Lindisfarne, Northumberland: The Holy Island with a castle, priory and 1,500 years of history

Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, has been a place of pilgrimage since the 6th century and remains as popular as ever with visitors of all kinds. Clive Aslet takes a look at its history, and tells the tale of how Country Life's founder bought and transformed this ancient spot.

The lamp of civilisation (languages, books, artistic tradition) was kept alive in monasteries such as Lindisfarne — Holy Island — in the dark centuries after the Romans had left Britain. The most beautiful product of this time was the Lindisfarne Gospels.

St Aidan, coming from Iona, had founded a monastery on the island in the early 7th century and the Gospels were created in 715–720 by a monk called Eadfrith, who became Lindisfarne’s bishop. He seems to have undertaken them in honour of St Cuthbert, the holy man who hid in his cell on the Farne Islands, off Lindisfarne, in 687. Later, a priory, now ruined, succeeded the monastery: some of its stone was taken to build Lindisfarne Castle.

The ‘castle’, on a cone of rock, is really no more than a fort, or gun emplacement, built in the Tudor period. It protected a harbour that had become an important naval base in operations against Scotland, but never had any grand rooms. However, it was the very impracticality of it, far from London and cut off twice daily by the tide, that appealed to Country Life’s founder, Edward Hudson, and his architect, Edwin Lutyens, who converted it to a romantic, if uncomfortable, country house.

Holy Island, Lindisfarne, with Lindisfarne Castle towering above the island.

How to visit Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne — or Holy Island as it’s often known — is on a tidal island nine miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed, close to the border with Scotland. It’s easily accessible by car, and is signposted off the A1.

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The causeway is covered by the North Sea twice a day. The official Northumberland council website has a list of causeway opening and closing times — but use caution and common sense as the prevailing conditions (and in particular storms and high seas) can change things quickly.

That warning applies doubly to those wishing to take the old pilgrims’ route on foot across the sand, a way marked by wooden posts, which sits at the end of the ancient St Cuthbert’s Way route.

There’s no charge to cross the causeway, and you can park on the island in the main village car park. There are plenty of places to stay, eat and drink on Lindisfarne. The castle is open to visitors, and is run by the National Trust (adults £8.50; members free).

Danger sign at the entrance of the tidal causeway to Lindisfarne on the Holy Isle in the Northumberland region of England. ©Getty

How Country Life influenced the fate of Lindisfarne

On August 12, 1901, Edward Hudson, the proprietor of Country Life, took the 32-year-old Edwin Lutyens to dinner at his club. Writing to his wife, Lady Emily, the next day, the architect reported the astonishing outcome of Hudson’s Northumberland holiday: he ‘has offered for a castle!! on Holy Island — a real castle, & out of which he would have to turn if the Country went to war!’ Beneath these words, he scrawled ‘too funny’.

The joke lay in Hudson’s notably unmartial bearing. Fifteen years older than Lutyens, he was, in appearance, a lugubrious, ungainly man, his long upper lip hidden by a bushy moustache; the settled expression of his face was that of a bloodhound. Not everyone saw beneath the carapace of an intensely shy and, to Lytton Strachey’s eye, ‘pathetically dreary figure’, but the archaeologist Aileen Fox, whose father knew Hudson well, left an attractive picture in her memoir, Aileen-A Pioneering Archaeologist. ‘Huddy,’ as friends called him, ‘was a great favourite: he was an affable little man, grey-haired, with a deceptively fussy manner but with great artistic sensibilities’.

Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, has a recorded history from the 6th century AD; it was an important centre of Celtic Christianity under Saints Aidan of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert, Eadfrith of Lindisfarne and Eadberht of Lindisfarne. ©Getty

It was to express those sensibilities that, in 1897, Hudson had founded Country Life, inspired by the great houses of England, with their collections, gardens and sport. The magazine proved an almost instant success.

Only two years after its inception — and two years before the Northumberland visit — he had commissioned Lutyens to build Deanery Garden, at Sonning, Berkshire, which the magazine published as the house of a man whose hobby was growing roses and walled gardening. It was but one of numerous jobs that he either directly gave Lutyens or put his way, including the original Country Life office in Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, built in 1905.

Hudson’s own milieu was less that of the shooting party than of Walton Heath golf course, on which the idea for Country Life had been born. Brought up in London, the son of a printer, he moved in the world of affluent businessmen, politicians, lawyers and civil servants, who at a time when agriculture had been struggling for decades-looked on the countryside as a source of pleasure and aesthetic satisfaction.

The view across to Holy Island.

As a collector, he was one of an avant-garde who appreciated authenticity and patina in mellow furniture, Queen Anne or earlier. Lutyens’s spare interiors suited this exigent taste, which admitted little in the way of upholstery. In Lindisfarne, Hudson recognised the potential for another creative project. Beneath the undemonstrative exterior beat a romantic heart.

