Explore the beginnings of Celtic Christianity and a National Nature Reserve.
Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)
Minimum time 1hr 45min
Ascent/gradient 100ft (30m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Shore and dunes, some easy scrambles (avoidable), 1 stile
Landscape Dunes and expansive inter-tidal sands
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 340 Holy Island & Bamburgh
Start/finish NU 125424
Dog friendliness Dogs should remain on leads through village
Parking Large pay-and-display car park at entrance to village
Public toilets Signed within village
Notes Check tides; best undertaken at low tide as coastal section and causeway to island impassable at high water
1 Head from the car park towards the shore but, just before, at a waymark, turn right through a gate and follow a path on to the reserve. Keep ahead where it later splits, making for the higher dunes in front. Continue past a ruined lime kiln and over level ground beyond, to pass through more sandhills before reaching the beach. Head right along the coast, soon crossing an extensive wave-cut platform - go carefully, the rocks may be slippery. Rounding Snipe Point into Coves Haven, carry on at the head of its sandy beach towards cliffs at the far side. Slippery boulders here need caution, but the way is not difficult. At high tide follow a path above.
2 Around Castlehead Rocks, the going improves along a sandy beach towards the navigation marker on Emmanuel Head. There, leave the foreshore and continue at the edge of the dunes towards the castle. Behind it are Bamburgh and the Farne Islands. A raised tram bed, used to feed lime kilns on the left, leads to the castle entrance.
3 Pass the castle, follow a lane towards the village, then bear off left around the harbour. At the jetty, go right to climb on to The Heugh behind, turning right along its top past a lookout, Lutyen's stone cross and the ruined Lantern Chapel. Beyond, at the bottom, a track on the right climbs back beside St Mary's Church. Go into the graveyard and walk around the church to the priory entrance.
4 Leave the churchyard by its northern gate into the village and walk ahead through Market Square to continue along Crossgate. Cross over Marygate and carry on along Berwick Road back to the car park.
St Aiden travelled to Lindisfarne from Iona in ad 635 at the invitation of King Oswald, to bring Christianity to a heathen land. He founded a monastery on the island, little more than a simple wooden chapel surrounded by a few crude huts, from which he and his followers took their ministry into the surrounding countryside. When Aiden died at Bamburgh in 651, a young lad tending sheep in the nearby hills saw a vision of his soul passing to heaven and was so moved that he journeyed to Melrose Abbey, seeking admittance as a monk. Called Cuthbert, he too eventually came to Lindisfarne, first as its prior and later, reluctantly, its bishop. Well known for his preaching, Cuthbert developed healing powers and attracted people wherever he went. But his vocation increasingly drew him to prayer and meditation and, in his later years, he withdrew, first to the offshore island here, and then to Inner Farne, where he ended his days.
Cuthbert's body was brought back to Lindisfarne for burial and a cult developed around his memory. Eleven years later, when his body was exhumed to enshrine his bones, the remains were discovered completely undecayed 'as if he were just asleep'. It was to commemorate Cuthbert's elevation to sainthood that the famous Lindisfarne Gospels were written, by a monk called Eadfrith, who later also became bishop. The miracles of St Cuthbert drew increasing numbers of pilgrims and the monastery grew both in wealth and influence. However, it also attracted unwelcome visitors, the Vikings, and in 875 the monks were forced to abandon the island, taking with them the relics, gospels and even wood from Aiden's original chapel, in search of a new home, which they eventually found at Durham.
In the 11th century, monks from Durham, by then a Benedictine community, returned to Lindisfarne and refounded the priory, building a church on the site of the chapel where Cuthbert had been buried. About the same time, the parish church was erected and the place became known as Holy Island. At first the monastery prospered, but increasing border hostility at the end of the 13th century ruined the lands upon which it depended. By the Dissolution in 1537, perhaps only a prior and a couple of monks remained here.
The island was first fortified in the 1540s to serve as a landing for raids upon Scotland. It never saw significant action, but remained garrisoned until 1819. In 1901, the publisher Edward Hudson bought the castle and employed Edwin Lutyens in the task of transforming it into a worthy residence. Out of an uninspiring and utilitarian bastion, the architect wrought this intriguing medieval pocket mansion, a fascinating example of the inventiveness and harmony that Lutyens brought to his work.
As well as the castle and priory, visit the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre in Marygate. Displays describe the island's wildlife and man's history since the Stone Age. The highlight, though, is a vivid exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Offshore rocks are often the haunt of basking grey seals, the larger of the two species that inhabit Britain's coasts. You'll also see countless birds, in particular the eider, or 'Cuddy's' duck, named after St Cuthbert, who offered them protection on Farne. Take a bird guidebook along.