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‘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 (9)

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 (9)

At the river’s mouth

Alnmouth

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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The Ferry Hut

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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).

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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

Warkworth

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Warkworth

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.

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The River Coquet in Warkworth

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Path through the dunes

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Dune landscape

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

Amble

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Transforming a harbour

Seaton Sluice

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Cut from the harbour

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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.

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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.

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The Watch House at Seaton Sluice

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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.

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Be careful at the cliff edge

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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.

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Cliff view, and rocks below

The King's Arms

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Tom's shed/studio

The beach

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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.

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On the dunes in winter

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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)

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