Ros Castle Camp

The walk up to Ros Castle Camp is a favourite one of ours.  It’s not a long walk, and the reward of just fabulous views right across north Northumberland is well worth the steep climb. Looking up from where we parked the car, it doesn’t appear to be far to walk at all.View of climb from parked carBut the walk was surprisingly muddy.Muddy climb up to Ros CastleWhen you pause to look back, you realise just how far you have climbed.  Our little white car is just a blip on the road.Looking back on the climbAt the top, you are blown away by the views – and sometimes by wind! (not on this walk which was almost completely windless).  From here you can see for miles and miles and miles …..

There’s Bamburgh Castle on the coast ….Bamburgh Castle from the top2and the Farne Islands ….Farne Islands from the topIn the other direction, you can see the Cheviot range …Cheviot hills from the topYou can also see all too clearly the much-lamented wind turbines obstructing the views of the coast.windfarm from the topTo help identify the places you can see from here, the National Trust has set up a topograph. about the topograph It’s a nice little stone enclosure from which to take photographs.K photographing in sunOn each of the four stone walls lie metal plaques indicating with precision what you can expect to see on a good day.  This plaque points from Coldingham (on the left) to Dunstanburgh castle (partially obscured, but on the right).  In between, it points to Norham, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Magnetic North, North, Lindisfarne, Budle Bay, Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands.map linesHere is the view to our home just south of Berwick-upon-Tweed. (Not that we could see Berwick from here – it was obscured by the hills.)Photographing our view over to BerwickThis is a great place to stop for a bun and a flask of coffee.  King of all you survey.coffee at the topYou may well ask where the castle and camp are.  Apparently – according to Wikipedia – there was a 3,000 year old Iron Age hillfort here. Unfortunately, the remaining defences – banks and quarry ditches – are concealed by the bracken, and the visitor really has no sense of it having ever been a hillfort.

There is another modern construction here – a triangulation station (commonly known as a trig point).  At the base, you will find the Ordnance Survey bench mark code: S3697 (useful if you’re into “bagging” trig points!)triangulation point at topBut on the other side, there’s another plaque that tells some more of this place’s history.

Ros Castle Camp.  This height with its wide prospect was a favourite resort of Sir Edward Grey, afterwards Viscount Grey of Fallodon K.G., Foreign Secretary December 1905 to December 1916.  In 1936 it was presented to the National Trust as part of a National Memorial to him.Edward Grey memorialEdward Grey haunts and fascinates me.  As the plaque tells us, he was Foreign Secretary for the surprisingly long period from 1905 to 1916.  And, yes, he was the Foreign Secretary who took Britain into the First World War.  He was one of those rare people in a position of extraordinary and terrifying power whose actions have undoubtedly influenced world history  – and millions and millions of lives.  Of course, you can’t pin responsibility for the First World War on him – he was reacting to the Kaiser’s actions, and he took his decisions alongside the rest of the British Cabinet.  That he realised what disasters this war would entail is shown by his famous remark: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

The Greys were a Northumberland family of some distinction.  Edward Grey’s great-great-uncle was the Earl Grey, famous for the Reform Bill he introduced, and probably even more famous for the tea named after him (apparently created to conceal the chalky taste of the local water).  Earl Grey’s family home, Howick Hall, is nearby, as is Sir Edward Grey’s home, Fallodon (here photographed in 1932).Fallodon 1932Together with his first wife, Dorothy Widdrington of nearby Low Newton Hall, Edward Grey loved the Northumbrian countryside and way of life.  (Rumour has it that theirs was a chaste marriage and he had affaires and illegitimate children in London).  For many years he lived this strange dual existence with power and importance and sophistication in London alternating with frequent weekends at home in Northumberland and birds and walks and fishing there.  Unlike modern travellers, Grey was able to avail himself of the family right to stop mainline trains at little Fallodon station, a few hundred yards from his door.  (This ancient right came to the family as part of the deal when the railway was constructed through Grey land.  It, of course, no longer exists – the station has gone, and I read somewhere that the railway authorities bought it off the family in exchange for free unlimited travel!).  Edward Grey 1918 (aged 56)This picture is of Grey in 1918, a couple of years after he had ceased to be Foreign Secretary.  By this time his sight was severely limited – he had struggled with deteriorating vision for quite a while as a result of severe degeneration of the retina and choroid in each eye.  He had longed to retire from politics earlier (and that would undoubtedly have improved his health and consequently his eyesight) but was restrained by Prime Minister Asquith.

