A Travellerspoint blog

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At the river’s mouth


Marram grass, dunes

In a county famed for its wide open sandy beaches, Alnmouth boasts one of the best. It also boasts the smallest museum in the country (probably) and one of the oldest golf courses.

Pub sign

This attractive village lies on the beautiful Northumberland coast, about halfway between Newcastle upon Tyne and the Scottish border, just a few miles east of Alnwick. Once a bustling port exporting grain, it has today a more relaxed atmosphere where boating for fun has taken the place of trade, and families come to enjoy a seaside holiday away from the crowds of the bigger resorts.

This would be a good place to base yourself if you want a relaxing holiday exploring the beauties of Northumberland and enjoying the wonderful coast. While sun and heat cannot be guaranteed in these parts, on a nice day the scenery is hard to beat, and even in bad weather the sea and dunes provide a backdrop for a bracing walk, before holing up in one of the village’s several cosy traditional pubs.

Choose your beach carefully

Warning sign

Alnmouth has a wonderful beach and on a sunny day (which in these parts can’t be guaranteed) it is a lovely spot for bathing, paddling and beach fun of all kinds. But at the southern end where it borders on the river estuary, it is not safe for any water activities, as this sign makes clear, due to the strong and highly dangerous rip tides. If you just want to walk and enjoy the views, this is a beautiful spot, but if you want to go in the sea, even for just a paddle (or as the locals would say, a ‘plodge’) you should go further away from the river. Obey the signs and you’ll be safe.

Beach and estuary

But you may not be very warm! This is after all the North Sea and even on a sunny day the water will be cool if not cold. You need to be reasonable hardy to fancy a dip here, though a barefoot walk through the waves can be refreshing on a warm day.

View of Coquet Island from the beach

The River Aln

As the name suggests, Alnmouth sits at the mouth of the River Aln, the same river that lends its name to Alnwick too, a few miles upstream. The village lies on the north bank of the estuary at a point where it curves almost 180 degrees to spill into the sea across the wide sands of Alnmouth Bay. But it hasn’t always followed this course. The village once had a large harbour and was a busy port exporting grain (and with a fair amount of smuggling going on too!). But on Christmas Day in 1806 a violent storm changed the course of the river, causing it to cut off the southernmost part of the village, Church Hill, and cut through the dunes to the sea. The old channel silted up and sand dunes gradually sealed off the old estuary and port. Despite this the shipping trade continued for a while at least. By the mid 19th century however ships were getting larger and were being made from iron and steel rather than wood. They could no longer use the new shallower channel, nor moor on the sandy beach, and trade declined. The grain export business dried up and the old granaries were turned to other uses – one became a chapel, others were converted into houses, many of which can still be seen today.

River Aln estuary

The river meanwhile ensured that Alnmouth still had a future, but as a place for leisure rather than trade. The nearby railway station brought day trippers and holiday-makers, and wealthy people from Newcastle and elsewhere in Northumberland had holiday homes here.

A 'boaty' community

Today the estuary is full of small boats whose owners appreciate the shelter provided by the dunes and the community of like-minded ‘boaty people’.

Church Hill

Church Hill

When the Christmas storm of 1806 cut off Alnmouth’s southernmost point from the rest of the village, it also destroyed the old Anglo Saxon church that sat on the hill and gave it its name. Even before then though the church had suffered a lot of erosion from the river undercutting the hill and it was already in a state of collapse. The storm was just the last straw. It would not be until 1876 that a new church, St John the Baptist, would be built on Northumberland Street. Meanwhile the Duke of Northumberland (whose seat is at nearby Alnwick Castle) took pity on the villagers and bought former granary which he had converted into a temporary church. This is now the Hindmarsh Village Hall, near the lower end of Northumberland Street.

Church Hill is topped with a cross known as St Cuthbert’s Cross. It marks the spot where it is believed that the Synod of Twyford took place. The Northumbrian monk, Bede, recorded that in AD 684, a church meeting was held at the place with two fords at the mouth of the river Aln, fitting the description of this spot. It was at this meeting that St Cuthbert was made Bishop of Lindisfarne.

St. Cuthbert's Cross

Two fragments of an Anglo Saxon cross were found here in 1789, dating from the 9th or 10th century, further proof of the religious significance of this spot. For some time after the loss of the church the site continued to be used as a graveyard and various vestiges remain – a couple of gravestones, the ruins of a mortuary chapel and the concrete remains of a house built for the sexton in 1879 (a very early use of the material for a house). In the latter part of the 19th century the occupant also doubled up as ferryman, transporting woodworkers from their homes in Alnmouth to the sawmill at Waterside on the other bank of the Aln.

