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England’s Border country

Introduction

Northumberland

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Steel Rigg, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland

This isn't a blog about a single trip but a collection of entries about the beautiful English county of Northumberland. I come here often on short visits while on our frequent trips to nearby Newcastle and want to share some of my favourite places.

Northumberland is one of England’s loveliest counties, and one of its least visited. This is due perhaps to its relative remoteness in the far north east of the country, and perhaps also to the fact that those of us who know how lovely it is choose not to shout its praises too loudly for fear that too many visitors will spoil it!

Despite that fear though, I can't resist the temptation to share some of its beauty and to encourage anyone who wants to see a different side of England to visit. Whether you’re looking for stunning coastal scenery, wild landscapes or ancient history, you will find them here.

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Druridge Bay

Some of the country’s most beautiful beaches line the Northumbrian coast, although the chilly waters of the North Sea and the often cold winds that blow off it mean that they will be largely deserted on all but the hottest of summer days.

Inland the Cheviot Hills are almost completely unspoiled, and you can stand on the ancient Roman Hadrian’s Wall and look north across one of the least populated areas of the country. A series of majestic castles fringes the land on its seaward side, including Alnwick and Bamburgh – two of the most interesting castles in the country to visit. And to the south lies industrial Tyneside, which too has its attractions, not least in that very industrial heritage.

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Dunstanburgh Castle

This blog does not claim to paint a comprehensive picture of this beautiful county, but is rather a collection of snapshots of destinations there that I have enjoyed visiting. I will add more suggestions as we continue to explore this lovely county.

The flag of Northumberland

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At Heatherslaw Mill

Wherever you travel in Northumberland you are likely to come across this flag. It was adopted as the county council’s flag as recently as 1995 but it has clearly captured the imagination of local people who display it proudly on buildings, as a bumper sticker on their cars and even on their clothing (e.g. baseball caps). This popularity may be because its origins are much older than that appropriation by the council, and there are claims that it is the oldest known flag design in Britain. It is derived from the red and gold striped flag of the ancient Anglo kingdom of Bernicia, which merged with that of Deira in the early 7th century to form the Kingdom of Northumbria. Later, in medieval times, the colours of red and gold were adopted by the first Earl of Northumberland.

The British County flags website describes its history thus:

‘The 7th century King and Saint, Oswald, founded the kingdom of Northumbria by merging his domain of Bernicia with its southern neighbour Deira. The Venerable Bede, England’s first historian, writing in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum describes Oswald’s tomb where “…they hung up over the monument his banner made of gold and purple.” It is probable that this description caused the medieval heralds to assign arms of eight alternate stripes of red and gold (yellow) to Bernicia.

It is reported that in the Middle Ages the same colours were flown by the first Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy. Before its formal award of arms in 1951, the Northumberland County Council had informally used these attributed arms of Bernicia although the College of Arms modified the design, dividing the stripes by an “embattled” line, that is an indentation which resembles a castle’s crenellations; the red and yellow stripes in the lower half were then “counter changed”. The modification was intended to symbolise the interlocking stones of Hadrian’s Wall, which runs through the county, and Northumberland’s position as a border shire.’

It is quite probable that most people flying or displaying the flag know little of its history, but they reflect an ancient tradition when they do so, as well as demonstrating their pride in their county.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:01 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes beaches castles history national_park Comments (5)

A castle by the sea

Bamburgh

Bamburgh Castle

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Bamburgh Castle from the south

One of the grandest sights on the Northumbrian coastline is that of Bamburgh Castle. It is a view that I never tire of.

The castle stands on a massive outcrop of rock and towers over the sands below. Unlike many castles on this coast, it is still a family home, and thus far more complete than the ruins elsewhere. It is truly an impressive sight.

There has been a castle at Bamburgh since the sixth century, when the site was chosen as the Royal capital by the kings of Northumbria. And it is easy to see why this site would be chosen. It has commanding views over the coast – a coast that was vulnerable to attack from Vikings and others. And the basalt outcrop on which the successive castles have stood is one of the most prominent landmarks along that coast.

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Bamburgh Castle from the dunes

Talking though of the Vikings, in 993 they succeeded in destroying the original fort. The Normans built a new castle on the same site, which forms the core of the present one. It was a royal possession for centuries, and an important element in the defence of England against the Scots, with the border just a few miles to the north. In 1464, during the Wars of the Roses, it was the first castle in England to be defeated by artillery, at the end of a nine-month siege by the Earl of Warwick.

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Views of the castle from the beach

For 400 years the castle remained in royal hands, with the local Forster family serving as governors. Eventually the castle was made over to them. But in 1700 the then owner, Sir William Forster, died bankrupt and the castle, along with all his other possessions, was handed over to the Bishop of Durham as settlement of his debts. The castle fell into disrepair but was restored by various owners during the following centuries, and was finally bought by the Victorian industrialist William Armstrong, who completed the restoration. It still belongs to the Armstrong family, who maintain it and open it for the public to view. Its grandeur makes it much in demand as a film location, and it has featured in films such as Ivanhoe (1952), El Cid (1961), Mary, Queen of Scots (1972), and Elizabeth (1998).

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Bamburgh Castle from the village

If you like your castles to be romantically ruined, this is maybe not the one for you. But if you like to see a building largely intact and strong, still standing proudly above the coast it once defended so effectively, Bamburgh is indeed an impressive sight.

A walk on the beach

But there is more to Bamburgh than its castle, dominant though that is. There are wonderful beaches that even on the sunniest of summer days are relatively uncrowded, and in winter are almost deserted.

