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Mead, Monks & Magnificent Scenery
Holy Island ( Lindisfarne ) in general
Member Name: collingwood21
Holy Island ( Lindisfarne ) in general
Date: 14/04/07, updated on 14/04/07 (1389 review reads)
Advantages: Inspirational coastline, Plenty for visitors to see and do
Disadvantages: Timing your visit to the tidal causeway
The island itself has a wild and rugged beauty, and is a haven for wildlife. The Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve occupies large parts of it, and there is only one small village with approximately 150 inhabitants. The road from the causeway brings you directly into the village, passing a large visitor car park just on the edge of it; it is advisable to park your car here rather than attempt to block the narrow streets of the village with your vehicle, even though you have to pay (£2.20 for 3 hours, or £4 for an all day ticket). From this car park, it is a walk of less than 10 minutes into the village, and you can also pick up the castle shuttle bus to visit Lindisfarne castle should you feel disinclined to undertake the mile or so distance on foot (£1.30 return for this service, departing every 20 minutes). I recommend walking while on the island, though, to fully appreciate the beauty of the place. Alongside the spectacular natural assets of the island, the village itself is charming, being made up of an eclectic mixture of different building styles and home to a cluster of hotels, B&Bs, cafes, two rather fine looking pubs (that alas I didn’t have chance to sample) and a generally friendly and welcoming atmosphere. It is also incredibly neat and tidy in a way you really appreciate living in a scruffy city suburb!
Historically, Lindisfarne is a more significant site than perhaps its small size would suggest, with its importance principally stemming from the Anglo Saxon era. In AD635, King Oswald of Northumbria requested that a group of monks from the priory on Iona in the West of Scotland come to his kingdom with a view to converting the North of England to Christianity. A party of monks duly came, led by an Irishman called Aidan (later Saint Aidan), and founded the first monastery on Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne was a perfect location for the monastery, being within sight of (and therefore protected by) the Kings of Northumbria, across the bay in Bamburgh castle, and offering a suitable amount of isolation for the monastic community due to being cut off from the mainland at high tides. Northumberland’s patron saint Cuthbert was a monk, and later Abbott, at Lindisfarne, and his (supposedly undecayed) body was kept as a holy relic on the site after his death. The monastery also set up the first known school in the area, introducing the arts of reading and writing to Northumbria, and in time the scriptorium became renowned for its skill in producing beautiful illustrated manuscripts, the most famous of which are of course the Lindisfarne Gospels (currently in the British Library in London, much to the disgruntlement of many Northumbrians).
In AD793, Lindisfarne witnessed the first Viking raid on Britain; the vulnerability of the site from sea raids was cruelly exposed by the Norsemen, with the attacks continuing on a regular basis well into the following century. In AD875, the monks eventually abandoned the island, taking with them the body of Saint Cuthbert, and for many years wandered the North of England before eventually settling in Durham in AD995, where Cuthbert’s remains still lie. After the Norman Conquest (AD1066) Lindisfarne priory was re-established by the Benedictine monks of Durham as a cell (outlying monastery controlled by the cathedral), and the second monastery was built on the island. It never held the same power or influence as it did the Anglo Saxon “Golden Age”, however, and was beset by troubles, especially during the wars between England and Scotland. Eventually the monastery was suppressed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, and the monastic community left Lindisfarne for good, leaving King Henry to raid the remains of the priory to build his castle on the island. Little is known of the history of Lindisfarne after the monks left for the last time, although substantial remains of the second priory are still visible on the island, and the only feature that suggests an involvement in the violent border history of Northumberland is said wonderfully rugged castle.
Given this history, it seemed only fair that the stating point for my visit should be the priory itself. Situated on the edge of the village, the priory is owned and run these days by English Heritage, who have a small exhibition and shop next the ruins of the monastery. The exhibition, which tells the history of the priory, has recently been refurbished, and the newness of it is apparent (although not a great deal of design flair has been put into presenting the history of site, significant as it is as a cradle of Christianity in England). The exhibition is designed around a series of panels on the walls, which are unimaginative but clear and could be followed quite easily by older children and adults alike, and they do help put the site in a historical context for visitors. A small number of objects (pottery mostly, but also a few more visually appealing objects) are huddled together in two cases at the end of the display, and there are some examples of carved Anglo Saxon stonework on show – which as an archaeologist I can appreciate, but as a visitor I found it none too exciting to merely read translations of the inscriptions. It would have been nice to read more about why they were important, I think: enthusiasm is no bad thing in an exhibition.
