340: Lindisfarne

OS Explorer map 340, Holy Island & Bamburgh: Wooler, Belford & Seahouses – I own this map, and had visited it before starting this blog. Visited again for this post 28th August 2020.

Google Maps location links: Lindisfarne, The Barn at Beal, Wooler

My previous post oncerned mine and Vesper’s journey up to the Isle of Harris, where we were staying for two and a half weeks, as a half-holiday-half-remote-working trip (and our first >1 day period away from home since the coronavirus restrictions started). This post will be rather similar, in that it concerns a stop we made on the way down, but I’ll describe the whole journey.

We had a lovely time on Harris, with some days being work-days, and others fun days, in which we went on various walks among beaches, mountains, heather and lakes; relaxed, ate, and generally enjoyed our surroundings. I won’t describe our stay in detail, but here are some photos!

The earlier journey

We’d originally planned to leave Harris on Saturday 29th August, however we didn’t book our return ferry or overnight hotel stay before travelling out, because we wanted to be flexible – mainly because if it turned out the internet at the cottage wasn’t reliable enough for remote working, we’d just stay for a week or so then come home early. We did stay nearly as long as planned, leaving only one day early, on Friday 28th. This was because, by the time we got around to booking the ferries, most of them were booked up – which is also why we ended up having to get up at the distinctly inauspicious time of 4am, to leave by 5am to get to Stornoway by 6am, for a 7am ferry. Ugh

The ferry journey was a lot busier this time, but we still arrived at Ullapool on schedule at 9:30am, to begin our further 6 hours of driving (after a previous 1 hour of driving then 2h30 of ferry) to our Travelodge outside Newcastle.

We ended up having a lovely first stop very soon after leaving Ullapool, when a toilet stop became necessary and we pulled into the really very pleasant Lael Forest Garden to find a spot for a wild wee. (At the time, it being only a few months in to the coronavirus pandemic, we were still avoiding public toilets where possible.) It was a lovely place – just a very nice, sunny, dramatic forest along the side of a steep hill, with a waterfall thrown in for good measure. We only spend 20 minutes there, but I’d love to return to explore it properly!

We then drove on to Inverness, where we stopped at a truly giant branch of Tesco – which shared its even bigger building with a Dobbies garden centre – so that I could buy some provisions for our meals for the next couple of days, and to have lunch and a video call with Millicent and Erithacus in the car park, which we’d been doing weekly since we stopped living together.

Vesper looking pleased with her Tesco-bought iced coffee on the unnamed bridleway near Cockenzie.

Other than a 5-minute wee stop in the bushes next to an A9 lay-by in the Cairngorms (where I, alas, found myself standing next to some blatant unburied, ah, solid human waste), our next significant stop came a long way later, after we’d travelled all the way down past Edinburgh. We got off the A1 and stopped in the first vaguely promising green space we found, a random gravelly area next to the B6371 to Cockenzie, which had a bridleway leading off through some scrubby woods.

This map area

Now, it was by this time past 5pm, so we were envisioning proceeding fairly directly through our last 2 hours of driving to our Newcastle destination. However, an idea struck us – on the A1 to Newcastle, we’d be driving right past Lindisfarne, a place deeply beloved of Vesper (and somewhat-beloved of me). The tides worked out so the causeway was clear (Lindisfarne being a tidal island), and it wouldn’t quite be dark yet – it all fell into place, and at about quarter past seven we rolled onto the Holy Island itself.

Looking over towards the castle on Lindisfarne

Vesper has been to Lindisfarne several times with her parents growing up, and the two of us have been twice together previously (about which see below!). We met studying Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at university, learning about the early medieval history and literature of Britain and Scandinavia: Lindisfarne is rather hard to avoid hearing about when studying that degree, it being the cradle of Christianity in the north of Anglo-Saxon England, and the location of (I think?) the first recorded Viking raid on Britain – or at least the famous very early one (evidently a resonant event for us, since we set our home internet password to “Lindisfarne793”). One of Vesper’s occasional hobbies is keeping an eye on Rightmove for Lindisfarne, satisfying her daydream of living there one day.

