» Lindisfarne Diary »
There is no more sainted isle in Britain than Lindisfarne or Holy Island, stretched like a lamb's leg off the extreme north-east of England. We reached it across a narrow causeway only open at low tide. That symbolic crossing, similar to a tirth
in the Hindu tradition, reminded us that this had been the home of two saints—Aidam and Cuthbert—who brought Christianity to the region long before the Vikings laid waste their monastery in ninth century AD. The saints lived in great simplicity with none of the lofty stone buildings enjoyed by monks of later times. The Lindisfarne Gospels
, the most beautiful book ever written in England, happened here, inspired by the ritual exhumation of Cuthbert's body 11 years after his death. This illuminated manuscript, on display at the British Museum in London, is the crowning glory of old British art. Its vibrant spirals and stylised animals are said to be the work of one man, labouring away for years in a wooden hut scriptorium. On Holy Island you can touch and turn, as if by magic, the pages of a virtual Lindisfarne Gospel. One round of the heritage centre and I too felt equipped to scrape vellum, cut quill pens, grind inks and bind my own manuscript.
Only a hundred-odd people live here, in grey stone cottages at one end of the island. Much of the island is a nature reserve where rare fritillary butterflies flutter over marsh orchids and tall blue spikes of viper's bugloss. Eider ducks, Cuthbert's favourites and still known affectionately as 'Cuddy's ducks', float around the shoreline with broods of fluffy ducklings. The island's nature trail leads down the craggy coast to a medieval castle restored as a residence by Edwin Lutyens, the architect of New Delhi, from where there are splendid views of the Farne Islands. Cuthbert had retired to meditate on the Farne Islands—a thousand years ago his hermit's cell would have been the main attraction but now it's the colonies of nesting seabirds. We boarded a boat and chugged towards the hordes of guillemots and puffins. On Inner Farne, a notice awaits: 'Watch where you step—two tern chicks killed today.' Arctic terns, cute creatures with coral red bills, had laid eggs by the path and the chicks were now tottering around unchaperoned. As we arrived, the adults wheeled around our heads, crying wildly and pecking our heads. No wonder visitors, flailing arms and all, caused the occasional fatality.