Known for its mighty castles and lighthouses, the Northumberland coast is great for exploring by car, boat or on foot. RICHARD BRYSON stays in beautiful Bamburgh and seeks out a memoriam for a descendent on Holy Island.
Originally this was to be a paean to Northumberland’s “undiscovered coast”, an area rich in history and interesting places to visit but not one usually congested with tourists.
So what’s changed? Staff at Holy Island’s museum put it down to Covid, with the difficulties or bans on travelling abroad necessitating a switch to exploring Britain’s countryside. England’s north east coast became a relatively ‘new’ attraction for many.
“We even had people from Cornwall choosing to holiday here as their own county was becoming too busy in the summer,” was one comment.
This increase in footfall was noted by other people I talked to in and around Bamburgh but it doesn’t detract from it being a lovely place for a holiday or short break. It remains a coast with drama; all those majestic castles and a rocky shoreline.
Anyone with an imaginative nature can half close their eyes, scan the sometimes brooding horizons and picture the dreaded sight of Viking longships heading for shore. These Norsemen attacked nearby Lindisfarne/Holy Island in 793, and pillaged Bamburgh in 993, though the latter was always under Anglo-Saxon rule.
Our base for a short stay was a superb holiday cottage within a 20-minute walk of Bamburgh, the royal capital of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. It’s a delightful walk too; when we visited it was along fieldside footpaths and through a hillside pasture full of sheep and gambolling lambs.
The village’s castle is almost always in view and is well worth your time. From being an impenetrable Norman stronghold it became home to a succession of kings (Henry VI to James I) and the first castle in England to fall to gunpowder in the Wars of the Roses.
Nowadays this mighty clifftop structure is home to the Armstrong family who have turned it into a multifaceted tourist attraction. Within its walls is the Armstrong and Aviation Museum celebrating the pioneering innovations of William Armstrong and his Elswick Works on Tyneside.
Look out for a unique collection of aviation artefacts from the First and Second World Wars. In the Keep Hall you will find a chilling array of armoury – weapons that may make you wince when you consider the physical damage they can unleash – and there is a section showing figures and garments from the Saxon-set The Last Kingdom TV series.
To complete your visit, the castle’s Clock Tower Cafe and Tack Room Cafe offer meals and homebaked treats. We found the staff very welcoming and informative, and dog owners should note, pets are allowed in the castle grounds provided they are on leads.
Grace Darling’s role in the rescue of shipwrecked survivors is celebrated in a museum at the other end of the village.
It’s a little gem with enough attractively assembled information on show to satisfy a quick 20-minute visit as well as rewarding an hour’s stay.
In 1838 Grace and her father risked their lives to help the crew and passengers of the previously considered unsinkable steamship Forfarshire, which had struck Big Harcar rock, part of the Farne Islands, during a fierce storm.
“People are amazed when they see the size of boat Grace had to row and hold steady while a handful of survivors were taken to safety. It’s a mark of her strength and courage,” says RNLI heritage development manager Leigh Venus who looks after the museum.
She became a heroine of the Victorian era with admirers and well-wishers seeking locks of her hair and strips of her clothing. Her bravery was captured and recorded by artists of the day rather than today’s film crews, dramatic newspaper headlines, social media and selfies. Though her fame was worldwide she didn’t like the attention, hoping to be able to get on with her normal life. Sadly she died of tuberculosis four years after the rescue.
The Darling family lighthouse home at Longstone is the furthest of the Farne Islands from the Bamburgh coast. They can all be visited on guided boat trips where you can observe grey seals and puffins.
This brings us to the aforementioned Holy Island. You get there along a narrow causeway which becomes flooded and inaccessible twice a day so it’s important to check the tides and safe crossing times. Apparently locals could tell when the tides were changing by looking at patterns on rocks and other landmarks but the hugely damaging Storm Arwen, which hit the region in 2021, has rendered this ‘signposting’ less than infallible.
A family connection was partly the reason to seek out this mystical island that’s long been a place of pilgrimage but also houses a castle, priory, pubs, cafes, galleries and a museum. My great grandfather had been vicar here in 1893 and we found his name on plaques in St Mary the Virgin church and at an RNLI museum on the beach.
There is much to see here and the island remains free of too much commercialism. During our long weekend I was also able to play a few holes at Bamburgh Golf Club, surely one of England’s most scenic seaside courses. Down the coast at Dunstanburgh there is another good one and we found the time to walk from Craster to the castle ruins there.
About an hour’s drive south from Bamburgh, Alnwick lays claim to being the most picturesque market town in Northumberland. The castle and gardens certainly enhance its appeal. And there’s yet another castle at nearby Warkworth – this one might even trump the rest in terms of size and fortifications.
As I’ve mentioned there are plenty of places to visit that are a short car journey away but there’s much to be said for putting your best feet forward and strolling along Bamburgh’s streets, or along the beach and sand dunes. If you are lucky, like us, you might spot dolphins rolling and leaping in the waves not far from the shore. A truly magical sight.
More at visitnorthumberland.com.
Where to stay
We were at a spacious and very well equipped cottage called The Duke, part of the Bamburgh First collection of holiday properties and within an easy walk of the village.
It has four double bedrooms and sleeps up to eight with each bedroom having its own en suite. Downstairs is the master bedroom with a marble en suite plus both bath and shower, and stretches from the back to the front of the ground floor and out through the French doors to the terrace which looks onto fields. Adjacent to the bedroom is the combined kitchen, dining and sitting area.
Upstairs there are another three bedrooms each with their own travertine en suite toilets and showers. Warhol’s colourful Marilyns prints bring colour and individuality to each room.
Outside the French doors there is a terrace with a private jacuzzi, (which we used on one of the warmer days) outdoor dining area, barbecue and a small lawn which looks out over fields. Guests also have access to the ‘Gathering Place’ a renovated detached farm building in a courtyard comprising a Wii and a table tennis table, newly built gym, full size tennis court and also domes, which are perfect to sit in and enjoy the countryside views.
Netflix is included in all Bamburgh First properties, as is a portable Bose Bluetooth speaker, easy lighting fire logs and a box of games that include Scrabble, Cluedo and Monopoly. The owner has also provided personal touches such as a hand selected welcome pack, a voucher for a pound of the famous Bamburgh Banger sausages and his own list of the top 21 things to do whilst spending a week in the area. For prices and more information go to bamburghfirst.co.uk
Two places stood out for us on our visit and are recommended. The locals call The Potted Lobster Bamburgh’s first serious fish restaurant and there’s no doubting the quality of the seafood (thepottedlobster.co.uk). Every chef mentioned in a food feature is ‘passionate’ (they’d be something wrong if they were described as merely ‘quite good’) but it’s clear head chef Richard Sim is enthused by, and enjoys working with, ingredients from the surrounding shore and farms. I loved his hake with a lobster and truffle mayo plus fries and ‘Sim’s Smoked Haddock Chowder’.
Not far away at Craster, The Jolly Fisherman (thejollyfishermancraster.co.uk) slightly undersells itself from the outside but enter and make yourself comfortable in the lovely, nautically themed two-tiered dining rooms. While overlooking the little harbour and sea (and with Dunstanburgh castle in the distance) you can feast on their crab soup, superb luxury fish pie and – my daughter can testify – crunchy squid rings and a very tasty vegan curry.
Special mention should also go to Bamburgh butchers R Carter and Son (bamburghbutcher.co.uk). They are famous locally for their sausages and there is much more to please hungry carnivores.
Feeling inspired to visit Northumberland? Take a look at our Northumberland hotels to find your next stay.