START: Amble, Northumberland
FINISH: Craster, Northumberland
DISTANCE: 15 miles
APPROXIMATE TIME: 7 hours (should have been 6 hours but I did have a nap in the middle of the walk)
MAP: OS Explorer 332
I was really looking forward to the next couple of walks up the Northumberland coast. Having completed the previous stretch from Amble to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in summer 2015 I was eager to see what further delights the Northumberland coast had in store for me. My plan was to book myself into a B&B somewhere on the Northumberland coast in September 2016 and walk the next 30 miles of the coast over two days.
I booked myself into the Cottage Inn in the tiny village of Dunstan, about a mile or so inland from the coastal village of Craster. I arrived in Dunstan on the Sunday afternoon, with the bus from Newcastle dropping me off almost right outside the B&B. (I don’t think the bus driver meant to, it was because I was determined to get off the bus no matter what). I had to wait a little while to check in as I had arrived too early and they were still cleaning my room. Following checking-in and dropping my bags off, I walked the short journey down into Craster village with a view to walking a little further up the coast to the magnificent Dunstanburgh Castle.
It was a great day for walking and so on having reached the castle I decided to keep going a bit further to see what I could find. I wasn’t disappointed. Past the castle and skirting around a golf course I soon came on to the gorgeous Embleton Bay. I spent about an hour on the Bay’s golden sands just taking in the sights and sounds. There were plenty of people on the beach, taking full advantage of the sunny weather and also trying to delay the unwelcome effects of having to return to normal life on the following day, a Monday. I was reluctant to leave Embleton Bay, however I knew I would be returning here in a couple of days when I would pass this way on the walk down the coast from Bamburgh so I wasn’t too disappointed.
The following day started off a bit drab and grey (like most Mondays do). Having wolfed down a bit of breakfast provided by the Cottage Inn, I jumped on the X18 bus from Dunstan and took the surprisingly meandering bus to Amble. About 40 minutes later I got off the bus, bought a bit of lunch from Sainsbury’s and worked my way to the quayside where I had started the last walk to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. Not surprisingly as it was a weekday, the town was a lot quieter and there were only a couple of people walking along the quayside. It was still a bit overcast and it looked like it could quite easily start to rain so I quickly made my way westwards along the quayside, passing the marina before joining the coastal road to Warkworth just outside of town. There were a few boats in the river to my right bobbing up and down in the waves.
On the road to Warkworth the sun came out and buoyed by its warming glow I soon made the short climb into Warkworth with its magnificent castle – the first of three I would see on this two-day trip. Dating back to the 12th century, the first castle was a wooden construction built by Henry, son of King David I of Scotland who owned the land at this time when Northumberland was ruled by the Scots. A more permanent stone building was built in the 1150s following the English King Henry II’s repossession of Northumberland. The lands were granted to Roger fitz Eustace whose son, Robert fitz Roger built many of the castle’s features which can be still seen today.
Due to its position near the border with Scotland, Warkworth Castle played an important role in the long-running war between England and Scotland, and in 1327 it was besieged by the Scots. Five years later, the castle passed into the hands of the increasingly powerful Percy family, soon to be titled the Earls of Northumberland. The Percys had a dramatic history whilst in charge of Warkworth Castle. The 1st Earl of Northumberland was involved in the disposal of King Richard II in 1399 and the accession of King Henry IV in his place. The Earl and his son, the famous Harry Hotspur soon got into a quarrel with the new King and after Harry Hotspur was killed in the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, the Earl joined an unsuccessful conspiracy to remove King Henry from the throne resulting in the King marching north and taking Warkworth Castle by force.
During the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, the 2nd and 3rd Earls supported the Lancastrian cause of King Henry VI, however both were killed in separate battles and the castle became a Yorkist stronghold, from which forces loyal to the House of York besieged the nearby Lancastrian castles of Alnwick, Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh.
Fast forward a century and the 7th Earl of Northumberland was involved in the Rising of the North in 1569 that sought to re-establish the Roman Catholic faith in England. It failed and the Earl was executed in York while the castle was pillaged by the Warden of the March (the border region between England and Scotland). The 9th Earl continued the family’s tradition of backing the wrong side by being linked to one of the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. He wasn’t executed but was arrested and imprisoned.
