Distance: 6.3 miles
Difficulty: Easy. Almost entirely flat apart from the drop to the shore by the school, but this can be avoided by keeping to the road.
The tide table said we could drive across the causeway from 1045, but we arrived at 1030 and as others were crossing we just followed them. I know that just because someone else does something it doesn’t make it right, but it was fine. A bit wet in places but absolutely fine. The causeway runs roughly parallel to the walking route (“The Pilgrims’ Way”) across the sand which is marked by wooden posts. The window of opportunity for walking across is much shorter than that for driving, and you really don’t want to get caught by the tide on either. Although there are refuges along the way; like sheds on stilts that put me in mind of the hut of Baba Yaga, but without the chicken legs. They are no doubt very welcome in an emergency, but they don’t look like anything I would want to sit in for hours waiting for the next low tide.
Arriving on Holy Island we heeded the signs and pulled into the main car park – which was reassuringly empty – and paid a few quid to stay all day. It felt surprisingly nippy as we stepped out into the breeze to put our boots on so warm tops were also donned. I stuck with my shorts though. We exited the car park to the north, heading away from the village and back towards the causeway. By now there was a steady flow of traffic heading for the island. Not massive, but I dread to think what it must be like on a sunny August bank holiday.
We walked to the end of Pilgrims’ Way just to have a look and heard an eerie sound carried on the breeze. It was quite melodic; it sounded like the wind was catching something. But it wasn’t the wooden poles, and there were no trees or buildings around that could cause it. Eventually we realised that the sound came from a colony of seals basking on a sandbank some way out on Holy Island Sands. There is a theory that this is how the legends of the Sirens came about – were the seals trying to tempt us to a watery grave? If they were, they didn’t succeed. we retraced our steps a little then turned north onto the footpath, which we followed towards the shore at Back Skerrs.
Very soon after leaving the road we couldn’t see or hear anyone, not even the sirens. Eventually, because we hung around taking photos, we could see a couple following behind us on the same path. We continued up and down through the dunes and soon made it to a huge, long, wide, sandy, deserted beach.
It was by now a beautiful clear blue sunny day and we could see for miles up the coast towards Scotland. The sea was like a millpond and lapped gently on the sand. Again we hung around taking photos, mainly of our footprints on the virgin sand, and the couple caught up with us. “Isn’t it great to see so many people heading for the island but to be able to escape them so easily”, she said. Yes it is. The castle is a strong magnet and all you have to do is resist its pull and go the opposite way to enjoy splendid isolation.
We and the couple walked fairly closely along the shore heading east. We came to a rather half-hearted barrier with some tattered “do not enter” tape. We chose to ignore it and the couple headed back into the dunes. But very soon our paths crossed again so it really made no difference at all. Continuing to walk as close as possible to the sea we rounded two more beautiful deserted bays. Above one of the beaches I came across another couple, admiring the view. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”, I commented. “Yes, we love the silence and the isolation”, came the reply. I can take a hint, so I moved on.
A tall, bright, white pyramid came into view. It was very obvious and somewhat incongruous to the natural coastline we had enjoyed so far. I felt a bit annoyed by it. Was it some sort of modern art installation? Or a religious totem pointing to heaven? Approaching it I walked around and couldn’t find any explanation. I got into conversation with a couple of Liverpudlians sitting at its base. “What do you think this is? what does it mean?” I asked “I think it’s an aid to navigation” they said. Of course it is; that’s why it is very tall, bright white and visible from miles away. And marked on the map. (Turns out it was built in 1810, and is said to be Britain’s earliest purpose-built daymark) I felt a bit foolish but we chatted some more. They were frequent visitors as they had family with a property in Seahouses – coincidentally where we were staying. They suggested some good places for food and drink in the area and basically you can’t go wrong. There are so many places around here with great food, great beer and great locations. Our later experience bore this out.
Leaving the pyramid we walked inland a little and joined one of the island’s waggonways. Lime burning was an important industry for Lindisfarne, and the waggonways formed a network across the island for transporting limestone from the quarries to the kilns, and lime and coal to and from the jetties. They haven’t been used for waggons since the late 19th century and now just provide convenient flat footpaths for people like us.