So ironically, Grey – an enthusiastic and knowledgeable birdwatcher and walker (he wrote a book called The Charm of Birds with his second wife), was only finally free to enjoy his beloved Northumberland when he was almost blind.  Here he is in 1931, a couple of years before he died,Edward Grey 1931When I walk up to Ros Castle Camp, I think of Edward Grey taking the same path, weighed down with the cares of State.  And as we watched kestrels and partridges, I thought of how little he could see.  He would have been able to smell the place though – and wow, did it smell wonderful the day we visited!  Fresh and clean and heathery.

It is churlish to complain on a day with such gifts, but I do prefer it when the heather is flowering and purple as it was one August day last year.heather in AugustThat day I brought home a small posy of heather to remind me of a glorious walk.  This trip I’m having to resort to a virtual posy.heather picked on previous visits

Silly babies, squabbling teens

Our garden is full of birds!  The first crop of fledglings have arrived and they, together with their exhausted parents, are everywhere, greedily looking for food (and water). starlings at water bowlIt wasn’t like this when we first moved here.

We arrived some five years ago to a cottage that had been converted from an old steading.  After the conversion, it had been let to temporary tenants.  Nobody had put energy or effort into the garden.  We inherited a wild grassy field of a garden.wild gardenWhen we had tamed our wilderness (mown the lawn), we had nothing in the garden but grass – nowhere secure for birds to shelter bar the one clump of grass we left (on left of picture below, just inside the fence).Seaview with the wild lawn tamedThat winter birds came and went as it snowed and snowed.  They must have been very hungry – but none stayed.  How could they – there was no shelter in our garden.  winter birdsBut as we dug beds and things began to grow, the birds began to visit. bird feedersbirds on gutteringOur mornings start with the ritual of putting fat balls and bird seed out for the birds.  Some goes in birdfeeders hanging on walls and fences, and some is scattered on the path (we grate the fat balls up).

This is to cater for all tastes.  Some birds like to graze on the ground…(this is a family of collar doves that came for a few days and then moved on….same with the crow.)  birds on the pathSome eat at the feeders…starling on feederThere’s a great deal of argy-bargy, particularly at the feeders.  Remember these are young uns, learning how to cope with just about everything by themselves.several birds on feederThey don’t only have to learn to share the feeders – there’s the drinking water/bath tub as well.bird washing itselfOne of my favourite ladies, this doe-eyed Blackbird teen, hesitantly approaching the cat drinking water.  It’s all the same to them (provided the cat isn’t around, of course).young lady blackbirdWe are especially fond of the wagtail family who have been returning to spend their summers here for several years.wagtail in gardenBut we are disappointed that the wagtails have not chosen to nest in our woodshed this year (as they have for the two previous years.  Their babes were just a hoot.)wagtail chicks in woodshedLast year the blackbird also nested in the woodshed, and we got birdtv set up.  It was the best! Sorry Mr Weatherperson – it was far far better than real telly.bird tv much better than real tv Here’s Mama Blackbird working hard to feed her chicks.bird tvAnd here’s Papa Blackbird working hard to keep the nest clean!papa blackbird cleaning up nestMama Blackbird knew how to keep her chicks in order – look at that little squashed face on the right!mama blackbird sitting on nestSomebody else in the house was very interested in birdtv…Poe watching bird tvBut poor old Poe – she’s really confused!  Love this pic of her trying to work out where the baby birds really are.Poe looking behind the tvWhen she was younger, she was really seriously into bird watching …Poe watching birds on fenceBut now she’s older, she just lets the world go by…  Unfortunately there are other teens in the block.  This is our neighbours’ young cat who is fascinated by what goes on in our garden. neighbour's catSometimes young bemused teens fly into our conservatory and have to be coaxed out. young swallow in our conservatoryOne year we had a silly sick young carrier pigeon (nicknamed Gormy) whom Stephen loved to death (sadly that’s true though it was a very poorly bird when it arrived).gormy the pigeonWe were beginning to think that this was going to be rather a disappointing year.  No birds nesting in our wood shed, and where are the chaffinches and greenfinches we’ve found feeding at our table in previous years?  birds under feederThese days, it’s quite ordinary birds that we find eating on our path…more birds on garden path But you can never guess the animal world.  Who was to arrive earlier this week but Larky Boy!  (I shouldn’t really label this bird so because I don’t actually know if it is male or female.)  But he (I’m sticking with Larky Boy) is most unusual and a real delight.

