So there I was on Beachy Head. To be honest I prefer the bit just down the road near the Belle Tout lighthouse but none the less, 200 foot of blazing white sheer cliffs do somewhat capture the imagination. I wandered up and down a bit and took a few photographs, then realised I was a bit cold and it was time to go home, so I sat down and started fiddling with my satnav to plot a route home.
"Hello!" said a voice, and I looked up. It was a gent in a red t-shirt that I had seen chatting to another pair of people a little while earlier. I thought perhaps a tour guide or something. Either way, not a mass murderer or a pervert so I decided to be friendly to him.
"Hello!" I replied cheerfully and smiled.
"Ah well that smile tells me you probably AREN’T typing out a final farewell by text" he said and smiled back, "but just in case…I’m a chaplain, is there anything you want to talk to me talk about". There wasn’t, but my wide-eyed "Oh wow" caused him to laugh and sit down beside me. Or perhaps this was just his sneaky way to check that I wasn’t kidding him and I really wasn’t about to top myself. I quickly showed him my satnav.
"No really, look. I was working out a way home", then I thought and quickly added "And I mean a way *home* and not a way, you know (making a falling over the cliff edge gesture, then pointing heavenwards) not HOME". He stifled a laugh and we got talking.
I was genuinely surprised and very impressed that there was a constant patrol along the cliff edge. It was a sad fact that yes, Beachy Head is renowned for suicide cases but I was agog that it merited this level of security. But he told me that Beachy Head is officially the number 2 suicide spot in the world.
"What’s Number 1?" I asked, wondering if my inquisitiveness was a little bit in poor taste, though he didn’t seem appalled by my interest. It seemed that Mount Fuji is number 1. The Japanese believe it’s better to die a honourable death than live a dishonourable life so culturally, they are more inclined to suicide anyway, and Mount Fuji is the best spot on their turf. The extra macabre bit is that there is forest below the drop point, and the authorities only clear it out once a year.
"Can you imagine if they did that here?" said the chaplain and I put my hand to my face, genuinely horrified.
On Beachy Head they do indeed have 24 hour suicide patrol, performed by a small team of chaplains who work with air and sea rescue and the police, as well as responding to tip offs from the public. There are a staggering 700 ‘incidents’ a year, and he said that last year there had been around 300 genuine suicide attempts (i.e. where they had to talk someone off a cliff top). So that’s more or less one every other day with extras around Christmas. Which is a very sad thought.
Trying to lighten the mood a little, we switched topics to boots. He put me down as a walker because of my big serious looking hiking boots, though he admonished me for letting them crack and not waxing them regularly. He put in a lot of walking hours, touring the cliffs day and night, and I could see where he was going with this because his boots were sparkling and shiny.
"My Dad was in the army and he taught me how to wax boots properly. As soon as I get in every night I polish them, and they say you will probably replace the soles three times before you need to replace the uppers". He had flat feet, so coupled with the long hours walking he did, he treated his feet well and got his boots from a company in Italy who handmade them and adapted them for his wide and low arched feet. And looked after them properly clearly, unlike me.
After his army upbringing, he had worked in Finance for 30 years but then he had had The Calling. He had wanted to be a priest but learnt that he was too old. Or more specifically, he applied to be a priest and the church had faffed around for 3 years during which time he passed the age limit of 55, which pissed him off and which I thought was a little off too because (even though I’m not religious myself), surely it had been God who had decided he should go and work for him so what place had a bunch of God’s civil servants to tell him he couldn’t because he was too old. Surely there is no age limit to doing good deeds. Either way, he was philosophical about it. Being turned away from that profession had meant he’d been around when an opportunity had come up at Beachy Head and as he said,
"And isn’t this a better way of doing God’s work than working as a vicar somewhere preaching sermons". I completely agreed.
Then I got him talking the practicalities of their job. Obviously in the daylight he just keeps an eye out for people like me who are alone, who pause and hang around for a long time, or who sit and start tapping messages on their phone because it’s those sorts of characters who are likely going through emotional crises and working their way up to a jump (so me wandering up and down the cliff edge alone writing notes to myself on my phone and then checking the map for a way home must have made him as twitchy as hell). Certainly gone are the days of writing notes by pen and paper, people generally just send a text or an email - can’t think of anything worse than that. Imagine receiving something like that.
At night, it’s a different matter. They used to have high powered torches and do regular sweeps of the edge but that just startled jumpers and gave them a head’s up that there was someone on patrol and an opportunity to allude them. So he got a £10,000 thermal imaging camera. You can just point it at the next hillside in the dead of night and it looks like daylight. You can see anyone and everyone moving about, and spot suspicious behaviour a mile off. It also gives you an opportunity to sneak up on people before they know you’re there , and get a few words in before they jump simply to avoid you. I thought that was amazing, I mean, cracking gizmo or what. I wondered at the way he had said *he* had got a thermal imaging camera, being ex-army and ex-finance he would have the money and the nouse and the spiritual inclination to make a donation like that. Either way, he giggled like a school girl when I quizzed him about it, you could see he was hugely proud of it and had been showing it off to the police and everyone. Again, is this a little in bad taste? I don’t know, I just thought it was great that there was such a lot of work being put into helping these people and by such a sensible clever means.
He said that of the 300 interventions last year, maybe 3 jumped, so if the chaplains actually managed to get to these people and talk to them, they could usually talk them out of it. His last jump was a 19 year old girl. Two chaplains and two police stood for an hour and a half trying to get through to her but she remained utterly closed emotionally and wouldn’t listen, and finally she went. So he never figured out why she did it, he said sadly. But he said so often, it is a big build up of pressure over time and its usually just a tiny thing that makes people finally snap - washing up not done, train being late, it raining in the afternoon. Tiny little actions with huge impact.
I said he was amazing and he blessed me and said I was a little ray of light that had got him smiling.
"Well I’m glad you got to talk to a happy person for once" I said. He didn’t preach to me, though as we parted he said he would have asked me for a prayer, had I have been of that inclination. I said I couldn’t, but I would help in my own way instead which was to donate, which I have. And there went a genuine humanitarian.
Their website - www.bhct.org.uk
The chaplains http://www.bhct.org.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/wppa/25.jpg (the one I met is on the far right)
A long time in my past, I nearly joined a recreation group because I quite fancied being a fake Viking at weekends. What ultimately stopped me was when I learnt that I probably wasn’t going to be allowed to hit people with swords, as I was a woman and women warriors wasn’t authentic. But I was allowed to do weaving and cooking I wanted to…but that didn’t float my boat so I hastily backed out.
Since then though, I’ve always wanted to go to a recreation village, but by that, I meant a ‘good’ recreation village. I’ve seen plenty of fake Vikings turn up to agricultural shows and many times they are just a bunch of local folk in fancy dress, plump and wristwatch wearing, demonstrating sword fighting skills which are more akin to teenagers playing Live Dungeons and Dragons than to meaty 6 foot Nordic invaders come to take your land and impregnate your women. No I wanted to see some hard core recreation - those nutcases that disappear off into the woods for 6 months clad in skins, with just some knapped flint and a fire stick to support them. West Stow’s village had all the potential for providing that, according to their online literature. It wasn’t quite what I expected though.
I arrived to a nearly empty car park, after a reasonable trek off the beaten track. This was my first surprise, as I had just come from Sutton Hoo which is little more than a grassy mound with a placard in front of it but it could still command enough attention to have a full car park, cafe, and extensive gift shop. My second surprise was that the houses were empty - not a fake Anglo-Saxon in sight. This was somewhat contrary to the photographs on their website picturing happy go lucky recreationalists jammed in every nook and cranny. My third surprise was that I didn’t mind.
