Thursday, October 05, 2006

Walk 142 -- Alnmouth, via Craster, to Embleton

Ages: Colin was 64 years and 150 days. Rosemary was 61 years and 292 days.
Weather: Light drizzle and a cool wind.

Location: Alnmouth to Embleton, via Craster.
Distance: 10½ miles.
Total distance: 1166½ miles.
Terrain: Some beach walking, but mostly grassy cliff paths. It was muddy and slippery in places. Undulating.
Tide: Coming in.
Rivers: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: Nos.104, 105, 106 and 107 approaching Craster from the South. Nos.108, 109 and 110 leaving Craster towards the North.
Pubs: None – the pub in Craster wasn’t in Colin’s Beer Guide.
‘English Heritage’ properties: No.41, Dunstanburgh Castle.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We were staying in a holiday flat in Longhoughton. We drove to Embleton where we parked at the edge of the village. Using my mobile phone, I rang a taxi firm in Alnwick. We had to wait about twenty minutes, then we were transported in a minibus to Alnmouth, passing our flat in Longhoughton on the way.
At the end we walked up the lane from the golf course to our car. After a cup of tea we drove the short distance back to our flat in Longhoughton.

We started today’s Walk by trudging across Alnmouth Golf Course. We were surprised to read, on our map, that the whole golf course is an open access area where the public are permitted to walk where they like! Not a good example of the new Open Access Act which has recently gone through Parliament. There were a lot of golfers playing, even though it wasn’t a weekend or the holiday season, and a lot of notices warning us about the danger of flying golf balls. We walked across on the public footpath, but we could tell that the golfers were disgruntled that they had to wait a minute or two occasionally. But so did we, because we stopped whenever we saw someone about to take a shot so as not to put them off their stroke.
We got across unscathed and climbed a slope — not much of a hill really but the biggest we had to tackle today. We came across a rather fancy Second World War ‘pillbox’ with the following inscription carved into it:
…..we couldn’t read the last line because it was too faded.
On the wall next to the path was a clever metal sculpture of a bird. It was called ‘A Good Tern’ (groan!) and had been made by G Frazer in May’06 — so the scratching in the cement told us. We walked up to the clubhouse and skirted round it, then we scrambled back down to the beach to get away from the flying golf balls. Good job the tide was not yet right in! It was pleasant walking down there despite the rain — I love beaches!
But it was not for long because there were too many rocks in the way. We went up to a caravan park where confusing signage almost sent us on the wrong track, and sat on the cliff edge to eat our pasties — not exactly a cliff, more a grassy mound of sand. And we were soon down on the beach again as far as Boulmer. There we climbed up to the road for a couple of hundred yards, and used the public loo as we passed. After that we stayed on the clifftop path because there were no more suitable beaches to walk along. We were about a mile away from our digs, and could just about make out our holiday flat as we passed it on the path. We walked on the unofficial clifftop path around Longhoughton Steel because the official track cut the corner.
We found a spot out of the wind in the dunes to eat the rest of our lunch. Then we continued along the cliff edge with wonderful views of the rocks and sea below. We passed a kind of wigwam made of interwoven sticks and grass, but it looked derelict as it was full of holes. I remember hearing something about it on a recent ‘Coast’ programme on TV. (See! Since we started this trek round the perimeter of mainland Britain, there has been a sudden upsurge of interest in our amazing coastline. Let’s hope it opens up a few more areas for walking so Joe Public can appreciate it!) Some people tried an experiment by living like iron-age people, but I can’t remember much more about it. It’s been done before so wasn’t very newsworthy, though they did get interviewed by Nicholas Crane on the programme. The project had obviously been abandoned for some time when we walked past.
