The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne lies three miles from the mainland of Northumberland, England, not far from the Scottish border. It’s not only a picturesque site but a religious and historical place well worth a visit if one is traveling in northern England.

A little history
Since the island is connected to the mainland by a causeway at low tide, visitors must check the tide timetables located at the entrance to the causeway so as not to be stranded on the island for a much longer time than planned.

Centuries ago, pilgrims waded through the water and sand at low tide following a path of poles stuck in the mud. It is still possible to see the poles today as you drive across the causeway.

Irish monks first came to Lindis­farne from the island of Iona to establish a priory, or monastery, around A.D. 635. Headed by St. Aidan, whose statue stands facing the ruined priory today, the monastery prospered and grew into a small community that was not only a religious haven but a respected seat of Christian learning. Young men studying to be monks were taught to read and write in Latin and were schooled in the art of illuminating manuscripts.

Following the death of St. Aidan, Cuthbert became prior of Lindisfarne, developing a beloved and respected reputation for his kindness and compassion as well as for his healing powers.

So many people came to the island that Cuthbert was forced to build a guest house for them. After many years, he retreated to the small, nearby uninhabited island of Inner Farne, where he devoted his life to prayer and seclusion.

In the century following Cuthbert’s death, the priory produced the famous illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, considered by many to be one of the eighth century’s greatest works of art.

Near the end of the eighth century, Viking raiders destroyed the island’s original structures, and the monks fled inland carrying the gospels and the body of St. Cuthbert in a wooden coffin. Four hundred years later, the Normans built a new priory of massive blocks of sandstone, the ruins of which can be explored today.

Exploring the priory
Visitors enter through the west portal where a 2-story wall remains with four small columns at the second level and a window above. Walking down the nave, one crosses under a huge stone arch, referred to as the Rainbow Arch, and proceeds to the chancel, where an altar once stood in front of an arch facing the sea. The stone foundations of a cloister and rooms for the monks and pilgrims are located off to the side.

The sun shining through the spectacular stone arch created dark shadows that appeared to be etched on the walls, and the outlines of carved faces peered out at us.

Located on the priory grounds is a visitors’ center with modern displays describing monastic life, recounting the stories of St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert and exhibiting artifacts found among the ruins.

A small Anglican church named St. Mary’s is also part of the complex, offering an austere, quiet place for the life-size wooden carving of six monks carrying the coffin of St. Cuthbert as they fled from the Vikings. Roughly executed in a modern primitive style, the work of art makes a powerful statement.

Heritage center
At the Lindisfarne Heritage Center, located along the main street of the village, we witnessed the beauty of the Lindisfarne Gospels through the “magic” of the computer.

Although it was not included in our trip, I had read about an exhibition called “Turning the Pages,” a computer-based version of the book created by the British Library, which owns the manuscripts today. It was well worth the extra $5 per person to see the bright colors, the carpet pages filled entirely with interlace, and the large, detailed letters of the opening lines.

Each gospel begins with a drawing of the author apostle and his appropriate symbol: Mark, the lion; John, the eagle; Matthew, man, and Luke, the calf or young ox. All are drawn in profile except St. John, who stares right out at you.

The computer allows you to highlight portions of each page and view enhanced detail.

The Heritage Center also contains exhibits on island life — its flora, land, people and the sea. Pressed for time, we didn’t stay long but continued on to St. Aidan’s Winery to taste the famous Lindisfarne mead, made from fermented white grapes, honey, herbs and water from the island’s artesian wells.

Each adult visitor to the showroom, located in the center of the village next to the marketplace, receives a free taste. Although many people find it stimulating, I would never classify it as “nectar of the gods.”

Nearby Berwick
As the water of the changing tide lapped against the causeway, we left Lindisfarne and returned to Berwick-upon-Tweed, which served as the base of operations for our visit to Northumberland.

This very northern part of England provides many opportunities to view beautiful scenery and castles and to learn about history, as the English and Scots fought constantly over the borderlands. Berwick itself, located at the mouth of the River Tweed, changed hands 13 times during that tumultuous period.

Walls built in Elizabethan times surround the city today, offering a 2-mile walking trail along the top which not only leads visitors past historical sites of the town but presents beautiful vistas of the river as it empties into the North Sea at a point called the Spittal.

There are three bridges that cross the Tweed, one of which is a nicely arched stone bridge ordered built by James VI as he traveled south to accept the crown of England as James I. Supposedly, James was frightened by the old bridge and did not wish to cross it again.

Exploring the city
If you are really interested in history, I would strongly suggest hiring a guide at the Tourist Information Center on Marygate Street. (The story of the Border Wars and the building of the five military bastions which remain today can be very confusing.) Regular tours depart at 10 a.m., 11:45 a.m. and 2 p.m., but other tours can be arranged.
From the imposing Town Hall on Marygate Street, it is possible to wander through narrow, charming streets to the Parade, where an 18th-century barracks has been turned into a military museum. Nearby is the gunpowder magazine, which is wonderfully preserved.

If military history is not your forte, it is possible to stroll along the wall to enjoy rows of gray stone Georgian houses, some with lovely springtime gardens. For nature lovers, there are lots of birds to watch on the tidal Tweed, which is also famous for its crabs, lobsters, salmon and other fish.

Many tiny streets, named for their original occupations like Oil Mill Street or Wool Market, bisect the wall, so it is easy to come and go. In accordance with Berwick’s ancient royal charter, a market is held in the town square twice a week. If you are lucky enough to be there on market day, you can buy a picnic lunch and walk down to the river to enjoy it.

Northumberland offers many other places of interest, including Harry Potter’s Hogwarts (actually Alnwick Castle, the home of the Percy family), picturesque villages and towns, seaside resorts, sand dunes and, of course, the Roman ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. The beauty and serenity of Lindisfarne, however, will always be one of my lasting memories.

Our trip was arranged through Overseas Adventure Travel (Cambridge, MA; 800/493-6824, The price per person for the basic 2-week trip was $2,595. However, not many meals were included, so if you factor in the cost of food — especially with the poor showing of the dollar against the British pound in 2005 — it turned out to be far more expensive.