Want to teach them history? Take a hike

Autumn is a peaceful time to take the family walking on Lindisfarne, says Mark Rowe. Just watch out for the tide
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The Independent Travel

Twice a day, the sea rushes across the sandbanks and mudflats and closes the door on Lindisfarne. Holy Island, remote and lonely, is cut off from the mainland for some five hours at a time. It's not hard to imagine that this might have drawn the pilgrim monks of the seventh century, led by Aidan, fresh from that other holy island, Iona, off Mull.

Twice a day, the sea rushes across the sandbanks and mudflats and closes the door on Lindisfarne. Holy Island, remote and lonely, is cut off from the mainland for some five hours at a time. It's not hard to imagine that this might have drawn the pilgrim monks of the seventh century, led by Aidan, fresh from that other holy island, Iona, off Mull.

Holy Island was the cradle of Christianity in the north of England and that sense of elemental remoteness remains to this day. The island receives 500,000 visitors a year but most are squeezed, concertina-like, between the May and August bank holidays, which makes autumn a magnificent time to go. The bird-life is outstanding and the scenery is at its best whether you encounter the still glow of a clear day or have to brave the winds that these northern wilds can produce.

The walk starts at the centre of the island's village by the Ship pub on Marygate. Head downhill and take the first left, passing a car park on your left. The path soon becomes a country lane called the Straight Lonnen, with lichen-covered hawthorn hedges and dry-stone walls on either side. You share the path with roaming chickens and ducks from the nearby farm. The walls drop away and you are on open farmland, looking at a vast, flat horizon. To the west, the Cheviots rise up on the mainland. Ahead, on the island, rises a bank of sand dunes.

After three-quarters of a mile you reach the dunes, where the main path bears right by a public footpath sign. Instead, continue straight ahead into the National Nature Reserve and follow the white poles through the dunes and marram grass. The dunes, indeed the whole of Holy Island, are a magnet for birds, providing food for those migrating south and a winter retreat for many species. Autumn is the best time to see one Nordic visitor, the pale-bellied Brent goose, from the Svalbard islands, north of Norway. It winters here in numbers of up to 3,000. You soon reach Coves Haven, a bay that can be pretty or bleak, depending on the weather, with views across the water to Berwick. As I sat by the bay, a flock of some 200 starlings dropped, bullet-like, on to the nearby stark, stunted trees.

Follow the coast around to your right, heading for the white triangular obelisk. Given all the Celtic mysticism knocking around on the island, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a new-age shrine. In fact, it's a navigational pinnacle but its location, at Emmanuel Head, provides the first views of the Farne Islands a few miles to the south. From the obelisk, make your way back to the main path and head south through a gate along the waggonway, a raised ridge of grass.

On the right, you pass a small lough, thought to have been created by the monks in the seventh century to provide fresh water and fish. There is a hide from where you can watch the sheltering ducks, swans and water voles. Keep straight ahead past what is known as the storm beach, where the fiercest storms can throw up huge boulders from the sea on to the sand. The coastline is spectacular, with Bamburgh castle, across on the mainland to the south, standing proudly on the skyline.

Lindisfarne Castle looms larger. It is an impressive affair, in a slightly Transylvanian way, perched on a crag above a broad sweep of green grass that suggests the castle has wrapped itself in a cloak. Built on the orders of Henry VIII to protect the harbour, it was taken over at the start of the 20th century by Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life. In 1903, he invited the young architect Edwin Lutyens to convert it into an Edwardian summerhouse.

Bearing to the right of the castle, a flight of steps leads down to a grassy track that runs across to a walled garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll, an associate of Lutyens. The garden, almost as exposed as the castle, is home to a variety of sea-tolerant plants and hardy shrubs.

Retrace your steps and follow the path around the castle, passing through a gate in a stone wall. The modest harbour is home to a few inshore boats but the most arresting features are the upturned fishing boats that were converted to storehouses.

Follow the harbour as it bends to the left and climb up on to the ridge, known as the Heugh. The ridge passes a war memorial and looks down into the remains of the 12th-century Benedictine priory founded by the monks of Durham Cathedral. It's an impressive sight. The intriguing figure you see in the grounds of the priory is a sculpture by Fenwick Lawson of St Cuthbert, the seventh-century prior of the island who spread the Christian faith across northern Britain.

The ridge continues and then drops down, via something of a scramble, to the water's edge. At low tide you can walk across to St Cuthbert's Isle, a small outcrop some 200 yards into the bay. From the water's edge, take the track to the right of the hut up towards St Mary's Church, passing the pretty churchyard garden to return to the centre of the village.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Distance: Five miles

Time: 2.5 hours

OS Map: Explorer 340, Holy Island & Bamburgh.

For more information on Lindisfarne visit www.lindisfarne.org.uk.

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