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The castle stands on a rock and is the most outstanding feature on the small island. It's a pleasant walk from parking and there is plenty to see on the way there and back. It is only open from noon until 4:30 PM and the road to the island is only open at low tide (plan your coming and going), but the castle is charming and the views from the top are amazing.
It's windy so take a jacket.
Written Feb 14, 2013
Address: Holy Island, Berwick-upon-Tweed, TD15 2SH
Phone: 01289 389244
Situated in the heart of the small village, the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory define what Holy Island is all about.
The first monastery here was founded by St Aidan in 635 AD, and his statue stands among the ruins as a memorial to the Irish missionary who restored Christianity to Northumberland after the Anglo-Saxons had driven Roman Christian beliefs from the land. But it is St Cuthbert, who became its bishop about fifty years later, for whom the priory is perhaps most known. When he died in 687 he was buried here and as a result the priory became something of a place of pilgrimage. On transferring his remains to a pilgrim shrine 11 years later, the monks found them still undecayed, which was regarded as a sure sign of sanctity. Sainthood increased believers’ devotion to his memory, and more pilgrims followed.
But the rich monastery on an isolated island was a prime target for Viking raiders who pillaged this cost over the succeeding centuries. Indeed, it was one of these raids that gave the island its epithet, “Holy”. The Anglo-Saxons had called it Lindisfarne, but following a particularly murderous and bloodthirsty attack on the monastery by Vikings in 793, Durham monks observed: “Lindisfarne – baptised in the blood of so many good men - truly a “Holy Island”.
In 875, as a result of these repeated attacks, the monks left. They took with them St. Cuthbert's remains, which after long wanderings through northern England were enshrined in Durham Cathedral in 1104, where they still rest. An evocative modern sculpture in the island’s St Mary’s Church, reproduced in bronze in Durham cathedral, commemorates the carrying of St Cuthbert’s coffin to Durham.
In 1150 Benedictine monks from Durham returned to Holy Island and built a new priory here. This was to survive until Henry VIII closed it in 1537, destroying the buildings and using some of the stones to build the island’s castle.
Today only a skeleton of the formerly imposing church remains, its so-called “rainbow arch” an evocative remnant of a vault-rib of the now-vanished tower. Around it are the foundations of the monastic buildings – kitchen, refectory, chapter house, cloister etc. With a little imagination you can start to visualise what life would have been like for this remote religious community – devoting their lives to the worship of God in this magical, spiritual place.
One of these monks was also responsible for one of the great religious treasures of England, the beautiful illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels. These are currently held in the British Library in London, though there is a school of thought that argues that they should be returned, if not to Lindisfarne, at least to the north-east (Durham Cathedral, perhaps?) Meanwhile they can be “seen” digitally in the village’s small Heritage Centre (on Marygate) through the British Library’s innovative “Turning the Pages” technology – see the link on their website here.
A small museum next to the Priory has displays about the creation of the Gospels as well as Christian tradition on the island and the history of the Priory. Admission to this is included in the price of your ticket – currently (summer 2012) £4.90 for adults, £4.40 concessions and £2.90 for children (5-15 years). Opening times vary a lot by season so check the website below before visiting.
Next door to the Priory is the parish church of St Mary’s, subject of my next tip.
Updated Aug 29, 2012
Immediately next door to the Priory is the parish church of the island, St Mary’s. This stands on the site of a wooden church built by St. Aidan in 635 AD, which was later replaced by a small stone church. When the Benedictine monks of Durham began to build the second monastery in the 12th century they decided this should be the parish church of the village, a role it has performed ever since. It has been enlarged several times (in the 12th and 13th centuries) but parts of the original Saxon church still remain in one wall.
Over the centuries it fell into some disrepair but was thoroughly restored in the 1860s, largely to the state we now see, though the plastering of the interior walls, done then, has since been removed. The church oozes history, and is in fact the oldest building on the Island with a roof on it! There is no charge to visit, and a leaflet describing the main features can be picked up for free – however, an old building like this costs money to maintain, especially when battered by the harsh North Sea winter winds, so do leave a donation.