The ruins of Lindisfarne’s priory

So all in all, we rather like the place! Indeed, we were enthusiastically pointing out minor landmarks to each other from the point we left the A1, passed a campsite we’d stayed in and a pub we’d eaten in, crossed the level crossing, and started driving over the causeway to the island. Leaving dear Hilda in the nearly-empty car park, we did a half-hour lightning walking tour of the place, past cottages and closed shops to get onto the little ridge that looks down on the Priory ruins on one side, and the sea and the tiny tidal island St Cuthbert’s Isle on the other. Lindisfarne was was the quietest I’d seen the place, presumably due to some combination of the late hour and the ongoing pandemic.

We contemplated the feasibility of returning one day to spend a whole high tide on St Cuthbert’s Isle – it’s easy enough to walk across at low tide (indeed we’d done it before), and a sunny day, a book each and some provisions would make it a very pleasant outing, so long as no locals thought we were stuck and tried to rescue us. But it’s probably close enough to shout that we’re okay if anyone seems concerned.

The recently-excavated Anglo-Saxon church

And that was it! We returned to our car quite happy and energised, very glad we’d made the slight detour.

The rest of our journey

From Lindisfarne, it was less than an hour to our Travelodge on the outskirts of Newcastle, where we ate pot noodles before collapsing for the night after our long day’s travelling. The next day was much shorter, with only about four hours of driving needed to get us back home, which we accomplished by about 3pm, due to a long stop at Rutland Water, where we were very happy to meet Vesper’s parents, her dog Dexter, and the lunch that they’d brought us!

Looking down on Rutland Water at the end of our lunch stop – it had started raining at this point, but we kept dry for most of the stop, fortunately!

Previous visits

Holy Island Trek, August 2016

As mentioned above, I’ve visited Lindisfarne twice before. The first of these occasions was in summer 2016 on the Holy Island Trek, the name that my friends Erithacus, Queenie, Vesper, Millicent and I gave to our attempt at a long-distance walk across Scotland from Lindisfarne to Iona – both notable islands in the early history of Christianity in the British isles. The trip has featured on this blog several times before, but given our route, this map area is of course particularly notable as where it all began!

A statue of St Aidan in the visitor center on Lindisfarne. Aidan journeyed from Iona to Lindisfarne to establish the first monastery there in the 7th century. Thematically speaking, it would have been more appropriate for us to take our journey in the same direction, but we ended up deciding to start on Lindisfarne because, to us, Iona is the more exotic and distant-feeling destination!

Queenie, Erithacus, Millicent and I drove up to Lindisfarne from my parents’ Northampton home on a Sunday, and set up camp for the next couple of nights at The Barn at Beal – there are no campsites on Lindisfarne itself, making this site the closest one, sitting as it dose just a mile or so from the mainland end of the causeway. That evening’s entry in the Annal, the collaborative diary that we kept on that trip, reads:

At long last we arrived at our destination, and impressed ourselves with our competence in the erection of tents. Amrit ventured out to collect [Vesper], who had had a train-based adventure, from Berwick-upon-Tweed station, and then pasta was cooked and subsequently consumed. And then we went to the pub.

Now that quote doesn’t contain any deeply notable events, but I thought I’d share it with you for its final sentence. On the whole of that three- to four-week long trip, we went to a pub nearly every night, since there’s not a whole lot to do on an evening at a campsite when all you’ve got with you is fairly poky tents you can carry on your backs. We’d usually cook for ourselves at the campsite, but then decamp to a nearby pub – as long as there was one within easy walking distance – for an hour or so, to sit in the warm, have a chat, write up the annal, and charge our phones before bed.

The five of us standing in Lindisfarne Priory, at the beginning of our walking trip!

