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Travel Story

The Northumberland Coast



England's northeastern corner is a wealth of rugged seascapes, fascinating history, and intriguing myths

Before leaving Newcastle Upon Tyne and heading north we checked the tide tables and decided to make a run for Holy Island. It's only 50 miles but the old coastal road, the scenic route that runs parallel to highway one, winds through a picturesque clutter of tiny villages – Amble, Lesbury, Craster, Bamburgh – each set against the windswept beaches of the North Sea and each beckoning to be explored. By the time we got to Craster, still 20 miles from our destination, it was clear we weren't going to make it.

Rather than chance the fate of many drivers who had been caught by rising tides on the long causeway leading to Holy Island we pulled in to the Jolly Fisherman, a Craster Pub that specializes in mouth-watering smoked herring, ordered lunch and revised our plans.

The Northumberland coast of northeastern England stretches from the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall north to the Scottish border. For more than a thousand years its sweeping, dune-covered beaches and rocky headlands were a no-mans-land between warring armies, and rival cultures. This is where the Romans, intent on pushing their empire northward, met the wild and independent tribes of the Highlands, who forced them to retreat behind the protection of their wall. The isolated Northumberland coast provided a sanctuary for monastic settlements but its beaches were also a favourite landing site for Viking raiders who came to plunder, pillage and head back to sea. And still later the Normans attempted to defend the coast by building massive fortified castles on strategic headlands overlooking the sea.

We decided to slow down and take in some of the historic sights along the way.

Leaving the car at Craster we set out on a narrow footpath leading to Dunstanburgh Castle. The blustery mile-long walk follows the coast past sandy bays and up to a basaltic crag where the wind-ravaged ruins overlook miles of deserted coastline. Once among the largest and most heavily fortified border castles in England, Dunstanburgh was built in 1316 as a defence against Scottish raiding parties. It was further enlarged and strengthened in the 14th century, during the War of the Roses, and then abandoned. But, even after six centuries of battering by North Sea storms the original wall and Gatehouse Keep are still a formidable presence.

From Caster we continued north along route 1340 and found a homey B&B in the village of Bamburgh. No more than a cluster of two-storey, red-roofed houses surrounded by green farmland, the village is dwarfed by its medieval castle. The massive, multi-towered structure sprawls across the entire top of a steep-sided rocky crag facing the town on one side and the ocean on the other. Built by the Normans after their conquest of Britain in AD 1066 the Keep, or inner stronghold, has walls up to 12 feet thick. During the Border Wars it was repeatedly besieged but never taken. But the invention of the cannon spelt the end for rock-and-mortar defenses. During the War of the Roses Bambrugh took a pounding and at the end of that conflict in AD 1486, like many other castles, it was abandoned and left in ruins for nearly 400 years.

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