Discover Northumberland’s castle coast

One embattled, Northumberland's seasides are now a secluded haven of sandy dunes, fishing villages, rare birdlife and huge beaches. Still ruling the scene are the majestic castles that defend the region, says Gemma Hill

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Lindisfarne Castle crowns a flat of grey igneous rock on the southern tip of Holy Island in the most appealing of ways, seeming to emerge naturally from the dolerite rather than being built on top of it. Many daytrippers head directly for the impressive Tudor fortress and nearby 12th-century priory on reaching the isle; very few instead head north.

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Beyond, where farmland slips beneath rolling dunes, is a string of remote sandy bays unknown to most who come here. When I visit Lindisfarne, this is where I begin my tour of the island. Despite the initial slog on soft sand, it’s a rewarding route for the orchids growing rampantly here in summer; the sage, lemon and oyster-shell hues of the land; the sight of migrant short-eared owls quartering over the sandy hillocks in autumn; the absence of an official path and sea seen through dips in the dunes.

The last time I circumnavigated the island- a five mile long walk- it was a sunny Sunday in September. I set foot over the thick belt of sandy grassland and, though it can’t have been more than 15ºC, I had to stop to remove my coat and jumper. By now my shoes and socks were covered in the barbs of pirri pirri bur- an invasive plant that’s almost impossible to avoid. I descended through a cut in the dunes that opened onto an expanse of pale and unblemished by footprints; ahead, the North Sea, like a sheet of tin foil even on the brightest of days, glinted under a sharp midday sun. I was the only person on this nameless beach. 

I crossed the length of the bay and then climbed back up onto the top of the dunes and followed a sandy tack onto the next expanse of sand. Again, no one but me. After walking alone for almost an hour, I met a couple eating sandwiches in the far north east island, their faces tilted to the sun. Their view was achingly beautiful: all sea, rocks and castle. Beyond the Farne Island archipelago, the grey silhouette of Bamburgh Castle was just visible through the haze. When I’m back in South London, where I live most of the years these days, I dream of this view when I want to block out the concrete and complicated scenery of the city.

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Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast/Credit:Getty

Capture the Castle

There are more astounding panoramas like this in Northumberland where the beach, sky, sea and castle come together in a perfect photographic frame- all of them concentrated between Warkworth and Lindisfarne. here there are four castles in 20 miles (five, including Alnwick Castle a few miles inland) making Northumberland, in the words of architectural historian, Nikolas Pevsner, “the English castle county par excellence”. 

They are all distinctive- and terrifically romantic. Bamburgh and Alnwick are filled with riches; Warkworth and Dunstanburgh were abandoned long ago and now stand with their stone ribcages exposed to the wind and sea fret. 

Collectively they tell of a deeply insecure region ravaged for 300 years from the 14th century by clan warfare and clashes with the Scots. “Northumberland had to go on building strongholds long after the rest of England had changed over to the more comfortable manor house,” says Pevsner.

He wasn’t just referring to the big five (all the aforementioned castles), but the county’s large number of other fortified buildings. Embattled tower houses with vaulted ground floors, slit windows and five-foot-thick stone walls crop up in a few places along the coast: at Craster, Cresswell and, most impressively, a couple of miles inland from Seahouses, Preston. Its namesake castellated tower, built between 1392 and 1399, is memorable not just because there are few towerhouses like this open to the public but also for its clock mechanism (a Victorian addition) and huge bell, both of which you can view close up. It’s bone-rattling stuff when the bell chimes on the hour and fantastically thrilling for children and adults alike. 

Original Defences

But back to the big five. The walls of Alnwick and Bamburgh have been tested many times and connoisseurs of trivia will delight in knowing that Bamburgh was the first castle in England to fall cannon fire (when besieged by Richard Neville, Earl of Warick in 1464, during the Wars of the Roses) and the Alnwick’s barbican is said to be one of the most intact of any castle of its era in England, but the smaller architectural details intrigue me just as much. Surmounting Alnwick’s walls are little stone figures that may look decorative but, from a distance, give the appearance of a well-guarded fortress. And inside Bamburgh is a particularly curious doorway: it’s unusually tall and shaped like a wine bottle- just the right shape to allow a soldier on horseback to enter the fortress swiftly without dismounting. How’s that for style?

Lutyens, Jekyll and Hudson

Where Bamburgh and Alnwick exude power and wealth (Alnwick Castle particularly opulent, holding paintings by Titian and Canaletto and what are said to be some of the most valuable piece of furniture in the world), Lindisfarne Castle is altogether more modest- but no less alluring. Edwin Lutyens remodelled the interior in the Edwardian ear under the instruction of the then editor of Country Life  magazine, Edward Hudson, creating bedrooms within cambers and adding his trademark herringbone design to the brick floors in the corridors. Outside, a small walled garden planted in 1911 is filled with a profusion of flowering plants and herbs. It’s the work of gardener Gertrude Jekyll, who transformed the site of an old vegetable garden that once supplied produce to soldiers in the castle. 

Blyth Spirit

Those coastal settlement with a castle are the most popular with tourist, but to get a feel for the industrial heritage of Northumberland’s seaboard, you need to head south. The first place to stop is Woodhorn museum near Ashington, which recalls the fascinating history of coal mining in this area. 

Ashington itself is not really somewhere many visitors venture and neither are nearby Blyth, Newbiggin-by-Sea and Amble but they are home to sone intriguing unsung buildings. Have you ever seen a lighthouse in a black lane? Neither had I until I came across an 19th-century beacon in Blyth’s Bath Terrace while taking the car for a walk along the coast road. I was pleased to discover, while at an exhibition in Berwick last year, that the lighthouse had caught the eye of L S Lowry. The painter in particularly well known in Northumberland for capturing Berwick’s landscape and buildings, but Blyth? I did wonder what Lowry was doing in the town but perhaps, like me, he had also just gone for a wander one day. 

Unsung Heroes

Newbiggin’s lifeboat station is also worth seeking out (as is the nearby modern Maritime Centre). It’s the oldest operational boathouse in Britain, established in 1851, boathouse in Britain, established in 1851, and houses maritime artefacts as well as a fine collection of old tractors. And even workday Amble, a former coal-exporting port that sits under the distant gaze of Warksworth Castle, has its charms. The tourist board cheerfully describe the place “a retro-chic seaside town”. It’s not quaint in the way that nearby Alnmouth is with its row of pastel-coloured houses and creamy sands, or Craster, where a cluster of cottages sits snug to the harbour and famous smokehouse, but there’s history in Amble, a solid community, some good seafood restaurants and a refreshing lack of second-home-owners from Newcastle. 

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Warkworth Castle/Credit:Getty

I went for a nosy around the streets by the harbour one afternoon where mounds sheds and lobster pots were stacked three or four high, and came across two shapely old cobbles in a back lane. Traditional fishing cobbles are peculiar to the north east and were once a very familiar sight. The clinker built boat is said to have Viking origins, though the claim without much evidence. What I am certain of is that Amble is home to one of the best fish suppers in Northumberland. Harbour Chippy is up there with the likes of Pinnacles in Seahouses or Carlo’s of Alnwick.

Lindisfarne to London

Leaving Lindisfarne with my window down I inhaled a final shot of sea air and fixed in my head the sight of curlews dabbling in the shallows by the roadside, the sunshine dancing on the mudflats and the distant warning beacon of Ross Back Sands (a glorious 3 mile deserted beach on the mainland). Six hours later while waiting for a bus outside King’s Cross Station, I looked down at my trainers, still covered in pirri pirri seeds, and took quiet pleasure in spreading a little bit of the Northumberland coast onto London’s streets. 

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Main image: Getty