Our local beach walk

I found myself reflecting the other day how long it is since I wrote on this blog about our walks.  It is not that we have not been out and about, but with the windier and wintrier weather our walks have been concentrated in the locality. I guess I’ve felt a bit dismissive about these, but I’ve now realised how silly this is.  After all, the walks that you do regularly and repetitively right through the seasons, in all weather – those are in fact probably the more fascinating. You see a place through all its changes.

So, let me take you with me on our local Spittal beach walk which we did the other day – and I will show you why we love it so much!

The walk starts with a rough track from our cottage down to the railway line … and the sea …If you are lucky, you will get to see a train …I still find the passing trains enormously exciting … for extra drama you can, of course, stand under the bridge as the train passes …Today I didn’t manage that, which is perhaps just as well because passing under the bridge with the bright blue of the sea calling you is a pleasure in itself …We turn to the left when through the bridge. You can see the old concrete bases of the beach huts ahead.  The beach huts were scrapped long ago, and recently planning permission has been lodged to build modern luxury homes on this land.  It will change the atmosphere of the place but I guess they will be lovely homes for some. For now the gorse is just out, it’s a beautiful day – and the beach is calling …Our route takes us over a small green park.  There are football posts here now but in the old days, there were all sorts of high jinks here … funfairs, paddling pools , together with an elaborate layout of seating and benches … all gone now …In the summer, this area is used for the Spittal Seaside Festival and on a fine summer’s evening it is pleasant indeed to walk down to the pavilions they put up …And partake of a beer or two while listening to the local talent …There’s nothing going on here today … not many people walking along the promenade either.Peering  over the railings (and with tide permitting), you can see some of the interesting rock formations that are to be found on this coastline …But today, we’re going to walk along the promenade for a while and descend to the beach later. This railing was repainted last summer and still looks nice and shiny and blue, in keeping with the blueness of today’s sky and sea …The promenade stretches on right up to the end of the houses (just before that old factory chimney you can see in the centre distance), and then the walk continues on a rougher track right to Spittal point where you face Berwick on the other side of the Tweed river. This beach is much loved by dog walkers …The painter, L.S. Lowry, loved it too, and several of his paintings have been reproduced at relevant points to make connections between the pictures and the landscape.  I so love this little red-capped lady standing in front of the blue railings!In mid-summer the promenade is full of folk having fun at the Spittal Seaside festival … Not a lot of people on the beach though …But then this is the very most northern part of Northumberland and it is not a beach for softies … Here are the stoical good people of Spittal rushing into the sea on Boxing Day!  This is the North Sea remember, and we are almost in Scotland …I have only ever known Stephen paddle here the once (and this was taken mid-summer) …I’m much more confident!Our first winter here we had serious snow. It was stunningly beautiful and we have longed for its return ever since …And oh, how these little dogs are enjoying themselves!Seriously angry wind and waves like this storm in January last year are – thank goodness – a rarity…A white beach – but it’s not snow …But back to the present: half way along the promenade, we walk down to the beach, and on to the sand …It’s just heavenly walking along this large sandy expanse … the weather is perfect today … just a light wind … shingle and shells and seaweed …Up on the promenade, there’s the play park and the amusement arcade (wouldn’t be a proper beach without fun and games and icecream, would it?) ….Down on the sand, there’s lots of interest. If you like collecting things and the weird and the wonderful like me, you’d love it.  There are always interesting things to find … bits of sea-glass, shells, pebbles …Parts of old bottles …Bicycle tyres reconfigured by Mother Nature into interesting beach sculptures …A rattan bench, so conveniently placed for beach viewing …Sometimes interesting graffiti …Sea-foam monsters …And did I tell you that we collect lettered bricks …?Sometimes you find things you would rather not find … (this was in January last year after the very heavy storms washed livestock ….err, dead stock …. down the Tweed on to Spittal beach) …Today Stephen’s found me some treasures …Three golf balls!And a lovely bit of china … (with writing on, always the best) …We’ve had stormy weather recently, and that’s reflected in the state of the beach today.  There’s lots of seaweed and leaves that have been swept down the river Tweed …As we approach the Point, we pass the old groins, half buried in this leafy seaweed mess.  There on the bank you can see the last of the old Spittal factory chimneys.  This area was once full of factories making chemicals and fertiliser.  