The Lindisfarne Heritage Centre stands on the south side of Marygate, the main street running through the village on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. The very modest frontage is deceptive. Pass through the front door and you find yourself in a large space that combines the functions of visitor information centre for the island and a shop selling a wide range of attractive and tasteful goods. And beyond is a fascinating series of exhibitions for which a small admission charge is made.
The exhibitions, which extend off to the side and to the rear of the shop, have three central and very contrasting themes. The first is all about island life. Here you can find out about the flora and fauna of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and look at the diverse habitats of dunes, beaches and cultivated fields, plus the (periodically) surrounding sea and intertidal mud. The place of man in the landscape is also explored, with the story of the struggle to carve out a living from a beautiful but economically unpromising landscape, primarily through farming, fishing and mining. The highlight of this part of the exhibition for us was an interactive model of the island, with the different habitats illuminated.
The second theme of the exhibitions in the centre looks at the Vikings on Lindisfarne. For the community living on the island at the time, the world changed profoundly in 793, when the monastery at Lindisfarne was raided by Vikings. They went on to play an important role in the story of the island. Your initial encounter is with a fearsome warrior and the prow of his ship in the first room of the exhibition. Beyond is an audio visual theatre in which a film telling the story of the Viking raids on Lindisfarne, and their effect on the later history of the island is shown. This is narrated by archeologist Julian Richards and the film comes over in an entertaining, accessible, and informative way.
The most important of the exhibitions in the Heritage Centre is about the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Gospels comprise a manuscript of the New Testament in Latin which occupies 258 pages of vellum made from the skins of around 150 calves. The Gospels are believed to be the work of, or produced under the direction of, a monk called Eadfrith, who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 and died in 721. It is believed that the Gospels were produced in honour of Saint Cuthbert, and although opinions differ to a degree, the most likely date of creation is thought to be around 715. The Gospels are elaborately illustrated and were originally bound in fine leather covered in jewels.
The Lindisfarne Gospels are regarded to be one of the masterpieces of early medieval art, and are today held by the British Library. What you find in the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre is a beautiful facsimile of the original book presented to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne by the British Library, together with an interactive display that allows you to "turn the pages" and explore the content of the Gospels. This area forms the real heart of the Centre's exhibitions, and has a suitably reverential and ecclesiastical feel. The facsimile of the Gospels is held in a transparent box placed in what looks and feels like the apse of a church. Other exhibits help demonstrate the artistic inspiration for the decoration of the Gospels, while an outer sanctum tells the story of the creation of the Gospels and helps set them in context.
Almost opposite the Heritage Centre, on the north side of Marygate, where it will gain full benefit from the sun, is the Lindisfarne Gospels Garden, which it is fair to think of as an outdoor extension to the centre. This beautiful and, depending on the number of visitors you are sharing it with, tranquil space seeks to reflect the spirit of the Lindisfarne Gospels in living form. In summer, with everything in bloom, the most obvious features, beyond the flowers and plants themselves, are the wooden "stone" cross towards the rear of the garden, and its metal counterpart on one side. At the rear of the garden is a fine reredos (the sort of feature you'd expect behind an altar in an Anglican church). This one is topped off with an arch intended to represent the Rainbow Arch which miraculously still stands over the crossing of nearby Lindisfarne Priory.
The story of how the garden came to be here is almost as appealing as the garden itself. In 2003, Stan Timmins, the Head of Parks and Gardens at Newcastle City Council, designed a garden inspired by the Lindisfarne Gospels for the Chelsea Flower Show. It won a Silver Medal, and once the show was over the Council approached the Lindisfarne Community Development Trust with a view to finding a permanent home for the garden. The garden you see today is the result.