We hear the larks here on and off all summer, and sometimes catch brief sightings of them, rising helicopter-fashion from their nests in the local fields up, up, up to the heavens for some glorious singing.  But they are very shy birds….apart from Larky Boy.  He even did a little tentative practice singing on our lawn!larky boyThe other day he brought his siblings.  But they haven’t reappeared.  He has though, – just got to enjoy his presence while it lasts.  three larks on the lawnWhat pleasure it is to have these birds with us for a while.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

I will let you into a secret.  It was for this view that we moved the 400 miles from Devon to live in Northumberland.evening light on Holy IslandYou are looking out of the window, over the fields, over the Eastcoast railway line, over the sea, towards Holy Island.  That bump that you see towards the right of the picture is the Elizabethan castle standing proud on Beblowe crag.  In differing lights the island looms grey or shimmers as a mirage. Sometimes it is wrapped in mist.  It is always fascinating.

It is as though one is glimpsing Avalon, the Isles of the Blest, a place associated with deep yearning and longing – and peace.

Although I have always felt drawn to this distant vision, I haven’t always enjoyed going to Holy Island.

Our first visit was in August 2004.  Like the rest of the day-trippers, we’d checked the tide tables and driven over the causeway in a busy queue of holiday makers.  We were directed into a huge busy carpark, and followed the stream of people walking into the village where it’s all busy and bustling, and you can join the rest of the crowds in the tiny Lutyens castle, the mediaeval priory or the usual mish-mash of touristy shops.

Nothing special there.  Just busy, bustling and bustling.  How to reconcile this with the spiritual intensity of St Aidan and St Cuthbert, to draw near to the harshness of life that those amazing monks experienced who produced the Lindisfarne Gospels, to understand the holiness of the place?

Well – we have learned the way.  Now I can feel the island calling to me when we have not visited for a while.  It has worked its magic on me, and I am a disciple.

So – let me tell you about our visit earlier this week.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is not really an island.  It would be much more accurate to call it  a peninsula.  Peninsula – from paene meaning nearly in Latin and insula meaning island.  It is just that: nearly an island.