Having been introduced to the site in the exhibition, I made my way outside to the priory ruin, which sits dramatically in one corner of the island with stunning views across the sea, to Lindisfarne castle in one direction, and to the mainland in the other. The buildings are the remains of the second monastery, with impressively high sections of the church walls still standing, and the bold round pillars and distinctive Norman arches of the nave arcade still presenting a daunting spectacle in their weather-tinted red stone. Even the remains of the Normanesque designs carved into the columns (similar to those at Durham Cathedral) can still be seen in some places. Less than a hundred years after the second monastery was completed, fortifications had to be added to the site as it was in a vulnerable position during the Scottish Border Wars, and the defensive structures are also visible amongst the ruins. The image of this powerful, dark red priory fortress surrounded by religion and mystique, must surely have been a formidable one in the Middle Ages. During these troubled times there were likely to have been only five or six monks occupying the site at any one time, and it is easy to imagine the harshness and isolation of their life. The ruins are interpreted in standard English Heritage fashion, with a scattering of low-level text panels to help you make sense of what remains of the site. I found these panels to be helpful for orientation and interesting, but I would have liked to seen them at a slightly more comfortable reading height than they currently stand; I think this would do little to damage views across the priory, but would considerably help many visitors.
The visitor facilities are limited on such a small site. The shop sells few things that aren’t available in all other English Heritage shops and the refreshment section (drinks and ice creams) was conspicuously empty, although it was early in the season when I visited. There was also notably no toilet on site for visitors, although there are facilities a short walk away in the village (including accessible toilets). Access to the exhibition building was level and there was ample room for pushchairs/ prams/wheelchairs to manoeuvre around the displays, although anyone with mobility problems would likely find the uneven ground of the priory ruin difficult to get around.
Opening times: April to September, 9.30am to 5pm, daily
October, 9.30am to 4pm, daily
November to January, 10am to 2pm, Saturday to Monday
February to March, 10am to 4pm, daily
Prices: English Heritage members free
15% entry discount to groups of 11 or more
Further information: www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/ConPropert y.132
A visit to Lindisfarne just wouldn’t be complete without calling in at the Lindisfarne Winery, would it? Situated in the centre of Holy Island village, the winery has been open since 1968 and tempts some 200,000 visitors into its shop each year with the promise of free tasters of the mead that it is justly famous for. Lindisfarne Mead is a unique fortified wine produced exclusively on the island; mead is its simplest form is just fermented honey and water, but this particular mead is vatted with grape juice and herbs to give it a distinctive flavour. Mead has for centuries been renowned as an aphrodisiac, and the word honeymoon is apparently derived from the ancient Viking custom of having newly-weds drink mead for a whole moon (month) in order to increase their fertility, and therefore their chances of a happy and fulfilled marriage. I did partake of a free taster of the mead and found it to be very rich and smooth (and rather strong), but a bit too sweet for my tastes so I declined to buy a bottle…despite its intriguing claims.
Also on offer was a free taster of St Aidan Cream Liqueur. Never one to pass up a free sample, I gave it a try and found it to be absolutely delicious, similar to Baileys but slightly creamier and less strong (well worth trying).
The winery shop is of a good size, and sells not just the mead and cream liqueur – there is an excellent selection of locally brewed beers, Lindisfarne fruit wines, preserves, confectionary (including Lindisfarne fudge) and an impressive array of Scotch and Irish whiskeys. I settled on a bag of cherry fudge for around £1.50 (which I highly recommend) and a jar of marmalade with Lindisfarne Liqueur (at a not unreasonable £1.79). At the time I was visiting the premises was undergoing major building works in preparation for the summer season, so I did not perhaps see it in the best light, but given the excellent (and largely fairly priced) stock, this is certainly worth popping into while you’re on the island. You can see the range of products and buy online at: www.lindisfarne-mead.co.uk. I could not find any information on opening hours, but I suspect that this varies depending on when the causeway is accessible, and would expect it to be open daily as with other island attractions.
Impressively sited atop a volcanic mount known as Beblowe Craig, Lindisfarne castle manages both to be ruggedly stunningly and romantically picturesque at the same time. On an otherwise fairly flat island, the castle is visible for a considerable distance around, and commands an impressive view over Lindisfarne village, the bay and surrounding coastline. Following the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII, the castle was built in the 1550s using stones from the demolished priory (just typical of Henry, really). The Tudor fort was built to secure the bay where English ships sheltered during the wars with Scotland. The accession of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 united the two kingdoms and brought peace to the borders, so Lindisfarne Castle lost its importance as a fort within decades of being built. However, a small garrison remained at the castle until the late 19th century, and I’m sure they were less pleased than the monks at the isolation of it.
