Posted by: christinelaennec | July 19, 2012

Holy Island, Northumberland

During our week in Northumberland, we were lucky enough to get across to Holy Island, one of the islands off the East Coast of Northumberland, not too far south of Berwick-upon-Tweed and the border between England and Scotland (map here).  Holy Island (also known as the Holy Island of Lindisfarne) received its name because for centuries it’s been a centre of Christian worship in one form or another.  You can drive across, but only during two periods every 24 hours when the tide is low enough:

Setting out to drive over the 3-mile causeway to Holy Island.  I think the water on the road was from the recent heavy rains, not from the tides.

As we drove, the Dafter exlaimed, fondly, “It’s just like Harris!”

Two goofy tourists!

Once you’ve navigated the three miles of causeway, you soon arrive at a huge car park (Pay-and-Display £3.50!).  The day we went, the tides were low all afternoon and into the early evening, and the car park was very full.  Then you walk up a beautiful tree-lined street into the Village:

The Village, Holy Island, Northumberland. July 2012.

From what I could see in my wee walks around, there are a lot of beautiful walled gardens.  And, although it rains on the just and the unjust, guess what?  It stopped raining and at some points the sun actually came out!!!  We stopped for refreshments in this beautiful place:

Passageway to “The Stables” coffeeshop, Holy Island, Northumberland. July 2012.

Then we visited the Lindisfarne Centre, which is a museum run by the community.  It has two main displays:  one about the Viking raids on the island, and one about the Lindisfarne Gospels.  And here’s where I’ll try to tell you a very short version of the history of the island.  We’ll begin in the year 635, when St. Aiden came across from Iona on the West Coast of Scotland, and founded a monastery on Holy Island.  He and his followers converted many in Northumbria to Christianity.  Legend has it that when St. Aiden died in 651, a shepherd boy named Cuthbert had a vision of Aiden’s death.  Cuthbert became a monk and came to Holy Island.  During the 7th and 8th century the monks, like those in Iona who are thought to have made the Book of Kells under St. Columba’s direction, produced illuminated manuscripts.  The most famous of these are the Lindisfarne Gospels, now in the British Library in London.

The first Viking raids came at the end of the 8th century.  The monks fled, taking the body of St. Cuthbert with them.  (He now lies in Durham Cathedral.)  However, Vikings notwithstanding, there continued to be a monastery on the island until Henry VIII dissolved all the monasteries in England.  Holy Island continues to be a place of Christian pilgrimage and retreat.

We all enjoyed the display telling about the Lindisfarne Gospels.  And I was astonished and awed by two quilts inspired by the Gospels:

Amazing quilt no 1 in Lindisfarne Centre, Holy Island, Northumberland. I’m not certain who made it – quite possibly Joan Tunstall?

The Celtic knotwork and designs are made of the most delicate applique you can imagine, and the hand-quilting is really astonishing:

Amazing quilt no. 2, made and donated by Joan Tunstall. Lindisfarne Centre, Holy Island, Northumberland. July 2012.

A close-up:

Detail of Amazing quilt no. 2 by Joan Tunstall. Lindisfarne Centre, Holy Island, Northumberland.

The Lindisfarne Gospels continue to inspire contemporary artists, including Mary Fleeson at the Lindisfarne Scriptorium.  I can recommend her colouring books!  Good for prayer and meditation.

In the Village we came across this lovely garden, St. Cuthbert’s Garden:

St. Cuthbert’s Garden, Holy Island, Northumberland. July 2012.

On the edge of the Village is the church of St. Mary’s of Holy Island, to the left of this very inviting road:

Road at the edge of The Village, with the gate to St. Mary’s Church to the left of the photo.

These trees are proof that there must be strong winds on the island – hence the many walled gardens, I suppose.

Wind-bent trees in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Church, Holy Island, Northumberland. July 2012.

I didn’t have time to explore, but here is a quick snap of the remains of Lindisfarne Priory, begun in the 12th century.  Apparently quite a lot remains of the monks’ quarters – I will go next time!

Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Northumberland. July 2012.

Lindisfarne Castle, which is what you see from the train between Edinburgh and Newcastle, is actually not as old as the Priory.  It was begun in 1550, and is now known for having been refashioned by Edwin Lutyens, with a garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll.  Yet another thing to see next time!

Statue of St. Aiden, looking over to Lindisfarne Castle. Holy Island, Northumberland. July 2012.

For a bit more on the history of the island, plus a nice poem by Sir Walter Scott, click here.

Tide Tables on prominent display, the Village, Holy Island, Northumberland.

We thought the whole place was very picturesque and welcoming.  Michael and I longed to come back for a quiet retreat, and the Dafter was happy to have visited it and to get back to broadband access.  I liked the Tide Tables posted for all to see, like a bus schedule.  And, as time and tide wait for no man, it was time to go home, down the tree-lined avenue to the emptying car park:

Time to go home: walking back to the car park at the edge of the Village, Holy Island, Northumberland.

This field of poppies was a beautiful red haze behind the village – it made me think of Monet’s painting Les Coquelicots:

Field of poppies beyond the Village, Holy Island, Northumberland. July 2012.

According to the guidebook in our cottage, if you take a problem to Holy Island, it will stay there.  Upon hearing this, the Dafter said, “Let’s go!”  I think there are many places where one can take a problem and leave it – starting with our own minds and hearts.  But the atmosphere of Holy Island was so peaceful that the three of us all felt it as a very special place.

