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Northumberland Coast walk, part 3 — Final days: Seahouses to Cresswell.

30 Oct

I realize that after my last 2 blogs in this sequence, I am in danger of rendering a blow by blow account of the whole bl–dy walk! So I’ll let you off and just present a series of snippets and snapshots of the last few days.

* Blistered and sunburnt, we walked forever into the south.   * Dark, tilted rocks in Beadnell Bay   * Boarded-up holiday chalets dotted amongst the dunes.

* Dodging yet more flying golf balls by following the blue posts across the Links.   *A lovely cup of tea at Newton by the Sea.   *A little green bordered on 3 sides by tiny white cottages.

* The distinctive, evocative shape of Dunstanborough Castle shimmers in the morning heat haze.

* Passing by the bird-hide at Newton Pool where we saw the short-eared owl with Clive just 2 months before. We borrowed his binoculars to look at it. ( He’s sorely missed.)

* A brown stoat darts up through the rocks below the castle.   *Weasels are weasily recognised and stoats are stotally different. ( Colin reminded me.)

* The oak-smoked kippers of Craster.   * Dark, brooding basalt cliffs smeared with the guano of countless gulls.

* The cliff top bathing house of Howick hall.   * Rumbling Kern – where the sea gets forced into a whirlpool hollow and makes the growling noise of distant thunder.

* The giant early-warning golfball of RAF Boulmer. ( very apt, considering the density of golf courses on this coastline.)

* Picturesque Alnmouth — a huddle of red-rooved houses, grassy cliffs, a huge shining beach and the river snaking into the sea.

* Opposite Alnmouth is a large sandy hill with a cross on top and a ruined old chapel at the bottom.

* Entering Warkworth over the medieval bridge and looking up to the dominating Castle Keep, former stronghold of the Percys.

* Walking by the River Coquet with 3 grey herons fishing, a group of dark cormorants spreading their wings and a regal procession of 9 swans —  all are perfectly reflected in the water.

* Amble marina crowded with pleasure boats.   * The lighthouse on Coquet Island flashing red in the morning mist.

* Walking by the dunes and wetlands off idyllic Druridge Bay, and thinking — they once wanted to build a nuclear power station here!

* Cresswell, near Ashington — the official start of the walk — but for us it was the end!   * Celebratory ice-creams and then we stand beside the “official” sign-board for the commerative picture.

Thanks to Colin McMillan for his excellent organisation and company. In memory of Clive Taylor, our much missed MATE.

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Walking the Northumberland Coast, Days 2 and 3 – Sacred Cave to a Blistered Foot.

29 Oct

On day 2, after a big, fried breakfast, which probably cancelled out the benefits of the previous day’s walk, we detoured inland to join part of another long-distance path: the St Cuthbert’s Way. This follows the route taken by the Lindisfarne monks as they carried the sacred remains of their revered former Abbot. Cuthbert was a Scottish shephard boy from the Borders who became a famous preacher and healer after he saw a vision of St Aiden’s soul passing into heaven. Eleven years after his death, Cuthbert’s body was found to be miraculously intact as if he was just sleeping. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels were written to commemerate his elevation to sainthood. The monks took Cuthbert’s body away from Lindisfarne to escape Viking pillagers in the 9th century.

Leaving our lodgings near Holy Island, Colin and I climbed gently away from the sea but still enjoyed wide ranging views of the coast. Inland, we skirted moors and through woods, getting views of the dark outlines of the Cheviot Hills. In a sloping wood of Scottish pines, we visited the sandstone cave where the monks and their sacred cargo came to rest for a while. It is a special place and has been dubbed: St Cuthbert’s Cave. ( see previous blog — “Getting up from the couch…”)

We walked on through a field with a very large white bull in it. Luckily it was more interested in its harem of cows than in us.In fact it was sniffing one of their rear-ends! We passed a little silvery lake in a woodland glade. On it, 2 swans glided gracefully and above it 2 buzzards circled on the thermals. Colin and I walked alongside newly ploughed fields of dark earth, with shiny furrows snaking off into the distance. Tractors trailing clod-breaking harrows worked their way up and down the post-harvest fields. Sudden explosions of feathers made us jump as startled pheasants broke their cover. Belford was announced by its church steeple and a crenellated tower called West Hall.

