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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)

By the sea

Beadnell

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By the sea in Beadnell

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

Around the harbour

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The harbour

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

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The lime kilns

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

Beadnell Bay

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Beadnell Bay

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

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Dunstanburgh Castle from Beadnell Bay

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In the dunes

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

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

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

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Gypsy caravan at Beadnell Bay

Beadnell Beach

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

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Farne view with (barely visible) puffins!

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

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Rock formations and seaweeds on Beadnell Beach

Beadnell village

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Scallops and octopus
at the Saltwater Café

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

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

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

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St Ebba's church

Posted by ToonSarah 06:59 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged beaches birds castles restaurant history views church village seaside seas seabirds Comments (8)

Quintessential English villages

Ford and Etal

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Northumberland’s only thatched roof pub, Etal

Nestled in the valley of the River Till in rural Northumberland, only a few miles from the border with Scotland, are two quintessential English villages. Ford was built as a model village by Lady Louisa Waterford while neighbouring Etal is a pretty village with Northumberland’s only thatched roof pub.

There is plenty in these few small miles to keep you occupied for several days – two ancient castles (though only one open to the public), rides on a light-gauge railway, an old corn mill, nature reserves and even (though we haven’t yet been there) a prehistoric stone circle.

Ford model village

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Typical Ford houses

There have been people living in Ford since the time of the Norman Conquest and probably long before – Bronze Age carvings near here suggest that there may have been a settlement here even back in those days. But the village as we see it today is the brainchild of one woman, Lady Louisa Waterford, the widow of the 3rd Marquis of Beresford who owned the Ford Estate. Lady Waterford was committed to the welfare of the tenants on the estate. She rebuilt the village and also built a new school (which today is known as Lady Waterford Hall – see below).

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Typical Ford houses

The houses have a pleasant uniformity although in some ways they look more suburban than rural, perhaps because of that same uniformity. Certainly when built they must have been far pleasanter and more salubrious to live in than the run-down cottages and hovels that were here before. Today many of the houses are still occupied by workers on the estate, and the village also has a few tourist-focused shops such as a second-hand bookshop and an antique shop in the old forge.

The Ford Estate was bought by the Joicey family in 1907. The same family purchased Etal a year later and thus the joint estate of Ford and Etal came into being. The Joicey family still own all of this area today.

Lady Waterford Hall

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Mural in Lady Waterford Hall

When Lady Louisa Waterford remodelled Ford village to improve the lives of workers on the estate, she also had a new school built for their children to attend. That school, opened in 1860, is now the village hall and is known as Lady Waterford Hall in her honour. The village hall in most villages would not be on the tourist route, but this one is exceptional because of the legacy Lady Louisa left inside. A talented artist who was associated with John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphelite movement, she spent 21 years decorating the interior walls with stunning murals depicting Bible scenes as a teaching aid for the pupils.

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More of the murals

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In Lady Waterford Hall

Many of the figures who appear in these were modelled on local people and displays in the hall point these out. Some of her other works and her sketchbooks are also on display but it is the murals that are her most impressive legacy, and reason alone to come to Ford.

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Another mural, and the exterior of the hall

Waterford Memorial Fountain

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The Waterford Memorial Fountain

At the western end of the village street stands this ornamental fountain, erected by Lady Louisa Waterford in the autumn of 1864. It consists of a granite column rising from a stone basin. At the top of the column is the figure of an angel with a down-turned sword and a shield. This angel is almost certainly the Archangel Michael, to whom the village church is dedicated. It faces west towards Ford Castle, its back to the village.

The fountain is a memorial to her husband, the third Marquis of Waterford, who died in a hunting accident in 1859. On the west face of the base of the column is an inscription to him:

‘This fountain is placed by
Louisa Marchioness of Waterford,
in grateful and affectionate remembrance of her husband,
Henry,
3rd Marquis of Waterford K.P.; born April 26th, 1811; died March 29th, 1859’

On the north and south faces are inscribed quotations from the Bible. The ones on the south side are clearly linked to the idea of the fountain:

‘“With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.”
Isaiah Chap.3, Verse 3
“Drink ye, drink abundantly, O beloved”
Song of Solomon Chap. V, Verse 1’

While on the north side (although illegible now because of age and lichen) is a quotation from the passage Lady Waterford is said to have been reading with her husband on the morning of his death:

'Now Absalom in his life time had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king's dale: for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance: and he called the pillar after his own name: and it is called unto this day, Absalom's place.’

Ford Church and Castle

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The church with castle beyond

Ford's two oldest buildings, situated on the outskirts of the village, are Ford Castle and the Church of St. Michael and all Angels. Parts of each date back to the 12th century. As we were with my elderly mother-in-law and needed to minimise walking we didn’t visit either, but we did stop to get some photos as they looked lovely on this beautiful July day.

