START: Beal, Northumberland
FINISH: Beal, Northumberland
DISTANCE: 9.1 miles
APPROXIMATE TIME: 3.5 hours
MAPS: OS Explorer 340
It was day three of my mini Northumberland coastal adventure and I was sore as anything. The previous day’s 17 mile walk from Belford to Berwick-upon-Tweed had nearly finished me off and I couldn’t move when I first woke up on the morning of the third day. After a little bit of grumbling I was able to get out of bed and once I was up and moving about I wasn’t too bad, albeit still a bit stiff-legged.
Today’s walk involved a trip across to the beautiful and historic island of Lindisfarne which lies just over a mile off the Northumberland coast. It is a tidal island, one of only two in the North East (the other being St. Mary’s Island near Whitley Bay in North Tyneside (see Coastwalk # 7), meaning that I would have to time it right to be able to cross to the island, walk a little round Lindisfarne and then walk back across to the mainland whilst the tide was out. I had deliberately booked my mini-break to Northumberland during the first week of April 2017 to coincide with the tides being out during daytime so I could get across to Lindisfarne without having to walk in the dark.
To get to Lindisfarne I had to make the short journey by bus from Berwick down the A1 to the crossroads near the hamlet of Beal. From there I would follow the road from Beal which led to the causeway and then crossed to the island. I had passed this causeway on the previous day’s walk to Berwick, however I didn’t have time to get across to and from Lindisfarne so had to leave it for today’s walk.
Even though the journey on the bus was short I had seized up again and I knew I was in for a bit of a struggle. What kept me going was the thought of visiting Lindisfarne for the first time in 25 years. The last time I had taken the journey across to the island was with my family way back in the summer of 1992 when we had been holidaying at nearby Haggerston Castle. I can’t remember much of the visit being only 4 years old and all, but I do distinctly remember one of the old yellow RAF Sea Kings landing in the island’s main car park as somebody had been taken ill on the island and needed to be ferried off rather quickly. I would definitely see no Sea Kings on this visit as they had been withdrawn from nearby RAF Boulmer in 2015.
Getting some feeling back into my legs I set off down the road towards the causeway. I crossed the East Coast Main Line at a level crossing before the road started to climb up into Beal. This was brutal on my tired legs. By the time I reached the top I was well and truly knackered and started to think that I might have to give the trip to Lindisfarne a miss. Fortunately after Beal it was all downhill to Lindisfarne.
Even though it was before the recommended safe crossing time of 11.00am I could see cars making their way across the causeway as I descended downhill from Beal. As I reached the start of the causeway there was a sign with a photo of a partly submerged car warning motorists that this could be them if they were foolish enough to cross before or after the safe crossing times. Due to the large numbers of visitors to the island (some 650,000 according to Lindisfarne official website) there have been a number of motorists who have found themselves in serious trouble having been caught out by the fast rising tide. This is despite there being numerous tide timetables plastered all over the island and on the approach to the causeway on the mainland side. There has already been one incident in 2017 with one couple having to be rescued from their submerged car after crossing the causeway 1 hour and 40 minutes outside of the safe crossing time. Luckily a combination of the Berwick Coastguard Rescue Team, the Seahouses Lifeboat and the Coastguard Rescue Helicopter meant that the couple were able to escape unharmed. Rescuing stranded people on the causeway isn’t cheap either – each call out for the lifeboat at Seahouses costs £2000 along with a £4000 price tag to the taxpayer if the helicopter has to be called out. I think if you’re foolish enough to ignore the signs you should pay the bill yourself!