Today Church Hill and its cross form a distinctive back-drop to photos of the river estuary, but if you want to visit it you will need to access it from the south bank of the Aln where apparently a track leads from the main road, the A1068, down to the sea and an almost deserted beach. We will try to find it some time ...

The Ferry Hut

The Ferry Hut

Looking out from the Ferry Hut

If you follow Riverside Road that leads along the estuary of the Aln you will come across this picturesque old wooden shack. This is the Ferry Hut, which was erected to provide shelter for the ferryman who used to row passengers across the river (a service that was unfortunately discontinued in the 1960s).

Flowers in the dunes

The hut has been restored and now houses what is thought to be the smallest museum in Northumberland, and probably in the whole country. Its tiny space is filled with old photos and local memorabilia. Entry is free and it stands open every day. Both hut and collection are looked after, paid for, and maintained by a dedicated local resident. Do go inside for a look around and while there, sign the visitors’ book so there’s a record of your visit.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:31 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged beaches boats history village river museum Comments (8)

Villages by the Coquet

Warkworth and Amble



I think Warkworth is one of the most attractive villages in Northumberland, with its long main street dominated at one end by an impressive castle and at the other crossing the pretty River Coquet in the shadow of the spire of St Lawrence. There are traditional pubs and tea-shops, some interesting shops and a pleasant walk to the sea.

The village is almost completely contained within a loop of the river – it is almost like being on an island. Built in the local honey-coloured stone it is a pretty sight as you look down from the top (near the castle), although parked cars somewhat mar the view.

The River Coquet in Warkworth

The medieval bridge gatehouse

At the foot of the main street the river is crossed by an ancient bridge with a fortified gateway. A plaque on the bridge reads:

‘This XIV century fortified bridge over the River Coquet has carried all traffic for almost 600 years and replaced an earlier stone arched bridge on the same site. The bridge and the tower are scheduled as ancient monuments.

The new bridge was built by Northumberland County Council and opened on the 8th May 1965 by Alderman D Dawson O.B.E., chairman of the Highways Committee’

The new bridge mentioned in the plaque today carries all road traffic, but it’s still possible to walk across the old bridge. From here you can get some lovely views of the river and the village beyond.


View from the bridge

Nearby is the village church, dedicated to St Lawrence, which you can see in my photo of the view from the bridge, below.

This dates back to Norman times, having been built in the 12th century on the site of an earlier wooden Anglo Saxon church which is thought to have been destroyed by Viking raids in 875 AD. Perhaps partly because of this the Normans built their church to serve not only as a place of worship but also of shelter, providing sanctuary for the villagers in times of danger. It has very thick walls, with very narrow high windows to keep out the enemy.

Sadly, however, this didn’t prevent the deaths of 300 inhabitants who took refuge here when Donnchad II, Earl of Fife entered Warkworth in 1174 and set fire to the town.

The spire and belfry below it were added in the 14th century and the porch in the 15th.

Warkworth Castle

Warkworth Castle gatehouse

The origins of Warkworth Castle are a little uncertain. Traditionally its construction has been ascribed to Prince Henry of Scotland in the mid 12th century, but it may have been built by King Henry II of England when he took control of England's northern counties a little later in the same century. In the 14th century it came into the hands of the eminent local family, the Percys, at first Barons and later Earls of Northumberland. It was the first Earl who commissioned the building of the castle keep.

The castle wall

The castle has played its part in English history. During the Wars of the Roses the Percys supported the Lancastrian cause and for a while, under King Edward IV, Warkworth was confiscated, although he later relented and restored it to them. The castle formed the backdrop for several scenes in William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. Later it came under royal control again, under Elizabeth I, because of the part the Catholic Percys played in the northern rebellion against her. Again it was restored to the family, but after the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the 9th Earl was imprisoned for his connection with Thomas Percy, one of the plotters. With the unification of England and Scotland under a single ruler, James I, the Earls of Northumberland had no need for two great castles near the border and maintained Alnwick at the expense of Warkworth, which gradually fell into ruin.

