Sands and Castles – the Northumberland Coastal Path

The best laid plans of mice and men…are usually constructed over a pint.

And so it was that in May 2007 myself, and two lifelong friends, Dave Browell and Iain Rickard, hatched a plan to walk down the coast of our home county, Northumberland. And unlike most other plans concocted over beers in pubs, this one actually came to fruition.

Northumberland is a beautiful county, arguably because there are so few people in it – apparently its the most sparsely populated county in England, with only 62 people per square kilometre. From the bleak moorland hills and valleys in the west, to the miles of sandy beaches and rugged coastline in the east, it is vast, varied and deliciously empty. But then I was born and raised there, so I may be a tad biased.

The Northumberland Coastal Path follows this stunningly beautiful coastline for around 60 miles from Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north to Cresswell in the south.

The itinerary we, or rather Dave, cooked up covered four days of walking, with hikes ranging from 12 miles to 18 miles, staying in BnB’s each night, and taking in numerous pub lunches and refreshment breaks on the way. Whilst my walking partners have a clear and functional approach to hiking – it is a hiking trip not a sight-seeing trip – and have no interest in scenic diversions, that dictum does not extend to any pub that happens to be open. Fluid intake is of course critical to such physical endeavours.

And so we caught a train from our hometown of Morpeth up to Berwick on the England-Scotland border, turned around and headed south. And kept going.

Exiting Berwick takes us past the magnificent 28-arch Royal Border Bridge, and then south across grassy cliff-tops and sandy beaches, until we reach the tidal causeway at the magical and mystical Holy Island, an early centre of Christianity in the UK. A diversion to the island, with its historic priory and castle is an option, but requires alignment with the tides to get across the causeway, and of course to get back, and is not on our agenda.

We then cut inland and what seems like an interminably long rise into the village of Belford, and the Blue Bell Hotel, our resting place for night. And after eighteen miles of walking, some basic traditional pub food and a few beverages hit the spot like never before.

Up in the morning and off we go, heading down towards the villages of Bamburgh, Seahouses and eventually to Beadnell. The route from Belford requires us to cross a major transport artery – the main east coast railway line connecting London to Edinburgh. And it tickles me pink that crossing such a major rail-line still requires a telephone call to a nearby station-master to confirm that it is indeed safe to cross. Passage negotiated and we head on, past lovely spots such as Warren Mill and Budle Bay, and on towards Bamburgh.

Perhaps its part of being brought up in a border county, much fought over and liberally populated with medieval fortifications, but there’s something about the grandeur, the history and in many cases the subsequent ruin, of castles that strikes a chord with me. And there are few grander castles than Bamburgh, sitting astride its escarpment, watching imperiously over the miles and miles of coastline, with the village nestled safely behind. The route from Warren Mill provides one spectacular view of the castle from inland, and the view from the beach then provides another.

A busy day on the beach in under the watchful eye of Bamburgh Castle

A busy day on the beach in under the watchful eye of Bamburgh Castle

From Bamburgh we walk down miles and miles of sandy beaches to the village of Seahouses, the jumping off point for the Farne Islands. The islands are the home of St Cuthbert and the legend of Grace Darling, a large colony of Grey Seals, as well as colonies of puffins and several breeds of terns. For us Seahouses means a pint in the delightful Olde Ship Inn. And a question of accommodation for the night. The helpful lady at the Tourist Information advises that there is nothing available at all in Seahouses, but if we can make it to Beadnell – a further two miles south – they’ve just had a cancellation of a family room at a hotel there. So we hack on to the Beadnell Towers Hotel, completing twelve miles for the day. The only downside being that as it’s a family room, that means the three of us bunking in together, and sharing a room with two world champion snorers – one of whose snoring is said to resemble a pig hunting for truffles. But tiredness, a good meal, a few beers, and some earplugs, take care of that.

Day three is a fifteen mile stretch from Beadnell to Alnmouth, past the village of Low Newton, Embleton Bay, and Dunstanburgh Castle.

Beadnell is a tourist village, unique for having the only west-facing harbour on the east coast, immediately south of which is the lovely broad sweep of Beadnell Bay. Low Newton is a tiny village of white-washed cottages laid out in a square around the green, and home to the rather excellent Ship Inn. Just south of the village are the Newton Ponds and Newton Pool Bird Reserve, a wildlife haven for seabirds and wildfowl. Then there is another beautiful sweep of a bay at Embleton, before we come to one of the jewels of the coastline, Dunstanburgh Castle.

Approaching the castle from the north takes us past the links course of Dunstanburgh Castle Golf Course, with the thirteenth hole nestling in the shadow of this most magnificent and desolate ruin. Sightseeing may not be on the agenda, but nothing is keeping me from having a poke around this gorgeous castle while the other two head straight on to the Jolly Fisherman in Craster. Originating from 1313, the castle was built on an impractically massive scale as a statement of the Earl Thomas of Lancaster’s wealth and influence. Today the crumbling, ruined towers of the once enormous gatehouse create a ragged silhouette on the skyline.

Minding the pin on the 12th at Dunstanburgh Castle Golf Course

Minding the pin on the 12th at Dunstanburgh Castle Golf Course

Then we keep heading south, past such local landmarks as the unmistakable Cullernose Point, with its huge columnar-jointed cliffs streaked white by its resident birds, and the beautiful sandy cove of Sugar Sands. And then on to Boulmer, one of Northumberland’s last genuine fishing villages, and a brief stop in the Fishing Boat Inn. Then on past Alnmouth Golf Club at Foxton, where, on 5th May 1965, my Dad scored a hole in one on the eleventh; and on to the village of Alnmouth itself, where my Granny lived for many years and where our family spent so many summers. And finally to our rooms at the Hope & Anchor.

Our final day sees us facing a fourteen mile walk from Alnmouth to our final destination at Cresswell. From Alnmouth the route veers away from the coast a little in order to cross the River Aln and get down to the picturesque village of Warkworth, situated on a loop in the River Coquet and dominated by its 12th century castle. But time, and my companions, wait for no man, so we’ve only a brief glimpse before following the road along the Coquet to Amble. Sustenance is sought through a pub lunch before the final slog that is Druridge Bay. A seven-mile sweep of a bay, under normal circumstances Druridge is a lovely spot, but today there is a vicious wind whipping off the North Sea, scouring our exposed legs with sand and making walking difficult. It’s a hoods-up, heads-down, seven-mile march to Cresswell. And completion.

Personally I’d like to see the Coastal Path continue on to Tynemouth, providing an holistic view of the county and a true sense of having walked the entire coastline. As it is we’ve completed what we can, had a marvellous four days of hiking, and enjoyed this most stunning coastline of this most stunning county, Northumberland. Our Northumberland.

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