A Northumbrian View

Wind whips through the battlements of a Roman mile house; I protect my daughter’s face from the force. Sun blasts down from a cloudless sky, warming the stones of the surrounding vicus. A church, of Medieval construction, and built from the stones of this former town, sounds its chimes from the bottom of the valley. We are surrounded by a lush green blanket, of grass and hedges as far as the eye can see. This scene is not unique, at least not in this part of the world. This is Northumberland.

I don’t know for how many miles this beach stretches, but it is an unbroken ribbon from the hamlet we have just left, right to the peninsula the ancient castle occupies. We are walking from Craster to Dunstanburgh, and we are being warmed by the sun of another glorious spring day. With the slight exception of a few hikers and various dogs and their walkers we are alone in our own timeless idyll.

The tide came up a few hours ago, and so we are pleasantly stuck on this rocky outcrop. And we couldn’t be any happier. We explore ancient streets and bird dotted shore lines. We eat fresh sea food and locally produced ice cream. Shortly we will begin our ascent of the steep castle steps.

Getting parked is never our favourite thing, and the overflow car park in Craster drives us around the bend. There are a few spaces next to the well-tended tourist information shop cum toilet block. They are perfectly ample for the 350 days of the year when the only people who want to park there are a few people looking for kippers (you cannot park in the town). Come the sunshine and you are forced up the hill, into a morass of gravel and badly parked people carriers. Come when it’s wet, I tell you.

There are few places in the world that I would recommend more for a family day out than Cragside, near Rothbury. It is mostly known for its ingeniously hydroelectric manor house, built as the home of local magnate William Armstrong, but I haven’t been there in decades. It holds very little interest for me. What does interest me are the lakes which power the hydroelectric plant below, and the park which surrounds them. The whole area is threaded through with a wide road, in a one-way route through all of the places of interest in the site. Yes, the more popular spots are hideously popular on a sunny day, but in autumn there is an inviting tranquillity which is as unexpected as it is enriching.

We’d been staying in the Borders (England-Scotland) for a few days and were heading south via the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Our sat-nav had sent us the most direct route from our holiday cottage, and that took us past several farms. On the last one, we hit a bump, and something snapped. The crack retorted through the car, and reduced to an annoying rattle as we made our way to the island. We investigated it thoroughly and found nothing; we would be stuck with it until we sold the car.

The climb was steep and we were struggling. Our daughter was small, so I had her on my back; my centre of gravity pushed up my body. We pushed forward against the forces of sunshine and gravity.

One of our dogs is friendlier than the other. One of our dogs finds other animals to be a welcome distraction from the constant search for food. The other dog finds all dogs scary, a threat, something to ward off with screams, cries and unearthly howls. We made our way along the shore of the final lake in the park, and we saw a Labrador in the distance. We halted, dropped, kept his sight on us, rather than the coming threat. We failed: his howls filled the air and we were forced to retreat fast.

The boat from Seahouses, to the Farne Islands was something we had been planning to do as long as we had known each other. We set off early, leaving the dogs with my mother, and headed up the coast. We had missed out on trips like this across Europe, and we had no intention of doing so again. We waited patiently in line as a hoary old sea dog issued tickets and collected money. A boat arrived and disgorged its passengers; those waiting to board jostling in anticipation. We settled ourselves in, close to the edge, and started our journey to the islands. They were encrusted with birds at every possible point; all fluttering and squawking with life and energy. We tried to take photographs, but were blinded by sunlight. We eventually returned to shore, the caws of the birds ringing in our ears.

We had sat on the harbour walls in Craster many years before, in pitch darkness, waiting to see the Aurora Borealis. We eventually saw them more than five years later, in Iceland, with our eldest child. Back then we had only just met, and rather than a child, all we had for company was a food flask full of hot sweet tea. It’s strange how we always seem to find our way back to that harbour wall.

One of my favourite aspects of Northumberland is the connection between the land and its history. Throughout the county there is a wall, built by Emperor Hadrian around two thousand years ago to “keep out” the northern tribes. Then the Roman empire collapsed, and people needed to build things. Now, rather than the crisp walls, mile houses, towns and roads of the romans we have softer structures sneaking their way out of the verdant landscape. And we have towns and churches built from Roman stones. It feels like the past is less archaeological find, and more a part of modern life.

My memories of Northumberland always revolve around to trundling along country roads, climbing through farmland and meandering through woodland. I remember crashing over noisy cattle grids and down dirt tracks. Everything is accessible, but the roads are more utilitarian than a city dweller is necessarily used to. Potholes have been hastily filled; huge four-wheel drive vehicles speed on roads which their drivers have traversed a thousand times; unmetalled roads peel off at right angles, and lead to who knows what; walls lie in heaps, threatening to find their way in to the paths of vehicles.

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