The last Percy Earl died in 1670. In the mid 18th century Hugh Smithson married the indirect Percy heiress. He adopted the name ‘Percy’ and founded the dynasty of the Dukes of Northumberland, through whom possession of the castle descended. But it was never fully restored, despite some efforts to repair the keep. Today the castle is under the care of English Heritage and is open to the public.

Beach near Warkworth

Chapel by the path to the sea

If you cross the Coquet at the foot of the main street (whether by car on the new bridge or on foot via the old one) you will see a lane leading off to the right. A short drive along here is the car park for the beach, but it’s just as easy to walk from the village. You will pass the attractive cemetery chapel which dates from the mid 19th century and reminded me of Welsh chapels – I later read that its roof is of Welsh slate. Just beyond this is the long stay car park and from here you need to continue on foot unless you are heading for the caravan park that lies behind the dunes or the golf course.

If on foot it will take you about 15 minutes to reach the sea from the bridge. The lane dwindles to a path which leads over the sandy dunes to a wide beach from which you have views across to Coquet Island with its lighthouse. This island is protected as a bird reserve and can’t be visited, although boat trips from Amble encircle the shore and are popular especially during the puffins’ nesting season.

Path through the dunes

Dune landscape

Warkworth beach, looking south
(you can see Coquet Island on the horizon)


Just downstream from Warkworth, at the mouth of the River Coquet, lies Amble. This is the base for boat trips to Coquet Island (although as I mentioned above, you aren’t able to land on the island). It has a fair-sized marina tucked into the shelter provided by the river’s estuary so is popular with the boating fraternity.


Harbour scenes

In the past Amble served as a port for the export of coal from nearby collieries but its harbour was never large enough to compete with rivals along the coast. Sea-fishing and shop-building or repairs also supported the local economy, and both of these continue to some extent today, although the main focus is on boating and tourism.


The Coquet estuary in Amble

It’s a nice place to stop for a walk if driving in these parts, with fine views of the river and Warkworth Castle beyond, several pubs offering refreshment and local award-winning ice cream makers Spurelli.

The estuary with Warkworth Castle in the background

Posted by ToonSarah 03:53 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged beaches bridges boats castles history ruins views village river Comments (9)

Wet and wild near the city

Druridge Bay

Panorama from the dunes - Druridge Bay

With a beach that stretches for seven miles, Druridge Bay feels wild and remote – until you look at the horizon to the south and see the signs of industry that remind you that you are only a few miles from urbanised Tyneside.

Blyth from Druridge Bay

But although you will see signs of industry close to here, on the beach itself you will feel pleasantly cut off from the modern world. There are rock pools to explore and some great views along the coast. It’s an excellent place for kite flying as it is nearly always windy, and when the sun shines, winter or summer, it makes for a wonderful walk, whether you just stroll a few hundred yards or walk the whole seven miles.

On the beach

Druridge Bay, looking north

And south

This is not a conventional seaside resort. There are no amusements, no restaurants or cafés, no deck-chairs for hire, etc. But the caravan sites at the bay's northern and southern ends, and a variety of B&B and self-catering accommodation in the area, make it a reasonably popular place for summer holidays. Visitors then can enjoy surfing as well as the traditional beach activities of ball games, kite-flying and of course building sandcastles. You need to be a bit hardy to venture into the chilly North Sea, but on a hot day many do so.

But we prefer to visit in the winter. This is the perfect spot to go for a long walk, maybe on Boxing Day or New Year’s Day, to clear the head and enjoy some fresh air and wonderful sea views. You can walk just a few yards, or do the whole seven miles (if you don’t mind walking another seven back to your car!) The light will almost certainly be lovely, whatever the weather, and while you won’t have the beach to yourself you will certainly have plenty of room should you want to warm up with a ball game or to fly a kite. It’s also popular with dog walkers as their pets are allowed to run free here (but please make sure you clean up after them and note that there are restrictions on the dunes during bird-nesting season).

Winter walks

This is a great time for photography too. The light as I’ve said is lovely, the views are extensive, but there are also lots of details in the plant life, rock pools (most only exposed at low tide) and among the dunes. I always come home with some images that really please me.




Low tide at Druridge

Rock pool detail

War-time defences

The bay is backed by a line of dunes. When you first cross these and arrive on the beach you’ll probably notice these large concrete blocks half-buried in the sand, parallel to the dunes. These are anti-tank blocks which were placed here during the Second World War when this was considered a probable spot for the feared German invasion.

