Holy Island, Northumberland

PUBLISHED: 10:16 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013

Shaun Brigham brings ashore a catch of lobsters and crabs

Shaun Brigham brings ashore a catch of lobsters and crabs

It may seem idyllic to live on a remote island that is cut off by the tide twice every day. Steve Newman visits Holy Island, off the Northumberland coast, to find out what life is really like for the residents

One advantage of living on an isolated island is that the number of visitors you are going to have walking past your front door is restricted by the size and frequency of the ferry.

What must it be like, then, to live on an island that only becomes cut off from the mainland twice a day for five hours at a time and attracts more than 650,000 visitors over the course of the year? Such is the intrusion endured by the residents of Holy Island, lying only five miles off the main A1 but protected two-mile causeway which is flooded by the tide twice a day for five hours.

While temporary periods of isolation offer a romantic notion, they can play havoc with both residents and visitors alike. 'To a large extent the tide does control our lives,' says Dick Patterson, the island's postman.

'On days when the causeway is open the island children attend the village school at Lowick on the mainland but when it is closed they attend our own village school. Also, our post can get delivered at odd times because I have to pick it up from the mainland.' Dick was born on the island, where he is not only the postman but is also chairman of the Holy Island Development Trust.

The Trust was set up in 1995 to tackle the shortage of affordable homes for islanders and it has now built several homes for young local families. The Trust also runs the island's Heritage Centre, based in what was a hotel that now houses interactive displays of the Lindisfarne Gospels, a history of life on the island and a new Viking exhibition.

There aren't that many places where you can step out of the car, take in 2,000 years of history and at the same time soak up views of breathtaking beauty that constantly change by the hour. But it is this combination that brings tourists to Holy Island throughout the year, especially to the priory, now run by English Heritage.

The surviving priory dates from the 12th century but a much earlier Saxon monastery was sited here and sacked by the Vikings. In fact, the Scots and others continued raiding well into the 16th century, which resulted in Lindisfarne Castle being built with stone from the priory.

In the early years of the 20th century Sir Edward Lutyens turned the castle into a holiday home for Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life magazine and Gertrude Jeykell laid out its small walled garden. Run by the National Trust, the castle is fascinating, as it seems to change from a warm home to a mediaeval fortress and back again as you pass from room to room.

'It's a wonderful privilege to stay here overnight,' says Catherine Atkinson, who is employed by the National Trust as the Castle Custodian. 'The weather can be very bad but also so beautiful. Occasionally the electricity and water go off and it's quite a challenge for my husband to walk around the castle with a wind-up torch.'

From its lofty crag the castle watches over the harbor, with its mixture of pleasure craft and working boats. Here you'll find fisherman Shaun Brigham who ventures out into the North Sea each day in search of crabs and lobsters. Shaun's family has lived on the island for generations. 'I've been fishing now for over 24 years,' he says 'and in that time have seen massive changes on the island with people coming here to live and the rise of tourism.For all that, it's still a wonderful place to live and raise a family.'

The majority of the island is composed of sand dunes where, in the winter months you can walk for hours and not see another soul. Only peregrine falcons, short eared owls and a vast variety of sea birds and waders keep you company, while in spring and summer, orchids litter the ground.

It is possible to walk around the island in a few hours coming across features such as The Lough, a shallow lake that was probably dug out by the monks for fish ponds in the 12th century.

The monks probably brewed mead, a tradition carried on today by Lyndsay Hackett at St Aidan's Winery, situated in the centre of the village adjacent to the market place.

'The showroom attracts more than 200,000 visitors each year from all over the world,' he says, 'but that might have something to do with the fact that each adult visiting the winery has the opportunity to taste a free sample of our world-famous Lindisfarne Mead, the only traditionally-made mead in the North of England.'

The mead is a unique alcoholic-fortified wine manufactured from fermented white grapes, honey, herbs and local water and fortified with fine spirits. It was, in fact, mead that gave us our word 'honeymoon' as Norse settlers drank if for a month after their weddings to ensure fertility.

While many small islands suffer when the young people leave, it says a lot about Lindisfarne that the population has remained steady for many years. Its beauty, simplicity, history, community and opportunities are not simply the reasons for people to visit the island, but also to return time and time again, and to move on to the island.

Lyn Mcanany came back to Holy Island after moving away from her parent's home. She has now lived on the Island for 22 years and has worked at the priory with English Heritage for almost as long. Since she returned in 1986 she feels life has changed little; the sense of community and togetherness remains as strong as it did back then. Lyn explains this pace of life: 'We are governed by the tide here; we have no choice. People fail to understand this. A few find out the hard way when they get caught trying to chance the tide and end up having to be rescued by the helicopter.'

Lyn hopes to remain on the Island for many years to come and is positive about its future. I ask when she is at her happiest. 'When the visitors go home,' she humorously quips. The close-knit community was overjoyed recently when Keith and Rachel Sheil, both islanders themselves, took over the lease for the village pub ,The Crown and Anchor. 'We have gradually turned it back intothe village pub it always was,' says Rachel, standing in front of the fire with black and white photographs of old fishermen adorning the wall above.

'We do have rooms here and the pub is popular with locals from the mainland who come to eat in our restaurant, especially if they know they are going to get cut off by the tide. There's something romantic about it. I know it sounds a cliche but there is nowhere else to live in the world quite like here.'

Not all people come to the island for its historical and religious significance. Some come to enjoy the amazing plant, bird and animal life that is found in the Lindisfarne Nature Reserve. Taking the island and the vast expanse of Lindisfarne Bay within its borders, it is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Phil Davey is the Reserve manager and has to juggle the needs of birdwatchers, wildfowlers, walkers and residents while trying to ensure the birds and plants survive in harmony with all the visitors. 'We do work closely with the island's parish council,' he says.

'If, for example, we would like to fence off a section of the dunes for cattle grazing, we will have discussions with them.' Many visitors come to see the wealth of flowers that can be found on the island, including the rare Lindisfarne Helleborine Orchid. However, there is another plant that is not welcome on the reserve that Phil and his team have worked hard to control. The Pirri-Pirri burr is a native of New Zealand, the seeds of which are thought to have been washed down from the woolen mills of the mainland.

'It can cause havoc with dog fur, ruining people's holidays and smothers the native flora and wildlife.We have put warning signs all over the reserve and set about systematically dealing with the problem.'

Despite the thousands who can visit Holy Island in a single day when the tide is out, as night falls the island becomes almost deserted and the feeling of isolation and serenity slips quietly back into place. It becomes an English village once again, with its pubs offering a warm welcome.

Strangely enough, it's in the winter months when the North Sea winds can cut through your coat that many people living on the island most appreciate the atmosphere.

To check the Holy Island crossing times and tide tables, go to:


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