The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne is a small (five miles by two) island two miles off the coast of Northumbria in the North of England. Known simply as 'Holy Island' to many people, the ancient name of Lindisfarne conjures up a more romantic image (although the precise meaning is lost in the mists of time).

The island was originally settled by Anglo-Saxons in the sixth century, and became a religious retreat when the first monastery was built there in the year 635 by St. Aidan. This became a local centre of education, and many were the young men who departed as missionaries to spread the Gospel around Britain and Europe. As a centre of learning, it also became a source of written material - many were the illuminated manuscript and Bibles produced here (great works of Celtic art in their own right), most famous of which is the sumptuously illustrated Lindisfarne Gospels. The original monastery is no more, but there is some evidence that the church of St. Mary occupies the location of the original wooden structure.

In 793 the island was the location of the first Viking raid on the coast of Britain, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, which sorely affrighted the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air. A great famine followed hard upon these signs; and a little later in that same year, on the 8th June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God's church by rapine and slaughter.
Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Bishop of Durham organised the building of a second monastery, whose ruins may still be seen, and this was run directly from Durham and staffed by their monks. This was active as a place of teaching and pilgrimage (St. Cuthbert's remains being housed there) from its inception until the dissolution by Henry VIII in 1536.

The island is still a place of pilgrimage and retreat - there are many denominations active in various capacities - Roman Catholic, Church of England and Presbyterian ministries and facilities are available for all visitors.

Accessible by means of a causeway from the coast, it is still a place of wonder, and not only spiritually - the many different environments are important ecologically too. Tidal mudflats, saltmarshes and dunes are home to many interesting plants, insects and birds, including the rare purple northern marsh orchid and early marsh orchid, and overwintering birds such as pale-bellied brent geese (this is their only regular wintering place in Britain), grey plovers, bar-tailed godwits and redshanks.

According to Ferenczy, there is one policeman assigned to the island, who is not always in attendance due to the periodic inaccessibility of the isle. A side effect of this is that publicans do not always strictly adhere to the licensing laws, to great rejoicing.

Lindisfarne are an odd kind of band. If they have a niche, it's probably with folk rockers like Steeleye Span and Jethro Tull, falling somewhere in the middle of the genre -- more rock than Span, more folk than Tull. Although they spent relatively little time as chart successes, their few hit singles have proved enduring, and live performances have kept them employed for the last thirty years.

I saw them on tour in 1981, after their glory days were passed, and thereby hangs a tale. I was sitting in the bar below the club talking with my friends, when a pool queue hit me in the side of the head.

"Do you mind?" I said, to the somewhat bleary-eyed bloke wielding it. "Aye, sorry lass," came a ripe Newcastle voice, to my left, "Alan's just a bit pissed."

"Alan" (my friends told me, awed) was Alan Hull, lead singer/songwriter of the band. Personally, I didn't care if he was God incarnate, my head hurt, and I was brassed off, and I said so quite aggressively. However, I accepted their apology with as good a grace as an irritated seventeen year old can. It says a lot for the ebullience of their performance that I went off to buy all their albums and eagerly bought tickets for their next tour – where I was recognised, greeted as an old friend and bought a drink … but not by Alan, who failed signally to recollect the incident.

Alan Hull was born on 20 February 1945 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. He made a meagre solo living around the folk clubs until joining up with four other Geordie lads in 1970 – Rod Clements on bass; Simon (Si) Cowe on guitar; Ray (Jacka) Jackson who played harp, harmonica and mandolin; and Ray Laidlaw on drums. As Lindisfarne, this group was signed by Charisma records in 1970 and soon released their debut album, the descriptively titled Nicely Out Of Tune . Although it wasn't a commercial success at the time, tracks like Clear White Light, Lady Eleanor and Road To Kingdom Come provided the foundations for a rock solid live act which they would take to every possible festival during the seventies.

