Birdwatching on the Northumberland Coast
Northumberland: A Twitcher's Paradise
Hot sunshine, sudden white-out: the sea fret poured over the cliffs like dry ice. I parked the car in a lay-by on the road between Seahouses and Bamburgh, opened the door on to poppies and cow parsley and walked across dunes to the beach.
In the pearly light of the sea fret the sand was now glassy, now iridescent. In patches it was speckled with lugworm casts and, in occasional channels, it looked like a sand sculpture of a mackerel sky. No one else was here. The beauty of the sand, the surge of the surf and the emptiness were head-cleansing.
Are there wilder, more exhilarating beaches than these? Certainly not in England. The wide, sandy crescents that stretch from just below Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north to Druridge Bay in the south enjoy the double accolade - and protection - of being part of both an officially designated Heritage Coast and of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
At Druridge Bay I met Tom Cadwallender, the AONB's natural and cultural heritage officer and an enthusiastic ambassador for the birdlife and beauty of this coastline. Standing among the marram grass on the dunes we gazed on near-emptiness in either direction. "It's basically seven miles of sand, a classic Northumbrian coastline of rocky promontories holding the sand in," he said.
At the foot of the dunes were the remnants of concrete blocks from the Second World War that were supposed to act as obstacles to an invasion. Out on the flat sands were a handful of people and two sprinting border collies. "Apart from really sunny Sundays, this is about as busy as it gets," said Tom.
A day after I arrived - from glorious sunlight on the Cheviot Hills, which felt like the heathered roof of the world - mist still enshrouded the coast. But the pale coin of the sun was just about visible above us, and Tom was optimistic. "The prevailing weather here is westerly," he explained, "while the dominant wind is northerly." This accounts for the relative lack of rain. "We rate as one of the two or three lowest rainfall counties in Britain."
"It's the cold sea reacting with the warm air, so they can be regular," he admitted. "But generally the sun burns them off." The sea mist had certainly made for an interesting trip out to the Farne Islands the day before. These 28 dolerite extrusions, lying between two and five miles off the coast east of Bamburgh, are hotel and maternity ward to 100,000 breeding seabirds.
Tom, a serious birder, reckons a visit there is "one of the top 10 ornithological experiences in the world". I had been looking forward to going for years.
I had my doubts as I joined 40 other cagouled optimists on the open deck of the Glad Tidings VII at Seahouses. Would we see a thing, or freeze to death in the trying? In fact, the skippers of these sightseeing boats are highly skilled. Ours kept up a knowledgeable running commentary and beat the fret by holding the boat close enough to sheer rock faces for us to smell the guano and feel like intruders on an avian world.
Gulls, terns, kittiwakes, guillemots, the occasional razorbill and, of course, puffins in their many thousands have created shrieking, reeking cities out here in the North Sea. It's a sight so awesome you even forget the razor-edged northerlies.
On Inner Farne island, sometime home of St Cuthbert, we landed for an hour and I met one of the National Trust wardens there, Neil Forbes (the NT owns all the islands). He scanned the rocks with his binoculars. "We have one nesting pair of roseate terns," he said (the roseate tern being Britain's rarest breeding seabird). "That's what I was just looking for. If we get a second pair that would be fantastic."
The following day Tom pointed out that on Coquet Island, off Amble, there were 100 nesting pairs of roseate terns last year - "the biggest colony in Britain. We're really proud of that.
This coastline is a place for birdwatchers and wanderers, kite flyers and dog walkers, colonised by unpretentious towns and villages. These communities offer fish and chips, catches of the day and boat trips; and through them all, as tangible as the sea frets, runs an undercurrent of sadness due to the passing of fishing as a livelihood.
The fishing boats of Seahouses once followed the annual southward migration of the herring shoals, from Shetland down to Lowestoft in Suffolk, but the industry died out in the 1930s. The hamlet of Low Newton is a perfect example of the traditional square of fishermen's cottages, which provided shelter for the fishermen to mend nets and bait lines.
Boulmer was once notorious for smuggling and now has a kind of virtual fame as a name in the BBC Shipping Forecast, where it features in "Coastal Reports for Inshore Waters (Boulmer, Bridlington, Sheerness...)".
In the Fishing Boat Inn in Boulmer I came across a dialect poem by Katrina Porteous, a local poet, about the decline of salmon fishing, printed on card and propped against a window:
Plenty lang a winter,
Naen salmon i' the bay.
An' lang enough asleep lad,
When your livin's rived away.
On the bar wall was a photograph of the traditional Northumbrian coble, shallow-drafted for beaching on the sand and, with its covered front end, looking (the barmaid's description) "like a shoe". There used to be fourteen in Boulmer; now there are three, setting lobster and crab pots. "It's like everything," said a drinker gloomily, "it's not what it was." A few yards along the coast road I had come across a beautiful coble, a bonny green lass called Violet Stephenson, pulled up on the beach.
After a quick pint I took the well-worn path from Craster (home of both the oak-smoked kipper and the London kerbstone) to the ruined castle of Dunstanburgh, one of the iconic sights of this coastline. This is a clifftop walk for beginners, on a band of springy, daisy-strewn turf with the sound of skylarks in one ear and crashing surf in the other.
As Tom had promised it would, the mist suddenly lifted and the picturesque ruin of Dunstanburgh, looking oddly like a pair of melted binoculars, appeared as if spotlit by the afternoon sun. This is the most popular walk of the entire coast.
The following day, I followed Tom's instructions and left the Holy Island crowds behind to find one of the least known beaches. Cheswick Beach, between Holy Island and Berwick, is part of the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve. Rare marsh orchids and helleborines grow in the dunes in summer, while the pale-bellied Brent goose winters almost exclusively here.
"Beware of quicksands and unexploded ordnance," says a sign - which might, admittedly, partly account for how few people were treading this vast expanse of sand. In bright sunshine - not a trace of mist this morning - I followed the solitary trail of footprints near the water's edge made by my predecessor of half an hour ago. Dogs' pawprints formed glissades and infinity symbols in the wet-cement sand.
I counted eleven people on the several miles of Cheswick Beach, all of them ant-sized. Slowly, four of them, in Lawrence of Arabia style, coalesced into galloping horses and riders who passed in an eerie silence, the sound of surf and wind drowning out the drumming hooves.