Alnmouth – Wicked & Haunted?

Alnmouth is one of the most attractive villages on the Northumberland coast.

View of Northumberland Street, the main drag in Alnmouth.

As the name suggests, it is situated at the mouth of the River Aln. The bigger town of Alnwick, famous for its castle and gardens, is situated about four miles inland.

The village was founded in 1150 and for centuries it was an active port for fishing and the shipment of grain to London and elsewhere. It may have also harboured smugglers and, with ten pubs in the village in the 18th century, visiting preacher John Wesley described it as ‘a small seaport town famous for all kinds of wickedness’.

The Serviceman, an ex-servicemens club with ‘a great atmosphere, cheap drink and friendly faces’.

Alnmouth does not appear to be a den of vice anymore but it is still well served by pubs. I counted at least five which is not bad for a village with only 500 or so permanent residents.

Wesley may have gained his poor impression of Alnmouth from the 17th century Schooner Hotel which has an interesting past and a spooky reputation.. Notable guests, apart from John Wesley, have included King George III, Charles Dickens and actor Basil Rathbone, most famed for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. In the 1600s some of the aforementioned smugglers and other dodgy characters found shelter at the inn and murders, suicides and family massacres took place within its walls. The hotel’s website explains ‘ Spirits of withered and demented souls haunt the whole hotel frequently. Apparently, the spirits don’t care about being seen.’ With over 3000 sightings of 60 individual ghosts, the Paranormal Society has named the Schooner the Most Haunted Hotel in Britain.

The Schooner displays a ‘Haunted Hotel’ sign outside. Clearly they consider that its creepy reputation attracts more people than it puts off.

There are plenty of tea rooms and gift shop in Alnmouth.

By the end of the 19th century shifting sands had caused the estuary to silt up. The opening of the railway in the 1840s brought tourism and today Alnmouth continues to be a pleasant and picturesque tourist and holiday home resort.

The taller building here is Hindmarsh Hall, a community run village hall, original built as a granary about 250 years ago.
St John the Baptist Parish Church, opened in 1876. It replaced an earlier Anglican Church on Church Hill on the other side of the estuary which was washed away by a great storm in 1806.

Until the 1960s a ferryman used to row people across the mouth of the River Aln. The ferryman’s old hut has been refurbished and now contains a heritage centre with memorabilia related to the ferryman. It is thought to be the smallest museum in England.

The beautiful golden sand beach at Alnmouth is very popular. These photos were taken in September 2020 (between lockdowns) and it was quite busy by Northumberland standards. Like many of the beaches on this coastline, it is lined with concrete anti-tank blocks, left over from the Second World War where they were intended to slow down any possible German invasion.

A nine-hole links golf course occupies a prime beach front position. Founded in 1869 it is said to be one of the oldest courses of its kind in England.

On the slopes of Bracken Hill, formerly known as Battery Hill, stands a coastal battery built in 1861 to house the Percy Artillery Volunteers. It was modernised during WWII as an anti-invasion measure. The hill is now a mini nature reserve and provides great views of the beach and golf course.

How to Get to Alnmouth

The location is marked on this map.

Nearby Attractions

Warkworth Castle
Amble
Alnwick Castle & Gardens
Edlingham Castle

Find more Northumberland attractions here.

Seahouses

Seahouses is a small holiday town (or large village) on the scenic Northumberland coast about half way between Bamburgh and Beadnell. A former fishing village, it is now best known as the embarkation point for tourist boat trips to the Farne Islands, famous for puffins and other seabirds.

Boat trips to Farne Islands are available all year round if you don’t mind the cold and choppy seas. I’m waiting for a Covid-free summer for my trip.

Seahouses’ fishermen used to join the Scottish fishing fleet to hunt enormous shoals of herring during their annual migration down the North Sea coastline. By the time the fishing fleet reached Seahouses it could number 300 boats and in the 1890s the harbour was constructed to provide shelter for the visiting boats. Cargo vessels used to pick up barrels of salted herrings packed by the village’s ‘herring lassies’ for sale in places like Russia and Germany. The industry declined from the 1930s onwards.

Seahouses has long lured wealthy naturalist, birdwatcher and artistic types but it was not until the 1920s that the village started to attract the bucket-and-spade brigade, thanks to a branch railway line which was in existence until 1951. Although the permanent population is around 1,800 it swells to around three times that number during the summer high season. They are accommodated in numerous B&Bs, self catering apartments, guest-houses, Airbnbs, hotels and a couple of sprawling caravan parks. Thankfully the pristine beaches which stretch for miles either side of Seahouses are vast enough to make the area seem uncrowded.