In 1971, however, their second album, Fog On The Tyne rocketed them to the top. The title track established their image -- their "persona" perhaps – as unashamedly Geordie as The Proclaimers are Scots, emphatically from, and always in touch with, the heartbeat of the North-East of England. The lyrics evoke the desperate greyness of the lifestyle, while simultaneously celebrating the irrepressible spirit of the working man:

Sitting in a sleazy snack-bar
Sucking a sickly sausage roll,
Slipping down slowly, slipping down sideways,
I think I'll sign off the dole.

'Cos the fog on the Tyne is all mine, all mine
The fog on the Tyne is all mine…

There is a playfulness about the song with tongue-twisting verses (Could a copper catch a crooked coffin maker/ could a copper comprehend/ that a crooked coffin maker’s just an undertaker/ who undertakes to be your friend ) coupled with that almost gloating chorus that was guaranteed to make it a regional anthem – and a massive hit.

But the album was much more than just the title track, and showed that the band were much more than just a genial bunch of Geordie lads – there was the wonderfully haunting lyric of Alan Hull's January Song :

I'm feeling rather sorry for a man I know,
The world he holds in trembling hands is asking where to go.
And as he stares out at me from the mirrored wall,
I see that he is trying to cry, but the tears they will not fall.
His life is passing by behind his tired eyes,
Like the colours in a January sky.

There was the plaintive, mystical Peter Brophy Doesn't Care and the innocently sexual Passing Ghosts also written by Hull, as well as bassist Rod Clements' Meet Me On The Corner, where jaunty harmonica counterpoints a wistful lyric:

Hey Mr. Dreamseller, where have you been?
Tell me have you dreams I can see?
I came along just to sing you this song,
Can you spare one dream for me?

Suddenly, the band were being hailed as the new Beatles. Fog On the Tyne reached No.1 on the album chart just before Christmas 1971 with Meet Me On The Corner and the sinister discordance of Lady Eleanor (re-released from Nicely Out of Tune ) very successful in early 1972.

At the Lincoln Festival in May 1972 had Lindisfarne outperformed the Beach Boys, The Faces, Joe Cocker, Ry Cooder and Sly & The Family Stone. Melody Maker’s front page headlined with Lindisfarntastic! . Everything looked great.

Then came Dingly Dell , the follow-up album to Fog on the Tyne. Recorded in four days before a major American tour, it lacked the powerful songs of its predecessor, apart from the savage All Fall Down , the cover was dreary, and the band just weren't there to promote it – it flopped, with even All Fall Down barely clambering onto the bottom end of the chart.

Then began to slide into obscurity – at least in terms of chart success. In 1973 Alan Hull released the solo album, Pipedream, and the band split, with Alan Hull and Ray Jackson retaining the name while the other three formed Jack The Lad, and recorded four albums in the middle of the decade.

They reformed in 1976, however, giving a triumphant comeback performance at the Newcastle City Hall at Christmas – something that was to become a legendary annual event, with tickets needing to be purchased in June if you wanted to see the band on their home turf – something I tried hard to do, but never achieved. There was always a whisper that if you wanted to really appreciate Lindisfarne, you had to see them in Newcastle.

They hit the charts again with what was probably a largely autobiographical song: Run For Home. This captured the worldweariness of a touring band, and was a hugely popular track in 1978. This was the song that decided me to go to that concert I mentioned, right at the beginning (me having been too young to really be aware of them when they were really big).

Although Lindisfarne continued to tour consistently, they never had another major hit, unless you count the sad, sad rework of Fog on the Tyne together with footballer Paul Gascoigne in 1990. Hull, however, won himself a considerable income when Whigfield's huge 1994 hit Saturday Night was proved to be largely based on Fog On The Tyne. He got little chance to enjoy it, though, as he died of a heart attack in November 1995, at the age of 50.

The band still tours, still singing the standards, and still drawing the crowds today – although it's a little like the Beatles would have been without Lennon – still worthwhile, but something lesser than it was.

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