Long-haul bus drivers in the UK are a tirelessly friendly and helpful bunch. Ours looked truly sorry to inform us that getting back from Holy Island that day would be difficult, with a bank holiday schedule that effectively ended all bus service at 5 pm. But a long weekend in late spring was too perfect an opportunity to go exploring, so we resolved to worry about the return trip later.
In addition to the bus schedule, we had another timetable to contend with; The tides. Holy Island is a tidal island, accessible by road when the tide is out, but completely cut off from the mainland when the tide is in. Day trippers have about eight hours to get there and back without getting stranded, a window that shifts each day. The schedule is posted online and on a board next to the road at the last possible turnoff before the causeway departs the mainland. A poster with a photo of an SUV submerged up to the windows in water warns “THIS COULD BE YOU” while another sign makes it unequivocally clear: “DO NOT PROCEED WHEN WATER REACHES CAUSEWAY.” Apparently, the coast guard still conducts a fair number of rescues when the tide comes back in.
There are two ways to get across: Walkers can take the Lindisfarne Causeway right along with the cars, although it’s barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic. Alternatively, there is a string of poles stuck into the mud dubbed the Pilgrims’ Path that lead walkers directly to the castle and priory from the mainland. This is by far the shorter route, but it is muddy, slippery and a little bit eerie. Either way you cross, the receding water produces a beautiful shifting landscape of mud flats, brackish streams, beds of seaweed, and spongy fields of wild flowers.
On the island, the main draws are the priory and the castle.
The priory is a collapsed beauty of a ruin (not unlike the cathedral in St Andrews) that faces the castle and the sea. It remains an important pilgrimage site devoted to Saint Cuthbert who spent his life as a monk working to spread Christianity in 5th century England. He lived at the priory for a time, which was established in 635, but a Viking raid in 793 drove the monks out. The ruins still standing today are from the early 12th century, when the religious community had returned and the raids were no longer a concern.
I was personally more enamored with the castle, a small but imposing structure built seamlessly into the contours of a dramatic hill with stunning views of the Northumberland coast on all sides. The holiday home of some early 20th century noble, it’s not as shrouded in ancient history as the priory. But the location is unbeatable, just a few hundred meters from the beach.
There is life outside tourism on Holy Island, but not much of it. The priory and castle, not to mention the handful of cafes and pubs in the village, can feel overcrowded on spring and summer weekends. The presence of school field trips and religious groups adds to the chaos. On the other hand, because of its remote location, I can imagine perfect tranquility in the winter.
On our way back across the final stretch of road connecting us with civilization, the returning tide had transformed the desolate mud plain into a lively estuary full of birds. Though our legs were aching from the 20 km round trip, I stopped to take more photos in the last 20 minutes of the journey than I had in the previous 8 hours. There are plenty of other majestic castles and imploded monasteries throughout the UK, but Lindisfarne is all about the walk.