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England’s Last Wilderness

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

This article first appeared in TNT magazine.

Northumberland, the most sparsely populated county in England, is the nearest thing to wilderness south of Scotland. There are only 63 people per square kilometre and, standing on a mile of pristine beach, with a castle brooding over the shore and hills fringing the horizon, I wonder why. Then the wind starts. Ten minutes later, I’m sandblasted from the beach. So that’s why no one comes here.

Puffins on the Farne Islands

Puffins on the Farne Islands

Well, no. It’s not just the weather, though a typical Northumbrian day will include four seasons, a taste of an Ice Age and half an hour trying to see the hand in front of your face when the sea fog (sea fret as the locals call it) rolls in. Northumberland is border land, it’s been border land since the Romans came up here, decided they’d gone far enough and built a wall, and its history dictates its present in a way unknown elsewhere in England.

There’s no better way to understand history than digging it up, and with the Bamburgh Research Project (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk, from £171 per week) I could do just that. The BRP is an ongoing archaeological project, open to volunteers, excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle. If there’s a more spectacular place to do archaeology, I don’t know it. The castle squats on a huge great hunk of dolerite, an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill that formed 295 million years ago when magma squeezed between two layers of softer rock and set hard. Since then, the soft rock has been eroding away, and outcrops of the Great Whin Sill form some of the key landscape features of the north, including High Force waterfall in Durham and the Farne Islands, a couple of miles out into the North Sea from Bamburgh.

Digging for understanding

Digging for understanding

“You can tell by the sound your trowel makes what you’re digging through. Grit is hard and clacking, sand is abrasive and scraping, clay produces a smooth hiss.” Paul Gething, co-founder and co-director of the BRP, sits back on his haunches and explains to the week’s intake of volunteers what we need to look – and listen for – as we excavate. Among the amateur archaeologists are students gaining credits for archaeology degrees, a seventy-year-old inspired by Time Team and those inspired by what Paul calls “the raw power of the past”. Most spend the week camping with the archaeologists at a nearby camp site, juddering in to the castle each morning in a bumpy Land Rover before spending the day digging with increasingly finely graded implements (culminating in the gingerly wielded toothbrush that I used to scrape sand from a tibia emerging from a rediscovered graveyard), sifting excavated materials through flotation tanks, and tagging and bagging the day’s finds (from the ubiquitous bones and pottery, through stycas – Northumbrian coins – to exquisite pieces of gold jewellery).

Yeavering Bell

Yeavering Bell

But if you’re the sort of person who finds even the handful of people on the beach at Bamburgh too invasive, head inland. In the lee of the Cheviot Hills is Ad Gefrin. It’s a field now, but it was once the summer palace of the kings of Northumbria. Looming over Ad Gefrin, the conical hill of Yeavering Bell is also testament to the illusions of power. During the Iron Age, the greatest chieftain of the land built a fort atop the hill, its great, tumbledown stone ramparts still crowning the summit. But the chieftain is forgotten, his people gone and, as I stand on the summit, I reflect that I have not seen another human being all day. And, rubbing aching legs, that our ancestors must have had thighs like bloody tree trunks.

Watched bird bites back

Watched bird bites back

A mile out from Bamburgh and accessible by boat from Seahouses (www.farne-islands.com, from £13), the Farne Islands provide a clucking, hissing cornucopia of life: 37,000 pairs of puffins, 50,000 guillemots, more than 20 other species of birds and 6,000 grey seals. St Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the island in the seventh century, when he instituted laws for the protection of Eider ducks and nesting birds; the National Trust rangers that live on the islands today continue his work. There’s stiff competition for the posts, but the eleven rangers, who remain on the islands for nine months from April to November, have as raw an experience of nature as anyone in Britain.

But that’s Northumberland: England’s last wilderness.

Recommendations

Eat

Seahouses has a number of establishments vying for the title of best fish and chips shop in the north east. Neptune Restaurant (www.neptunefishandchips.co.uk, from £7.95 for cod and chips, with pot of tea and bread and butter) is one of the main contenders. The Copper Kettle Tearooms (www.copperkettletearooms.com, mains from £4.95) in Bamburgh cooks its home prepared food fresh each day, so can run out in the afternoon – get there early.

Drink

Most Northumbrian pubs serve hearty food, but a good pint can be had at the Castle Inn (http://castleinnbamburgh.co.uk/, pints from £3) in Bamburgh and the backdrop is hard to beat. Local pubs can be insular, but the Victoria Hotel (www.victoriahotel.net, from £3.40) is friendly and doesn’t demur when BRP students spend hours over a single coffee while using its free WiFi.

Stay

Up the coast from Bamburgh, Pot-A-Doodle Do Wigwam Village (www.northumbrianwigwams.com, from £15 per person per night) provides accommodation in wooden wigwams, with three yurts thrown in for good measure. The living quarters at St. Cuthbert’s House (www.stcuthbertshouse.com, from £90 for a double), a renovated 200-year-old chapel, are considerably more luxurious. Their breakfasts, locally sourced, are wonderful.

A Walk Around Mersea Island

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

First published in The Great Outdoors magazine.

A wild walk can be an excursion into time as well as place. I’ve always been fascinated by how the geography of Britain has changed over the centuries, with generations of farmers nibbling at the sea, while the sea gnaws the coast elsewhere. Mersea, a tidal island in the Colne Estuary, demonstrates this vividly. And who wouldn’t want to walk around an island?

