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Last Updated: Friday, 23 February 2007, 19:42 GMT
Happily trapped on a Holy Island
By Rob Pittam
Business Correspondent, Working Lunch

Lindisfarne causeway view
Visitors need to check the tidal timetable to avoid getting stranded

There is a rhythm to life on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and it is the rhythm of the tides.

There is a long heritage too, and it is the history of the dawn of Christianity in England.

And one way or another those two forces dominate every aspect of life on the island, including business.

Lindisfarne is approached by a causeway linking it to the Northumberland mainland, twice a day it is covered by the north sea and Lindisfarne becomes cut off.

Rescued by helicopter

It's a fairly serious barrier too. The week before our arrival three people had to be rescued by helicopter after trying to drive over the causeway as the tide came in.

Rob finds out about running a business despite the island's limited access.
A visit to a mead factory, Lindisfarne's biggest business.
Find out how Lindisfarne's National Trust castle prepares for the tourist season.
A look at a scheme to help local people afford housing on the island.

And even as we filmed the highest point of the tide, watching from a safe distance as the North Sea lapped up and over the tarmac and the road markings disappeared under the waves, a holidaying family pulled up in their car and asked us if it was safe to cross. They looked sceptical when we told them not to, but fortunately we managed to dissuade them.

But on Lindisfarne you don't have to check the tide timetable to see if the tide is in, you only have to look out of the window; if the streets are full of tourists, the causeway is open, if it is quiet, it is shut.

The island has a population of just one hundred and fifty but gets half a million visitors a year.

Hauntingly beautiful

It's not hard to see what draws them, it is a hauntingly beautiful place.

Lindisfarne view
Lindisfarne Castle dates back to the 1550s

Stand at the end of the island, beneath the gothic castle built on a green hill and look to your left; across a wide expanse of sea is Bambrugh castle. Look back out to sea and the view takes in the even more remote Farne Islands. To the right and it is more sea, this time across to Berwick Upon Tweed.

Look inland and you can see the harbour with its moored fishing boats and the ruins of the monastery.

It was established in the seventh century when St Aidan was invited there by King Oswald of Northumberland, the beginnings of Christianity in England.

Soaring prices

But these days beauty and history come at a cost, and the cost is soaring house prices.

A two-bedroomed terraced house recently went on the market for 350,000. Way beyond the means of the islands traditional families and far higher than on the mainland a few miles away.

There's been a fear that local people may have to leave the island to set up home.

To counter that a development trust has been set up which has already built five houses and two flats to be rented out to islanders. Four more are planned. There's a feeling this has helped to stabilise the community and allowed young families to stay on the island.

Small population

Now some would like to see more permanent businesses, not related to tourism being established for the families to work in.

Because not surprisingly on an island with such a small population, there are only around 20 businesses.

And just as unsurprisingly, almost all of them are devoted to tourism; craft shops, tea rooms and shops catering for religious pilgrims.

But everyone here knows that any new businesses would have to overcome the handicap of working to the tide times.


Staff at the island's biggest concern, the Lindisfarne Mead company, work a curious form of flexitime, based on when the causeway is open. Other businesses have to keep accommodation for workers who can't get back to the mainland.

Lindisfarne Mead bottle
According to Norse custom newly-weds drank mead to increase their fertility

Mind you, I must admit at times I was tempted to suspect that the islanders exaggerated their remoteness. Rather revelled in it, if the truth be told.

After all, it is only a two mile drive to the mainland, and the tide only comes up twice a day.

And then one evening I headed back to the village after a walk to my favourite spot by the castle, I couldn't help noticing just how dark it all looked.

Power cut

The sun was sinking behind the cheviots hills to the west, casting shadows on the boats in the harbour, and in the houses not a single light shone.

That's because there was a power cut. Apparently it's a frequent occurrence, plunging the island into a romantic darkness on a regular basis.

It wasn't so romantic for those of us with work to do. We were still editing our reports, but with no power it was impossible.

I considered moving off the island, finding another hotel. But of course, the tide was up, so we couldn't get off.

And so I'm writing this by candlelight in the reception room of my hotel, trapped by the sea on an island with no electricity and I can't help thinking; maybe it is remote after all.

Rob returns to his roots
25 Jan 07 |  Working Lunch
Peas, puddings and prefects
21 Sep 06 |  Working Lunch

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