Travel: A week in Northumberland
It’s no surprise that the coast of Northumberland is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
I feel conflicted telling you about it if you’ve never been. This is because it’s the kind of place you want to keep to yourself, to preserve the beauty and tranquillity of the landscape. On the other hand, you want to share how wonderful it is and encourage people to witness the other worldliness of the area.
“Don’t be telling everyone about it,” my husband just chipped in.
It’s not as if I’m a pioneer, mind. This part of the world has been featured on television by the Hairy Bikers who were filming six years ago when my brother and his family were there, and, more recently, by Robson Green as he kayaked to Coquet Island to see the puffins.
As we were about to leave for a week’s break, we were saddened to learn that, according to the National Trust, puffin numbers are in decline on the Farne Islands, off the coast of Seahouses. Some headlines suggested the squat seabirds, with their distinctive markings, could go the same way as the dodo and become extinct. This is unimaginable – the puffins are part of the fabric of this land. They feature on postcards, in the soft toys at the National Trust shop and on the prints of the area.
We didn’t make it to the Farnes this year, but in previous years we’ve caught the Serendipity from Seahouses which tours neighbouring islands and the bird life before landing on the small jetty. Running the gauntlet of protective Arctic terns guarding their nests as you nip to the church is an unforgettable experience. Top tip: take a hat. One of the birds drew blood after dive-bombing and pecking the top of my husband’s head. The National Trust shop does a roaring trade in baseball caps.
The puffins nest in burrows on the island and potter about, almost as if they know how photogenic they are. Like a bumble bee, they look ridiculous when in flight and even more so when they come in to land.
We stayed, as we’ve done every year, at Low Newton-by-the-Sea, near Seahouses. The view from the only road into the hamlet is spectacular – to your right the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle and in front of you, the full splendour of the beach and sea.
“Look at the view,” we all chime in unison. You can always spot the first-timers coming to a halt as they approach the crest of the hill, to drink it all in, oblivious to the prone vehicles stuck behind them.
Our cottage was behind the popular gastropub The Ship Inn. It serves food Wednesday to Saturday, but you must book well in advance as it has a small number of covers. The menu changes each night but always dishes up fresh fish and a range of locally-sourced meat. They do not serve chips.
At the back of The Ship, there is a wetland which is a haven for avian life. We saw a heron, and there was talk of a rare sandpiper being spotted which led to a flutter of twitchers descending. I may have alarmed one by enquiring: “What fancy bird is in town?” The bird hide attracts people of all ages, from young children right up to pensioners.
A few miles away, as the estuary of the River Coquet loops round, is the increasingly cool village of Alnmouth.
Last time I visited, I didn’t appreciate the splendour of the place. It has an art gallery in the old school house with street food (inevitably) served in the old playground from a quirky van. There was an exhibition of local artists’ work on with a selection of styles and seascapes. They sell pottery, books, cakes and coffee, too, and have an online shop.
A recent addition is Scott’s deli on the main street. We spotted artworks from the gallery in there. It is a clean, modern space which has food as delicious as the surroundings. The owner, Andrew, is friendly and passionate about food. I returned on consecutive days to have the salmon tartine on sourdough with the fish marinated in beetroot and apple juice for two hours. Such was the level of service, Andrew brought out a pot of the marinade to show me. My husband said it was the best ever coffee he’d drunk and so it’s fair to say we’d recommend it.
On another day, we walked through the mist from Howick Hall to Low Newton to burn off the delicious cream tea we’d consumed. The eight-and-a-half-mile walk took us three-and-a-half hours. The ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, usually visible for miles, were shrouded in mist until it finally revealed itself when we were about 10 metres away.
Pausing only in Craster village (where they smoke herring to make kippers) for a restorative coffee, it’s a walk that works well in fine weather or drizzle. We saw people jumping off cliffs into the sea, as part of an organised activity, and loads of other walkers.
We visited Barter Books in Alnwick on a sunny day (it was unusually quiet). Lunch there was hearty and fresh. The second-hand bookstore is converted from the old railway station which was axed due to Beeching cuts in the 1960s. It was where the owners famously discovered the Keep Calm and Carry On Poster that spawned a thousand imitations on mugs and tea towels across the land.
I’d go back in a heartbeat. It’s well worth the four-hour road trip every time.
Main image by Phil Pounder
Helen and her family stayed at One East Shore Cottage with Northumbria Cottages. The Ship Inn is in Low Newton by the Sea. Howick Hall is open to the public on most days. Barter Books has parking outside, but it gets busy on rainy days. If travelling to the Farne Islands, it’s worth booking as far in advance as possible.
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