In the meantime over the centuries the castles had undergone various re-building programmes, however by the 17th century the castle was largely ruinous and it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the Percy family took an active interest once again in the castle, preferring to stay in nearby Alnwick Castle. The Great Tower was partially restored with rooms being made available for the Percy family who would entertain guests here until the 1980s. In the early 20th century the castle passed into the hands of English Heritage who maintain the site until the present day.
The village of Warkworth itself dates back even further beyond the origins of the castle. The village is first mentioned in 737AD when the Northumbrian King Ceolwulf granted the village along with its church (dedicated to St. Lawrence) to the monks of Lindisfarne.
Leaving the castle behind I followed Wellfield which soon joined on to The Butts next to the River Coquet. There was a nice seating area next to the flood wall so I sat down for a bit to catch my breath and take in the peace and quiet of the riverside. The sun was doing its best to try and get out from behind the clouds so to encourage it I set off on my way again and followed the river round to the old bridge across the Coquet.
Guarded by an ancient fortified gateway left) the old bridge dates back to the 14th century and is now used by pedestrian traffic only, having been superseded by a modern road bridge in the 1960s. I crossed along the old bridge ensuring that nobody was stood on top of the old gateway ready to puncture me with a couple of arrows. Immediately on the other side of the river a sign for the coastal path pointed me eastwards up a road which headed towards the beach.
Just before the beach the coastal path made a sharp left through the dunes, skirting by Warkworth Golf Course. Luckily with it being a Monday morning there were very few golfers about so I didn’t have to constantly be on the lookout for wayward golf balls. For the next mile and a half I didn’t get to see much apart from the greens of the golf course. The view of the beach and the sea were blocked by the dunes to my right so I got a wee bit bored on this stretch. After the golf course the coastal path followed a narrow track way through a small caravan park, rising enough out of the dunes so that I was able to get glimpses of the coast, before continuing its way through the dunes once again.
After another mile of further boredom I was started to get a bit annoyed with the walk as I wasn’t seeing much in the way of coastal scenery. The path soon came across a small car park and then followed a rough roadway back to the main coastal road. At this point I came across a permissive footpath which led me across a couple of fields to a group of farm buildings. I skirted round the farmhouse, gaining my first proper glimpse of Alnmouth across the other side of the River Aln, before the path joined a cycleway which followed the A1068 in a broad loop until I eventually crossed the Aln into Alnmouth. This is where the walk became really good.
Immediately after the bridge, there was another coastal path sign pointing me down a riverside path. I followed this for a little bit and soon came to a bench looking out across the estuary where I sat down to eat my lunch (tuna sandwiches and a Kit Kat in case you were wondering). I was hoping to rest here for at least half-an-hour but the wind was picking up and it was getting quite cold, so not long after munching on my sandwiches I was on my merry way again. The riverside path worked its way around the edge of the estuary for another couple of hundred yards before joining Riverside Road just past a children’s playground. I followed Riverside Road round to the southern tip of Alnmouth and from there I got a great view across the estuary to Church Island (below) and also Coquet Island situated further down the coast at Amble.
Church Island used to be connected to Alnmouth by a low lying neck of land with the River Aln running round its southern tip before emptying out into the sea. However, on Christmas Day 1806 a terrific storm caused the river to break through the neck of land, cutting off Church Island. Unsurprisingly Church Island has a church on it, or at least the ruins of one (built in the late 12th century), and a replica of an Anglo-Saxon cross. The original Saxon cross was discovered in 1789 and was believed to have dated from the late 9th/early 10th centuries. It is believed that Church Island was an important religious site for hundreds of years and that a Synod (an assembly of clergy) took place here in 684AD to elect a new bishop of Hexham. St Cuthbert was elected, however he didn’t want to leave his beloved Lindisfarne behind, so he was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne and somebody else got the Hexham gig instead.
Alnmouth has most likely been inhabited in some shape or form since the Bronze Age, however it wasn’t until the 12th century when it became prosperous as an important port exporting wool. As is normal with many places, the good times didn’t last and by the 13th century Alnmouth was well and truly in the doldrums thanks to a combination of bad weather impacting on harvests, Scottish raids (the village was raided and sacked in 1336) and the Black Plague in 1348.
