I first wrote this article for Time Out magazine. Since our first son was one at the time, it’s older than I thought!
‘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.
I am in the former 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 stretches impossibly far, as if wanting to bring the Farne Islands (breeding ground for 50,000 puffins in June and July) back to shore, an impossibly huge and implausibly empty expanse of perfect, tide-sculpted sand. The castle squats on a huge lump of basalt, lord of all it surveys, so it comes as no surprise to learn that the site has been occupied for millennia, with Bebbanburgh – as it was called then – 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, and anyone with an interest in archaeology can apply to take part.
This suggests the secret to enjoying a Northumbrian beach holiday: keep active and explore. The sand is perfect for attempting to build a small-scale version 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 life boat.
Holy Island was where St Aidan, with 12 monks from Iona, came 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).
But it’s not just history and nature. The light here is extraordinary, the landscape inspiring and property is cheap. There’s a vibrant artistic scene: visit Mick Oxley’s gallery (01665 571082, www.mickoxley.com) in Craster (and try the kippers from Rick Stein food hero Robson & Sons 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 for the last time 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, sitting on the sand.