As night fell, a lighthouse beam caught my eye as it flickered across the sea from Amble. I folded away the seaside cabin’s mini-table, switched off the radio and stepped out on to the porch, waiting for my eyes to adjust to a night sky packed with stars. It was spellbinding. The north-east coast, with its castles, characters and legends, has magic everywhere, and miles of long beaches on which to contemplate it all.
My wife, Mim, and I had travelled by train to Alnmouth for a car-free weekend getaway, with the historic coastal village as our base (a 20-minute stroll from the station). We’d soon settled in, sitting on the cabin’s steps to drink tea and eat bacon rolls while listening to the sea, not crashing but idling. Within a few hours, a spell had been cast, and cares packed away, replaced by fresh air and relaxation.
But as much as it offers a welcome chance to do nothing, this coast is also rich in places to visit: Bamburgh and its castle, the Farne Islands for seabird-spotting, the fishing village of Craster, 14th-century Dunstanburgh Castle, and Howick Hall Gardens (for tea time at the ancestral seat of the Earls Grey).
This area of outstanding natural beauty is home to many treasures. But how best to explore them? Easy: arrive by train, hire a bike, take buses, and walk. Alnmouth station is on the east coast mainline, so travelling from London (or Peterborough, Doncaster, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh) was a book-reading, nap-taking, coffee-sipping three hours and 41 minutes from King’s Cross.
We arrived at Alnmouth’s Old School Gallery in the early afternoon, with the weather still pondering: breezy sunshine or windy grey-fest. As I chatted to Dale and Penny who run the gallery and its cafe, where vegetable frittata, couscous and salad (£8) kept us filled till bacon-roll time, I sensed Dale’s disappointment at the prospect of drizzle, or worse.
The couple also own our weekend billet. Shoreside Huts are three off-grid seaside cabins a short walk from the village, and which opened in May. Designed by local Riba award-winning architecture firm Elliott and artist and joiner Adam Clarke, they have a stylish, wooden simplicity, with double bed, solar lights, washroom with composting toilet, log-burner, sofabed and space-saving ingenuity (although for now, showering means a trip back to the gallery).
Waking with the sunrise and a view of the sea is how I wish I started all my days but it’s not viable to live on just bacon and tea, so we left our cabin – St Aidan – for breakfast in Scott’s Deli in Alnmouth (orange juice, granola, salmon and egg on brioche). There, families, locals and lycra-clad would-be peloton members were setting themselves up for the day as we studied our route to Bamburgh on the 418 bus (Discover day ticket £6.50pp).
The route meandered through countryside and along the coast, passing villages we could have jumped off at to explore. Instead, we eavesdropped on walkers plotting routes from Embleton and Low Newton-by-the-Sea that would take them on St Oswald’s Way. This 97-mile footpath runs from Holy Island to equally blessed-sounding Heavenfield, close to Hadrian’s Wall in the south of the county. After an hour and 10 minutes on the bus, Bamburgh and its 11th-century castle (adult £11.25, 5-16s £5.50, family £28) came into view.
Mim deemed the castle not damaged-looking enough: she prefers them as ragged as possible. Still, we toured its state rooms, took in tales of dragons and ghosts and discovered you can live there, in rented apartments. We had ice-cream from Wyndenwell on Front Street, and wandered to Bamburgh’s magnificent beach for a stroll south to Seahouses.
On the horizon were the Farne Islands, and their two lighthouses, one of which was home to Grace Darling, and whose story is affectingly told at Bamburgh’s RNLI museum (admission free). Darling and her father, William, tended the Longstone lighthouse and on 7 September 1838 risked their lives in a storm to rescue passengers and crew from the stricken SS Forfarshire. They did so in a wooden boat not much longer than a family estate car. Grace’s reward was a celebrity that meant constant intrusion from an admiring public, hastening her early demise from TB.
Bamburgh, with its stone-fronted houses, feels genteel, but Seahouses is a typical seaside town of fish and chips and arcades. And so our two-hour walk ended with a stop at Lewis’s (haddock/cod and chips £9) before taking the X18 bus back to Alnmouth.
At first glance, Alnmouth had appeared scenic but sleepy. Yet its main road, Northumberland Street, is home to pubs including the Red Lion, the Tea Cosy Tearoom, the highly regarded Beaches restaurant, and a shop for hut supplies. There’s even an ironic slice of village history, too: what used to be the home of its anti-smuggling officer in the 18th century is now the Aln Gift Shop.
On our first afternoon we had waited on Alnmouth’s Riverside Road for Adam from the Bike Shop in nearby Alnwick to deliver our hire bicycles (from £25 a day, delivery/pickup available). We saw how the Aln estuary curved around the village to meet the sea, and looked over to Church Hill – the cross at its summit an evocative vision amid mottled skies. Adam’s suggested route – an easy ride on Sustrans National Cycle Route 1 to Warkworth and its castle – proved a highlight. He also tipped Bertram’s in Warkworth for lunch: its crab cakes (£9.95) and apple crumble (£4.95) fuelled our return ride to Alnmouth.
Warkworth Castle (adult £7.20, 5-17s £4.30, family £18.70), with its cast of custodians, including Harry Hotspur, was more to Mim’s liking: grand, yet suitably broken-looking. We wandered its ruins, before venturing along the River Coquet to visit its 15th-century hermitage. The boat ride there encapsulated, for me, the soulful heartbeat of this break – and this part of the world. Mark, at the ticket desk, had encouraged us not to miss the hermitage. I asked why. “There’s a moment of peace, midway across the river trip, that you should listen out for. It only lasts a couple of seconds but it’s magical. Even for a place as quiet as this.”
• Accommodation was provided by Shoreside Huts (from £80 a night, sleeps 2, canopyandstars.co.uk) and rail travel by LNER, which has advance online fares between London King’s Cross and Alnmouth from £22.50 one way
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