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Bamburgh Castle from the beach

This has to be one of the most glorious beaches in England! A wide expanse of sand over which the castle watches protectively as it has done for centuries. There are dunes to provide shelter from the sometimes chilly winds off the North Sea, a few rock pools to explore, great views of distant Holy Island and the slightly nearer Farne Islands, and enough sand to build sandcastles to rival the “real” stone one!

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Lindisfarne Castle from Bamburgh beach

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Inner Farne viewed from the dunes

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Castle and old mill from the dunes

And it is never crowded. When we visited most recently on a warm August weekday, there was a sprinkling of families in the area nearest to the castle, but even here there was more than enough space for everyone. And if you’re prepared to walk along the sands a little, you could easily find a large section to call your own. Off-season, the beach is popular with walkers, but again, by popular I mean that there will always be a handful here, whatever the weather, and maybe on a bright sunny day you will encounter a dozen or more on your walk across the sand.

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Seaweed on the beach

South of the village is another fine stretch of sand, with (I think) the two connected at low tide. Here there is a convenient car park so the beach gets a little busier, but is still quiet compared with other parts of the country. The reason? The North Sea is very chilly, and only the braver beach-goers will swim there, though small children seem happy to ignore the chill and splash happily in the shallows. And a cold plunge is perhaps a small price to pay for a day on such a glorious beach!

In the village

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Village street with Copper Kettle tea-rooms

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In the Copper Kettle

In addition to the castle there is an excellent museum in the village devoted to local heroine, Grace Darling. Add some quaint old cottages and a sprinkling of tea shops (our favourite is the Copper Kettle), pubs and gift-shops, and you can see that it is a great place to spend a day. It's also an excellent base for a holiday in this lovely region of England, with the beautiful and rather mystical Holy Island within easy reach, as well as other castles such as Alnwick and several pretty coastal towns and villages.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:53 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes beaches castles history views village seaside Comments (5)

‘Baptised in the blood of so many good men’

Holy Island

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Island panorama, from the Heugh

Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, is, in my view, one of the most magical places in England. A small 'semi-island' (that is, an island only at high tide), it has been a centre of spirituality since St Aidan founded a monastery here in the seventh century AD.

Whatever your religion, or none, you will surely be captivated by the unique charm of a place that seems largely untouched by the modern age. Yes, there are cars, and phones, and even wifi – but there are no chain coffee shops, no bank or ATM, no supermarket. And with the exception of the small stone-built village clustered around the ruins of the priory, the island is undeveloped. No roads serve its northern shore, and the dune-fringed beaches are visited mainly by birds, not people.

But to experience Holy Island at its best, you must see it as the locals see it – without the hoards of visitors that descend at low tide. So plan to stay overnight, and as the cars stream away over the causeway and the sea closes above it, the island will become a different place – one of peace and tranquillity, the haven it has been for centuries.

So, why ‘Holy’ Island? You will also hear it referred to as Lindisfarne, the name given to its small castle. But locally the island is rarely referred to by this old Anglo-Saxon name. Following the murderous and bloodthirsty attack on the monastery by the Vikings in 793 AD, it obtained its local name from the observations made by the Durham monks: ‘Lindisfarne - baptised in the blood of so many good men - truly a Holy Island'.

St Aidan and St Cuthbert – two saints who define this island

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Statue of St Aiden at the Priory

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St Aiden with the castle behind

The first monastery on Holy Island was founded by St Aidan in 635 AD, and thus he can be seen as the person who first established the island as a centre for Christianity and spirituality, setting a pattern that would continue to this day. Without him, this could be a very different place indeed.

Aidan was an Irish monk from the monastery founded by St. Columba on the now Scottish island of Iona. The Romans had previously brought Christianity to Britain, and the British had taken it to Ireland (most famously through the missionary work of St. Patrick). But when the Romans left and the Anglo Saxons invaded, they brought their pagan religions with them.

In the northernmost kingdom of Northumbria, however, the ruling warrior family came under the influence of the Irish monks of Iona. When Oswald became king of the region in 633 he chose to base himself at Bamburgh and to invite the monks of Iona to reintroduce his people to Christianity. Aidan arrived in response to this invitation and chose nearby Lindisfarne as the home of the new monastery because of its similarities to Iona and proximity to Bamburgh.

Here Aidan established an Irish-type monastery of wooden buildings with a small wooden church. Here the monks lived a life of prayer, study and austerity and from here they went out on mission. They used Aidan's only method as a missionary, which was to walk the lanes, talk to all the people he met and interest them in the faith if he could. His monks visited and revisited the villages where he sowed the seeds and in time local Christian communities were formed.

After 16 years as bishop Aidan died at Bamburgh in 651. But the monastery survived and grew in influence, and his memory is still strong here on the island. One of its most well-known sights is the statue of him in the grounds of the Priory.

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St Cuthbert's Isle seen from the Heugh

Unlike St. Aidan, St Cuthbert was a local Northumbrian boy; some sources say he was a shepherd, others a warrior. His life changed when he was about 17 years old. He was looking after some neighbour's sheep on the hills one night when he saw a light descend to Earth and then return, escorting, he believed, a human soul to Heaven. The date was August 31st 651 - the night that Aidan died. Perhaps Cuthbert had already been considering a possible monastic calling but that was his moment of decision.

He went to the monastery at Melrose, also founded by Aidan, and asked to be admitted. He is thought to have moved to Lindisfarne at about the age of 30, where for about ten years he ran the monastery. But when he was 40 years old he felt the call to be a hermit. After a short trial period on a tiny islet just off Lindisfarne (today known as St. Cuthbert’s Isle) he moved to the more remote and larger Inner Farne island where he built a hermitage and lived for 10 years.