There is a lot to see in the church. I especially liked “The Journey” – a modern wooden carving (by Fenwick Lawson) of six monks carrying St Cuthbert’s body from the island on a journey across the north of England to keep it safe during the times of the Viking raids on this region (see photo four).
Look out too for the carpets designed by local women, inspired by the Lindisfarne Gospels, and for the many reminders of Saints Aidan and Cuthbert, including the reredos (altar screen).
It is not far from the church to St Cuthbert’s Isle, subject of my next tip.
Updated Aug 27, 2012
Just off the south west tip of Holy Island is another, tiny island, known as St Cuthbert’s Isle. At low tide you can walk out to it over the rocks. It was here that the saint, feeling the call to become a hermit, tested that calling by living in total isolation from the rest of the monastic community. After a period here he moved to nearby Inner Farne (one of a group of islands to the south of Holy Island), where he lived as total recluse for about ten years, before reluctantly returning to Lindisfarne when asked to become its bishop.
St Cuthbert’s Isle is marked by a cross and has the remains of a chapel once dedicated to its famous inhabitant and namesake, and mentioned as such by Bede, who wrote a Life of St Cuthbert. The current remains however are probably those of a later 13th century building. To the north-west of the chapel is small circular mound which may be the remains of a small circular house, possibly used by St Cuthbert, but this is largely speculation.
On the south side of the island you can often see seals. I didn’t see any on this visit, but I did hear them. One evening we took a (rather spooky) walk around the church and through the graveyard, accompanied by a haunting wailing which grew louder as we approached the wall overlooking St Cuthbert’s Isle. Although in darkness, we knew the island was there and realised that the sound we could hear must be the seals on its shore.
On the beach opposite the island you can, if you look carefully enough, find Cuddy’s Beads, subject of my next tip.
Written Aug 27, 2012
The spur of higher land south of the Priory, known as the Heugh, offers wonderful views of the island (especially the church and Priory), and the surrounding seas. From here you can easily see the small group of islands known collectively as the Farnes, a little to the south, and the castle at Bamburgh.
At the highest point are the ruins of an old coastguard station and its lookout tower, which when we visited (summer 2012) was being repaired and apparently having a glassed-in viewing platform added – this should be a very welcome addition in winter though it might be argued that its modern appearance is a little incongruous here.
At one time there would have been a fort here, known as Osborne’s Fort, built in the 17th century to protect the harbour from Dutch privateers. It didn’t last for long and was already in a state of disrepair by 1742. Only a small ruined tower remains, at the eastern end of the point overlooking the castle (see photo three), but this is enough to give you a sense of how the island was protected by the combination of fort and castle.
Also on the Heugh is the island’s War Memorial, a Celtic Cross in pink sandstone designed by Edwin Lutyens (the architect who rebuilt Lindisfarne castle) and erected in 1919 to commemorate the eight islanders who died in the First World War. Later, the names of three more, victims of World War Two, were added.
To reach the Heugh take the path from the village square past the Crown and Anchor pub, through the revolving gates and across the field. At the far side turn right up the path to the Heugh. After exploring here, descend by the same path but instead of turning to cross the field back to the village, walk straight ahead to reach the busy working fishing beach or Ouse, subject of my next tip.
Written Aug 27, 2012
It is easy, but inaccurate, to think of the stony beach to the east of the village as Holy Island’s harbour. In fact, the sea to the south of the island is known the Harbour, while this is known locally as the Ouse, or even referred to by locals simply as the Beach.
At its southern end is a low stone jetty which you walk along for more good views of the harbour. This is also where the boats bringing day-trippers from Seahouses (a small coastal town to the south) moor. At low tide the sea retreats to leave a bay of mud-flats, a haven for sea birds and waders.