Admittedly it is an era I have read a lot about already, so perhaps the village would present a somewhat dry experience for anyone coming into it completely cold. However they prefaced entrance into the village with a little video presentation that explained that all the buildings were archaeological experiments - they had been erected according to theories as to how the buildings had been constructed, based on evidence found at archaeological digs, and were now being used to see how these buildings aged and collapsed and ultimately, whether or not their remains corresponded with the finds which were being dug up for the period. So actually, even though these things were empty, there were legitimately the most authentic Anglo-Saxon houses you could possibly set your eyes on, and based on cutting edge theories. That was quite exciting (at least in my opinion).
So I wandered around the village on my own, unmolested by over cheery fake Anglo-Saxons offering to demonstrate wood turning or weaving to me, undistracted by small children running round my feet and brightly shirted baseball cap wearing tourists who had come for the Disney experience.
There was certainly evidence of recreationalist activity. The blacksmiths shack had a clay kiln which had been recently used, and ‘pigs’ of iron lying around everywhere ready to be shaped. Another cottage had some looms in it, coarse wool cloth half way created and their strings held down with small stones. The central open hearths still smelt of wood smoke and the beds had clothes laid out on them - it was more like an Anglo-Saxon village where everyone had suddenly run away because the Vikings were coming. This was enough for me to let my imagination do the rest, and indulge my need to fiddle with wooden locks to see how they worked, or put shutters up to admire the simple but effective design, or lay on the straw beds and think, crickey I’d rather sleep on the grass outside I think.
I ended up spending a good couple of hours there, and it was only as I was leaving I met my first human being. I had my head in the pig shed at the time - there were some baby chickens in there and I was trying to poke one. A youngish woman bustled up and with a lot of bluster and apologies, set me aside and also shoved her head in the pig shed. Apparently the black chicken’s name was Beryl and she had originally laid her eggs under the office which would not do, so she had been transplanted to the pig shed. This was not ideal, there was a chance that the pigs may eat the little chickens, but unfortunately their chicken hutch was completely full so this was the next best option. Also, Beryl did not get on with the other chicken presently roosting in the shed, Annabelle. Annabelle also had chicks but they were stringy teenagers and it wasn’t likely the pigs were going to bother munching on them. Either way, it was a precarious situation for Beryl’s brood so she was checking on them regularly.
"I could take or leave chicken’s before I came here" she added quickly, "But I admit I’ve got a little obsessed. The thing is though, chicken politics and pecking orders are highly complex and really quite fascinating".
Well this was irresistible to me, and I had to ask her all about it. She was clearly an intelligent woman who couldn’t help but analyse things and learn about stuff, and now she had accidentally been sucked into chicken research, I had to know more.
Beryl’s dad was called Psycho. Psycho was a black chicken with a limp and only one eye, and is the chicken who has contributed the random white chicken gene into the gene pool (to verify, the woman pointed out one of the chicks in Beryl’s brood which was pure white, even though Beryl was black like her Dad). Psycho started off as the bottom chicken on the pecking order but one day just randomly decided to take out the lead chicken and become the head himself. This is apparently normal - you can promote yourself at any time up the pecking order, right up to the very top if you want to, though if you are knocked off your spot you have to go right down to the bottom and work your way up again. They have little reshuffles occasionally, and even though Psycho lost an eye to become lead chicken, he remained top chicken for about 2 years before he was finally deposed. He got knocked off by a huge chicken called Zak, and was ostracised from the flock from there on, living out the rest of his days in the information shed. She said that because of his one eye, it was possible to sneak up on him and scare the crap out him, though not for very long as he had big spurs on his legs that you didn’t really want to mess with.
Zak has now been top chicken for a while - he’s a 5 toed original Dawkins chicken, the same breed as the Roman’s used to have. He stands about a foot tall with a big red comb and doesn’t really fight, if he’s challenged he simply opens his huge wings and goes “Flap!!” in a disdainful way and the challenger runs away - he really rules the place with an Iron Cluck. And apparently, even though you assume cockerels simply shag anything in the flock it’s not necessarily the case. Some have favourite chickens, some stay monogamous. Some do, indeed, shag everything, but every cockerel is different with different personalities. As are the chickens, as proven by the squabbling Beryl and Annabelle who simply do not get on.
After that surprise talk on chickens, I left feeling enlightened and uplifted. Later on I even took a picture of Zak, and he was indeed a big chicken. Hell I’d let him be lead chicken, and I’m not even a chicken.
The site even had a great selection of university level text books (I bought as many as I could afford) so I ended my visit so impressed with the site that I started quizzing the till assistant about how the site works behind the scenes. I was curious about how they decide what to build next, and how much is fuelled by academics versus volunteers versus government funding bodies. I had the tinest hankering to be a volunteer even though I lived hundreds of miles away.
"Do you want to talk to our resident archaeologist?" the till person asked, rapidly back footing because of all of my questions.
"Alright" I shrugged, and then added, "Wait…she’s not the chicken obsessive is she…?".
Sure enough, who should bound down the stairs but the lady I met at the pig house, and me and the till person laughed while she looked confused. I later admitted I had took a photo of Zak solely because of the back story she had given me.
She said the whole place was run by a curious mix of academics and fund holders. The academics usually head the board but don’t do any practical work. They mainly get their funding from a charitable trust and the government (interestingly via the “Health and Tourism” department, so they get treated the same as a park or a gym). And then there is her, the only point of consistency, and the person who does the day to day work. The academics meet up periodically to decide what to build next, then they see if they can fund it by pitching it to various funding bodies and the holders of their Trust. If they get it through, she co-ordinates the building of it (including hiring all the specialist contractors needed) and of course looks after it when it’s done.
Turns out it costs 75 grand to build one house. This includes hand tooled planks, hand tooled tools, everything done exactly like the Anglo-Saxons would have done. The site has already over turned some major theories about Anglo-Saxon living - they used to think Anglo-Saxon houses were more or less thatched V shaped roofs over a dug pit, but once they built one, they discovered that the floor pit caved in over time and destabilised the entire structure. After doing some more experiments they’ve decided the Anglo-Saxon’s actually sunk pillars into the sandy soil and laid planks over them to create a raised floor - not to create a basement but simply to stop the pit falling in and create a space between ground and floor to protect against damp, similar to what we do today really. She said that actually, over turning that theory was not a very popular thing to do in the end as some people had whole careers based around the old theory - basically it’s a risky business discovering new things sometimes, and not all it’s cracked up to be.
Theoretically once the houses are built, they should then let people live in them for a while, then let them topple to the ground to see if the remains match the current archaeological finds - but as she said ‘but sometimes you can’t bear to do it’ and she keeps patching them up and holding them together, but justifying it by saying well that’s what the Anglo-Saxons would have done. A few have toppled, and one was burnt down, and now she divides her day between devising new projects, doing talks for visitors and humouring nerks like me. She also repairs the farm so she dabbles with black-smithing, wood work, thatching etc. though she said emphatically that she NEVER dressed up as an Anglo-saxon, and left that to the recreationalists (who she seemed to like, but only really as she liked her chickens, and saw them more as necessary items to live in her houses to weather them, rather than as human beings). She also didn’t like the way that though recreationalists sleep and cook and work in the buildings, they all nip out for pizza at the end of the day and they really should be eating her authentic medieval carrots. Oh that was something else she was obsessed with. Apparently medieval carrots were white, you should never use orange carrots as an Anglo-Saxon recreationalist. This was a long standing battle between her and the recreationalists who persisted in using orange carrots all the time, so eventually she gave up and tracked down some white carrot seeds and grew them in the garden there so the recreationalists had no excuse. These plants self seeded for a couple of summers but then this year they pulled them up and they had reverted to orange carrots again! Apparently some hybrid seeds can do that, and in this case the white carrots must have actually been created by hybridising orange carrots with something. Either way, she was defeated. I left the place complimenting her dedication and hard work, everyone’s obsession with detail, and cheerfully wanting to kill her and assume her identity.
