I had this idea that January would be a good time to journey to the wilds of Northumberland to commune with my internal monks and vikings in the magical Holy Island, Lindisfarne. And I was right.
Lindisfarne is a small island off the coast of Northumberland near Berwick upon Tweed, accessible via a causeway that opens up depending on the tides. It’s the site of the first monastery in England, when the Northumbrian king, Oswald, invited Saint Aiden over from Ireland to establish a Christian community there. It is steeped in the history of the early British Christians, in the early 7th century, just a few hundred years after Rome left, when the independent kingdoms of Britain hadn’t yet felt any need to unify. There were small kingdoms like Bamburgh and Bernicia all over the North. In the middle, Mercia was growing strong. East Anglia was on its own, as were the kingdoms in the South – Wessex, Sussex, Kent, and others.
Up in the north, the community of monks grew powerful, and it was there that the Vikings targeted their first raids in 793. The Viking invasions would unwittingly lead to a united England eventually as the kingdoms banded together to fight the invaders, the unification for which Alfred the Great is most remembered.
“AD. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.”
– Anglo Saxon Chronicle, 793
In Lindisfarne the island was rebuilt after the age of Viking invasions, and the priory that is in ruins there today is from 1093. There are several other churches on the island, one of which is from the 14th century. There’s also a castle at the very tip of the island, built during Elizabethan times.
Visiting the island is like stepping back in time. Especially at this time of year when it’s not clogged with tourists. Only about 150 people live on Lindisfarne full time. It must be an odd feeling, being so completely cut off. When the tides are in, you can’t go across the causeway. Because of the historic nature of the causeway, they will most likely never build a bridge. So apparently in the summer the place fills up with hundreds and thousands of tourists when the causeway is open, and they just disappear in the evening. Feeling so separated like that is appealing to me.
There are lots of small boats and a fishing economy on the island, just as there must have been for centuries. There is one major gift shop, a few pubs, a few b&b’s, and that’s pretty much it. It’s pristine in its emptiness. And at this time of year especially, it was desolate and felt wild and abandoned. I felt like we were completely forgotten by the world, and that was ok with me.
Getting to Lindisfarne requires some planning because of the tides. You catch a train to Berwick from King’s Cross (round trip is about £40 if you buy in advance). Then you either check the bus that will drop you off based on the tides, or you rent a car from a mom-and-pop place run by a fellow called Steve. My friend and I rented a car for another £45. It’s about a 20 minute drive down the A1. At this time of year there isn’t much on the island in terms of restaurants, so we were advised to stop at the Morrison’s supermarket in Berwick before going down, and I’m glad we did. There were some pubs open, but nothing like a coffee shop, or any sort of snacks.
We dropped off our stuff at our b&b (I had a huge bathtub in a room that overlooked the castle) and wandered. Walking to the castle should only have taken us about 20 minutes, but I had to stop and keep taking pictures with all my various cameras (cheap UK phone to message to hubby, good US Samsung S5 which has no signal in the UK so is reserved for wifi posting, and good Nikon camera – it’s complicated being me). The castle isn’t open at this time of year (not much is) but you can wander around and imagine the harrowing experience that it would have been to see Viking ships on the horizon, trying like mad to get off the island or hide somewhere in the desolation.
I use words like “magical” and “mystical” to describe Lindisfarne, and they don’t seem to do it justice. We went to evening prayer in the 14th century church that was built on the site of the old monastery. A place where people have been praying for 1500 years. Sitting in the church and thinking about all of the prayers that had been sent up to the universe in just the 700 years since it had been built – added to the prayers that were said and sung in the 700 years before then – it is mind boggling and can make you feel so so small, and yet intertwined and part of something that is so much bigger than you could ever imagine. When you stop to think about all the people who were there before me, in that very spot, you can’t help but be struck by the interconnectedness of it all.
You are a part of me, I am a part of you, and we are all a part of this crazy thing called humanity which is continually making history simply by being alive.
And so, in sum, I think everyone should go to Lindisfarne, just to have that experience. I know some people have claimed to experience that through acid or other illicit drugs. It seems much easier to just hop on a train and sit in this mystical place.