Perched on a conical outcrop of rock called Beblowe Crag, the castle, as Hudson found it, looked everything that some contemporaries-the yacht-owning plutocrats who had become a conspicuous force in society-would have shunned. Far from London and only accessible at low tide, it had never, in truth, been more than a fort, or gun emplacement, built in the Tudor period, to protect a harbour that had become an important naval base in operations against Scotland, using stones pillaged from Lindisfarne Priory.

Lindisfarne priory.

There had never been any grand rooms. For centuries, the castle had been considered to be of such little strategic value that it was barely manned. By 1715, the garrison had shrunk to just seven men, with a master gunner who supplemented his wages by acting as barber. Under the pretence of getting a shave, a couple of Jacobites succeeded in overpowering the only two soldiers who were present inside the fort at the time and claiming it for the Old Pretender. The castle was recaptured the following day.

Thereafter, Lindisfarne was garrisoned intermittently. Three 64-pounder guns installed in 1882 were manned by the Volunteer Coast Artillery, but, in 1893, the garrison left the castle to occasional use by the coastguard. The buildings mouldered. From the point of view of a conventional country-house owner, the site offered nowhere to build the service courts or bedroom wings needed to entertain big house parties. But Lutyens, like Hudson, loved it. ‘Ramparts and three miles from land!’ he wrote excitedly — if not with geographical accuracy — after first hearing Hudson describe the place. On January 2, while staying at Gosford, he got a telegram from Hudson asking him to look at his new purchase. ‘So I had better,’ he told Lady Emily; ‘it will be amusing.’

In May 1904, Lutyens was there again, having brought a raven, whose ‘beak makes a noise like castanettes when she, he or it eats & drinks’, with him on the train. Arriving in rain, he and Gertrude Jekyll rumbled over the ridge-and-furrow fields in a wagonette, before crossing the haunting, seaweedy landscape of the sands. They found the fort ‘quite cold & the chimnies smoke horribly!!’.

The weather improved the next day, and Lutyens hurried out to hoist the flag. Jekyll took the austerity in good part, Lutyens reporting ‘Bumps’ to be ‘quite charmed and so appreciative’. On the flat land a few minutes’ walk from the castle, she created a tiny cutting garden, protected by tall walls against the wind and sea spray.

Lindisfarne Castle. Photographed for Country Life in 1913. ©Country Life

In July 1906, Lady Emily gave birth to the Lutyenses’ fourth child, Elizabeth, the future composer. The following month, enjoying a rare moment of domesticity in his hectic schedule of country-house visits, Ned, as Lutyens was known, took the three older children to Lindisfarne, playing dominoes and Happy Families on the train. This was to prepare the way for a 10-week visit that Lady Emily would spend there, with the children: ‘You had better go 1st class darling,’ he advised solicitously.

The arrangements were by no means faultless: ‘Hudson & I sleep in the upper gallery upper bedroom, Barbie & Robert in gun room, Nannie & Ursula next to it, Marbel in the Corner room. We shall have to move her & get two more beds. Hudson,’ he added characteristically, ‘forgot to order them.’

More guests were expected, including the newspaperman Lord Riddell, who had first suggested the idea of Country Life. A Major Crawford, who could not be squeezed into the castle, would have to sleep at the inn. Hudson was ‘funny in that way with all his kind hospitality, yet he never thinks how people are going to get in’. It was, however, ‘such joy to think the place is a success’. In the course of the summer, the Country Life photographer Charles Latham captured the Lutyens children in photographs lit like a Vermeer. Original prints survive, with pencil annotations-presumably by Hudson to show how the tones of different areas should be lightened or darkened during printing, to heighten the mood. These images are perhaps the ultimate statement of Hudson’s aesthetic.

Lindisfarne Castle’s interior, 2014, photographed by Paul Barker for Country Life. @Country Life

The pictures also show that the castle had not quite reached its final form, as one of the walls of the kitchen in which Barbara stood would be altered. Like the model town that Barbara is shown with, it was an architectural plaything. But in most respects, the castle had been transformed from a redundant fort into a boyish architectural caprice. At the foot of the castle, Lutyens made sheds by upturning some of the old ‘herring busses’ that used to form part of the large fishing fleet.

As visitors began their ascent of the cobbled ramp, they were greeted by a sign, made out of rugged cast iron, instructing them to ‘ring the bell’. A rope hung from a castle bell of appropriately bold dimensions. Needless to say, Lutyens could not resist supplementing the front door with a working portcullis. However, he kept the existing, tunnel-like staircase, which runs steeply up to the Lower Battery, one of the original gun platforms.

Country Life’s founder Edward Hudson, pictured left with his one-time fiancée Madame Suggia; and right, with Jack Lilburn, the caretaker who along with his wife looked after Lindisfarne for Hudson.

Off the Lower Battery, soldiers from the garrison would have entered a narrow corridor, running along one wing of an L-shaped structure. Their object was to reach powder and ammunition stores as quickly as possible. Lutyens combined this corridor and the adjacent officers’ kitchen to form an entrance hall. Former load-bearing walls are replaced by arcades of stout pillars, inspired by Durham Cathedral, although Lutyens’s pillars have neither bases nor capitals.

