A pilgrimage to Northumberland

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April 18th 2015
Published: May 12th 2016
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Viking Raiders, Pilgrims and English Castles

April 2015

It’s a pilgrimage really. Not in any way religious you understand, but none-the-less a cleansing of the mind; a refreshing contrast to the endless routines of daily life: the going to bed and wakening to the clock, shaving yesterday’s stubble from the same sleepy face staring back at me in the same mirror, the washing-up at the same sink with the same mundane thoughts as yesterday and the day before and the day before that.

It’s a pilgrimage to wide open skies and endless beaches, to boats and islands and castles, and rolling hills, green with the first flush of spring.

It’s a pilgrimage to puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags and terns, which return here each year from far and wide - for love.

It’s a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Aidan, who found peace and tranquility here on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne when he first arrived there in 635AD.

It’s a pilgrimage to dramatic hilltop castles and the enigmatic Farne Islands, in that delightfully quiet county of Northumberland.

Sandwiched between England to the south and Scotland to the north, this green and pleasant region has seen its share of conflict over the centuries: from frequent skirmishes with the Scots, to invasion by plundering Vikings as far back as 793 AD, continuing through to the eighth century. The Vikings arrived the moment we set foot on the seemingly endless sandy beach, having just dodged immigration on the border by arriving by long-boat and thundering down the beach on horseback towards towering Bamburgh Castle a little way to the south, hoping no doubt to catch the guards unawares. We're pleased to report that we were single handedly responsible for repelling this particular invasion with a nine iron and a 3 wood and it is now safe for future Travel-bloggers to visit. The film crew shooting scenes for the TV series featuring that much feared invader, Beowulf, have now left and were last seen heading for the cutting room!

We came to Northumberland by motorhome once again, just for a short break from routine and that all important Puffin experience. At 6.5m, Bertie, our trusty motorhome, comes with all mod-cons. It's large enough for comfort, yet small enough to use as a conventional car, but there is a good, regular 'Traveline' bus service available to get you around the coastal area for much of the year should the need arise. Our first camp site at Dunstan Hill was conveniently situated near the coast road not far from Dunstanburgh Castle - and some great walking country. Later that week we moved on a few miles to Beadnell, another site we know well, now sporting grand new facilities and a little closer to Seahouses for the most spectacular birding experience on Inner Farne, Bamburgh Castle to check out the local walking and perhaps Embleton for a leisurely game of golf if it gets too hot for strenuous walking.

The Scots have fought shy of any hand-to-and combat with the English since their last battle, which ended with victory for England in a penalty shoot out between King James IV of Scotland and the Earl of Surrey at Flodden Field in 1513. Rather like David Cameron’s efforts within the EU which will come to a head any day now, the Scots are currently trying to renegotiate the outcome of the union of the English and Scottish Crowns in 1603.

Northumberland boasts over 70 castle sites and has more castles than any other county in England, though many were not built as fortresses, but rather, more extravagant homes. We have visited many of them over the years: Dunstanburgh, Berwick, Bamburgh, Alnwick, Warkworth all worth a visit, and of course the enchanting, Lindisfarne, still my favourite amongst them all. Lindsfarne is perched dramatically on a rocky head on Holy Island, set on a shimmering seascape under vast skies and reached only at low tide, just twice each day. An all too brief stay rewarded us with searing images of stranded boats at rest on lonely shores and gleaming mudflats swept by an onshore breeze gathering strands of dusty cloud across an endless pale sky. It was that no doubt which captured the heart of St Aidan, an Irish monk from the monastery of St.Columba he founded on the island of Iona. As with much of Northumberland, Holy Island has drawn artists and writers to its heart over the centuries, joined today by enthusiastic photographers and energetic walkers to share its delights. We have been here many times before - too many to count and we'll surely be back again ere long. Those of you with strong legs might care to undertake the challenge
Barter BooksBarter BooksBarter Books

.....and trains too!
of the Pilgrims Way and Northumberland Coastal Path and St Cuthbert’s Way, a mere 65miles from Melrose in Scotland out to the west and Holy Island.

The Romans came this far north too and in 122AD emperor Hadrian and his merry men started to build a mighty wall stretching the eighty miles from the River Tyne in the east to Solway Firth on the Irish Sea in the west. Speculation of the origins of this immense undertaking differs between an attempt to separate the Romans from the barbarians (the Scots), to Hadrian's policy of defence before expansion. They never did venture further north, and finally as becomes all Empires, they called it a day, packed their bags and headed back where all roads lead.

