by Amanda Wagstaff, Hut2Hut Pilgrimage Editor
My pilgrimage to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne began on a RyanAir flight from Dublin to Edinburgh. I was seated next to a woman and her toddler, Molly. Molly was a very active little girl – standing in mummy’s lap, singing, and doing choreographed dances… Mum was very patient and calm with her daughter’s antics and was prepared with lots of potential distractions to keep the little girl from getting restless. One of these was a bag of small plastic figurines. While I sat reading Robin Davidson’s “Tracks,” Molly pulled toys out to the bag one by one, and told her mum their names.
Molly was not shy at all, and it was only a matter of time before she noticed the person in the next seat. I could feel her staring at me, but chose to stay in the Outback with Robyn Davidson. She kept looking over and decided that she would go a step further and offer me her ‘Peppa Pig’ figurine. Mum tried to intervene. “The lady is reading. Can you give Peppa to mummy?”
But she’d broken the seal. I looked over and smiled and said, “Oh hello, who is that? Is that Peppa Pig?”
And then she offered me Peppa’s brother George. Mum tried to pull Molly back into their own personal space bubble. Molly went along with that for a while, but then she looked over at me and tried to offer me the toy. I still had my book open in my lap, but of course by this time, I wasn’t reading it. I’d been lured away by the happenings on my left. I took George in my hand and perched him on top of my book. Molly looked at me and looked at George, like some great thing had happened. Now ‘the lady’ has George, what’s going to happen next? “I think George might be lonely if he stays with me. And maybe Peppa will miss him,” I said.
She must have agreed with me, because she took him back and returned to the ‘naming’ game. But when they got to George, and Mum asked, “who is that?” Molly (smarty-pants) said ‘hers’ and pointed to me.
And then I realized, this trip was going to be about generosity.
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The plane landed in Edinburgh and I said goodbye to Molly and her Mum. I hopped a bus to the train station and a train to Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland County. The train had a few delays in the countryside. At one point we stopped on the track for a few minutes when a rabbit moved just a few feet from my face, sniffing around a high grassy bank. It was gone before I could reach into my pocket for my smartphone to take a picture – as it should be. To capture it in a photo would be a violation of the experience. I had to let it go.
I arrived in the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed and walked down the street towards Golden Square to catch a bus to Belford, my village destination. I chatted for a bit with a woman at the bus stop. She was on her way home with groceries, and when I told her where I was heading, she advised me to get some groceries of my own – she knew that Belford was very small and was worried that the shop might be closed by the time I arrived. I followed her advice and made it back to the stop in time to catch the bus with £6 worth of breakfast, snack, and dinner items in tow.
I had emailed with my AirBnB host earlier in the day and was surprised to learn that she was out of town. “The key is under the flower pot by the door.” She was giving me free reign of her house and any food that was in the fridge and cupboards. After the long day of planes, trains, and buses, it was so nice to settle into a cozy, quiet home. After dinner, a hot bath, and laying out my supplies for the next day’s walk, I slipped into a deep and restful sleep.
I have a hell-of-a-time getting up early to go to work, but I practically leapt from bed when the alarm went off at 6. It’s easy to get up for something you love. If I dread something, I will toe the line between resentful compliance and all-out rebellion. I’ve woken up with a lot of ‘stomach bugs’ and sudden bouts of food poisoning if you know what I mean….
I left the house by 7. It was very quiet, no people, but the birds were out. I kept hearing morning doves to the left and right as I walked through the neighborhood – a dove perched on every house, cooing back and forth across my path. I saw shimmering spider webs from the night before, took deep breaths of the cool morning air, had a spring in my step… The trail was very close to my AirBnB and it wasn’t long before I spotted my first waymark of the day.
I was starting out on a section of St. Oswald’s Way, a north-south walking path between the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne and Heavenfield, near Hadrian’s Wall. Oswald was a good Christian King of Northumbria in the 7th c., and the walking path links different sites associated with this revered medieval saint. This path merges with St. Cuthbert’s Way near the town of Fenwick. St. Cuthbert’s Way is a west-east pilgrim path from Melrose in the Scottish borderlands to Holy Isle. Cuthbert was a 7th c. monk, abbot, and Bishop of Lindisfarne, though he seemed to prefer the austere life of a hermit – he spent several periods throughout his career in solitude and ended his days alone, ill and in contemplation, on one of the Inner Farne Islands near Lindisfarne. I planned to spend the day following the paths of these two Northumbrian saints.