The prominence of the exposed pinkish stone, used here with a slate floor, sets the tone for the castle: on a visit in 1918, Lytton Strachey felt he had been immured in a stone tomb where ‘any slip would mean instant death’. However, the wind indicator (there is rarely a shortage of wind on the island) introduces a decorative note. Depicting the ‘invincible armada’ being blown to pieces around the English coast, it is the work of MacDonald Gill, younger brother to Eric Gill, and dated 1913.

Lutyens had launched Gill’s career as a mapmaker with a commission for a wind-dial map for Nashdom in Buckinghamshire. Gill would go on to design the pictorial ‘Wonderground’ map for London Underground, as well as the alphabet and regimental badges used by the Imperial War Graves Commission on hundreds of thousands of military headstones after the First World War.

Hudson’s kitchen lies off the entrance hall and was furnished with a cherrywood settle and an oak dresser, of the kind seen at Deanery Garden. As the photograph of his daughter Barbara shows, this was a room that the owner and guests might use, as well as the staff. A stone tunnel, more than a corridor, leads down to a sitting room known as the Ship Room from the model ship suspended from the ceiling and the vaulted dining room.

Lindisfarne Castle’s interior, 2014, photographed by Paul Barker for Country Life. @Country Life

Both rooms have patterned brick floors, laid with old turkey rugs. In the 1980s, the National Trust discovered that one wall of the dining room had been painted blue, which was restored — although the colour now used for it is surely too strident. The dining room, Ship Room and entrance hall, looking north, were given traceried windows.

In the corner of the L, Lutyens improved the previous staircase, which divides, one flight emerging, through an arch, into the Long Gallery, off which are most of the bedrooms, the other flight leading to the Upper Battery. At the top of the castle, shaped to form a Castle Drogo-like bastion, Lutyens created an Upper Gallery; it is lit with restraint, by small mullion windows. One end has a dais, reached by oak steps. It made a stage, faced by an audience who had their backs to the main windows and would, therefore, not be distracted from the performance in front of them. This was the space consecrated to Hudson’s grand amour, Guilhermina Suggia.

An unforgettable image of Madame Suggia, as she was often known, was painted — at Hudson’s expense — by Augustus John. Now in the Tate, it shows the Portuguese cellist seated at her instrument, a dramatic sweep of red dress, hinting, perhaps, at a fiery personality, spilling onto the stage. More informal images hang at Lindisfarne, one of which shows Suggia playfully placing a foot on top of a recumbent guest, the artist Ben Nicholson, dressed in blazer and cap.

Hudson was not only the inarticulate, gauche tortoise that he sometimes appeared in the office. Himself an amateur cellist, he was smitten with Suggia, who had previously studied with-and lived with-Pablo Casals. Time has drawn a veil over the details of the relationship with Hudson, but she returned his emotion to the point of becoming engaged to him in 1919. She was sufficiently sure-and proud-of her position in Hudson’s life to be known as the Lady of the Castle.

The gallery looking east at Lindisfarne Castle. Photographed for Country Life in 1913. ©Country Life

As Anita Mercier describes in Guilhermina Suggia: Cellist, the pair did not, in the end, marry, but Suggia continued to play the 1717 Stradivarius Hudson had given her for the rest of her performing life. The friendship continued sufficiently for Hudson to turn the hall at Plumpton Place, his third Lutyens country house, into another stage for the performer, in the late 1920s. By then, in her early forties, she had married Dr José Mena, a specialist in X-rays.

Suggia was at Lindisfarne when Lytton Strachey visited, at a time when Hudson was hoping to secure him as a contributor to Country Life. He hated the inconvenience, the cold and the dawn fishing expedition that he was forced to go on with George Reeves, Suggia’s accompanist. The Prince and Princess of Wales — the future George V and Queen Mary — were no more enthusiastic when they rumbled over the sands in a procession of carriages in 1908. It was an epic clash of cultural worlds, the royal party being unable to comprehend the fun that Hudson and Lutyens had had with the building.

Church sanctuary, Holy Island. ©Getty

Lutyens, as ever, charmed the Prince, who had been ‘terribly alarmed at the gangway up & wanted a wall built. I told him we had pulled one down, & that if he really thought it was unsafe we would put nets out. He thought that very funny’. Hudson, however, was ‘dreadfully nervous’. The Princess hurt her feet on the cobbles and, for a sailor, the Prince seemed very anxious about the tide, in case it prevented them from getting away. The only thing ‘they really admired’ was ‘a fleur de lys on a fireback’. Both Hudson and Lutyens had to lie down when they were gone.

To Huddy and Ned, the joy of Lindisfarne lay in the doing. When it was finished, Hudson lost interest. On April 17, 1920, Knight, Frank and Rutley advertised it ‘to be sold, free-hold… with its very important collection of antique furniture’. The following year, it was bought by Oswald Falk, a stockbroker; Falk, in turn, sold it to the merchant banker Sir Edward de Stein, who, in 1944, gave it to the National Trust. Despite these changes of ownership, Hudson’s furniture remains there, along with his spirit.