As we were walking along, I sort of got that “déjà-vu” feeling again that I’d had when walking up to South Shields. Sure enough, I had been brought to this part of the coast on yet another Open University Summer School to interpret the fascinating geology here. You can tell by the way the rocks are tilted and distorted that their history is very complex. During the five years I studied with the Open University I had to attend no less than six Summer Schools. Each was only a week long, but they were extremely intense — the year I had to attend two I was nearly ill with exhaustion. Two of those weeks I was accommodated at Durham University, and the final year (1989) was the most enjoyable of all. We were brought several times to this stretch of coast — pity I can’t remember most of what I learned at the time! But as we approached the Whin Sill, I did remember what I had been taught because it is such a dramatic rock formation. The Whin Sill is probably best known for being the rock escarpment on which Hadrian’s Wall was built. The grim cliffs facing north were supposed to be a deterrent to the Scots whom the Romans decided they couldn’t tame (was it the wildness of the clans or the infamous Scottish midges?) but I don’t think it ever really worked. We were taken to High Force where the Whin Sill is exposed by the River Tees, and we were brought to this very bit of coast to see where it dips into the sea.
The Whin Sill is an igneous rock which, when it was semi-liquid, spread on top of sedimentary rocks. When it had cooled, more layers of sedimentary rocks were laid down on top — like a kind of sandwich. Over the millennia it distorted into a saucer shape and some of the sedimentary rocks around it eroded. That is why we see the outcrops we do today. That is what we were supposed to deduce after several days in the field and evenings pouring over geological data. But there were no geniuses in our group and we just couldn’t get it. Half an hour before the end on the last evening, they gave us the explanation out of pure frustration! I have never forgotten it.
Speaking as a teacher, that was quite the wrong way to go about it. We hadn’t nearly enough experience to come to all those conclusions, but if we’d had the explanation before we went out in the field we would have known what to look for. In the following years I came across the same ludicrous approach to children’s learning in the classroom. Children as young as seven are expected to make a scientific hypothesis as to why something happens when you do that, and devise an experiment to test their theory. Codswallop! What experience have those children had to make a hypothesis in the first place? Even half the twelve-year-olds that I taught Science for years were still living in a fantasy world where things ‘just happen because they do’ or ‘by magic’.
No! Explain to them why it happens, guide them through the experiment to prove it, and show them examples in the real world. I used to talk to these youngsters about the shape of windows on aeroplanes when teaching stresses and strains, and tell them about the work my father did on the Comet disasters in the 1950s — making the stories as dramatic as I could to retain their interest. A few weeks after such a lesson I remember a parents’ evening where a family had just returned from a holiday in Florida. Their young son had regaled to all who wanted to hear, and probably many who didn’t, that the windows of the plane they were travelling in wouldn’t crack and blow out because they had rounded corners which were far stronger than square ones. I think I had got the message over!
Another thing I learned on that final Summer School was to always look at the stones in buildings (particularly if they were built of sandstone), stone bridges and even paving slabs for the layers of sediment where they were originally laid down. And I always have ever since, it is source of great interest both to me and to Colin. They are particularly prevalent in old eroded buildings like ruined castles. We always look for fossils too, and often find them. How many people, for example, know about the amazing fossils in the black marble in Durham Cathedral?I remembered from my OU visit, which was at the end of July, that there was a cacophony of sound over the Whin Sill cliff as hundreds of kittiwakes were preparing to fledge. This year we were there in October, and the cliffs were silent — nests empty. But plenty of guano left behind to prove they had been there! We walked over the top and noted the basalt columns on the beach, like a miniature Giant’s Causeway.We descended into Craster past a children’s playground, deserted in the grey drizzle. Then we walked around the private harbour at our own risk — stupid these notices they have to put up to cover their backs in these litigious days. Craster is famous for its kippers, and we have enjoyed many a crab sandwich in the local pub too. But not today, it was too wet and miserable to hang about. We both just wanted to get the Walk over.After a quick look at the strange mermaid fish sculpture, we climbed up towards Dunstanburgh Castle. It was too late to visit today as it closes at 4 o’clock in October. We sat on a bench to eat our chocolate and the warden passed us with a cheery wave on her way home from work. There are no roads to Dunstanburgh Castle, it can only be approached by footpath either from Craster in the South, where we were, or from Embleton in the North, where today’s Walk ends. Both routes involve about a mile and a quarter of walking along the cliff path. So we climbed the slope and by-passed the ruins on a muddy path. The castle looked magnificent and mysterious in the misty rain, but I think it was more the weather and the rock it was standing on which gave it that kind of ethos.
