Friday, November 7, 2014

Lindisfarne: England’s Holy Island and its Viking history

Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island  (wikipedia)
YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND  When the Vikings landed on Lindisfarne in 793 A.D., they changed the course of English history forever.

Also known as Holy Island, Lindisfarne, which measures slightly more than a mile in length and just over two miles in width, nestles just off the Northumberland coast of England near the border of Scotland

Driving the causeway to Lindisfarne  (wikipedia)
By day strong tides from the mainland separate Lindisfarne and turn it into the sort of romantic destination curious travelers seek to satisfy their wanderlust spirit. It’s a place that must be pursued rather than arrive in as a result of a happy accident.

Because of its tiny size and limited number of attractions, most visitors are day-trippers here. Unless you intentionally plan to spend the night at the Holy Island a visit becomes an adventurous challenge of beginning and ending this journey before the tide rolls in to make you a “prisoner” for roughly six hours
Majestic Lindisfarne Castle  (wikipedia)
Whether you choose to walk or to drive, the key to a successful excursion is checking tide schedules and weather reports. In general, the causeway, which is really nothing more than a narrow strip of tarmac across the sea floor, is open three hours after high tide until two hours before the next high tide.

Once there, however, Lindisfarne is a medieval delight with its pastoral sheep-laden settings, ancient ruins, hilltop castle and quaint village shops and cafes. Among the most popular delicacies are the crab sandwiches, for which local diners also slog their way to the island to enjoy.

Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory  (wikipedia)

The priory, now a ruin after much of it was pillaged to create the castle, was founded by the Irish monk St. Aiden in 635. For nearly 150 years it was a Christian base in northern England and a refuge of sublime isolation until the Vikings arrived with their fierce warring bands of marauders.

Before the Vikings, the patron saint of Northumberland, Saint Cuthbert, became Bishop of Lindisfarne. His life and miracles were significant enough to be recorded by the Venerable Bede, a scholarly monk at a Northumbrian monastery who was the first English church historian.

Viking raids changed history at Lindisfarne  (wikimedia)
Viking raids brought havoc to the region and by 875 the monks fled the island along with St. Cuthbert’s bones, which are now interred at Durham Cathedral.

As one scholar in Charlemagne’s court wrote about the Viking raids, “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race…The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled bodies of saints in the temple of God.”

Lindisfarne was mostly a fishing and farming community for centuries. But it also had an important lime burning industry with kilns considered to be among the most advanced in the region. Though abandoned after the Industrial Revolution, the wagon roads and pathways between the quarries and kilns still exist and are now an enjoyable walking tour for visitors.

Priory ruins on Holy Island  (wikipedia)
When the monastery was at its peak, Holy Island was, and remains today, known for its mead. Lindisfarne’s ancient grog was said to fortify the body for doing God’s work. The secret recipe is closely guarded by family at St. Aidan’s Winery, which still produces the drink and distributes it throughout the UK.

Carving at Holy Island, Yorkshire, England  (wikimedia)
The other significant landmark on the island is Lindisfarne Castle built atop a volcanic mound known as Beblowe Craig. Constructed in the 1550s from the stones of the priory when Henry VIII was ridding the country of its monasteries, the castle is reminiscent of Mont St. Michel in France. Though considerably smaller, and not nearly as majestic as its French cousin, the setting for Lindisfarne Castle makes it one of the most distinct and picturesque features of the island that otherwise sweeps to the sea with green meadows and grazing sheep.

Thanks to the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, bird watching is among the most popular pursuits on the island. With nearly 9,000 acres of land, visitors can observe more than 300 species of birds together with a brilliant display of marine life.

Part of what makes Lindisfarne relatively obscure is its isolation, which is also much of its charm.

Lindisfarne: Getting There

The best way to arrive is by train to the mainline station at Berwick-upon-Tweed. From London take the Edinburgh GNER line from King’s Cross Station.

Berwick-upon-Tweed, by the way, is the last English town before Scotland.

There is public bus service from the railway station to the island, but the frequency varies so it is probably better to take a taxi.

If you are driving, take the A1 to Beal and then turn east toward Holy Island. Beal is about 8 miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed and roughly 5 miles to the causeway for Lindisfarne.

Holy Island and Lindisfarne at high tide  (wikipedia)
While it is a bit tricky to reach, and not to everyone’s liking, for those who enjoy exploration and discovery, Lindisfarne Island is a marvelous place for an outing. It is small in size, but long in history, literature and music.