The ruined medieval chapel on St Cuthbert’s Island with Holy Island in the background
The ruined medieval chapel on St Cuthbert’s Island with Holy Island in the background © Historic England Archive DP175741
The ruined medieval chapel on St Cuthbert’s Island with Holy Island in the background © Historic England Archive DP175741

Medieval Chapel on St Cuthbert's Isle, Northumberland

Winter storms threatened to wash away medieval archaeology on the sacred island of St Cuthbert. As a partner on the Peregrini Landscape Partnership Project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund), we were able to include this Heritage at Risk site in a programme of conservation and repair projects. 

Where: Holy Island, Northumberland

Years on the register:  2011–2018

A sacred island on the Northumberland coast

The Northumberland coast line is well known for its wild places, fishing villages, dramatic castles and sacred islands. Holy Island (Lindisfarne), probably the most famous island on this stretch of coast, is linked to the mainland by a causeway that is covered by the tide twice a day. St Cuthbert’s Island is just off the south west corner of Holy Island, linked by a rocky causeway at low tide. Both Islands are a magnet for nature conservationists, geologists, ornithologists, marine biologists, archaeologists, historians, religious pilgrims and tourists.

The Island, as the name suggests, is associated with St Cuthbert (around AD 630-687) and the early medieval monastic settlement of Holy Island and Northumbria. A chapel dedicated to St Cuthbert is mentioned by Bede (around AD 673-735) and is described as being in the outer precinct of the Anglo-Saxon monastery. This was a place of retreat and contemplation, a hermitage for those seeking solitude and isolation.

Winter storms threatened the medieval ruins

All that remains today are the ruins of a rectangular medieval chapel and associated structures with earthworks that may be all that is left of the earlier, monastic enclosure on the Island. It's home to seabirds and seals, and a distinctive geological outcrop of Whin Sill.

Violent winter storms have been undermining the west side of the Island for several years. This repeated action had eroded some of the ruined structures leaving their archaeological deposits vulnerable to removal by the wind and tide. To protect these vulnerable remains we needed a barrier between the archaeology and the sea. 

How we made a difference

There are many competing interests on Holy Island. St Cuthbert’s Island alone is a scheduled monument, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve. The significant erosion issues affecting the western edge of St Cuthbert’s Island were recognised by the landowner, Natural England and Historic England prompting us to put the island on the Heritage at Risk register in 2011.

Fortunately, as a partner on the Peregrini Landscape Partnership project, we were able to include St Cuthbert's in a programme of conservation and repair projects. 

A gabion wall of rocks has been built to keep the worst of the storms away from the visible remains, archaeological deposits and to protect the ruins of the medieval chapel from any further erosion.

Peregrini Landscape Partnership project

The island’s archaeological deposits are protected as a scheduled monument, but this doesn't protect them from the unpredictable northern weather. The repairs and protective measures delivered by the Peregrini Landscape Partnership project have provided the much needed protection for the archaeological features on the Island.

This work was carried out as part of the project's programme of conservation and restoration of built and natural features on Holy Island. In addition, the Peregrini community archaeology project has raised the profile of the archaeology on Holy Island and provided their volunteers (and visitors) with an exciting programme of recording and excavation.

Further monitoring of the gabion walls will be needed over the next few years, but for now, the medieval chapel and hermitage will be safe from further erosion.

See St Cuthbert's on the National Heritage List

The Heritage Lottery Funded Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Partnership was a remarkable opportunity for us to address the erosion in an innovative way. The Partnership brought together expertise from the historic and natural environments, and Historic England worked closely with the project's conservation architect to develop options for a variety of sites, including St Cuthbert’s Island. The gabions are a subtle and sustainable intervention which has proved incredibly successful in arresting the erosion of the site

Jessica Turner, Historic and Built Environment Officer, Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership.
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