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Lindisfarne Priory

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by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Published August 16th 2015
Monks, Mead, Mary and the Gospels
Off the coast of Northumberland lies the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Cut off from the mainland at high tide, this small island provided the perfect place for monks to retreat to. Lindisfarne Priory is a holy place still, ruined though it may be, imbued with the spirit of ages of worship.

lindisfarne priory, northumberland, holy island
The chapel

On arrival you get your ticket at the museum centre outside of the Priory grounds. There is first a small museum telling you more about the site, giving an insight into the gospels, the history, the community.

lindisfarne priory, northumberland, holy island
Interactive display in the museum

You enter through the chapel, one tower of which still just about stands. It's a step down, so not necessarily access-friendly, but there are staff to help you if needed. Here you present your ticket, before getting a chance to wander around the site at will.

chapel, lindisfarne priory, holy island, northumberland
Chapel tower

In 653 St Aidan left the Scottish island of Iona and founded his monastery here on land given by King Oswald. The monks fled in 793 AD when they came under Viking attack. Monastic presence at the site continued though, and the ruins there now date from the early twelfth century, when there was less threat of further raids.

The Priory was refounded after the Norman conquest, linking Lindisfarne as a permanent cell of the Durham community. Its fortunes varied, but it maintained an active monastic community until Henry VII ordered its closure in 1537 AD. It fell into ruin, becoming one of those impressive, remote, inspiring ruins which underlie the 18th century's Gothic revival.

lindisfarne priory, holy island, northumberland
Central area of the priory

Lindisfarne today is best known for two things: mead and gospels. The mead is now made and sold through the centre in the village. The gospels date from the eighth century (710-725), and are still admired as masterpieces of medieval art. They're kept outside of the island, treasures of the British Library.

The central towers and the chapel roof have fallen, but one of the central arches remains. Known as the Rainbow Arch, it spans the chapel impressively.

rainbow arch, lindisfarne priory, northumberland, holy island
Rainbow arch

As you wander round you get a feel for what monastic life was like. Harsh in the cold, windy climate, it must have been a difficult life. The one room with a fire provided a central area to gather for the monks. The abbot's quarters were initially above this, but there are signs explaining how things were reconfigured both seasonally, and as the numbers of monks present waxed and waned.

lindisfarne priory, holy island, northumberland
Lindisfarne Priory

Mary has long been venerated at this site, and there is a statue to her in the middle of the priory ruins. It makes a great picnic site, but also a wonderful place to pause in prayer, joining in over a millennium of silent petition and thanks.

There is still an active church on the site. It is worth visiting in its own right. St Mary the Virgin is reputed to stand on the site of the original monastery, just outside the main Priory ruins.

lindisfarne priory, lindisfarne, church, holy island, northumberland
St Mary the Virgin

Lindisfarne may be a small island, but worship has been constant at this site for over 1200 years. Inside the church this heritage is honoured by a statue. Called 'The Journey', it depicts monks carrying St Cuthbert's body to Durham. The sculpture is made up of 35 piece of Elmwood, carved by Dr Fenwick Lawson. A bronze copy has been placed in the Millennium Square in Durham, making the other end of the journey, which took place 698 and c.920 AD while the monks wandered. St Cuthbert died on 20 March 687, and when the monks opened up his coffin in 698, his body had not decayed, a sure sign of his holiness.

lindisfarne, st mary the virgin, sculpture, holy island, northumberland
The Journey

Lindisfarne Priory is managed by English Heritage. It is open 10-6 every day, but you can't, of course, get there from the mainland at all those times. Members of staff live on the island though, to keep the site open at appropriate times. It's such a small and unusual island that people have to be flexible and organised.

lindisfarne, castle, northumberland
Lindisfarne castle

There is no parking directly at the Priory. You're best off parking at the main car park just onto the island. Shuttle buses will take you to the Priory if it is too far for you to walk. The bus will also take you to Lindisfarne Castle, which you can just about see from the Priory.
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Why? One of England's oldest Christian sites
When: Opens at 10, closing time seasonal from 4. Times may be affected by tides. Check the website.
Phone: 0128 938 9200
Where: Holy Island, Northumberland
Cost: 5.60 for adults, 3.30 for children. Other rates available.
Your Comment
It was 635 when Aidan moved to Lindisfarne.
by mc (score: 0|2) 1181 days ago
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