep and a bottle of wine with the meal the bill came to an extremely reasonable £40 including tip.
The Ship pub is another popular option. Both have sunny beer gardens.
If you are staying off the island, there are some interesting dining options at Bamburgh, about 20 minutes’ drive away such as the Victoria Hotel brassiere (friendly, sophisticated) and Blackett’s. The latter does a lovely breakfast. If poached eggs on toast, bacon sandwich, Earl Grey tea, coffee and an order of hot fruit scones with cream and jam between two doesn’t set you up for the day, then nothing will.
And if you want to stay in, a great new self-catering option opened just this summer just outside Bamburgh.
A development of traditional farm buildings at the Dukesfield farmstead provides absolutely top-drawer facilities with flat screen TVs, ultra modern but sympathetic furnishings, fully-equipped kitchens with the most mod of cons, masses of fluffy towels and a big garden for kids and dogs to play in (well behaved dogs are welcome).
Check out www.bamburghfirst.com or phone 01665 721 332 for more details.
Bamburgh can cater for all the supplies you need. Carter’s the butcher’s, home of the Bamburgh Banger, is deservedly well known around these parts, the Pantry has plenty of delicacies and Blackett’s has some interesting wines to choose from.
One place you can’t do without is Clark’s, a general dealer set in possibly the most attractive setting imaginable – a walled nursery garden in the centre of the village – which stocks general supplies and newspapers, vegetables grown on the premises, delicious fruit and plants and is open all year round.