The Grey-Haired-Nomads could well be considered creatures of habit. We're never likely to venture this far north without sampling Fish and Chips as only northerners know them - and where better than in the coastal 'tourist centre' of Seahouses. And if it's Seahouses then it has to be for the boats in the stone-walled harbour and a very special trip out to The Farne Islands. Billy Shiels have been running ferries out to the Farne Islands since 1918, giving visitors access to these mesmerisingly beautiful remote rocky sanctuaries for nesting sea birds each spring and grey seals lolling around on shore and bobing up and down like a fisherman’s float in the wash of a gentle tide. You might imagine our urge to savour the sight of thousands of diving Gannets, the sound of screeching Terns, the dazzling colours of the nesting Shags and Cormorants, the stiff-winged flight of the graceful Fulmar - share in the romance of pairing Kittiwakes and put hand on heart at the gravelly croak of the Puffins, so close you can almost touch them. But be sure to wear a hat - those delicate Terns will surely peck your head if you venture too close.

I guess if you're young enough to publish a blog, you're also of an age to understand the workings of IPads and Kindles and not too old to understand how to switch them on. We share both, but we do still prefer the touch of paper, the turning of pages and an old fashioned book-mark with a lighthouse or a puffin printed on the top. Take a moment if you will, to revisit the panoramas at the top of the page and you'll see a snippet of my own bookshelf - which might also give a clue or two to our appetite for travel! And if, like us, you adore books and are a lover of toy trains to-boot, a visit to Barter Books at the old Alnwick Railway Station is a must. It's a mind-blowing experience suited to all lovers of the written word, from seasoned readers for pleasure and learning, to the more serious 'collector' of books - and the gift of model trains whirring around overhead is a delight to remember forever. A nice spot for a cup of tea too!

Northumberland remains a little secret to us. We'll never tire of it. It's rare to discover more than a few people, there are magnificent walks along great strands of deserted sandy beaches and high into the Cheviot Hills inland. The sparkling, shallow coastal horizons and huge skies will delight you, the scented gorse in bloom, spring lambs on the hillsides, the champaign bubbling call of skylarks above and the warbling call of a passing Curlew are not to be missed.

It's strange isn't it? We don't like to think of ourselves as 'tourists'. They're those people who crowd the hot-spots and clutter the beaches and footpaths when all you want is peace and quiet aren't they? Time perhaps for a re-think. Janice has treated me to a rather fine print of Lindisfarne, which she purchased secretly on the island whilst my back was turned. 'Sometimes you just have to, don't you? She said. It now hangs in the hall to remind us to return.

David and Janice

The Grey Haired Nomads

Additional photos below
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13th May 2016

A county I've missed....
...not 'missed' as in 'been there, done that, want to go back' but as in 'I've been to lots of places but not been there, not done that'. The nearest I've been to Robson Greene's Northumberland was, for many years in a previous life, organising holidays abroad for a lady who lived inside Bamburgh Castle. Her name was Miss Norah Balls (how could I forget a name like that?!) and she lived in the Crewe Lodgings there. She used to go to places where the sun always shone! P.S. Did you intentionally censor the picture of the Romantic Kittiwakes? :0)
13th May 2016

One you've missed!
Not many places you haven't been Mike! I noticed the cut-off kittiwakes myself only yesterday - I'll check it out and try again. It's not censored! Keep smiling! Big Bro
13th May 2016

Next time up there
Next time up there, try to find time to look at the magnificently steepled parish church at Cullercoats - on the coast road just north of Tynemouth. Better still if you can hear the fine tones of the lovingly kept Lewis organ therein. And best of all if you can find a local fisherman to sing to you the folk song "The Cullercoats Fish Lass" - accompanied by the Northumbrian pipes! Wow!!
13th May 2016

Hi Keith and Hilary, Good to hear from you. Aylsham is not that far away, but we rarely stray that way these days. We'll try to hook yup with you when next we venture to Cromer or Sheringham. Sadly we're never in one place long enough to enjoy all that is on offer, but we do have fond memories of Northumbrian pipes. I seem to remember we gave a CD of pipe music to my brother-in-law many years back - he's a folk singers, still singing at his club at 85! Our time is spent between golfing, gardening, painting, writing, travelling and all things so important in life, but the motorhome will only get an airing now-and-again this year as Janice is Ladies' Captain and up to her ears in golfing, social and all things golfie. We hope to see you soon and that all is well in the Shaw household. We could still move your way one day - Gate Lodge is somewhat challenging these days. Any land for sale near town? Best wishes, David and Janice
16th May 2016
Ahh! The one and only Puffin.

One of my favorite birds.
16th May 2016
Ahh! The one and only Puffin.

We have them all over the house: wooden ones, ceramic ones, paintings, prints, stuffed ones..........! 'Lovely' as we say here in this little country. Janice has to have her annual fix of puffins! David

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