Saxon church uncovered during dig on Holy Island

The foundations of what may be one of the largest and earliest Saxon churches in the area have been found on a dig on the Heugh (hill with a ridge) on the south of Lindisfarne.
The foundations of what may be one of the largest and earliest Saxon churches in the area have been found on a dig on the Heugh (hill with a ridge) on the south of Lindisfarne.

The foundations of what may be one of the largest and earliest Saxon churches in the area have been found on a dig on the Heugh (hill with a ridge) on the south of Lindisfarne.

Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Partnership are responsible for the dig, which has uncovered the enormous sandstone blocks used in the foundations. They are almost complete and give a clear picture of what the church may have been like.

It could be the earliest known stone church, and it would have required considerable manpower to move the stone blocks to the top of the hill.

However, as the site is on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), Natural England regulations mean it will have to be returned to its original state, by the end of the week.

Before this happens, the Revd Paul Collins, Vicar of Holy Island, is proposing to hold a Eucharist service in the church at 11am on Tuesday.

He said: “I feel it is important to honour this ancient building before it is covered up again.

“There are traditional tales of two chapels on Lindisfarne: one is St Cuthbert of the Sea, which is probably the building on a small island adjacent to Lindisfarne, but the other is St Cuthbert of the Sky. This may well be the church we have just uncovered.”

There are, understandably, mixed feelings about the plans to cover up the church.

The beautiful location overlooks Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands, and needs to be preserved, yet the church is, according to Peter Ryder of the Newcastle Diocesan Advisory Committee, ‘probably the most important archaeological find on the island’.

He continued: “The pick tooling is very distinctive and probably very early. At 60m, the church is very big for the period. There are early records of a wooden church around this site. It may be that this church was encased in stone, perhaps before 870 AD, when the monks fled the Viking invaders. However, the Vikings were rapidly Christianised, and they may have built a stone church to replace the older, wooden one.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologist Brian Hope Taylor conducted many digs on Holy Island. Although he never published his work, his hand-written notes suggest he may have discovered the church already.