A brooding castle on a rock above long, empty beaches
From the River Coquet to the Scottish border, the activities of man have even enhanced the natural beauty of this coastline of alternating sand and rock. Reefs have been extended to make little fishing harbours at Seahouses and Craster; rolling dunes have been tamed to make golf courses at Embleton and Alnmouth; and the natural fortifications of rock and river are emphasised by Dunstahburgh Castle and medieval Warkworth.
A scattering of rocky outcrops, between Yi and 4 1/2 miles from the mainland, the Fame Islands have been a retreat for hermit monks and the graveyard of countless shipwrecked sailors. They are also the nesting site of many species of sea-birds, and one of the principal breeding grounds of the grey seal.
There are up to 28 islands, but at high tide almost half of them are submerged. The islands form a nature reserve owned by the National Trust, and landing is allowed daily on Fame Island, or Inner Fame, and Staple Island in summer. Boat trips to the islands run in calm weather from Seahouses harbour. From a small boat at sea the islands look threatening, with towering cliffs of curious columnar structure rising to 80 ft above the waves. In places the sea has eroded the rock to form dramatic pillars and stacks.
Fame Island is, at 16 acres, the largest island of the group. It is particularly associated with St Cuthbert, who in AD 664 became Prior of Lindisfarne, now Holy Island, one of the earliest centres of Christianity in England. In 676 Cuthbert retired to Inner Fame and built himself a solitary cell of stone and turf. A tower built in 1500 by Thomas Castell, Prior of Durham, may stand on the original site of Cuthbert’s cell.
Cuthbert lived alone on Inner Fame until 684, and after two years as Bishop of Lindisfarne returned to die there in 687. His body was removed to Durham during the Viking invasions. A 14th-century chapel dedicated to the saint stands near Prior Castell’s tower. A nature trail starting at the chapel passes the island’s automatically operated lighthouse, and gives an opportunity to observe the island’s varied plant and bird life.
The lighthouse at Longstone island is well known for its association with Grace Darling. The lighthouse is still manned; the lighthousemen spend 56 days at a time on the island, where their only companions are the grey seals and a multitude of sea-birds, including puffins, kittiwakes and eiders.
The coast south of Bamburgh is sandy, bordered with dunes, with occasional spits of rock that become more concentrated around the little harbour of Seahouses. This is a working harbour, with a fleet of fishing cobles and a few larger vessels, and piles of fish boxes, crab pots and ropes on the quayside.
Trips to the Fame Islands, which take about an hour to reach, can be booked from booths at the quayside. The harbour is overlooked by terraces of dour grey houses, and in the main street a few amusement arcades provide a rather grating contrast in an otherwise unassuming little village.
A string of holiday villas lines the coast road into Beadnell, continuing to the point where the road ends near Beadnell Sailing Club. Around the corner is one of the great surprises of the Northumberland coast. A fortress-like structure stands beside the sea, with round towers built of honey-coloured stone. These are 18th-century lime-kilns, perfectly preserved and now owned by the National Trust.
Opposite the kilns is a tiny harbour in which are moored a little family of fishing cobles, painted a uniform white and blue. The fishermen store their crab pots between the arches of the kilns.
From the harbour the dune-backed sands of Beadnell Bay sweep westwards and then southwards for 2 miles before sand gives way to rock at Snook Point. The beach is popular in summer, but it is easy to escape the crowds by following the track along the dunes into the National Trust land of Newton Links at the southern end of the bay.
SYMBOL OF POWER Du}istanburgh Castle was a stronghold of John of Gaunt, the powerful baron who virtually ruled England as uncle to the boy king Richard II in the T4th century.
A sheltered courtyard of low-built fishermen’s cottages with a pub amongst them faces the sandy beach of Low Newton. Waves break on a reef of rock offshore, which protects the beach from rough seas. The car park is a few hundred yards up the hill from the beach.
From the very limited parking space beside the road at Dunstan Steads, a path across the golf course leads to the inviting sands of Embleton Bay. Large boulders of rock begin at the southern end of the bay, a prelude to the promontory of basalt rock on which stand the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle.
The nearest places to leave a car are 1 mile away, at Craster to the south or Dunstan Steads to the north, and the only way to reach the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle is on foot. Once there was also a sea approach, because a harbour was made in the hard dolerite rock when Thomas, Earl of Lancaster ordered the building of the castle in 1313. But the harbour is earthed up now and there are no signs of it under the soft turf fields crossed on the path from Craster.
For the length of the walk the castle is visible, a brooding presence of stone on its tapering ledge of rock above the sea, Fragments of the huge gatehouse project upwards like broken bones, seeming to defy gravity. This great gatehouse, its twin towers and walls several feet thick, was converted into the castle keep by John of Gaunt in 1380. The castle is open daily, and it is still possible to climb the stairs into one of the towers which gives a panoramic view over the 11 acres of castle site and down the steep incline of the castle rock to the rolling fields beyond.