To be honest Seahouses is not the quaintest fishing village in the country and it has a somewhat workaday look to it but there are a few highlights:

The Swallow Fish Traditional Smokehouse. Like nearby Craster, Seahouses is famed for its smoked fish and this business, established in 1843, is possibly where the modern kipper was invented. Homemade kipper pate is one of their specialties.

The Olde Ship is one of several pubs in the village. There are also three fish and chip shops and a number of other restaurants and cafes.

A couple of tourist boats with late 18th century lime kilns standing on the left.

You can even learn to scuba dive here. Apparently Farne Islands are one of the best places to dive in the UK but personally I’d prefer somewhere a little warmer – Lombok perhaps.

RNLI lifeboat named Grace Darling.

A safe distance away is the Powder House built in 1886 for storing gunpowder used in blasting for the construction of the harbour walls.

The small light house on the jetty flies the Northumberland flag. It started to rain heavily soon after this photo was taken.

How to Get to Seahouses

The location is marked on this map:

Nearby Attractions

Find more Northumberland attractions here.

Flodden Field

The Battle of Flodden Field took place near the village of Branxton in Northumberland on 9th September 1513. It was the largest battle ever waged between armies from England and Scotland and, after a day of mass slaughter, ended in a decisive victory for England and the death of Scottish King James IV, the last reigning monarch to die in battle.

The Flodden Monument sits on a ridge and marks the centre of English battle lines. The plaque reads To the Brave of Both Nations – Erected 1910.

A trail extends around the edge of the battlefield, from the Monument down to the mid ground which, in 1513, was an undrained boggy morass where most of the killing took place and then up to Branxton Hill where the Scottish forces were assembled at the start of the battle. All around the battlefield are information boards explaining the different stages of the battle, the tactics employed, the different weaponry and so on.

This was where the fighting took place. Branxton village is on the right and you may just be able to make out the monument cross on the left.

The course of the battle has been written about extensively and if you are interested you can read about it on the Remembering Flodden website. At the risk of over-simplification my understanding of the battle was that the Scots were brave and ardent as usual but their main weapon was an 18 foot pike which proved to be unwieldy in the boggy terrain compared to the English 8 foot billhook. Similarly the English artillery was lighter and more manoeuvrable than the Scottish heavy guns which were hard to reposition when unexpectedly outflanked by the Earl of Surrey’s army. English longbows also played a decisive role.

St. Paul’s Church in Branxton where the slain of both sides were received after the Battle of Flodden. The Flodden Monument can be seen on the hilltop behind the church. For three hundred years the engagement was known as the Battle of Branxton Moor and was only romanticised as the ‘Battle of Flodden Field’ by Victorian authors and historians during the 19th Century.

A public phone booth in Branxton village was purchased from British Telecom for £1 and repurposed into a Battle of Flodden tourist information kiosk complete with maps, brochures, a three minute recorded audio guide and a donation box. It is said to be the The World’s Smallest Visitor Centre. So while Scotland commemorates its famous victory over England at Bannockburn with a multi-million pound visitor centre, England’s equivalent fits in a phone booth.

The classic British design icon has been put to creative uses all over the world since they ceased to be used as call boxes, for example as a coffee shop, a salad bar, a micro library, an ATM booth, a colour therapy retreat, a cake shop, an art gallery, a bar, a defibrillator booth and even a beach shower. I passed one in Edinburgh recently which was being used by a street-sleeper for keeping his cardboard boxes dry during the day. And they have always been used as urinals by drunks, even when they still had phones in them!

How to Get to Flodden Field

The location is marked on this map.

Nearby Attractions

Ford & Etal
Heatherslaw Light Railway
Heatherslaw Cornmill
Hay Farm Heavy Horse Centre
Cheviot Brewery

Find more Northumberland attractions here.

Ford and Etal

Ford and Etal are a pair of picturesque villages a couple of miles apart in the valley of the River Till in north Northumberland.

Each village has its own castle and they were once bitter rivals but since 1908 they have been united as part of the same estate under the ownership of the Joicey family.

Thought to be the among the prettiest villages in the county Ford & Etal is marketed as a popular tourist destination. Here are some of the attractions.

Ford Village

Ford Castle dates from around 1340. It was frequently attacked by Scottish invaders and was seized by King James IV of Scotland in 1513 in the build-up to the Battle of Flodden which took place a few miles from here. It now serves as an adventure activity centre for school and youth groups and is not open to the general public.

The medieval St. Michael & All Angels church is even older than the castle, though it was partially rebuilt in the 19th century.

The ruin in the field next to the church was once the vicar’s fortified pele tower.

This building, the Lady Waterford Gallery, used to be the village school and now contains a number of murals by Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford who came to live at Ford Castle in 1859. I have not been able to view inside yet due to lockdown restrictions and now it is closed for the winter. Next year perhaps.