For me this is one of the most photogenic spots on the island. The old boats are full of colour, there are great views of the village and even more so of the castle. But this is not a tourist attraction – the people of Holy Island have been fishing these waters for centuries and continue to do so today, much as they have always done. This isn’t industrialised fishing, but somewhat small-scale and local. Nevertheless it forms an important part of the island’s economy, and local fish (especially crab and lobster) are a sought-after item on all the island restaurants’ menus. You will see crab sandwiches, in particular, for sale all over the island – do try them, they are delicious!
Traditionally though the fishing here would have been for herring, as it was along much of this north east coast, using the local “keel boats” immortalised in the Geordie song, “The Keel Row”:
” As I came thro' Sandgate,
Thro' Sandgate, thro' Sandgate,
As I came thro' Sandgate,
I heard a lassie sing:
'O, weel may the keel row,
The keel row,
The keel row,
O weel may the keel row
That my laddie's in.'
[Sandgate is part of the Newcastle Quayside, and “weel may the keel row” means “well may the keel boat row”]
The herring fishing trade dried up in the early part of the 20th century, as Holy Island lost out to bigger ports in the region, but some remnants of the old keel boats can be seen, adapted for use as sheds – the subject of my next tip.
Written Aug 27, 2012
If you follow the path from the village past the castle (rather than climb the hill up to it) and look to your right, you will see a fenced off area and a sign warning of danger around the tops of the lime kilns. Walk a little further and down the slope beyond, and you will be able to see and access the kilns in safety.
These lime kilns were built in the 1860’s and were the largest of several similar operations on the island during the 19th century, and the only ones to be preserved. Also still evident are the remains of the staithes or jetties where ships would bring the coal for the process and take away the lime (see the photos in my tip on the castle). And you can still trace the old wagon-ways linking the jetties to the kilns, and the kilns to the north side of the island where the limestone was quarried – one of these wagon-ways now forms a track used by walkers to access the north shore and its dunes.
Lime kilns were used to produce quicklime. A carefully controlled burn reduced limestone to powder. This was used mainly as fertilizer and for mortar and lime-wash for buildings. You can easily see, inside the kilns, the old ovens where coal was burned to heat the limestone (photo three). Horses would have carried the limestone from the quarry on the north side of the island here to the lime kilns on the south (built here to be near the harbour) and labourers would push the cart to the top of the pots (the area now fenced off) in order to spare the horse the heat coming from the kilns. Horses would also drag the coal from the ships moored at the staithes to the kilns, where it would be burnt at exactly the right temperature to create the reaction and separate the quicklime from the stone. The latter would then be carried back to the staithes for export.
There’s a good, detailed description of the process in the National Trust’s leaflet about the kilns:
”In the kilns, limestone and coal were added in layers at the top of each pot at a ratio of about five to one, to allow for even burning. As quicklime was removed from the drawing arches at the base of the kiln, another layer of stone and coal was added at the top. Once loaded (which took several days) the kilns were lit and the fire would spread upwards. The hottest part of the kiln was the ‘burning zone’, just above the top of the drawing arches. Air entering the kiln was carefully regulated - a highly skilled operation. The kilnsman’s eye was critical to the success of the venture; too hot or too cold and the desired reaction would not take place.
The limestone (calcium carbonate) was heated at between 800-1000 degrees Celsius. This produced quicklime (calcium oxide). Adding water to quicklime would result in a violent reaction and produce slaked lime (calcium hydroxide). The work was dangerous, and men at the kilns would have often received caustic burns. The dust if inhaled caused lung damage and could in some cases cause blindness.”
But the industry didn’t last. While one in five of the island men worked in the industry in the 1860s, by the 1880s only one man was working at the kilns and four at the quarry. This is probably because the lime industry on the mainland was able to use the quick and efficient coastal railways for transport, and Lindisfarne couldn’t compete. The kilns fell into disuse and by the end of the 19th century operations here had ceased.