Wartime defences

There’s an interesting photo in the visitor centre which shows how locals used to graffiti the blocks with messages such as ‘STOP!’ and ‘Hitler’s Christmas Box’ (with an image of a coffin!) Other defences included pillboxes (disguised as little huts and some still standing) and behind the dunes, minefields and an anti-tank ditch.

Pillbox in the dunes

Behind the dunes


Winter scene in the dunes

Behind the dunes is a series of lakes, the relicts of the former extensive open-cast mining that was once prevalent here. These attract a large number of sea-birds and waders and have hides for bird-watching.

The mining is long gone, and Druridge today is protected through a country park at its northern end and several nature reserves. Part of the beach is also under National Trust ownership, which affords the area a degree of protection.

Druridge is well-known for its birdlife and is a very popular spot for serious birdwatchers as well as those, like ourselves, who just enjoy seeing and photographing birds without really knowing a lot about them! There is a good variety of habitats, from woodland and scrubby to freshwater ponds, reed-beds and of course the beach and dunes.

Druridge Pools

About halfway up the bay is a nature reserve centred around a couple of the ponds formed in the former open-cast mining pits known as Druridge Pools (there are also pools further south, near Cresswell). The site consists of a deep lake to the north of the footpath and two wet fields to the south.

You can park on the road here and follow the path which leads beside the water to a couple of hides. Only the one that overlooks the fields was open when we were last here (December 2014) but it was enough to afford some cover and shelter from the wind while taking photos of the nearest pool, although we didn’t see much in the way of birdlife during what was, admittedly, a fairly short visit – just a flock of geese flying overhead and a cute stonechat who flew away before I could catch him properly on camera.

At Druridge Pools

If you’re able to gain access, the other hide appears to be larger and looks towards the lake. The Wildlife Trust website describes the bird-life as follows:

‘The lake supports large flocks of wintering wildfowl, mostly wigeon and teal but including goldeneye; wading birds feed along the shores. The two adjacent wet fields are very good feeding sites, especially for snipe, redshank and teal, along with occasional rarities such as pectoral sandpiper and black-winged stilt.’

Even if you don't see many birds this is an excellent place for photography, especially on a bright winter's day.

Plant life at Druridge Pools, December

Druridge Country Park

At the northern end of the bay lies a country park (incidentally, the only part of Druridge where you have to pay for parking your car). It has a small visitor centre which provides information about the area in the form of quite simple display boards and a good range of leaflets. There are local interest books for sale, some child-friendly gift items and a friendly but far from fancy café, Cuddy’s.

Visitor centre, inside and out

There are also the essential toilets, and plenty of picnic tables, some with views of the nearby lake, where you can take out items from the café or bring your own supplies to enjoy an al fresco meal or snack. Note though that the café and shop are only open at weekends and during school holidays, while the toilets and information area are open daily from 9.30am to 4.30pm. The visitor centre is wheelchair accessible, apart from the upper viewing floor which promises extensive views of the park but which we found disappointing.

Ladyburn Lake

By Ladyburn Lake

Also in the country park is what I believe to be the largest of the string of lakes that lie just behind Druridge Bay, all formed from what were once open cast mining pits. This is Ladyburn Lake – not suitable for swimming but popular for boating (windsurfers and non-motorised boats only, for which permits are required, available at the visitor centre). Sailing, windsurfing and canoeing courses are held here in summer. No watersports are allowed in the autumn and winter to protect the birds.

Black-headed gull (winter plumage)

Swan, and Black-headed gull


You can walk right round the lake (approximately 2km or 1.5 miles). We haven’t done this yet (we ran out of time on our visit to this part of Druridge) but hope to do so soon. But we did spend some time down by the water photographing the very many birds which tend to congregate near the jetty, where they have learned to expect that visitors may feed them. On our visit here we saw swans; black-headed gulls (in their winter plumage so without the black heads that give them their name); coots; moorhens; mallards; Canada and white geese (and one Greylag); and wigeon.


Posted by ToonSarah 06:04 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged lakes beaches birds wildlife views weather photography seas seabirds Comments (13)

Transforming a harbour

Seaton Sluice

The harbour with village beyond

It is hard to imagine now, but Seaton Sluice was once the centre of greater commercial activity, for its size, than any other town on the North East coast. Large ships visited its tiny harbour and hundreds of seamen worked here, alongside miners, rope-makers, sail-makers, shipbuilders and more. It must have been a busy scene indeed.