Anyway, I’m a sensible person (most of the time) so I crossed the causeway during the recommended crossing time. There were a flood of cars making the crossing to the island with me, although in the other direction there was just a small trickle of vehicles coming from the island to the mainland. As I crossed the causeway there were great views all round. To my right I could see a line of wooden poles sunk into the sand heading across the bay to the island. These poles mark the Pilgrim’s Way which for many centuries until the causeway was built in 1954 was the only way people could safely cross to the island at low tide. It is important to note that the Pilgrim’s Way should ideally be crossed with someone who has a good knowledge of the bay as the underlying sands can shift with every tide. As I wasn’t lucky enough to have a knowledgeable person walking with me I had to continue along the causeway, making sure I kept a lookout for traffic coming from Lindisfarne (which fortunately wasn’t too often).
A little way along the causeway to the left of the road was a tiny wooden shelter set high above the tide on a set of stilts with some stairs leading up to it (right). These are for people who are caught out by the rising tide to stay in until rescue arrives. There are also couple more shelters located alongside the Pilgrim’s Way. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to use these shelters on the way back from the island so despite my increasingly weary legs I picked up the pace a little.
After about a mile the causeway reaches the island at a place called The Snook. This is a long thin piece of land which points towards the mainland. From here the causeway continues along the edge of the island for over a mile until it reaches the island end of Pilgrim’s Way. The road then makes a sharp left, passing by a ‘Welcome to Holy Island’ sign (left) before making another right where it passes the island’s main car park which was already half full with visitors.
A little further along the road was the beautiful village of Holy Island, already starting to fill up with tourists (me being one of them). Normally the island is home to around 180 people, however the number of people on the island can reach into the thousands when the tide is out. The village itself likely formed during the medieval period and was home to those engaged in the fishing and lime industries. With the advent of tourism in the 19th century there was an expansion in the size and population of the village reaching 760 in 1821. Nowadays there is a much reduced permanent population, the fishing industry declined during the 19th century along with the herring houses that were used to smoke the large herring catches. The lime industry too was short-lived (but more on that later). Most residents on the island today are largely involved with catering to the large tourist numbers.
I passed through the village and headed towards the island’s beautiful parish church of St Mary the Virgin. Standing almost immediately next to the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, the church dates back to the 13th century, possibly being built on the site of an earlier church. There was a pleasant open space in the churchyard where I could sit and rest my weary legs and watch the world go by. I could also take in some of the ruins of the magnificent Priory.
The current Priory dates from the Norman era, however it stands on or near the site of a much earlier Anglo-Saxon monastery built by St Aidan in 635AD. St Aidan, the first Bishop of Lindisfarne built a monastery on Lindisfarne as it was an isolated site and also close to the Northumbrian capital of Bamburgh. The Northumbrian King Oswald had granted the land to the Church. St Aidan was an Irish-Celtic monk who came from the Scottish island of Iona. He travelled throughout Northumbria converting the heathen Northumbrians into Christians.
St Aidan died in 651AD and it is said that his death was revealed in a vision to a young shepherd boy called Cuthbert. Believing this to be a vision from God, Cuthbert renounced his agricultural way of life and joined a Northumbrian monastery at Melrose, now in the Scottish Borders. Cuthbert came to Lindisfarne in 654AD where his skills for healing and purported miracle working became legendary. After a period of hermitage on a small isle near Lindisfarne (which now takes his name – St Cuthbert’s Isle) and on the Farne Islands, Cuthbert was elected Bishop of Hexham in 684AD, however requested that he take the top job at Lindisfarne instead. St Cuthbert was a reluctant bishop and after two years he returned to the Farne Islands to continue his hermitage. He died in 687AD and was buried initially on Lindisfarne. 11 years later his body was found by the Lindisfarne monks to be completely intact, leading them to believe that he was a saint which resulted in large numbers of pilgrims visiting the island. Due to the island’s reputation as a miraculous place it became an important pilgrimage place for early Christians. Statues of both St Aidan (left) and St Cuthbert lie within or just outside the grounds of the Priory where they keep a continuous guard over the site of the monastery where they had spent an important part of their lives at.
