There’s nothing quite like a crisp winter day on Lindisfarne with bright sunshine and clear skies. Lindisfarne is an exhilarating place any season of the year but December is one of my favourite months.
The crowds have gone, the beaches are empty and the village has the sleepy air of a forgotten backwater. Sometimes it feels like this is your own island retreat with its beach walks, quiet streets and stunning views across the water to the mainland.
At around only 2 kilometres square Lindisfarne is small but perfectly formed.
In common with many islands Lindisfarne has a very particular ambience.
There’s almost a sense of claustrophobia even though you’re in one of the remotest places in the British Isles.
There’s also a frisson of excitement and the slightly scary possibility that you’ll lose track of the tide times and get stranded overnight.
Around 200 people live in cottages and small houses clustered together in this tight-knit community.
It’s obvious why Roman Polanski chose the island as the setting for his 1966 cult film Cul De Sac which captures its brooding claustrophobia perfectly.
Then there’s the views and scenery which are almost too picture perfect… and there’s a lingering fear in the back of one’s mind that Holy Island is strangely reminiscent of The Village in the cult TV series, The Prisoner!
Holy Island – Cradle of Christianity
Lindisfarne is also called Holy Island and is so named because it was the cradle of Christianity. St Aidan founded a church and monastery on the island in 635 AD and established a community of monks.
The ruined Priory with its red sandstone Romanesque arches is located in a dramatic setting close to the coast.
The Lindisfarne Gospels were written and illustrated here around 710-720 AD and are one of the wonders of the early medieval world.
The beautifully illuminated books can now be seen in the British Library in London.
After a trip around the Priory, don’t miss a relaxing walk to the tiny St Cuthbert’s Isle which was used as a retreat by St Aidan and St Cuthbert. It’s one of my favourite places on Lindisfarne with a quiet, meditative feel.
Once known as Thrush Island or Hob Thrush it can be reached at low tide by clambering over the slippery rocks and seaweed.
There’s fine views across the coastline and if you’re lucky it’s easy to spot Common Seals relaxing on a nearby sand bank or swimming in the water.
A simple wooden cross sits on top of the isle on the site of an altar of a small medieval chapel.
Beaches and bays
Beachcombing and rock pooling are two of my favourite leisure activities on Lindisfarne.
The island’s beaches, backed by sand dunes, and its remote bays are spectacularly pretty. There’s nothing better than a walk over the dunes and marram grass to the deserted beaches of The Snook on the island’s northern shores.
During summer this is a treasure trove for plant lovers with colourful orchids and the rare Lindisfarne helleborine which is found only on the island.
In winter it’s strangely deserted but the walk around the shores is fantastically bracing.
Continue around the coastal trail and you’ll come to the rockier shores of the east of the island where you’ll find perfectly sculpted pebbles and colourful stones.
Castles in the sky
Lindisfarne Castle is another of the island’s wonders. Part folly, part wonder of the Edwardian world – this is a fairy tale castle in miniature.
I love walking up to the castle on a bright, clear day when its silhouette stands out against the sky.
Built in 1550 on the Whin Sill, a pinnacle of rocky outcrop, this fortress defended against possible attacks by Scotland and other marauding forces for several centuries.
As military conflicts faded and fashions for country piles grew, the castle experienced a major transformation.
It was redesigned by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens during the Edwardian period and became the country retreat of Edward Hudson, the editor of Country Life magazine in the 1920s.
His dramatic holiday home welcomed the rich and famous including the Prince of Wales (later King George V) and his wife (later Queen Mary), Prime Minister Asquith, author J.M. Barrie, conductor Malcolm Sargent and prima ballerina Alicia Markova.
Like Edward Hudson and his guests, I love its sense of foreboding and desolate location with spectacular views to the Farne Islands and Bamburgh Castle on the mainland.
Its cave-like interior, partly hewn-out of the rocks, is like Harry Potter’s dream home after leaving Hogwarts as a young man.
Today it’s run by the National Trust and a trip around this strange castle is one of the highlights of a trip to Lindisfarne.
