Living on Holy Island: ‘There are about five hours in every 12 when you can’t go anywhere’

Dwelling on a tiny island sounds idyllic, but is the reality quite as romantic? Tim Relf speaks to Sarah Hills, the vicar of Holy Island, about the charms and challenges of a most particular way of life.

Sarah Hills swims in the sea off St Cuthbert’s Beach in Northumberland every few days. ‘It can be freezing, but it’s so refreshing, both physically and spiritually,’ she says.

She moved to Holy Island, often referred to as Lindisfarne, in 2019, after five years as canon for reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral. ‘I had a very deep sense of calling to come here,’ Sarah says of the island that, covering 1,000 acres at high tide, is often referred to as a ‘thin’ place, with Earth and Heaven deemed to be particularly close together. It is known for its castle, once the holiday home of Country Life founder Edward Hudson and improved by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll.

The parish of St Mary’s has about 140 permanent residents and a similar number of second-home and holiday beds, but the vicar also works with some of the 500,000-plus visitors who travel to the spot every year. ‘Many of them are coming on retreat or are pilgrims searching for a spiritual experience.’

Rev Canon Dr Sarah Hills, the vicar of Holy Island.

She soon realised how dominated life was by the sea, with access only possible by a causeway at certain stages of the tide: ‘There are about five hours in every 12 when you can’t go anywhere. The first few months when we arrived were hectic, but the rhythm of the tides actually helped us to feel settled and happy. There’s a strong sense of community — it can take a long time to go to the village post office because people are so friendly.

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‘The vicarage is beautiful, too, so I’m very lucky to live there,’ Sarah believes. ‘There’s even a gate at the bottom of my garden leading on to St Cuthbert’s beach. Legend has it that he used to stand in the sea all night praying. If that’s the case, there’s certainly no reason why I can’t stay in the water for a few minutes, whatever the temperature.’