At the age of about 50 he was asked to give up his life as a hermit to become a bishop, and reluctantly agreed. For two years he was an active bishop but then, feeling the approach of death, he retired back to his hermitage on Inner Farne where, in the company of Lindisfarne monks, he died on March 20th 687 AD. His body was brought back and buried on Lindisfarne.

Following his death he was sainted and the island became a place of pilgrimage. But in 793 AD the first Viking raid devastated the monastic community here, and from then on they lived in a near-constant state of fear, threatened by regular attacks. Around 875 AD the monks decided to leave, taking St Cuthbert’s body with them. After over 100 years spent in various places in the north of England, his body found was laid to rest in Durham Cathedral where it is still visited by pilgrims. But Holy Island too will always be associated with St. Cuthbert.

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'The Journey' of St Cuthbert's coffin, in St Mary's Church, and statue of him in the priory

Lindisfarne Priory

Situated in the heart of the small village, the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory define what Holy Island is all about. The first monastery here was founded by St Aidan in 635 AD, and his statue stands among the ruins as a memorial to the Irish missionary who restored Christianity to Northumberland after the Anglo-Saxons had driven Roman Christian beliefs from the land.

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The Priory ruins

But the rich monastery on an isolated island was a prime target for Viking raiders who pillaged this cost over the succeeding centuries. Indeed, it was one of these raids that gave the island its epithet, “Holy”. The Anglo-Saxons had called it Lindisfarne, but following a particularly murderous and bloodthirsty attack on the monastery by Vikings in 793, Durham monks observed: 'Lindisfarne – baptised in the blood of so many good men - truly a Holy Island'.

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The Priory ruins

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Priory ruins with 'rainbow arch'

Today only a skeleton of the formerly imposing church remains, its so-called 'rainbow arch' an evocative remnant of a vault-rib of the now-vanished tower. Around it are the foundations of the monastic buildings – kitchen, refectory, chapter house, cloister etc. With a little imagination you can start to visualise what life would have been like for this remote religious community – devoting their lives to the worship of God in this magical, spiritual place.

St Mary’s Church

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St Mary's Church and priory ruins

Immediately next door to the Priory is the parish church of the island, St Mary’s. This stands on the site of a wooden church built by St. Aidan in 635 AD, which was later replaced by a small stone church. When the Benedictine monks of Durham began to build the second monastery in the 12th century they decided this should be the parish church of the village, a role it has performed ever since. It has been enlarged several times (in the 12th and 13th centuries) but parts of the original Saxon church still remain in one wall.

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St Mary's Church from the Priory

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St Mary's Church

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Stained glass in
St Mary's Church

Over the centuries it fell into some disrepair but was thoroughly restored in the 1860s, largely to the state we now see, though the plastering of the interior walls, done then, has since been removed. The church oozes history, and is in fact the oldest building on the island with a roof on it! There is no charge to visit, and a leaflet describing the main features can be picked up for free – however, an old building like this costs money to maintain, especially when battered by the harsh North Sea winter winds, so do leave a donation.

There is a lot to see in the church. I especially like ‘The Journey’ – a modern wooden carving (by Fenwick Lawson) of six monks carrying St Cuthbert’s body from the island on a journey across the north of England to keep it safe during the times of the Viking raids on this region (see photo above). Look out too for the carpets designed by local women, inspired by the Lindisfarne Gospels, and for the many reminders of Saints Aidan and Cuthbert, including the reredos (altar screen).

Up on the Heugh

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Priory and village seen from the Heugh

The spur of higher land south of the Priory, known as the Heugh, offers wonderful views of the island (especially the church and Priory), and the surrounding seas. From here you can easily see the small group of islands known collectively as the Farnes, a little to the south, and the castle at Bamburgh.

At the highest point are the ruins of an old coastguard station and its lookout tower, which when we last visited (summer 2012) was being repaired and apparently having a glassed-in viewing platform added – this should be a very welcome addition in winter though it might be argued that its modern appearance is a little incongruous here.

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Looking south to the mainland

At one time there would have been a fort here, known as Osborne’s Fort, built in the 17th century to protect the harbour from Dutch privateers. It didn’t last for long and was already in a state of disrepair by 1742. Only a small ruined tower remains, at the eastern end of the point overlooking the castle, but this is enough to give you a sense of how the island was protected by the combination of fort and castle.

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Ruins of the old fort

Also on the Heugh is the island’s War Memorial, a Celtic Cross in pink sandstone designed by Edwin Lutyens (the architect who rebuilt Lindisfarne castle) and erected in 1919 to commemorate the eight islanders who died in the First World War. Later, the names of three more, victims of World War Two, were added.

Cuddy’s beads

From the Heugh you can look down on the small islet known as St Cuthbert’s Isle. If you make your way down to the small beach opposite, you can search for what are known as ‘Cuddy’s beads’, a local tradition. These are tiny (some very tiny) fossils, portions of the ‘stems’ of carboniferous crinoids (a marine animal). They do indeed look a little like beads, and legend has it that St Cuthbert (‘Cuddy’) used them to make his rosary when living as a hermit on the islet. It was even said that his spirit created them on stormy nights so they could be found on the beach the next morning. More prosaically, it is likely that many were released from the limestone that encrusted them when it was quarried and lime burned on Holy Island in the 19th century.

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Chris searching for Cuddy's beads

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Our finds (the 50p coin is for scale!)

To find yours you will have to look very carefully. Look among the stones and shells for the giveaway circular shape, and remember – some are little bigger than a pin-head! And if you find some, please don’t bring away more than one or two, leaving the rest for others to find and enjoy.