Walk around the back of the castle and you’ll see some remarkable lime kilns, a remnant of the last century and industrial life on the island.
Walk on the wild side
Wildlife has the island to itself in December with the exception of a few locals, dog walkers and intrepid types like myself.
Flocks of Brent Geese fly in from the Arctic Circle whilst Wigeon huddle together on the island’s inland lake after migrating from Russia.
This wildlife paradise is brilliant for birds, whatever the season. The Godwits and Curlew treat the island’s mud flats like one big restaurant, gobbling down the rich pickings.
Mute Swans sail along majestically dipping their beaks into the water for food whilst assorted coastal birds dart and dash around looking for a good dinner in the harbour.
Seals are year-round residents and can be seen bobbing around in the waters or hanging around on the sand banks during low tide.
I love watching them curled up and ‘banana-ring’ on the rocks!
After a trip into the wild, head back into the village to St Aidan’s Winery, home of ‘Lindisfarne Mead’ where you can sample this fortified wine and restore your spirits.
The mead is fermented from white grapes, honey, herbs, the pure natural water from the island’s artesian well – and fortified with fine spirits. It’s a fine tipple after a winter walk.
Shifting sands and tides
At this point, I have to be honest with you. Lindisfarne is really only a ‘part time’ island.
Its tides ebb and flow twice daily, cutting it off from the mainland for hours at a time. Only The Causeway ties this tidal island to the mainland.
One of my biggest joys is watching the shifting sands and changing tides combining to create a truly awesome experience.
We parked up on the mainland side of the causeway and waited patiently till the tide almost started lapping up the rear wheels of the camper van. It’s one of nature’s amazing spectacles…
As the tide came in we watched as the wildlife moved around and the Causeway gradually disappeared and became engulfed by water, leaving the island cut-off once again.
This daily ritual looks different depending on the time of year – and winter is a great season to see the changing tides at sunset.
Timing is crucial because many a motorist has timed their return over the Causeway badly, only to get stuck in the water’s tidal surge.
Before visiting Holy Island it’s vital that you check the crossing and tide times. Many motorists have been stranded on the causeway during high tides resulting in dramatic rescue operations!
Don’t try to beat the tide because it looks like it’s OK to cross when actually it isn’t.
Tammy’s Top Tips – Holy Island
Lindisfarne is located eight miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed on the A1 in Northumberland in North East England.
Winter and late autumn are the best seasons to see the wild geese and winter birds. It’s also a quieter time to visit Holy Island. The National Nature Reserve website has excellent information and tips for wildlife and nature lovers.
To enjoy the island’s remoter areas, head to The Snook and hike over the dunes to the beaches which provide sensational sea views.
Alternatively, park at the main village car park and walk towards the Castle, continuing along towards the sea and beach. There is also a shuttle bus in summer from the car park to the village centre.
There is no overnight camping on the island. Whilst you can take a camper van onto Lindisfarne, no overnight parking is allowed.
Accommodation and eating out
There are camper van sites on the mainland side of the causeway at Beal Farm and Brock Mill Farm (which also has a selection of self-catering cottages).
Accommodation is available on the island at Lindisfarne Hotel, Manor House Hotel, self-catering cottages and bed and breakfasts.
There are two public houses on the island which serve drinks and bar food including The Ship Inn which serves tasty local crab sandwiches.
On the mainland the Barn at Beal restaurant and cafe is open for lunch and dinner (Friday and Saturday dinners only in winter).
Also worth seeing…
Back on the mainland bird watchers will enjoy a trip to nearby Fenham Flats where there is a bird hide and coastal walk with excellent views across to Holy Island.
Take the A1 and turn off at Fenham Flats just south of Holy Island (which also has some remote holiday cottages overlooking the sea at Fenham-le-Moor).
Nearby attractions include the historic border town of Berwick, Bamburgh Castle, Alnwick Castle & Gardens, and the Farne Islands.
A boat trip to The Farnes is a must for wildlife lovers especially during summer when the islands become ‘puffin central’.
Don’t miss twilight especially if you’re a keen photographer… the light is sensational.