Discover the Northumberland cafe reachable only at low tide

Inaccessible from the mainland during twice-daily high tides, Pilgrims Coffee, on Northumberland’s remote Holy Island, offers home-roasted beans and locally sourced dishes with a side serving of adventure — and even has a bed for emergency sleepovers.

By Aleesha Hansel
Published 28 Sept 2020, 09:40 BST
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is cut off from the Northumberland mainland by high tides for ...

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is cut off from the Northumberland mainland by high tides for around 10 hours each day, which can make visiting — and supply chains — a challenge. 

Photograph by Getty Images

In the far north east of England, just south of where the River Tweed flows into the North Sea, and where roads and railway lines forge parallel pathways up towards the Scottish border, lies the remote Holy Island of Lindisfarne. For around 10 hours a day, it’s cut off from the UK mainland by the tide, creating a semi-isolation that lends itself to monastic living. As such, the history of this small isle is one of religion, refuge and raids — and while marauding Vikings are no longer a concern, the island still offers challenges to those living or working on it.

“The weather changes immediately when the tide moves in or out, so you can tell what's going on,” says Andrew Mundy, who, along with his wife, Victoria, took over Pilgrims Coffee from his parents in 2016. “It changes the acoustics and the feeling of the island. And the seals get up and start singing. It’s eerie — really eerie — but in a nice way.”

Sitting a mile off the Northumberland coast, slightly south of Berwick-Upon-Tweed, Holy Island — or Lindisfarne, as it’s also known — is just two square miles in size. The island’s only village is home to 180 people and a handful of businesses — a couple of pubs, a post office — catering to residents, as well as to visitors to the island’s main tourist attraction, Lindisfarne Castle. Starting life as a fort, the 16th-century castle was renovated in the early 1900s by Edwin Lutyens, the architect of the Cenotaph on Whitehall and numerous monuments in New Delhi, including the India Gate. It’s now run by the National Trust but has been closed since spring due to the pandemic, hugely reducing the amount of passing trade to the island.

Andrew and Victoria Mundy, managers of Pilgrims Coffee on Northumberland's Holy Island, with their young family.

Photograph by Katie Ashford

Lindisfarne being cut off for almost half the day isn’t just something for visitors to contend with — it also throws up challenges for businesses like Pilgrims.

“I’ve been trying to get organic milk for the last year, and it’s been an absolute nightmare,” Andrew says. “I can give the tide times to the supplier but every day they’d have to check it and see how it fits into their delivery schedule.” He adds, “Ultimately, we just get told, ‘We will drop it off if we can.’”

And it’s not just deliveries that don’t always turn up. Last year, the cafe posted a job ad, received 100 responses and lined up 100 interviews, but ended up with zero attendees. Currently, the cafe has eight members of staff, all of whom commute from the mainland. Despite the lockdown preventing business, online coffee sales were so buoyant that the chief coffee roaster, Joseph, moved to the island to better deal with the burgeoning orders, making use of the emergency bed installed at the cafe in the event of missed crossings.

Pilgrims Coffee is one of a handful of business on Holy Island. The current owners took over the business in 2016, setting up an on-site roastery and launching a cook book. 

Photograph by Katie Ashford

Andrew’s passion for coffee was ignited while working in Newcastle with an Italian who competed in national barista competitions. When Andrew later travelled to Australia in 2005, the thriving coffee culture cemented his desire to create something similar back in the UK. With a family connection to Holy Island stretching back 40 years (Andrew’s sister owns the gelato and jewellery shop next door), the Mundys jumped at the opportunity to take over the cafe.

They started with a small electric roaster, but demand for coffee soon outstripped supply, so Andrew found himself roasting beans in a yurt in the back garden, which was far from ideal: “You’re trying to listen to the roast and the tent is flapping away — it wasn’t practical,” he says. He’s now upgraded to two shipping containers, which have been insulated and lined.

The care taken over the coffee is also mirrored in the cafe’s approach to by-products, from using plant-based packaging to operating a smokeless roaster. Victoria, the cafe’s head chef, sources local ingredients wherever possible for the pastries, soups and cakes she makes. She’s also written a cookbook, A Taste of Holy Island, featuring generations-old recipes from this unique, remote location.

Bestselling coffee blends include Daily Bread, Holy Grail and Single Origin, which can also be bought online. 

Photograph by Katie Ashford

Andrew Mundy from Pilgrims Coffee recommends three local adventures

St Cuthbert’s Island
This even smaller island, connected to Lindisfarne by a tidal causeway, is named after a monk and bishop who attempted, unsuccessfully, to live on it as a hermit (his fellow monks could simply shout over to him). Come here to hunt for fossils, which can be strung together and used as a rosary.

Holy Island’s north shore
Serving as a golf course from 1907 up until the 1960s, the dunes on the north of the island hide a little secret paradise of their own. “You walk across the dunes and find several coves. On the right days, you could be anywhere in the world — it’s amazing,” says Andrew. There’s foraging to be had along the coastline, too. “My kids love winkle picking, you can just find them in the rocks, boil them up and eat them,” says Andrew.

For those who like to be in the water instead of just admiring it, there are opportunities for kitesurfing, snorkelling and coasteering off the mainland. The Northumberland towns of Bamburgh and Beadnell, to the south of Holy Island, are the places to go.

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