The Ouse

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The Ouse seen from near the Castle

It is easy, but inaccurate, to think of the stony beach to the east of the village as Holy Island’s harbour. In fact, the sea to the south of the island is known the Harbour, while this is known locally as the Ouse, or even referred to by locals simply as the Beach.

At its southern end is a low stone jetty which you walk along for more good views of the harbour. This is also where the boats bringing day-trippers from Seahouses (a small coastal town to the south) moor. At low tide the sea retreats to leave a bay of mud-flats, a haven for sea birds and waders.

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And the Castle seen from the Ouse

For me this is one of the most photogenic spots on the island. The old boats are full of colour, there are great views of the village and even more so of the castle. But this is not a tourist attraction – the people of Holy Island have been fishing these waters for centuries and continue to do so today, much as they have always done. This isn’t industrialised fishing, but somewhat small-scale and local. Nevertheless it forms an important part of the island’s economy, and local fish (especially crab and lobster) are a sought-after item on all the island restaurants’ menus.

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The Ouse

Traditionally though the fishing here would have been for herring, as it was along much of this north east coast, using the local 'keel boats' immortalised in the Geordie song, ‘The Keel Row’:

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Old boat & flowers

‘As I came thro' Sandgate, thro' Sandgate, thro' Sandgate,
As I came thro' Sandgate, I heard a lassie sing:
“O, weel may the keel row, the keel row, the keel row,
O weel may the keel row that my laddie's in.”’

[Sandgate is part of the Newcastle Quayside, and ‘weel may the keel row’ means ‘well may the keel boat row’]

The herring fishing trade dried up in the early part of the 20th century, as Holy Island lost out to bigger ports in the region, but some remnants of the old keel boats can be seen, adapted for use as sheds. These sheds, made from the traditional keels inverted and cut in half, are one of the characteristic sights of Holy Island. There are quite a few around the Ouse, and the National Trust has also preserved an old 19th century one (and added two new ones) to use as storage for visitors to the castle.

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Boat sheds

This custom is not unique to Holy Island (Charles Dickens describes a similar boat-house in David Copperfield, set in Yarmouth) but I don’t know of anywhere else where so many have been preserved, not where they are still so prevalently used. They make a really photogenic feature of the Holy Island landscape.

The Castle

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Lindisfarne Castle

From a distance Lindisfarne Castle looks to be an ancient impregnable fortress, but appearances can be deceiving. Closer inspection reveals a building of two parts – its fortified ramparts crowned by an Edwardian era family home! The castle was originally a Tudor fort, built in Henry VIII’s time from the stones of the monastery he destroyed, and part of the national defence for three centuries. Left to fall into ruins when no longer needed for defence, it was converted into a private house in 1903 by the then-young architect Edwin Lutyens – a holiday home for Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life magazine (though rather grand by the standards of most holiday homes!)

You can visit the interior and see the largely intact Arts and Crafts movement designs of Lutyens. But this is something we’ve never yet done, preferring on the whole the outdoor attractions of the island. But whether or not you plan to go inside, a walk along the one mile track that leads here is well worth doing in order to get a closer look at the building, and some great photo opportunities.

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Castle and old jetty

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To get shots like these of the castle with the remains of the old jetty (once used to bring coal to the nearby lime-kilns), come at low tide and scramble over the rocks to the right of the track, just before the castle gate.

The castle sits on the highest point on an otherwise pretty flat island, adding to the sense of drama and making it visible from pretty much anywhere on the southern side of the island. This is an outcrop of the Whin Sill, a line of very hard igneous rock running across northern England (nearby Bamburgh Castle sits on another outcrop, as do stretches of Hadrian’s Wall).

Bear in mind that there’s a steep climb up to the castle so it probably isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or anyone of limited mobility. However the path to it from the village is flat, and there’s a shuttle bus which runs during high season, though only when the causeway is open.

Castle Point lime-kilns

If you follow the path from the village past the castle (rather than climb the hill up to it) and look to your right, you will see a fenced off area and a sign warning of danger around the tops of the lime kilns. Walk a little further and down the slope beyond, and you will be able to see and access the kilns in safety.

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Castle Point lime-kilns

These lime kilns were built in the 1860’s and were the largest of several similar operations on the island during the 19th century, and the only ones to be preserved. Also still evident are the remains of the staithes or jetties where ships would bring the coal for the process and take away the lime (see my photos above of the castle). And you can still trace the old wagon-ways linking the jetties to the kilns, and the kilns to the north side of the island where the limestone was quarried – one of these wagon-ways now forms a track used by walkers to access the north shore and its dunes.

Lime kilns were used to produce quicklime. A carefully controlled burn reduced limestone to powder. This was used mainly as fertilizer and for mortar and lime-wash for buildings. You can easily see, inside the kilns, the old ovens where coal was burned to heat the limestone. Horses would have carried the limestone from the quarry on the north side of the island here to the lime kilns on the south (built here to be near the harbour) and labourers would push the cart to the top of the pots (the area now fenced off) in order to spare the horse the heat coming from the kilns. Horses would also drag the coal from the ships moored at the staithes to the kilns, where it would be burnt at exactly the right temperature to create the reaction and separate the quicklime from the stone. The latter would then be carried back to the staithes for export.