The ragged profile of the ruined walls is evidence of the sieges that buffeted Dun-stanburgh Castle during the Wars of the Roses. Neglect in the subsequent centuries made the castle a romantic ruin, immortalised in water-colours by the artist J. M. W.Turner.
Famous for its kippers, which are smoked in sheds above the little harbour, Craster is a quiet and unspoiled fishing village. Its houses are built of hard stone and look as though they have grown out of the dark rock on which they stand. The exceptionally hard whinstone used to be quarried behind the village, loaded on to barges and taken to London to be used for kerbstones.
The harbour is now used by leisure boats and by the few cobles that go out for lobsters and crabs. Herrings for kippering are in short supply; they are no longer caught from Graster, but are brought to the village for smoking from West Scotland.
National Trust land borders the sea from Craster to Low Newton, and a 3 mile section of coastal footpath begins at the wicket gate to the north of Craster village. The path follows the boulder-strewn bay leading up to Dunstanburgh Castle, skirts the western side of the castle and passes along the edge of the golf course among the dunes of Embleton Bay. Near its end the path passes Newton Pool, a nature reserve where black-headed gulls breed in summer.
The coast south of Craster is rugged, with flat rock on the shore, dotted with rock-pools. North-east of the little hamlet of Hovvick the road follows the coast for a short distance, alongside the coastal path between Craster and Boulmer. This is a good point to join the path, then to walk southwards along the low cliff edge. At Rumbling Kern heavy seas sometimes set up a resonance in a gully, like air in an organ pipe.
At Howick Haven there is a patch of sand among the rock, and a few hundred yards to the south a little stream runs down to the beach. An idyllic footpath follows the wooded valley of this stream inland to the grounds of Howick Hall, a mile from the sea. The gardens are open daily in summer, and are at their best in spring and early summer, when a wealth of daffodils and tulips and more than 600 rhododendrons create a riot of colour.
The rocky shore with patches of sand continues south of Howick, but at Bouimer there is a sizeable sandy beach, safe for bathing because it is sheltered by a reef of rock offshore. A gap in the offshore rocks makes Boulmer a natural harbour, and the hamlet is a fishing community, with a number of fishing cobles moored off the beach. A row of fishermen’s cottages lines the shore just above high-water mark.
Golfers and sailing enthusiasts are well provided for at Alnmouth. There are two golf courses, end to end along the grassy links lining the north shore of the village, and the sheltered estuary of the River Aln is a yachting haven. The village, once an
I7l important port before the river changed course and the harbour silted up, has several houses of solid Victorian grandeur, and the collection of red roofs and stone walls on a headland makes an attractive group from across the river.
The shore, reached across grassy links, is sandy, but bathing is not safe near the mouth of the river because of dangerous currents. South of the river is a 3 mile stretch of sand, bordered by dunes, reached by tracks off the A1068 coast road.
WARKWORTH CASTLE Harry Hotspur, who conspired to put Henry IV on the throne but then rebelled against him, was born at Warktvortli.
Just over a mile before it reaches the sea, the meandering River Coquet forms a horseshoe loop that almost encloses the ancient town of Warkworth. In the Middle Ages the river served as a natural moat, fortifying the town and protecting the castle that surmounts the hill to the south. The castle, which Shakespeare’s Henry IV called a ‘worm-eaten hold of ragged stone’, is an impressive ruin.
A street of handsome stone houses leads down to the Norman church of St Laurence. There is an interesting survival from medieval times in the long strips of land, called stints, that are still cultivated by the townspeople; they can be seen from the footpath that runs behind the houses between the Sun Hotel and the bridge. The medieval bridge is remarkable for its fortified tower, one of very few in England. This narrow stone bridge, with its steep cobbled humpback, served the town from 1379 until 1965, when an unsightly new bridge was built beside it.
Across the bridge north of the town, a turning marked ‘To the Beach and Cemetery’ leads to a car park among the dunes, and a long beach of sand with safe swimming. There is a golf course on the dunes, which extend south to the edge of Warkworth Harbour, a natural basin in the Coquet estuary which boats can reach from the Amble side.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Alnwick Castle. 12th-century castle Most afternoons in summer.
Glanton Bird Sanctuary. 13 miles W of Alnwick, via A697 Afternoons in summer
Hulne Pnory, 2 miles NW of Alnwick. 13th-century monastery. Daily.
Preston Tower, near Ellmgham 9 miles N of Alnwick. off A1 14th-century pele tower Daily in summer.
