Walking the Northumberland Coast — Day 1.

10 Oct

INTRODUCTION. — When my friend Colin suggested tackling the NCP, I at first imagined we would be walking around a very large car-park! But then I realized that this wouldn’t take 6 days, even if it happened to be a multi-storey! It was in fact the Northumberland Coastal Path that we were to walk. It goes from Cresswell, near Ashington to Berwick upon Tweed, a distance of around 66 miles.

Wanting to be different, we decided to walk it backwards — not literally of course, but starting at the end and finishing at the beginning, if that makes sense. Colin’s reason was that we would be walking home.( he lives in Morpeth, not that far from Cresswell.) This made good sense, except that when we actually did the walk, we were constantly meeting more conformist walkers who never failed to ask us why we were doing it “the wrong way round.”

As explained in my last post ( “Getting up from the Couch…”), we were to do the walk with our mutual friend: Clive. However he was tragically killed in a road accident  2 months previously. So we did the walk in Clive’s memory. He may not have accompanied us in the flesh but was with us in spirit every step of the way.

BERWICK UPON TWEED. — We started in Berwick, the town that for much of its history hasn’t known whether it’s English or Scottish. Even today, though officially part of England, its football team Berwick Rangers, plays in the Scottish League. Then there is the accent — definitely more Scottish than English. At times it was difficult to decipher as it was usually spoken at speed and I kept having to say “pardon?” or had to get Colin, a born and bred Northumbrian, to translate for me.

Up to 1836, Berwick was technically an independent state and even after that was mentioned separately in international treaties. There is a delicious and persistent rumour that Berwick is still officially at war with Russia due to its “independent” participation in the Crimean War but its omission from the subsequent peace treaty. However, this story was debunked by a report on the BBC’s “Nationwide” programme in the 1970’s, so we cannot argue with that can we? Also in the 70’s, a nice man from Pravda smiled and shook hands with Berwick’s Mayor to ensure that hostilities would not erupt again in the near future.

Colin and I stepped on to the platform of Berwick railway station one sunny morning in late September, 2011. This is the station responsible for the near demolition of the town’s medieval castle, the sorry remains of which you can see if you look left as the train pulls in. The railway smashed through the castle courtyard in the mid 19th Century.

We slipped into England’s most northerly town with slightly sheepish expressions on our faces. We quickly took cover in the dense foliage of a park that descended to the river. This was not because we were Russians or Ukrainians from the Crimea, but because we had failed to pay for our train journey from Morpeth up to Berwick. We had tried twice but the ticket man didn’t have his machine to hand. So as we got up to disembark, I muttered to Colin:” We’re on the run!” Perhaps I had watched too many episodes of “The Fugitive” when I was a kid!

We emerged from the park right on to a path by the river, spanned by its 3 bridges, 2 for road traffic and 1 for rail. The Royal Border Bridge is the most magnificent. Opened in 1847 and  officially “blessed” by Queen Victoria 3 years later, it triumphantly sweeps the railway across the Tweed on its 28 slender arches. Today, its classic outline is marred slightly by the pylons carrying the overhead powerlines for the high-speed trains. However it is still a wonderful sight, especially on a clear, sunny day such as we experienced. The spectacular brick and stone structure looked like an ancient Roman aquaduct, set against a bright blue sky and reflected in the bright blue water. We stood and stared, no longer worried about our potential pursuers, just drinking in the view. It is a view created partly by man, partly by nature, an intoxicating combination. As if to emphasise this point, we watched a heron fishing, perfectly framed by one of Stephenson’s graceful arches.( the 4th or 5th one from the right I think!)

But we couldn’t afford to stand and gaze for very long. A 6 day, long-distance walk lay ahead of us and we had to make tracks.

