Just spent an amazing – and very refreshing – six days on Holy Island, ‘The Holy Island of Lindisfarne’ no less, my first ever visit! It’s a real 5-star place, though not in the usual sense, of course. For many it’s a place of pilgrimage, and one that they return to year after year, for others it’s a day’s outing for half term; whatever; when the tides are right, yes, the place is humming with people. At least that’s true in spring, summer and autumn. Winter is pretty quiet, so I hear – weather, man, it’s the weather!
First step, check the tides, and then drive on over the causeway. Holy Island is quite low-lying, so everywhere ahead is sea or sky, or mudflats. The only landmarks on the horizon are the 2 castles, the nearer and smaller one on Holy Island itself, and far in the distance on the other shore is the massive fortress of Bamburgh Castle. Holy Island weather changes all the time, and the light makes photos look really good – no filter needed! Sunrises and sunsets are spectacular. Be prepared for fresh air, there’s a lot of it, all very wholesome – everyone has glowing red cheeks and goes around well wrapped up.
Being a place of pilgrimage gives it a special atmosphere, all that Celtic spirituality oozes out of the island in a way that only a few islands do. Following the daily rhythm of Celtic monastic prayer is a gentle way to spend the week recharging batteries, both physical and spiritual. There are plenty of prayer services to choose from in the different churches and retreat centres on the island. There’s also plenty of walking and exploring to be done all over the island. And on cloudy days when the tides are wrong and visitors are few, it’s the surf that comes up trumps and the young people of the district converge offshore – wetsuits and surfboards all ready for the next big wave. So there’s something for everyone; you’ll never be bored, I promise you! Of course I took plenty of photos, but far too many to share them all here, and anyway Advent Word is coming soon, so I may use them as a series for Advent. So I’ve chosen 21 photos only, a small selection!
A little history for you of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne…
‘A Place more venerable than all in Britain’ – Alcuin, AD 793
Before the 11th century, Holy Island was known as Lindisfarne, and its history really starts when Oswald (who had become a Christian through the monks of Iona) became King of Northumbria – and like his father before him, set up his base at Bamburgh Castle, on the Northumbrian coast about 50 miles north of Newcastle. Once established, he invited monks from Iona to come to Northumbria to share the Christian faith with the people – and establish churches. Just north of Bamburgh was the tiny island of Lindisfarne, and in 635 AD St. Aidan (his statue is the top photo with the castle in the background) and a group of Irish monks arrived from Iona and chose to establish their monastery on Lindisfarne – it was nearby so it would have the king’s protection, it had a deep harbour, and it was tidal, cut off by the tides twice a day, so giving extra security.
Holy Island has been described as the ‘Cradle of British Christianity’, and is a place of immense historic and religious significance. It’s also the place where Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, wrote the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. It is from the monastery on Holy Island that the early missionaries, led by St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert spread the Christian faith throughout the whole of northern Britain. On the night Aidan died in 651, Cuthbert, then aged about 16, heard God’s call as he tended sheep in the hills. As a result he became a monk at Melrose, and eventually in 664, he came to Lindisfarne as Prior, and traveled extensively, teaching, preaching and baptizing. He felt called to live as a hermit, and did so on St. Cuthbert’s Isle, just off Lindisfarne (see the small island in the above photo), and then for 9 years on the Farne Islands, where many came to seek his help. In 685, he became Bishop of Lindisfarne, but died only 2 years later, in 687. Even before his death he was regarded by many as a saint, and miracles continued after his death. In 875, violent attacks by marauding Vikings forced the monks of Lindisfarne to flee for their lives, taking Cuthbert’s body (which, on opening up his coffin was discovered to be uncorrupted) with them. They found refuge in Chester-le-Street, but in 995 finally settled in Durham, where Cuthbert is buried in the cathedral – or rather the cathedral was built as a place in which to house his shrine.
In the 1120’s, monks from Durham Cathedral re-founded a Benedictine Priory on Holy Island. St. Mary’s Church (above photo) was already there, built sometime before 1145, and is believed to be built on the site of St. Aidan’s first wooden church. With many changes through the ages, and after major renovation in 1860, it is still in use as the parish church today. The priory flourished until 1537 when it was closed down by Henry VIII. Gradually, its stone buildings fell into decay; today the ruins remain (see photo below) and are open to the public, run by English Heritage.
Not long after the dissolution of the priory, in the 1550’s, Lindisfarne Castle (which is really only a small fort compared with mighty Bamburgh) was built to protect the harbour against invasion from Scotland, but with the union of England and Scotland in 1603 under James I, its military importance decreased, and eventually it was demilitarized in 1819. Fast forward to 1903, and Edward Hudson of Country Life magazine bought the castle and with the help of the famous architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, he converted the castle into a very stylish holiday home. A kind of bizarre mix of ancient and modern. That didn’t last too long though – it was sold, and eventually in 1944 it was given to the National Trust, who this year have just completed extensive renovations. This is the castle from the old harbour…
Other relics of a bygone age are the lime kilns near the castle, and the quarry over on the far side of the island. Also the herring industry – many of the old herring boats have now been cut in half and turned upside down to be used as huts. Resourceful, eh?!
