Lindisfarne, or Holy Island as most locals call it, features in all three novels of my Cuthbert trilogy. I’m writing the third novel at present, which is set in the period immediately after the Norman conquest. By this time, of course, the Cuthbert Community were based in Durham. But during the infamous Harrying of the North by King William’s army, the Community feared that they – and the precious body of St Cuthbert in their charge – were in mortal danger. They decided to flee to their ancient heartland, the island of Lindisfarne. Unfortunately, like many contemporary visitors to the Island, they had some problems with the safe crossing times. Symeon of Durham, the twelfth century chronicler, describes their arrival:
“They happened to arrive there about evening, at the hour at which it was full tide. The bishop and the elders and the women and children mourned and lamented with each other at the danger which they should incur from the winter’s cold, which was sharper than usual (for it was a little before Christmas). ‘What shall we do?’ said they; ‘we are prevented from crossing over to the island by the full tide, nor is there any place of residence for us in which we can escape this nipping cold’. Whilst they were in the midst of these lamentations, the sea suddenly receding at that spot (but at no other) afforded them the means of passing over, whilst at every other point the tide was at its fullest. All of them immediately entered the island; and thus, singing praises to God and his blessed confessor, did they reach the island dry shod along with the holy body of its patron.’
It’s a delightful small vignette and a reminder that on Lindisfarne some things haven’t changed at all since the eleventh century – or the seventh.
Other things have. Recently we spent a few days on the Island, house/cat sitting for some friends. Spending a longer time there brought me up against the changes that have happened in my own lifetime. When I was growing up in North Northumberland in the late fifties and early sixties Holy Island was known for fishing, wild-fowling and heavy drinking – the latter because there were no police on the island and the pubs could keep what hours they liked. Visitors to the Island were taken over the sands in battered old taxis until, in the early fifties, the tarmac causeway was opened. Anyone could drive over. We did. It was a favourite expedition of the summer holidays. The Priory had not yet come under the close surveillance of English Heritage and it was easy to climb in and out of the ruins undetected. The Museum was a small dusty room full of ancient stones. Children were not welcome in pubs in those days so we didn’t linger in the village. My mother drove our Morris Minor down the road to the castle, parked on the grass beside a bench and brought out the picnic. When the sandwiches were eaten I spent hours on the shore among the black whinstone rocks, hunting for Cuddy’s beads – ringed crinoid fossils from ancient trees. There were seldom any other people. I was alone with the sea and the wind and the dark wet stones. There was always a wind blowing. It had a strangeness, the wind on Holy Island. It made you feel the emptiness, the wildness of the place. We seldom paid the entrance fee to go into the castle, but I loved to run up the broad shallow steps up the side of the cliff to the great hobnailed door of the castle. From there, the wind tugging at your hair, I could stare at the unimaginable immensity of sky and ocean, the dazzling light stretching away to the horizon.
Nowadays the Island is regularly swamped with a kind of mayhem where it is impossible to be alone or to find peace. As soon as the tide recedes, and usually well before the ‘official’ safe crossing time, the cars and tour buses start to arrive. The two miles of the causeway become a non-stop stream of traffic. A huge car park has been built outside the village to accommodate all the vehicles; on a fine day it soon fills up. Three quarters of a million people a year from all over the world visit this tiny island that measures three miles by one and a half. The visitors pour along the pavement from the carpark to the village in a never-ending line and disperse into coffee shops, Celtic craft boutiques, fudge shops and Heritage Centres. The little market-place fills with people wandering here and there, staring around, wondering what they have come here for. They file dutifully into the Priory and the Church or head off towards the harbor and castle. There are still a few remains of fishermen’s huts, a few cobles, to be marveled at. Then it is off to the castle. There are people everywhere.
It is ungenerous to feel so unwelcoming to other people. But there is something about mass tourism that destroys the essential character of a place, especially one so intangible and liminal. The Irish monks who brought Christianity to Northumbria in the seventh century chose Lindisfarne for their monastic centre because it was at a remove from the world, halfway between heaven and earth. Now the world has overtaken it.
On our visit we learned to lie low till the tide closed. There were still plenty of people around, with all the holiday houses, hotels and guesthouses, but the overpowering hordes of people were gone. At those times, the Island heaves a collective sigh of relief
There are still ways to find that wildness again. I got up before sunrise and spent a couple of hours sitting out on Hobthrush Isle, watching seals grunting and cavorting in the tide race and great flocks of Brent geese circling down over the mudflats. At high water the spring tides filled the bay from side to side, right up to the dunes, covering the causeway entirely in a great shimmering stillness. I thought of the poor pilgrims of the Cuthbert Community on that bleak December day long ago, gazing in despair at the full tide. We walked into the emptiness of the dunes beyond the Snook and out onto the North shore, where the wet sand stretches away forever. On a wet afternoon I followed a rainbow all the way along the shoreline from the castle to Emmanuel Head. Holy Island is still a special place. Still, sometimes, a wild place.