You have to cross a causeway to get to Holy Island, and the causeway is flooded by the tide twice a day.  So for approximately eleven hours of each day it’s inaccessible by road.driving over the causewayBefore the causeway was built in the sixties, you had to approach by boat, or else walk with your donkeys over the sands as these two good ladies did.Holy Island ladies crossing the causewayWere you to cross when the tide was high, you would be unable to drive right over the causeway. You would have to take refuge in this rickety little wooden hut and wait for the tide to go down.crossing the causewayYou are still directed into the huge busy carpark.  Even though it’s a long way off the school summer holidays, the carpark is crowded and busy.  Holy Island is an immensely popular visitor attraction. crowded carpark But it is from here that we diverge from the masses. Holy Island mapWhile most people walk into the village (or catch the local hopper bus), we back-tracked and walked along the road to a footpath that takes you over to the dunes.   Stephen striding ahead from the carparkThe expedition has begun!!  You can immediately see how different this area is.  The wild flowers are fantastic.  There are poppies and daisies….Poppies and daisiesand cowslips and orchids and buttercups and vetch…..cowslips and orchidsThere is also piri-piri.   At this time of year it is young and green and harmless. Young pirri-pirri plantsThere are warnings about piri-piri, and rightly so as it is most tiresome and we definitely do not want it to spread.Pirri-pirri burr warning signOne year, later in the summer, I unwisely trampled in the piri-piri and this was the result.  This plant has the best survival tactics of any I have ever known – it attaches itself with little wiry hooks which are the very devil to remove. and then it travels with you until it finds a nice new uncolonised spot to invade. pirri-pirri on Katherine's shoes After you leave the meadows, you climb up into the dunes, and there is the sea!  The vegetation is different here – more sparse and lower growing.  Everywhere the birds are calling.  I cannot capture the many larks we see as they fly up and up and up with their glorious singing.  But believe me, they are there, and their song is beautiful.looking for birdsWe sat on the edge of the dunes and looked down on this wonderful white empty beach.  Not a lot of birdlife here today, and no people at all.  Strange – there are usually oyster catchers, curlews and redshanks, and at least the odd beach-comber competing for finds.sandy beachesThere are, however, quite a few kittiwakes chicks in nests on the cliffs.  We can see one nest quite clearly.  There is a very demanding chick there!  You can see its open greedy beak, and boy, could we hear it!  When parents arrive with food, the chicks go wild and make an unholy din.kittiwakesAfter watching the birds, we turn inland again and head for the castle. glimpsing the castle aheadIt is fascinating how many different sorts of terrain there are on one small island.  We call this part the Moon Landscape.  It is actually what was once Nessend Quarry.  This is where, in the 1860s, they quarried for limestone.  The extracted limestone was fed into the limekilns (at the foot of Lindisfarne Castle) where it was roasted into quicklime (commonly used as an agricultural spread for neutralising acid soils).lunar landscape You clamber out through sandy dunes and are back in meadowland again.  We are once more in the land of verdant greenness.meadow flowersThere are traces of old dykes and ditches. The monks farmed here so these may be very old indeed.traces of old ditchesWe turn onto the old tramway that once carried the limestone to the Castle lime kilns.  This is very comfortable walking after the rough terrain of the quarries and dunes.  They’ve clearly been shearing the sheep – bits of their fleece are scattered all over like snow. walking the old tramway But it’s a coarse fleece – I shan’t be taking any home to spin.  fleeceNow we’re beginning to draw closer to the castle, and we can see the sheep whose fleece I’ve been inspecting.Lindisfarne castle from the distanceI love Lindisfarne castle.  The washed colours remind me of an Uccello painting.Lindisfarne castleIt is not an old castle as British castles go – nor did it see important action.  A castle was first built on the protruding rock of Beblowe Crag in the 1570s as part of the English defences on its unruly Scottish borders.  But in 1603 the crowns of England and Scotland were united under James (1st of England, 6th of Scotland), so after that the castle was rather unnecessary (although a small military garrison was maintained there for another three centuries).

It was reborn into modern life in the early 20th century when Edward Hudson (the owner and founder of Country Life magazine) acquired the building.  He appointed the distinguished architect, Edwin Lutyens, to convert the castle into a home.  Lutyens made a magnificent job of it.  It is enchanting inside – simple magnificence combined with a strong eye for detail.

On the shoreline below the castle people make cairns with the local stones.  We may not all visit Holy Island as Christians, but without doubt many people find in the place a deep spirituality.  I think this couple were building a cairn to commemorate the scattering of cremated ashes. building cairns I can well understand why you would wish to leave the ashes of those precious to you in the care of these little islands on the Northumbrian coast. 

You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid  (T S Eliot: Little Gidding)

On the distant horizon is the Inner Farne Island, whither Cuthbert retreated when he could no longer cope with the busyness of Lindisfarne.  cairns by the shoreNow we are rounding the shoreline and the old tram road path leads up to the Castle (those arches on the left are the Lime Kilns).  The castle sits like a galleon sailing in these magnificent Northumbrian skies.walking round to the lime kilns and castleWe are nearing civilisation …Stephen walking round castleBut first, glance up at the golden lichen on the castle approaches.  Lichen thrives where the atmosphere is pure.lichen under castle And look down, at the banks of valerian on the lower castle reaches.valerianWe are back now with our fellow tourists.   The ruins of the Priory are in our sights.joining crowdsA sunny lunch in the local pub.  It’s quite an ordinary little  pub, but how many other pubs sit so casually next to such magnificent ruins? Stephen in pub It was St Aidan who brought Christianity to these islands at the request of King Oswald of neighbouring Bamburgh Castle.  St AidanThe sainted Aidan was much loved and is still revered as a great saint, as is his successor, Cuthbert.  But in many ways it has to be said that Cuthbert has overtaken Aidan in the popularity stakes.  St Cuthbert amid ruinsThis is Cuthbert’s country.  He was – and still is – hugely special to Northumbrians.  They remember him locally as Cuddy.  If you look carefully you’ll see the Cuddy duck (actually an Eider) nestling at the foot of this rather curious statue of Cuthbert.  Crinoid fossils found on the beaches are Cuddy beads, and were once used to make rosaries.  Today there’s a ginger cat asleep nearby, oblivious to everything but the sunny warmth.  cat amid ruinsAidan and Cuthbert never knew this stone built Priory.  Aidan came here in 635, and Cuthbert is thought to have arrived here some 30 years later.  They lived and worshipped in wooden buildings which have completely disappeared, but are thought to have been on the same site.   LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMattGiven the simplicity of the monks’ lives here on Lindisfarne it is truly extraordinary that one of the finest books extant, the Lindisfarne gospels, was copied and illustrated here.  The Lindisfarne Gospels are thought to be the work of Bishop Eadfrith, Cuthbert’s successor on the island.  They are now one of the greatest treasures of the British Library.  First page of St Matthew’s gospel.  Image made available to the public domain by Wikipedia.wood carving of monks carrying Cuthbert's bodyThe monks left Lindisfarne in disarray when Viking raiders began a series of attacks on the monastery at the end of the 8th century.  But they took the body of their beloved St Cuthbert with them, and a fine wooden carving in the church commemorates their devotion.

