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Among dunes, across sandflats

Striding out along the Northumberland Coast Path – 64 miles of beaches, castles, golf courses and layers of history

William Fiennes | May/June 2013

The year’s first rain was falling on Druridge Bay. Hoping salt-laced North Sea gales would scour off the husk of the old year, I’d set out on New Year’s Day to walk the Northumberland Coast Path, 64 miles from Cresswell to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Early-morning dog-walkers ventured from the dunes under golf umbrellas, plastic arm-extensions hurling tennis balls for terriers and spaniels, a pair of lurchers splashing full-tilt through Blakemoor Burn. Towards Norway, the horizon wasn’t a line so much as a region in which one grey tone dissolved into another. I pulled my hood up, found the strip of compacted sand at the strandline, and pressed north.

Near Low Hauxley, a man in blue wool hat and waterproofs was digging something from the beach.

“What are you digging?” I asked.

“I’m not digging!” he said, abruptly.

No, he was collecting sea-coal to heat his greenhouse, shovelling black grit into a white bucket, a Jack Russell nosing a mound of kelp beside him. This sea-coal was eroded from coal measures outcropping underwater, or waste from abandoned coastal collieries.

“When I was young you used to get nuggets this size,” the man said, indicating with his hands. “But now it’s just this. Burns well enough, though. The sea brings it up. You get it for nothing.”

Among dunes, across sandflats, I sank into walker’s dreaminess, binoculars swinging across my chest with pendulum tempo, trance broken by the green, blue and yellow painted house-fronts of Lovaine Terrace above the estuary at Alnmouth, the smell of oak-smoked kippers from the L. Robson & Sons smokehouses in Craster, thin chimneys of holiday cabins poking above the dunes like snorkels. And there were birds: oystercatchers, ringed plover and redshanks frisking the wave-reach for worms and crustaceans; stonechats on bracken stalks; curlews picking among crumpled Strongbow cans on the approach to Amble.

I met the first golf course at Warkworth, and after that they came with such frequency I imagined the entire country hemmed with fairways. I thought of Vikings making their Northumbrian incursions, marvelling at the way Britons had elevated mowing above all other disciplines.

The seven golf clubs between Cresswell and Berwick, links courses whose swells and bunkers took their cue from the dunes, became part of the walk’s rhythm, like the low-lying islands—Coquet, Farne, Holy—and the castles rising in the distance: Warkworth, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh. The names of footpaths and tea-rooms remembered seventh-century saints—Oswald, Aidan, and Cuthbert, who retreated to his hermitage on Inner Farne. And each day I was grateful to bed-and-breakfast landladies: Julie leaving a chocolate on the pillow; Janice an evangelist for the large grapefruit-relative called pomelo; Anne replenishing the dish of Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs on the tea tray. In the lounge of the Blue Bell in Belford, a local musician, Sheila McQuittie, embarked on a piano marathon, improvising non-stop for six hours to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, an alarm clock ticking at the treble end of the keyboard.

The sun sank behind the East Coast Main Line; the lighthouses on Inner Farne and Longstone began their sequences, one flash answered by another as if in conversation. The days were unseasonally mild, muffled by low, unbroken cloud. I kept waiting for fresh, renewing winds, gathering speed from Scandinavia. I walked through Dughall Dunes and Annstead Dunes, past pill boxes and the concrete blocks of Churchill tank traps. I drank Tyneside Light Ale, Hadrian & Border’s "Farne Island", a pint of Dolly Daydream at the Ship Inn in Low Newton. I ate cheese-and-pickle rolls in the bird hide overlooking Newton Pools, where pairs of mallard and goldeneye slept like decoys of themselves. After Bamburgh, the path turned inland into the Kyloe Hills, and you could look out towards Holy Island, cars plying the causeway like Scalextric cars.

My legs were aching on the last stretch to Berwick. It was almost dark. Near Cheswick Black Rocks, behind the dunes, two barn owls were hunting. I froze and tracked them through binoculars, white underparts showing as they banked and rolled. One of the owls perched on a fence-post. The other swooped low over tussocks of marram and lyme. High above, Brent geese in chevron formation flew into Scotland on the half-light. I could hear myself breathing. The owls, the geese, the sea going on beyond the dunes: this was enough. I didn’t think about the time. It was already night when I walked into Spittal and crossed Old Bridge over the Tweed.

Pictured The view across the bay to Bamburgh Castle

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