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Lindisfarne Island and National Nature Reserve - A view from our expert author
Lindisfarne Island is home to some of Northumberland's finest beaches © Michael Conrad, Shutterstock
Lindisfarne as a whole appears as a long grey-green streak across a glistening expanse of sea, saltmarshes and sandflats.
Lindisfarne Castle seemingly rises out of the sea off the coast of north Northumberland, but from the causeway that connects the island to the mainland at low tide it sinks out of view and Lindisfarne as a whole appears as a long grey-green streak across a glistening expanse of sea, saltmarshes and sandflats. It’s one of the most striking and beautiful panoramas on the Northumberland coast, so slow down and drink in the view. Beyond the grasslands and dunes on the north side of the island are some of Northumberland’s finest and whitest sandy beaches, which are often empty even in high summer.
When the tide retreats over Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve (the waters, mudflats and saltmarshes between the island and the mainland), it exposes a seabed that stretches for what appears to be several miles, though it is impossible to tell where the flats meet the sea when the tide is out. Even when it’s overcast, the reflected light is sharp and the sky perfectly mirrored in the silvery expanse. For ducks and waders, this is a giant bird table with enough marine creatures on offer to support tens of thousands of birds. Their numbers swell from early autumn until spring when migrant birds from the continent join in the banquet. Seals rest on exposed sandbanks here.
Lindisfarne, however, is best known as a place of Christian pilgrimage. For over 1,000 years, worshippers have travelled to the island on foot across the mud and sands – a tradition that continues today by following a line of posts that steer walkers around dangerous quicksand.
A monastic community led by St Aidan was established on Lindisfarne under the instruction of Oswald, King of Northumbria, in ad 635. St Cuthbert came to the island 50 years later when he left the Farne Islands to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. On Cuthbert’s death in AD687, his body remained perfectly preserved – an apparent miracle that inspired thousands of pilgrims to travel to the island, and the creation of the celebrated Lindisfarne Gospels.
Danish raids forced the monks of Lindisfarne to flee the island, carrying Cuthbert’s coffin and the gospels. Over 100 years later they finally came to rest in Durham where a shrine was constructed that was later rebuilt (the same magnificent Norman cathedral you see today). The Viking invaders are depicted on a 9th-century stone carving, now housed in the Lindisfarne Priory Museum on Church Lane, which shows a line of rudimentary figures waving swords and axes.
Ducks, wading birds and geese begin arriving from late summer and early autumn on the saltmarshes, grasslands and tidal mudflats surrounding Lindisfarne Island (a National Nature Reserve) where they spend the winter. Most of the time they are busy prodding the mud for food or avoiding death by peregrine. On the occasions that a raptor does swoop by (sparrowhawk and hen harrier are also possible), a pandemonium of birds takes to the sky.
There are so many vantage points, but some trusted favourites are the mainland shores of the Fenham Flats where shelduck, redshank, wigeon, bar-tailed godwit and curlew congregate in good numbers. This is a popular feeding area for light-bellied Brent geese. You can walk along the shore here though the ground is very muddy.
Lindisfarne causeway (from the bridge) is good for close-up views of waders and ducks on your way to the island, as are the damp fields on the approach to the castle (masses of teal, wigeon, lapwing and golden plover here). If walking across the island’s dunes in November and December, you have a very good chance of seeing the day-flying shorteared owl. The last time I visited, I saw at least three individuals here.
The reserve is also known for its grey seals and flowering plants. Dunes on the northwest side of Lindisfarne Island blossom with 11 varieties of orchids in summer. Look out for the Lindisfarne helleborine.