Statue of St. Aidan, Lindisfarne
'Sometimes, I think Lindisfarne is all about glimpses. The American artist Willem de Kooning said that he saw himself as 'a fleeting glimpse', and I think I know what he meant.
It perhaps starts in one of these directions; maybe a manoevering to block out the glass reflection at the British Library to catch a glimpse of the Lindisfarne Gospels, or perhaps that wonderful East Coast rail journey from Newcastle to Edinburgh, when a flicker through the windows reveals Lindisfarne Castle in the distance of the panoramic seascape, which soon disappears behind trees and hills before the arrival at Berwick upon Tweed. Yet once seen, you look out for this brief magical image on the return journey.
When Roman Polanski was looking for locations for his movie 'Cul de Sac', he flew by light aircraft around the coast of Britain and spied Lindisfarne Castle, a perfect location for the the drama to follow, and it is difficult to drive across the causeway to the Island without thinking of the opening sequence of that movie. From the car window however, you cannot escape the ever-present past when you trace the original Pilgrims Way, outlined by wooden poles which traverse the sand adjacent to the modern tarmac road. The latter is to get you there and away as quickly as possible, necessitating a race against the incoming tide, whereas the former is for you to to get the feel of the place in its time, and the physical presence of the essence of Celtic Spirituality.
The name of Lindisfarne may have originated from the stream called the Lindis, which only appeared at low tide. The word 'Farne', as found in the neighbouring islands, is from the Celtic word meaning 'land'. So Lindisfarne is one of those rare Celtic place names in Northumberland. The Island can be reached twice a day at low tide, but many a modern-day pilgrim or visitor has had their car trapped on the cauaseway, as is evident in the Seahouses Lifeboat Museum Diary of Rescues. So many visitors have only a glimpse of the Island before it is time to leave. Yet there are a few small hotels and hostels on the Island and it can still be a perfect place for people to find a personal meditative sanctuary.
Now the great days of the herring fishing are over the Island relies very much upon tourism, but reminders of the past are seen with the upturned boats, some originally having been cut in half and turned into dwellings, but nowadays used as storage units and workplaces.
The tall beacons in the harbour are another landmark. They were to guide ships from Dundee here to ply the trade of limestone quarried on the island. The lime kilns can still be seen in the vicinity of the castle. The castle itself has a fairytale appearance, largely due to the work of the architect Edwin Lutyens who transformed the original 16th century fortification into a private dwelling. This is now owned by The National Trust and open to the public, even though it is like walking into the Polanski movie. A small gem is the Miss Gertrude Jekyll walled garden near the castle, accessible by a lovely walk across the fields, and Lindisfarne is really all about walking.
The only way to absorb the true feeling of the Island is to slow down from 20th century time to 7th century time. However, ‘time’ is the key word, as there is so much to see and do before it is time to beat the incoming tide in order to return to the mainland. There is the museum, and the 11th century ruins of the Benedictine Priory built near the site of the original wooden settlement of St Aidan. There is a fine view from the Priory Ruins, across the bay to the castle. One can glimpse the chevron carving on the Priory pillars, disappearing fast due to erosion by the North Sea weather. These carvings echo beautifully those in Durham cathedral as the same stonemasons constructed them both. Continuing one's visit there is the beauty of tiny St Cuthbbert's Island to be admired, with its ruined Celtic chapel and stark cross silhouetted against the sea. On then to the Parish Church of St Marys, where the magnificent altar carpet depicts intricate designs fron one of the pages of the 7th century Lindisfarne Gospels. The carpet was embroidered by eighteen local ladies and took two years to complete. The Winery also has to be visited to taste the Lindisfarne mead, and the Lindisfarne Celtic Crafts shop is a treasure-trove where one can speculate on buying some of the superb craftwork on display. A nice gesture for friends or relatives is to go to the Post Office, which also serves as a bookshop, and to send a postcard or two, as the postmark reads 'Holy Island'; a good and simple souvenir!
It is within the aforementioned setting that we experience the Island now, but would it have been so much different during the time when the Lindisfarne Gospels were being produced, in about 690 AD? Today, when all the tourists have gone, any person with imagination, a feeling for Celtic locations and an artistic eye can catch a glmpse of the true meaning of this place. Was Eadfrith, the artist of the Lindisfarne Gospels restricted to his meditation cell or did he wander the Island? Did he see the cat which he incorporated into the Gospel page of St Luke? Likewise the birds which appear throughout the manuscript, did he see them on Lindisfarne or the nearby Farne Islands? Is not the flicker of the pages with their amazingly intricate patterns very similar to the light falling on the waves? Similarly, you only have to climb the castle hill and observe the curve of the shingle to realise that the lower section of the page of St luke's Gospel is so similar.
Viewing the manuscript from the present day, the symbolic swastika on the carpet page of St John portrays to us in today’s culture a diferent and immediate feeling of fear, which is diametrically opposed to its original religious and meditative symbolism respected by the monastic community in Eadfrith's day. Then there are the deliberate unfinished pieces in the illuminated Gospels, the delberate mistakes made, so it is said, in order to avoid emulating Divine perfection, an idea drawn perhaps from Eastern works of art - a glimpse of another culture incorporated into Western Art at this time.
The Northumberland coastline is where Captain Cook learnt his sailing expertise, and where on the Farne Islands Grace Darling achieved her fame. A visit to Bamburgh church has reminders of St Aidan as well as the burial place of Grace Darling. To walk down to the beach in front of the huge Norman castle that was once King Ostwald’s original fortress and to gaze across the sea to Lindisfarne castle where you have previously stood, brings a wonderful experience of peace and upliftment.
The last time I was on Lindisfarne the Reverend David Adams autographed my modern book on the Lindisfarne Gospels, writing 'God grant you a glimpse of glory'. Looking around me on this unique and mystical place I felt that this was most appropriate. Immediately after this I had to run as the incoming tide would very soon be covering the causeway and my exit to the mainland.
I return to the Island often, and from my experience there is always another glimpse for another day.
- © Geoff Pattison