This Tiny Island Is Still Making Mead the Medieval Way
Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the Northumberland coast, has been home to mead-makers since St. Aidan founded a monastery here in 634 AD. Today, Lindisfarne Mead is made with honey, fermented grape juice, and water drawn from the island.
Mention the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and a few things come to mind: the Viking raiders in 793 AD, the gospels, and a precarious causeway crossing. But this tidal island, situated a mile off the north Northumberland coast, has also become renowned for the production of one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world: mead.
This sweet-tasting drink made with fermented honey and water has been consumed for centuries, and is linked with ancient traditions around the globe. Its popularity has increased massively in recent years, with "meaderies" popping up in Denmark, Maine, and London.
But J Michael Hackett, who began the production of Lindisfarne Mead on the island (population: 180) in the early 1960s, was well ahead of his time. In July this year, the Lindisfarne "original" mead won a silver medal in the Los Angeles International Wine Competition and, after a decades-long export struggle, sales in the United States are growing. Lindisfarne Mead just passed the two million bottle mark.
But why did Hackett choose Lindisfarne? History was a big factor. Medieval monks are as renowned for their alcoholic beverages as they are their presence on this island (St. Aidan founded a monastery here after being exiled from Iona by King Oswald of Northumbria.) Was there some kind of ancient monk's recipe that Hackett used to revive the mead? Not exactly, according to current Lindisfarne Mead director Christopher Walwyn-James.
"He chose the one which was more commonly utilised in Roman times. That indeed was the inspiration—that it was made here," Walwyn-James explains. It uses a blend of honey, water drawn from the island, and—unlike some meads—fermented grape juice.
Was it actually made here in medieval times, though? It depends on what you want to believe. But probably.
"The evidence points towards the fact that it was and it would have been, for various reasons," says Walwyn-James. "First of all, it was very much associated with better and higher living in days of old."
One of the peculiarities of travelling onto Lindisfarne is that access is dependent on the tides. Twice a day at high-tide, the island is inaccessible for several hours. If you're on it and want to get off or off it and want to get on, then tough.
Accessing the island now is easier and safer than ever, with an asphalt causeway running from the mainland, but misjudging a crossing is by no means a thing of the past. In April this year, two people had to be rescued from their car after becoming stranded and five suffered a similar fate in July.
Although a couple of islanders are employed, most staff at Lindisfarne Mead are not resident here and are at the mercy of the tides. Flexi-time is a way of life. They must surely be used to these working conditions to rarely get stranded, though? Well, almost.
"You get so immersed in something, or the weather suddenly deteriorates and the wind comes from a particular direction and pushes the tide faster and quicker," Walwyn-James says. "There have been a couple of Friday evenings when I've arrived at the causeway at five o'clock and thought, 'Oh no, I can't go across that' and I've been stuck here until 11."
When the tides are out and the tourists have gone, the island becomes eerie and unsettlingly quiet, amplified by the reality of being unable to leave.
Walking into the winery and shop, I realise that Walwyn-James and his team don't stop at mead. A variety of Lindisfarne-branded drinks are on display, from wild strawberry, toffee, and damson liqueurs to fruit wine. But these aren't novelty souvenirs for tourists after a "medieval" tat. The mead is good stuff.
At first sip, I'm wary of an overbearing sweetness. A quick sniff is a little discouraging, but in the mouth, Lindisfarne Mead is very different. Though not quite as sweet as a dessert wine, it's refreshing and smooth, with a slightly sharp aftertaste.
While the original mead remains Lindisfarne's best-selling, Walwyn-James and the team are developing others. One of these is a golden-coloured, spiced version made with cinnamon and cloves. It's distinctly warmer than the original, with a cinnamon punch almost like a gentler mulled wine.
Despite this array of meads, and all the other things that make Lindisfarne an unusual and captivating place—tides, history, religion—it seems that there is still no pleasing everybody.
"Some people come here and say, 'It's great, I could spend the whole weekend just discovering things,'" Lindisfarne Mead production manager Ronnie Tait tells me, as I near the end of my visit to the island. "Other people say, 'I drove all the way from Berwick and there's nothing here!' What can you do?"
All photos by Sarah Campbell.