On a familiar journey, familiar questions arise in the driver’s mind. Weren’t these roadworks here last time? How come this stretch warrants eight lanes? Is the OK Diner deliberately underselling itself? Would Boothby Pagnell be an acceptable pseudonym, and if so under what circumstances?
Those all belong to the first half of the drive from London to Northumberland. Towards the end, different questions present themselves. Are we at the Angel of the North yet?
That one feels poignant. Not so long ago, I’d have been throwing it at my kids in the back. Now that they’re all teenagers, the prospect of a family holiday at grandad’s is less alluring than a parentless week at home.
Once past Newcastle, I’m wondering when the single carriageway begins. By then it’s usually late afternoon, and the shadows are lengthening across the fields. After a day of multi-lane jockeying, the A1’s dwindling to one lane each way comes as a relief. Conurbations, motorways, madding crowds are way to the south now — at least as far as England goes. Incredibly, local businesses, unmoved by such considerations, have been lobbying for years to get the road widened here.
Less than an hour later — assuming I’ve come up with the right answer to “is this the turn-off?” — we’re at my dad’s. With news exchanged, tea drunk and bags stowed, I pose the first question of the holiday proper: is there time to go to the beach?
Let’s be clear: Warkworth Beach is not the reason for the journey. Blood is thicker than seawater. Yet I love this stretch of seashore, a brisk 20-minute walk from the village. After months of London and a day on the road, it is the perfect minimalist antidote: three miles of sand, bounded by dunes on the west side and by the grey-brown expanse of the North Sea to the east.
Back down south, in Sussex or Dorset or Cornwall, say, it would be a bona fide attraction, with all the tourist infrastructure and parking anxiety that implies. Here, it’s almost wilfully undersold, with a human population often in single figures, plus dogs. Coquet Island, a mile offshore to the south, becomes crowded, it’s true, but only with puffins and other seabirds. As your lungs suck down the sea air, your eyes can glut themselves on the sheer spaciousness.
Yet for all the simplicity of this landscape, you never get the same beach twice. The tide alone guarantees that. Once you’ve laboured your way through the soft sand of the access path between the grassy dunes, you’re faced either with the dismaying prospect of more of the same — because the tide is in, and you’re confined to the upper, uncompacted stretch of beach — or, if the sea’s out, with a huge expanse of flat firm sand that makes striding irresistible.
When it’s still at its wettest and the light is right, it’s like marching across a great mirror reflecting the sky. At other times, the light is less congenial. On a clear spring morning, with the sun not long up from the sea, it’s eye-smackingly brilliant, to the point of harshness. When there’s a haar, as a sea mist is called here, it’s a study in greys, so thick sometimes that your world shrinks to a chilly, muted bubble.
My younger son claims to love such mournful weather. I suspect this is a ruse to wind me up: he knows that my tastes are less subtle. Give me a sunset any day. Though the west coast gets the Turner-esque glory of a good one, on this side you can still see the clouds to the east catching the last long rays as night closes in. Sometimes only the tops of the clouds are lit, because the bases are below the horizon. How far out would you have to go to be under them? The sense of distance is palpable. Or am I protesting too much? But if you can’t see the sunset, you have to make the most of the un-sunset.
And if you have it to yourself, that’s not only because Northumberland is England’s least densely populated county (with 64 people per square kilometre, compared to more than 16,000 in parts of London). The climate also keeps the crowds at bay. Skegness, down on the Lincolnshire coast, is famously bracing, but it’s as close to the south coast resorts as it is to here. An east wind, fresh in from Scandinavia, is a safe working assumption. Always remember to take an extra layer.
Swimming, even in summer, is an exercise in pain management. When I first take the plunge, my collarbones ache as if the cold’s about to shatter them. After a minute or two of bobbing about in the gritty surf, the discomfort eases but I’m acutely aware of the need not to linger. Hypothermia is a real risk. When I emerge, I feel both invigorated and, if anyone else is in the vicinity, sheepish: masochistic tendencies are nothing to be proud of.
The last time I visited, in February, there was no question of swimming: it was punishingly cold and a stiff wind was whipping spray off the waves as they pounded in. Yet the weather can also be clement beyond belief, like a bully with a benevolent streak. I vividly remember walking on the beach with my eldest son a couple of years ago, on a day so hot it was delicious to dip our feet into the cool, clear river that marks the beach’s northern limit.
That’s the Aln, which finally flows into the sea here after rising in the Cheviot uplands some 20 miles to the west. On that particular day it looked just too tantalisingly deep to wade; had we crossed it, we’d have been on Alnmouth beach and could have resumed our walk for a good few miles more. Given energy and single-mindedness, we could have passed a string of castles — Dunstanburgh, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne just offshore — before fetching up 40 miles away in Berwick-upon-Tweed, right next to Scotland.