In the 12th century monks returned to build the Priory that we see today.  It is a beautiful building, and despite the exposure to the elements still looks amazing.  You can still make out the details of the chevrons on the columns.  priory ruinsEven in the Priory, it is the Castle perched on Beblowe Crag that dominates.  It intrigues me that when I speak of gazing longingly at Holy Island, it is a conflation of the image of the Castle and the ethos that the monks created that sits in my mind.  The Castle is the stronger visual symbol of the place, but without the history of Aidan, Cuthbert, Eadfrith, and all their fellow unknown monks, it could just be another castle.  Of course, Mother Nature has a strong part to play in making this place remarkable too!looking from the priory ruins to the castleTime to face the world again.  There’s the whole Lindisfarne/Holy Island retail experience.  Lindisfarne shopsAnd then we join the pedestrians walking back to the car park.  I hope they will return to the mainland as refreshed by their visit to Holy Island as I have been. walking back to the car

Edin’s Hall Broch

Last week Stephen took me to Edin’s Hall Broch.   He had discovered it on one of his longer walks, but I had never been there before – indeed, had never even heard of it.

As it turns out, Edin’s Hall Broch is a very remarkable place, and I am surprised more people don’t know about it.  Or perhaps they do.  Perhaps it’s just another closely guarded Borders/Northumbrian secret.

For those of you who (like me) don’t even know what a broch is, here is a brief summary of received internet wisdom.

There is much debate about their function and purpose.  What is agreed is that they are only found in Scotland, they are superb examples of drystone architecture, and they are round.  Nobody is sure whether they were built for defensive purposes or to be lived in as farmsteads.

But ooooh – I do love the word “Broch”!  I roll it round my lips and savour the sound – quite different from any other word I know. Stephen in Edin's Hall Broch It wasn’t really that special a day to be out.  As you can tell from our photos, the day was dull, and it was quite sharply cold for May.  But it was still a comfortable – and very interesting – walk from the carpark, about a mile and half from the ruins.

After a short walk through a forested area, you cross the Whiteadder Water by the Elba Footbridge.  The Whiteadder Water then runs parallel to the walk as you climb the hill up to the broch.Crossing Elba footbridgeThe Whiteadder Water is magnificent here, swirling dramatically over craggy rocks.  But, wait – is there a yellow conspiracy afoot?!  There’s masses of gorgeous clumps of golden scented gorse, many of the trees are in that early flush of colour when the leaves are transparent yellowy-pale-green, – and to cap it all we saw a Yellow Wagtail bobbing around on the rocks in the stream! Looking down at the Whiteadder waterWhere the scenery wasn’t yellow and green, it was silvery-white.  The lichen is as much an ornament on these blackthorn trees as their own blossom.Lichen on treeOur route takes us on up and up.  The sheep gaze down anxiously at us from the ridge, not sure whether we are friend or foe.  Don’t worry, sheepy friends, we’re travelling up to the right of this pylon.

