Illuminated gospels and brilliant beaches – Edoardo Albert is enchanted by England’s north-east coast.
‘It’s perfect, isn’t it?’ My gesture took in two castles, three lighthouses and a beach, broad and empty as the moon.
‘If perfection includes having your skin sandblasted and freezing water,’ observed my wife.
The Northumberland coast produces extreme reactions. People either think it the most wonderful place they’ve ever been, and make annual visits as faithfully as do the pilgrims to Holy Island – or they get on a plane to a country where toes dipped in the sea don’t turn blue, and wind defences are not required for a day at the beach.
I am in the first camp. The beach over which Bamburgh Castle (01668 214515/www.bamburghcastle.com) looms, a potent symbol of the region’s violent past, is my favourite. At low tide it reaches far out into the sea, as if wanting to bring the Farne Islands (the breeding ground for 50,000 puffins in June and July) back to shore, an impossibly huge and empty expanse of perfect, tide-sculpted sand. The castle squats on a great lump of basalt, lord of all it surveys, so it comes as no surprise to learn that the site has been occupied for millennia. Bebbanburgh – as it was called then – was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Bernicia, which ruled from East Lothian down to Durham and had trade links as far as Byzantium. The Bamburgh Research Project (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk) is continuing with excavations on and around the site: those with an interest in archaeology can apply to take part.
You should. This is the secret to enjoying a Northumbrian beach holiday with the family: keep active and explore. The sand is perfect for building small-scale versions of Bamburgh. At low tide, inviting pools sparkle amid seaweed-covered rocks, and the constant wind makes kite-flying a joy. As for exploration, the distant prospect of Lindisfarne Castle (01289 389244/www.nationaltrust.org.uk), is irresistible, though check the tide times. Holy Island, the site of the castle, is a part-time island, the causeway flooded twice daily. The local paper particularly enjoys splashing on its front page photos of hapless tourists sitting on the roof of their car, waiting for the lifeboat.
Holy Island was where St Aidan, with 12 monks from Iona, came in AD635 as a missionary to preach the Gospel and stayed to rebuild a civilisation. The luminous fruit of their efforts, the Lindisfarne Gospel, is in the British Museum but there’s a facsimile at the Lindisfarne Centre (Marygate; 01289 389004/www.lindisfarne-centre.com).
A vibrant artistic scene
But it’s not just history and nature. The light here is extraordinary, the landscape inspiring and there’s a vibrant artistic scene: visit Mick Oxley’s gallery (01665 571082/www.mickoxley.com) in Craster (and try Rick Stein’s favourite kippers at the Smokehouses at the same time), the Bakehouse Gallery (01665 602277/www.thebakehousegallery.com) in Alwnick or the Chatton Gallery (01668 215494/www.chatton-gallery.co.uk) in, yep, Chatton.
Looking over the unspoiled expanse of shore, I announced to my wife, huddled in a hastily bought fleece, that it all looked good enough to eat. She pointed to our one-year-old son, tucking into the beach with gusto.
‘He thinks so.’
Where to stay
Doxford Cottages As far as holiday cottages go, these are as luxurious as I’ve seen: seven carefully restored buildings, sleeping two to eight people, each with terraces that lead down through woods to a private lake. The 2,500 acre private estate means the children can roam and should the weather turn, there is a games room with pool, table tennis and air hockey.
Doxford Cottages, Doxford Estate, Chathill, NE67 5DW (01665 589393/www.doxfordcottages.co.uk). From £350, Fri, Sat, Sun for two-person cottage.
Where to eat
Blackmore’s of Alnwick Blackmore’s has significantly raised the bar on local dining, through evolution rather than revolution. So think healthy portions of Glendale beef with whisky sauce, rather than quails’ eggs in a gold-tinted caramel cage, and you’ll be on the right track.