So in sum, West Stow Village is a great place with some proper authenticity about it and a bit of meaty educational content. It’s a shame I don’t live closer else I’d probably go regularly and help to build and repair, and perhaps occasionally dress up and eat white carrots (but never orange ones). Let’s hope they keep churning out the archaeological breakthroughs…
Felixstowe, ahh what a place. At face value, it has a terrible beach. It is a beach comprised mainly of shingle, fortified every few metres with aggressive looking groynes built up of long, linear piles of granite boulders reaching some 6 foot high. Within each beach compartment, as defined by the groynes, a tiny pool of sand may be discovered somewhere at its middle. The quantity of sand discoverable slowly increases as you move further towards the south, until finally the quality of the beach becomes more sand than grit, and reaches the consistency sufficient to support the recreational construction of sand heaps, if not actual sand castles. To the South, where the harbour resides, the view is dominated by large cranes. Across the whole sweep of the bay, container ships go backwards and forwards. From this description, you would suppose the beach empty, the place devoid of human activity. Scorned enthusiastically and discarded as a bad lot. Not so, however.
When I visited the place, it was alive with people. Kids making tiny sandheaps from the tiny pools of sand, people spreading their towels on the large granite boulders of the groynes and sunbathing there, people sweating and baking in beach huts that lined the busy promenade, else setting their deckchairs up on the riprap - all wholly unconcerned by the steady stream of container ships coming to and from the large port and having a great time. I just couldn’t figure it out.
I paused to take a photograph of one of container ships and a kid stopped to watch me. As I put my camera back in my bag he came up to me.
"Are u doin’ fotos f’ sumfing or wot?" he asked politely, squinting into the sunlight. And then I realised the horrible truth and took a sidelong glance around me. Yep, I was totally surrounded, no sudden moves, best not startle them. All of these people were cockney.
To be honest, I’d got my first hints of cockney in Southwold whilst walking down its nice little pier. I paused to browse in one of the knickknack shops there, and seen a cockney tea towel. That is to say, the tea towel wasn’t cockney, but it was joyfully decorated with a few well known cockney phrases and I wondered why, as we were in Suffolk and I didn’t think that’s where cockneys came from. I walked away puzzled.
By the time I had got to Felixstowe however, the cockney influence had grown very strong. Every other conversational snippet was “Leave it aat”, “Yoo go’ any cash mate?”, and “John! Get aat the bleedin’ war-er”. The promenade and beach was chock full of Diamond Geezers havin’ a good toime. I strained my ear for even one legitimately local person but it wasn’t until late in the day when I finally heard a likely one - a woman complaining to her boyfriend about the kid’s pushchair.
"U gonna push i’ up the hill? Cos Oi troied to push i’ up an’ i’ nearly broke, swear to god mate". The Suffolk ‘Oi’ instead of the cockney ‘Aaa’, a gentle rural lilt best suited to talking about harvests and zider, drowned by the harsh squarking of ‘Mind aat" and "fackin’ ‘ell" all around them.
So perhaps this was why no-one seemed to give a damn about the spiky sand and heavily industrialised horizon - they are an altogether tougher race, those of the Thames Estuary. Where they come from, things are a lot greyer and comparatively speaking, perhaps Felixstowe is a Hawaiian paradise.
Racism aside though, Felixstowe probably was made all the more fascinating for its ugliest feature aka its docks. This is because they weren’t just ugly docks, they were really HUGE ugly docks. I discovered that these docks could also be approached from two other points - Shotley Gate at the end of Shotley peninsula, and Harwich at the end of…hum well you get the picture. The peninsulas are separated by wide rivers so to get to each tip by road you must make wide swooping V shapes around the banks of the estuary. However the tips of these points, though separated by water, are actually very close together - such that a small foot passenger ferry runs between Shotley and Harwich for instance. And both Shotley and Harwich have an eagle eye’s view of the goings on of the awesome Felixstow harbour.
For awesome it is - mostly ports of this nature are closed off, presumably to protect from criminal activities relate to smuggling. However from Harwich and Shotley you are safely kept away from the port by a body of water, and so can get out your binoculars and watch the proceedings safe in the knowledge that you aren’t going to get carted off by harbour security any time soon.
Felixstowe takes in the largest container ships, and harbours the largest cruise ships. You can see them come in from the East, perform long languid turns at the mouth of the estuary, and then get escorted into dock by smaller tug boats. You can spot ships from Europe, China, America, everywhere in the world. The cranes operate day and night hauling containers off these ships and depositing them on a constant stream of waiting lorries, whereupon the containers skoot off all around the country. It is its intricately woven web of industrial processes that probably makes it beautiful, or at least, distracts you from dwelling on how ugly it is.
Once you have seen the harbour up close, it suddenly makes all the large ships floating past Felixstowe beach a bit more acceptable, maybe because you can imagine that they’ve off to some exotic location half way across the world laden with containers full of every imaginable Thing. You can imagine those cranes still moving up and down under blazing sodium light at 3 in the morning, the lorry drivers sitting yawning in their cabins before hundred mile trips across the country in the dead of night, the roar of engines the size of houses powering up to move the huge vessels out of the bay.
Perhaps I romanticise too much. Clacton is difficult to romanticise though, its gritty abrasive beach is bisected by the usual pier. Children run beneath its legs, screaming and booing and revelling in the cavernous echoes it produces. Families and retirees traverse the top of it, passage being mandatory through its oppressive and intimidating ‘Fun palace’ (mostly shut) and it’s somewhat lack lustre pier based fairground. On a sunny day, the cockneys hold sway on every park bench and in every beer garden, cawing and rattling their gold jewellery in the noon day heat. Cwor blimey guvna.
Southend on sea, now THAT’S a pier. It’s the longest in the world in fact, at 1.3 miles long. Why so long? Because the beach at Southend is very shallow, an expanse of mudflats. This meant, back when British seaside towns were popular at the turn of the 19th century, that large boats couldn’t dock near to the sea and no boats at all could dock at low tide. So the best way to drum up custom was to build a huge pier whose very tip could always allow for the docking of boats at any tide, which ultimately meant a pier of a very silly length. Its silly length led to the creation of its other unusual feature though - its train line. When it was originally built, a horse tram ran from one end to the other but as soon as the pier was rebuilt from wood to iron towards the middle of the 1800’s, this permitted the building of a train service, first electric and then diesel. This still runs today.
Unfortunately the whole pier is a pay per view item but you have several options for enjoyment. Train both ways, walk both ways, or walk to the end and get the train back. If you walk, you have the option of a certificate saying “I walked Southend pier”. As an experience junkie, I opted to walk one way and take the train back. As a hiker, I politely declined the patronising certificate at the end of it.
The walk was very pleasant, calm and soothing. “Good for the constitution” as a Victorian might say. The sheer length of pier combined with the fast track train option diluted the tourists to a degree that you could have a little space to yourself in places along its length to breathe the air and consider how very far out to sea you now were. The return train was a different matter, however made amusing by the pair I got sat next to in the cramped carriage.
I had run for the train, having been unsure when it left but spotting it at the station when I passed it. Happily for me though, it appeared that the train’s departure was being held up by a young man at the gates, who was insisting on getting his picture taken with the train and the guard. Said man was youngish, skinny with a thin moustache of the ‘you look a bit too young to grow a moustache’ variety, the sort of person that looks gangly and uncomfortable in their own skin. Ah, a spotter, I thought to myself as I slipped past. Well there was bound to be a few.
A whistle blew, carriage doors began to shut, and the young man leapt into my carriage and started stumbling over everyone’s feet apologising this way and that but still shoving people aside quite impolitely and lacking a certain social finesse. We were sat on two long benches that ran along the length of the carriage, all passengers facing one another, and he squeezed in on the bench next to me without actually asking me to move aside, apart from a low muttering, eyes averted and head held low. Rather than being annoyed, I began to suspect the young man may be a shade on the Aspergic side.
