For the past three months I have been reading about, and meditating on, the life of the 7th century English pastor, St. Cuthbert. And so it was with great excitement that we went to Lindisfarne and Inner Farne islands at the beginning of this week.
St. Aidan founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in 635 AD at the request of King Oswald. After spending time at other monasteries Cuthbert become prior of Lindisfarne later in the 7th century. Despite its remote location off the northeast coast of England, Cuthbert eventually moved to the even more remote island of Inner Farne.
Today, Lindisfarne remains a relatively quiet and beautiful place. It is only accessible by car or on foot during low tide. To get to it one must drive across a road that is covered by the sea at high tide. Despite numerous warnings to keep careful track of the tides, every year someone tries to beat the sea – and loses. There are little huts built up on stilts for those who get caught in the rising tide. One of my daughters saw this and asked, “But what happens to their car?” Well, it is claimed by the sea as so many other human made instruments have been through the ages.
On Lindisfarne today there is a small village with nice pubs, bed and breakfasts, and shops. We ate and spent the night at a pub overlooking the ruins of a 11th century priory and a 16th century castle. There is nothing left of the original monastery. The ruins that are visible are from a cathedral and priory built by the community from Durham cathedral in the 11th century at about the same time that St. Cuthbert’s body was finally laid to rest in Durham. After King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in England, many of the stones were used to build what was seen as more important to the realm at the time – a strategically located castle.
One of the best aspects of visiting Lindisfarne is enjoying the sound and vistas of the sea all around. As the tide came in and the majority of visitors went out, we were left on the island in peace. As we walked along the shore we heard the braying of seals and saw up close some of Cuddy’s ducks (Eider ducks). We could also see the magnificent Bamburgh Castle on the mainland and Cuthbert’s second home – Inner Farne Island.
Inner Farne Island can only be reached by boat. And it is quite an adventurous boat trip. We climbed on board a small fishing vessel with about 60 other visitors and set off into the wind and waves of the North Sea. While we didn’t get seasick in the hour and half trip, much longer on those waves and we would have released our lunch to the wild. Before stopping on Inner Farne Island, we took a tour around the Outer Farne Islands famous for their shipwrecks and thousands upon thousands of nesting birds.
Inner Farne Island today is also home to countless sea birds of about 12 different species. Spring time is the most amazing season to visit because they are hatching their eggs. When we first arrived on the island we were pleasantly surprised to come across a pretty, little Arctic tern sitting on a fencepost. Then it suddenly flew up and began attacking us. The terns are fiercely protective of their young and will dive bomb and peck your head with their sharp beak. Even our five-year-old daughter couldn’t escape the wrath of a tern as the video below shows! It is a good thing that we heded prior warnings and wore hats which at least kept the skin on our head intact. I wonder if St. Cuthbert had to wear a hat during the 10 years he lived on Inner Farne island…
I put together a little video of our time on these two special islands. Unlike my typical approach, I did not add any music to this video. Instead I simply made the soundtrack as close to what St. Cuthbert would have heard during his life on the islands: crashing waves, blowing wind, and the calls of thousands of nesting birds.
The two days spent on the Northumberland coast were two of our best days in England (and we’ve had a lot of them!). It is remarkable and humbling to consider that for over 1300 years people have been meeting and worshipping God amidst the amazing birds and creatures of the English coast.