TWEEDMOUTH and SPITTAL —– We crossed the older of the two road bridges, built from sandstone in the early 17th Century and disappointingly only containing 15 arches. ( Colin counted them.) We now surprisingly discovered that we were walking in the footsteps of the artist L S Lowry, famous for his pictures of matchstick people scurrying through industrial townscapes. It seems that he loved to escape to the North-East coast, stay in a hotel in Sunderland, and make day trips up to Berwick to paint the town, river and coast scenes. The enterprising local tourist office has erected a series of illustrated information boards so visiters can follow the “Lowry Trail.” We followed it into Tweedmouth, now a quiet, down-at-heel little port which has obviously seen better days. It used to be a hive of activity with ships transporting both people and goods in and out. There was even a regular packet service to London. However the coming of the railways killed off most of this seafaring trade. When we walked through, one solitary ship from Hamburg was berthed on the quiet quayside. Clues of the port’s once busy past were revealed through buildings’ names such as Stevedores’ House and Custom’s House. But the streets were calm and largely deserted on this Monday morning.

Colin talked to a couple of leathered-up German bikers leaving the Rob Roy Guest House. We both thought of Clive, our recently departed biker friend who should have been on this walk with us. I bought a Mars bar and an Independent at a newsagent’s to contribute to the obviously depressed local economy and we walked on to Spittal, where the Tweed finally flows into the sea.

Spittal — what a name! Apparently it was once a popular resort frequented by thousands of holiday makers from the Scottish border towns. Imagine sending postcards home — Greetings from Spittal. Wish you were here! We noted the lovely beach, a short promenade and a few children’s amusements. What we didn’t see were holiday-makers. Only a couple of dog walkers and ourselves enjoyed that glorious sunny morning on Spittal seafront, and all the promanade’s seats were empty. When the local railways were wiped out by the Beeching cuts of the 1960’s, the holidaymakers simply melted away. So it seemed as if we were strolling through a ghost town.

SOUTH TOWARDS LINDISFARNE. — The rest of the walk that day was straight down the coast, the path squeezed inbetween the railway and the sea. We walked on clifftops, past beaches, bays and shining rock formations. We climbed up and down dunes held together by wiry grass and had our picnic by a ruined 2nd World War look-out tower. The whole coast was strewn with war-time relics — concrete towers, pillboxes and long lines of stone blocks that served as tank-traps. We also skirted past the first of many golf courses that we were to encounter. “Another day at the office?” one of the happy golfers called to us, a smile on his face.

Eventually we had distant views of the conically shaped Lindisfarne castle and the vast bulk of Bamburgh castle, though this was still merely a dark speck on the horizon.

As we neared Lindisfarne. we passed the coastal wetlands of its Nature Reserve. Swan swam around, constantly dipping their heads into the water of a small mere. Behind them, 2 snowy-white egrets were fishing amongst the reeds. We gazed at large, spectacular formations of honking geese, making constantly changing, swirling patterns in the sky. We even thought we spotted a Godwit with its curved beak. Now, is that the one where the beak curves up or down? Clive would have known.

Another line of tank traps and we were at the start of the causeway to Lindisfarne or Holy Island, complete with parked cars, tourists and an ice-cream van. It was hardly a spiritual scene as befits a place of pilgrimage over many centuries. The tide was in and so the sea completely covered the access road, which was only identifiable from its gaunt marker posts and white refuge boxes, raised above the water to rescue stranded walkers or motorists, caught out by the rushing tide. The ice-cream van stood at the entrance to the drowned road, water gently lapping over its front tyres. We could have waited for the waters to recede in order to visit the Holy island, but that was 4.5 hours away. So we turned inland, tramping up the hill to Beal and then on to the Lindisfarne Inn which was actually on the busy A1, the Great North Road. This is where we were to rest and spend the night.

As we settled into our comfortable lodgings, I imagined I was a passenger on a horse-drawn stage coach, pulled in for a change of horses on the long journey to Edinburgh ( or London), but the succession of lorries and cars driving in to the adjacent fuel station soon dispelled this romantic notion. However, I was more than happy with our experiences on day 1 of our trek. It had taken us past spectacular bridges, a faded port and resort, 2nd World War defences, beautiful coastal scenary, rich bird life, an artistic trail, the remains of a castle and a sacred place of pilgrimage. Not bad for 11 miles!

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