Northumberland Coast AONB
Familiarity does not always breed contempt. It is hard to imagine tiring of the photographers’ favourite: Bamburgh Castle commanding its shore. Viewing this impossibly beautiful scene, it’s easy to believe the tale that this was Camelot. But there’s more – much more. The Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, between Berwick and the Coquet estuary, is 39 miles of sandy panoramas divided by stark headlands alive with chattering seabirds. And even on a hot summer day, most of these sublime places are almost deserted. Along the way are little fishing harbours with pubs, restaurants and art studios offering a haven to travellers wearied by the fresh sea air.
Just off the coast nine miles south of Berwick and cut off twice a day by the tide is the cradle of Christianity in England, the enormously atmospheric Holy Island of Lindisfarne. This was home to Saint Aidan and then Saint Cuthbert, over whose tomb Durham Cathedral was built. Creatures great and small find this area just as congenial as people do. Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is internationally important and the wintering place of six rare species of wildfowl and wading birds – pale-bellied brent geese from Spitzbergen in Arctic Norway, pinkfooted and greylag geese, widgeon, grey plovers and bar-tailed godwits.
Nearby are the rocky Farne Islands, famed for their grey seals and 100,000 pairs of nesting seabirds, such as puffins and four types of tern. From Seahouses, a few miles down the A1, boats make the 30-minute outward trip with visitors, who can land on Inner Farne and the more rugged Staple Island between April and October.
At high tide about half the 28 islands vanish beneath the waves, creating a shipping hazard. It was from the Longstone rock that Grace Darling and her father William rowed out to save shipwrecked sailors from the Forfarshire in 1838. The wreck-strewn area is popular with divers and also with sea kayakers. The whole coast is a playground which attracts enthusiasts of pursuits such as windsurfing, kitesurfing, sand yachting, sailing, angling, swimming, horse riding, cycling and bird watching as well as photography and painting or just a quiet stroll. Their numbers have had one curious effect – cars heading home from Holy Island have spread salt-loving plants on coast road verges south for about 40 miles. Each Wednesday from late July until the end of August there will be a guided walk on a section of the Northumberland Coast Path for several hours with an expert such as a botanist or bird specialist. The coast has two national nature reserves – Lindisfarne and the Farnes – and 12 sites of special scientific interest. Although there is a marine reserve immediately north of the border, the Heritage Coast begins officially at Berwick. This beautiful port town is famous for having changed hands between English and Scots 13 times and it retains shades of both, including the local accent, which has a more Scottish lilt than elsewhere in Northumberland. So, it is little surprise that the salmon river Berwick straddles, the Tweed, is Scottish though part is in England.
Approaching from the south via Tweedmouth gives an exciting preview of the towering Royal Border Bridge, which carries Robert Stephenson’s East Coast rail line high above the water. Berwick’s other two bridges are roads, one a red sandstone structure dating from 1626.
Elizabeth I spent a fortune giving Berwick its most distinctive feature – the stout defensive walls which still encircle the town. Seahouses is a lively tourist venue and fishing port – though boat numbers have declined over the decades – that prides itself on its fish and chips. Close by is Beadnell, the only East Coast harbour with an entrance facing west. It has historical lime kilns and is a busy spot where water sports enthusiasts converge. Embleton is a pleasant village which takes its name from the undulating whinstone ridge sheltering it from the sea. Emeldune means hill of the caterpillar. Born here was WT Stead, campaigning journalist who died on the Titanic. Low Newton, a picturesque 18th century fishing village on the edge of the beach, is owned by the National Trust. In the square is the Ship Inn with what is said to be England’s most northerly micro brewery. Newton Pool bird reserve is nearby. Views south to ruined Dunstanburgh Castle are superb.
At the other side of the brooding castle is the popular fishing village of Craster, noted for its kippers and crab sandwiches.
Howick Hall was the home of Earl Grey and has an acclaimed garden that opens to the public. Greys have lived at Howick since 1319 and the 2nd Earl – honoured with Grey’s Monument in Newcastle – is the most famous of them. He was Whig prime minister when the Great Reform Bill of 1832 was passed to begin far-reaching improvements to the voting system. Earl Grey tea was blended by a Chinese mandarin who added bergamot to balance the lime-rich well water at Howick. Because the family failed to register the trade mark, they have made no royalties. Howick is also one of the country’s most ancient settlements, an excavated Mesolithic house being dated to 8000 BC. On the rocky shore are the boiler and some keel plates from the French steam trawler Tadorne, which ran aground there in 1913. Five crew who died are buried at the Hall. Boulmer’s name is derived from the word for gin, as befits the smugglers’ haven it once was. Today’s drinking is done in the beach-edge Fishing Boat Inn, rescued from closure by the Duke of Northumberland. In other respects the community is pretty self-sufficient. When the RNLI left, the village set up its own lifeboat service.
Alnmouth used to be a busy port, used by the Romans to export corn and bring in troops. In 684 AD Northumbrian king Egfrid, with nobles and a bishop, sailed from a synod here to Lindisfarne and managed to persuade Cuthbert to return with them as their bishop. A century later, Viking raiders camped at Alnmouth. The community was impoverished by raids from Scotland, but peace allowed the grain trade to grow again. A road was built between Alnmouth and Hexham for this purpose. Naturally the smuggling trade grew too, prompting preacher John Wesley to declare the village “famous for all kinds of wickedness”. On Christmas Day 1806, the River Aln diverted to the north of Church Hill in a storm. Warkworth, a quiet village on the River Coquet and with a sandy beach, is dominated by the remains of its castle, which is mentioned in Shakespeare. The AONB designation ends at Amble, a Victorian harbour town and local shopping centre with new houses around the fringe. Coquet Island, a mile off Amble, is a former monastic cell, now an RSPB reserve that hosts 35,000 seabirds in summer. It has 90% of the UK’s population of roseate terns, one of our rarest sea birds. Around the next headland is the six-mile sweep of Druridge Bay, frequently deserted but for diving terns, sand martins, oyster catchers and the like. Nearby is Druridge Bay Country Park with 100-acre Ladyburn Lake, used for dinghy sailing. An area of ponds draws many birds, including at times some exciting rarities blown in by severe weather. The northernmost nesting avocets in the UK have taken up residence here. More info: Find out more about the Northumberland Coast and accommodation by contacting the closest Tourist Infomation Centre, which is at Alnwick, on 01665 511333. Where is the Northumberland Coast? See our Northumberland map. Stay: Find accommodation on the Northumberland coast. Hostels near the Northumberland Coast. Travel: How to get to the Northumberland Coast.