On the 8th June 793AD Lindisfarne found itself at the forefront of a Viking raid. The raid sent shockwaves around Europe as the Vikings had attacked a very sacred place, one which was revered by Christians as the island was the resting place of St Cuthbert. Further raids on Lindisfarne over the next few decades eventually forced the monks at Lindisfarne to abandon the island and take St Cuthbert’s body and the world famous Lindisfarne Gospels with them. For several years the monks wandered the North of England eventually settling at Durham in 995AD. St Cuthbert’s body was finally laid to rest where it still resides, in Durham Cathedral.
THE VIEW FROM THE TOP
After a short rest, I walked through the churchyard and headed through a gap in the wall that surrounds the church. From there I followed a rough track which led around the edge of the church and then a field before climbing up the side of a hill. The views from the top of the hill were fantastic and I could see around much of the island. To my right was St Cuthbert’s Isle (also known as Hobthrush Island) where a small group of people had managed to walk across to the small tidal island and were inspecting the remains of St Cuthbert’s hermitage. This was the first place St Cuthbert went to as a hermit, however he realised that it was actually too close to Lindisfarne as the monks there could actually shout at him. As a result he cleared off to the much more remote Inner Farne on the Farne Islands. I should have walked across to St Cuthbert’s Island as it was easy to reach without getting my feet wet and one of my rules of walking the UK coastline is to visit any island I can reach by foot, however I was keen to progress around Lindisfarne to see what I could see. Plus I was tired!
Behind me I got a great view of the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory down below (thus avoiding the £6.50 entrance fee to go in and have a look around). The majority of the Priory that you can see today actually dates from the monastery that was built c. 1150AD by monks from Durham Cathedral. The priory was eventually closed by King Henry VIII as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. Nowadays the ruins are safeguarded by English Heritage who preserve the historic site for future generations (and of course justifiably charging £6.50 so that they can look after the place properly for everyone – including cheapskates like me!)
There was a lovely view across Budle Bay and I could make out Bamburgh Castle in the distance. A pyramid-like structure sitting at the end of a spit of land pointing towards Lindisfarne caught my eye. Being something you would expect to see in Egypt this is in fact a daymark built c. 1810 to stop ships from ploughing into the dangerously deceptive spit of land (known as Emmanuel Head) during daytime, and was one of the first daymarks to be built on the coast of Britain.
Moving round to my left was an old coastguard lookout station dating from the 1940s, which has recently converted into a 360° observation post which gives great views of the island and surrounding areas. It was getting a little chilly in the increasingly blustery wind so I decided to move on and see what more sights there were. Passing the observation post I continued along the hill walking by the island’s war memorial and a small light beacon, before descending down into the harbour.
It was a little more sheltered down in the harbour but not much as I watched the few fishing boats making their way to and from the island. During the 19th century the harbour was a very busy place with 36 fishing boats launching from there on a daily basis in the 1880s. For many years herring houses on the shore would smoke and preserve the large herring catches until the advent of large herring steam drifters in the early 20th century led to a decline in herring fishing. By the start of the First World War the herring houses had closed down (subsequently being converted into holiday homes in the 1970s) and the last of the large wooden boats had been laid up in the harbour, some of which were converted into stores. I passed a number of these old upturned boats which had doors cut into the keels to allow them to be used as handy storage places. Nowadays the harbour is a much more quieter place although 8 fishing boats still regularly sail from the island to catch lobster and crab (more on that later).
Across the other side of the harbour I could see a large stream of people making their way along the road to the castle, a destination which I also wanted to end up at.
There has been a castle stood on this old volcanic crag in some form since 1550. The first structure was an earthen fort built during the reign of King Henry VIII. 20 years later, whilst Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I was on the throne, a more permanent stone fort was in place. The fort remained in military hands, sometimes being guarded by no more than a few soldiers, throughout most of its history until being abandoned in 1893. Despite its proximity to the Scottish border the castle only saw action once when supporters of James Stuart captured the fort during the Jacobite Risings in 1715. It was all in vain however as the fort was quickly recaptured.