Sitting opposite was an old gent in a suit and a panama hat, clutching a stick. He appeared to be with the younger man, let’s presume he was his grandfather. When the train lurched to a start, the young man started excitedly twisting this way and that to look around, and every few seconds tapped his grandfather on his knee and asked him if he was all right, then told him something he clearly didn’t want to know about trains. The old gent had to lean forward uncomfortably every time his grandson wanted to talk, and often times also had to ask him to repeat what he said, so you could see he was getting hot, stiff, and tetchy.
"Ohh and look at this! Look at this! That was rebuilt in 1930, it’s the genuine original colour though. Are you all right?"
(old gent leans forward) “Wha?”
"THIS WAS REBUILT IN 1930, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT"
(makes a ‘like I care’ face and bites back a swear word) “Great. Yes I’m all right”
The old man flopped backwards and clicked his tongue irritably. Then he caught the eyes of both myself and the woman sitting next to me and who had started to smirk imperceptibly and he rolled his eyes theatrically towards us and shook his head. And so the pantomime began.
The young man gradually became more and more excited as the train rolled down the track. He clearly decided that the other side of the carriage was more exciting and so at regular intervals would simply stand up and suddenly shove his camera against the window at the opposite side, right next to the ear of his grandfather and sometimes startling him and knocking his hat askew. Sometimes he lent over to press his face against the glass of the opposite window, not only blocking his grandfather’s view, but sometimes actually pressing his chest or shoulder into his face forcing him to wriggle out of the way. And then he would sit down again, tap the old man on the knee, and ask him if he was all right. You could the old man’s face getting pinker and pinker with rage though his grandson was obviously totally oblivious to the social signals. So instead, the old man looked pleadingly out at the rest of the occupants of the carriage and silently asked that, even if they could not help him, that they at least view his personal hell and sympathise.
By this time, myself and the woman who were watching were struggling to keep a straight face. Yes, the young man had to be Aspergic or somewhere on the Autistic scale and could be forgiven a little for that, but we really felt for his grandfather who was obviously on the brink of beating him insensible with his stick despite his afflictions. God knows which member of the family originally thought it would be a good idea for those two to spend the day together, nor who they thought would be looking after who. You could see some bright spark had told the young man “Now you look after Grandpa, won’t you” and he had took that to mean he had to ask the poor devil if he was all right every 5 seconds. Meanwhile, Grandpa would have thought “I’ll take him to see trains, that’ll keep him quiet”… I left them in the carriage at the Southend end of the pier, and presumed there would be a murder reported in Southend local newspapers by the following morning.
Most of the rest of the coast of Essex is a relatively unexceptional esturine landscape. From Southend through Great Wa[n]kering you can get to Foulness, a flat marshy expanse that would be the envy of any Lincolnshire or Norfolk sea line, as is the region around Lee-over-Sands and Walton-de-Naze, the latter of which overlooks Felixstowe harbour with its unmistakable row of cranes. Canvey Island, just down from Southend and on the mouth of the Thames has a sole claim to fame - that Dr Feelgood came from this place. It is a place that people say “You either get or you don’t”. I probably didn’t then, I just found it a little bit scary and didn’t want leave my car unattended.
Finally though I must mention the area around the River Colne and the River Blackwater. This region is a yachtsman’s heaven, a twisting maze of river inlets, small islands, unexpected marinas and spits of land. I first happened upon Point Clear overlooking the River Colne, a beach hidden way out at the far end of a static caravan park (or ‘holiday chalet’ as they were referred to here). I only went there for the hell of it, I had no idea what to expect apart from an irksome mess of tweely named streets and tyre shredding speed bumps, with a small possibility of being ejected by park security. I hit upon an absolute little gem of a place though.
Here, the land ended in a long thin curling spit of land no wider than a couple of foot, with a tiny circular island at the tip of it. You could walk along it, crunching over a dense layer of broken oyster shells and other exotic flotsam and jetsam, whilst Thames Barges sailed up and down right next you, almost so close that you could wade out and touch them.
A couple were walking their dog there, obviously local as they waved to people passing by in their little one man yachts, indeed one person actually pulled their boat right up close to the edge of the spit of land and had a chat with them there before sailing off again, as if they had just pulled a car over to the edge of the road. They spotted I was a tourist and hailed me for a chat. They told me that this place was one of the few places on the East coast where you could view a sunset over water (how strange, for I had visited the previous one way up in Norfolk by accident too). They said they had originally come from London but had retired here, and I kept an eye on them as they walked back along the beach, eventually stopping at the “holiday chalet” right on the corner of the Caravan Park facing out over the river. Presumably they saw a rare East coast sunset every evening from their living room window then, though what they said wasn’t quite true. From the sun’s position, it looked like the sunset would actually fall over the low lying landmass directly opposite - consulting my satnav, this seemed to be Mersea island. This became my next objective.
Islands in this land are mere technicalities, usually only separated from the mainland by a tiny channel, easily bridged and often completely ignored as you travel over it. This was true of Mersea, little more than a peninsula cut through at its base by a small stream and large gully. There was nothing to speak of on the East coast of this island but on the West was a surprising landscape of marshland with perpetually docked houseboats wedged in the mud, egress granted to each from the road by rickety walkways raised above the salty mud by stilts sunk into it. Most looked deadly and some were even advertised as such, possibly simply to stop passers by from wandering up them. To me they had a strangely ancient look, as of the raised platforms that must have existed when neolithic man had plied his trade in the fenland and marsh country thousands of years ago. Apart from the Danger of Death signs (but only, probably, because neolithic man hadn’t learnt to write yet).
The cockneys were gone now. In this gentle landscape of marinas, yachts and houseboats I could only hear the clipped well edged tongue of the generic central Londoner. Clearly while the cockneys smear on their suncream and lie on the grit at Southend, the other Londoners get a chalet in Tendring or Mersea and live out their days watching quiet sunsets silhouette stately barges as they ride past. Its just a matter of taste but….I know which one I prefer.
It’s a shame that sunrises are so much more of a gamble than sunsets. With a sunset, you’re already awake, indeed you’ve probably been keeping an eye on the weather all day ready for it, and by the time the sunset does occur you can be confident it going to be a good one before it happens, else you’ve already aborted mission and gone home for tea. For sunrises however, you generally have to get up specially for them. This means you can’t possibly know if the sunrise is going to be ok or not until you have already interrupted your sleep, got your clothes on, walked to your chosen promontory in the dark, and then realised with a sinking heart that there is some low cloud on the horizon and that magical moment of sun just peeking over the water has been denied you. And then of course you find yourself awake and on a beach in the middle of nowhere at 5am, and have to figure out what to do with the rest of the day, or think about how nice it would have been to have a couple of hours extra sleep. No, sunrises are far too dicey a proposition for my liking, give me a sunset every time. Suffice to say, this is why I get along better with the West coast rather than the East coast.
I arrived at the Norfolk end of the Sunrise coast in the afternoon, having woken up at noon. Great Yarmouth was under a thick layer of grey cloud and my first thought was not “oh I must have missed a good sunrise” but instead “What fresh hell is this?”. I think my problem may actually have been that this wasn’t actually a fresh hell, it was the same hell as Lincolnshire, indeed I might be so bold to say that it was a slightly worse hell. Great Yarmouth had a disturbingly similar ambience to Skegness…
Norfolk and Suffolk do have one discernable difference from Lincolnshire however. Whereas Lincolnshire beaches are usually defined by the brisk 20 minute hike necessary to reach the water’s edge (assuming you can even see the sea at all), the beaches on The Sunrise Coast can usually be catagorised by the forces acting on them - either extreme erosion, or extreme deposition. The erosive beaches are at best sole-scrapingly gritty, toe-stubbingly rocky as the sand is persistently dragged southwards and offshore by the constant oblique pelting of waves. At their worst they are simply non-existent and little more than a human built concrete edge to the land. Meanwhile, those beaches where deposition is the major force are heaps upon heaps of shingle and dune, liberally littered with abandoned beach houses, boat carcasses and old lighthouses that once, but are no longer, anywhere near the sea.