I’m already looking forward to my next trip.  For anyone who is about to go, have a great time!  If you post your cards from the post office, they will be stamped Holy Island.  (But only taken off the island when the tides are right.)



  1. I feel more peaceful just reading this lovely post. xx

  2. PS. I just bought a colouring book, and some pens. I actually ordered them from A**z*n, as the postage was free. I’m looking forward to a new way of contemplative prayer. Thanks for sharing. xx

  3. What beautiful photos and a truly charming place! You have certainly whetted my appetite for a visit with that entrance to the coffee shop and the lovely flower-filled lanes. I think I might like to stay on the island itself, are there B&Bs? I see they rake in the shekels with the car park, but fair enough I suppose, a good way of getting a little income from tourists. Those quilts are, as you say, amazing and it looks altogether a very peaceful place. I’m sold!

    • Please note, the car parking fees go to the County Council rather than the island.

  4. These photos are lovely and you’ve got me very much yearning to do some more exploring of these fair isles — we take so much beauty for granted living in such green lands. Thanks for sharing and i’m glad it was a time of peace for you all.

  5. I will confess I did not know there was an actual village there. Somehow I thought there were just ruined buildings! You live and learn!

  6. Super post, Christine. We made it to this neck of the woods several years back but, with limited time, found ourselves caught between tides.

  7. What a beautiful place! I love Lutyens. It would be delightful if you toured LIndisfarne Castle (and photographed, if possible) the next time you get there!

  8. I love the beautiful gardens and those quilts are so amazing. Interesting that you can only come and go during low tides! Is there a ferry? I love the history of this island; certainly a very unique place in this world! It looks like you had a very nice visit! xx

  9. I LOVE LINDISFARNE! One of my favorite places in all of the UK.

  10. so fantastic. thanks, Christine, for a look at the island. like Fiona, i had pictured only an abbey and older buildings there. i didn’t know there was an actual village. i am glad they have the tides posted! i think i’d be a little nervous otherwise. the quilts are amazing. i particularly like the second one. it looks like a very peaceful place to be. it reminds me of my trip to Iona this year.

    • Hi ajb, your comment appeared once I’d posted my reply to the others! I’m not surprised that Holy Island reminded you of Iona. As you know, Iona is somewhere I long to go. One day!

  11. Dear all,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. I’d love to go back there.

    Tina – I’m so glad you like the idea of the colouring books as an aid to prayer! Mary Sleeson’s designs are thought-provoking and far from simple.

    Lorna – Yes, there are B&Bs on Holy Island. And you would have enjoyed The Stables, I’m sure. As Mark has pointed out, the money from the car park goes to the County Council and not straight to the islanders. On reflection, I imagine that it takes quite a lot of money to keep the causeway in good repair, as it’s flooded twice a day.

    Laura – As an immigrant to this country, I still can’t quite understand why anyone would want to holiday anywhere else! I don’t require hot weather for my holidays and I do love the green of Britain, not to mention the variety of landscapes, cultures and languages here.

    Fiona – There are both!

    Martin – It does take a bit of planning but I hope you get the chance to go back.

    almostnothingbutmusic – Yes indeed. I like Lutyens/Jekyll as well.

    Karen – Yes, it really is a unique place. I believe it was chosen by the early monks because they wanted a place of retreat (or even to live like hermits at times and in some cases). The islands of the North East coast of England were perfect for their purposes (like other islands off the coast of Britain and Ireland). Clearly they didn’t always live in retreat, as they converted a lot of people including I believe the King of Northumbria.

    There isn’t a ferry, I suppose because the water isn’t deep enough for one when it does come up. There’s a raised hut on stilts about half-way across the causeway for those who misjudge and don’t make it. I wonder if they will eventually build a raised causeway, such as they have in the Western Isles (between North Uist and Benbecula for example)? That would make it so much less interesting to be on the island!

    Paula – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. An afternoon visit surely doesn’t do the place justice.

  12. Ooh lovely! We had a holiday in Northumberland 14 years ago – gosh, that long! – but didn’t get to Holy Island. Your photos really give a sense of place. I noticed lots of valerian (centranthrus ruber) in your photos. Very pretty unless you want to get rid of it in which case it won’t budge.

    Have you read ‘One Summer’s Grace’, by Libby Purves? The account of her family’s round Britain sailing trip when her children were small. Very much worth a read but very sad in restrospect now because of the death of her son in his early 20s.

    • Yes, isn’t it just too weird how the years go by and you starting thinking about things that happened a certain number of years ago?! No, I haven’t read that book by Libby Purves. Sailing around Britain with small children sounds like the equivalent of Going to the moon with small children to me. She’s an incredibly versatile woman. And it’s very sad about her son.

  13. Amazing place to visit and I love that you can only drive across during set times of the day! I especially liked the photo of the dafter and your husband!

  14. […] Holy Island, Northumberland ( […]

  15. Thanks so much for posting this, Christine. I have spent a good bit of time enjoying this post… hopping from one reference link to another. The setting you photographed and the history of it is amazing [ the quilts are incredible!]. I am eager to use a coloring book from Holy Island as an aid to times of contemplative prayer. Blessings to you and yours xx

    • Glad you enjoyed this little glimpse of such a very special place, Gracie. I would just love to go back!

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