Castles to guard the border and an island home of monks
Vast stretches of sand line the northern end of the Northumberland coast, towards the Scottish border. Some of the best beaches can be reached only on foot across the dunes. Echoes of Border battles linger, and the conspicuous silhouettes of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh Castles are reminders of Northumbria’s warlike heritage. Holy Island, for centuries a focus of English Christianity, is today a refuge for countless birds.
MARSHALL MEADOWS BAY
An unmarked turning off the Al leads to Marshall Meadows Bay, the northernmost beach in England that can be reached by car. Drivers can park beside the lane, with the farmer’s permission. There are caravans parked on a 180 ft clifftop, and access to the rocky beach is at the southern end of the site where a rough and precipitous path, slippery in wet weather, cuts down the side of the ravine.
The tranquillity of Berwick’s setting on a peninsula between the sea and the River Tweed is at odds with the town’s fierce and unsettled history. The mellow stone walls that encircle the town on its hill were erected by the Elizabethan military engineers to defend the town from attack. In the Middle Ages, Berwick passed like a shuttlecock between English and Scottish rule. Today it is still an English town, though Scottish in character, situated north of the natural border of the Tweed.
Berwick seems almost to turn its back to the sea and face instead the River Tweed, which has served as a natural moat in the past, and which now provides a port at Tweedmouth for Berwick’s small fishing fleet and a few commercial vessels. The Tweed is one of Britain’s premier salmon rivers, and during the netting season, which lasts from February 15 to September 14, Berwick’s licensed salmon fishermen may be seen dropping their nets in an are from a boat, before hauling them in from the shore. Good places from which to see the fishing are the stone pier that shelters the north side of the river mouth, and the south end of Spittal beach.
Within Berwick three distinctive bridges span the Tweed. The earliest, lowest, and nearest to the sea is the Jacobean Bridge, built between 1611 and 1635 in warm pink stone, with 15 arches that increase in size towards the town. Furthest upstream, its tall arches towering 125 ft above the river, is the greystone Royal Border Bridge built for the railway in 1847 by Robert Stephenson. Between the two, with four long arches of less-elegant concrete, is the Royal Tweed Bridge built in 1925-8 to carry the Al.
To the east of the town, between the ramparts and the sea, is an open expanse of grass called Magdalene Fields, with golf links at its northern end. The shore is predominantly rocky, but just north of the pier there is a sandy beach, sheltered from the strong tidal currents by a reef of rock offshore. It is safe to bathe inshore between the rocks and the beach.
With its sandy beach, and an unobtrusive promenade, Spittal is a miniature resort just across the river from Berwick. Swimming is safe to the south, but at the northern end of the beach there are strong tidal currents at the river mouth, and unstable sand banks upon which the unwary may be cut off by the tide.
In season, fishermen net salmon off the beach, which terminates to the south with rocks. On the grassy banks above the rocks a coastal path leads for Wi miles to Seahouse; on the way it passes Huds Head, where a discoloured stream trickling down the cliff is a remnant of the drainage system from the disused coal mines of Scremerston.
A seaward turning off the Al at Scremerston leads across farmland, over a level crossing and along the edge of a sandy bay, with outcrops of rocks at its limits. Several rough areas beside the road are available for parking, and it is an easy scramble down the dunes on to Cocklawburn beach. Swimming is safe on an incoming tide, but there may be a dangerous undertow when the tide is going out.
An area of dunes to the south of the beach has been designated a nature reserve. Near the shore are the remains of 18th-century lime-kilns, and lime-loving plants grow on the nearby spoil heaps. The dunes are carpeted with cowslips in spring.
Two large houses, a farm or two and a row of farmworkers’ cottages make up Cheswick village. A road that crosses the railway line leads to dunes on the edge of vast and empty wastes of sand that stretch at low tide for 4 miles across to Holy Island.
It is inadvisable to walk to the island, as there is a danger of being cut off by the tide, and the added hazard of unexploded bombs. Treacherous currents make the beach unsafe for swimming, but lovers of solitude can enjoy miles of wild and open space.
COLOUR ON THE DUNES
The clover-like flowers of purple milk-vetch bring rich colour to sandy hills along the shore, and to chalk and limestone grasslands. Milk vetches are so named because they are said to increase the milk yield from goats. On the Continent, some varieties are added to salads.