The coast from Cromer to Caister-on-Sea faces the forces of the North sea head on, and this coast is being battered. It’s hard to envisage the erosive forces that are routinely experienced here when you arrive on a sunny summer’s day, however I arrived at Cromer in a storm. Yes a proper storm, the sort with wind so strong that knocks you off your feet and forces you to lever your way up the promenade by dragging yourself hand over hand using the railings. The sort of rain that stings. The sort of weather that grabs brollies, scrunches them up whilst laughing in your face, then chucks them into the sea, then frosts your Specsaver glasses. The sort of storm that can blow bobble hats off.
There was a certain camaraderie amongst the poor fools who were out there in the storm that day. I passed a man on the promenade, trying to cling to a railing with one hand and to the hood of his coat with another. He smiled as genially as any man could whose face was being pressed backwards by wind pressure and struggling for breathe. I smiled back as best could anyone who was slightly alarmed that they may be just about to take off and catapulted over the cliff edge. Later I met a couple of kids on the sea front, utterly drenched, their hair tangled and whipping in a frenzy around their faces. “Lovely day” said one, “Thanks for visiting” said another, and they lurched off in the direction of the wind, veering and screaming with every gust. I was in full waterproofs and so able to stand for some minutes on the sea front admiring the pier whilst being pelted by rain and spume. Compressed into a tiny corner of an alleyway on said pier and hiding out of the wind, a woman stood hunched. Incongruously, she was clad in an office style suit and sucking on a cigarette. Did she really work somewhere on that pier and was she really also working today of all days when the sea was trying to break it to pieces? We stood for some seconds regarding one another, her inhaling deeply, myself maintaining the standing position with some difficulty, an arm hooked around a lamp post. I gave up first and moved on.
From Overstrand to Sea Palling, a tiny B road weaves as close as it dares to the rapidly eroding sandy cliff edges. Between dodging scattered tree debris and patchy flooding, I glimpsed fields on vertically edged plateaus above grey churning water, cliff boundaries which were rough, jagged and unfenced as the sea tore at them and a farmer’s property shrunk just a little bit more. Occasional townships dotted this road, sturdily fortified with concrete and riprap (irrelevant fact: did you know that riprap costs around £1300 a boulder, the majority of which are shipped from Norway?). Some towns dared to have beach huts at the sea edge (Mundesley), but most simply hid as best they could behind long plain sea walls of poured concrete, the sea fizzing up the revetment and growling at them, like a frustrated wild animal.
You turn the corner at Caister though, and you could be forgiven for thinking the sea has turned tame. Golden sands can be found on beaches again, piers and lifeguard shacks, ice cream stalls and delicate promenades designed without the need for heavy flood gates and surge control. It is a false state of repose however, for here every wave, every ripple is gently scraping and nudging the landscape sideways - less noticeable to the eye but just as destructive in the long run. From the standpoint of the tourist however, happy days are here again.
Great Yarmouth is flat and sprawling, a wide expanse of sandy pink pavements and plasticy Vegas style arcade fronts. The sea front is freshly built and of the new ‘European’ style where road and pavement are all on the same level and boundaries only casually indicated with different coloured cobbles, the idea being that the pedestrians and the motorists somehow work it out between them amicably and less accidents result. It seemed that actually, they both approach the system with extreme suspicion, and the accident reduction results from everyone being too scared and confused to move. But as long as it works, I guess.
Great Yarmouth is buffered to the North by heavy deposition - large stretches of dunes and sand grass which eventually lead dog walkers and tenacious holiday makers to a long flat featureless beach, a gently lapping sea, and a wind farm in the far distance. As you approach the centre of town this featureless beach develops a gritty foreshore, the sort that causes paddlers to hop painfully from the edge of the water to the softer sandy bit of the beach further up where they thoughtlessly left their flip-flops. The south beach eventually gives itself over to dunes again, and ends in a heavily industrialised harbour with a large power station seated unapologetically on it. In the middle of this all of this is a dour looking pier, not so much shouting the word ‘Fun!’ as a grudging muttering the phrase ‘Oh well if you really must’. The general demeanour of tourists here reflects this sentiment.
Lowestoft, sensibly, keeps the pedestrians and the cars apart in the more traditional fashion, and it keeps its unattractive harbour and heavy industry area to the North. It is less glitzy and Vegas than Great Yarmouth by several degrees, but in every other way, is just as depressing and horrifying on a heavily overcast Wednesday afternoon as its bigger brother. It’s sole claim to fame - it occupies the UK’s most Easterly point. Visitors generally buy a mug or a t-shirt to confirm this statement, then move along.
Moving ever southwards, the coast varies little, merely the budget spent on entertainment facilities. Southwold has an artsy little pier with a water sculpture, coin operated automaton booths and several seasidy niknak stalls. Walberwick has a tumble down jetty. Sizewell has a lovely little period built nuclear power station. Oh and a cafe. All these townships more or less occupy their original location as described in the Domesday book, but a town mid way between them - Dunwich - does not.
Dunwich was actually the capital of the East Angles in Anglo-Saxon times. By the time of the Domesday Chronicles, it was registered as one of the 10 largest cities in the whole kingdom, a thriving port and metropolis with 18 major ecclesiastical buildings. Between 1066 and 1086 however, more than half the taxable land was lost to the sea. Then, more major losses occurred during storm surges between 1328 and 1347 (when large parts of Lincolnshire and The Wash also disappeared) and these losses continued relentlessly until by 1602 when the town of Dunwich was a mere quarter of its former size. In 1740, further storms flattened the rest of the area and now only the ruins of one church remains - though even this has slowly collapsed into the sea during the past century and now there is but one a single tombstone remaining. The sea is now two kilometres west of where it was in Roman times, and archaeologists hail Dunwich the Atlantis of the British Isles. There is a model of old Dunwich town in the museum and its astonishing to see how much has irretrievably disappeared.
Finally we have Aldeburgh and Felixstowe, and the tidal forces change once more. AldeBurgh (aka Alde Burgh or “Old Fort”) could have been a mighty port like Dunwich but for a little problem - not that it was being worn away, but actually that it was being added to at an uncontrollable rate. It’s harbour kept being blocked by shingle and the work of repeatedly dredging it finally became unfeasible. It’s beach is a mile long heap of shingle with holiday makers sitting doggedly amidst the peaks and troughs, wriggling uncomfortably on their towels and crunching carefully to the water, wincing as their toes grind into the stones. Aldeburgh is probably steadily creeping inland and one day in the far future, perhaps a ‘New Alde Burgh’ may be created a couple of kilometres East of where it stands now, with a little museum which will tell the story of where the original used to be.
Felixstowe has also been cursed with a unprepossessing beach similar to Aldeburgh. However, like an ugly man who somehow attracts beautiful women with his charisma and style, Felixtowe somehow has that special something, that magical x-factor that keeps them happy and keeps them coming back. For this reason, I shall save Felixtowe for a separate entry and a different exploration of ideas.
I’ll simply end with this. Writing about Norfolk and Suffolk was very difficult for me because, I felt, both counties somewhat neglected their seaside identities. This whole ‘Sunrise coast’ business smacks of desperation - these counties don’t tout it, they don’t flaunt it, they don’t follow it up with anything except a couple of cheesy postcards and bumper stickers. Norfolk, in truth, mainly looks inland, concentrating on its Broads and Windmills. Suffolk is similar, but tries to put a different spin on it, perhaps to avoid being sued by Norfolk, by also offering cream teas with its Windmills and canals. The seaside areas can go to hell in both regions though, or so it seems.