For this reason, it became so ingrained that our annal entries ended with “And then we went to the pub” that, even when we didn’t go to the pub, we’d end them with “And then we did not go to the pub“! This habit persisted even to future trips I took with this group (when we kept filling in the annal), even though on those later trips – such as our 2018 trip to the Isle of Harris – we stayed in holiday cottages, and so didn’t go to the pub even once…

The Pilgrim’s Way, the older walking route across the sands between Lindisfarne and the mainland

The next morning, we caught a bus over to Lindisfarne, and spent a good while exploring, visiting the Priory, the little visitor centre, and so on, before beginning our walk officially by retracing our bus route, back along the length of island and across the causeway to Beal. The causeway is a comparatively recent arrival, being constructedin the 1950s; before that the only way to the island was either by boat, or by walking across the sands at low tide. One can still take the “Pilgrim’s Way”, as it’s known, across the sands, which is marked by sturdy wooden poles, but one has to time it rather carefully with the tides and I think it may be recommended to walk it only after advice or with a guide. While we considered it, in the end we stuck to the safe option and walked along the causeway. I’d like to return and walk the sands one day!

Walking back along the causeway to the mainland

We ambled back into the campsite not long after, having started off our journey with a leisurely walk of just 4.5 miles that day. The remainder of the day was spent at leisure, the only outing (other than the obligatory evening pub trip) being when I drove up to Berwick-upon-Tweed to park the car and got the bus back, the plan being that the car would stay there for several weeks, to be picked up only on our triumphant return from Iona. [1]

The next day, Tuesday 23rd August, would be our first full walking day of the trip, and we had 15 miles to cover to the Northumberland village of Wooler, still just in this map area and a good way inland. The first four planned days of our trip would see us walk the full length of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long-distance walking route that stretches from Lindisfarne to Melrose in the Scottish Borders. (It’s also, despite only around half its length being in Scotland, one of “Scotland’s Great Trails“.) The Way is named for St Cuthbert, a very prominent Northumbrian saint, who grew up in, and was later prior of, the monastery at Melrose, and ended up as Bishop of Lindisfarne.

The annal again:

Our first impediment was a railway line, which offered the prospect of collision with a train travelling at 125mph. Noting this, we opted to make use of the conveniently placed telephone box, and were informed by the signal station that we were safe to cross, if we did so with haste. After making a second phone call from the other side of the track to inform the station of our safe passage, we continued onwards.

The day’s walk went pretty smoothly, with the main further obstacle being that it got very hot and sunny, leading us to dash from shade to shade for the last few miles to Wooler. The most notable location we passed was St Cuthbert’s Cave, where the monks of Lindisfarne are said to have sheltered when fleeing one of the many Viking raids on the monastery, carrying the body of the saint with them.

We reached Wooler in good time to purchase some ingredients, prepare a surprisingly non-terrible quorn-chicken stir-fry on our camp stove, and have the obligatory pub trip before bed! The next day saw us take the next stint along St Cuthbert’s Way, to Town Yetholm just over the Scottish border, but since the great majority of that walk was outside this map area, I’ll leave my tale here.

ASNaC Trip, January 2017

The degree course that I studied at university, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, has been mentioned above (and fairly often on this blog). As well as being a university department and degree course, there is also a student society of the same name, which among (many) other things, runs an annual trip for students, usually over long weekend each January, to see some places of historical interest and generally have some fun. 2018’s trip to Argyll, which I organised, took place very soon after I’d started this blog, so I wrote about it extensively, however 2017’s trip, which had us based in Durham as we explored old Northumbria, has also featured once before, in my Hexham post, covering our visit to Hadrian’s Wall.

Our group posting on a bench in Lindisfarne Priory!

We, of course, came to Lindisfarne on this trip too! We did mainly the same few things as I’d done on the previous trip, so I don’t have a great deal to write about, but I enjoyed it all the same. For no particular reason, I’ll leave you with our itinerary for that trip!

[1] Regular blog readers will know that this didn’t stay the plan for very long at all, as I bussed back to collect the car only a few days later, and we turned the trip into a “driving and day walks” one rather than an end-to-end through walk, carrying our lives on our backs.

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