It is reputed to have smelt very bad, greatly to the displeasure of the boarding-house ladies in the posher parts of Spittal …From a distance these piles appear to be all organic matter – leaves and seaweed and branches – but sadly that’s not the case.  There is disgusting very human rubbish amid the natural waste …And there is a horribly large amount of plastic bottles.  Sometimes I’m organised enough to bring bags for rubbish but I hadn’t expected it to be so bad today.Actually, it isn’t the worst that we’ve ever seen the beach.  One December, after serious storms, the piles on the beach were so large they almost came up to Stephen’s shoulder.Of course, these sea-gifts have their advantages …  this is fodder from the sea for our compost heap …The birds too love these leafy treasures which bring fine dining …Spittal Point at the end of the beach is where the sea meets the river Tweed …On the other side of the Tweed river is the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed with its fine Elizabethan fortifications … (here caught in a magically wintry sun-setting moment) …And there are the pier and the lighthouse. At times it can appear to be a tiny waterway over to the pier, but it is not …Very large boats like the Marinda here go up the Tweed to Tweedmouth harbour …Just as in Lowry’s day … (sadly this other sign in the Lowry trail on Spittal beach has been horribly defaced by the elements) …The channel is so tricky to navigate that large boats must use the local pilot.  Here is the pilot boat edgily leading the way …There is the Marinda turning and straightening into port. It’s always dramatic when a big boat arrives, but these fishermen don’t look that bothered …The Spit – as we call this land where the sea meets the river – is endlessly fascinating.  It is a land of shape-shifting, of soft sands and the intriguing patterns of nature. Sometimes there are islands …Sometimes there are ridges and mounds and small pools …Patterns and new colours …An ethereal world when caught in the mist …You never know what colours you may find here …Occasionally we walk down here at night … it is truly magical to watch the sun set behind Berwick  and the Tweed …Today we turn back from the Tweed to the Spittal chimney and a mirrored sun …It is here that we see our favourite beach birds, the sanderlings. They are winter visitors from the high Arctic. You can read more about these so-called Keystone Cops of the British seaside in an earlier blogpost of mine Time now to turn back.  Sometimes the beach is so perfect that we cannot resist retracing our steps along the beach and up to home on the hill … On other occasions we’ll walk back along the promenade. It has been known to be as sandy as this after the winter storms …They have to call out the diggers before the season starts to clean it all up …Today we’re walking back through Spittal. This is Spittal’s industrial quarter and has a fascination of its own. First we go through the scruffy lands where you can see the last remaining Spittal chimney in its native habitat …On the other side of the road are the old fish-gutting sheds, now part of Berwick Sailing Club.  In the old days, these large wooden shutters were drawn back to the walls on either side, and buckets of freshly caught fish delivered for processing …Not far away is the old salmon fishing shiel.  Here fishermen would pass the time, eating and sleeping, while waiting for the right tides for their salmon nets …We turn down into Spittal’s Main Street.  It is handsome and well-cared for – and unusually wide for a village street. This is because once an old railway track ran through the middle of the street, bringing building stone and coal to the river from where it could be transported down the coast …There is a handsome Victorian school …And church …The houses at this end of Spittal are solidly-built of the local stone. Many of these were boarding houses where visitors from the nearby Scottish Borders stayed for seaside holidays … But the old signs hint at an older history to this place.  Surely with a name such as Cow Road at some time people drove their cattle down this lane …?We are now climbing the hill … and we are looking down on the lighthouse and pier … and Spittal chimney … and the funfair … and Spittal’s Main street … and all those nicely roofed houses …Where earlier in our walk we walked under the railway line, here we cross it …The railway crossing manager is to be found in a little hut to the side, and should you wish to drive over the line, you must seek permission …If you’re just walking over, you can just go – but, of course, you take your life in your hands …This pic really doesn’t convey how scarily fast these trains can move … !Now we’re walking parallel to the railway line … still on the lookout for trains … and looking back at the lighthouse and beach …With just our muddy rutted track ahead … This is our private lane, shared with our neighbours, and lovingly repaired by us ….Over the brow of the hill …And a pause to enjoy it all … before we head home for tea.

All change

I’ve been both a town and a country mouse. One thing that stands out for me as I revert to country mouse status is how oblivious I’ve been to natural change when living in towns and cities.

It’s been partly due to my occupations in these places, of course, that I have noticed things so differently.  When rushing to work in town or city, you may indeed notice the seasons change, but the micro changes so often pass you by.