It is said that Norfolk and Suffolk presently have a population level which is still lower than it ever was in medieval times, a pretty astonishing statistic if it is true. Perhaps this is the reason for the region’s rather bland feel - it’s dwindling population also took away with it all strength of regional character, all sense of coastal self. All washed away with the sands in fact, lost to the sea forever.
The Wash is a curious place. Even in ancient times it had always been known as “a great body of water that then flowed away on a tide to reveal dry land of great danger”. The entire region was a huge bog land with villages and small iron age townships on islands and dunes and small risings in the tidal marshes. They would build stilted platforms across the deeper waters, linking villages and creating navigable pedestrian ways. They would also paddle in small round skin boats amongst the reeds, fishing and hunting wild fowl.
Since those watery Iron Age times, land was reclaimed in small increments first by the Romans (when the sea was 20ft lower), and then by 7th C monks (after the sea had risen and flooded the lagoon, requiring extra flood barriers). However in the 13th C the sea began to rise dramatically again and overrun old barriers and banks, ill timed to coincide with decades of plague and depopulation - soon a large period of land abandonment commenced. It was only really in the 16th C and onwards, with their organised drainage channels and embankments, windmills and water pumps, did mankind really get a grip on the land once more. And archaeologists reckon there is a wealth of shipwrecks and bodies and abandoned townships hidden under all that peat and fenland and farmland just waiting to be discovered.
Contrary to modern day views of Norfolk and Lincolnshire being rural backwaters, in ancient times Norfolk was affluent and incredibly important economically, indeed present day population levels still haven’t reached the populations levels of Medieval Norfolk prior to the plagues. The Romans and Anglosaxons produced salt in the region, there was also peat, wool and as the marshes dried out, large open plains of arable land, all with an extensive system of waterways for transport and trade. Indeed all of the townships which we now regard as being inland such as Wainfleet, Boston, Spalding, Winsbech and King’s Lynn were more or less on the banks of The Wash, even Ely was merely an isle in the midst of watery fen land. This is why they still retain a strangely inappropriate, confusingly maritime feeling to them today.
For me, The Wash was a dark area of mystery. After all, on the Lincolnshire side, pretty much all of this coast is inaccessible and blockaded by acres of painfully flat commercial agricultural land. Approaching from Lincolnshire and knowing nothing about the region, the area has an almost mythical aspect - a supposed edge to the country that maps and satnav assure you is there, but no-one can actually prove to you. For all I knew, there was actually a land bridge to Holland that no-one was telling me about.
Happily, the Norfolk side of the wash was more generous to its tourists, permitting watery access via a number of winding lanes, usually terminating in ramshackle static caravan parks. The sea here is very much ‘pay per view’. For any given golden beach you are usually also confronted with an fee paying car park - and not just a pay and display but an actual gated affair with an attendant and a single hefty ‘all day’ entrance fee. Is this because they are so sure their beach will keep you entertained for the entire day, or a cynical effort to extract extra cash from those who would normally stop for an hour then go on their way?
Snettisham illustrates what I am talking about. You follow a long and winding back road to ‘the beach’ only to eventually fetch up at a small shop and cafe with a van parked outside and someone sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette. The road continues on beyond the cafe but looks somewhat privately owned and unwelcoming so you pull in at the cafe’s three berth car park and wait for a while to get a lay of the land. Soon, two sandy children arrive from nowhere in swimwear and flipflops and buy ice creams with small change that they have warmed by clutching in their damp little hands for the whole length of the walk from the beach. They then disappear off down that private lane again, but if you follow them you soon lose yourself in a mess of identical looking static caravans, with the occasional unfriendly resident pausing to watch you as you pass. Some time later, you are eventually spat out at the entrance of a car park where a polite but emphatic attendant demands £5 from you to park, else sends you off on your way. One’s usual reaction is to U-turn immediately and leave again.
My reaction is not unusual. I soon learn that most others, when confronted with such exploitation, reacted by parking near to and anywhere but the paying car park. Heacham beach is a good example, where as you near the paying car park suddenly all laybys, gateways, ditches and pavements are crammed with vehicles, some precariously close to drainage ditches, private entrances and dark forbidding bog. Meanwhile the attendant stand forlornly outside their empty car park, forced to watch the mayhem but unable to address it. This not only makes the potential cost of such beaches nightmarish, but also the approach to them. And for what? A stretch of beach pretty much like any other along this coast….a few feet of sand, a few feet of gravel, a long flat wet stretch of muddy sand and boulders, and an oddly browny green sea (Oh! And look, those container ships are on the horizon again). But it keeps the kids happy, I suppose.
If you want a beach without all the fee paying, or at least, a beach that is worth the parking fees that you do pay, then Hunstanton is the place to be. Hunstanton is the most significant seaside town along the Norfolk side of The Wash, almost directly opposite Skegness on The Wash’s Northern side. On a hot sunny day it is packed as close as any Ibiza party hotspot. As a sun worshipper you jostle for position on the admittedly high quality golden sand, and guard it territorially for the rest of the day, as would a nesting gannet guard its square inch of ledge on a busy sea cliff (with a similar amount of noise and mess). There is the obligatory fun fair. There is an extensive promenade lined with food inlets, outlets and excretion points. There is a sandstone and chalk cliff to the north, a pier to the south, and a decent selection of shops and other facilities in the middle. Assuming your personal space bubble is relatively small, it is an excellent place to visit for the full seaside experience. Its unusual aspect means that here you are also able to see the sun setting over the sea, even though it is on the ‘East’ Coast. Theoretically this is also a pleasure you can witness from Snettisham and Heacham but I couldn’t get near enough nor afford to stay long enough to find out.
Finally there is Brancaster and though some would argue that this is now a beach formally positioned next to the North Sea rather than The Wash, I prefer to categorise it as ‘The Wash’ mainly because further along the road, you soon encounter huge swirling sandbanks kicked up by the sea and the coast’s crisp edge somewhat loses itself temporarily in a hazy mess of marsh, sand grass and dune. This crispness and unambiguity is only really recovered again around 30miles later in Sheringham, whereupon you can well and truly start to deem yourself away from The Wash and properly on Norfolk’s ‘Sunrise’ coast.
Brancaster has both a beach and a staithe. The beach is self explanatory - sand, grit, sticky mud, brisk walk to a rapidly receding sea. A staithe is an Old English name for a boat landing area and around these parts, usually means a deep cutting in the marsh mud which allows for the passage and parking of small sea faring boats. The rivers here are highly tidal which means these cuttings operate between two extremes. At low tide, they are dry cracked river beds, slimy with mud and patterned with the tiny footprints of wading birds, dotted hither and thither with grounded boats and bisected by a tiny trickle of grey brown water running along the bottom of its course. At these times, you can see large boat masts from some distance away, seeming sticking out of the ground at angles and it is only when you are nearly upon the river bed do you finally see the wide flat extent of the cutting that is hiding the large grounded boats. Meanwhile, at high tide, the cutting can be nearly full to the brim, the reed beds at its edges submerged and creeping with wild fowl and wild life.
Brancaster was a reminder to me that estuaries are actually, despite county borders, more or less symmetrical. The banks of the Humber were identical in character despite the Humber Bridge taking you from ‘Lincolnshire’ on one side to ‘Yorkshire’ on the other. Similarly, as was the banks of the Tyne. The banks of the Wash are no different for being in Lincolnshire or Norfolk, simply that one of its tributaries must have formed a convenient county boundary. Back in Lincolnshire I had walked the bank of a staithe at Gibraltar point south of Skegness, just before the channel completed its meandering journey through the countryside collecting and distributing briny water - it looked pretty much like the staithe in Brancaster. In Lincoln I had followed a large, straight and aggressively cut channel through the marshland from Wisbech to Guy’s Head and I nearly, and I mean nearly, glimpsed the sea way off into the distance, with seals lying beached on the shore. That far off coast looked pretty much like the coast of Brancaster, just before the large duny sandbanks began to dominate the horizon and blot the North Sea from view.
