NEED to know: Crossing Holy Island’s Causeway

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Contents of this video:

  • Anatomy of a drowned car. How people get into trouble: two common scenarios.
  • Orientation: Where is Holy Island, how far is it from the mainland, how does the causeway work.
  • Is the tide really deep? How deep? A demonstration with cars.
  • How tides work, how do I know when to cross, how to avoid the risks.
  • How much of the causeway does the tide cover? Which parts? A view from above.
  • Some crucial tips for anyone planning a visit.

We created this video as a guide to the essentials of what you need to know about the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. When we first moved to the island in 2017, we were intrigued by a lot of these questions, and the local people we met were happy to share their knowledge and experience.

Then we took to research some of the questions we didn’t have full answers to:

  • If you left a car at the lowest point of the causeway road, how much of it would get submerged?
  • How much of the road actually gets covered?
  • what is the course of the tide as it rises and covers the causeway?
  • And, of course: what causes cars to get caught out by the tide and get written off.

In this video we show two common scenarios of such events, and explain how they happen.


Video Transcript

Welcome to this video, which explains the main things you need to know about the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, known locally simply as “Holy Island”. And yes, we will also discuss how cars end up submerged in the North Sea, and how to avoid it happening to you.

First some orientation: Holy Island is based in the North East of England, about 20 minutes drive on the A1 from Scotland. It lies about halfway between and Edinburgh and Newcastle upon Tyne. The nearest train station is Berwick upon Tweed, which is about 3h40m by train from London, or 45 minutes from Edinburgh Waverley station.

The island is shaped a bit like a chicken drumstick. It is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, with amazing beaches and wildlife, a castle, the ruins of a priory, two pubs, four cafes, a gin distillery, a meadery (where they make mead) and assorted shops and churches.

The village is in this part of the island, as are we, Belvue Guesthouse.

The mainland is about a mile from the western end of the island, as the puffin flies.

And here’s the North Sea, which rises to between 3.5 and 5.5 metres above sea level during high tide.

Between the mainland and the island there is a causeway road which is drivable during low tide.

The road is about 3 miles in length, of which the first mile is through the sea and then it snakes along the island. When the tide is out, it is just like a normal road, though the crossing is beautiful and sometimes eerie.

The causeway takes about 10 minutes to drive, depending on traffic and conditions.

At the start of the causeway there is a short bridge above the end of the South Low river, and next to it is the famous refuge shelter for occupants of cars that get caught out by the tide. More about that later, but for now suffice to say that locals refer to it as the “Idiot Box”, and not without reason.

A quick Holy Island primer on tides:

– They come twice a day, obviously not at the same time every day. The tides are caused by the moon’s gravitational pull, which is affected by its orbit and so, every day, high tides rise a little later than the previous day.

When the tide is in, you cannot cross. Please don’t put yourself at risk or embarrass yourself by becoming the cause of an expensive Coastguard rescue. This happens on average once a month here, more frequently during the summer months.

It is unsafe to cross the causeway between two hours before the highest point of the tide and three hours after, though the length of time the road is impassable can be longer or shorter, depending on the height of the day’s specific tides, on atmospheric pressures, on weather conditions and on other factors.

So, at this point you may be thinking… that sounds complicated. How do I actually know when it is safe to cross?

The answer is simple: in your favourite internet search engine enter the words: `’Holy Island tide times`’, and click through to the Northumberland County Council’s Holy Island Tides page. Then look up the date you’re interested in.

The council’s calculations are quite conservative, so you are unlikely to have any trouble if you stick within those times – but be sensible. If there is a storm or high winds, leave yourself plenty of time before the official closing time. If you see the road already covered in rising sea water when you try to cross, turn back. Better safe than drowned or rescued.

A question we’ve been asked more than once, comes from people who think we’re being over-dramatic. So there’s a bit of sea water on the road: so what? What’s the problem?

To answer this question we’ve donated two of our cartoon fleet cars for a little demo. One is a standard family car and the other an average height SUV.

The causeway road, at its lowest point is about 3.5m above sea level.

An average tide on the causeway is 4.5m. Let’s draw that line…

You can see where we’re going with this, and that’s just the average tide. Now let’s draw the highest tide…

See that?

