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A Holy British Island, Where the Reckless Try to Outrace the Tide

HOLY ISLAND, England — The off-duty police officer was confident he could make it back to the mainland without incident, despite islanders warning him not to risk the incoming tide.

“Nah,” the officer was reported to have said. “That’s just to frighten the tourists.”

About a half-hour later, he “was standing on the roof of his VW Golf car with a rescue helicopter above him, with a winch coming down to scoop him, his wife and his child to safety,” said Ian Clayton, from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a nonprofit organization whose inflatable lifeboat is often called on to rescue the reckless.

Few events in life are as certain as the tide that twice daily cascades across the causeway that connects Holy Island with the English coastline, temporarily severing its link to the mainland.

Yet for some, it still manages to come as a surprise.

Tourists looking out over the harbor from Lindisfarne Castle.

Collecting shellfish from a seawater pool next to the causeway.

Growing numbers of visitors have been stranded in waterlogged vehicles on the mile-long roadway that leads to Holy Island, also known as Lindisfarne.

Some manage to escape their cars and scramble up steps to a safety hut perched above sea level, while others seek shelter from the chilly rising waters of the North Sea by clambering onto the roofs of their vehicles.

Most feel a little foolish having driven past a variety of signs, including one with a warning — “This could be you” — beneath a picture of a half-submerged SUV.

While no one has drowned in recent memory, the increasing number of emergencies is alarming to those who respond to the rescue calls. It is also a point of frustration.

“It’s so predictable: If you have got a high tide mid- to late afternoon — particularly if it’s a big tide — you can almost set your watch by the time when your bleeper is going to go off, asking you to go and fish someone out,” Mr. Clayton said, standing outside the lifeboat station at the fishing village of Seahouses on the mainland and referring to the paging device that alerts him to emergencies.

In addition to the off-duty police officer rescued several years ago, others who have been saved from the causeway tide, Mr. Clayton said, have included a Buddhist monk, a top executive from a Korean car company, a family with a newborn baby and the driver of a (fortunately empty) horse trailer.

The one thing they all had in common was their desire to visit a scenic island regarded as the cradle of Christianity in northern England.

Tourists visiting Lindisfarne Priory.
Resting after walking from the mainland to Holy Island.

Irish monks settled here in A.D. 635, and the eighth-century Lindisfarne Gospels — the most important surviving illuminated manuscript from Anglo-Saxon England, which are now in the British Library — were produced here.

The ruins of a priory, with its dramatic rainbow arch, still stand, as does a Tudor castle whose imposing silhouette dominates the landscape.

When the sea recedes, birds forage the soaking wetlands, and hundreds of seals can be seen congregating on a sandbank.

Until the causeway was built in 1954, no road connected Holy Island to the mainland. While there are few statistics on the numbers of incidents (or the rescue costs), Mr. Clayton said that “this year we have seen more” — with three cases in a recent seven-day period.

He thinks that the increase reflects more vacationers staying in Britain to avoid disrupted foreign travel. Many live inland and are unfamiliar with tidal waters.

At low tide, the causeway stretches ahead like a normal roadway set well back from the waves, but, twice a day, the tarmac disappears rapidly under a solid sheet of water.

“The risk seems really low because you can see where you are going,” said Ryan Douglas, the senior coastal operations officer in Northumberland for Britain’s Coast Guard, which is in charge of maritime search and rescue and often calls on the Royal National Lifeboat Institution crew with its inflatable boat to assist.

“The water looks shallow,” he said, “but as you cross to about a quarter of a mile, it gets deeper and deeper.”

Warning signs about tides dot the road to Holy Island. While no one has drowned from tides there in recent memory, the increasing number of emergencies is alarming to those who respond to the rescue calls.
A safety hut along the causeway between the mainland and the island.

Sometimes those who get trapped have to be helped out through open car windows. Recently, a vehicle started floating, so Coast Guard rescuers had to hold it down to stop it from falling from the causeway and capsizing.

Walkers, too, can get stuck as they head to the island on the “pilgrim’s way,” a path trod for centuries that stretches across the sand and mud, marked by wooden posts. In May, a religious group of more than a dozen was rescued when some found themselves wading up to their chests.

On the island’s beach with her family, Louise Greenwood, from Manchester, said she knew the risks of the journey because her grandmother was raised on Lindisfarne. “When the tide comes in, it comes in very quickly,” she said. “Some people think they can make it if they drive fast.”

Islanders have little compassion for those who get caught by the tides and see their vehicles severely damaged.

“There are plenty of signs,” said George Douglas, a retired fisherman who was born on the island 79 years ago.

In his lifetime, Holy Island has changed “a hell of a lot — and not for the better,” said Mr. Douglas, who marvels at the number of visitors, exceeding 650,000 a year. “Half the people in the country don’t seem to be working.”

Islanders have little sympathy for those who get caught by the tides. “There are plenty of signs,” said George Douglas in his fishing shed on Holy Island.
About 150 people live on Holy Island, but it receives about 650,000 visitors a year.

According to Robert Coombes, the chairman of the Holy Island parish council, the lowest tier of Britain’s local government, there was talk about constructing a bridge or even a tunnel, though the cost, he said, “would be astronomical.”

Cheaper solutions have been discussed, including barriers across the causeway. But those living on the island worry that barriers could stop emergency vehicles when they might still be able to make a safe crossing.

So island life remains ruled by the tides, which dictate when people can leave, said Mr. Coombes, who arrived here planning to become a Franciscan monk but changed course when he met his wife. “You are prisoner for part of the day,” he conceded.

But Mr. Coombes said he relished the tranquillity of winter when tourism tails off. During the coronavirus lockdown, the island returned entirely to the locals.

“I don’t want to make light of the pandemic,” he said, “but it was lovely.”

Yet the island relies on tourism, Mr. Coombes acknowledged. Without it, a community of around 150 people could not sustain two hotels, two pubs, a post office and a small school.

For visitors, Holy Island can make a perfect day trip, allowing a visit to the priory ruins, and to the castle, constructed in the 16th century and converted into a home with the help of the architect Edwin Lutyens at the start of the 20th century.

A safety hut surrounded by water around high tide.
Volunteers from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution bringing their lifeboat launcher back to base in Seahouses after responding to a distress flare.

But in order to visit, tourists need to time the tides and safely navigate the causeway.

Sitting on an island bench gazing at the imposing castle, Ian Morton, from Ripon in Yorkshire, said he had taken care to arrive well ahead of the last safe time to cross. That afternoon, it was listed as 3:50.

The authorities in charge of determining safe travel times naturally err on the side of caution, and on a recent morning, vans could be spotted smoothly crossing the causeway a full 90 minutes before the tide was supposed to have receded to a safe distance.

By profession, Mr. Morton is an internal auditor and, he joked, therefore risk averse. But even he could not resist pondering the dilemma that most likely lies behind many of the recent costly miscalculations.

“What if you got there at 3:51, or 3:52 or 3:55?” Mr. Morton said. “I’m pretty confident that at 3:51, you could get across, but I honestly don’t know at what time you couldn’t.”

The causeway at low tide.

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