The castle has been largely rebuilt since its 12th century origins, several times – by Sir John Hussey Delaval between 1761 and 1764 and by Lady Louisa Waterford between 1861 and 1863. It must have been in need of this regular attention as being so close to the Scottish border made it vulnerable to frequent attacks. Its most significant claim to fame is that King James IV of Scotland spent his last night here before his fatal battle on nearby Flodden Field in 1513.

During WW2 the castle was used by the Red Cross as a convalescent hospital. It is now used as a residential centre for school trips, and for weddings and conferences, so it’s not possible to go inside, but you can get reasonably close if you want to get some photos.

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View from the church's graveyard

The parish church, dedicated to St. Michael was originally built in the 13th century. The west wall and parts of the south aisle are part of that original structure but most of the building dates from 1853 when it was remodelled by the well-known Newcastle architect John Dobson (who was responsible for that city’s Central Station among many other projects). It is a Grade II listed building. Lady Waterford is buried in the churchyard and there is apparently an unusual grave slab with bagpipes on it by the west wall close to the entrance door. As I said, we didn’t go close enough to see it properly, but that sounds worth hunting for.

Heatherslaw Light Railway

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A view from the train

A ride on this little train will be the highlight of a visit to this area for children I am sure, and is good fun whatever your age, as well as being a relaxing way to enjoy the pretty countryside. It runs from Heatherslaw to Etal and back, a distance of 6.4 kilometres. The journey there and back takes 50 minutes, or you can alight in Etal to explore the village and castle before returning later, which is what we did.

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Heatherslaw Light Railway - arriving in Heatherslaw, and riding the train

This 15 inch gauge railway is the most northerly steam railway in England. It has two steam locomotives, ‘Bunty’ and ‘Lady Augusta’, and one diesel, ‘Binky’. The coaches are all covered, and some have open sides while others are glazed. The route follows the River Till and winds through its meadows, with views largely of agricultural land. In Etal the locomotive is detached, turned around on a turntable and reattached to what was the rear of the train for the journey back to Heatherslaw – another fun thing for the kids to watch!

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The turntable at Etal

Heatherslaw station is built on the site of the old Ford and Etal sawmill which burned down in the mid 1980s. The railway has been operating here since 1989, the vision of one railway enthusiast, Neville Smith, who achieved his ambition to create his own 15 inch gauge passenger carrying railway in partnership with the late Lord Joicey who had been looking for just such a project to enhance tourism on Ford and Etal Estates. Today it is operated by Neville’s son Paul and has become one of the main attractions in the area.

Etal

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Slate-roofed cottages and pub sign, Etal

In contrast to the stone of Ford’s houses, in Etal most buildings are whitewashed. Several of the cottages are thatched, the others have the more typical Northumbrian slate roofs. The village pub, the Black Bull, claims to the only thatched pub in the county (see photo at the top of the page). There is also a small tea room, but the main reason to come here is Etal Castle.

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Etal Castle

This castle was first built as a manor house by the Manners family in the late 12th century, and fortified by Robert Manners in the mid 14th century, creating a castle to serve as a defence against Scottish raiders. It fell to King James IV of Scotland's invading army in 1513 on their way to defeat at nearby Flodden, although it had already by this time been abandoned as a residence.

Today it is largely in ruins, although the chapel houses an award-winning exhibition about the Battle of Flodden and Anglo-Scottish warfare. We didn’t visit this but were content instead to wander round the ruins for a while, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the late afternoon sunlight on these old stones.

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Etal Castle

Although sleepy today (and never large) Etal was in the past a more substantial village, home to a number of pitmen and to businesses such as a carter, blacksmith, grocer, post office, dress maker, stone mason, butcher, joiner and cartwright. By the end of the 19th century there was a ferry across the River Till, operated by a Mary Sutherland, and a mixed Infants school in the village. Today its main focus is tourism, but not on a large scale, and a few minutes will suffice for a stroll along its main street – unless of course you are tempted into the tearoom or pub!

Postscript

This page, like most of my Northumberland pages, is based on material I wrote on Virtual Tourist. Usually I would write about places I visited as soon as I could after the trip, but this one was an exception. At the end of our day spent exploring these two villages, things took a tragic turn. My lovely mother-in-law Teresa, who accompanied us, was taken ill in the night, rushed to hospital and never recovered. We lost her six weeks later.

For a while all memories of what had been a wonderful summer’s day were tainted by those of how it had ended, and it took me three years to feel able to write about our day out on VT. When I did, that page was dedicated to Teresa, a dedication I am happy to repeat here. Not all women get on with their mother-in-law, but I struck lucky. Teresa welcomed me into the family with open arms 38 years ago, treating me as the daughter she never had, and for that I will always be grateful.

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Chris and Teresa at a coffee stop on the way to Ford

Posted by ToonSarah 03:36 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged art people trains castles monument history church village houses Comments (13)

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