It’s hardly HS2: but Holy Island faces its own train controversy

The plan is for a road-train to link the medieval Priory, with its iconic rainbow arch....

As a storm rages over the proposed introduction of a road-train to the legendary beauty-spot, Bernard Trafford suggests a rather cunning compromise solution.

HS2 it ain’t, but the remote island that nurtured Saint Cuthbert and witnessed the creation of the world-renowned Lindisfarne Gospels (one of the finest creations of the Anglo-Saxon era, giving the lie to the term Dark Ages) is convulsed by train controversy. The argument centres on the proposal by a local taxi firm to replace the North-Eastern tourist Mecca’s minibus shuttle that runs between Holy Island Castle and the famous Lindisfarne Priory with a so-called road-train.

You know the kind of thing. A tractor thinly disguised as a steam-engine, possibly (subject to copyright, I guess) as that especially celebrated Tank Engine, tows three open carriages, generally at very low speed so that the small children on board can wave to their parents and grandparents who, too mean to pay the adult fare, walk alongside.

I’m not being rude: I’ve always done the same.

Island traders and residents are up in arms. They reckon the “train” will be a hazard in the already busy high street: the claim is also made that it will whisk visitors past shops that would otherwise entice them in to spend their holiday pocket-money.

I’m not sure either argument entirely stands up. The shuttle already operates, and there surely must be some means of helping those with reduced mobility to the opposite ends of the tourism-area (only half a mile apart, in truth). Moreover, the open-sided road-train, more Covid-friendly than a hermetically-sealed minibus, could also be said to separate its passengers from the traders to a significantly lesser degree.

… to the Tudor Castle.

Congestion? Well, it’s true the Island’s few streets are nowadays jam-packed with tourists: but they already have to step out of the way of the shuttle. And can any tourist destination really afford to freeze or reduce the scope of its offer to trippers? Northumberland, notwithstanding its glories (and the feeling of people like me that we’d prefer to keep it a secret), is hardly overwhelmed (yet) by visitors in the way that Cornwall or the Isle of Skye are.

I know: it’s none of my business. So I’ll shut up in a minute. But, rather than merely carp from the side-lines, first I’ll offer a positive solution to the problem.

Back in the early 1990s, when the Trafford family first became regular visitors to Northumberland, Holy Island was still pretty quiet. Today’s enormous visitor car-park didn’t exist, and one could usually find a space up by what was then the post office, or on the grass down by the castle. There were fewer shops and cafés, too, and buildings like the old fish-factory were derelict, rather than converted into smart holiday lets. It was charming, yes, but sad: the loss of almost all its fishing industry had not yet been compensated for by tourist income. Increasing prosperity is never entirely without cost, but few would argue that Holy Island in 2021 is worse off now than it was thirty years ago.

One of the great treats for our (then) little girls was the horse-drawn bus. Having visited the Priory and museum, we would sign them up for the trip to the Castle. They’d clamber into the open bus and wave delightedly as the old carthorse (I think his name was Joe) plodded down the main street. So slowly did he move that there was no danger to pedestrians (we used to reckon we had time to snatch a coffee en route and still catch them up): while Joe’s phlegmatic presence added a magic that no mechanised alternative can match.

There’s a historical precedent. Decades before Joe pulled his bus, a network of horse-drawn tramways criss-crossed the island, presumably to transport farm produce.

Get a couple of ‘osses in, add a bit of character and reduce the diesel engines on the island by one. Hey, swift-to-act residents could even rush out with a shovel and collect the manure for their roses.

What’s not to like?


  1. Dear VOTN, what an excellent idea , a horse drawn tourist carriage to take one across to Holy Island. We visited this once with the Banks family and the memory of that with Mr Banks waving his sturdy walking stick at various landmarks , lingers fondly still. May I add one additional benefit of the horse drawn vehicle. Bernard Trafford has identified the benefit for his roses, perfect, but there is a benefit for us more elderly, ie to our ears. There is no doubt in my mind that the local Council / Government body, would require an “ electric “ vehicle not a “ disgusting diesel”, but the electric are so quiet!! The clip clop of Dobbin and friends would warn all pedestrians including us slightly harder of hearing of their arrival and avoid impending collision or even loss of life , outcomes that are inevitable with the electric drawn alternative.

  2. Being someone who lives in the island and us currently away working in Cornwall I can say the island is as busy as down here. Yes the numbers of visitors are probably not as high but the island is such a small place it’s soon filled to capacity and more. From family who are working on the island I have been told this is the busiest summer they’ve ever seen. I will see when I get back home in September.

    Oh and the horse was called Simon


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