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Inside the kilns

There’s a good, detailed description of the process in the National Trust’s leaflet about the kilns:

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Lime kiln oven

‘In the kilns, limestone and coal were added in layers at the top of each pot at a ratio of about five to one, to allow for even burning. As quicklime was removed from the drawing arches at the base of the kiln, another layer of stone and coal was added at the top. Once loaded (which took several days) the kilns were lit and the fire would spread upwards. The hottest part of the kiln was the ‘burning zone’, just above the top of the drawing arches. Air entering the kiln was carefully regulated - a highly skilled operation. The kilnsman’s eye was critical to the success of the venture; too hot or too cold and the desired reaction would not take place.

The limestone (calcium carbonate) was heated at between 800-1000 degrees Celsius. This produced quicklime (calcium oxide). Adding water to quicklime would result in a violent reaction and produce slaked lime (calcium hydroxide). The work was dangerous, and men at the kilns would have often received caustic burns. The dust if inhaled caused lung damage and could in some cases cause blindness.’

But the industry didn’t last. While one in five of the island men worked in the industry in the 1860s, by the 1880s only one man was working at the kilns and four at the quarry. This is probably because the lime industry on the mainland was able to use the quick and efficient coastal railways for transport, and Lindisfarne couldn’t compete. The kilns fell into disuse and by the end of the 19th century operations here had ceased.

It seems incongruous to visualise such ‘heavy industry’ taking place in this peaceful rural setting, but to do so gives you a vivid sense of a particular period of life on the island – a contrast with the early spiritual time of the monks; the violence of Viking raids and later, the dissolution of the monastery by Henry VIII; and with today’s buzz of visiting tourists.

Gertrude Jekyll's garden

A short distance north of the castle, across a field, is a small walled garden. This was formerly the site of a vegetable patch which provided the soldiers with food. When Lutyens was commissioned to convert the castle to family home, he brought in his friend Gertrude Jekyll to design a new garden. Although originally she intended this to be a vegetable garden like its forebear, she later changed her plans to create instead a flower garden, and it is these plans that the National Trust gardeners still follow and plant to today.

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The castle garden

Because this was a holiday home for Edward Hudson and his family, the garden is designed to be especially colourful in July and August. When we last visited, in late August, it was a riot of colour, and all the more striking for its location on this fairly bleak, rocky island.

Admission to the garden is included in the price of the visit to the castle. If you want to visit the garden alone, there’s a fee of £1.50, collected through an honesty box at the garden gate. You can in fact see quite a lot by just looking over the low walls, but it’s better to support the work of the National Trust by making the payment just the same.

The north shore

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North shore from the dunes

Only a small percentage of the many visitors who come to Holy Island ever visit its north shore. All of the visitor 'attractions' (village, priory and castle) are on its southern side, and with limited time before the next high tide closes the causeway, few have the time, even if they had the inclination, to explore further afield.

But for those staying a night or several, a visit to the north shore offers a chance to really get away from it all and to see another side (literally!) to Holy Island. The shore here is lined with dunes, which are home to many wild flowers, insects and birds. Many more birds visit the shore, either year-round, as a stop-off on their autumn and spring migrations, or in the winter as an escape from harsher conditions further north. At this time the island is a focal point for birdwatchers, who come to see the waders, ducks and sea-birds that flock here in great numbers.

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The north shore

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So much space in which to play!

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A north shore wedding

But as a general rule this part of the island is never as busy as the area around the village. My photos were taken in August, during the main holiday season, and at low tide when the island is invaded by hundreds of visitors. In the hour or so we spent walking here I don’t believe we saw more than a dozen other people.

But ... rather amazingly, we did see a wedding! Just a bride and groom (the latter in a kilt, the former in full white wedding dress), a vicar officiating, a photographer and a piper. No guests, no other witnesses. The sound of the pipes as the bride crossed the dunes, and later as the wedding party returned the same way, was a wonderful bonus for us, adding to the magic atmosphere of this spot.

There are two main ways to get here. To reach the eastern end of the north shore, take a walk across the island from the village, following the old wagon-way known as Straight Lonnen or the longer route via the castle and small lake (the Lough) on the eastern shore. To reach the long main beach shown in my photos, you can drive almost back to the start of the causeway and park in the small car-park (not signposted) on the right-hand side of the road, on the spit of land called the Snook. From here it’s a short walk through the dunes to the shore itself.

Heed the warnings – don’t get stranded

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Warning by causeway

The very thing that makes Holy Island special is also the thing that visitors need be most aware of – the tides. The island is connected to the mainland by a causeway several miles in length. This is covered for about five or six hours each high tide, i.e. twice a day.

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On the causeway

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Refuge on the Pilgrims' Way

As the tides vary, so do the safe crossing times. It is essential that you consult the tide tables before your visit and plan accordingly. And don’t trust your eyes – the causeway may look clear but if you are already past the advertised safe crossing time, don’t start to cross – the tides here are unpredictable and can sweep in very suddenly indeed. It is not for nothing that a small refuge is provided halfway across the causeway – many drivers have been caught out in the past and forced to abandon their vehicles and seek safety here while the waters inundate their car!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:33 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged beaches boats islands castles fishing history ruins statue views church village garden holy_island lindisfarne Comments (2)

A saint, a heroine … and a lot of wildlife!

The Farne Islands

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Inner Farne

The group of islands known as the Farnes lie a few miles off the Northumberland coast and include some of the wildest places in England. The islands are divided into two groups, the Inner and Outer Farnes, and vary in number from 28 at the lowest tides to only about 15 at the highest.

As well as wildlife there is a lot of history associated with the islands – they have been home to several hermits over the centuries, of whom the most famous is Saint Cuthbert, and it was here that probably the best-known sea rescue in English history took place, when a young Grace Darling and her father set out from the lighthouse on Longstone to go to the aid of sailors when the paddle steamer ‘Forfarshire’ ran aground on nearby Harcar Rock in 1838.

