START: Blyth, Northumberland
FINISH: Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland
DISTANCE: 10.4 miles
APPROXIMATE WALKING TIME: 4 hours
MAPS: OS Explorer 325
Two weeks after the last coastwalk from Whitby to Staithes, I was eager to return to the Northumberland coast and keep heading northwards from the last stopping point at Blyth. Looking at the map, the next logical destination from Blyth would be the Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. I was originally thinking of stopping at the village of Cresswell a few miles to the north of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, which lies at the start of the Northumberland Coast Path, however Cresswell is not served by a regular bus service. As a result I finished the walk at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea because it has a direct bus service back to Newcastle which was great as I wouldn’t have to worry about missing the last bus home.
Looking at the route between Blyth and Newbiggin, it didn’t seem that there would be much in the way of coast walking, at least not until the latter half of the walk. The first half of the walk would mainly consist of navigating my way around the River Blyth and River Wansbeck, whilst access to the coast would be largely denied by the heavy industry which dominates this region. I will admit that I wasn’t looking too forward to this walk compared to the other coastwalk I had done as it seemed to be more of a ‘filling in the gap’ rather than an actual coast walk. Fortunately, I turned out to be rather surprised.
Getting the bus from Newcastle after already completing an hour’s journey from Teesside, I headed back to Blyth once again on a bright and sunny Saturday morning in June 2015. I started at Blyth’s pleasant quayside and followed the B1329 through the top end of the town, past riverside warehouses and docks.
A little further on I turned on to Crawford Street which I followed for about half-a-mile. This part of the walk wasn’t very scenic at all, and as I passed through a post-industrial wasteland once dotted with old railway lines and a colliery, I started to think that my initial misgivings about the walk were being proved right so I became a little grumpy. At the end of Crawford Street I turned right on to Chain Ferry Road which led to the southern bank of the River Blyth. According to old maps of this area there used to be two ‘infectious diseases’ hospitals sited on the bank of the river (a third hospital was sited on the north bank of the river near Bedlington). The two hospitals at Blyth were built in 1893 following an Act of Parliament which made it illegal for people who knowingly had infections diseases to stay in populated areas. As a result the hospitals were deliberately kept isolated from the rest of the community so that the infected people sent there wouldn’t be able to pass on their ailments to the general public. The hospitals were destroyed in an air raid during World War II and since then the site has been cleared over with very little notice of there ever being a building on this site.
As I reached the river, my mood lightened a little as the view upstream towards Bedlington was very nice, especially with the water sparkling in the sun. I followed the riverside path westwards, having to divert around a stream a little further along. Soon the path reached a towering bridge which carried the A189 over the river. The path went underneath the bridge and then took an immediate left up the steep river bank where it joined the A189 road. I then crossed the bridge before following the path as it descended away from the main road and continued into the outskirts of Bedlington along the A1147.
Bedlington (meaning the settlement of Betla’s people in Anglo-Saxon) has a long history and for a large part of it’s history it was in fact part of an enclave of County Durham. In 900AD the area was acquired by the Bishop of Chester-Le-Street and over the following nine centuries the powerful Bishops of Durham ran the enclave (known as Bedlingtonshire) until it was ceded back to Northumberland in 1844.
Until the 18th century, Bedlington was a largely agricultural community. However, in 1736 the Bebside Ironworks opened on the south bank of the River Blyth, a little further to the west of the present-day A189 road bridge. This was followed by the Bedlington Ironworks opening on the north side of the river in 1759 (the ironworks eventually closed in 1867). Iron from the works were used to construct rails for the world’s first passenger railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 and also Russia’s first railway in 1837. Further industrialisation arrived in 1838 with a new colliery – Bedlington ‘A’ Pit – being sunk, which was followed by Bedlington Colliery (named ‘Doctor Pit’ or ‘D Pit’ after Doctor John Moore Bates, the coal company’s director) in 1855. Naturally, miners from all over Britain came to settle in Bedlington as more pits opened (there were five in total) and the village grow in population and size.
The area of Bedlington I was walking through was called Bedlington Station and takes it name from the railway station which was opened in 1850 (and closed in 1964 – although the station buildings and railway line still exist) to the east of the main centre of Bedlington. Before the railway arrived the area was known as Sleekburn and this is where Bedlington ‘A’ was sunk in the mid 19th-century. Repeating a story that I have seen time after time on my walks along the North East coast, Bedlington suffered in the latter half of the 20th century as one by one the pits closed down, the last being ‘A Pit’ in 1971. Since the closure of the pits Bedlington has become somewhat more of a dormitory town.