Dunstanburgh Castle
We visited Dunstanburgh Castle a week later on a warm and sunny day. We drove to Craster, which wasn’t very far from our digs, but found we were expected to pay to park our car there. So we drove on to Embleton where we parked for free. Then we walked South along the cliff path to the ruins. The English Heritage blurb tells us:
“Dramatic Dunstanburgh Castle was built at a time when relations between King Edward II and his most powerful baron, Thomas of Lancaster, had become openly hostile. Lancaster began the fortress in 1313, and the latest archaeological research carried out by English Heritage indicates he built it on a far grander scale than was hitherto recognised, perhaps more as a symbol of his opposition to the king than as a military stronghold. The innovative gatehouse, for instance, competed with the new royal castles in Wales.
The earl failed to reach Dunstanburgh when his rebellion was defeated, and was taken and executed in 1322. Thereafter the castle passed eventually to John of Gaunt, who strengthened it against the Scots by converting the great twin-towered gatehouse into a keep. The focus of fierce fighting during the Wars of the Roses, it was twice besieged and captured by Yorkist forces, but subsequently fell into decay. Its impressive ruins now watch over a headland famous for seabirds.”
It is not so much the ruins that are impressive, for there are only a few very tumbledown towers left, but more the site which is impressive. High on a massive piece of the Whin Sill, there are dramatic views of the rolling surf below. We loved it!Back to the Walk day — just past the castle ruins is a little separate crumpled piece of the Whin Sill on the beach. I was first brought to see it back in 1965 when I was on a week-long Geography field course based in Newcastle. It was part of my initial teacher training at Digby Stuart College in London where I was taking Geography as one of my special subjects. As twenty-year-old students about a dozen of us had to give up the last week of our Summer holidays to do this course, which was mandatory. But we did a lot of exciting things like going down a working coal mine in County Durham (none left now) and touring the steelworks at Consett (completely gone) where we watched — and felt the heat — from a furnace being tapped. The course was hard work, and towards the end of the week we were very tired. We’d been out all day looking at this and that, and we’d been promised a treat at the end of an ‘outstanding geographical feature’. We were given no further clues as to what we were supposed to be looking for, we were tired and the weather was a bit drizzly. Our lecturer, Miss Nickson, was trying to whip up enthusiasm as to who would be the first to see this marvellous feature, so we sat down on a rock in a row and started looking about in a desultory manner. We couldn’t see anything, and really all we wanted to do was get back to our dinner. Suddenly she screamed in exasperation, “You’re sitting on it!” And so we were! We all burst out laughing, but Miss Nickson didn’t see the joke. I promised myself there and then that I would always keep my sense of humour as a teacher — a tall order, and I don’t know if I did when the kids really tried me but I do remember many hilarious moments when the joke was on me.
Fast-forward to 1979 — I was married with four young children and we were on a camping holiday in Northumberland. Skate-boarding was the latest craze, the first time it came round. We brought our children along the cliff path to explore Dunstanburgh Castle, and as soon as they saw the ‘outstanding geographical feature’ they dubbed it the ‘skate-board ramp rock’! So here in 2006 we were once more passing the outstanding geographical feature known as the ‘Skate-Board Ramp Rock’. I’m sure it used to be much larger than it looked today — could it be that I am getting old?
From there we left the rocks and ruins behind and walked down the gentle slope towards Embleton Bay. We followed the footpath behind the golf course until we got to the clubhouse.

That ended Walk no.142, we shall pick up Walk no.143 next time on Embleton Bay near the golf clubhouse. We walked up the lane to our car, and had a look at the village pump on the green. After a cup of tea we drove the short distance back to our flat in Longhoughton.

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