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Billy Shiel's boats in
Seahouses Harbour

Naturally, the only way to reach the Farnes is by boat, making a visit here rather special. Three companies (as of 2016) run a variety of trips, all from Seahouses and differing only a little in terms of what is on offer and price: Billy Shiel’s, Serenity and Golden Gate. Of these, the first is by far the best known, having been in operation since 1918 and featured on several UK TV programmes. It is a family business currently run by the third generation Billy Shiel, and famously once carried the Queen on a Farne Island trip.

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Path on Inner Farne

Whichever company you choose (and we went with Billy Shiel’s), you will then also need to decide on the particular trip you want to take. One factor in your choice will be the time of year – for instance, landing on Staple Island is possible only in the breeding season (May 1st through to July 31st), presumably because there is nothing to see on these rocky crags the rest of the year. On the other hand, it is possible to land on Inner Farne throughout the season, April to October, but on afternoons only during the breeding season. If you aren’t especially interested in landing, or want a shorter tour, you could opt for the 90 minute Grey Seal cruise which sails round the islands to view these fascinating animals. Or between April and July keen bird-watchers can do a full day (6 hour) trip which includes landings of two hours on Staple Island in the morning and two hours on Inner Farne in the afternoon.

Prices obviously depend on the tour you choose – for example, the Inner Farne landing trip costs £15.00 (adult fare, August 2016 price). But note that if you’re not a member of the National Trust you will also have to pay a landing fee of £8.00 for adults in breeding season and £6.50 at other times. Non-landing trips work out cheaper because there’s no National Trust fee to pay.

The boat tours are suitable for anyone but note that the walking route round Inner Farne is a little bumpy and hilly in places – I watched one family really struggle to wheel their child’s buggy around and give up! Also note that the tours don’t go out if the weather is bad or the seas too rough. We went on quite a windy day and some locals were unsure whether we would have been able to go, although apart from some slightly choppy waters and a lot of spray, it was not a problem.

Inner Farne

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Inner Farne: on the cliffs

This island is home to St Cuthbert's Chapel (named for the saint who once lived here as a hermit), a lighthouse and a visitor centre. Most tours land here so you can explore these sights and see the seabirds.

Although there are a number of buildings on Inner Farne, it is the bird life that brings most visitors here. This is at its best during the breeding season, May to July, when the island is the chosen nesting place of Arctic Terns, Puffins, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Shags and many other species. The National Trust, which owns the islands, employs rangers who are based here for nine months of the year to protect the birds and educate visitors about them. When we visited in August the main nesting season was over, and the Puffins and Terns had left, but we still saw lots of birds – mainly Shags and Kittiwakes, but also a few Gannets and Fulmars. As you walk around the island you will find rangers stationed at key viewing points who will be happy to answer your questions about the birds.

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Shag and Kittiwake on Inner Farne

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Shag on Inner Farne

Note that if you visit at the height of the season you are advised to wear a hat, as the Terns in particular can be very aggressive in protecting their nests and have been known to dive down on people’s heads – not to mention the habit that birds have of dropping their 'fertiliser' from above as they fly overhead!

One of the most prominent of the few buildings on Inner Farne is St. Cuthbert’s Chapel. The saint after whom it is named lived here as a hermit for about ten years before, in 684, he was called to be Bishop of Lindisfarne – a call he initially resisted because he wanted to stay on this island. He had lived a life of great simplicity here, living entirely off the land, and after only a couple of years as bishop he came back here to die in 687 before being buried on Lindisfarne. While here he formed an attachment to the sea birds, especially the eider ducks which he sought to protect and which are still known locally as Cuddy’s Ducks.

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St. Cuthbert's Chapel

Cuthbert’s cell has long since disappeared but the chapel dedicated to him is nevertheless pretty old in its origins, having been built in 1369 as part of a small monastic complex here dating from the early 14th century. The Benedictine monastic cell based here was dissolved in 1536 under Henry VIII, but the chapel building remained. It was extensively renovated in the 19th century – the windows date from then as do the wooden pews along the sides and the panelling, which was designed for Durham Cathedral in 1665 and brought here in 1848.

When we arrived on Inner Farne one of the National Trust rangers met our boat and told us that he’d be giving a short talk in the chapel for those that wanted to hear it before heading off to explore the island. We went along to listen and found it informative – and not too long!

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In St. Cuthbert's Chapel

Opposite St Cuthbert’s Chapel across a small courtyard is another stone building. This was once another chapel dedicated to St Mary and designed to be used by any female worshippers, but today it serves as a small information centre and shop. And behind the chapel is Prior Castell’s Tower which dates from about 1500 and is named after Thomas Castell, Prior of Durham (1494-1519), who was probably responsible for building it to house the monks who lived here at that time. It was originally four stories high (now only three) and has served as a fort and, in the 17th century, as a lighthouse, with beacon fires lit on its roof to warn passing ships. Nowadays it is home for some of the National Trust rangers who live on the island for nine months of each year.

The first lighthouses on the Farnes were beacon fires lit on the top of existing towers, and the first of these was probably Prior Castell’s Tower next to St Cuthbert’s Chapel. The first purpose-built lighthouse was on Staple Island, in 1776, but this only lasted a few years, being destroyed in the Great Storm of 1784, after which for a while shipping had to again rely on the beacon fires. But in the early 19th century Trinity House erected two new lighthouses, including this one on Inner Farne in 1809, known as the High Light.

