Lindisfarne as a whole appears as a long grey-green streak across a glistening expanse of sea, saltmarshes and sandflats.Gemma Hall, author of Slow Travel Northumberland
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.
What to see and do
Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve
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.
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.
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.
The ruins of the early 12th-century priory and 13th-century parish church face each other on the southwestern tip of the island, just a few steps away from the village green. Nearly 900 years of wind and rain, as well as damage during the Reformation, have badly worn the stones of the arcades and arches of the priory, which was founded by Benedictine monks from Durham Cathedral.
Enough structures and geometric patterns remain to appreciate the layout of the building and recognise its architecture as Norman – and even to notice similarities with the nave at Durham. At dusk, the naturally blushed sandstones deepen in colour to that of a red night sky. The view from the churchyard looking over the gravestones with the priory to the left and the castle and boats in the bay to the right, is exceptionally picturesque.
Lindisfarne Castle crowns a conical-shaped mound of Whin Sill rock at the south of the island. The Tudor fortress appears to naturally emerge from the dolerite, rather than being built upon it, which is all rather pleasing from a visitor’s point of view. The castle dates from 1542 and was fortified in Elizabeth I’s reign but the strength of the impenetrable-looking walls has never been fully tested.
For many visitors, the most intriguing period in the building’s history was the evolution of the castle into an Edwardian house by architect Edwin Lutyens under the instruction of Edward Hudson, editor of Country Life magazine. He created domestic rooms in every chamber, connected by way of passages.
Located far from any settlement of note means that those who do make it to this runway-straight stretch of desolate coastline between Lindisfarne and the distant outskirts of Berwick find it blissfully free of people.
One weekend in summer I stood at the top of a high dune (of which there are many, incidentally) and counted 12 people on the entire three-mile-long beach. Apart from the golf club at Goswick and the distant view of Berwick, your contact with the built world is minimal. At low tide, the vast expanse of Goswick Sands north of Lindisfarne reveals itself.