The tale of my break in Northumberland begins on the way home. I always liked to be contrary. I’m starting this longhand on the train home from Berwick, as of now on the approach to Dunbar, and I’ve just given my home town a respectful salute out the window. Dire Straits playing through the earphones. It’s been a cracking few days, filled with great places, food and even some sunshine, albeit coupled with a fair bit of chill since it’s January. Our drive down from Edinburgh on Friday night, after a glorious Hibee victory, felt like a release as the world got steadily quieter and cars were even fewer,. By the time we turned off the A1, the sky was full of stars – not something I see a lot of in Glasgow – but when we reached the cottage in Embleton, I could have happily stood for hours and watched the night sky unfold above me except for the fact I was absolutely knackered.
Up relatively early on Saturday and down to the beach. From the cottage we walked up then down a lane, soon revealing a wide expanse of sea and sand plus Dunstanburgh Castle on a cliff in the distance. At the beach we turned right, heading for the castle. There were quite a few folk out that cool, bright morning, including some families and one wee laddie who seemed utterly fearless walking into the waves in his wellies. Sadly I had left my own wellies at home, which became more of an issue nearer the castle as the coastal path became ever muddier. To be back on a beach was deeply joyful, restorative in an instant and especially being where I was. The break to Northumberland was planned the very moment we stepped onto that very beach a month ago. We had three days ahead of us in that most beautiful part of the world though as ever never long enough to cover all of the ground we wanted to.
Warkworth Castle is about fifteen miles south of Embleton, not far from Amble. It’s a fine, mighty castle that I had been to about five years ago but had forgotten the largest part of. That made the experience all the better since it was as if I was seeing the place for the first time, wandering the huge keep and into its various nooks and crannies. After we went for a walk through the village and along the River Coquet. Warkworth is a beautiful village, old-fashioned, Northumbrian and not a little bit posh. The riverside walk yielded great views back towards the castle. As the light began to fade, we went the short distance to Amble for a wander along its long, wooden pier and around the marina. I hadn’t been in Amble in about fifteen years. That day I ended up on a fishing boat but that’s another story. This visit, though, kept me firmly on dry land and it was interesting to see how Amble had become quite gentrified with its harbour housing very few fishing boats but a lot more yachts, right beside huge new blocks of flats.
The next morning started with bells, more precisely a set of rings and changes from the nearby church. We were heading for another familiar place, Tynemouth, near Newcastle, though took the scenic route via Alnmouth and Newbiggin-by-Sea rather than braving the more direct but indubitably duller A1. Alnmouth was my request as it always looked nice from the train. On driving in it looked all right, perfectly decent but not somewhere that encouraged you to stay long. Newbiggin was for my dad’s benefit since he is due to go for a break there in April. It’s a nice village by the sea with a long promenade and a decent beach covering its length and beyond. What is notable about Newbiggin are two sets of sculptures, both a man and woman, one on the shore, the other on a platform facing out to sea, apparently to epitomise man’s relationship with the sea, at the edge of the land and normally human control. The jury’s out on that one for me – I’m not sure I like sculptures dominating the skyline when there’s a perfectly good sea to look at. As a species we assert enough on the planet.
Everyone and their granny seemed to be in Tynemouth on Sunday. It is a pretty seaside town, at the mouth of the Tyne as the name suggests, but these things make it popular with walkers, families, surfers and anyone who felt the call. The Priory, thankfully, was less crowded and we spent a couple of hours amidst its ruins, scranning our sandwiches then digging into the depths of its outbuildings, the sacristry with its stained glass windows reflecting off the stone in vivid red plus the gatehouse as we disturbed quite a few pigeons along the way. We then walked down to the Collingwood Monument by the river. Impressively I dredged out of my memory on the walk down that the subject was an Admiral involved in one of the big sea battles in the Napoleonic War. (It was Trafalgar, as I discovered from the plaque.)
The beach was quite full of people, some playing, others walking and surfing the tall waves that crashed to shore every few moments. I daydreamed as we walked along the sands, wondering idly how much electricity the tides would generate here compared to the wind turbines visible just up the coast. I also imagined trying surfing, experiencing the waves from above, harnessing their power and, most likely, falling face first into surf. The things you think about in a day as you put one foot before another, some harebrained schemes amidst small semblances of sense from time to time.
To update, I’m now somewhere in West Lothian, furth of Edinburgh, powering through the night in a haste for Glasgow and home. Chvrches are on the dial as I scribble this.
Anyway, to this morning and the first rain we had seen all weekend. We headed inland to Alnwick and Barter Books, the best bookshop in the land, spread across an old train shed and bedecked in murals, apposite literary aphorisms and a working train set. It was busy despite it being 10.30 on a dreich Monday morning. Impressively neither of us spent any money, spending time instead browsing and contemplating just how many lifetimes it would take to read even a fraction of these books nestling temptingly all about us. The atmosphere was library-esque, full of reverance but very much a place of function with books, purely and simply, meant to be read.
To Craster, a place I see every morning on Twitter through the Sea Window Craster’s daily picture of the sea view. It’s a village nestling in a cove, just at the other side of Dunstanburgh Castle from Embleton. It was dry but still a bit grey, by sky and the sea too, though even as we walked around the harbour it brightened up and we even got some sun. To build up an appetite before lunch we walked along the mile and a bit to Dunstanburgh Castle, dodging mud and sheep shit along the way, and it was joyful, watching the waves and being able to daunder along the path in the pale, bright January sunshine. We had lunch in the Jolly Fisherman, right across from the smokehouse where kippers were on the go, and it had a nice bustle of folk in for chow, plus some dugs as is expected in a haven for walkers.
Bamburgh is best known for its castle, which loomed high over us as we parked the car. It also has a stunning long beach, shown off to full effect by the sun and the retreating tide, with views north to Holy Island and across to the Farne Islands with its lighthouse and tales of Grace Darling. This beach, above all, was my favourite of the time, surrounded by mighty fortresses, history and natural beauty, plus only a few other people. It was the right place for the right time, a beach to part on, a glorious place to round off a pretty good weekend.
Northumberland is an incredible part of the world, full of history, life and stunning places. It is neither Scottish nor particularly English, proudly independent as seen by the many red-and-yellow flags around the county. Its familiarity from many visits over the years, plus the new sights and sounds encountered, made it just the right place to ease gently into the new year with its new beginnings. As the train pulls into Motherwell, and I get ever closer home, I sigh and feel contented with where I’ve been and what I’ve done this weekend, time spent amidst the waves enough to drive their energy into me which I’ll need in the weeks and months to come with what is along the way.