Posted by: kljolly | July 2, 2016

Holy Island

I am just finishing a week’s retreat on Holy Island, at Lindisfarne.  Instead of using my brief time in England to visit as many sites as I can, as I have done in the past, I decided to stay in one spot and soak in the place.

Soak may be an apt word.  As many of you know, Holy Island is accessible only at low tide across a long spit of land, a sandy causeway.  Just south of it is a small islet, St. Cuthbert’s Island where he made his first retreat.  It also is cut off at high tide and accessible only at low tide across a rocky and sandy path strewn with kelp and beds of mussel shells.  I have crossed over to it and tramped around almost every day this week, imagining a 16-year old Aldred on a penitential pilgrimage here in 934.


St. Cuthbert’s Island (2007)

Signs everywhere on Holy Island warn about the tides and give the safe crossing times for the causeway, mostly for the day tourists.  But there are no signs or tide charts for St. Cuthbert’s Island.  Because it is southward and lower, the tide arrives sooner and faster, and retreats later than the causeway. But by how much?

I did not stop to think about that.  On Thursday, I decided to visit St. Cuthbert’s Island during the evening safe crossing period, to get a sense of what Aldred might experience as the day drew to a close.  At this time of year, the sun is still bright and low in the western sky at 9.  It doesn’t get dark until 11 or later, and the light returns a few hours later, according to the birds who wake me.


Looking south (I think!) from St. Cuthbert’s Island.

The safe crossing for the causeway the evening of June 30 would end at 10:15 p.m.  I went out after supper, warned to go quickly by one of my fellow retreat diners who got her feet wet the night before while crossing back.  I got on the island about 8 p.m., figuring I would have about an hour before needing to cross back.  Surely there would be not much more than an hour’s difference between this island’s causeway and the main one.


Looking west from Cuthbert’s Island, setting sun to the right.

I spent my hour contemplating the view facing different directions, as Aldred might have done as he said the Little Hours of prayer during the day.  I went down on the west side rocky shingle where I imagine Aldred might imitate Cuthbert and wade in for prayer.  I took off my boots and socks, rolled up my jeans, and waded up to my calves in the shallow bit, the soft sand nicer than the blocky rocks of the shore, looking at shells.


Looking west from Cuthbert’s Island, the rocky shingle at bottom left.

The tide which would later cover this rocky shingle was still withdrawn.  So I took my time after I got my socks and shoes on, searching in the rocks for a Cuthbert bead (no luck).  Then I circled round the north side of the island, wondering what to make of the spongy uneven hassocks of grass, with their pitfall holes.


Looking northwest from Cuthbert’s Island to the shore of Holy Island.

As I rounded toward the east end I looked up and, you guessed it, I was cut off from Holy Island. The flat sand and rocks over which I had crossed was now submerged by the rising tide.  It was just a few minutes past nine.

I had enjoyed being alone on the island.  Now I knew why.

In that split second as I gazed at the watery crossing, several things passed through my mind.  “What an idiot” being the main one.  I thought about the fact that I had a UK phone on me, but who would I call?  I did not see anyone on shore, and I certainly did not want any locals to see the stupid visitor wading back.  I am from Hawai`i where we have the same problem with silly tourists getting stuck and needing to be rescued.


Looking east from Cuthbert’s Island, taken soon after I arrived.  The exposed path is visible on the left.  The Farnes and Bamburgh are not visible in the distance.

Since the tide had just come in, it wasn’t deep yet. I thought briefly about removing my boots to keep them dry, but didn’t want to waste any time or be slowed down by bare feet searching for a soft footing.

So, umbrella as walking stick in hand, I strode into the tide, picking my way along roughly the same path I usually used to cross.  The water reached above my knees.  At one point I hesitated in my footing and swayed, but steadied by my umbrella I did not fall. I reached the other side feeling humbled.

It was a wet slog back up to the retreat house, where I confessed my idiocy to fellow residents.  Unbenownst to me, the one who had warned me had been sitting on the beach, saw me on the island, and tried to wave. She watched over me as I slogged back through the water.  So I was not alone.  Thanks, Emma!

And, another confession.  After I reached shore I realized my water bottle was missing from my backpack, probably fallen out on the island when I bent over or swung the pack off or on. Earlier I had despised the thoughtless visitor who had left a plastic soda bottle on the shore.  When I went back the next evening (earlier!), I could not find it.  My apologies to the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s in Minnesota, who gave me the water bottle at a writing workshop last fall on Whidbey Island.  Your name is on it.  I pray no one blames you for my carelessness.


Looking northeast toward Lindisfarne Priory and the Heugh (modern watchtower atop).  The way was still clear to cross when I took this at 8:15 p.m.!

Besides being reminded of my own human frailty, I gained some valuable insights to work into Aldred’s story.


  1. So glad you made the intrepid trip back to Holy Island — despite the rising tide.  Oh my, how scary!!!

  2. Marvelous writing. So descriptive that I felt I was walking and wading with you. I hope you tell Emma that you are a very strong swimmer even burdened with a pack! Looking forward to your visit. We will stay well away from water, islands and anything with tides!


  3. All’s well that ends well; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! It sounds as if you were slightly disorientated: at 9 o’clock in the evening the sun is in the WEST. Aldred calls this cardinal point ‘sunset’ (Matthew 24.27 gloss to ‘occidentem’). Your second photo taken almost into the setting sun looks west, rather than south. I think I can just make out the Kyloe hills on the left in the background; the setting sun is by now (9pm) in the north-west. Lovely picture: Holy Island must be one of the few places in the North-East of England where you can watch the sun go down over the sea.

  4. You are right. Moving the pictures from my phone I got them out of order and mislabeled them. Will fix when I get back to a computer here in Leeds.

    • Fixed, added what I am pretty sure is a south facing picture.

  5. […] island connected to the sea, and also a feeling of reverence for the sacredness of the past. I even blogged about having to wade back through the rising tide from St. Cuthbert’s Isle, feeling like the kind of […]

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