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Path to the lighthouse

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The lighthouse from the sea

Like its counterpart on Brownsman, built the following year, this was designed by Daniel Alexander and built by Joseph Nelson, with a cottage attached to the tower and a revolving reflector that burned paraffin oil. This lighthouse is still in use but a second one built on Inner Farne the following year (called the Low Light to distinguish it from this one) in order to warn of the presence of the nearby island of Megstone, was pulled down in 1911 after the High Light was automated.

Longstone Island

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Longstone Island

We didn’t land on Longstone Island but we did sail past it. It is one of the Outer Farnes, and one of two islands in the group to have a lighthouse (the other being Inner Farne). The Longstone lighthouse was built in 1825 as a replacement for the one on Brownsman and continues to warn passing shipping of the dangers of the Farnes to this day, flashing every 20 seconds. It is no longer manned however, having been automated in 1990 and was converted to solar power in 2015.

This lighthouse is the island’s main claim to fame, as it was from here in 1838 that Grace Darling and her father William set out to the rescue of sailors on the paddle steamer ‘Forfarshire’ which ran aground on nearby Harcar Rock. William was the second generation of Darlings to be lighthouse keepers on the Farnes, as his father had kept the light on Brownsman Island.

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Lighthouse on Longstone Island

I grew up with the story of Grace Darling as my grandmother was called Grace and often talked about her namesake. In the early hours of 7th September 1838 Grace looked out of her bedroom window in the lighthouse (the upper window in the white ring in my photos) and spotted the wreck of the ‘Forfarshire’ on Big Harcar, a nearby low rocky island. The paddle steamer had foundered on the rocks and broken in half, and one of the halves had already sunk. She also spotted some survivors on the rocks and, realising that the seas were too rough for the Seahouses lifeboat to come to the rescue, she and her father set out in their traditional Northumberland coble, a type of rowing boat, to see what they could do to help. Have rowed the mile to the wreck Grace kept the coble steady while her father helped five survivors, four men and a woman, into the coble. The rescued men helped row back to the lighthouse where Grace stayed with the woman while the boat returned and picked up four more survivors.

Grace and her father were later awarded the Silver Medal for bravery by the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (which was to become the Royal National Lifeboat Institution). She became very famous, receiving gifts from all over the country and even several marriage proposals. Sadly she died very young, aged just 26, from tuberculosis, and is buried at nearby Bamburgh where a museum tells her story.

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Seals off Longstone Island

Brownsman Island

As I mentioned above, the first lighthouses on the Farnes consisted of beacon fires lit on the top of existing towers, such as Prior Castell’s tower on Inner Farne. The first purpose-built lighthouse was on Staple Island, in 1776, but this only lasted a few years, being destroyed in the Great Storm of 1784. A 40 foot beacon tower, below, was built on Brownsman Island shortly afterwards (in 1795) to serve as a lighthouse for the Outer Farnes, and was used until 1810 when Trinity House erected two new lighthouses, the High Light on Inner Farne in 1809 and another on Brownsman the following year.

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Beacon Tower on Brownsman Island

The first of the lighthouse keepers here was Robert Darling, grandfather of the famous Grace. In 1795 he was appointed keeper on the Outer Farnes and for his first 15 years in the job was in charge of the beacon light on this tower, burning timber and coals in a fire basket on the roof. Darling and his family lived in the bottom part of the tower. In 1805 his son William, with his wife Thomasin, came to join his father. When the new lighthouse was built in 1810 William took over the job there and with Thomasin brought up their nine children in the attached cottage.

However, the Brownsman light did not succeed in stopping the numerous wrecks on the islands to the north of this island, so in 1825 Trinity House decided to scrap it and build a new one on Longstone. William, Thomasin and the children moved there, and it was from there that he and Grace made their famous rescue of the Forfarshire survivors.

Big Harcar Island

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Seals off Big Harcar

Big Harcar is famous as the island where the paddle steamer ‘Forfarshire’ ran aground in 1838, leading to the rescue by Grace Darling and her father William, the lighthouse keeper on Longstone, about a mile away. Today though it is significant for the large seal population here. These are grey seals, and thousands live on the Farnes, having hundreds of pups here each autumn. An annual count has taken place each year, administered since 1970 by the National Trust – in 2013 (the last year for which I’ve been able to find figures) 1,575 pups were born on the Farne Islands in total.

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Big Harcar seals

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If you want to see pups you need to come in the autumn, but our August visit gave us plenty of seal sightings and around Harcar the numbers were particularly strong, with quite a few swimming in the waters around our boat.

The National Trust website for the Farnes gives the following facts about the grey seals:

~ Males grow up to two metres in length and weigh 230kg. Their lifespan is 20-25 years.
~ Females grow about 180cm in length and weigh 150kg, with a lifespan of 30-35 years.
~ Grey seals feed on a wide variety of fish, squid, and octopus.
~ They spend 80% of their time below water, 20% on the surface breathing.

Historically the seals were both respected by the monks and hermits who lived here, and also exploited by them. And not only by those living here, as they would regularly catch seals to send to their parent house in Durham. The seals were valued because of the oil that could be extracted from their carcasses, and also as a luxury food. In a rather nifty bit of thinking, as creatures of the sea, they were considered to count as fish and therefore could be eaten on a Friday when meat was forbidden.

Staple Island and the Pinnacles

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The Pinnacles, off Staple Island

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The Pinnacles

Alongside Inner Farne, Staple Island is the main focus for bird-watching trips in the Farnes. This is one of the rockiest islands, noted for its vast seabird colonies, especially those of the Auk family such as Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins. During the season, May-July, you can land here as part of an all day bird-watchers’ tour with Billy Shiel’s, or make a visit just to Staple. Visiting in August however, this island was closed to us, but a sail-past was included in our tour and provided some of the best photo opps for both sea-birds and seals, in particular at the Pinnacles, isolated rock stacks situated off Staple Island. These were liberally spattered with rather smelly guanao, and even late in the season had plenty of birds perched on their highest points – mainly Kittiwakes and Shags. We also saw a few Gannets flying past the boat and even a Puffin!

