Walking in North East England - Castles, Coastline and Crags
Britain is blessed with fantastic, varied landscapes and the North East of England is one of the most interesting. The history of the region invites you to learn about the earliest occupiers through the periods of Viking invaders and Romans. Waves of new arrivals have left their mark here and the region just begs to be explored, preferably on foot or by bicycle.
Head north and once you have travelled through Newcastle the landscape quickly takes on a rural look and the post industrial concept that many people have about the North East is quickly swept away. The older towns still have a feel of older times and some still have the essential castle to add to their grandeur. We visited Durham, Embleton and Morpeth in a three day walking break and found each of them to have an individual character and feel about them. We walked at Seaham, Craster and Bolam Lakes and each walk had its own aspect. of the region. We also discovered Alnwick and Howick Hall where Earl Grey created a beautiful garden full of trees and plants from around the globe. Alnwick, with it's busy market centre, castle and gardens is a real treat so when you have had enough of walking there is lots more to see and do. Further up the coast is Bamburgh with more great beaches and a cricket pitch laid out beneath the impossing castle.
It is the North East coastline that draws the walker back with some of the best beaches in the whole country and small villages with proper country pubs. The beaches are quiet, even on a sunny bank holiday weekend we found miles of walking with hardly anyone else in sight. Another feature of the region are the castles that are strung along the coastline, a legacy of the turbulent past and add a dramatic element to match the beautiful beaches that stretch away towards Scotland.
We started with a walk from the coastal path carpark at Seaham in a circular route that took in the Blast Bay, the victorian railway and the rural backdrop to the coast. The region has changed beyond all recognition in the last 30 years. The point where the walk starts was once occupied by a steel foundry and a coal mine. If you can recall the closing scenes of the gangster film 'Get Carter' the gantry bringing the slag from the coal and steel works was right here. The Blast Bay is still waiting for the sea to remove the thousands of tons of spoil that was tipped in it. The coastline is still impressive and the sea is slowly winning back the beach.
Walk under the victorian rail viaduct and down to the sea and you will observe the thick layer of steelwork slag that is slowly being removed by the tides. Find the information board above the bay for a fuller view and explanation of the history. It must have been an awful place but the changes that have been wrought make the landscape easier on the eye nowadays. We set off as the sea fret started to come. The 'fret' is a the local name for sea mist that can obscure the other side of the road never mind the other side of the bay. It comes and goes and makes the walk more atmospheric for being there.
Durham was the next stop and a night staying at 66 Claypath, one of the most comfortable B and B's you could find. The local food is just as special and we ate at Oldfield's, a restaurant that is using local food to produce stunning food. Sadly we were on the move again the following morning so a return to Durham must be made another time.
We had Craster and Dunstanburgh Castle in our sights. Possible one of the best short coastal walks in Britain, especially on a bright, sunny day. Craster is a wonderful, tiny village set around a deep harbour. Commercial fishing is dead as an industry here but the place has great charm, a good pub and a smokehouse that is famous for it's kippers.
The walk starts from the small carpark at the entrance to the village and leads you to the coastal path and the first views of Dunstanburgh Castle. The castle was built between 1313 and 1325 by Thomas of Lancaster, nephew of King Edward II. The isolated location of the castle probably reflects Thomas's need to protect himself both from Scottish raids, and from the wrath of the King, with whom he had many disagreements, in particular, over the influence of Piers Gaveston, the King's favorite. Eventually, a group of Lords, led by Thomas, captured and executed Gaveston. Although the king finally pardoned the barons, Thomas, who continued to rebel against the king, was executed in 1322. The castle took a major battering from cannon during the civil war and fell into disuse. Now owned by the National Trust a small entrance fee is charged, the main gatehouse is worth seeing on it's own!
Beyond the castle lies Embleton village, it's golf course and a fantastic beach. A path cuts across the golf course and allows you to reach the beach, we returned along the beach and the coastal path and then retraced our steps to Craster. A beer and a crab sandwich at the pub made a great ending for our walk.
A quickly taken decision to follow the signs to Howick Hall gave us the chance to walk in the extensive parkland surrounding the house and to take tea (what else!) in the house itself. If you visit the area make time for a walk in the grounds.
We stayed in the village at the Blue Bell Inn and enjoyed the quiet of the place plus a great breakfast.
The next stage of our journey took us south to Morpeth and the chance to visit the Red Squirrels at Bolam Lake and to walk the moorland track to see the rock formations called Shaftoe Crags.
This was our first visit to Morpeth and we found the place to be well stocked with pubs and places to eat. It is located on the Wansbeck and provided a crossing place before the bridges arrived. The town was often under attack from border raiders but was never walled. Despite the various attacks by both the Scots and the English the town still has some interesting buildings and has the feel of a comfortable old town. We stayed at Stepping Stones Bed and Breakfast and thoroughly enjoyed our time there, a very warm welcome and great breakfast, and the biggest roll top bath we have ever seen. Another short stay as we were heading to Bolam Lake for our last walk and then home.
Bolam Lake is a popular attraction in the summer as the park has fishing, canoeing and picnic areas. In March it wasn't quite so busy and we walked for a couple of hours on our own. The Crags were deserted apart from a few sheep and ourselves. The lake has a large population of Mute swans, very pretty to see but very aggressive in breeding season, be warned. A circular walk of the lake is very easy to accomplish. A wide track has been provided and is very wheelchair friendly. We didn't get to see a Red Squirrel but the area is one of the last outposts for them in England.
I preferred the short moorland trail up to the crags to the lakeside path but then I always like hills. From the top you get some good views to the south and the strange rock formations are well worth the short haul to the top.