Fishing is ongoing, mainly of lobsters (mostly exported to France!) and crabs. Over the years, the island lifeboats took part in many rescues, but there is no longer a lifeboat on Holy Island, though some of the islanders continue to also serve as coastguards. There’s a farm with lots of sheep and some cattle, but it seems that much of the island’s livelihood comes from tourism, with people like me staying for a few days, supplemented by hundreds arriving each day as soon as the tides allow. There’s lots of holiday cottages, retreat centres (I stayed at Marygate, such a great place, delicious food and really friendly people), pubs and cafes, even a post office, small school and small businesses, a shop brewing their own Lindisfarne Mead, artists and craftspeople. I saw Tesco and Argos vans making deliveries, and even a mobile library. And all this week, there’s been an ice-cream van parked on the road to the castle, and he’s done great business!
Rev. Kate Tristram has written a very readable and comprehensive book, The Story of Holy Island, which I have worked my way through in the last few days. That, together with some guide books and displays in the priory museum and church has given me the background to Holy Island and to what I’ve written above. During this week, we have also celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day, and Kate was the priest who took the service. She is now in her mid-80’s but still very cheerfully serving in the church as necessary – Holy Island is in interregnum, though they have a new vicar appointed, but not arriving until January. Her chasuble is stunning. She kindly modeled it for these photos, and told me it was one of four made by a group based at the Durham Cathedral, for the Holy Island church. Wonderful!
Finally I must just tell you about the amazing sculpture in the church on Holy Island, called ‘The Journey’ by Fenwick Lawson, of the 6 monks carrying Cuthbert’s body. Really moving. The photos turn out better at night. He takes the theme of refugees, and mentions ‘The Burghers of Calais’ in his explanation of the sculpture. Most relevant and very timely, seeing as only 3 weeks ago I was in Saffron Walden admiring the sculpture there which is also on the same theme (see that blog post here). The sculptor writes, ‘The Lindisfarne community, with the uncorrupted body of Cuthbert, their saint, founded Durham as refugees. With this significance in mind, and some nerve, considering ‘The Burghers of Calais’ by Auguste Rodin, I saw this epic journey as a great theme for a sculpture: a journey of faith, a journey of hope, and a journey of love for fellow man; a brotherhood forged by the necessity of co-operative effort.’
So just a taste of Holy Island to encourage you to go and see it all for yourselves, it’s definitely definitely worth it!
Very finally, St. Aidan’s Prayer for Holy Island and his monastic community, to get you in the mood for visiting Holy Island…
‘Lord, this bare island, make it thy place of peace. Here be the peace of men who do thy will. Here be the peace of brothers serving men. Here be the peace of holy rules, obeying. Here be the peace of praise by dark and day. Be this thy island, thy holy island. Lord, I thy servant Aidan, speak this prayer. Be it thy care.’
This is the causeway, looking back at Holy Island as I left this morning…. sad to say goodbye, it was such a great week!
PS – Just to put this in a world context: AD 635, the year that St Aidan arrived and established the monastery on Holy Island was also the year that Alopen, a Syriac monk from the Nestorian Church (Church of the East) arrived in China to start his missionary work – he is the first recorded Christian missionary to reach China. Ah yes, it was all happening in 635 AD!
Updated on December 13, 2018: Last Saturday, December 8, en route from East Lothian to Darlington on a very windy but sunny day, and with a few hours to spare, I called in at Bamburgh.
First stop was St. Aidan’s Church, which contains the shrine to St. Aidan. In the ‘icon’ on the left, St. Aidan is shown with King Oswald. See how the stained glass window on the opposite wall is reflected on the stone pillar next to the shrine ~ gorgeous!
The reredos shows the early northern saints, including St. Cuthbert on the far left holding the head of King Oswald – after Oswald was killed in battle, his head was apparently returned to Lindisfarne and buried there.
Then to Bamburgh Castle, former home of King Oswald. It is truly massive, completely dominating the town, and overlooking the sea from the other side…
The present castle is largely Norman, and it’s a classic castle, complete with keep, dungeon and armoury. Today it is owned by the Armstrong family, who open it to the public and also let out some of the stately apartments, including the one on the top floor of the keep. Just imagine living there! It’s really great to walk around and appreciate something of the early history.
Bamburgh is also famous for being the birthplace of Grace Darling, and overlooks the Farne Islands, where she rescued so many people from the shipwrecked Forfarshire in 1838. Inner Farne was where Cuthbert lived as a hermit for 9 years. Now currently home to thousands of beautiful seabirds. You can just see it in the distance….
Ah yes, Holy Island – and Bamburgh – stunning. Do go if you get the chance!