Page last updated at 08:16 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 09:16 UK

Tidal tourists mystify islanders

By Paul Costello
BBC News, Newcastle


A couple were winched from their car by a helicopter crew this week

The sight of an RAF helicopter buzzing over Holy Island causeway to rescue stranded tourists from incoming tides is not an uncommon one.

On average about one vehicle a month is caught out on the half-mile stretch of road which links the island to mainland Northumberland.

About 20,000 tourists each year flock to see the natural beauty and wildlife of the historic island, also known as Lindisfarne, but some are putting their lives at risk by ignoring warning signs.

The causeway floods twice a day at high tide and islanders are mystified as to why some visitors ignore widely-publicised safe crossing times.

The latest rescue involved a couple from Glasgow being winched from their car by an RAF helicopter crew, after being cut off by the tide.

Danger sign
Danger signs are located at both ends of the causeway

Calls for barriers at either end of the causeway get short shrift from islanders, as they do not think they should be inconvenienced for the "stupidity" of a small number of people.

Susan Massey, parish council chairman and owner of the island's Oasis cafe, said: "Anyone that gets stuck really has got to be an idiot as there are warning signs with tidal times all over the island.

"It seems they just look at the water on the causeway and think it is a big puddle and don't realise how dangerous it can be.

"Barriers have been suggested in the past, but if a person wants to cross at stupid time then they will.

"Any solution is going to cost money and the taxpayer would have to pay for silly people."

Islanders are equally opposed to building a bridge or raising the causeway to provide a permanent link to the mainland.

Jeanette Johnson, 62, who runs a crab sandwich shop from her home on Marygate, said the fact that the island was cut off twice a day gave it a "magical quality".

Some people think they are crossing a ford or a stream in the countryside, but they are crossing part of the North Sea
Ian Clayton, Seahouses RNLI

She said: "I would not like a permanent link as we would lose what is special about our island.

"There are lots of tourists on the island and they are our lifeblood, but the place also has a tranquil quality."

Infamous incidents include a man being rescued after his camper van was washed off the causeway while he was asleep and nine people being forced to take shelter in the nearby refuge hut.

Islanders also tell of a visitor who bragged that the warnings were "just to frighten the tourists" after being told he was close to missing the safe crossing time.

Half-an-hour later he was being winched into an RAF helicopter with his wife and two children.

There have been six rescues involving lifeboat crews and coastguards so far this year.

This figure is expected to increase as higher and stronger tides hit over the remainder of the summer.

Holy Island castle
Tourists are attracted by the island's beauty and history

Last year 22 people, seven of them children, were rescued from the causeway in 11 incidents.

Each lifeboat call-out costs the RNLI between £1,800 and £2,000.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency estimates each helicopter call-out costs upwards of £4,000.

Many victims make it partway across the causeway, but become stranded when their vehicles cut out because of spray entering the engine bay.

Ian Clayton, Seahouses RNLI lifeboat operations manager, said: "Some people think they are crossing a ford or a stream in the countryside, but they are crossing part of the North Sea.

"The water can be reasonably shallow at both ends and perhaps this lulls people into a false sense of security.

"It seems to be a mixture of stupidity and ignorance and the problem could be avoided with a little bit of common sense.

"The signs are not there to look pretty, they are there to guide people.

"We are very worried that somebody could die if they are swept away into the channel that winds its way between the sands.

There is a refuge hut located on the causeway

"People cannot always rely on the helicopter or ourselves getting to them."

Dick Fraser, Northumberland County Council highways officer, said the council was working to make tide tables easier to use and had not discounted installing flashing warning lights triggered by the rising tide.

He said: "Those who live and work on the island are very much opposed to a barrier, which would inhibit what is already a very short timescale to get on and off the island.

"We are progressively improving warning signs and we have just put in a new turning circle on the island side and that is to make it much easier to turn and go back.

"We have not discounted any kind of technology or flashing signs, but the problem is that they don't do very well in a hostile marine environment."

The county council is set to review safety measures at the causeway with parish councillors and emergency services after the summer.

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