Bedlington is also where the famous ‘Bedlington Terrier’ comes from. The breed of dog descends from a dog called ‘Old Flint’ born in 1782 from which a line of ‘Rothbury Terriers’ came from. In 1825 a Bedlington man, Joseph Ainsley, bred two Rothbury Terriers and renamed the offspring a ‘Bedlington Terrier’. Bedlington Terriers have become synonymous with the town and even the local football team takes their name from the breed of dog.
I was literally in Bedlington for minutes (so unfortunately I didn’t get to see any Bedlington Terriers) as my route quickly took me eastwards out of the town along Moorland Avenue into East Sleekburn.
EAST SLEEKBURN AND CAMBOIS
East Sleekburn, unlike its namesake villages of Sleekburn (now Bedlington Station) and West Sleekburn (rather confusingly situated to the north of Sleekburn) remained largely untouched by the industrial revolution and ever since its foundation in medieval times has hardly changed in the centuries since then. Today it is a sleepy little dormitory village and it was very quiet as I passed through.
I followed the old road out of the village which once led to Cambois but is now blocked off to traffic, instead being bypassed by a newer road a couple of hundred metres to the north. I soon emerged on to the new bypass road which I followed through a post-industrial landscape once home to giant power stations and railway sidings, which are now just empty, concreted over plots of land. This part of the walk wasn’t entirely scenic I will admit and my earlier grumpy mood soon returned.
A little further on I came to a line of houses which was the southern part of Cambois. Cambois (pronounced as ‘Cammus’) is an unusual name and is either derived from the Gaelic ‘cambas’ meaning ‘bay’ or ‘creek’ or from the old Cumbric word ‘cambas’ meaning ‘bend in a river’. Whatever the name means, the village covers a two mile stretch of the coast from the River Blyth to the River Wansbeck. Before the advent of coal mining in the mid-19th century the village was split into two hamlets two miles apart. The historic centre of the village was situated around it’s northern end near the River Wansbeck and there is evidence of a chapel located here in 1204.
With the opening of Cambois Colliery in 1867 hundreds of miners and their families flocked to the village and the two hamlets were joined up by row after row of new terraced housing along the two mile shoreline. At its peak in the late 1950s the colliery employed over 1200 miners, however within a decade the mine had closed down and the community had its soul ripped out. An article in the Guardian in 1972 shows how much the village changed in the four short years after the colliery’s closure. Former miners were encouraged to move to nearby Bedlington otherwise they had to stay in crumbling homes owned by the National Coal Board who, according to the villagers, refused to renovate them. Entire streets were earmarked for demolition resulting in the community once again being split into two.
As I reached a roundabout at the southern part of Cambois I had a choice to follow the road to the right down to North Blyth, which stands on the opposite side of the river to Blyth. Whilst I was tempted to do this, on looking at the map I would basically have to double back along the beach as soon as I reached the small community at North Blyth. If I had been doing this walk as recently as 1997 as I would have been able to get the old river ferry from Blyth across to North Blyth and then walk up the coast from there. Indeed if it hadn’t been for the severe economic downturn of the late 2000s I would have been able to use a proposed ‘floating river bus’ to cross the river. Instead I walked straight ahead, under the railway line and out onto Cambois’ surprisingly scenic beach, getting my first view of the coast on this walk.
The beach at Cambois was a lovely hidden gem which I wasn’t expecting to find on this walk and as a result I became a little less grumpy. I passed a few people walking along the beach who were enjoying the sunshine as I worked my way along the sands. There were great views of my final destination of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in the distance. About a mile later there was an outflow pipe that lead out to the sea which I climbed under. A few yards later I climbed up onto the shorefront where there was a coastal path which I followed to the northern half of the village past the site of the old colliery which is now concreted over and surrounded by a modern security fence.
Whilst I was looking at the route of this walk before I came out that day, there was a bit of uncertainty about where to go from the northern half of Cambois. On the map it looked like I would have to follow the road out of the village towards the A178 and then cross the River Wansbeck by this route. However looking on Google Maps’ satellite view it looked like there was a well worn path heading out of the top end of the village along the river where I could cross a weir just after the A178 bridge. I decided to follow the river route, with the hope that I would not have to double back on myself if the way was blocked.
Fortunately, there was clear route all the way and there was a great view along the River Wansbeck downriver towards the coast where I could see a few boats anchored up on the river next to Cambois Boat Club’s small harbour. I soon reached the weir which to my horror was actually blocked off by a gate. I had two choices here, climb up the overgrown steps up to the A178 behind me and then try and find my way back down again on the other side, or climb over the gate and work my way along the weir. I chose the latter purely because climbing up the steep bank to the A178 was too much effort on his hot day. Feeling guilty as hell because it was felt like I was trespassing (and to be fair I probably was) I crossed the river on the weir convinced at any moment that SWAT teams would suddenly descend from helicopters overhead and arrest me for daring to climb over a locked gate. Luckily for me there were no helicopters in sight and I reached the other side of the river without any incident, although a lady walking along the riverside path did give me a bit of a dirty look as I climbed over the locked gate at the other end of the weir. I didn’t care though as I had saved time on my walk, had gotten great views upriver along the River Wansbeck and was able to continue on my walk knowing I wouldn’t face incarceration for my little shortcut.