By now we were heading south towards the castle and the area became slightly more developed; there was a hide for twitchers overlooking a lake, and artwork in the form of basket-weave birds on poles. And there were more people. The people looked less like hikers than those we had met so far and the cheery greetings became less frequent. Although we did say hello to a very hippy looking lady in a flowing skirt who was striding out barefoot.
It is a fine looking castle. It rises above the surrounding land on the island’s highest point and presents a very imposing edifice. It has seen some action over the years, but has also had periods of disuse and dereliction followed by restoration. At the time of writing it is undergoing renovation and as a result there is a lot of scaffolding and it is something of a building site. As a result it currently looks best from a distance.
We skirted around the castle on the northern (landward) side and headed towards the priory. Lindisfarne Priory is now just a shell, but it was a tremendously important monastry for almost a thousand years until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monastries. Part of the reason that the priory is now just a shell is that following its fall into disuse some of its stone was used in the construction of the castle.
In front of the priory there was a large team of archaeologists carefully scraping and brushing away in a shallow pit. Several of them were dealing with a skull and a bone that were partially exposed in the soil. The skull looked delighted to see the light of day once more – it had a broad grin and still displayed a fine set of teeth. There was a sign that said “ask the archaeologists anything” and one young lady explained that the skull and the bone did not belong to the same person. She also said that they had also found a skeleton alongside three skulls, but they didn’t know yet which skull belonged. It seems they were not yet considering the possibility of a tri-cranial humanoid, but I expect they will come round to it eventually.
What with all that physical and intellectual exertion we had worked up quite an appetite so we retired to the Crown and Anchor alongside the priory. The pub has a nice garden with great views to the priory and beyond. We enjoyed some lovely fish and chips. I’m afraid I can’t tell you about the beer on offer as we were being very abstemious, what with us being finely-tuned athletes an’ all.
It has become something of a tradition in my household that whenever anyone travels anywhere they bring back a souvenir fridge magnet. So, on leaving the pub we entered the only shop we could see – the post office. I can honestly say that I have never seen so much tat on offer in a post office before in my life. I am sure they fulfil their obligations in conveying letters and parcels and offering official forms, but I can say that they go way beyond that in terms of plastic souvenirs, beach toys, wooden signs with amusing bon mots, seaside rock and indeed fridge magnets. Magnet duly bought and pocketed, we left the post office, by-passed the Lindisfarne Mead Centre and headed back to the coast.
Another tradition is that on our walks we usually at some point take an alternative route. We don’t get lost, we just take an alternative route. And so it was that we dropped down to the shore at a point below the church from which we could not possibly get to our destination. So we climbed back up to the road, walked north to the school and found the correct part of the shore. At this point there was a significant and very steep drop to the beach, but someone had thoughtfully provided a rope so we took advantage of this and kind of abseiled our way to the beach. Through all of our faffing about I had observed a lady searching around amongst the rocks on the shore and I felt sure she must have noticed us, but when I said “hello” she practically jumped out of her skin. I asked her what she was looking for and she replied “fossils and things. But it’s winkle season and there are so many winkles they are obscuring everything else”. I’m sure that must have been a line from one of the Carry-On movies.
From there we followed the shore back to the poles marking the Pilgrims’ Way. A group of people were sat by the side of the road removing their boots and socks getting ready to walk back to the mainland. We walked back up to the car park which was much busier than when we left it several hours earlier, but still not packed. Driving back across the causeway we again saw the hippy lady in the flowing skirt striding out in the opposite direction, although now she was wearing sandals.
More folk-rock than rock’n’roll, the band Lindisfarne enjoyed great success in the early 1970’s. Their “Fog on the Tyne” album was the biggest selling UK album in 1972. I twice paid money to see them perform; once at Reading Festival in 1978 and a year or so later at the Theatre Royal Nottingham where they were supported by Chris Rea. The latter occasion was largely because I was at college with a Geordie. They could never be described as a band of pretty-boys, but they did appear on Top of the Pops performing “Meet Me on the Corner” with the drummer using a rubber fish instead of a drumstick.