Ah yes, this pylon.  We were happily admiring the beauty and wildness of the place when we realised that there was a huge great plonking pylon – no, a chain of pylons striding across the valley.  How fascinating that we’d subconsciously “subtracted” it from our awareness.  How strange too that we object to wind farms but seem oblivious to these earlier man-made monstrosities.Pylons, sheep and gorseThe way is well-signposted.  But look behind the sign, and there’s a telling indication of modern farming.  That’s the old drystone wall broken and crumbling, and it’s been superceded by an ugly barbed-wire fence (which you can just see in the foreground of the photo).  How very sad.Route sign to Edin's Hall BrochNature gives and it takes.  En route we found evidence of the harsh reality of nature red in tooth and claw.  Somebody’s dined here….perhaps the sparrowhawk we saw wheeling above?Nature red in tooth and clawHowever the kindly sheep have left me some lovely bits of fleece to collect – it’s the softest and cleanest fleece I have found out and about for a long time.  Wish I could catch a sheep to take some more fleece home with me!fleeceFinally, we get to the top of the hill, and there – amid a lot of other stone ruins (it’s a prehistoric hill fort) – is Edin’s Hall Broch!  (You get a really good idea of the whole site with this aerial picture on the Welcome to Scotland website.)Approaching Edin's Hall BrochThe people who built this place knew about dry stone walls – they could teach modern farmers a thing or two.  Just look at the size of the stones at the base of this building!huge stones at base of wallsThe size of the walls too is enormous – at their maximum they are over 5 metres wide.thick wallsThere’s a proper entrance, and what must be a front door slab lying on the ground beside.entrance to Edin's Hall BrochOn either side of the front entrance, there are guard rooms.entrance to guard roomsSet in these huge walls around are well-built steps and more rooms. stone steps Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this place is that this is one of only a handful of brochs in the Lowlands.  They are mostly found in northern western Scotland.   And this broch is not like the northern brochs – it’s too large in diameter for starters, so there are doubts that it was ever roofed.  As you will see on the information board reproduced below, Historic Scotland have come up with the hypothesis that somebody in the 2nd century AD travelled south bringing broch-building skills with them and adapted them to this Border locality.Historic Scotland information boardWho knows?

What we do know, however, is that when this site was first excavated in the late 19th century, a number of artifacts were found (these were donated to the Museum of Scotland).  They include a stone spindle whorl, a piece of jet ring, an amber bead, an oyster shell, bones and a fragment of a glass bracelet.  Very much the normal sort of possessions of people’s lives – food, ornamentation, and the means to clothe oneself.

I’d read about spindle whorls recently in Rebecca’s Needle and Spindle blog.  She describes so clearly what an vital part they had to play in basic survival tactics – and that would have been especially the case in these colder northern climes.

So – I’m once again stretching my imagination back to the people who lived here, and I’m finding that they (like me) enjoyed a bit of bling.  Ancestors of the modern sheep grazing around would have been of value to them for clothing – just as they are to me.

The modern world interrupts my old-times reverie. Well – a slightly more modern world.  Down through the trees, on the other side of the Whiteadder Water, there’s a glimpse of an intriguing house – actually another Round House.  Apparently it’s The Retreat, built in the late 18th century by the Earl of Wemyss as a shooting lodge.  You can’t help wondering if he was referencing the round broch on the opposite hill in his choice of architecture……  It looks very comfortable and well-appointed compared to the exposed stony broch of the ancients.looking down at The Retreat

