Cut off by the tide! Beer Warrior on Lindisfarne.

For up to eleven of every twenty-four hours the sea cuts Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, off from the mainland. Bus timetables, postal deliveries and the lives of two hundred inhabitants and many visitors are controlled by the tides. When the tide is out, Holy Island becomes the tip of a wide peninsula of sand.

The monk Aidan first crossed the sands one low tide in 643 AD to found a monastery at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria, and so it began. At one point (this is more interesting) the tiny community boasted nine pubs. Nowadays, although drink is available in some of the guest houses and hotels, sadly there are only two pubs left.

On a one night stop-over on our way to Scotland last year, we stopped off at The Ship, a recently refurbished and reopened pub (bringing the number back up to two). The Ship has been so expertly brought back to life, one wouldn’t know it had ever been closed, unless informed. As well as serving some of the best food I have ever tasted, more importantly, we were served some really delicious beer. The locally brewed Longstone’s Bitter and Old Grace from nearby Belford proved irresistible. This was not last on our list of priorities when choosing to re-visit the Island for our honeymoon this September.

Remembering the popularity of this tiny place, we booked well in advance to avoid disappointment. Horrors! – Imagine our dismay when, on the way to the Great British Beer Festival, we were given some CAMRA literature to browse through, contained therein the information that the Longstone’s Brewery had closed.

So, although happy, it was with some trepidation that the new Mrs Mad Dog Merfy and I set off on honeymoon. As usual, the nearer I got to my native North, the dryer my throat became – Strange, that!

We arrived on Holy Island in the afternoon, catching the last tide just right. This meant that all the day trippers had scarpered, so as not to be trapped overnight………. Perfect.

We deposited our belongings in our lodgings and, with some apprehension, sought out The Ship. We need not have worried. Gordon, the landlord of The Ship, had found an excellent substitute in the Border Brewer’s ‘Darling’ (evidently an embarrassing drink to order, customers preferring to point and ask for a pint of ‘that’), and the specially commissioned Holy Island Blessed Bitter, our own favourite, light, full bodied and very tasty – yummie (pause to wipe saliva from the keyboard!).

Over the week, Gordon explained the uniqueness of running a pub on the island. Half way between the main distribution of Newcastle and Edinburgh, and having to contend with tides, the ‘Big Boys’ are none too helpful when it comes to delivering to, what becomes in winter, an almost non-existent trade, although the small independent Borders Brewery at Tweed Mouth is more helpful (in fact, Gordon had nothing but praise for them). The Ship still finds it is uneconomical to sell real ale in winter, when trade drops off to nothing.

St. Aidan lures drinkers to the Crown & Anchor

Could this be, I asked, why there is no pub on Holy Island in The CAMRA Good Beer Guide? (bearing in mind the other pub, The Crown & Anchor, has it’s own unique charm, and on our own visit served a very nice pint of Ruddles).

“No!”, I was informed. Evidently the local CAMRA boys arrived on a busy Easter weekend this year to find a pub heaving with customers, the staff were flat-out, and Gordon didn’t have time to answer a string of questions from them, and so he missed out.

f this is true, it’s a shame because I thought the idea was to recommend pubs on the quality of beer, ambience, etc. and not on the landlord’s ability to answer questionnaires, and while it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, we think it should be given another chance.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot more to Holy Island than The Ship and The Crown & Anchor..there’s also the winery!. Here is produced the legendary Lindisfarne Mead and a whole range of Lindisfarne wines as well a selling a terrific range of bottled beers.

Joking aside, unless you’re into ancient priories, castles, history, wildlife, long walks on deserted beaches etc.. a week may be too long. But if you’ve got a free weekend, we can strongly recommend Holy Island’s unique way of life.

Beer Warrior on Holy Island
was Maddog

December ’96