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.

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Hard lives

Beached up on the north Northumbrian cliffs, we are exposed to all that the weather can throw at us.  Over this winter so far we have endured violently squally and bad-tempered Southerlies bringing rain, rain and more rain. Recently the winds have changed to sea-salty and much colder Easterlies.

But whatever the weather throws at us, we sit tight in our small sandstone cottage, and are good at keeping busy and toasty.seaview cottageMy eye is always drawn out – when the grey allows ( and we’ve had a lot of grey this winter)  – to Holy Island on the horizon, and to wonder how the monks there coped with the wind and the cold and the rain.Sunrising behind cloudsWe know about these monks because some of them were so exceptional, so saintly, that Bede (himself an exceptional early historian) recorded their history. In the early 7th century,  King Oswald of nearby Bamburgh had summoned the monks from Iona to bring Christianity to his kingdom.  It was St Aidan who stablished the monastery, and St Cuthbert was to follow there as bishop.LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMatt

We don’t have Bede’s histories alone to tell us about these early monks.  We have inherited from this place and these early years one of the most remarkable and beautiful illustrated books of all time, the book of the Lindisfarne Gospels, apparently made by the later Bishop of Lindisfarne, Eadfrith, in honour of God and St Cuthbert.

First page of St Matthew’s gospel.  Image made available to the public domain by Wikipedia.

These are the ruins of the monastery church on Holy Island today.  Life in these buildings would have been hard and rough enough, but, in fact, these aren’t the buildings Cuthbert, Aidan and others knew. These are 11th century buildings. The early monks would have had oak buildings thatched with reeds.Holy Island ruins of prioryFrom the security and warmth of our windows, I often look out on Holy Island and wonder about the monks’ lives.  And that manuscript – how on earth could the scribes do this skilled, delicate work in such bitterly cold conditions – no windows, remember?

Hard lives. Hard and dangerous lives.

Extreme danger, in fact, with the earliest known Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793.  Eventually (in 875) the monks fled, taking with them what they valued most: the body of their beloved St Cuthbert.  A life-size wood carving in the church on Holy Island commemorates their journey.  It gives a sense of the struggle to carry the coffin and body, but what of the panic, the fear, the gut-wrenching terror.wood carving of monks carrying Cuthbert's bodyFrom our small cottage we can see the sea and down the coast to Lindisfarne, and when there are large bonfires on Holy Island, we can often see their smoke too.  Farmers here might have seen the approach of those terrifying Viking longships, or the smoke from their destructive fires.view out of garden to seaSkip through the generations to the 13th century, and people here endured a new menace: the Reivers.  The Border lands, the ungovernable country between the separate kingdoms of Scotland and England, experienced years of lawlessness (right up to the Union of the Crowns in 1603) because of the depredations of the Reivers.

Novels have been written and ballads sung of the Reivers, the wild lawless men who grabbed and took whatever they wanted – especially if it belonged to another family that they were at odds with.  It was Sir Walter Scott who really put the Reivers on the map.  His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border established the tales of the Reivers as romantic, glamorous, and exciting.  Actually, they were nasty, cruel and vicious.Minstrelsy of the Scottish BorderThese Border lands were divided into six Marches, and Berwick lay in the English Eastern March.  It was better governed than most.

But it was bad enough.  It’s not hard to find examples of defensive architecture.  In our adjoining parish of Ancroft, the church itself had a secure tower to offer safety when the Reivers swept in. The walls are 1.35 metres in thickness, the upper windows are tiny.  You can climb to the top of the tower, and there are fine views around.  It might have been used as a look-out, and it’s possible warning beacons may have been lit from here.  This tower is certainly no ecclesiastical adornment.Ancroft churchEven in more recent times, life was miserably hard in these parts.  Coal was mined under the neighbouring fields, and the tramway bearing coals to transport ships runs across our view ( it’s the uneven shrubby line of trees running from the top right of the landscape across to where it meets the modern Eastcoast Mainline running along the coast).old railway trackIn the local churchyard, there are several sad gravestones which tell of deaths at the colliery.  One of them is for John Harbottle who was accidentally killed on the 21st November 1865, aged 45 years.  We don’t know how he died, but you can read more on these accidents at Scremerston Colliery at the Durham Mining Museum webpage.  No Health and Safety Inspectorate in those times.  John Harbottle's grave stoneBut of all the troubles in this part of the world, it was surely the sea that caused most grief.Spittal beach promenadeJust up the coast at St Abbs, these small statues stand as a reminder of the terrible cost of fishing disasters.  These are the wives and children of Charles Purves and James and William Thorburn who lost their lives in the great storm of 1881.  189 fishermen from the east coast of Scotland perished in that storm.St Abbs statuesAnother extremely dangerous (but potentially very lucrative) sea-faring enterprise was whaling.  Berwick’s last whaling ship, the Norfolk, left on its last voyage in 1836.  She sailed over to the North American coast in the spring, but come winter, found herself trapped by ice in Pond Inlet (of Baffin Bay) with several other ships.  The Captain of the Norfolk recorded on 15th January 1837: “…The frost is very severe and the ice has been pressing to a great height all around us.”  They did not escape the ice until mid-March.  Many, many men died of scurvy as well as frostbite.

One Berwick whaling-ship owner proudly announced his trade on his front door.No 1 Wellington TerraceThose are harpoon heads on the front door panels.Detail of door of no 1 Wellington TerraceThese balustrades on the roofs of local Spittal houses are sometimes know as widows’ walks.  From them pacing wives and ship-owners might scan the sea, looking for sight of ships.widows' walksThe whale oil was processed in the manufactories where the last Spittal chimney now stands.  It was a foul-smelling and obnoxious process. Spittal chimneyIs it surprising that people fled, leaving this beautiful area for places where they hoped they might have a better life?emigration noticeI am left to reflect on my twenty-first century luck to be living here, safe and warm and healthy – so as to be able to enjoy it in comfort.

Oh, alas for all those poor souls who lived in these parts for whom life was such a miserable and dangerous struggle.Poe in front of fire