The Northumberland coastline is renowned for its breathtaking swathes of golden sands and awe-inspiring vistas crowned with medieval castles. But skim over its beaches and across a short causeway and you’ll find yourself on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne – cut off twice-daily from the rest of the world by fast-moving tides, it’s still, for many, a little-known treasure just off our shores.
One of the the holiest sites in Anglo-Saxon England, Lindisfarne was officially founded in 635AD by St Aidan, an Irish monk, who established the island’s priory. Having converted Northumbria to Christianity at the invitation of the kingdom’s ruler, Oswald, St Aidan’s work on the island gave rise to the creation of what has been described as one of the first and greatest masterpieces of European book painting: the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Often ransacked by marauding Viking raiders during the 8th century, thanks to its handy positioning and the monastery’s wealth, the island is now referred to less by its Anglo-Saxon name of ‘Lindisfarne' and more commonly simply as ‘Holy Island’, after observations made by Durham monks following a particularly bloodthirsty attack in 793AD: 'Lindisfarne – baptised in the blood of so many good men – truly a Holy Island.’ Indeed, although the monks vacated the island in fear of the Vikings after the raid (and remained absent for 400 years), Lindisfarne was reinstated as an active religious site in the 12th century and remained so until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. But its rich religious heritage is not the only treasure to be uncovered here.
A site of national and international significance, it is perhaps of no surprise to those in the know that the Gertrude Jekyll Garden – a small horticultural oasis in the grounds of Lindisfarne Castle – was recently crowned Garden of the Year at the BBC Countryfile magazine awards. However, for the less green-fingered among us, it would be safe to assume that Gertrude Jekyll is a name we know little about, and the significance of a tiny garden off the North East coastline bearing her name is somewhat lost.
Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932), created around 400 gardens in the UK, Europe and America, and her influence on garden design remains pervasive to this day. She contributed some 1,000 articles to magazines such as Country Life – through which she was introduced to proprietor Edward Hudson, who was to take on the lease of Lindisfarne Castle – and wrote her own gardening books, still widely read in modern editions. Also a talented painter, photographer, designer and craftswoman, she was much influenced by artistic principles, and her family name (through her brother Walter, who was a good friend of the author) may even have been borrowed for the title of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novella, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Once a vegetable patch that provided food for the castle’s soldiers, the green area at the foot of the fort was transformed by Gertrude into a small walled garden in 1911, following Edwin Lutyens’ slightly earlier refurbishment of the castle into a holiday home at Edward Hudson’s behest. Although prolific in her creation of gardens around the world, Holy Island’s tiny patch of horticultural excellence is particularly significant to Gertrude’s legacy – and, indeed, is one of the few that bears her name – because of her autonomy in its creation, together with her pride in the flourishing flora’s success in such unforgiving climes.
‘Gertrude designed a lot of gardens, but there weren’t many that she was very instrumental in planning, so this one is really important,’ reasons Fliss Elsom-Cook, one of the gardeners on Lindisfarne. ‘And because it is in such an isolated spot, it’s difficult to grow flowers out here. You’ve got this tiny oasis of beautiful flowers – they’re all hardy plants, but some are still quite delicate – in basically a bog on a windswept island, not far from a volcanic crag! So she had to be clever and choose really good cultivars.
‘A lot of Gertrude’s gardens have now been lost, or planted over, and many of her plans no longer exist, so I think we owe it to her to make sure the garden is still what she planned and designed. Also, it really goes hand-in-hand with one’s experience of the castle, because she specifically created the garden with Lutyens’ design in mind. There’s an artistic link-up between the planting and the architecture that is so important to maintain.’
The original planting scheme of the Gertrude Jekyll Garden was restored by the National Trust in 2003 – the mix of hardy annuals, colourful perennials and heritage vegetables creating the same, unexpected explosion of colour, warmth, texture and scent on the windswept shores of Holy Island as they did in the early 20th century – and so the most recent recognition of the gardeners’ endeavours to maintain the natural heritage of the garden, as well as its beauty and charm, is particularly noteworthy.
