Misty Moisty* on Holy Island

There has been dense fog over much of Britain for the last week or so – not cold, just moist and very misty.  You can sense the sun is trying to break through.sun trying to break throughAnd there have been days when the sun has actually broken through … even if it is only for a little time.  So when the weather forecasters said the sun might break through on the Northumberland coast, and we saw that the tides were convenient (so to speak), we decided yesterday was the day for a walk round Holy Island.

Crossing the causeway was forbidding: the fog was deepening.driving over a misty causewayThe car park – not surprisingly for a grey foggy day at the beginning of November was almost empty.  (Contrast this with our summer visit several months ago.)car in almost empty carparkIt wasn’t cold – just very damp, very grey, and not a little bit disappointing.  But we’d set the day aside for this walk, so better make the most of it.  And how very rewarding it turned out to be.blackened plantsWith so much mist – such limited vision – you see things differently.  Dark, decaying plants stood out strongly.  strange blackened plants in the mistColours – even the smallest patch of gold lichen on the wall – leapt out at us.stone wall with lichenPlants that had been silver earlier in the year were now turning gold.undergrowth turning goldThere were clearly cattle around – much evidence of them: the ground churned up, cow pats.  But we never saw them.  I was imagining how they would look looming through the mist.evidence of cattleWould the mist lift when we got to the beach.  No, far from it – the fog was denser there than ever!walking along misty beachWhat I can’t convey with these pictures is how haunting the sounds were as we walked round the island.  And nowhere more so than on the beach.  We found – and heard –  a couple of curlews amid a plenty of gulls – and our favourite little sanderlings (for whom we have set out searching before).

This was the view – or lack of it – from the hide.  It’s usually busy here with people settled in to watch the water birds.  But yesterday?  Nobody else – just the water birds busy and noisy.   What colours and splendour of bullrushes!  reeds, bullrushes and waterfowlWe met nobody else on the walk – until we had passed this hide.  The sense of walking in the pervasive grey and damp with just bird calls floating out and about was extraordinary.

As we drew near to the castle, we passed the cairns shrouded in mist.  Visitors construct these out of local stones – in memory of loved ones or perhaps for fun?  I don’t know.  Today they were beautiful and mysterious.cairns in the mistSomebody had left a message …message in the cairnsAnd then we approached the castle … or did we …where was it?  Never before have I seen (or not seen) Lindisfarne Castle like this!approaching Lindisfarne castle in the mistCuriously, it is even more magnificent glimpsed in fog.

We couldn’t leave – on a day like this – without paying our respects at the Priory.  Most disappointingly, it was shut, so we couldn’t get inside.  Still plenty to see outside.Holy Island ruins of prioryWalking round the graves in the churchyard, you can’t help feel how appropriate the old festivals of All Saints and All Souls are for this time of year.  graves in churchyardRemembrance Day also falls in November, for the very good reason that Armistice Day, when the guns of the First World War fell silent, is on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  Here amid the grey mists and grey graves, it comes naturally to remember.  These lost souls almost stood around us.grave in churchyardSuch an enjoyable walk – how very surprising!  When we got to the pub for lunch, the few other tourists there were complaining about the weather: Such a horrible day!  We knew better.walking through the mist* Misty moisty are technical weather terms of Stephen’s.

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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