Things didn’t improve until the 1600s when the Union of England and Scotland calmed the Border area down, allowing time and investment in the area to be made. Agricultural exports grew from Northumberland and Alnmouth found itself to be an important port once again, this time exporting grain to the burgeoning towns and cities in the South. Granaries were soon dotted around the village. History as its cycles and again the good times were superseded by the bad. By the 18th century the grain export industry had collapsed due to Alnmouth being unable to adapt to the changes in the industry – mainly being unable to accommodate the increasingly larger and bulkier ships in the shallow waters of the estuary.
Fortunately Alnmouth was saved from economic decline thanks to the development of the tourist industry from the late 19th century onwards. First wealthy families came to the village seeking peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the towns and cities, and then a few decades later the middle and working classes followed in their thousands, a trend which continues to this day. There were plenty of people out and about as I worked my way around the edge of Alnmouth before cutting across Alnmouth Golf Course (the public footpath sign said I could, I wasn’t trespassing…honest!). I soon reached a small car park and then the coastal path started to climb up the side of a hill. From here I was able to get some great views down the coast to Amble and beyond (below).
At the top of the hill, the path skirted around the edge of yet another golf course (and there are plenty of them along this part of the Northumberland coast) until it reached the clubhouse. From here the path cut across a fairway and I had to wait whilst someone took a shot and missed the green by a long way. I don’t think the golfer was happy when they turned round me and saw me grinning smugly.
Past the clubhouse I followed a track which led down on to the beach. As the tide was out I thought it would be easier to walk along the sands rather than follow the coastal path just off the beach. At the other end of the beach I followed the path off the sands and passed by a line of beach huts. The coastal path then worked its way around the edge of a small caravan park and an abandoned farm.
Following the caravan park the coastal path turned north and soon came to the lovely beach at Boulmer. The coastal path continued to follow the shoreline, however I decided to drop on to the beach just to the south of the village and take a little break of 10 minutes. That 10 minutes turned into an hour as due to a mixture of the warm weather and the tranquillity I ended up having an unexpected nap on the beach. In the middle of my sleep I could hear a chugging sound and on waking up with a start I could see a tractor slowly making its way from Boulmer village to the edge of the sea. The tractor chugged along until its front wheels were in the seawater where it stopped and waited as if it was looking for something out at sea. Soon enough a fishing boat came into view and even though it was approaching low tide, it managed to find a safe way through the rocks and into a deeper section of water where it anchored up. After a little while the two fishermen clambered off the side and into a small coble boat which was attached to the waiting tractor on the shore by a length of rope. A few minutes later the fishermen were safely back on shore with their day’s catch in hand ready to be processed and sold.
Shrugging myself awake, I set off along the beach and almost immediately I came across a large flat stone embedded in the sands marked with writing (right). The writing was the names of a group people who had scrawled on the rock back in 1909. I’d like to think that this group had enjoyed their time at Boulmer so much that they had inscribed their names (quite deeply) into the rock so that future generations would see this. I was tempted to scribe my own name in the rock as Boulmer was one of my favourite places along this section of the walk, however I thought it best that this rock should belong to this particular group of people so I kept going.
I followed the beach a little more until I clambered onto the dunes and then headed into the village of Boulmer itself. Boulmer (pronounced ‘Boomer’ which derives from an Old English name for ‘bulls mere’) remains one of the few traditional fishing villages on the Northumberland coast. The village was once a notorious centre for smuggling, particularly gin in the 18th and 19th centuries, much of it centred on the still existing Fishing Boat Inn. The landlord of the inn owned an armed smuggling lugger called the Ides which needed a large number of people to unload. So as to avoid the attention of the excise men on the prowl who would have been suspicious of a large group of men idly sitting about in a small village, the carriers hid in the dunes until the ships arrived from the continent.
Boulmer also has it’s own RAF base although the last time I checked they weren’t involved in smuggling. Originally established as a decoy airfield in 1940, RAF Boulmer became an active airfield in 1943 before being closed down once the Second World War had finished, and the land was returned back to agriculture. With the new threat from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a ground-controlled interception station was built near the site of the former airfield whose purpose was to detect any Soviet bombers that may be working their way across the North Sea to wreak havoc on the British mainland. In the 1970s RAF Boulmer took on an additional role as a search and rescue base and until 2015 it was a regular sight to see the bright yellow Sea King helicopters launching from the base to rescue people in need across Northern England and Southern Scotland. Nowadays the Sea Kings have gone, although the base still maintains its role as a monitoring station, scanning the skies for any threat to Britain and its allies.