Although the history of Ford goes back a thousand years or more, most of the village that we see today was built during Lady Waterford’s time. She was a philanthropist and keen to improve the living conditions of the estate’s workers. Also perhaps, a model village where all the buildings were neat and tidy with no sign of squalor or poverty was the ultimate accessory for the aristocratic estate owner who had everything.

Horseshoe Forge Antiques is housed in the former blacksmith’s forge with its wonderful Hobbit-like horseshoe door.

Ford Village Shop & Tea Room & Post Office.

Etal Village

Etal is even smaller than Ford, comprising one handsome street of whitewashed cottages, a ruined castle, a manor house, a chapel and a few other buildings.

Etal Castle is a similar age to Ford Castle and it too fell to King James IV prior to the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and lapsed into ruin thereafter. It is now managed by English Heritage.

A road fords the River Till at the edge of Etal. The current looked too strong for a safe crossing when I visited.

The Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with Etal Manor in the background.

The Black Bull at Etal is the only thatched pub in Northumberland. It is managed by the Cheviot Brewery, a real ale microbrewery also located on the Ford & Etal Estate.

The quaint Lavender Tearooms, Village Shop & Post Office at Etal.

How to Get to Ford and Etal

You can find details on the Ford & Etal Estate’s official website.

Nearby Attractions

Flodden Battlefield
Heatherslaw Light Railway
Heatherslaw Cornmill
Hay Farm Heavy Horse Centre
Cheviot Brewery

Find more Northumberland attractions here.

Craster – Kippers, Captains and Castles

Craster is a tiny village (population 305 in 2011 census) and popular tourist destination within the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Craster, Northumberland by Susan Homer

It started life as a fishing village, taking advantage of a natural harbour sheltered by two offshore rock outcrops called Little Carr and Muckle Carr.

JR Bagshawe – Cobles at Staithes

Local fisherman would launch their traditional boats called cobles and brave the dangerous seas in pursuit of herring shoals which were abundant in these waters.

The Jolly Fisherman at Craster

By the 1880s most people in the village were engaged in fishing and the fish curing trade.

Plaque on the harbour wall at Craster

Concrete piers were constructed around 1906 to facilitate the export of whinstone chippings which were quarried from where the village’s car park now stands. The new harbour was funded from the estate of Captain John Charles Pulleine Craster who was killed in Tibet during the 1904 Younghusband Expedition. You can read an interesting account of Captain Craster’s background on this blog.

The unusual concrete bunker structure on the end of the pier was the base for three tall bins which were used for storing crushed stone transported from the quarry by means of an aerial ropeway.

Craster Kippers

Returning to herrings, there used to be four smokehouses in Craster but only one remains, L Robson & Sons, who describe themselves as world famous traditional fish smokers and producers of the legendary Craster Kippers. The smokehouse dates from 1856. It used to be owned by the Craster family but they sold it to the Robsons in 1906 who are now in their fourth generation of ownership.

A smokey fish aroma fills the air

The procedure for making Craster Kippers is to select plump oily herrings and split them lengthways down the middle. This was previously the job of the village’s womenfolk but nowadays is done by machine. The fish are then soaked in brine before hanging on tenter hooks and placing them in the smokehouse where they absorb the fumes of smouldering whitewood shavings and oak sawdust for 14 -16 hours. The result is a succulent, smoky flavoured delicacy with a golden colour.

I am now on tenterhooks to try this Craster Kipper for my tea.

The herrings used to be landed in the village by local fishermen but are now mostly sourced from Norway, a reflection on the diminished state of Britain’s fishing industry.

Dunstanburgh Castle

Craster’s other main attraction, apart from its kippers, is Dunstanburgh Castle, which is a pleasant three mile walk (round trip) from Craster Quarry Car Park. It is one of Northumberland’s most popular walks.

This dramatic ruined castle stands on a rocky outcrop called the Great Whinn and is operated by English Heritage. Construction was begun in 1313 by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. It was strengthened in the 1380s by John of Gaunt and later played a strategic part in the War of the Roses. It fell into disrepair at the end of the Middle Ages.

We were lucky with the weather considering it was November.
Lilburn Tower at Dunstanburgh Castle.

Artist J.M.W Turner made a painting of this tower.

Craster’s War Memorial all decked out for Remembrance Day 2020.

Find more Northumberland attractions here.

Harbottle Castle & The Drake Stone

Back in our all-to-brief summer I took the family to see the ruined Harbottle Castle and the mystical Drake Stone situated in the scenic Coquetdale region of Northumberland.

View of Harbottle village from the castle.