Following the military leaving the castle, it was occasionally used as a coastguard lookout before the owner of Country Life magazine, Edward Hudson, bought the castle and transformed into a holiday home with the aid of friend and celebrated architect, Sir Edward Lutyens. In 1944 the castle was given to the National Trust who opened it to the public in the late 1960s. Whilst there has been repairs carried out by the National Trust in the past 70 years, there has never been a major refurbishment until 2016. Before I left for this mini-trip to Northumberland I had read that major works were being carried out on the castle (to the tune of £3 million) and that a large portion of the castle was covered by layers of scaffolding. I could see the scaffolding from a long way off, however I didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of the restoration until I got near the castle and saw the huge amount of metal poles and wooden boards criss-crossing the historic building (below).
Due to the exposed location of Lindisfarne Castle the building is constantly exposed to bad weather, leading to a variety of problems including the deterioration of stonework and spreading damp amongst others. Work started in November 2016 on rectifying the damage caused by abject weather and securing the long-term future of the castle, and is expected to last until April 2018. Whilst work is on-going, the castle remains closed to visitors.
The scaffolding didn’t put off people making the trek from Lindisfarne village to the castle and there was a healthy number of people walking past the construction site (including myself). I watched a group of workmen begin the long climb up the scaffolding to the top of the castle as I worked my way round the side of the crag upon which it is perched. At the other end of the castle was the remains of some lime kilns, which pointed to the island’s industrial past.
CASTLE POINT LIME KILNS
A scheduled Ancient Monument, the well preserved lime kilns at Castle Point date back to circa 1861. Built by a Scottish company, William Nicoll and Co. of Dundee, the kilns were used to burn limestone to produce quicklime. This was then used in agriculture and also as mortar and limewash for buildings. Limestone was quarried at the northern end of the island and then transported by a waggonway to the limekilns. The remains of the waggonway can be easily traced and a public footpath follows its rote to the old quarries at the north of the island. The newly produced quicklime was then hauled to two wooden jetties near the castle where it was loaded on to ships and exported around the UK, mainly to Scottish markets.
The lime kilns were an important employer on the island and according to the 1861 census 33 people were employed by the company. Most came from the island, however a significant number of Scots and Irish were employed who settled in a cluster of new cottages built near the limekilns. The good times weren’t to last however as by the 1880s the industry was in decline. Lime production centres on the mainland had better access to the railway network and Lindisfarne couldn’t compete with this. The last lime ship left in September in 1883 and the lime kilns were last fired by island farmers in 1900. Since then the worker’s cottages near the kilns have crumbled into the sand, however fortunately the lime kilns have been very well preserved.
RETURN TO THE MAINLAND
I was tempted to follow the course of the old waggonway to the north of the island as it curved its way along an embankment away from the lime kilns. From there I could complete a circuit of the island back to the village, however I was just too tired. The wind was picking up which was making walking increasingly difficult and I was also starting to get hungry so food was a priority.
Retracing my steps back to the harbour I then followed a road into the village and looked about for a café. Before leaving home for my mini Northumbrian coastal adventure my mother had said that I need to try a crab sandwich on Holy Island as she has fond memories of eating no less than two sandwiches on our last visit to the island in 1992. Luckily I found a café which was selling crab sandwiches and even more luckily it was the last one. Fresh from the morning’s catch the crab was absolutely delicious and I seriously wanted another one. It was nice and sheltered in the village so I had a quick look round before making my way back across the causeway to the mainland where I caught the X15 bus back to Berwick.
The last time I left Lindisfarne 25 years previously I was adamant that I wanted to be put into the boot of the car where I could sleep off the day’s exertions on the trip home. Surprisingly my parents refused my request so I remember leaving the island in a bit of a huff. Not so this time. I was a little sad to be leaving the island but I promised myself that it wouldn’t be another 25 years before I made a return visit to the beautiful Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
Caton, P. (2011) No Boat Required: Exploring Tidal Islands. Leicester: Matador.