The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, a name often shortened to "Holy Island" or to "Lindisfarne", is a tidal island off the coast of Northumberland some nine miles south-east of Berwick-upon-Tweed and six miles north-west of Bamburgh. It is usually reached by a minor road that leaves the A1 a little over a mile south-east of Haggerston and heads towards the coast, before crossing the tidal causeway to the island itself.
In many ways Lindisfarne is defined by its status as a tidal island. What this means in practice is that the island is accessible by road for roughly half the time, and inaccessible for the other half; and the timing of the periods of accessibility change daily with the tides. We have a separate feature about the Lindisfarne Causeway, but it is worth remembering that no visit to Lindisfarne should be contemplated without first checking the tide tables to see when the causeway will be open, and no attempt should be made to cross when the causeway is closed: especially when it is closed by a rising tide. The site linked on the right has current information about times when the causeway is open.
Lindisfarne itself is a tadpole shaped island. The "head" is rectangular in shape and about a mile and a half from north to south and a mile from east to west. The "tail" extends narrowly west from the upper part of the "head" and means that the island measures some three miles overall from east to west.
There are slightly more than 160 permanent residents on Lindisfarne, and almost all live in the island's only village, which is found at the south-west corner of the "head" of the tadpole. For residents, the tidal nature of the access is a dominant feature of day to day life. Everything from shopping to arranging domestic or business deliveries, and from secondary schooling to routine medical care, has to take account of the tides.
And the tides also have a huge impact on the many businesses on the island serving the needs of visitors. Each year the residents play host to some 650,000 visitors to their island. Most visitors arrive and depart within the same 6 hour (or so) window during which the causeway is open, though when the period of closure is in the middle of the day and the weather is fine, many visitors do stay on Lindisfarne to experience it as an island: their numbers boosted by the excursion boats that arrive at the island's harbour from Seahouses during the season. Far fewer stay on the island when it truly is an island if arrival and departure is not possible on the same day, as there are only some 40 letting rooms available on Lindisfarne. Booking ahead is highly advisable.
From a visitor's point of view, Lindisfarne is a wonderful place to visit at any time of year, but there is no escaping the fact that many of the things to do here are out of doors, which means that it is at its best when the sun is shining. Everyone else knows that too, so this is also a place that can become very busy at weekends and in the school holidays, when the weather is fine and the tides are right. It depends what you are looking for, but if you want to experience the peace and tranquility which gave Holy Island that part of its name, then you need to find a way of experiencing it as an island, ideally when a period of closure of the causeway isn't timed to encourage too many other people to do the same thing.
Assuming you are arriving by road, as most people do, and assuming you've checked the tide times to ensure you can leave when you want to at the end of your visit, your experience of Lindisfarne starts with the road that sweeps round the tail of the island before arriving at the main car park, on the north side of the village. All visitors should park in this car park to help avoid the village being totally overrun, and enjoy the 10 minute walk from there to the village itself. Disabled parking is available in the coach park nearer the centre of the village. The modest walk from the car park can be avoided if you wish, using the shuttle bus that links the car park, the village and Lindisfarne Castle, which can be found two thirds of a mile east of the village.
The village on Lindisfarne repays exploration as there is a great deal to see here. The main east west axis is provided by Marygate, home to the post office and shop, as well as the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre and Lindisfarne Gospels Garden. The Heritage Centre is a great place to find out about the history, both human and natural, of the island. The focus for the southern part of the village is the Village Cross, not far from the attractive visitor centre and shop for Lindisfarne Mead.
An important part of the island's history can be explored for real on the south side of the village, where you find the extensive ruins of Lindisfarne Priory and its museum, and the neighbouring St Mary's Church. Christianity took root on Holy Island after Saint Aidan arrived in 635, and the work was later carried forward by the better known Saint Cuthbert. Attacks by Vikings from 793 caused this early monastery to be abandoned, but its site was later used for the priory whose ruins you can still see today, and for the neighbouring St Mary's Church.
A later period of Lindisfarne's history can be explored at Lindisfarne Castle, the island's (literally) most outstanding feature. What you find is a remarkable fusion of a Tudor artillery fort and an Edwardian country mansion, standing on top of the 30m high Beblowe Crag near the south-east corner of the island. The walk to the castle is invigorating but, again, can be avoided by using the shuttle bus. This corner of the island is home to two more attractions that should not be missed. The Holy Island Lime Kilns are some of the largest and best preserved in England and are well worth a visit. Also nearby is the Gertrude Jekyll Garden developed in the castle's old walled vegetable garden in 1911 and restored in 2003.
If you are walking back to the village from the castle, then an essential detour is to skirt round the head of the bay to the harbour. En route you pass the many sheds constructed from the upturned hulls of boats that are so characteristic of Lindisfarne. Some have seen better days, though many clearly still remain in use. The harbour itself comprises a pier projecting from the headland known as Steel End, and this can be a busy place with fishing boats jostling for space with leisure craft and with tour boats from Seahouses. As you walk back along the pier, look out on the headland on your left for the remains of the little known Osborne's Fort, once an important part of the harbour's defences.
The ridge of rock on which Lindisfarne Castle stands continues on the east side of the harbour, where it is known as The Heugh. This is the second most prominent feature on the island and a walk along it from the rear of the harbour to the old coastguard lookout (now used by English Nature) and the neighbouring ruined Lantern Chapel is an essential part of any visit to the island. What makes it so special are the views it gives over the village to the north and, especially, over Lindisfarne Priory. It is also a good place from which to view St Cuthbert's Isle, just to the south-west: a tidal island off a tidal island.
Most visitors to Lindisfarne remain in the area of the village, the harbour and the castle, which between them occupy only a small part of the area of the island. If you have time, and if you have elected to stay while the causeway is closed you probably will, it is worth taking a look at the rest of the island. Much of the north-west is occupied by large beaches (somewhat less large at high tide) and extensive dune systems, and these extend along the north coast past the old limestone quarries at Nessend and the worker's village now said to be lost under the sand. This part of the island is now largely uninhabited. The exception to this is Snook Tower, hidden amid the dunes and possibly built in the early 1800s as a lookout tower.
When visiting Holy Island on a busy day, it is easy to forget the significance of this part of its name. The island remains a special place for many Christians. There are no fewer than three churches here: Anglican, United Reformed, and Catholic. There are also two Christian retreat centres on the island, and it is worth remembering that pilgrimage is not entirely a thing of the past in this rather special place.