From Belford, Oswald’s way leads down a small country lane, then eventually turns left into a grassy pasture, parallel to a small but rushing creek. It was so foggy, I couldn’t see any of the distant landscape or get a good sense of where I was headed. The fog added a layer of mystery, increasing my isolation.
But I wasn’t really alone. Saw a few rabbits, cows, and sheep, of course. As the morning wore on, I heard the stirring of tractors, trucks, and farmers as I walked through their pastureland. And I kept hearing this sound, like the swinging of a gate on a rusty metal hinge. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from until I saw a goofy-looking bird take off across a field in front of me. A pheasant! They look so funny when they run, like guinea fowl. Their big round body seems perfectly balanced, gliding through space, while their little legs are frantically kicking up dust underneath.
I noticed the word ‘crag’ a lot on the map and I could see why – there are huge rocks poking through the fields, leftovers from a turbulent geological past. I walked through patches of woods then pasture again, eventually arriving at a point where I could see the sea and just a hint of the island in the fog.
The Holy Isle of Lindisfarne is a tidal island – when the tide is high, it is completely cut off from land. But when the tide goes out, it is possible to walk or drive on the sand ’causeway’ that connects the island to the mainland. People still live on the island today, and there is a surprising amount of car traffic between the isle and the mainland. The Northumberland County Council publishes precise tide charts to help residents, tourists, and pilgrims time their journeys on the causeway, with specific green ‘safe’ times and red ‘unsafe’ times.
Many walkers and pilgrims walk along the paved causeway road, but more zealous pilgrims take the Pilgrim’s Path over the sand, following the tall, thin wooden stakes to the heart of the island. It’s a more direct route to Lindisfarne and the Abbey, but it is also a 2.5 miles stretch of wet sand desert. It took me over an hour to cross, and it was the strangest place I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced so much open space.
I had timed my walk to arrive at the Pilgrim’s Path at the beginning of the low-tide ‘safe’ time. The downside to this is that the pathway was only freshly revealed and still quite muddy. My waterproof boots have been faithful on all my trips so far, but I pushed the limit this time.
There was a spot where the puddles was just a little too deep for the boots, so I tried to find an alternate route. I thought I’d found a solid spot to step – it looked like all the other sand – but it was about a foot deep. Up until this point, I had been walking in complete silence. “Oh shiiiiiiit.” I sank down to my shins – quickly pulled myself out, but I could feel the mud tugging on my boot. I was surprised to see my boot completely covered in black muck. Organic matter decomposing just below the top layer of sand, I guess.
This mud incident broke the contemplative spell and the mood changed to a more playful one. I climbed up one of the lookout towers and zoomed my camera lens toward the island – I could see red roofs on buildings in the town. I stopped to look at shells – loads of cockles left behind by the receding tide. I took a selfie. It took so long to cross that in-between desert-space. I needed to entertain myself a little.
Once on the island, my solitude ended. I was surrounded by tourists – families, couples, etc. Lots of talking, complaining, joking around, kids yelling. Several hours alone in pastures, woods, and on the sandy causeway had made me more sensitive to noise. But that’s how it goes. I joined their ranks, and we all headed towards the center of town to the two main attractions on the island, the Abbey and the Castle.
Lindisfarne Castle sits atop a rocky crag, similar to Edinburgh Castle. It was built in the 16th c., long after the Abbey had been abandoned due to devastating Viking raids. The castle was restored in the early 20th c. by Arts and Crafts architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Only a few walls and arches remain of the medieval Abbey, but it was once one of the most important monasteries in Anglo-Saxon England. As you walk around the ruins, it’s hard to imagine that one of the most important early medieval manuscripts was copied, illuminated and bound here over 1000 years ago. This was the birth place of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
I walked around the Abbey ruins in a bit of a daze, and I lost track of time. I knew that the causeway would be open until 6 pm, but I needed to get back to the mainland in time to catch a bus back to Belford. There were only 2 buses that afternoon, at 15:30 and 17:30, and they left from Beal, about 5 miles away.