RESCUE AT SEA:
THE BOATS AND MEN WHO
ANSWER DANGER’S CALL
A ship in distress in a North Sea gale… an oil tanker ripped open by savage rocks off the Cornish coast… a yacht dismasted in the English Channel… a small boy adrift on his inflatable raft… whatever the weather or the hour, incidents such as these set into motion the oldest lifesaving service in the world – the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It was formed in 1824 by Sir William Hillary, a member of the crew of the Douglas, Isle of Man, lifeboat. Hillary’s proposal for a national lifeboat service ended the system whereby lifeboats were operated and paid for by local funds – though even today the RNLI is supported entirely by public subscriptions.
Where the first lifeboat operated from and who designed the first purpose-built boat are subjects of controversy. For many years, Bamburgh in Northumberland was thought to have had the first lifeboat in the world, dating from 1786. Records in Liverpool dated 1777, however, refer to a boat ‘kept in Formby in readiness to fetch any shipwrecked persons from the banks’. It is unlikely that the Formby boat was specially designed for the task, however, and even Bamburgh’s boat was no more than a coble, converted by a coach-builder named Lionel Lukin. In 1789 the members of a club in North Shields offered a prize for the design of a lifeboat. It was won by a man named William Wouldhave, and the boat was built by a local man, Henry Greathead. Appropriately called the Original, the boat went into service at North Shields in 1790 and served for some 40 years. It has a strong claim, therefore, to be considered the first purpose-built lifeboat.
Since its foundation the RNLI has rescued more than 100,000 people from death at sea, and many of these rescues have been accompanied by deeds of great personal heroism on the part of the lifeboat crews. Even as radar and other navigational aids have lessened the chance of large vessels coming to grief, so the growing popularity of sailing and other water sports has increased the demand on the RNLI’s services. From its headquarters at Poole the RNLI today operates a fleet of more than 250 lifeboats, based at some 200 different stations. Between them they respond to more than 3,000 calls every year.
QUEST FOR SAFETY The earliest lifeboats were said to be unsink- able, but many capsized with the loss of their crews. Self-righting boats were introduced in the 1850s, but later lost favour because of their instability. A century was to pass before the design of a lifeboat which combined self-righting capability with stability. In 1854 Captain lohn Ross Ward invented a cork lifejackel. Its value was proved seven years Inter when the Whitby lifeboat capsized with the loss of all its crew except for Henry Freeman
The name best known for courage in a rescue at sea is that of Grace Darling. She was the. daughter oi the Longstone ligntnousekeeper, on Fame Island, and in 1838 during a violent storm she and her father rowed a coble out to the stricken steamer Forfarshire and rescued nine men. The exploit was immortalised in a painting by C. J. Stanilartd. Their boat was not a lifeboat, nor was it part of the lifeboat service, but the RNLI awarded
William and Grace Darling their silver medal, and 100 years later established a Grace Darling museum at Bamburgh. The RNLI’s Gold Medal is the lifeboat-man’s ‘VC, and is awarded for ‘outstanding courage, skill and initiative’. Henry Blogg, coxswain of the Cromer lifeboat from 1909 to 1947, received it three times.
GALLEYS OF MERCY Buoyancy and power have always been the prime factors in lifeboat design, and in the early days power depended on oars and the fitness of the crew. Oared lifeboats, known as ‘pulling boats’, such as this craft at Courtown in Ireland, were used for more than 100 years, and some were still in service at the beginning of this century. Great strength ‘was needed to roxo a lifeboat through heavy seas, and often the crew were too exhausted to carry out rescue work when they arrived at a wreck.
SAIL POWER Sailing lifeboats loent into service towards the end of the 19th century, though many ‘pulling’ boats used both oars and sail. Sailing lifeboats such as this one leaving Penzance harbour in 1900 generally proved more manageable in heavy seas -whipped up by gales. The last sailing lifeboat in service urns the William Cantrell Ashley, stationed at New Quay in west Wales until 1948.
INTO THE SURF Where there is no harbour, lifeboats have to be launched from the beach or down a slipway. Before the use of tractors, crews had to manhandle their boats across the beach – often helped by local townspeople, as in the case of this Whitby ‘pulling boat’.
RESCUE FLEET Different launching conditions round Britain’s coasts call for different types of lifeboat. Five of the latest designs are named after rivers. The most powerful is the Arun class, which has a speed of 18 knots and a range of 117 miles. Inflatable lifeboats for inshore use are powered by an outboard motor which gives them a speed of more than 25 knots.
SPLASHDOWN Launchings from slipways are often spectacular, as at Padstoio, in Cornwall, where the Oakley class lifeboat hits the water in a welter of spray. Times of practice launchings, which the public can watch, are displayed at some lifeboat houses with slipways.