Sand and surprises: adventures on the Northumberland coast

I’m recently back from a camping trip to the coast near Berwick upon Tweed, England’s most northerly town. Having been to Berwick before, I thought I knew what to expect, but boy was I wrong.

Even before we left home, my Taller Half and I had our first surprise. With my proper camera safely packed, I looked out of the window to see a heron on the neighbour’s roof. I almost convinced myself that it was plastic before it shifted position. Mr or Mrs Heron stayed long enough for me to take a few snaps with my point-and-shoot camera – proof that I wasn’t going mad!

We’re staying at Beachcomber Campsite, about five miles south of Berwick. Berwick is roughly 75 miles from Durham, but the train takes only an hour. After much fussing with rucksack straps, we set off, following the railway track we’d previously speeded along at what now seemed a snail’s pace.

After a couple of miles of street walking we reached the cliff path, with beautiful views towards Berwick and out to sea. The scenery changed to a pretty beach, then to dunes, then a golf course. Finally, we made it to the campsite. It’s actually attached to a riding stables, and a stable girl told us to pitch up and settle up later: it’s very relaxed here. We found a spot along the fence, on a narrow ridge that only small tents can pitch comfortably on. Even without direction, four neat rows of tents and trailers had formed – three for the big tents, and the fenceline for us titches.

After pitching, we headed straight to the beach. A big sign warned ominously of unexploded ordinance: a wartime heritage. Once over the dunes, we looked for the sea: nowhere in sight – just acres of sand.

This part of the coast is trying very hard to become land. It is the place where sand goes when it is tired of getting wet. At the head of the beach is a line of low dunes. I couldn’t work out if they were receding or growing, but dunes never stand still. Between the dunes and the low tide mark stretched a vast plain of greasy sand, much of which remains dry at high tide.

We walked south, towards Lindisfarne – or Holy Island as it is marked on the map. The tide was coming in now, but only in the downhill stretches of sand, the sea sticking it’s tongue out at the land. The wind-blasted sand morphed into dry saltmarsh. I couldn’t resist nibbling on the bright green samphire shoots sticking out of this salt desert.

We encountered and crossed a small river – the South Low. Instead of going straight out to sea, South Low turns a sharp right, separating Lindisfarne from the mainland. The bain of many an unwary visitor, the tide comes in not from the sea, but sideways from the river. Cross the Causeway at the wrong time and you find the tide rushing towards the island, not from it.

By this time we can see the sand dunes that form Lindisfarne’s northern flank. It doesn’t really look impressive, but we are still heading there tomorrow.

Turning back towards the campsite we find the sea’s edge. A few waders have the same idea, and I think I see purple sandpipers. We are puzzled by three small brown waders. They are very tame, and it takes me a few moments to realise the threesome are a pair of sanderlings and a dunlin, all in their breeding plumage. What are they doing here? I wonder if they are juveniles, or if their breeding attempt this year has failed.

We wake up early. It doesn’t really get dark this far north – the post-sunset glow has barely faded in the west before the pre-dawn light appears from the north. By 5.30am the skylarks are all up and the sun is beaming into the tent.

We decide to cross the sands to reach Lindisfarne, despite being unsure if there is a safe route across them. We meet no one, for three glorious miles, bar a lone fisherman checking his nets. The pattern and texture of the sand changes with almost every step – hard ridges and ripples, soft mud, dry mounds. Streams spring from nowhere but all are crossed safely and we reach the Lindisfarne dunes.

The dunes cosset a wealth of sand-loving plants, from the tiny Birds Foot to the showy Bloody Cranesbill. Shaped like a chicken drumstick, we still had a long way to go to reach the island proper. We found the road, and trudged along for a mile, dunes on the left, saltmarsh on the right.

Lindisfarne is a fantastic place to explore. It may be small, but there is something new to see around every corner. The village itself is set up to service the hordes of visitors when the causeway is open, but reverts to a ghost town when the causeway is closed. Famous for its castle and priory, its natural history is just as spectacular. Dunes, marsh, cliff, rocks, shingle, sand, meadow, harbour…

After exploring the village, we strolled to the island edge southeast of the church. An untidy beach looked out over a tiny island sporting a lopsided cross. Eerie moans seemed to emanate from it. Was it the wind? Seals? Was I imagining the sound? I looked for seals but there were only rocks. I got my binoculars out, and then I realised what was making the noise – over two hundred seals were hauled out on a sandbank about a mile out to sea. Two hundred! Utterly amazing.

We had several hours to kill before the Causeway reopened, so we walked the circuit of the island before finding sanctuary in the village pub. While most of Lindisfarne is farmed, there is a large nature reserve – part wet meadow, part dune. There were orchids everywhere – I’ve never seen so many.

Once the Causeway reopened at 8.00pm we trudged back – and I mean trudged. Four miles felt like eight, but we had been on our feet all day. With a mile still to go, we got our final treat of the day – a glorious sunset, the red sun topped by pink clouds bent into waves. Cloudspotters will recognise these as Kelvin-Helmholtz wave clouds, the most sought after in any cloud collection.

This pair did not last long, but as each cloud dissipated a new one formed. As the light decreased, layers of faint waves painted the sky. I felt very privileged to have witnessed this meteorological spectacle, but I confess I was too tired to take more photos. Sometimes it is enough just to witness.

The trip back the next day was cold and uneventful, but I left with fond memories of this intriguing and surprising stretch of coast.

Postscript

My final surprise of the trip came when I looked through my photos. I’d been focusing so hard on the wreck in this image I was completely oblivious to these gannets surfing the wind.

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About Yasmine

After working with horses for many years I came to my senses and got a 'proper job'. I now live in Weardale with My Taller Half, a mad border collie and 5 chickens. Still wishing I could spend all my time in the great outdoors
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3 Responses to Sand and surprises: adventures on the Northumberland coast

  1. Joanna says:

    Beautiful, beautiful pictures evoking memories of a wonderful holiday we had in this area a few years ago. Thank you

  2. Great post Yasmine. We’ve spent some lovely evenings watching the tide come in on Holy Island, with a bottle of wine on the dunes!

  3. Val says:

    Beautiful imagery and photos, Yasmine. And I love your line: “It is the place where sand goes when it is tired of getting wet.” 🙂

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