Where history dominates wild rugged shores
Ancient fortresses rise above the sweeping beaches of the dramatic Northumberland coastline, rich in wildlife and character
Sitting atop a plateau of dark volcanic rock on the rugged Northumberland coast, a magnificent brooding castle dominates everything around it, both above and below the bright blue skyline. Its massive bulwark resembles a long, wide ship, run aground amidst the sea of dunes that fringe the coastline. This is Bamburgh Castle, and it sits within a landscape formed by a cataclysmic event that took place almost 300 million years ago. As the terns wheel in the sky just offshore and dive into the troughs between the waves, and oystercatchers call from the shoreline, it is hard to imagine that molten magma once brutally forced its way to the surface here.
The magma created a legacy of landforms ideal for castles, lighthouses, seabird colonies and sheltered harbours. This now hard, black rock is a highly-prized, unyielding building stone, which the locals call whinstone, for the sound it makes when hit by a stonemason’s hammer. In some places, the rock still shows the hollows where ancient volcanic gas once bubbled and popped.
From inside the castle walls, with cannons facing to sea and a precipitous drop all around, there is a sense of the security this fortification has offered through the ages to those who took refuge within.
Bamburgh Castle was once the royal seat of the Kings of Northumbria and is now one of the largest inhabited castles in England. After the death of Lord Crewe in 1721 and the
formation of the Crewe Trustees, the castle became a surgery and dispensary for the poor and sick. In 1894, the castle was purchased for £60,000, with the aim of restoring it as a convalescent home for retired gentlemen, but the owner, Lord Armstrong, died before the project was completed. His heir was his great nephew William Watson Armstrong, who decided to keep Bamburgh as a family home, and it is his descendants who live there today.
Inside the castle, 14 rooms are open to the public, and more than 3,000 items are on display. These include
“Ye holy Towers that shade the wave-worn steep, Long may ye rear your aged brows sublime” William Lisle Bowles, ‘Bamburgh Castle’
collections of fine porcelain, antique weaponry and fascinating archaeological finds, for while the castle has watched over this coastline for more than 1,400 years, there is evidence showing people lived here as early as 10,000BC.
Unusually for a castle, the overwhelming sense once inside is of light. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the King’s Hall, with its cathedral-like quality, tall windows and the high false hammer beam ceiling, made with teak from what was then Siam. The King of Siam was a friend of Lord Armstrong, and it is said that when he visited Bamburgh, he helped to carve some of the intricate designs in this splendid, airy banqueting room.
Act of courage
At the foot of the 180ft (55m) basalt promontory, on which the castle stands, lies the coastal village of Bamburgh. Dominated by the dramatic ramparts of the fortress above it, this small community is sheltered from the North Sea winds.
The village of Bamburgh is quite beguiling in itself, its picturesque streets tempting visitors with inviting cafés and independent shops to explore, around a triangular wooded area known as The Grove. Once the site of a quarry providing sandstone for the castle, it is a variant on a village green, overlooked by the imposing Victoria Hotel at the uphill end of Front Street, which runs along one side. At the heart of the village sits a glass-fronted, wood-clad building: the RNLI Grace Darling Museum, inside which the story of one young woman’s extraordinary bravery is told.
Grace Horsley Darling was the daughter of the lighthouse keeper on Longstone, one of the Farne Islands, located approximately five miles off the Northumberland coast from Bamburgh. On 7 September 1838, Grace saw a paddle steamer, the SS Forfarshire, wrecked on Big Harcour rock. She was only 22 years old, but heroically, she braved the rough seas with her father in their coble, a small open boat, to rescue the survivors. Grace held the coble steady in the raging seas while her father jumped onto the rocks to help the survivors on board. There were nine in all, but as the coble had room for only five of them, Grace and her father had to make a return trip to pick up the rest. News of Grace’s bravery soon spread, turning her into a reluctant celebrity. Sadly, she died of tuberculosis in 1942, just four years after her courageous act.
