Lindisfarne: The Pilgrims’ Way to Holy Island

Looking back at one of my most memorable walks. Guided, December. With family.

TL;DR an other worldly walk across Holy Island Sands to Lindisfarne

It was almost New Year’s Eve and I was in Northumberland to see the Allendale Tar Barrels, an elemental New Years Eve festival in which 45 men from Dale called guisers, with whisky half-barrels on their heads filled with flaming tar, carry them at midnight and hurl them onto a huge bonfire in the market square. It’s a thrilling and intoxicating night, literally in some cases, a lot of drinking and carousing goes on.

But the day before New Year’s Eve, I was meeting Mary Gunn on Beal shore so she could guide me across the ancient pilgrims’ path to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Just after sunrise she was taking me and my little family, in the footsteps of Anglo Saxons and Vikings, across the sea.

Whilst this path isn’t dangerous like the Broomway, Mary has lived here all her married life, married to a fisherman whose family have lived on the island since forever and she knows all there is to know about the path, the island’s history and wildlife, and all the stories of people who have been stranded on the sands over the centuries on the rising tide. Mary is an absolute delight to walk with.

We met on Beal shore in time for the receding tide, which for us was just as the sun was rising. Perfect atmospheric light on a calm December morning. We followed her off the start of the causeway road and clambered down onto the wet sticky sand in the half light. It should go without saying timing is critical for a safe crossing, and beginning when the tide is going out leaves plenty of time for a peaceful, breathtaking walk. It’s also important to walk just one way so you don’t get caught out by a rising tide coming back again. Starting at the causeway means you avoid having to ford a river at the start, lovely son was quite young then, but not so small you’d want to carry him.

Stepping out onto the sands transports you in just a few steps to another time and place. The world falls away and it is just us, here, now. We learn about the seals and birds, and the stories of Aiden and Cuthbert, the men who came to Holy Island in the 7th century to first build a monastery and then make Lindisfarne a centre of Celtic Christianity, recorded by Bede in Ecclesiastical History of the English People. We learn about the Lindisfarne Gospels which were most likely written and illustrated here, by men who walked the path we are on. Before the Vikings came.

The route isn’t difficult to follow these days, there are poles at intervals marking the way and two refuges which can be used in an emergency. Mary tells us they are used not infrequently, often by people demanding to be rescued by boat. I feel her frustration, having to put RNLI and coastguard volunteers out to rescue people who have done no research or prep. I wonder if Mary or her husband have been involved but I don’t ask.

Lovely son and I climb up to imagine what it might be like watching the tide cutting you off. It feels brilliant. I want to camp here in an act of complete irresponsibility. Maybe i’m not so far from these unprepared clots after all.

The sun rises higher and the moody low clouds begin to thin and we warm up a little. The scale of tranquility and peace is amazing. It’s easy to understand the spiritual journey as much as the physical. There must have been cars crossing the causeway in the distance but I don’t remember any of them, just the sky and the sand and the remarkable journey on foot.

It’s not a long or tiring journey, although walking across sand takes more effort. In Summer many people walk barefoot. I immediately want to walk barefoot, but it is December, and I like having an excuse to come back and do it again. Mary tells us more stories about an island delivery man… but i’ll let her tell you it, it’s a great story.

Our walk finishes too soon and I don’t want to leave the sea. Holy Island is a lovely place to visit, particularly in winter when there are fewer visitors like us. We have more exploring to do, after we give Mary our heartfelt thanks and she gives J a lift back to the car. I don’t want to be in the car right now, I just want to stay here and look back out over the sea, and our footsteps in the sand.

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Walk info

We walked with Mary Gunn from The walk is around 3 miles, bring wellingtons or walk barefoot, and be prepared for very muddy feet.

2 responses to “Lindisfarne: The Pilgrims’ Way to Holy Island”

  1. I live my life vicariously. Thank you for the adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are very welcome Sherrie


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