A cluster of farm buildings surmounts the hill overlooking Holy Island, and the road to the island rolls gently down to the shore, where it becomes a causeway, impassable for 2 hours before and for 3 ½ hours after each high tide. It is dangerous to cross while water still covers the causeway, and essential to take notice of the tide tables that are prominently displayed.
The car park beside the causeway at Beal is also a good base for walkers and birdwatchers, who have a choice of footpaths going north or south along the shore, following a line of concrete wartime defences, and skirting the sands of Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve.
For up to 11 out of every 24 hours, the sea cuts Floly Island, or Lindisfarne, off from the mainland. Bus timetables, postal deliveries and the lives of the 200 inhabitants and many visitors are controlled by the tides, the times of which are clearly displayed at the edge of the causeway. When the tide is out, Holy Island becomes the tip of a wide peninsula of sand, the feeding grounds, particularly in winter, of a vast population of wildfowl and wading birds.
The haunting whistle of the curlew must have accompanied the monk Aidan from Iona, when he first crossed the sands one low tide in the year 634 to found a monastery at Lindisfarne, at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria. Aidan’s monastery was destroyed by the Danes in the 9th century, but a manuscript written and illuminated there in the 7th century has survived – the Lindisfarne Gospels, a masterpiece of English Celtic art, now one of the treasures of the British Museum.
Lindisfarne became a holy island for a second time when, in 1093, building began on a priory that was to be a branch of the monastery at Durham. The ruins of the Norman priory church, in red weathered sandstone, still stand today.
The little village of Holy Island is tight-knit, the houses huddled together and looking inward to small squares and narrow streets. The jetty is still used by a handful of fishermen who go out for crabs and lobsters, but the decline of the herring fleet is evident in the hulks of the old herring boats, cut in half, upturned and used as storage huts, that lie like great black beetles along the shore.
Beyond the harbour, perched on a steep cone of rock, is the romantic outline of Lindisfarne Castle. It was no more than a ruined 16th-century fort when recreated by the architect Edwin Lutyens in 1902. It is now owned by the National Trust and is open on most days in summer. East of the castle are the remains of lime-kilns, and broad acres of rabbit-grazed turf slope down to the rocky shore. The north side of the island has a wide strip of dunes, and there are fine sandy beaches, unsafe for bathing because of strong tidal currents.
ROSS BACK SANDS
The effort of walking almost a mile across the rolling grassy dunes of Ross Links is repaid by a splendid sandy beach, which stretches for 3 miles and is deserted on many days of the year. The beach, which is safe for swimming, looks north to the fairy-tale castle of Lindisfarne, and south-east to the looming presence of Bamburgh Castle.
Almost cut off from the sea by a ridge of sand, Budle Bay is a large inlet of weed-covered flats of muddy sand, which are completely exposed at low tide. The flats are a feeding ground for large numbers of wildfowl and wading birds, which can be watched from the grassy banks beside the road to the south. It can be dangerous to walk far out on the flats, as the sea comes rushing into the bay as the tide rises, and sections of the flats become cut off.
An outcrop of rock rises 150 ft above the sandy bay of Bamburgh, and the upward sweep of rock continues into the pink stone walls and battlements of one of England’s most majestic castles. Bamburgh Castle covers 8 acres, and towers above the little village of Bamburgh and the rolling dunes on either side.
First fortified by the early Kings of Northumbria, Bamburgh became the capital under King Oswald, but was later pillaged by the Danes. The oldest surviving feature of the castle is a well, 150 ft deep, that may date from the 8th century; it was dug for half its length through solid basalt, and the remainder through softer sandstone. The 12th-century castle keep retains its original walls, which are up to 11 ft thick, but much of the castle was over- lavishly rebuilt for the first Lord Armstrong between 1894-1905. The castle is open daily in summer.
Bamburgh village has a row of pretty 18th-century cottages round a little green, and a fine Early English church dedicated to St Aidan, who died outside an earlier church on the site. In the churchyard is a memorial to Bamburgh’s own heroine, Grace Darling.
Nature and history have allied at Dirleton to provide a tourist’s delight. Three sides of the great wide green are lined by cottages and houses of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, all built of the same rosy stone. So too is the venerable church, part of which dates from the 12th century. It is a beautiful building nobly carved on the outside, but as plainly furnished as a classroom within.
The fourth side of the green is bounded by the massive bailey wall of the castle, which today encloses delightful gardens with a