In 1901, Edward Hudson (founder of “Country Life” magazine) discovered the castle going to ruin and negotiated its purchase from the Crown, with the intention of turning it into a holiday home. The famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was brought in for this work in 1902, and began his conversion of the castle to create the Edwardian country house that the National Trust now owns. The castle is also well known for its walled garden (originally the fort's vegetable garden but re-designed by noted landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll in 1911 as part of the conversion), which lies some 500m to the north of the castle. Her plans were recreated by the National Trust and re-planted for the 2003 season. The garden was intended to be enjoyed over the summer, when the castle was occupied as a holiday home, so in early April all that was visible was a few tufts of daffodils. Photographs suggest it is a wonderful sight if you visit at the right time, though.
Ever a fan of castles, I was keen to visit this one, especially given its association with two of the Edwardian era’s most noted designers. The castle lies about a mile outside of the village, and is best walked to; if I had not been on foot, then I would have missed the seals playing in the bay! The approach to the entrance is made up a steep slope, and once you have climbed it, you then have to negotiate your way past the rather hefty entrance price and some terribly enthusiastic National Trust employees on a recruitment drive to actually reach the entrance. The castle itself is fairly small once you get close up, and is decorated in the Edwardian style of Lutyens, with only limited references to the earlier history of the building. I felt the interpretation was lacking; discreet laminated cards in each room merely listed the objects that could be seen without telling the visitor anything about them, and there were only three stewards on duty, making accessing further information from them difficult given the fact it was a busy day. I appreciate what the National Trust is aiming for it the minimalist interpretation it uses in its properties, but I find it frustrating that I am expected to cough up for an expensive guidebook if I want to know any more than the fact the mirror I am looking at is a Chippendale. It is the “so what” factor: why are these things interesting and important, what about the people who lived and worked here? It is a Chippendale – so what? I was a little disappointed by the castle and was rather glad that as a member I had not paid to get in…although having said that, the views across the bay to Bamburgh castle from the mount were truly breathtaking.
Also to be seen at the castle is one of the island’s quirkier landmarks: the upturned boat sheds. The use of old boats as sheds once their sailing days are over is an East Coast tradition that has survived on Holy Island alongside a small fishing industry (there are many spots on the island selling Lindisfarne crab to visitors, which my Other Half assures me is delicious). The National Trust has sourced and recently reopened suitable replacements for the boat sheds, one of which has a small display in it about the significance of the boats to the local community, and is worth a look in after visiting the castle.
The castle site is unfortunately as lacking in visitor facilities as the priory, with only an “emergency toilet” (the mind boggles…) available and the NT shop being situated back in the village. Anyone with mobility problems would struggle with the steep entrance and narrow staircases of the castle, and I am doubtful that any visitor in a wheelchair could get any further than the entrance. Opening hours vary according to the tidal causeway crossing times, but the NT flag flies from the castle when it is open.
Opening times: 17th March to 28th October, times vary, Tuesday to Sunday
27th to 30th December, 10.30am to 3pm, daily
16th to 24th February, times vary, daily
Open Bank Holiday Mondays, including Scottish Bank Holidays
Prices: National Trust members free
Garden only £1 adults, children free
Further information: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-find aplace/w-lindisfarnecastle/
Ultimately, I had a wonderful day out on Lindisfarne and was very lucky with the weather – I really wouldn’t have fancied attempting the causeway in the fog that often hangs around the island. Having said that though, I bet the island takes on a whole new level of mystery when it becomes wrapped in mist, and the setting becomes even more dramatic than it is in sunshine. It was well worth the wait for a day with good crossing times, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the village, seeing the historical sites, and walking around a truly gorgeous stretch of coastline. There was a visitor centre in the village with displays about traditional island life and the Lindisfarne gospels that I would have liked to visit, but I ran out of time to leave before the causeway was flooded, and so I think that will have to wait until a future visit. And I certainly will visit again, although everything suggests that peak season is perhaps not the most pleasant time to do so as I would imagine the island could get congested quite easily. Visitors are well catered for on Lindisfarne, with plenty of food at a range of prices on hand, a large and well-maintained car park, and quality souvenirs to be bought (and drunk). It really is a must for anyone in this area interested in history, especially Christian history, and I can appreciate the religious significance of Holy Island, even though I am a little heathen at heart. On the downside, you do need a car to visit, the crossing times can sometimes be awkward, and it is not the best place for visitors who couldn’t really manage to be walking all day. It is also quite pricey for anyone isn’t a paid up member of the National Trust and/or English Heritage.
Still, I would happily recommend Lindisfarne for a day trip for history buffs and nature lovers alike. Just go easy on the mead!
General visiting information: www.lindisfarne.org.uk
Tide tables: www.northumberland.gov.uk/vg/tidetabl.html
Summary: A great day out for history and nature fans...but don't get stranded by the tides!