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Kittiwakes

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Shags at the Pinnacles

If you time your visit better than we did and want to land here, note that as with Inner Farne you have to prepay a National Trust landing fee (unless you are a National Trust member) of £8 for adults, £4 for children. The island is quite exposed, so not accessible in bad weather, and its rocky nature makes it less suitable for disabled visitors than Inner Farne.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:42 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged boats islands wildlife history ruins lighthouse photography seas chapel seals seabirds Comments (2)

By the sea

Beadnell

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By the sea in Beadnell

The small village of Beadnell lies on the Northumberland coast three miles south of better-known Seahouses. The village grew up based on local industries of coal and lime (and smuggling!), and later small-scale fishing. While the harbour still operates, today the main economy is tourism, and, perhaps unfortunately, nearly every house in the village is holiday accommodation or a second home for ‘townies’ from Newcastle or beyond. This means that in winter it is almost deserted, with only a few year-round residents, while in summer the population swells, helped too by the large caravan park nearby.

Around the harbour

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The harbour

Beadnell’s harbour is located about half a mile south of the main village and has an unusual claim to fame – it is the only west-facing harbour on the east coast of England (look at a map if you’re struggling to visualise this!) The large structures above the harbour, seen in the background of my photo above, are 18th century lime kilns – Beadnell’s industrial heritage is in coal and lime (and smuggling – in 1762 a famous smuggling haul here captured 2,700 gallons of illegal brandy!)

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The lime kilns

Limestone was quarried in various parts of northern Northumberland and brought to the coast along with coal. Here the limestone and coal were fed into the tops of the kilns at a ratio of five parts limestone to one part coal. After burning at temperatures over 1,000 degrees centigrade the lime would fall to the base of the kiln from where it could be raked out once cooled and loaded on to boats in the harbour. But by 1827 the coal and lime industry began to decline and the lime-kilns fell into decay. Small-scale fishing took over, and although this too has since declined some boats still go out from this harbour, which was gifted to local fishermen in 1947 by the owner, Sir John Craster.

Beadnell Bay

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Beadnell Bay

South of the harbour lies the long sweep of Beadnell Bay, lined with sand dunes and with wonderful views south towards the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle. This is a popular spot for water-sports – boating, kite surfing, kayaking, wind surfing and wake boarding. It is also a great beach for holidaying families, who can set up for the day in the shelter of the dunes with lots of space where children can run around, play ball games and build sandcastles. The North Sea is never warm but on a hot day a dip is welcome.

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Dunstanburgh Castle from Beadnell Bay

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In the dunes

The middle part of the bay is an important nesting site for birds – Little Terns, Arctic Terns and Ringed Plovers. For the three months from May onwards the site is fenced off and National Trust rangers maintain a 24 hour watch for the nesting birds, protecting them from predators such as badgers and foxes, and monitoring their progress. Visitors are welcome but have to stay behind the fences – there is a viewing platform erected so you can see what is happening, and the rangers will tell you all about the birds. We’ve not yet visited at this time of year but I’d love to do so one day.

The bay hit the headlines in 2010 when sadly a sperm whale was beached here and died, having to be guarded to prevent people from stealing its ivory teeth (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tyne/8481898.stm).

There’s a car park at the northern end of the beach, near the caravan park. I’ve read online that there’s a fee for parking, but when we were there a sign clearly said, ‘free all day’.

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Gypsy caravan at Beadnell Bay

Beadnell Beach

In addition to the wide expanse of Beadnell Bay, there is another accessible from the northern part of the village which stretches from there north to Seahouses. This is a great spot for rock-pooling, and there are wonderful views north to the Farne Islands and to Bamburgh Castle beyond.

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Farne view with (barely visible) puffins!

There are lots of sea-birds here – we even spotted a couple of puffins, although it was rather late in the season. We found the rock formations and colourful seaweeds made for some great photo opps, and if you want to bring a picnic it’s only yards from the small village shop.

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Rock formations and seaweeds on Beadnell Beach

Beadnell village

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Scallops and octopus
at the Saltwater Café

The village itself is split into two parts – one clustered around the harbour and the other a little to the north nearer the main road. The latter part seems to have most of the available accommodation (we stayed in a great B&B, Haven House) and some good options for dining out. I especially liked the Saltwater Café, which was newly opened at the time of our visit (2016) and served excellent seafood and local meat.

The only building of significant historical interest in this part of the village is the church, St Ebba’s. This dates from the mid 18th century and has some interesting gargoyles. It is dedicated to the sister of King (later Saint) Oswald, who ruled Northumbria in the 7th century. Like her brother she was a convert to Christianity and later became a nun, founding a convent on the site of an old Roman fort at Ebchester, as well as one to the south south of St Abbs Head, which is also named after her. Though this is now in Scotland, at the time it was in an area that was very much part of Northumbria.

The church is thought to have been built as a replacement for a 12th century chapel dedicated to St Ebba which stood on a promontory called Ebb's Nook near Beadnell Harbour. It occupies a prominent spot at the western end of the village (furthest from the sea), with the main village street weaving around it. It is also near here that you'll find the several restaurants I mentioned.

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St Ebba's church

Posted by ToonSarah 06:59 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged beaches birds castles restaurant history views church village seaside seas seabirds Comments (2)

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