I worked my way along the northern riverbank and soon came to a group of dunes which had a caravan park overlooking them. I worked my way though a myriad of paths through the dunes, eventually figuring out which one led up the hill into the caravan park. Walking through the busy caravan park I again felt like I was trespassing even though I was following a public footpath which went through the park. As I kept walking I half-expected that at any second I would be stopped by a caravan owner who would see my guilty face and think I was up to no good. I then had visions of being chased through the caravan park by angry holidaymakers completely furious that I didn’t have a caravan in their park and therefore had no right to be there. Luckily for me again my overactive imagination didn’t come true and I passed through the park without any trouble.
At the top end of the caravan park there was a footpath heading northwards along crumbling clifftops which I followed until it reached the outskirts of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea just over a mile later.
On entering the village I passed a bowling green and a row of houses before climbing down onto a promenade which apparently is the longest in Northumberland. At this point I suddenly developed really bad hayfever, and coupled with the sand off the beach blowing into my face, I actually thought my eyes were going to fall out of my head. I wanted to take some lovely photos of the promenade and the beach, however because my eyes had a larger volume of water streaming from them than was actually in the bleeding sea I didn’t take any.
As a result I missed a great chance to photograph the statue of Ebb and Flo (known as ‘The Couple’) standing out on a platform 300 yards out to sea in Newbiggin Bay (although you might just be able to make it out in the centre of the photo below). The twelve metre high sculpture features a couple who are staring out to sea and was erected in 2007 as part of a £10 million refurbishment scheme in the town, which also included 500,000 tonnes of new sand for the beach (imported from Skegness) and improvements to the promenade as part of a coastal protection scheme. The statue has not been massively popular with local residents although you will find a fair few people who travel from out-of-town just to come and see it. The statue has also not that popular with art critics, with one calling it “an eye wounding erection” which is a bit harsh in my opinion.
Newbiggin (meaning “new building”) itself was once an important maritime centre with evidence of fishing dating back to the 12th century and shipping activities dating back to the 14th century. In 1336 King Edward II ordered that all ships in the village belonging to the monarch should muster off the coast of Suffolk and be ready to fight against the Scots. The settlement was also an important grain port during the Middle Ages and was said to be third in importance behind London and Hull. The town is also home to the oldest operational lifeboat station in the country, having opened in 1851 following a disaster in which ten Newbiggin fishermen sadly lost their lives in stormy seas.
During the 19th century Newbiggin became popular with Victorian holidaymakers who were attracted by the pleasant beach here, resulting in the settlement developing as a holiday resort to accommodate the ever-increasing number of visitors. The promenade built in the 1930s brought even more people to the town as thousands flocked from nearby Newcastle and beyond to enjoy the new construction. Newbiggin’s popularity continues with 21st century visitors as on my visit that day the place was packed (and I mean packed) with day-trippers who were enjoying the warm weekend sunshine.
Newbiggin developed even further as a result of the sinking of a colliery in the town in 1908. At its peak in the 1940s the mine employed over 1400 men, a significant number of which had moved to Newbiggin with their families from out of the area. Unsurprisingly these new settlers needed new houses and facilities which soon sprang up, rapidly increasing the size of Newbiggin. The colliery closed in 1967, the loss of which would have been devastating to the local community, however the town had the added benefit of already being a developed resort which softened the impact a little.
I was soon reaching the end of the walk and with my eyes still red raw and streaming, I passed the town’s £3million Heritage Centre and climbed up onto the headland of Church Point. Church Point, unsurprisingly, has a church on it – St Bartholomew’s (below) – which dates back to the 12th century or possibly earlier. I sat on a bench on the headland for a little while just to bring my hayfever under control as I was sneezing and snotting like a madman. From what I could sea through my watery eyes, the view across the bay was very pleasant and it was a nice end to a walk which, I will admit, wasn’t the best coastwalk I’ve done so far but it did have its surprises which I will re-visit again one day.
http://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php?topic=308016.0 – Information about the ‘Infectious Diseases’ hospitals at Blyth.
http://www.eastbedlingtonpc.org.uk/page.php?id=18 – History of Bedlington and Cambois.
http://www.sixtownships.org.uk/memories-of-cambois–beyond.html – History of Cambois
http://www.newbigginbythesea.co.uk/history/hritage_trailx.html – History of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newbiggin-by-the-Sea – History of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea