Halfway across the sands, over a mile from dry land, I stop and look around. The vast vault of cloud above is reflected in the shallow water beneath our feet, giving the impression that the entire world has become sky, transected only by the steady line of guide poles that lead from the Northumbrian coast out towards Lindisfarne.
If I’d imagined what a first post-lockdown trip should be, it would have been this: wide open spaces inhabited only by wind and the mournful cries of oystercatchers and curlews. I’d driven up from Newcastle a couple of days before in a campervan, feeling the joy of being on the road again, feeling sure that the Northumberland coast, with its huge beaches and dunes, was the place to be and that a van was perfect: self-contained and independent with the ability to roam. I’d even brought a solar shower and portaloo to cope with campsites that were not going to open their facilities. (Some are, some are not – it’s worth checking.)
For this walk, however, I have left the vehicle at the end of the causeway to Lindisfarne and joined my walking guide, Patrick, for the final section of the Pilgrim’s Way, an ancient route across the tidal sands that separate the coast from the island of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island.
Patrick assures me that we are in good company. Before the causeway was built in the 1950s, this three-mile trek at low tide was the only route, and followed by generations of pilgrims heading to the island.
Is it dangerous?
Patrick grins. “There are a couple of places where it’s best to keep away from the poles to avoid mud or, on some tides, deep water.” It is, I reckon, one to be done, at least first time, with a guide.
He points out a little islet called Cuthbert’s Island and gently steers me away from imagined dangers towards the solid comforts of history. “Cuthbert was a seventh-century monk who was made bishop on Lindisfarne – despite only really wanting to be a hermit. It was a time when the big issue of the day was whether to follow the Celtic or Roman tradition of Christianity.”
Cuthbert was, I reckon, a man for our times: unable to solve his work-life balance, unable to adequately self-isolate, and forced to decide if he was in or out of Europe. With Patrick’s storytelling our walk passes all too quickly and soon we are on the island, heading to the Pilgrim Café for a coffee (they roast their own) and the local speciality, a slice of scone pud – a cake so delicious I suspect it drew those ancient saints here.
Over 150 people live on the island and, like Cuthbert before them, they are having to self-isolate while inadvertently attracting visitors. The elderly man selling strawberries from a street stall is wearing a plastic visor and gown which, at a glance, look suspiciously like liturgical vestments. The thurible he waves towards me turns out to be a contactless payment app on his phone. “Has it worked?” he asks cheerfully. “It’s the first time I’ve used it!”
As soon as lockdown on campsites ended, I had hit the road inside a wonderfully eccentric hired van called Denzel (log cabin interior, modern van externals), hoping that I could beat the rush. I didn’t. On the first day of opening Springhill Farm soon filled up with vans. I walked a mile to the beach and watched a pod of dolphins bounce around in the sea between me and the Farne Islands. The beach was not deserted, but certainly large enough to cope. Next day I had the novel experience of eating fish and chips in a restaurant (the Bamburgh Castle Inn at Seahouses), served by a masked waitress.
When rain comes, the campsite staff are helpful, sending me off to Bamburgh Castle (adult £11.16, child £5.46). I’m thankful for the van in the stormy weather – and the space to tuck in a surfboard. At the castle, the King’s Hall, remodelled by Lord Armstrong in Victorian times, is worth the entry ticket alone, but the real attraction is the fantastic panoramas of the coast. I have begun to suspect that everyone knows everyone in Northumberland and so it proves: Claire at the castle recommends the best surfing beach (just behind the village green in Bamburgh) and a little cafe, The Hut, where they serve a fine kipper sandwich and suggest Ross Sands up the coast – another delightful drive on quiet lanes. There I bump into some locals who mention Patrick, a local walking guide.
Which is how I find myself on the trek to Lindisfarne with Patrick, who takes me to see the wildflower meadows. We soon lose count of species. Patches of blue viper’s-bugloss are thick with burnet moths and dark green fritillaries, an uncommon species that is actually bright orange. A roe deer bounces away across a dune covered in orchids. For a few precious moments, I am in heaven. But then Patrick points out the car park across the fields. It is almost empty. The tide is coming in and we need to leave. Lindisfarne is about to self-isolate once again.
Back at the van I check out surf reports and start the motor with a sense of glee. A whole heap of coast lies waiting to be explored.
• Campervan provided by Quirky Campers, a platform for privately owned campervans across the UK. Denzel costs from £541 a week but is fully booked this summer; other vans start from £670 a week in July and August. Pitches at Springhill Farm £28 a night in high season, £18 in low. The guided walk to Lindisfarne with Patrick Norris of Footsteps in Northumberland is £17.50pp. Further information at visitnorthumberland.com
• This article was amended on 19 July 2020 to correct the picture caption for the five-spot burnet moths; an earlier version had referred to them as the six-spot variety.