Leaving Boulmer behind, I followed the Northumberland Coast Path on a track out of the northern end of the village. For the next couple of miles I passed a number of extraordinarily beautiful small coves including Howdiemont Sands and Sugar Sands. I crossed a small bridge over Howick Burn before continuing my way as the path wound its way along the clifftops.
Just path the bridge over the burn, there was a sign pointing to a remains of an ancient earthwork a little way inland. This is in fact is the remains of an Iron Age hill fort dating back 2,000-3,000 years ago. This is not the only ancient settlement along this stretch of the coast. A little further along the coast the remains of a substantial Mesolithic hut was discovered which was under threat from the erosion from the sea. Dating back to 7,800BC it is the oldest site of its kind in Northumberland and one of the oldest in Britain and was in use for about 100 years. Following the excavation, a replica of the hut was built only yards away from where the original Mesolithic hut lay. The replica is still in place, however I didn’t visit it as I wasn’t aware of its existence until I was writing this blog, so I will try and go back one day and have a look round.
After the historic sites the coastal path continues along the clifftops, coming within a couple of hundred yards of the tiny village of Howick. Beyond the village is Howick Hall, the ancestral home of the Earls Grey, the 2nd of whom created the world famous Earl Grey Tea. The tea was blended for the Earl by a Chinese mandarin to suit the water from the well at Howick by using bergamot to offset the taste of lime in it. Lady Grey served the tea in London to the rich and well-to-do who came to visit her and it proved so popular that Twinings went on to market it. The Greys never registered the trade mark for the tea and so have never made one single penny from it. In addition to making world famous tea, the 2nd Earl was also Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834 and was responsible for passing the Great Reform Bill which set in motion parliamentary reform that eventually led to modern British democracy.
It was started to get increasingly cloudier, and with the threat of potential rain I pushed on past Howick and followed the Northumberland Coast Path as its wound its away further along the clifftops. After a couple of miles I reached the edge of Craster village. The path followed a narrow passageway between the back of people’s gardens and the cliff edge. I soon passed through the beer garden of the Jolly Fisherman Inn before finally reaching the journey’s end at Craster’s picturesque harbour.
As I passed through the village, I could smell smoke and started to wonder if something was on fire. On closer inspection the smoke turned out to be pouring from a chimney from Robson’s Smokehouse where the smoking (or ‘curing’) of herring is carried out to produce the world famous Craster kippers, a tradition which has taken place in Craster since the mid-19th century. Robson’s Smokehouse is the only remaining smokehouse left in the village.
The village of Craster has changed location over the centuries. An Iron Age fort has been discovered on the Heugh to the west of the modern day village. In later centuries the village had moved a little westwards towards Craster Tower and remained here until the establishment of the modern day village. The present village dates back to the late 18th century and was built by George Craster whose family had lived in Craster Tower for centuries. Originally called Craster Seahouses it was built to provide homes for fishermen who would be closer to their place of work – the sea. Fishing boats still leave the harbour on a daily basis and there were a couple bobbing up and down in the waves as I got there.
As mentioned before I finished this day’s walk at Craster Harbour. I still had another mile to walk back to my accommodation at Dunstan, however for the moment I was content to look out across the harbour watching the fishing boats rise up and down in the waves. It had been a brilliant walk, well certainly from Alnmouth onwards it was. The walk was packed full of history – from ancient Iron Age forts to the medieval castle at Warkworth. As I looked out across to Dunstanburgh Castle standing magnificently in the distance, I know this would continue and I looked forward to the next day’s journey from Bamburgh back down to Craster. I hoped it would be an equally interesting walk.
http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/warkworth-castle-and-hermitage/history/ – History of Warkworth Castle
https://communities.northumberland.gov.uk/Warkworth.htm – History of Warkworth
http://www.bridgesonthetyne.co.uk/warkold.html – History of Warkworth Bridge
http://www.alnmouth.uk/Local/AlnmouthHistory.htm – History of Alnmouth
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boulmer – History of Boulmer
http://www.smuggling.co.uk/gazetteer_e_16.html – Smuggling in Boulmer
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_Boulmer – History of RAF Boulmer
http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/howick_eh_2012/ – Mesolithic hut at Howick
http://www.howickhallgardens.org/earlgreyhistory.php – History of Howick Hall and the 2nd Earl Grey.
http://www.crasterhistory.org.uk/- Very detailed website about the history of Craster