Salt production was established here before the 16th century, and in the late 17th century the local landowner Sir Ralph Delaval built a sluice at the harbour mouth as both the salt and coal trades were increasing and the harbour was too shallow and small to cope with the higher demand. Another new entrance to the harbour was created in 1764, by blasting an opening out of solid rock – once again to facilitate the growing coal trade. This ‘Cut’ was one of the most important engineering feats of its day and can still be seen here.

There was also a glass-works here, established in 1763, as all the requirements for the manufacture of glass were on hand (sand, kelp, coal – and the improved harbour). Bottles from The Royal Hartley Bottleworks were transported all over the British Isles, and it is said that John Wesley preached from the steps of the old granary in Glassworks Square in 1744. The glass “cones” can no longer be seen, having been demolished in 1897.

The harbour with village beyond

Today the village makes a good destination for a sea-shore walk. You can explore the area around the Cut and walk along the banks of the Seaton Burn. The sandy beach is lined with dunes, great for ball games or (in warm weather) a dip in the sea. There are small fishing boats in the harbour to photograph, and several good pubs for lunch or just a refreshing pint.

I am stretching a point including it in my Northumberland blog, as in administrative terms it comes within North Tyneside council, but I am sure my readers will forgive me, if they care at all!

The Harbour and Cut

Another view of the harbour and village

Like many communities along this coast (and indeed any coast), Seaton Sluice grew up around a natural harbour (at the mouth of Seaton Burn), serving the neighbouring village of Hartley. In fact, it was originally regarded as part of that village, before development of the harbour led to the creation of a distinct community here. That development owes much to the influence of a local wealthy family, the Delavals (owners of nearby Seaton Delaval Hall, now in the hands of the National Trust). The first of them to see the potential of the small harbour here was Sir Ralph Delaval, in 1660. At that time it was known as Hartley Pans, and was as important for salt-production as for shipping, but with the growth of the coal industry the natural harbour became impractical, as its north-facing entrance was difficult to navigate and incoming tides regularly swept in silt that blocked the harbour entrance and left the harbour itself dry at low tide. Sir Ralph’s solution was to have sluice gates built. These closed against the incoming tide and dammed the flow of water into the burn. Once horse drawn ploughs had loosened the mud and silt the gates were opened and a surge of water swept into the harbour, keeping it clean and usable. It is thanks to this ingenious engineering solution that the port acquired its present-day name of Seaton Sluice.

The harbour at Seaton Sluice, looking north
(the sluice gates were installed at the point where it meets the sea, towards the top of the photo)

But despite the improvements to the harbour made by Sir Ralph Delaval, it still struggled to cope with the growing volume of shipping and also the growing size of the ships. The water was shallow and the ships could only be part-loaded in the harbour before being taken out into deeper water at its entrance to be fully loaded there by keel boats (a local north east vessel). This added to the cost and caused delays. So around the middle of the 18th century one of his successors, Sir John Hussey Delaval, decided on more improvement work. He drew up plans for a new harbour to be cut to the east, through solid rock. By 1764 work on this was completed – a major engineering achievement for its day. The new ‘cut’ (or ‘gut’ as it is locally known) was about 270 metres long, 9 metres wide and 15 metres deep. The first ship to sail out of the new harbour, on 22nd August 1764, was the ‘Warkworth’, carrying a cargo of 270 tonne of coal.

The Cut
( first image looking towards the harbour, the second to where it meets the sea)

Thanks to this new entrance the harbour thrived, and Seaton Sluice became a great centre of commerce and shipping – for its size, the busiest on the north east coast. Coal mined in the 30 odd pits around Hartley was exported from here, and a flourishing bottle works grew up, owned by the Delaval family and employing many local workers. Six glass furnaces produced, at the height of the industry here, as many as one million seven hundred and forty thousand bottles in a single year.

The Cut from the harbour

In the harbour

But the harbour, and the bottle works, relied on the coal mined at Hartley, and in January 1862 disaster struck at one of the pits there, the Hester Pit. The beam of the pit's pumping engine (used to keep out sea water as the tunnels ran out under the sea) broke and fell down the shaft. This trapped the men working below, and 204 died. This accident, which became known as the Hartley Colliery Disaster, led to a change in the law to stipulate that all collieries must have at least two independent routes to escape. This pit never reopened, and although others in the area kept working, and indeed new ones opened, Hartley had been badly hit by the disaster. Local coal mining declined, the bottle works closed (in 1870) and major improvements to harbours at Blyth to the north and on the Tyne to the south saw shipping move away from Seaton Sluice.

Today the harbour is still in use, but only by pleasure craft and a few small fishing boats. The Cut though has silted up and the route in and out of the harbour is once again along the natural flow of the burn to the north. Landlubbers can enjoy a stroll on the grassy banks either side of the water, or relax on one of the many benches to take in the views.

The Watch House and Rocky Island

When Sir John Hussey Delaval commissioned the opening of a new entrance to the harbour here, the Cut, a small piece of land became separated from the mainland (literally cut off by the Cut) and was transformed into an island, Rocky Island. This is accessible by footbridge from near the Kings Arms pub and is a great place for a short stroll. Today there are only a few buildings on the island although until the 1960s it was a thriving community, with the 1901 Census showing 16 properties here - two blocks of three, one block of six, and a cottage down by the harbour. All were owned, like most of the village, by the Delaval Estate. The Seaton Sluice community website has some great descriptions of early 20th century life on Rocky Island.

Rocky Island, formed by the Cut

It’s hard to imagine that thriving community when you visit the island today however. Just two houses remain, former coastguard cottages, plus the Watch House. The volunteer life-saving movement had started on the north east coast at nearby Tynemouth, where the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade was set up in 1864 and a Watch House opened in 1887. Meanwhile other coastal communities had followed Tynemouth’s lead and here in Seaton Sluice, in 1876, a small group of volunteers was enrolled to assist the local Coastguard, becoming the Seaton Sluice Volunteer Life-Saving Company.

The Watch House at Seaton Sluice

The Watch House

A few years later, in 1880, this Watch House was built to provide a look-out point, storage, and somewhere for the men of the brigade to congregate when the maroons fired to alert them to a ship in distress on the rocks. They would also meet here regularly for training exercises, practising firing the rockets that carried ropes onto the ships in order to rescue those stranded by means of a breeches-buoy harness. There were regular competitions between the different north east brigades, and social events such as dinners, concerts and of course drinking in the local pubs.

The Watch House is nowadays owned by Northumberland County Council and is a Grade II listed building. It is open to the public on Sunday afternoons in the summer only – unfortunately we were here on a week day so couldn’t visit but will try to do so some time in the future.

Be careful at the cliff edge

Warning sign by the steps

If taking a walk on Rocky Island you need to take some care, as the low cliffs are not fenced in places and are crumbling away. It used to be possible to walk right around the perimeter but on our most recent visit (August 2016) part of the footpath on the north side was fenced off and warning signs posted, at a spot where there had been some slippage of the cliffs into the sea. We had to retrace our steps and take the path across the centre of the island instead.

You also need to take care if you want to explore the rocks that give the island its name. A flight of stone steps leads down on the northern side but both these and the rocks themselves are covered at high tide and slippery with seaweed when the waters recede. Do explore, by all means, but watch your step and be especially careful if you have children with you – in fact, if you have small children I would recommend avoiding this area and heading instead for the sandy beach and dunes just to the north.

Cliff view, and rocks below

The King's Arms

The King's Arms

The Kings Arms is nicely situated near the Cut, and with a few tables on the grassy area at its front. It is a traditional pub dating back to the late 18th century. It prides itself on offering quality beers and good food in a cosy atmosphere – with no TV sports, no fruit machines, no music. In winter there are apparently log fires, but when we visited recently on a pleasant August day the fire places were burning only candles which gave a nice effect. It’s a cosy spot in which to enjoy one of this coast’s best dishes, traditional fish and chips, but there are plenty of other choices too as well as a good selection of real ales.

Shanti Arts

Shanti Arts

Tucked behind the Kings Arms pub is a real treasure trove for anyone in search of the quirky or eccentric. A local man, Tom Newstead, has returned to Seaton Sluice after travelling the world and set up a wood-carving studio in an old shed. His creations may not be to everyone’s taste but in the right setting (out of doors, informal) they have a certain appeal. Indeed, Tom’s creations are dotted all over this part of Seaton Sluice so do keep your eyes open – have another, closer, look at my photo of the Cut above and you should spot one!

Tom at work

On a recent visit to Seaton Sluice we were fortunate enough to meet Tom who was at work just outside his shed, and enjoyed chatting with him for a while. An interesting man, he was born here in Seaton Sluice and trained as a boat builder, before joining the Merchant Navy as a carpenter. The enabled him to travel the world, finding inspiration for his art, and after leaving the navy he continued to travel, working in various places – building boats in Bermuda, teaching yoga in India.

Examples of Tom's work

Back home he took up violin lessons and, unable to pay his teacher, instead made him a violin and case from silver birch wood. In doing this he rediscovered his love of art and now spends his time here carving his idiosyncratic creations. He welcomed us to take photos and in return we put a donation into the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) that sat in one corner. Do check out Tom’s studio (Shanti Arts) and say hi if he’s around.

Tom's shed/studio

The beach

Blyth from Seaton Sluice

To the north of the harbour in Seaton Sluice a long sandy beach stretches away towards the next town on the coast, Blyth. Typical of many in Northumberland, the beach is of soft yellow sand and is fringed by sand dunes. Even though you aren’t far from bustling Newcastle and the power station of Blyth (you can see the wind turbines clearly – see photo), you still get some sense of being away from it all, especially if you visit on a bracing day in winter – the twenty-year-old photos below are from a December trip to the coast! Even in summer the North Sea will seem chilly to all but the hardiest swimmers, but it’s fine for small children to paddle in and the sands are perfect for family fun.

On the dunes in winter

The beach seen from the rocks

Posted by ToonSarah 02:26 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged beaches art boats harbour coast history views village pubs seas Comments (6)

Outpost of the Empire

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall

Some history

In the early years of the second century AD the northern limit of the Roman Empire lay in what is now the north of England. The Emperor Hadrian commanded a Wall to be built in order to keep ‘intact the empire’, but probably also to assert the supremacy of Roman power.

It was an impressive piece of engineering for its time, stretching from the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west – from what is now Wallsend (Roman name Segedunum) on England’s north east coast to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria on the west coast. It was 80 Roman miles in length (73 modern miles or 117.5 kilometres) and varied in height between three to six metres. It is thought that the Wall was covered in plaster and whitewashed to make it visible for miles around, reinforcing the belief of some historians that its purpose was less defensive and more a statement of power – not only Rome’s, but Hadrian’s. It probably also served as a series of customs points, much like present day borders, with taxes being charged to anyone who passed through one of its gates into the Empire to trade.

Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads Fort

The Wall was built from limestone, except in the far west where it was initially of turf, although later this too was reconstructed in stone. It doesn’t run in a straight line but follows the contours of the land and in places takes advantage of these to strengthen its defences. There were forts at approximately five mile intervals to garrison the troops who guarded the border, and milecastles at approximately – guess what? – every mile. Most of the forts straddle the Wall; one, Housesteads, is unusual in sitting totally to one side (the south) due to the terrain.

Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads

After the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain in the early 5th century the Wall, though maintained and garrisoned for a short time afterwards, gradually fell into disuse and into ruin. Its stones were reused in the construction of other buildings (many an old farmhouse in this area can boast of having some stones from the Wall) or in road-building. The nearby modern-day B6318, which you will have driven on to get here, follows the line of the 18th century road built by General Wade to move troops during the Jacobite Rebellion, and local people still refer to this as the Military Road.

In the 1830s a Newcastle man, John Clayton, took an interest in the Wall and started buying up the land on which it stood to prevent farmers from taking any more of the stones. Eventually he owned a considerable area of land, including the sites of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, and Vindolanda. He carried out some excavations and also employed workmen to restore some stretches of the Wall, of which the best example is at Housesteads.

Today Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most visited tourist destination in the north of England. It is also the route of a popular long-distance path and you will see many walkers following the line of the Wall (walking on it is discouraged to avoid further damage).

Don’t expect however to see the Wall standing for its full length, is in many places today it is little more than a rampart. It is partly because the stretch around Housesteads is so relatively well-preserved that it is also one of the busiest parts – so don’t expect to have the place to yourself either, except in the bleakest of weathers!

Housesteads Fort

Of those forts that still have some remains, Housesteads, or Vercovicium to give it its Roman name, is probably the best known and most visited.

Housesteads Fort, looking south

Relatively little remains of the fort today, but there is enough for you to be able to trace the layout of the buildings and learn something of how those soldiers would have lived.

Housesteads Fort - outer wall and barracks

But more impressive than those few remains perhaps is the setting. With sweeping views over the Northumberland hills and one of the most intact stretches of Hadrian’s Wall nearby, in good weather it is a glorious place to stand. Imagine it though in the depths of winter, with icy winds blowing and snow falling. How must those Roman soldiers, many recruited from much warmer parts of the Empire, have felt in what must have seemed to them to be the ends of the earth?