“But courage, Father! let us out to sea – A few may yet be saved.” The Daughter’s words, Her earnest tone, and look beaming with faith, Dispel the Father’s doubts: nor do they lack The noble-minded Mother’s helping hand To launch the boat; and with her blessing cheered, And inwardly sustained by silent prayer, Together they put forth, Father and Child!” William Wordsworth, ‘Grace Darling’
The very boat used in the rescue can be found inside the museum, along with some of Grace’s personal belongings, an atmospheric audio-visual interpretation and a detailed model of the Longstone Lighthouse. “When you see the boat in front of you, it has a real impact,” says Marleen Vincenten, RNLI heritage development manager. “Grace was an inspirational woman to all.”
Opposite the museum, in the graveyard of St Aidan’s church, where Grace is buried, is her memorial: a canopied stone structure with a life-size sculpture of Grace, an oar laid at her side. It is said that the memorial was placed in this elevated position so that it could be seen from passing ships.
Clasped between hard outcrops of resilient rocks jutting out to sea, are several long beaches of fine, pale sand. One of the most peaceful is Beadnell Bay, which stretches south from the village of the same name for slightly more than 2 miles (3.4km) and is bordered by dunes clad in marram grass. To help conserve the dune’s rare plants, which include purple milk vetch and autumn gentian, along with its distinctive
“Between our eastward and our westward sea The narrowing strand Clasps close the noblest shore fame holds in fee Even here where English birth seals all men free – Northumberland” Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘Northumberland’
wild character, the National Trust employs hardy Exmoor ponies. By grazing on the grasses and unwelcome plants, such as the encroaching sycamores, the ponies help to open up the grassland, allowing flowers, such as restharrow and bloody cranesbill, to prosper.
Beadnell is a quiet spot nowadays, but like so many other settlements along the coast, it was once a hive of industry. What appears to be an old castle on the harbour side, especially when viewed from afar, is a group of old lime kilns.
The honey-coloured stone edifice has three individual kilns. During operation, locally-quarried limestone and coal would be loaded from above using a ramped, horse-drawn tramway, the remains of which can still be seen, before being set alight. The lime, which was exported across Scotland and northern England, would be raked out by hand, through a small orifice known as an ‘eye’. Today, the kilns are used by fishermen to store lobster pots and crates and also offer a spectacular view towards the ruin of Dunstanburgh Castle.
Shelter and protection
Approximately 5 miles south of Beadnell Bay is the 18th century fishing hamlet of Low Newton-by-the-Sea, with its picturesque whitewashed cottages and pub, the Ship Inn. Below the village green, more pristine golden sands unfold, sheltered by an offshore reef. Set back from the shore and
protected by dunes is Newton Pool Nature Reserve. Herons, lapwings, wigeons, oystercatchers and ever-changing colonies of wetland and coastal birds shelter here and can be seen from the bird hide, less than 110 yards (100m) from the pub.
There is a popular walk along this endless exposed coastline beneath big skies, via the golden sands of Embleton Bay to the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle.
Built by Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322, the castle was constructed on the remains of an iron age fort and further developed in the 1380s by the Duke of Lancaster. In the 15th century, it formed a strategic stronghold during the ferocious battles of the Wars of the Roses, and was twice captured by the Yorkists. It never recovered from these battles and, by the 16th century, had fallen into decay. Later, it became a popular subject for artists, including J M W Turner, who made many sketches and paintings of the castle’s remains between the end of the 18th century and the early 19th century. Today, the dramatic ruins, owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage, are open to the public.
Just over a mile along the footpath from the castle lies the village of Craster, with its small harbour, dubbed The Haven. This is the home of L Robson & Sons, a family business that has been smoking kippers for almost a century.
“This smokery was built in 1856,” says Neil Robson, the fourth generation of the family to own the business. “The three kilns are tar-black inside from the years of smoke and soot that has built up.” Inside, light filters down from the vents in the roof, and wooden beams, known as ‘lungs’, stretch across the space. “The fish are hung on hooks on ‘tenter sticks’ and that’s where the phrase ‘on tenter hooks’ comes from,” explains Neil. The ‘silver darlings’, as the herrings were once known, are gutted by hand, then split on a machine, a job once the preserve of the ‘herring girls’.
In each kiln, nine small piles of wood shavings, covered with oak sawdust, are lit. “They’ll be in here for 14 to 16 hours, and of course they’re cold smoked, which means they aren’t cooked,” says Neil.
He still enjoys the occasional kipper. “Many people like to jug them: put them in a jug of boiling water with their tails stuck out the top, to cook. But nowadays, a lot of people do them on the barbecue wrapped in foil, as they don’t want the smell in the house. Personally, I like them cooked in the microwave, covered with cling film to keep the flavour in.”
Once a much busier place, Craster used to have a quarry. “They had big bins on pulleys, and they loaded the stone into them, and overhead cables moved them to the harbour,” explains Neil. “When the tide was high, the big ships would come in to load up. The stone was used to make kerbstones.”
Craster is much more peaceful now, and The Haven, bounded on either side by lumps of rock, known as Muckle
Carr and Little Carr, is the focus of the village. A few fishing boats are hauled ashore when not being used for setting lobster pots or running fishing trips.
Along the road from the smokery is the Mick Oxley Gallery, where self-taught artist and former teacher Mick produces watercolours and textured acrylic seascapes.
“I returned to my native Northumberland after retiring through ill-health. Twenty years on, Craster, with its ever-changing light, continues to be my inspiration. It feels as if the move here was meant to be: it has become central to my reason and existence,” says Mick.
Housed in an old joiner’s shop, the gallery provides a light and airy display space and studio. In addition to the evocative paintings, prints, cards and jewellery based on Mick’s work, there are also examples from other artists and craftspeople, including Julia Linstead, who works with glass.
Julia’s colourful, delicately sandblasted bowls feature themes such as shoals of fish, flowers and local fauna. “I think the Northumberland coast is one of the most romantic in the country,” she enthuses. “Whatever the weather, there is always something inspirational, from the cliffs to the coves, to the long, long beaches. If I’m ever stuck with a pattern, visiting the coast will clear my mind or provide the answer.”
Enticed by danger
Turning inland and continuing some seven miles south-west of Craster lies Alnwick, bound in the history of its well-known castle and lords. First bestowed to one of William the Conqueror’s standard bearers, Gilbert Tyson, the estate was later held by the De Vesci family for more than 200 years, then passed into the hands of the house of Percy in 1309. At various points in the town are memorials of the constant wars between Percys and Scottish raiders.
East of the town centre is one of the most impressive gardens in the North of England. The Alnwick Garden dates back to 1750, but the present planting and features, including the Grand Cascade, are part of a major redevelopment instigated by the Duchess of Northumberland, which began in 1997. But among the delicate blossoms hides a more sinister display: the Poison Garden.
This was inspired by the Duchess’ tour of European gardens in the 1990s. Many had medicinal gardens, but according to head gardener Trevor Jones, she found that visitors were becoming rather bored by this often repeated feature. A visit to a garden in Italy, designed specifically for poisonous plants, fired her imagination.
In the Poison Garden are 100 species of lethal or intoxicating plants. Foxgloves and hellebores are familiar to many visitors, but hemlock and henbane may be less so. Kept under lock and key, the garden also features cannabis, khat, coca and the opium poppy. Visitors are only allowed to enter by way of a guided tour.
The Poison Garden is more than just a collection of fascinating plants. “We have school visits here in term time,” explains Trevor. “Many children sit looking at computer screens rather than going out and exploring the countryside. A lot of them don’t know how to recognise something such as deadly nightshade. We are able to show them.”
Each of the plants in the garden has an intriguing story and pharmacology behind it, related in detail by the guides. Nightshade, for example, was once used by women to dilate
their pupils, which they believed made them more attractive, leading to the plant’s Italian name of belladonna, meaning ‘beautiful lady’.
Next to the Poison Garden is the largest collection of white ‘Tai-haku’ cherry trees in the world. “The ‘Tai-haku’ was introduced to England in 1900,” says Neil. “After it had died out in Japan, it was spotted in a Sussex garden by plant collector Captain Collingwood Ingram, who was then instrumental in re-introducing the tree to Japan. All the ‘Tai-haku’ trees in the world are descended from the cuttings made by Ingram, including ours. In a good year, the blossom can last up to three weeks, but it depends on the weather.”
