There’s something about small outcrops of land just offshore that become islands at high tide but allow access to the mainland when the waters recede. It’s a decent defensive strategy in a siege to see your attackers submerged twice a day, but it was also attractive for religious hermits who wanted some barrier between themselves and the world’s noises and temptations.
So think about the commune of Mont St Michel in Normandy, or perhaps the Cornish counterpart St Michael’s Mount (imaginative name!). Just off the Northumbrian coast the monks of Lindisfarne were innovators in arts and sciences until the Norsemen arrived. In all there are 43 such islands around Britain that are linked to the mainland by low tide causeways.
One of the smaller examples is an island just north of the mouth of the River Tyne. It’s so close to land that the path to it can be walked in minutes, yet the North Sea is still a significant hazard. Just weeks before my visit an upturned car was found on the narrow causeway, its driver dead inside. The majority of casualties here have been on the rocks behind the island however for this stretch of coastline has seen numerous shipwrecks which is why a lighthouse was erected here in 1898.
In medieval times a small chapel was built on the island dedicated to Saint Helen, and the monks here maintained a light inside which may have been a precursor to the present tower, or could have simply had religious significance. They referred to it as St Katherine’s Light, or The Lady Light. Perhaps this second title was enough to create a little confusion for now the island is known as St Mary’s though there was no religious structure here of that name. What little evidence of St Helens remained into the 19th century was destroyed during the construction of the lighthouse.
Though there was once a pub on the island, nowadays there’s just one private dwelling and the lighthouse buildings (cafe, visitor centre) but if you’re game for the vertigo inducing 137 steps to the top you can visit the lantern room at the top where a paraffin lamp was used to provide the light and a clockwork mechanism used to rotate the fresnel lens until electrification in 1977. Decommissioned just 7 years later the lens was removed to a museum in Penzance so a smaller version tops the tower now.
The views along the coast are fantastic (and include the dome of Whitley Bay’s Spanish City for the Dire Straits fans out there), but it was the interior that really appealed to me. The door way out onto the railed parapet around the lantern was firmly locked, though lighthouse keepers would have regularly ventured outside to clean the glass, and each May would be expected to repaint. Can’t say I’d fancy that job but with three saints to watch over them I’m sure they were ok.