Written by Julia Thorley
(One of two winning entries in the Travel & Water Writing Competition.)
Begin at Bamburgh Castle, holding firm its position on the Northumbria coastline for centuries. It is built on an outcrop of volcanic dolerite, a grim rock with toughness reflected in black and grey intrusions.
The rock is part of the Great Whin Sill, which begins at High Force Waterfall near Durham and extends to Bamburgh and out into the sea. You could spend a day or more simply exploring the castle and its grounds, take a tour with a guide or pick up some headphones for an audio tour (members of Historic Houses get free entry). But this is not our purpose: we’re here for the sea.
Take a look out from the Battery Gate to feel the power of the North Sea. Close your eyes and imagine defending yourself against the weather and all-comers. Open your eyes now, turn away and set off for the short walk south to Seahouses. It’s fairly easy going, so take your time. It’s less than four miles, so allow yourself to meander, to walk to the edge of the sea and back, explore the sand dunes and look for fossils amongst the rocks.
Breathe deeply and let nature refresh you. Then turn back to look at the castle and appreciate its position: not perched, for that suggests instability; rather, it has been placed with consideration.
Walk on and in a gap in the dunes you’ll see Monks House. Towards the sea, Shoreston Rocks are visible when the water is low. Stop again and drink in the view of the Farne Islands, where St Cuthbert lived as a hermit in the 7th Century. There are 28 islands in the group and which are visible from the land depends on the tide. The furthest, Knivestone, is only four miles away, so there is always something to see. Then continue towards Seahouses and either tackle the dunes, or take the steps up to the grassy footpath, and wend your way into the village.
To appreciate the sea in full, however, you need to be on it, so from Seahouses jump on a boat and take a trip to the Farne Islands. Billy Shiel’s Boats are licensed by the National Trust to land (April to September). As you approach the islands you see the distinctive black look of the rocks of which they are made, an extension of the Whin Sill.
The attraction of these islands is its fabulous wildlife. They are home to more than twenty species of birds, including razorbills, guillemots and eider ducks. Incidentally, wear a hat to protect yourself from the inevitable aerial fallout from the Arctic terns! Most people, though, go for the colourful puffins. Whether or not you land, you can also see the island’s colony of grey or Atlantic seals bobbing in the water or taking some time out on the rocks.
You could take a boat out to the Longstone Lighthouse. It was here, in the early hours of 7th September 1838, that Grace Darling, the young daughter of lighthouse keeper William, spotted the wreck and survivors of the SS Forfarshire. The ship had foundered on a low-lying rocky outcrop called Big Harcar and broken in two. The sea was too rough for the lifeboat to turn out from Seahouses, so Grace and her father took out a rowing boat, called a coble, and with no regard to their own safety rescued nine people in the midst of storms and gale-force winds.
There is no bad time to visit the Northumbria coast. Come on warm summer days and even at the height of the holiday season there is plenty of space on its glorious beaches. In spring or autumn, and yes, even in winter, wrap up, walk on the sand, and let the spray wet your face and the wind take away your breath. Then seek out refreshment in The Olde Ship Inn in Seahouses’ tiny fishing harbour. Be warned, though: you might never want to leave.
POSTED 13th FEBRUARY 2016 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of JULIA THORLEY. The photographs were taken by Steve and Barbara Hanson.