If you’re imagining yourself standing on the roof of our SUV, hoping it won’t be swept away by the sea, here’s another factor to bear in mind: high winds and storm conditions can take the tide much further… You get the picture… Doesn’t happen if you check tide times.

The best way to understand the tide is to look at it from a bird’s eye view, or better still a satellite’s view: and that’s what we’re going to do next.

This is a satellite image of Holy Island in low tide. You can see the road to the left of the island, and the exposed sands and mud flats that are characteristic of a low tide.

As the tide begins to rise, the first affected area is where the bridge is, closer to the mainland, marked here in red. This area has now become impassable.

The next image shows the tide advancing. At this point, most of the mile between the mainland and the island’s end is covered, but you’ll also notice that the water is now encroaching on a large section of the road along the island’s edge. Within minutes, the water will start covering part of that section too.

This final image is a fully fledged high tide. Holy Island has become… wholly – and entirely – an island.

There are several ways in which vehicles get caught out by the tides on the causeway, but for brevity, we’ll look at the two most common ones:

Now focus on the red car at the start of the causeway on the island side.

These people have set out about 90 minutes after the official safe crossing time, thinking to themselves: well, we can still see the road, looks fine, a bit of water rising along the edges of the tarmac. No big deal.

They start driving. What’s the worst that can happen? They can always turn back.

Here, they notice that the road behind them is getting wet, but that’s OK, because ahead: there’s a dry stretch.

They accelerate. Now they can see some sea-water ahead, but also the bridge which is above water and beyond it: the mainland! They’ve come this far, they’re invested: it’ll be fine: one final push…

They forge ahead… And… Disaster strikes.

The sea was deeper than it looked. Water comes gushing through the exhaust system and floods the engine. The tide is rising and there’s no time and no way to tow the car to safety. It will get submerged and the occupants will have to be rescued by the Coastguard. The car will need to be recovered after the tide, and the water in the engine, if it caused it to hydro-lock, then it’s likely that the engine is a total loss.

A variation on the theme is when the car manages to make it to the small causeway bridge, which is slightly elevated, so at first it appears safe, and then, once there, our intrepid unfortunates observe to their dismay that the water ahead of them is very deep, and behind them it has risen even more. As the tide continues to rise and starts to cover the bridge itself, the realisation dawns: the only safe thing to do at this point is to abandon the car and climb into the famous refuge box.

So, all the above sounds scary, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s only scary if you are ignorant or careless. Hundreds of thousands of people visit Holy Island every year without incident and enjoy this special place that’s like no other. Now you’ve seen this video you’ll know how to stay safe, it’s quite simple:

– Cross only during the official safe crossing times
– If it looks dangerous, turn back
– Enjoy Holy Island
And that’s all there is to it.

A few final tips:
– All the advice here is about the causeway road, not the pedestrian route across the sands to Holy Island, which is known as the Pilgrim’s Way. Please don’t use the council’s tide times to plan your walk across. The window for that crossing is much shorter. Visit our website for information on how to walk the Pilgrim’s Way safely.

There are no cycle or pedestrian paths along the causeway road, so you’ll see a lot of walkers and cyclists using the tarmacked road itself. Watch out for them, and give them plenty of space.

Shallow water or seaweed might cover potholes so you don’t see them until it’s too late, and that sometimes causes flat tyres and accidents, so drive more carefully if you cannot see the surface of the road.

All that said, some drivers lose themselves in the excitement of the causeway and drive exceedingly slowly, without consideration for fellow motorists. This is a constant cause of frustration for those who live and work here, trying to go about their daily business with only a defined time-slot to get to the mainland and back or vice versa. The national speed limit, 60 miles per hour, applies on the causeway. Slow down if you need to, but please don’t drive slowly by default.

If at any point you do get into trouble on the causeway, dial 999 and ask for the Coastguard. There’s also an emergency phone in the refuge hut.

This video was produced by me Danny, of Belvue Guesthouse. We are based on Holy Island itself and offer a perfect base from which to explore the island. We have two self-catering luxury studios with kitchenettes, and one ‘no frills’ twin room for the budget conscious. Look us up. Come be our guest!

Thanks for watching!