Driving to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne has long been top of my travel bucket-list. Pilgrims have been making the trip for centuries because of its religious significance, but I was more interested in the island’s scenic castle, booze and causeway. My trip did not disappoint – read on to find out why it should be on your bucket-list too.
There are no bridges from mainland England to Holy Island, which is about two miles off the coast of Northumberland, surrounded by the North Sea. But there is a surprisingly good tarmac road there that gets flooded by the tide twice a day, effectively cutting-off the island from the rest of the country.
Fortunately, the causeway could be safely crossed between 10.30am and 4pm on the day of our visit, so we could make the most of the daylight – check the tide times here to plan your trip. There is no charge to drive across, and with an empty road ahead of me I loved every minute as I approached the castle.
Visitors are encouraged to park outside the island’s only village in a big field that acts as a pay and display – it costs £2.40 for 3 hours, or £4.40 for the whole day (January 2017 prices). In the car park, and throughout the village, there are some superb warning signs that remind people to check the tide times to avoid losing their cars.
We were wrapped up warm and prepared ourselves for the bracing walk out to Lindisfarne Castle, dramatically perched on a mound of volcanic rock and looking picturesque with fishing boats bobbing in the foreground. The castle was closed for refurbishments, but we could walk all around it, through a field and back, with some excellent views of the Farne Islands and beyond, although the wind was a bit wild and nippy out there.
Time for a cuppa to thaw out, and I liked the school canteen style Oasis café, which doubles up as a gift shop. The walls are adorned with some fascinating black and white photographs of the old days on Holy Island: groups of grizzled fishermen smoking pipes, pilgrims travelling to the island by carriage over the sand in the days before the causeway was built, and a cracker of the Holy Island Football Team starting XI in the 1930s.
Holy Island is sometimes referred to as the Cradle of Christianity – it is from here that monks went out to convert ancient Britain’s pagan kingdoms. Aidan was the Irish monk who was invited to establish a monastery on Lindisfarne in AD634 by the Northumbrian king, Oswald. The best place to view the ruins of the priory (and the statue of St. Aidan), is from the glass-topped former coastguard lookout tower on a hill called the Heugh. The 360° views are pretty special, with Bamburgh’s castle and the snowy Cheviot Hills in the distance, and the path to the craggy castle below.
Before leaving Holy Island, there was one thing we had to do – sample some of the famous Lindisfarne Mead from St. Aidan’s Winery. Mead is known as the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, and is a potent 15% concoction of fermented white grapes, honey, herbs and local well water. The shopkeeper gave me four different varieties of mead to try, but when I said “it’s not as bad as I thought it would be”, I’m not sure he saw it as the compliment it was intended to be.
After downing all those shots, I felt like I was on a stag-do again, and Kat deemed me unfit to drive us back home to our base in Bamburgh.
She drove halfway back on the causeway, when I chose to get out and walk for the remaining mile, get some fresh air, take some photos and meet her back on the mainland.
One of the most photographed features around here is the wooden refuge hut on stilts, intended for those fools who get caught by the tide.
I climbed the steps and had a look inside – there was a payphone, plenty of graffiti and what could loosely be described as a bed. I’ve stayed in some dodgy digs in my time, but no way would I fancy a night in the Holy Island Refuge Hut.
I carried on walking on the causeway to meet Kat at the rendezvous point, but nearly jumped out of my skin when a grey seal emerged from a tidal stream to my left and bounced onto the sand a few metres away from me. Luckily – knowing I wouldn’t get too many more chances to see a seal in the wild – I had my camera at hand and managed to get a quick photo before it splashed back in the water.
Kat became impatient at my dawdling, and came back to pick me up. A good job she did, as I could quite happily have taken photos out on the causeway until the tide came in.