Drifting in moonlight / the dunes sing their songs. / Wings of old battles / fly all night long. / Cry of the seagulls, / curse of the ghosts; / aches of dead warriors / scar this old coast. From ‘Song for Northumberland’ by Keith Armstrong.
Returned home from a week away at the coast sharing a holiday house with the Newcastle branch of the family in the north Northumberland village of Belford, now by-passed by the A1, but once an important C18th coaching stop on the great north road. The Belford Community Group, a registered charity, is the key to lots of contemporary activity; setting up or running village shop, museum, gym, social clubs, playground and woodland gardens. The latter particularly impressed me as I fell into conversation with one of the volunteer gardeners in a work party tending their happy acres between a housing estate and the playground. He told me that this verdant and fully accessible patch either side of the Belford burn was once a neglected blackthorn scrubland hiding an accumulated under storey of weeds and rubbish.
The villagers wanted to mark the Queen’s Jubilee in 2002 by setting up a garden. People’s diggers and chainsaws were put to work on the initial clear out before installing infrastructure of paths and banking, then the selection & replanting, of native trees, shrubs & flowers, by which time they’d attracted development funding or help in kind from the Forestry Commission, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, the EU & others to help finish the job. An inspirational story.
The Great Whin Sill is a belt of coarse dolerite igneous rock that runs across Northumberland, an undulating series of weathered ridges and hills millions of years old, largely defined for at least 2,000 years through use for defensive purposes. These heights carry the Roman Wall and Georgian military road in the south west and are topped by great fortresses on the north-east shores at Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, before stepping out to sea as Holy Island and the Farnes, where monasteries and saints cells mix with peel towers, lighthouses and wildlife havens.
We sailed on one of Billy Shiel’s numbered vessels out of Seahouses for a two hour sightseeing trip round the Farne Islands. In this time of Covid landings by the public are not currently allowed. Partly as a result Puffin numbers for last year show that their population increased because the birds have more undisturbed holes in the ground to lay their eggs in and raise greater numbers of ‘pufflings,’ as their young are rather charmingly known.
Our voyage round the island group took in (amongst other highlights) the UK’s largest colony of breeding Atlantic grey seals and close up views of the guano covered mini-cliff faces where vast numbers of guillemots outstrip the other seabirds who nest there. Along with razorbills, terns, puffins, eider they raise an acrid smell as pungent and impressive as the sight of them wheeling, slicing, diving and gliding all around us. It was disappointing this mist wrapped morning only gave limited visibility yet at the same time the restriction made for an experience as powerfully eerie and atmospheric as any ghost story.
Another day, from Bamburgh Beach, the islands could be seen clear as a bell. It was here in 1786 that experiments by London coach builder Lionel Lukin, commissioned by dynamic local clergyman and social activist, the Rev. John Sharp, saw a coble (traditional coastal fishing boat) converted into a prototype ‘unimmmergible’ lifeboat. The view reminded me too of young Grace Darling, whose gallant efforts with her lighthouse keeper father to rescue by rowboat passengers and crew of the ‘SS Forfarshire’ wrecked off the Farnes one storm lashed night in 1838 made her a national heroine. The popular RNLI museum in Bamburgh is named for Grace Darling.
Emboldened by being clad in a wet suit I slid into the swell before diving into the North Sea’s cold embrace. I love this beach, all three wide open miles of it. Especially as I’m a weak swimmer, a late learner, wary not to get out of my depth, so happy to trust to the strand’s gentle sandy slope. Immersion in such a sea, however cold or relatively brief, makes me sublimely happy and unbounded.
The beach may be busy, but this one’s big enough to cater for all holiday hungry humans, our presence muted under a huge sky, at one with the constant rumble of the beating sea. We sunbathe in our settlement in the dunes ascending to the base of the massive rock formation on which the mighty castle keeps watch. A medieval stronghold rescued and restored by the Victorian armaments magnate Lord Armstrong, whose family still own and occupy it, Bamburgh Castle has been photographed countless millions of times.
This week and next the castle immerses itself in another venerable character role as the setting for the fifth movie in the Indiana Jones franchise, starring Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I watch fascinated, in a break between playing beach cricket, as a huge crane anchored this side of the castle extends its long hydraulic reach to lift and finally, after much adjustment, position another self contained lighting rig where required, above those already in place on the walls, in readiness for the eventual shoot.
The entertainer that stole our hearts though was the busker we heard running through his versatile repertoire before we actually spotted him. A song thrush, perched on a fence at the castle’s foot, where sand dunes gave way to tarmac and the way back to the car park.
Bamburgh cannot fail to impress with that look-up-at-me and I’m-still-standing power. Dunstanburgh, by contrast, impresses with its distinctive ruined spread (at nearly 10 acres the biggest castle by area in the county). After a meal at the Jolly Fisherman pub in Craster we dutifully joined the procession of secular pilgrims following the trail over fields owned by the National Trust to the castle run by English Heritage. The trust’s tenant farmer had pastured a herd of bullocks in the big field we had to pass through which stirred things up a bit. Disorientated by so many dogs the beasts were scarily frisky for many of the visitors, who made wide berths.
The ruined fortress within its isolated enclave had an aesthetic attraction for late Georgian artists like Thomas Girtin and J M W Turner. The Victorians, more prosaically, fashioned a golf links on the opposite side. For me Dunstanburgh has a particular interest, as a former Lancaster Castle guide, because it was created by the age’s richest noble, Thomas, earl of Lancaster. Thomas was executed for rebellion in 1322 by Edward II after being captured at the battle of Boroughbridge, before reaching the safety of his newly created northern bolthole. The earl’s famous descendant, John of Gaunt, rebuilt and strengthened the castle. Interestingly it would have originally been surrounded on the landward side by three shallow lakes or meres which, apart from acting as a defensive moat, would have reflected and magnified its bulk, a signal to rival Bamburgh castle in sight up the coast that you might be higher but I’m bigger!