Countryside near Housesteads

A tourist admires the view

Photographing the views

Life at Housesteads

At its height 800 soldiers would have been based here at Housesteads – or Vercovicium, as they would have known it (the name means ‘the place of the effective fighters’).

Barracks (on the left) and granary (right

Outer wall with oven

Although the environment would have seemed harsh to many of them, especially in winter, they were relatively well-housed and were self-sufficient. The ordinary soldiers lived in barracks and the remains of some of these can be traced here today. These barracks were where they slept and also relaxed when off duty. They ate bread and other food that was cooked in the ovens on one side of the fort. The supplies for these meals were stored in granaries with stone pillars that supported a raised floor to keep the food dry and free from rats and mice.

There was a workshop and hospital, and at the heart of the fort a headquarters building known as the Praetorium or Principia. This had a courtyard where ceremonies (both military and religious) took place, a shrine where the regiment’s standards were displayed alongside altars to the gods and a statue of the emperor, and offices with a strong room to store valuables, including the soldiers’ pay.

Part of the Principia

A note about access

Housesteads Fort is jointly operated by English Heritage and the National Trust. The latter’s website says ‘A cleared path is provided for the short walk from the visitor centre to the Wall and Fort’ and I noted that ticket seller didn’t explain the walk needed until after people had bought their tickets. The English Heritage website is more helpful: ‘The fort lies uphill from the car park (a fairly strenuous 10 minute walk on steep gradient). A disabled car park is available. Please ask at the visitor centre for directions to this car park.’ They also have a full page devoted to access to the fort: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/housesteads-roman-fort-hadrians-Wall/access

The start of the path

Reaching the top

The fact is that the fort is about half a mile on a gravel footpath with quite a steep climb at one point. The path crosses the Vallum, the large ditch that was dug by the Romans south of the Wall to reinforce the defences. Incidentally the name comes from the Latin word which was actually the origin of the English word ‘wall’; it meant ‘stake’ rather than ditch and reflects the fact that the defensive walls built by a Roman army on the march were of tree branches planted upright on an earthen barrier.

Looking back
The car park is in a dip behind the trees, which is the Vallum

This path presents no problem for the averagely fit but is a challenge for anyone unsteady on their feet and (I imagine) very hard work indeed for anyone pushing a wheelchair. Someone with significant mobility difficulties would find it very hard-going and would probably not be able to visit the fort using this route without help from a friend or family member. So have a look at the path if you can before committing to buying a ticket, and ask for the advice you need, as from what I observed it may not be offered. And do ask about that disabled car park as it may make your visit a lot easier.

The Wall at Steel Rigg

Another good place from which to view or walk on Hadrian’s Wall in this area is Steel Rigg. You can walk here from Housesteads Fort, or drive and park in the pay and display car park nearby, using the same ticket bought for Housesteads. You can of course also do the walk in reverse, starting at Steel Rigg.

At Steel Rigg
Peel Crags and Crag Lough, with Hadrian's Wall beyond

Whichever way you do it, it’s about eight miles (13 kilometres) roundtrip, depending on the route you take, and the parts on or near the Wall are very undulating with a few steep climbs. It is many years since I did this but the rewards for your efforts are great, with some of the best views in England out over the Cheviots from the top of the Whin Sill on Hotbank and Peel Crags, above Crag Lough. The National Trust website has route instructions, based on starting at Housesteads: Housesteads to Steel Rigg circular walk

Hadrian's Wall from Steel Rigg
You can clearly see the path alongside the wall

But even if you have no time for the walk, a detour to Steel Rigg is well worthwhile as you can really appreciate the drama of the Wall’s setting and the efforts the Romans made to locate it in the most strategic position. A very short walk on largely even ground will bring you to the point where my photos were taken. You can see the Wall snaking over the rocky ridge of Peel Crags, with Crag Lough beyond. If you’re up to tackling just one climb you can walk over Peel Crags and dip down to the much-photographed Sycamore Gap beyond (so-called because a solitary sycamore tree grows there in a great position for photos) – this spot featured in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. We ran out of time, having spent too long at Housesteads, to do even this short walk, so will have to return.


Near Steel Rigg

Posted by ToonSarah 07:00 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes history ruins views fort national_park romans Comments (11)

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