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Published: January 14th 2008
Cross on St Cuthbert's Isle
The cross marks the remnants of a small building, thought to have been a chapel. This islet is probably the site of Cuthbert's first hermitage.
A tiny, isolated island off England’s northeastern coast, Holy Island was an attractive prospect to the early Christian monks. Its remoteness allowed them to cut themselves off from ordinary life, in order to devote themselves more fully to prayer - yet in this location they were still within reach of the towns and protective castles of the mainland.
The religious community of Lindisfarne was founded by Aidan, a missionary from Iona, and flourished on the Island for more than two hundred years. It had its very own patron saint - its most famous resident, Cuthbert. Fellow Old Girls should remember the story, but it's interesting enough to repeat, anyway: Cuthbert was a shepherd who had a vision, and entered the monastery in Melrose. A devout monk who preferred the life of a hermit, his piety and humbleness won him popularity and led to promotion. After a stint as Prior of Lindisfarne, he reluctantly became Bishop of Hexham in 684. When his health failed, he retreated to his hermitage, and died there on 20 March 687. He was buried on Lindisfarne, and the great respect in which he was held turned to wonder when miracles were reported at his grave.
An intact archway amidst the crumbled ruins of Lindisfarne Priory.
The monastery's wealth and famous illuminated manuscripts, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, created in honour of St Cuthbert, made Lindisfarne a target of Viking raids in the ninth century. The community fled the invaders, taking the remains of their Saint with them. One hundred years later, they were to end up at Durham, to build the magnificent cathedral I had seen a day earlier.
Arriving straight from the end of the Lindisfarne story, here I was, setting out for the beginning. The original Priory of Aidan and Cuthbert is long since gone, but its legacy lived on in Durham, and after the Norman invasion the Bishopric re-founded a small monastery on the Island, in use until its forced abandonment in the Dissolution. It lies in ruins, but the spiritual heritage it evokes ensures the Island is still a place of pilgrimage and study, a Holy place as well as a tourist attraction.
Holy Island is not quite so remote as it was. Modern demands led to the construction of a causeway across the flat sandy bay to the mainland, allowing vehicle or foot access for approximately half the day, according to the tides. The locals are divided about the
The ruins of Lindisfarne, including the iconic arch, seen from St Cuthbert's Isle at low tide.
causeway’s success. Since it’s completely under water at high tide, the month’s tide tables and safe crossing times are posted at either end and made available in all the towns around, but many do not seem to think the laws of nature apply to them, and try to cross anyway... Photographs and reports of the consequences are gleefully displayed, but there is a cost involved in rescuing those who become stranded, and locals do not see why they must meet it.
With all the build up, I was expecting dangers and thrills, and glued myself to the bus window for the journey over. I was a little disappointed to see how short the causeway actually is. There was the rescue box, on stilts in the middle, but the long sandy spit at the northern end of the island actually reaches quite close in to the shore of the mainland. The short distance is undoubtedly the cause of the “we’ll make it!” mentality - it looks like you could nip across easily with a little water on the road...
I was incredibly lucky to be granted a perfect autumn day for my visit. The sun shone down on the
High on the hill
Built on a rocky outcrop, the castle can be seen all over the southern end of the island.
collapsed Priory - a small complex, but it's still possible to see how the brotherhood used to live and work. Beautiful arches remain, balancing above floors of green grass. There has been extensive reconstruction and strengthening work done to protect the surviving stonework. Shrubs and flowers have been planted around the site, and through the missing portions of wall you can glimpse the sea - it's a beautiful spot.
I decided to make the most of the day by walking around the coast to the other attraction on the island - a castle built during the reign of Elizabeth I - but got distracted just off the Priory beach when I “discovered” a small islet. It had its own causeway, and it was still low tide, so I could walk to it. A timber cross marked a sunken point in the centre, in which I thought I could discern the shape of a small building, with another off to one side. I wondered if this could possibly have been a place of St Cuthbert's, and I sat for a while, gazing out to see. Google has since helped confirm that I was standing on St Cuthbert's Isle, the probable
The marvelous ruins of the Norman/mediaeval priory.
place of his first hermitage, before he retreated to the Farne Islands for complete solitude.
I spent the rest of the day wandering the island, admiring its beauty and hoping the industrious monks had had time to contemplate the sea amidst their work and prayers. I visited the castle, not as large as it looks, and ideal for the new lease on life it got as a holiday home in the 1900s. Its last owner has gifted it to the state, and the rooms within remain furnished almost as they would have been when it was in use - a beautiful but rather severe style of comfort. The veiws were spectacular, and I wrote in the visitors' book that it was exactly the sort of castle I would want to live in, if I were to live in a castle.
I visited St Mary’s Church before leaving the island. It's a solid stone building, of incredible age and import, but it felt more like a schoolroom than a church, because of all the displays and information it contained. The spirit of the Island is outdoors, not within these walls, but the church safeguards the human history of this
modern statue of St Cuthbert
In the gardens of Lindisfarne Priory, on Holy Island
I was subdued on the bus ride back, thinking of the sea and the sky...
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