On England’s Holy Island, Nature Meets Spirituality

Lindisfarne, one of the U.K.’s oldest Christian pilgrimage sites, is a blissful communion of spiritual quietude and rich biodiversity.  
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The Rainbow Arch is one of the most striking features of the 12th-century Lindisfarne Priory ruins, having survived despite the tower above it collapsing 200 years ago. Photo by: Menno Schaefer/shutterstock

On a local expert’s recommendation I’m rattling down a country lane looking for the rare sight of the East Atlantic light-bellied Brent goose. In autumn, around half the world’s population of the Brent flocks to this part of England’s north eastern coast to find a place to rest for the colder months and, hurtling forward in the hope of seeing them arriving from the Arctic Circle, I reflect on how this particular section of the Northumberland coast has long been a magnet not just for animals, but for flocks of religious pilgrims, naturalists and tourists for centuries. At the heart of all these journeys is a tiny speck called the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

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Numerous avian species including Bean and Brent Geese (top) can be spotted along Lindisfarne’s shores, dotted with traditional fishing sheds (bottom). Photos by: Duncan Usher/Minden Pictures/Dinodia Photo Library (birds), coxy58/shutterstock (boats)

Home to less than 200 permanent residents, Lindisfarne is an island village, connected to the mainland by a mile-long causeway along the sea floor. Twice a day the tide comes in and floods the road, creating a drifting, timeless, picture-perfect model town which also boasts a 16th-century castle and the ruins of a monastery. As one of the oldest and most important Christian sites in the U.K., Lindisfarne draws over 6,00,000 visitors a year. Though many of these visitors come to see the unique wildlife populations of geese, puffins and seal colonies, since 635 A.D., people have also been seeking an elusive sense of the spiritual.

Mary Fleeson, villager and owner of the Lindisfarne Scriptorium art shop, believes that the uniqueness of the place is due to, “All the prayers that have gone before. This place has been steeped in prayer for nearly 1,500 years and there’s always people coming here seeking God. It’s known as a thin place, where you can almost just reach out and touch God.” Although she wasn’t born on the island, Mary arrived here 21 years ago and never wanted to leave. “When I first came to the island I just burst into tears. It was like coming home to a place that I didn’t know was home. It was uncanny. I crossed the causeway in an ordinary little car and I was just there in the back blubbing my eyes out, which I don’t normally do. It was dramatic.”

One of the main reasons why pilgrims come here seeking this uncanny sense of spiritual tranquillity lies in its long association with Christianity. In the 7th century, King Oswald of Northumbria summoned an Irish monk named Aidan to his kingdom and asked him to establish a monastery, which was duly founded at Lindisfarne. Then in the 670s, a young monk named Cuthbert took charge of the same community. It was only after his death, however, that Cuthbert’s true importance took shape. Eleven years after his death in 687, Cuthbert’s body was uncovered and reported to be completely untouched by decay. Visitors soon reported other miracles linked to the body’s astonishing survival, all of which lead to Lindisfarne itself growing in importance for pilgrims who now made regular trips to find spiritual connection. To this day, travellers return here to recapture something of that sensation.

Like many places of spiritual resonance though, there is a complex set of reasons why people come here. The search for a Christian God may be occurring at the ruins of the 12th-century priory which stands in place of Aidan’s original monastery (believed to be destroyed by Vikings), but it’s also taking place among the sand dunes and across the wild acres of grassy wetlands which dominate the countryside. One of the interesting facets of Cuthbert was his ability to reconcile the natural beauty of this area with his faith. Ultimately, Cuthbert was a local man, deeply embedded in nature.

According to Andrew Craggs, manager of the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve and my guide to finding the Brent geese, Cuthbert’s legacy was that he was “the first nature warden. Instead of wanting to dominate nature he wanted to be one with nature.” To this day, nature is central to Lindisfarne’s appeal and each year, thousands of visitors (human and animal) come here.

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Stone buildings and cobblestone streets round up the old-world charm of the island (top and bottom). Photos by: Reimar/shutterstock (bicycle) SuperStock/ Dinodia Photo Library (building)

Andrew suggests that the animals come here simply “to survive.” He and his team put in a huge amount of work so that the wintering birds and other rare species can thrive. “All species need food, warmth and shelter and this site provides it. The demands on them in autumn/winter are different because it gets cold and the days are much shorter. So they come to Lindisfarne and then they can go back to those breeding grounds in the north because that’s what they’re programmed to do.” Mary is more hopeful that the area is able to invoke a less material reaction. “I think our hope is that people come here and it feeds their soul. That they meet some aspect of God that perhaps they didn’t even know they were looking for. You need to forget the village and the shops and go and find a quiet spot on one of the beaches or in the dunes, beyond the castle and just be.”

Whether one comes here seeking God or geese, it’s the perfect location to take a moment and consider one’s place, both in the natural world and in the long sweep of history. Perhaps revelations may manifest in the ruins of the priory, or while wandering through the stone-walled village with its friendly, dog-walking locals and its shops of local produce like Lindisfarne mead. Or, like many others, maybe one will enjoy the long, snaking road to Holy Island itself. Drive or walk across the wet sand and through the reedy, wind-blown eel grasses which crowd the dunes and there might be some peace of mind, some sense of arriving home in a new place for anyone.

Essentials

The island of Lindisfarne is closest to Edinburgh (1.5 hr) and Newcastle airports (1 hr). A metalled causeway connects the island to the mainland and tidal weather may affect its opening and closure. Check tide times at www.visitnorthumberland.com/coast/holy-island/crossing-times.

  • Stephen Connolly is a freelance writer based in the UK. As a former historian he travels to witness first-hand everything he's read about in books; as an ongoing glutton he roams the world looking for the best things to eat.

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