It seems incongruous to visualise such “heavy industry” taking place in this peaceful rural setting, but to do so gives you a vivid sense of a particular period of life on the island – a contrast with the early spiritual time of the monks; the violence of Viking raids and later, the dissolution of the monastery by Henry VIII; and with today’s buzz of visiting tourists.
To escape the latter more fully, head to the north shore of the island, subject of my next tip.
Updated Aug 27, 2012
From a distance Lindisfarne Castle looks to be an ancient impregnable fortress, but appearances can be deceiving. Closer inspection reveals a building of two parts – its fortified ramparts crowned by an Edwardian era family home! The castle was originally a Tudor fort, built in Henry VIII’s time from the stones of the monastery he destroyed, and part of the national defence for three centuries. Left to fall into ruins when no longer needed for defence, it was converted into a private house in 1903 by the then-young architect Edwin Lutyens – a holiday home for Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life magazine (though rather grand by the standards of most holiday homes!)
You can visit the interior and see the largely intact Arts and Crafts movement designs of Lutyens. But this is something we’ve never yet done, preferring on the whole the outdoor attractions of the island. But whether or not you plan to go inside, a walk along the one mile track that leads here is well worth doing in order to get a closer look at the building, and some great photo opportunities. To get these shots of the castle with the remains of the old jetty (once used to bring coal to the nearby lime-kilns), come at low tide and scramble over the rocks to the right of the track, just before the castle gate.
The castle sits on the highest point on an otherwise pretty flat island, adding to the sense of drama and making it visible from pretty much anywhere on the southern side of the island. This is an outcrop of the Whin Sill, a line of very hard igneous rock running across northern England (nearby Bamburgh Castle sits on another outcrop, as do stretches of Hadrian’s Wall).
If you want to go inside, 2012 admission prices are £6.30 for adults, £3.15 for children, and £15.80 for a family ticket. Bear in mind that there’s a steep climb up to the castle so it probably isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or anyone of limited mobility. However the path to it from the village is flat, and there’s a shuttle bus which runs during high season, though only when the causeway is open.
Whether going into the castle or not, you can visit (and pay separately for) its garden, subject of my next tip.
Written Aug 27, 2012
A short distance north of the castle, across a field, is a small walled garden. This was formerly the site of a vegetable patch which provided the soldiers with food. When Lutyens was commissioned to convert the castle to family home, he brought in his friend Gertrude Jekyll to design a new garden. Although originally she intended this to be a vegetable garden like its forebear, she later changed her plans to create instead a flower garden, and it is these plans that the National Trust gardeners still follow and plant to today.
Because this was a holiday home for Edward Hudson and his family, the garden is designed to be especially colourful in July and August. When we visited in late August it was a riot of colour, and all the more striking for its location on this fairly bleak, rocky island.
Admission to the garden is included in the price of the visit to the castle. If you want to visit the garden alone, there’s a fee of £1.50, collected through an honesty box at the garden gate. You can in fact see quite a lot by just looking over the low walls, but it’s better to support the work of the National Trust by making the payment just the same.
Before leaving the area around the castle, be sure to visit the Castle Point lime kilns, subject of my next tip.
Written Aug 27, 2012
The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded by Irish monk Saint Aidan, who had been sent from Iona off the west coast of Scotland to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald ca. AD 635. 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 the Venerable Bede. Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. He was buried here, his remains later translated to Durham Cathedral (along with the relics of Saint Eadfrith of Lindisfarne). Eadberht of Lindisfarne, the next bishop (and Saint) was buried in the place from which Cuthbert's body was exhumed earlier the same year when the priory was abandoned in the late ninth century.
In 793, a Viking raid on Lindisfarne caused much consternation throughout the Christian west, and is now often taken as the beginning of the Viking Age. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:
"In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and on January 8th the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne."
Written Apr 22, 2012