Everything at Seaview conspires to remind us that the old Greek adage from Heraclitus πάντα ῥεῖ (everything flows) is true. Life here is constant flux.

The sun and the moon show this as well as anything.  These photographs of a wintry sunrise on the solstice last year (December 21st) were all taken in the matter of minutes as the sun rose to the west of  Bamburgh Castle. First a tiny hint that something was coming …sunrise-1-on-the-solstice-21-12-15Then a bit more …sunrise-2-on-the-solstice-21-12-15And as the sun continues to rise, it appears to swivel to the right …sunrise-3-on-the-solstice-21-12-15Now you can see clearly the orb approaching …sunrise-4-on-the-solstice-21-12-15Likewise the moon, here captured on the night of the Supermoon last month, (14th November) …supermoon-14-11-2016Through the early evening, the moon moved rapidly across the sky, in and out of the clouds.  But there were other changes afoot too – man-made changes.  In the blink of an eye, a train slipped across our line of sight, travelling down the mainline East Coast railway line …supermoon-14-11-2016-with-trainCloud banks constantlychange, sweeping across the huge Northumbrian skies in a fascinating variety of patterns …cloud-formationsRainbows shimmer for a moment (here over Holy Island) – and then pass on …rainbow-on-holy-islandSometimes the moment appears to linger. This foggy sunrise last winter seemed trapped in a cold still world …washing-line-in-the-misty-sunBut the lingering is always an illusion, usually fostered by the light on cold days, as captured in this picture of Berwick, golden in the setting sun …winter-sun-on-berwickYou’ve got to be quick to catch the birds sweeping through our skylines too.  Starlings over the neighbouring houses …cloud-of-starlings-copyCrowds of seagulls following the plough …seagulls-following-the-ploughOr this solitary bird caught in a recent sunrise …bird-at-dawnUnremarkable hungry black birds, looking extraordinary in black and white …wintry-birdsAnd our very favourites, the little sanderlings (who only visit this area in the winter), running in and out of the waterline on the Tweed …sanderlings-on-the-shoreJust occasionally we manage to capture the boats coming into the Tweed – not often.  Entry is difficult, limited by the tides, and so dodgy (because the channel is very narrow) that only the local pilots are allowed to navigate these boats to the Tweed Dock. Magical to see them rushing past Berwick’s old lighthouse …marinda-entering-the-tweedTides – ah, yes, tides. Nothing, of course, demonstrates the inevitability and variety of natural change like the tides.

“Twice daily the tides are here, sometimes 
breenging shoreward like an army
of small, mad, angry locals,
at others, creeping in on tourist feet.
They are their own beginnings & endings …”

from At Douglas Hall by Stuart  A Patterson (a Borders poet) 

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to record these changes by photographing the Tweed Estuary from our lane throughout the day.  In all these pictures, you should be able to make out the wide panorama, stretching from Berwick’s old lighthouse on the far right to Berwick’s Royal Border Bridge on the left of the picture. These pictures start at 9.21 am with very low tide, and the sands of Spittal Point stretching out almost down to the lighthouse …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-9-21-amAn hour later (10.22 am), the sun has come out, there’s a van coming down the lane, and the sands of Spittal Point are succumbing to the incoming tide …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-10-22-amBy 11.26 am, the sky is really blue, there are some gorgeous light clouds mirroring the line of the pier, and only a few islands of sand are still uncovered by the tide …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-11-26-am12.20, and the sky is far less exciting, the sun has gone in, there are still a few very small islands of sand in the Tweed – and there’s a train running up the East Coast mainline, Berwick bound, I think …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-12-20-am13.17, and rather a dull picture of high tide and no sun …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-13-17-pmAn hour later (14.20 pm), and shafts of low wintry sun are running over the picture from the left (the west) as another train is captured on the Eastcoast railway line.  It is very high tide …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-14-20-pmBy 15.17 pm the light is beginning to go, but an odd flash of blue sky is revealed in the dying light.  The tide is on the turn …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-15-17-pmAnd the last picture of daylight, taken at 16.15 pm, the sky and sea are delicately rose-pink from the rays of the setting sun in the west.  The tide is still only a very little way out …view-to-berwick-from-our-lane-16-15-pmHow uplifting – in a year when the world has seen such radical and disturbing global changes – are these ephemeral sudden shafts of light …

 

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.

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