A recent addition to delight visitors to the cherry orchard is a series of 50 swinging seats hanging from the boughs.
Just a short stroll from The Alnwick Garden is Barter Books, located inside the town’s magnificent former Victorian railway station. Crossing the threshold into this wonderful shop is like stepping back in time to a more genteel era. Once inside, visitors are enveloped in hazy jazz music and cocooned within a dazzling array of second-hand and collectable books.
As eccentric as it is charming, the shop has a model train running through the mid-section on a track which swoops above the bookshelves. Café seating is available in the former waiting rooms, and fires blaze on cooler days. Many of the original features of the station can still be enjoyed today, including the buffers in the middle room. There are cosy nooks and crannies, where visitors can while away the hours, skimming through books or enjoying a proper read. From cookery books to zoological tomes, all genres are covered.
Owners Mary and Stuart Manley opened Barter Books in 1991, based on a swap system. Visitors are invited to drop off up to one large bag of books to be valued. If the books are of interest, cash or credit is offered. Credit can be used immediately or on any subsequent visit and is recorded in an index card filing system, which sits behind the counter.
From its sweeping beaches and commanding fortresses to the teeming birdlife and characterful settlements, this stretch of the Northumberland coast is both historic and dramatic. It is a part of the world which, once visited, will remain unforgettable.
alnwick longstone lighthouse farnE iSlandS Bamburgh Seahouses Beadnell Bay low newton-by-the-Sea Embleton Bay craster
› Nestled at the foot of the castle, the pretty village of Bamburgh is dwarfed by its imposing bulwarks.
During Edwardian times, the castle hosted dazzling society balls in the magnificent King’s Hall (left).
› Heritage development manager Marleen Vincenten in front of the model lighthouse.
The 85ft (26m) tower of Longstone Lighthouse, on Longstone Rock, Outer Farne, once home to Grace Darling (top). Grace’s ornate Victorian Gothic memorial, built in 1842, in St Aidan’s churchyard, Bamburgh (above).
An illustration showing Grace Horsley Darling with her lighthouse keeper father, William, rowing their coble to the aid of seamen aboard the sinking steamboat, the SS Forfarshire, after it hit a rock off the Farne Islands in 1838.
The remains of former kilns at the harbourside in Beadnell, with their curved walls. They produced quicklime, used in fertiliser and mortar, until 1822.
Top to bottom: Tranquil Newton Pool Nature Reserve, a magnet for birds; relaxing on the green in front of the Ship Inn, Low Newton-by-the-Sea; the sweeping sands and wild waters of Embleton Bay, sheltered by dunes, is another unspoilt beach which draws visitors and walkers to the breathtaking Northumberland coastline.
Craster, with its colourful fishing boats clinging to the sheltering harbour, known as The Haven.
The remains of Dunstanburgh Castle’s main gatehouse still reflect the might of the intimidating stronghold.
Neil Robson with one of his kippers from the family smokery.
Dunstanburgh Castle, a popular subject for artists, rises in the distance beyond the rock pools among Greymare Rocks, at the southern end of Embleton Bay.
Trevor Jones, head gardener at The Alnwick Garden, who has been working there for 11 years.
Mick Oxley returned to his home county in retirement, where he now has his own art gallery. His paintings reflect the ever-changing light on the sea.
Julia Linstead uses the local landscape and wildlife as inspiration for her colourful glass bowls.
Leaping arches of spray delight onlookers at the Grand Cascade, which comes to life every half-hour at The Alnwick Garden.
Children at play on a summer’s day enjoy a soaking from the fountains. A skull and crossbones warns visitors to the Poison Garden.
Barter Books is housed in the 32,000sq ft former station. As seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, it was deemed necessary to impress visiting royalty, resulting in its remarkable size and grandeur (above). Shop owner, Mary Manley, in the cavernous interior, stacked ceiling high with books (right).