Belford is either a big village or a very small town. It has the old Bluebell Inn at its centre near the market cross. Having a drink there, the inn reminded us that this place used to be on the Great North Road, formerly doing a brisk trade servicing the stage coachies which plied up and down it in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now the A1 bypasses it about a mile to the east and it is a quiet backwater. Belford no longer has a school and lost its Post Office a few years ago, such that it briefly found fame on a TV programme about the decline of rural settlements. Tourism has led to a sprinkling of guest houses and on the edge of the village is another golf course. Big houses lurk up long drives. But for most of our time there, all was quiet in Belford, as it slumbered undisturbed in the late September sunshine. After a pub meal, Colin and I retreated to a comfortable guest house which unfortunately suffered slightly from an over-chatty landlady, but was otherwise very nice, especially when we discovered a decanter of Lindisfarne mead on the landing!

On day 3, fields, woods and country lanes led us back from Belford to the coast. We passed huge metal grain silos with roaring exhaust fans. Colin said they were for drying grain. We crossed the busy A1 and then the East Coast main railway line after we phoned the signalman ( on a freephone provided), to make sure that we were not going to be mown down by the Flying Scotsman.

We emerged from a short climb through another wood and there across the rolling wheat fields was the huge fortress of Bamburgh. It sits on a dominating platform of volcanic rock known as the Great Whin Sill. Beyond the dark bulk of Bamburgh were the white, guano-stained cliffs and white light-house of the Farne Islands. These are 2 of Northumberlands biggest tourist attractions. The imposing castle used to be the seat of the Kings of Northumbria. It now belongs to the wealthy Armstrong family. The Farnes are famous for their spectacular birdlife ( especially in the summer nesting season), basking seals and the legend of the Victorian heroine Grace Darling, who helped her lighthouse keeper father to rescue survivors of a shipwreck on the rocks one stormy night. The legend is milked unashamedly by the tourist industry. Coachloads of visiters are deposited at the Grace Darling Museum which some describe as charming but others find quite silly. Apparently, you can actually see a lock of the heroine’s hair on display!

Bamburgh is approached via a magnificent sandy beach made famous in films such as “A Lion in Winter.” This is where King Henry II met Thomas a Becket on horseback, although why they had to ride all the way up to Northumberland just to have a chat, I don’t know. Maybe it was something to do with the supremely photogenic location.

Before we could get to the famed beach, Colin and I had to negotiate another caravan site and yet another golf course! ( Play is continuous, rake the bunkers after use, respect the dress-code.) Prior to finally hitting the dunes we slipped by the mysterious, glistening mud-flats of Budle Bay, Northumberland’s very own version of The Wash. It is a paradise for birds with big, splayed wading feet and long, thin beaks which they endlessly poke into the mud in search of breakfast, dinner or tea.

In Bamburgh village we battled with the tourists pouring off their coaches to sit on every seat in the park below the castle walls. Luckily Colin grabbed a place to sit while the trippers were distracted taking photographs. When they all traipsed off to the teashops or perhaps to the famous Grace Darling Museum, we walked slightly wearily on to Seahouses, a few miles further south.

Seahouses is a little working fishing port. It is also where the boat trips to the Farne Islands set off from. It sounds as if it should be charming, quaint and picturesque, but it’s actually full of tourists, crowded car-parks, fish and chip shops and ice-cream parlours. It’s convenience as a base for visiting many of Northumberland’s tourist attractions has squeezed any charm out of it.( in my opinion.) We trudged into the town and had a drink in the beer garden of the Olde Ship Inn with great views of the busy harbour and the Farne Islands beyond. Then we retired to another very nice guest house. It was time to relax.