‘We’ve tried to recreate the garden as closely as we can to what Gertrude planted,’ Fliss explains. ‘We have a far bigger range of plants, but they’re all species that would have been around in the early 20th century and, where we can, we use the exact plants that Gertrude would have used. She often planted with colour in mind, so you’ve got these big swathes of purples and pinks and yellows, it’s stunning.
‘We also look for cultivars that are much more hardy or disease-resistant than the originals would have been, so that we’re still retaining the essence of Gertrude’s garden but also making it more sustainable. The combination of planting here really makes for an artistic experience. As you walk into the garden – because of its high walls, with the lower wall on the side of the castle – you’re enveloped by colour and scent. It’s a small garden, but it’s intense.’
Having beaten off competition from across the UK to claim the title of Garden of the Year, the Gertrude Jekyll Garden’s geometric layout of paths means there’s something to discover throughout the year, although the months of July and August are regarded as peak time for visitors.
‘There are lots of different varieties of sweet peas, and these are grown up very high, architecturally-interesting obelisks so they look fantastic,’ says Fliss. ‘Around those you have seas of chrysanthemums, lavatera, helenium, and then you’ve got sunflowers and rudbeckia up at the back. These are all very bright plants that, together, create an almost impressionistic effect.
‘We have a Gertrude Jekyll Rose, cultivated by David Austin, which is a double-flowered rose in a very deep, rich pink, and there’s another one called Munstead Wood, named after her house in Surrey, which is much redder. We’ve also got a really pretty nigella called Miss Jeykll, so there are a few intertextual references here too.’
Forever presided over by the indomitable structure that rises magnificently from the sheer rock face at the tip of the island, one’s experience of the Gertrude Jekyll Garden is inextricable from that of Lindisfarne Castle: built in 1550 as a fort to defend the harbour against attack from Scots and Norsemen, before turning aristocratic holiday home at the turn of the 20th century. Quite aside from its somewhat unfair reputation as a castle with a quiet military history – although when you regard the company it keeps here in the North East, it is easy to see why it is viewed as such – Lindisfarne Castle has plenty of stories to tell. And, for the first time under the guardianship of the National Trust, the castle is sharing these stories in the new exhibition, Now You See Me.
‘The castle was extremely important for the first 50 years of its life, and then lost a huge amount of its significance when England and Scotland were united in 1603,’ explains Nick Lewis, House Steward at Lindisfarne Castle. ‘If things had gone differently, Lindisfarne would have played a far greater role, because it would still have been on a frontier. But it did come to prominence again in the Civil War, and was captured by parliamentarians in 1643.
‘The next exciting moment in the timeline was in 1715, when Jacobites captured the castle; Lancelot Errington from Newcastle, and his nephew Mark from Bamburgh, managed to work their way in under false pretences. Initially they were going to get the garrison drunk, which was the old fashioned way, but then they realised there wasn’t really a garrison here to get drunk! So Lancelot managed to get in because he’d previously met the master gunner here, back when that chap was a barber. Lancelot simply asked for a haircut and was invited in! He fetched his nephew and they burst in with their guns, threw the garrison out and ran the flag up. They were imprisoned but were eventually pardoned, and Lancelot actually ended up running a pub in Newcastle for 30 years in the Flesh Market!’
The family-friendly exhibition, which will run until 3rd November, brings to life remarkable tales such as these through a broad selection of media – conjuring an immersive kaleidoscope of hearsay, rumours, anecdotes, multiple truths and mistruths in which you’ll smell the musk of gunpowder, be stirred by the ringing of the same bell as soldiers were in bygone days, and be invited to decide just how you view Lindisfarne Castle.
‘There are all sorts of stories to tell, you could go on all day,’ says Nick. ‘I think why Lindisfarne Castle has got a reputation for not having a busy military history is that no-one’s ever studied it, but we’re starting to follow lines of enquiry that no-one has ever looked at before. It’s not all sieges and damsels in distress, because it’s not that sort of building, but it does have a significant role to play within our local heritage. The military lives of many of the castles we’re familiar with in the North East end before Lindisfarne was even built, and many of their stories have not been recorded. But there’s 350 years of military history here, and we’re just scraping the surface.’
For more information about the Now You See Me exhibition and the Gertrude Jekyll Garden, visit