I’ve many more estuaries to visit on my wanderings around the British Isles and I think now with each one I must categorise the explorations by the estuary and not by the county. In this respect, where the Humber may be called ‘Mighty’, The Wash may be called ‘Giving’ as its gentle and regular drenching of the land with water and nutrients has clearly created and defined the marshlander, the fen dweller, and the general spirit of the people of these parts. From century to century it gives, then it takes away again. We are presently in an era where the estuary has given to us. Soon, perhaps, it will be time to take it all away.
I had reached Northumbria via the rolling dales of Yorkshire. I had expected, I suppose, that the amplitude of those rolls and crinkles would have increased as I neared Scotland but was surprised that they did not. Instead, the land softened and flattened again as I approached Berwick-on-Tweed, the most Northern English town on the East coast.
Berwick is for the most part, elegant. It emanates its elegance like a once beautiful older woman, still with an edge to her smile and a sparkle in her eye. You walk the banks of the River Tweed along well preserved city walls, steeped in history. The light catches the three dainty old viaducts and the many roofs and steeples of all the period buildings with an 18th C panache. You can almost see the tricornes, breeches and wigs of the bygone residents swish by.
It’s hard to think that this town was such a place of war and bloodshed. From 1173 to nearly 1700 the town oscillated rapidly between the Scottish and English rule every 100 years or so, sometimes bloodily, sometimes as an object of barter. Then England went to war with France and Scotland decided to side with France, so England snatched Berwick from the Scottish, nearly destroying it in the process. A mere 20 years later the Scottish, this time with help from the Germans, blockaded and besieged the town and grabbed it back, only for it to be recaptured by the English 20 years later again. It was offered back to the Scottish in 1461 in exchange for help during the War of the Roses, and repossessed by the English in the 15th C, whereupon it remained English for ever more. And the reason for all this squabbling? It was once a port liken to Alexandria in scale and importance, the Crimean War even had to be declared in the name of Great Britain, Ireland and Berwick Upon Tweed.
Today, you still get a sense of that importance. A broad and naturally sheltered harbour with a river for transportation inland, a good position for national and international trade, and a wide area of flat fertile arable land around it to support the townsfolk. The town itself is kempt and confident about its history, with many placards and information points telling stories from all the ages of the town’s existence. But no-one claims to be particularly Scottish or English round here, they are merely ‘Tweedsiders’. In the face of a regularly changing political identity, the town decided to go independent and consider itself its own County instead - effectively hastily back stepping from the constant squabbling twixt English and Scottish and defining itself, culturally, as something separate and unchangeable in the face of everything going on around it.
The newer houses are pushed out to the edges of the town where they belong and don’t get in the way of historical enjoyment. Period buildings are well maintained, restored and handily captioned for the goodly number of tourists who amble through its streets. The harbour is a warren of tiny alley ways in which you can easily envision fishwives, traders and sailors bustling through, their cobbled floors stained with the blood of freshly gutted fish and the unlucky who were mugged there. And not a funfair or a trinket shop in site, that’s beneath a town with Berwick’s sense of style and grace. On the south bank of the Tweed is the Spittal, once a separate township to ‘Tweedside’ on the other side of the river, and featuring a long natural sand bar that helps protect the harbour mouth. You can walk to the very tip of it at the turning of the tide and have the dubious sensation of having water coming up to your feet from two different sides at the same time, whilst the sand itself is a tangle of strange and unusual flotsam and jetsam. Further south is a golden sandy beach for tourists and local dog walkers alike. Berwick has it all.
As to the rest of Northumbria, it is hard and tough like the rock beneath it. A large part of the coast is made of basalt, the Whin Sill, an igneous extrusion from the Carboniferous period that spans the British Isles. It didn’t come from volcanoes, but from a time when the stretching of the earth’s crust caused magma to rise up and be injected between pre-existing layers of limestone and sandstone to form a hard 80m sheet of crystalline rock, cracked vertically in patterns reminiscent of the Giants Causeway. It forms the bedrock for Hadrian’s wall, runs through the North Pennines and pops out here and there in Northumbria, usually as a base for a promontories such as Lindisfarne Castle, Bamburgh Castle and Dunstanburgh Castle. Elsewhere it forms shelf-like rocky beaches of chunkily broken rock, a stony olive green in colour.
Whilst Berwick was being battered by war, further south the town of Bamburgh also got its fair share of beatings from the Scots. However these were lesser in severity, more like occasional raids than systematic battles, and though Bamburg Castle was still the first fort ever to be destroyed by artillery, this was actually by English hands during the War of the Roses and not by the Scots. The castle is big and grand and sits heftily on its particular promontory like a fat old king. It is well maintained, all sharp edges and slated roofs, glowing sandstone orange in the sunset even from miles away. It has an ancient Norman castle at its core, which was built upon by subsequent kings according to their particular level of paranoia. This was not the sort of castle that rulers built and then never visited, it regularly house monarchs and lords. Consequently, it was legendary for the strength of its fortification, and every time the Scots knocked it down, the English made a point of building it up again and this time making it even stronger. It’s a very castly castle - it has been used regularly for film sets and its huge state rooms are opulent - there I said the word - yes, opulent with war time regalia from Tudor times onwards. It can see Lindisfarne Castle as Lindisfarne can see it, but there is no doubt which one was for the petty duke and which was the true seat of power.
Further south again, however, is Dunstanburgh Castle. It was also built on a Whin Sill promontory and was also the site of an ancient fortress, however this one is now sadly in ruin though it still casts a dramatic silhouette from many miles away. Dunstanburgh was lucky in that it didn’t get too much hassle from the Scottish, being just far enough away from the real action. It was held by an Earl, one of the wealthiest Earls in Britain in fact and being in such a good position as regards the Scottish he had lots of spare income to deliberately build his (bigger) castle in the eyeline of Bamburgh castle and spend his time challenging the king’s authority instead. In its heyday it would have had a moat, a gate house and a spectacular entrance which in every way would have given Bamburgh a run for its money as regards commanding power and admiration. It certainly had the desired effect of annoying the king anyway. Said Earl was eventually executed for treason and for being part of the Baron’s rebellion, whereupon the game of one-up-manship was brought to abrupt close and the castle fell into disrepair. One can only wonder if it was worth it.
All these castles lie on the Northumbrian ‘Scenic Coastal Route’, which is basically just a road that hugs the contours of the coast but is labelled with brown road signs and thus draws tourists from far and wide to trundle up and down at 25mph, braking sharply for every instance of oncoming traffic or particular nice scenery, children dangling arms through windows and dogs slewing wildly from side to side in the back. At Bamburgh, the enthusiastic visitors attempt to offset the harsh castle entrance fees by skipping the pay and display charges and parking along the edges of the road. This creates a nerve wracking assault course, only barely navigable by an ordinary car, at least during Castle opening hours. At Seahouses you must park along cramped residential side streets at risk of people jumping out of their houses to shake a fist at you, and all just to stroll along its bijou little fishing harbour and wonder why you are strolling along its bijou little fishing harbour, pretty much like everyone else who is strolling along its bijou little fishing harbour too. This is also an option at Beadnell, though its ambience is spoilt somewhat by an extensive caravan park lining the beach’s cliff side.
Better to lose yourself down a back road and bathe in the sea at the unassuming beach of Low Newton (as opposed to High Newton) with the glorious ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle as your backdrop. Or Caistor of course, the gateway to Dunstanburgh Castle though you’ll find no pay and display car park here, just a dead end, no turning spot, a sign pointing to a footpath and a long, long walk.
