Monday, 21 August 2017

Craster and Dunstanburgh Castle

Craster Harbour
Our summer holiday this year took us to a part of England that I hadn’t visited since I was a boy; the county of Northumberland.  I have cast longing eyes over the coast path there for some time and was pleased that we finally took the plunge.  Sadly for us though the weather wasn’t great during the week we stayed there.  In fact it was halfway through the week before it stopped raining.  This was most disappointing but eventually the weather relented enough for us to take the plunge on one of the shorter walks in volume 35 of the Pathfinder Guides Northumberland and the Scottish Borders.  This is walk number 6 from that book.

Dunstanburgh is possibly the most photographed castle in the county (although there are plenty to choose from in this county!).  It’s melancholy and desolate feel make it a favourite for photographers and artists alike and its relative remoteness means that it retains that air even though it has had so much attention.  This walk starts in the nearby fishing village of Craster and when we arrived in the middle of the afternoon the place was crawling with people.  In fact I struck lucky with the last car parking space.

We wandered down into the village, arranged around a small harbour.  Craster is apparently named after a family of the same name who have lived here for a good number of years.  The harbour is dedicated to one of the family, who was killed in active service in Tibet during late Victorian times.  We paused here for a few minutes to watch the lobster pots being loaded into the pier from one of the boats that operate out of here.  Herrings are still fished here although much in decline - the Craster kipper is a local delicacy.

Leaving Craster
The onward path out of the village was super busy.  In fact in walking terms I can only describe the next mile and a half as being like the M1, with so many walkers plying the mile and a bit between the village and the castle.  Yet such is the grandeur of the old place that it didn’t really detract from its appeal.  We managed scarcely half a mile when the girls wanted to crack open their arts gear and draw pictures of the old place.  I could well understand the appeal.  The resolutely overcast skies provided extra moodiness to the scene. The high tide also provided small waves that broke into spray as they hit the dark rocky coast.  The rock here is actually dolerite and is part of the Whin Sill, a geological feature that extends for much of the length of the North Pennines and as far as Lindisfarne to the north.  Hadrian’s Wall uses part of the Sill for its route.

Dunstanburgh Castle
We stopped for quite a while until the girls were satisfied with their output.  Regular readers of this blog may remember this feature of our walks - a good example was the trip to Great Cumbrae Island when we visited Scotland back in 2014.  I am pleased that they like to do this - taking in your surroundings is an important component of hiking in my opinion.  While they drew I looked in the rock pools, enjoyed the little piles of stones that had been stacked up by various visitors, enjoyed the constantly changing view of the castle ahead as the clouds billowed over and became amused by the increasingly silly antics of the sheep grazing the ground (and rocks!).

Wild Coast
It didn’t take much longer to get to the castle.  When we arrived we discovered that unusually it seemed to be run by English Heritage and the National Trust.  We use the membership card of the former to get in but I believe we could have used the latter too.  Inside and the castle was decidedly thin in terms of what could be seen.  I did take one of the audioguides and that helped considerably.  It would seem that this castle was built by one of the rebellious barons (Earl Thomas of Lancaster) to try and protect himself from the King.  Sadly it served no purpose to him as he was captured elsewhere and executed.  The castle was therefore forfeited to the King.  After that the castle passed into the hands of John of Gaunt who strengthened its defences against the Scots.  From the few remains still in place it is difficult to imagine the hubbub of activity that would once have been here.

Balancing Act
The greatest activity now at the castle is the rather astonishing seabird colony at the far edge of the site on the cliff that the castle rather precariously sits on.  The girls and I spent some time enjoying the antics of the birds.  For the most part the residents were kittiwakes and razorbills and they seemed quite happy living together on the little ledges formed in the cliff face.  The noise they all made was quite a din!

The other great thing about the castle was the view along the coast both to the north and south.  Southwards we could see the village of Craster and down towards Alnmouth beyond.  Northwards we could pick out Beadnell and the far off Farne Islands.  It certainly looked a very inviting coast to walk, especially as it was relatively flat.  Below us the golfers playing on Dunstanburgh Golf Course must have the most amazing views as they whack their ball around.  After satisfying ourselves that we had seen everything, including climbing to the top of the gatehouse (where the views were even better), we resumed our walk.  The official route had us doubling back quite a long way until we reached a path on the other side of the erstwhile moat.  We however decided to follow the sheep tracks to lose height and saved ourselves quite a dog leg.

Seabird Cliff
We walked around the base of the cliff and paused for another look at the seabird cliffs.  The noise from this angle was quite deafening - almost as if the cliffs themselves were helping with the acoustics.  It also gave us the opportunity to look more closely at the geology.  Some of the rocks were quite interesting as you could see how the dolerite had been injected into the surrounding strata during the igneous activity at the time of formation.  One in particular jutted out into sea - doing its best to resist the waves.

Our path took us alongside the golf course, which was surprisingly quiet given how scenic it looked.  Maybe the overcast and slightly windy conditions put some of the golfers off?  The path now took a route along the crest of sand dunes.  It made for easy underfoot walking as they had been stabilised by vegetation, but the bracken that dominated some sections was taller than the children!  We also passed a pillbox along here - it looked like it had been fashioned from a mould made out of corrugated iron.  I guess there was a good deal of worry about this part of the coast being used for an invasion for it is relatively flat and the beaches would have been fairly easy for landing craft to get ashore.

Field Patterns
A little further on and we left the coast along a tarmac road to the hamlet of Dunstan Steads.  There were some good looking houses here; a good many of them are holiday homes now.  Having reached the hamlet we turned once again to take a parallel route to our outward one but along an inland course.  Most of the early part of the route was along a concrete road that skirted the fields.  I’m not sure why it was here but some former quarrying activity on the left side perhaps provided a clue.  This section of the route was also notable for side on views of the castle across the now ripening wheat fields.  The hedgerows were also teeming with life and especially butterflies - speckled woods, large whites, red admirals, painted ladies and hedge browns were all in evidence.  We also passed another pillbox - this one looked as if it was hastily thrown up using sacks of cement as the building material.

Eventually we reached a farm at Dunstan Square and as we did so the sun made a brief but memorable appearance, lighting up the Northumberland Hills off in the distance.  We took a left hand turn here into a field of horses, which came galloping over to greet us.  The path took us over the Whin Sill, now a prominent ridge through the landscape.  The brief sunshine was immediately closed off as we ascended the ridge.  On the other side the castle came back into view once again.  We kept to the high ground and followed on the other side of the ridge just below the crest until we reached the village of Craster once again.  All the crowds that had been here when we arrived had now subsided and our car was one of the last in the car park.

Dunstan Steads
This walk is a great introduction to the Northumbrian Coast.  Although the walk is a modest length and is quite easy in terms of climbing and navigation, it is full of interest and the castle is the undoubted star of the show, being visible from the path for at least three quarters of its length.  I imagine this would make for a great early morning or evening walk to escape the crowds but obviously the castle would be closed then so you would have to make the most of viewing from outside only.

View Across the Fields

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