Searching for Sanderlings

Yesterday we walked from Beadnell to Low Newton (some 3 miles as the crow flies).  Beadnell mapThis is a beautiful walk any time of the year.  Yesterday the conditions were just perfect –  no wind, temperature about 5 degrees, tide probably at its lowest.  So we had the huge expanse of Beadnell Bay to ourselves for our walk to the pub at Low Newton. It’s one of the beaches that Northumberland justifiably is so proud of.  Huge expanses of sand and sea and sky.
Best foot forward and looking south to our destination with a glimpse of Dunstanburgh Castle beyond……..best foot forward to DunstanburghLooking back to Beadnell and its limekilns ……..Looking back to BeadnellOthers had been there before us, but we felt it was ours ……Stephen following tracksDifferent sand patterns all along the beach.  These are at the Beadnell end – is the black sand coal (coal fields run along the edge of Northumberland’s coastline) or broken mussel shells?black sand patternsFurther along small pebbles and shells make a pointy pattern – it’s as though the beach is wearing a crown …..crown of sandAnd a wavy pattern in the sands as you look along the beach to the dunes …wavy patterns in sandIn some spots there was evidence of a recent parliament of fowls…evidence of parliament of fowlsNot really a shelly beach (my favourites) but just enough Banded venus shells to keep me happy.shells and sandTime for a coffee break.  The retirement thermos comes out (these have to be counted back in carefully since we left one behind on one expedition.  A Hanrahan – as one might say – “I counted them all out and I counted them all back.”  You may have to search recent Falkland Island history to pick up the allusion!)  thermos flask of coffeeAt the end of the bay, we climbed up the dunes for the walk around Football Hole (such a great name!). Looking inland you can just see the snowy Cheviots in the distance, and a reviled wind farm interrupting the view. (There is much ill feeling in Northumberland about wind farms – barely surprising since many have been sited in iconic situations).windfarms in distanceWe clambered up a bony protrusion of Whin Sill.  (Whin Sill is the local name for the ignaeous rock dolerite that is so important a feature of the Northumbrian landscape.  The Castles of Bamburgh and Lindisfarne are built on Whin Sill protrusions, and the Romans incorporated it into some of the most dramatic parts of Hadrian’s wall).sheep watching warilyFrom the top we could now see Dunstanburgh Castle more clearly.sheep and Bamburgh CastleBut more importantly, we could also see our destination!  This is the tiny village of Low Newton.  The old fishermen’s cottages are clustered round a green straight up from the beach.arriving at Low NewtonAnd here is the Ship Inn!  It’s a very popular haunt nowadays – understandably as they have good food and the beer is very fine (they have their own brewery).  As for location – well, it’s to die for, centrally located right on the Northumbrian seashore between Dunstanburgh Castle and Beadnell Bay. Ship InnInside, there’s a fire, and food – and drink!  Perhaps best of all, we’ve timed it just right and the pub is almost empty – we can get seats right next to the fire!  That’s a rarity – it’s a very busy pub.Pub - pint and fireStephen enjoying the Ship Inn Brewery’s 4.2 % Squid Ink.  Apparently it’s “A classic stout with hints of espresso coffee, dark chocolate, figs and dates.”Stephen with pintBut the sanderlings, I hear you say – what about the sanderlings?!!!

Well – we did see sanderlings!  Oh – yes – we did see sanderlings! Sanderling sightingNow I want to explain why these little birds are so very special to us.  We knew nothing of them until we came to live in Northumberland.  When we first saw them on Spittal beach, we were enchanted with their racing and running in and out of the waves.

Derwent May, writing in the Times of January 2011 tells us more about them.  “On long sandy beaches right now you may see small, white wading birds chasing the withdrawing waves.  They pick up tiny creatures that are floating in the water, then run back very fast to avoid the next incoming breaker that threatens to crash over them.  To and fro they sprint, their legs like clockwork.  These sanderlings, little birds of the sand, have a special adaptation for their way of life: they have no hind toe that drags in the sand, so that they can run more quickly.” They are the only bird that has this adaptation.

(Disappointingly, WordPress won’t let me upload my little video which demonstrates this quirky seashore action without ungrading to Premium for £70 – so I’ll just add in some pics from previous Beadnell visits.)sanderlings on beadnell beach 2Derwent continues: “They nest in Siberia, very near the North Pole, and some fly as far as South Africa in the autumn.  But a few get no farther than Britain and Ireland, spending the winter here.  They like the sandy beaches … in northeast England …”

Sensible little birds – so do we!  We often see them over winter on our local Spittal beaches, but this year I haven’t seen any yet.   You have to catch them at the right time on the tide – food is most plentiful when the tide is very low.

(Here they are at the mouth of the Tweed with the Berwick lifeboat station in the background, photographed in January 2013).Sanderlings at the mouth of the Tweed Mark Cocker describes them more succinctly in his magisterial Birds Britannica: “Sanderlings are the Keystone cops of the British seaside…The manner in which they first scurry away from an incoming surge, then instantly reverse to follow it back out, also has something of the quality of those speeded-up cop chases popular in the silent-movie era…Yet the comic note belies their heroic migration…There is evidence to suggest …a round trip of 17,700 miles.”

Wow! little sanderlings – that is truly amazing!sanderlings on beadnell beach 1As we retraced our steps back to the Beadnell car park, we saw many more fascinating birds – turnstones, dunlins, curlews, gulls, oystercatchers – even a rare and beautiful great white heron having a fine time, feasting on local delicacies in the Brunton Burn.

But nothing made our day quite as much as the Keystone Cops of the British seaside: the sanderlings!

However, we did come home with treasure…treasures from the beach