Unfortunately we were now ambushed by the great blister crisis! I already realized that my feet felt pretty sore. But as I peeled my boots and walking socks off, I was not prepared for the shock of the largest blister I had ever seen — and it was on the ball of my very own left foot! It looked like a small, partly inflated balloon. It was accompanied by an array of smaller blisters on the ends and sides of my poor toes. “Oh my God!” I exclaimed melodramatically, and Colin, a look of alarm on his face, uttered the dreaded words: “We may have to abort!”

I had been too blase. Apparently I should have upgraded my walking boots and socks, put in special insoles and soaked my feet in cold tea before setting off on such a long trek. I had not been scared of the distances ( they were not that long anyway — averaging about 11 miles a day), but it was the day after day nature of a long-distance walk and the carrying of a heavy pack that I had not accounted for. I actually had an aching shoulder as well as a blistered foot. Curiously it was my right shoulder but my left foot. ( Yes, I know it was a film with Daniel Day Lewis!)

Thankfully the crisis subsided. After limping to the Olde Ship Inn for a veggie lasangne in the cosy Captain’s Cabin, I had a good night’s sleep and in the morning, my blister had hardened up. So I bravely decided to walk on. I would tape my poorly foot up, put on 2 pairs of protective socks and walk in my softer trainers. The only trouble was that I now had to carry my boots, which made my heavy rucksack even heavier! But I was determined to carry on. I reminded myself that I was not a wimp ( not anymore anyway). I thought of Ernest Shackleton, James Bond and Michael Palin — and walked manfully on into the unknown!

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!

Getting up from the Couch and Walking with the Spirit of Clive.

6 Oct

Just over 5 years ago I retired from full-time teaching. I also retired from stress, exhaustion and getting up at 6-15 in the morning! At first everyone congratulated me and wished me many years of rest and happiness. However, it was not long before the questions came: “What are you going to do with your life?” “How are you going to fill your time?” “Won’t you get bored?”  People didn’t seem to be satisfied when I told them I intended to relax, have leisurely cups of coffee and read the newspaper. Neither did they appear to be very interested when I talked about writing my memoirs or catching up with my reading. The questions persisted with an increasing note of concern. I needed to say something to shut them up!

So one day, while undergoing yet another gentle third-degree, I suddenly announced that I intended to tackle the Coast to Coast. This is the famous long distance hike from St Bees in Cumbria, across the Lake District, the Pennines and the North York Moors to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. It had been devised and popularised by the legendary Arthur Wainwright. That dramatic declaration stopped my inquisitors in their tracks! Clearly this was regarded as an eminantly acceptable retirement project, much more challenging than having a lie-in or enjoying a relaxing breakfast in the conservatory. From then on, my questioners adopted an air of admiration and excitement when I told them of my plan, and their previous concerns about me wasting my life and slowly going to seed, quickly evaporated. Even I got quite excited and found myself looking proudly in the mirror from time to time. By completing this epic challenge I could transform myself from zero to hero! I swiftly acquired the maps and guide-books, including a copy of Wainwright, the hallowed bible of all serious walkers. I talked knowledgably about routes, mileages, equipment, communication and back-up plans.

However my initial enthusiasm soon wa(i)ned ( sorry about the pun Arthur), and I increasingly succumbed to the twin attractions of the couch and Sky Sports TV. This had the added appeal  of not having to wear: hiking boots, thick socks, over-trousers, waterproof and wind-proof jackets, hat, gloves and scarf. All I needed was a dressing gown. Also, I did not need an OS map or compass to navigate myself between the sofa, the kettle and the telly.

But all good things come to an end. I started to tire of the daily inanities of Sky Sports news, and got sick of stuffing salted peanuts down my throat. I even got fed up of coffee after about the 8th cup of the day!(very bad for me I know.) Worst of all though, was that I started to put on weight! I developed a sort of spare tyre around my middle, which was a big shock for someone who had always been slim or even skinny  and who actually had been nicknamed “OXFAM” at school after taking his shirt off for PE. Something had to be done. I resumed running — dragging my extra bulk around the local streets. I bought a bike and even took up swimmimg. I also resolved to do more walking.