I knew I was too tired to walk another 5 miles, and even if I did, I might not make the last bus. Then I’d really be stuck! Though I have to say, I wasn’t too stressed out about all this. After several experiences of traveling and walking, I’ve gotten used to waiting, adapting, and girding myself for problems and mishaps. It’s not a burden; it’s a necessity. You just do whatever you have to do, whether it’s walking, negotiating public transportation schedules, or asking for help. This time, I decided to go for the latter and asked a local shopkeeper for advice. He suggested that I hitch a ride across the causeway. He assured me that loads of people do this, especially in the summer time, and the locals are used to it.
I’ve never hitchhiked before, so I felt a little nervous standing by the road. When I saw the first car, I stuck out my thumb. The wind was blowing so I think I was squinting a bit – not smiling. Probably didn’t look very nice. They passed me! I had to laugh at the whole thing – I felt so silly. At least the laughing put a natural smile on my face, so I probably looked more appealing.
I got rejected many more times. To be fair, most of the cars were completely full, because most of the visitors had come in groups, with their friends, families etc. They had no room. (At least that’s how I rationalized it!) I decided to start walking across the causeway and if anyone was coming, I’d turn around and try to thumb them down. A few more rejections. Kept walking. Then a black Range Rover came around the corner. I hesitated at first because it was a ‘nice’ car, but stuck my thumb out anyway. She stopped! It was a woman – middle-aged, very beautiful, alone in her car.
“Are ya just trying to get across?”
“Yes! I’m trying to catch a bus in Beal.”
I was so thankful! I made sure my boots were as clean as possible and very gingerly got into the car. She was a local and she was on her way to pick up her kids from school on the mainland. We chatted a bit – I told her about my walk and that I’m currently living in Ireland. She had lived in Edinburgh with her young family and had moved to Holy Island about a year ago. Her husband was the school teacher and her two children were two of four school-aged kids on the island. They did morning school on Lindisfarne and then went to the mainland for the afternoons. We also found out that we had something in common – we are both country girls. She grew up on a farm in rural Northern Ireland. We were so busy chatting that the drive went by really quickly. She pulled off by the gas station in Beal. I thanked her and offered a ‘tenner’ for the ride, but she refused.
Thanks to her, I was able to make the 15:30 bus. It dawned on me that it was ONLY 15:30. I felt like the morning was days ago. Back in Belford, I walked to my cozy AirBnB. First order of business: I brewed some coffee and ate the cookies that my hostess had left behind. Then I put my dirty clothes in the washer and put them through a mini cycle while I made an indulgently big bowl of pasta with pesto and a bit of salad. AND a little bottle of wine. I was ecstatic. The place, the walk, the people I’d met, and the cozy house that had been entrusted to me by a generous stranger all added up to one of the most incredible days I’ve ever experienced.
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Traveling always requires that you put faith in others. As a traveler, you are humbled by the kindness and generosity of strangers. You may think you are some rugged individual, you can take care of yourself, you don’t need anybody – well, you’re a fool. You just don’t survive for long without the kindness of strangers. And therefore, your job as a traveler is to be generous in return. To pay kindness forward. To be a respectful and helpful guest to the people you meet and places you visit.
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Tips for Walking to Holy Island
- Planning – use the links below to plan your route(s). I only walked the very end of the pilgrim paths, however, it is possible to walk between 1-7 days on either one.
- Tide Charts – It is very important to plan your walk to the island during one of the safe crossing times. Use the Northumberland County Council tide chart: http://orahttp://www.northumberland.gov.uk/www2/holyisland/HolyIsland.asp?dt=0116
- Get There – without a car, getting to the villages along the trails can be difficult. The closest airports are Edinburgh and Newcastle. I found that public transportation to Belford was easiest from Edinburgh.
- Edinburgh Airport to Waverley Station – there is an AirLink bus to the train station for £7.50 (Return)
- Waverley to Berwick-Upon-Tweed, Northumberland – ScotRail tickets for £12+ (Return) depending on the time of day. Book your tickets online for much cheaper rates. Pre-booked tickets can be printed at the ticket kiosks at the station.
- Accommodation – I enjoyed my AirBnB experience in Belford, but there are other options for camping, guesthouses, hostels, and hotels on both St. Oswald’s and St. Cuthbert’s websites.
- Terrain – The path I walked was fairly flat, mostly pastures and woods. If you choose to take a longer route, expect more hill walking, especially on St. Cuthbert’s Way.