For centuries this was a militarised zone, as England and Scotland snatched the border back and forth; Berwick changed hands multiple times. The legacy is some gory ballads — the blood runs down “like rain” in “The Battle of Otterburn” — and a persuasive proposition for tourists. This part of the country is not underserved with castles: there are hefty ones too at Alnwick, the nearest market town, and Warkworth, both owned — and, in Alnwick’s case, lived in — by the Duke of Northumberland. Over the years I think we’ve done them all; for a while we had a secret armoury at home of wooden swords and longbows picked up in their gift shops and then hidden on the return to London. “Guaranteed to end in tears!”, as the packaging omitted to say.
Of the coastal trio, Dunstanburgh, a jagged ruin overlooking a rocky sweep of shoreline, is bleak and moody; the other two are just as impressively situated but feel tamer, having been refurbished into family homes by rich Victorians and Edwardians.
Lindisfarne — Holy Island — has a trump card, however, in the form of its priory, another scenic ruin, which marks one of the most important early Christian sites in the UK — St Cuthbert’s monastery, where the Lindisfarne Gospels were made, in about 700; the dizzyingly intricate manuscript is one of the British Library’s most treasured possessions. The fact that the island is accessible only via a causeway that is submerged at high tide adds to the sense of pilgrimage.
A different kind of history becomes apparent at the southern end of Warkworth beach. A long black-stone breakwater juts out into the sea. Beyond it is another river, the Coquet — another child of the Cheviots — and a small port, Amble.
The breakwater was built in the 19th century as Amble shipped ever greater volumes of coal from the local mines. Further down the coast is the town of Ashington, where the “Pitmen Painters” lived and where you can still see the ranks of terraced housing built by the coal companies.
Within living memory, this was a teeming industrial landscape, then a declining one (see the cult 1971 gangster flick Get Carter for that, filmed at nearby Blyth); now it’s emphatically post-industrial. Just outside Ashington is the excellent Woodhorn Museum, which until 1981 was the Woodhorn Colliery. It stands next to the Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, which used to be a spoil heap. If this leisure-oriented landscaping still feels a bit effortful, give it time: those immaculately picturesque castles nearby must once have looked as raw.
Meanwhile, on the beach, the coal era has never really gone away: the stuff washes up all the time, brought up either from undersea seams or tracts of colliery waste. Often it’s flat enough and dense enough to be ideal for skimming right back out again. Then days or months or centuries later it will be washed up once more.
Other material comes in too, especially in stormy weather: the usual plastic detritus, of course, but also chunks of timber, or tree boughs carried out by the Aln or the Coquet: handy fuel for seaside bonfires. In 1980, a German cargo ship ran aground here, and the thick lower plates of its hull are now one of the beach’s fixtures, jutting rustily out of the sand. It’s not the only man-made feature on this stretch: up towards the dunes is a line of tank traps, great concrete cubes that wouldn’t be out of place in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
But what draws my eye every time is the pebbles, scattered on the level sand as if to be showcased. Each tide delivers a new composition, as pristine a product of natural processes as a slew of rocks on a distant moon — an absolutely fresh creation for the delectation of the first passing dog-walker.
In mystical moments, possibly after an elevating G&T at my dad’s, I wonder if there’s a message to be deciphered there. “I am that I am”? “42”? Maybe it’s just “Visit Northumberland”. But I got that message a long time ago.
Where to stay
The Cookie Jar, Alnwick (above) This 11-bedroom boutique hotel was opened in 2017 on a cobbled street in the centre of historic Alnwick (where visits to the castle gardens and the vast second-hand bookshop Barter Books are a must). Housed in a former convent, it was created by Debbie Cook, whose husband Robert is the former boss of influential hotel chains Malmaison and Hotel du Vin. Doubles from about £150; cookiejaralnwick.com
Emble Cabins, Seahouses (below) Just inland from the village of Seahouses, and surrounded by the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a family farm has diversified into tourism, offering five “cabins” in the fields. They have canvas walls, but come with wood-burning stoves, bathrooms and beds for six. The owners offer farm tours and are good with recommendations on local art galleries, coffee and bookshops; during lockdown they have set up “Books by the Sea”, a network of five free libraries along the coast. Cabins from £440 for four days; emble.org
Eshott Hall, Eshott Six miles south of Warkworth Beach, Eshott Hall offers the classic country hotel experience in a 17th-century, wisteria-clad house, complete with landscaped grounds and a walled kitchen garden. There are also two self-catering cottages in the former stables. Doubles from about £150; eshotthall.co.uk
Lookout Cottage, Newton-by-the-Sea Built in 1822 as an anti-smuggling lookout station, this snug cottage is now owned by the National Trust. It sleeps four, but in one bedroom, so is probably best for a family with small children. Sea views are unrivalled. From £979 per week; nationaltrust.org.uk
Rennington House, Rennington Four miles from Alnwick, Rennington House is a Grade II-listed, six-bedroom Georgian farmhouse now available for self-catering rentals. It’s one of a range of properties available via agency Crabtree & Crabtree. From about £2,100 per week; crabtreeandcrabtree.com
St Cuthbert’s House, North Sunderland A former Presbyterian church built in 1810 has been converted into a multi-award-winning bed-and-breakfast. There are six bedrooms, a bar with its own house ale and breakfasts with local bacon, sausages and oak-smoked haddock. Doubles from £130; stcuthbertshouse.com
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