View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn

View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn

To avoid the July heat, I crossed The Strood, the causeway linking Mersea to the mainland, at dawn. Now tarmac, and regularly inundated at high spring tides, The Strood is itself a link to the past, for the causeway was first laid around 700 AD, when an Anglo-Saxon magnate ordered three to five thousand oak pilings to be sunk into the underlying clay. Oak pilings don’t talk, and later Viking invaders destroyed pretty well all written records in East Anglia and Essex, but one candidate as builder was the monk-king, Sæbbi of Essex, who abdicated to devote himself to prayer.

View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn

View across the mudflats from The Strood at dawn

The rising sun drew a morning mist from the ground and sea. The tide was coming in, and in the dawn silence I heard it slow swirl through the channels of the mud flats. Continuing across the island to West Mersea, I parked and set off clockwise around the island. Walking away from the harbour, seaweed shaggy pilings rulered out into the slowly filling channel and, when I again reached the causeway, the lunarscape of mud flats had been replaced by flat sheets of grey water.

Anti erosion pilings near West Mersea

Anti erosion pilings near West Mersea

From here, a short detour inland made for a long walk into the past. At the top of the rise overlooking the causeway is a barrow dating from the start of the second century AD. Now topped with an oak tree, it would once have been the most visible feature of the landscape for people crossing the causeway. When the mound was excavated early in the twentieth century, archaeologists found, at the heart of the barrow, a lead box containing cremated bones, creating a conundrum under the hill. For the Romans did not raise barrows, and the Britons did not cremate the dead. But here were both.

The oak tree atop the barrow

The oak tree atop the barrow

Returning to island circumnavigation, I followed the Pyefleet Channel. The sun had burned off the morning mist and the water sparkled in the early light. Saxon invaders, in their shallow-drafted boats, used these channels as highways into the country’s heart. Not far up the coast, at Sutton Hoo, an Anglo-Saxon king was buried in one of these boats, accompanied into the next life by some of the most magnificent jewellery and armour ever made. It was not hard to imagine the creak of oarlocks and the hiss of oars as the dragon-prowed boats moved stealthily upstream. Indeed, the settlers and invaders of 1,500 years ago were accompanied by much the same soundtrack as I was: the harsh croak of seagulls, the piping whistles of curlews, and the hiss of water and wind. For a few miles I walked in a soundscape unaltered for thousands of years.

Salt marsh on the north coast of Mersea Island

Salt marsh on the north coast of Mersea Island

The north shore of Mersea Island is quiet. I saw a handful of people, mostly on boats, but many swifts, the birds of eternal summer, jinking over the salt marshes, and, along a thistle-lined stretch of path, a cortege of butterflies accompanied me on my way.

View from eastern tip of island

View from eastern tip of island

Reaching the tip of the island, the North Sea opened out, unusually blue and tranquil, to the south, the land marked by shallow orange cliffs. The sea is hard gnawing the land here. Tree roots jut out into empty space, clawing against the inevitable, and then, finally, tumble down upon the beach. The cliffs were laid down 300,000 years ago, when elephants, rhinos and bear roamed the area, and fossil hunters still turn up remains.

Cliffs edging Cudmore Grove country park

Cliffs edging Cudmore Grove country park

The sun was up and I was thirsty and hungry. An advantage of this walk was ending it at one of the excellent seafood shacks in West Mersea, eating the wildlife – oysters, cockles, shellfish – that had, unseen, underwater, accompanied me around the island.

Belgian Beaches

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

The unlikely fact of Belgian beaches produced a couple of articles, including this one for the in-flight magazine of BMI airlines.

Mention Belgium, and beer, chocolate and Poirot are likely to come to mind. Beaches probably won’t figure. In fact, it might come as a surprise that Belgium even has a coastline, but it does, some 69 kilometres of it, squeezed in between France and the Netherlands, and from one end to the other, the land slides gingerly into the North Sea via miles of carefully tended, perfectly manicured sand. Add to these unexpected beaches Belgian expertise in food, design and fashion, and you have the ingredients for a surprisingly varied get away.

The coast tram (de Kusttram)

The Kusstram

The Kusstram

Sitting by the North Sea, Belgium can’t rely on its weather, so it has to try that bit harder to attract visitors. A Eurostar train ticket carries with it free onward railway travel anywhere within Belgium, so no queuing to pay for a connection at Brussels station. Even more remarkable, however, is the coast tram (www.dekusttram.be). This runs the length of Belgium’s shore, from De Knokke in the east to De Panne in the west, with 70 stops along the way and a journey time from end to end of a little over two hours. With nowhere more than a short walk from a stop, all the resorts become easily accessible. During the summer services run every five to ten minutes, so should the crowds become too thick on one particular stretch of beach, it’s an easy matter to hop on the tram and alight a short time later among grass-covered dunes and stroll down to a relatively empty shore.
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Travel Northumberland

Friday, March 14th, 2014

I first wrote this article for Time Out magazine. Since our first son was one at the time, it’s older than I thought!

Bamburgh Castle and beach - at high tide!

Bamburgh Castle and beach – at high tide!

‘It’s perfect, isn’t it?’ My gesture took in not one but two castles, three lighthouses and a beach, broad and empty as the moon.

‘If perfection includes sand blasting and freezing water,’ said my wife.

And there you have it in a nutshell. The Northumberland coast produces extreme reactions. People either think it the most wonderful place they’ve ever seen, and make annual visits as faithfully as 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 a prerequisite for a day at the beach.
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Article Archive

Monday, December 30th, 2013

Over the next few weeks I’m going to put up on my blog some of the magazine articles that I’ve had published, in places ranging from Time Out to History Today, but which are not available online and, in the cases of some of the magazines, pretty well unavailable anywhere. In part, of course, this is advertising, but I’m also reasonably proud of some of these pieces and it will be great to allow them a fresh readership – it also helps me to keep the blog content refreshed without taking too much of my time, so win win all round!