I’m sure a great many had come from Bamburgh to Caistor and expected the same experience - roll up, fall out, pay your money, lurch around a castle clutching your icecream and guidebook and drive home again. Dunstanburgh however, is a lengthy walk across fields full of cows and by the rocky edge of the grumbling North Sea. I passed a group of elderly types, two women in crimpoline and walking in dress shoes, one of their number grumbling loudly to her friend “Oh this is not good, not good at all Josephine, it’s too rough”. “Eh? What’s she sayin’?” said the flat capped man leading the party from some feet ahead, and he paused to turn round and look at the women. “She’s tellin’ it as it is” said the friend. “She’s sayin’ yer an idiot Joseph”. I hastened past them, not wishing to see the women’s reactions to the up and coming somnolent cows, all placidly swishing flies from their thickly crushed backsides with their thickly crusted tails and amply splattering the surrounding grass.
Perverse of me, I know, but I preferred Dunstanburgh of all the Castles. I liked that I had to walk to it, so the castle revealed itself to me much as it would have to medieval travellers of the day. I could imagine their awe, perhaps having travelled for days to get there. And I liked that it wasn’t all dressed up and repaired, just the same as it was when its over cheeky owner had been parted from his head.
There is a sign at the tip of the battlements, overlooking the grim, green and spiky basalt beach. To paraphrase, it said “This grass, this sea, these birds and these flowers are all as they had been when this castle was built. The soldiers in the battlements would have smelt the same smells and felt the same breeze. Enjoy this scenery, for this landscape is as much a part of history as the ruins of this building”. And I did. I smiled and paused, looked all around me and breathed it in.
In all the time that I have been travelling around, I have never yet mentioned anywhere I have stayed. This was no oversight, simply that there was nothing really to tell, not that I very much frequent the larger, more soulless camp sites except by emergency, nor ever crossed the threshold of a ‘holiday park’ except as a deliberate act of trespass when finding it blocking my route to the beach. No, I more prefer the smaller semi-professional camp sites situated on farms and in retired people’s backyards, the whole arrangement seeming more mutually beneficial to all - I get cheap digs, more space, I don’t pay for what I don’t need and I put my money directly in the pocket of farmer or a pensioner instead of an uncaring corporation.
Even then however, there have still been very few campsites that have had any sort of wow factor, they’ve really all just be legal places to park. I must mention one site though, high in the Northumbrian hills and run by ‘Kev the Pig’.
Kev is a walnut brown, shorn headed Northumbrian farmer. We first met as I was nervously dragging my caravan down the very long and very narrow single track road which my satnav assured me was going to get me to my next place of residence. Happily we did not meet head on, he came up behind me in a battered old pickup truck and followed politely until I pulled in at a passing place, intending to let him get past me so he could get on his way. Instead though, he pulled up alongside and dangled out of the van. I braced myself for abuse, else some pithy comment about how this was private land and that there was no possible way I was going to U turn the caravan and would have to back it up the way it came. Instead though, he simply eyeballed me for a second then laughed “Ah, you’ve got to be [name withheld for security purposes]! Ah’ve bin expecting you, follow me…”. Much relieved, I trundled behind him through a warren of sheds, hay bales and lanes filled with shifty looking sheepdogs, and pulled up by a caravan. He opened a gate and gestured to the empty field beyond.
"Anywheere ye like" he said cheerfully, "Yer’ve got no-wun else comin’ for days so knock yerself out". Then he glanced in my car and smiled "An’ yerve brooart yer plant wi’ yer as weel ah see? Ah like that," referring to the potted red geranium in one of my cup holders. "Of course, it’s my friend" I replied and he nodded understandingly. I pitched up and he disappeared off into the wilds of his farmland, not to be seen again that day.
I set myself up so that I had an uninterrupted view of rolling hills disappearing off towards Durham, with horses in the foreground all galloping hither and thither in a horse-like fashion (apart from one with a bag over its head who occasionally walked into fences). At night, the countryside was all lit up and twinkling as the horses whinnied and snorted softly in the darkness and the wind howled over the open landscape to rock my caravan gently to sleep. It was all rather lovely.
As promised, I was pretty much on my own then in that field until the weekend, which is the sort of thing I like. I saw Kev occasionally, it turned out he lived in a fenced off static caravan next to the camping field with his wife. I saw a kid one day, a boy, out in the field which I overlooked, gathering horse manure in a wheel barrow. I also saw a tangle haired girl driving a tractor down the lane, and there was guy, a farm worker, in a caravan pitched at the gate of the camping field, a caravan that was covered in mould and clearly hadn’t shifted in a very long time. The guy had a little terrier which was often times basking on its back in the grass outside the caravan, legs akimbo and a blissful look on its doggy face. Other people were also glimpsed but they may have stayed on other parts of the farm.
There was a great peaceful isolation to the place. The farm was its own little village with Kev and his lads flitting around the place all with a job to do and a sense of responsibility for the task without the need for management. In the evenings everyone shook their boots out on their porches, wandered over to see how the day had gone for the next guy, and generally enjoyed the outdoors for what it had to offer. Nobody seemed to have any need to leave the farm and go shopping, everything they needed seemed to be on site or could be lent by another, and everyone had something to do and got on with it at a pace that suited them. I started to see how these little farming communities may have functioned in bygone times - just an intimate band of people all trading their skills for communal food and shelter, and perhaps once yearly going to the cattle market in town to pick up some new knives or nails or other items that could not be made on site, and perhaps choose a wife.
Finally I came back to the farm one evening and there was a large tent pitched in the opposite corner of ‘my’ field. It was strange to have company after a few days alone, and it had also been quite a dramatic day - there had been thunder and lightning and torrential rain in the region and it actually snowed in South Shields. I had only just narrowly missed getting stuck in the Tyne Tunnel when it flooded and there had been traffic mayhem everywhere around it. I saw Kev later wandering about and we exchanged our weather stories. Apparently while I had been stuck in floods, back at the farm there had been hail the size of peas and a couple staying in a tent had had to go and sit in the car while the place got pelted, “They was shittin’ ‘em selves, man”, Kev said, grinning evilly.
The tent was a prelude for what was to come. On Friday afternoon, Kev was suddenly a frenzy of activity running up and down the field in his tractor dragging caravans out of his caravan storage area and plonking them around the camping field, and adding extensions and splitters to all the electricity bollards dotted about the field. Then, in the evening, a whole bunch of cars arrived with families and couple in them, and they each took a caravan, as placed by Kev. By nightfall, the field was full of campers and everyone was sitting on each other’s doorsteps having a beer or a fag and chatting away whilst looking at the view. I met one of them at the water tap and she told me she only lived 10 minutes away, but liked coming up every weekend that she could. She seemed to know most of the other new arrivals so I presumed they were all probably local too and this was their regular get away. And they were the first people in months that I’d encountered who actually stayed up later than I did (at least 2 am). The bins were suddenly filled with empty lager cans.
So Kev had himself a field party, and he wandered around later from caravan to caravan like the lord of it all, saying hello. All the new campers hung around until Sunday afternoon, simply drinking and chatting and having BBQs, and then just as suddenly as they had arrived, they all packed up and disappeared again. This left Kev with a field full of empty caravans which he had to put away. I teased him about it later.
"What I love is all the people who come at the weekend and get you to tow their caravans in and out - so they just turn up and you do all the work, nice!"
"Ay, an’ ets woarth every penny of the money I niver get off ‘em" he said wryly, and continued dragging caravans off the field with his tractor. But I reckon I’d do the same if I was in the neighbourhood.
Colliery Farm caravan site - worth a stop-over if that’s the sort of thing you do and the sort of place you go. But don’t go there expecting any holiday park style facilities, just point your caravan towards Durham, crack open an tinny, and breath a sigh…