The walking group I had once belonged to, the “Gateshead Boghoppers”, had now broken up, but my saviour came in the shape of my dear friend Clive. Once he had retired from his stressful job in the NHS, we agreed to go out walking together . We went out every month irrespective of the weather and were soon joined by a mutual friend: Colin. Soon Colin dubbed us  the MATES — the acronym standing for Men Against The Elements. This was because we battled against : rain, wind, snow, fog and whatever else nature decided to throw at us.

It was on these MATES walks that the subject of long-distance footpaths cropped up again. Colin had done several including the Pennine Way. I had already broached the subject of the Coast to Coast ( as opposed to the Couch to Couch) with Clive and we had agreed that it would be good to have a go at it. Once Colin got in on the discussions, he sensibly suggested that we cut our teeth on the Northumberland Coastal Path, a mere 66 miles! There was no escape for me now. I had painted myself into a corner. My impressive but deliberately vague pronouncement that I intended tackling a long distance trek was now hardening into reality. With the impressive efficiency as befits an ex-teacher and ex-military man, Colin set about organising our 6 day walk. Dates were fixed, routes worked out, accommodation booked and deposits paid. I graciously accepted my fate and willingly crossed the Rubicon. We were all looking forward to our first major MATES expedition.

However, with just 2 months to go, tragedy struck! Shortly after one of our regular walks during which we excitedly discussed our final plans, Clive was involved in a terrible, fatal moter-bike accident in Scotland. Colin and I were shocked and stunned. Clive had been retired for barely 2 years and we had so many plans for our post-work future together. The news was so shattering that for some time we didn’t know what to do or say. It was only when Clive’s funeral was approaching that Colin and I realized what we had to do. We agreed that we wouldn’t cancel the walk, but would go ahead with it in Clive’s memory.

So it was that at the end of September, 2011, Colin and I set off on a lovely sunny day from Berwick-uopn-Tweed, heading south. Ahead of us lay 66 miles of beautiful Northumbrian coast and countryside. To the unknowing people we encountered there were just 2 of us. But we knew that there were really 3. Clive was with us in spirit every step of the way. He was constantly in our thoughts. We even mistakenly called each other Clive at times. At the end of each day we toasted him. In a funny sort of way the 3 MATES were still together.

On the second day, en route from near Lindisfarne to Seahouses, we detoured on to the St Cuthbert’s Way, another long distance path. The highlight of this was a visit to St Cuthbert’s Cave. We were on part of the route taken by the monks of Holy Island while carrying the coffin and remains of their former Abbot- St Cuthbert, famous for his inspirational preaching and his miracles. They had left the island in 875 AD to escape continued Viking raids and were to wander around for decades before finally bringing the Saint’s remains to rest at Durham.( where the cathedral stands today.)  St Cuthbert’s cave is a special, atmospheric place. It is an overhanging outcrop of sandstone supported by an isolated pillar of stone. It lies in the middle of a sloping pine wood and is flanked by boulders which guard its entrance like silent sentinels. The cave sits in a peaceful, beautiful setting. Knowing its religious connotations, it seemed in my mind to have a spiritual aura about it. Not only had the monks laid the body of the saint in the sanctuary of the cave, but much later, in the 1930’s, the local Leathers family had had the ground consecrated to serve as their burial ground.

Before we left, Colin took a photo of me standing in front of the “sacred” cave. At the time we thought nothing of this and walked on. However, when I later showed this picture to my wife Chris, we noticed to our surprise that it revealed a strange, ethereal glow all around the top half of my body. Straight away Chris declared: ” That’s Clive!”  Maybe it was just the sunlight slanting through the trees, but the light hovering around me had such an unusual luminosity about it, that it is tempting to think that at that moment I was enveloped by the energy of my departed friend. He wasn’t with us in the flesh but maybe his spirit was accompanying us on our trek. In a funny sort of way, that strange, ghostly glow may show that our old MATE Clive, completed the Northumberland Coastal Path with us afterall!