Harbottle Castle was built between 1157 and 1189 by Odinel de Umfraville (the Umfravilles were also behind Prudhoe Castle) on the orders of King Henry II who wanted to project his power and strengthen England’s border defences against the Scots. The Scots captured the castle for a time in 1174.

Looking at its ruined state now it is difficult to imagine it was once fit for royalty. Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor, stayed here in 1515 where she gave birth to a daughter, also called Margaret, who became grandmother of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland).

Thomas Dacre, as Warden for the area during Henry VIII’s reign, conducted his border ‘reiving’ activities from here but following the Union of the English and Scottish Crowns in 1603 the castle became redundant and fell into ruin. Many of the stone blocks were plundered for use in private dwellings nearby.

Drake Stone

The Drake Stone is the prominent stone slab which can be seen in the distance on the hilltop viewed here from the castle.

It is an easy-ish walk on a well-defined footpath through the heather moorland up to Drake Stone, also known as the Dragon’s Stone, Draak’s Stone, Draag’s Stone or Druid’s Stone. According to legend it was a meeting place of druids in ancient times.

A nice view of the heather moorland looking back towards the castle.

Drake Stone is a huge, smooth sandstone boulder, about 30 feet tall, left behind by an Ice Age glacier. It is thought to be the largest boulder in Northumberland weighing over 2000 tons. It is said to have magical healing powers and up until not long ago children were passed over the stone to cure them of illness. Perhaps for this reason, author W.W. Tomlinson in his 1909 book Comprehensive Guide to the County of Northumberland was able to write “Harbottle is an exceptionally healthy place, the death rate being only 4.7 per thousand, and mortality among children almost unknown.”

Continuing south west the footpath descends to a small lake called Harbottle Lough which also has a mysterious reputation, said, according to folklore, to be under the protection of an unknown being or creature. That didn’t seem to bother one woman who was brave enough to swim in it during our visit (it was an unusually hot day).

How to Get to Harbottle Castle

The location is marked on this map:

Northumberland National Park has produced a useful online brochure detailing the route of a 5 mile, 2 1/2 hour walk encompassing Harbottle Castle, Drake Stone, West Wood and the village of Harbottle. This is their map and directions for the walk.

I would recommend it if you are in the area.

Nearby Attractions

Edlingham Castle
Cragside

Find more Northumberland attractions here.

Linhope Spout Walk

This Linhope Spout Walk is a 3 mile, mildly strenuous hike and makes an enjoyable outing if the weather is reasonable.

The highlight of the walk is Linhope Spout, a 60 foot or 18 metre waterfall in the Cheviot region in the Northumberland National Park. The chute funnels water originating from numerous grassy moorland springs into the River Breamish, which flows into the River Till before joining the River Tweed.

Route

I have marked the route in red. Distance 5.13km (there-and-back), Vertical gain 107m, highest point 302m, lowest point 236m.

The walk starts at Hartside Farm, part of the scenic Linhope Estate. You must park on the left side grass verge just before the farmhouse (no cars allowed beyond this point).

Walking along the road, the route passes woodland on the right before descending into the tiny hamlet of Linhope.

From Linhope a signpost directs you up a track skirting more woodland where you might be fortunate enough to spot elusive red squirrels (we didn’t, but we did see a dead mole).

Following the trail, another fingerpost directs you downhill to Linhope Spout waterfall.

Wild swimming enthusiasts are known to take a dip here and I have seen a video of people jumping into the plunge pool from the rocks above. Rather them than me! Looks very dangerous. Nobody was braving the cold water during our visit in mid-October.

After admiring the waterfalls you return to the car by the same route.

Getting to Start Point of Linhope Spout Walk

This Google map can assist you.

Find more Northumberland attractions here.

Duddo Stone Circle

Duddo Stone Circle, also known as Duddo Five Stones, is a 4,000 year old stone circle in North Northumberland, close to the Scottish Border.

There are known to be over 1250 prehistoric stone circles littering the countryside in the British Isles. Along with standing stones, henges, dolmens and cup-marks these mysterious relics from past civilisations are enshrouded in legend and myth. Stone circles began appearing around 3000BC and they range in size from spectacular rings such as Stonehenge to this rather modest example at Duddo.

The information board at the site reads as follows:

Duddo represents an exceptionally clear example of the relationship between a stone circle and its setting. The circle visible today is incomplete. Sometime before 1852 two stones were lost from the north-west quadrant, leaving only five stones remaining. Of these, the most north-easterly stone fell sometime during the 19th century and was pulled to the north to admit ploughing across the interior of the circle. It was re-erected around 1903.

Prior to that date the circle was known as Four Stones.

Nice scenery with Cheviot Hills in the background.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that the stones were erected around 2000BC and ancient cremated human remains have been found in a pit at the centre of the circle.

On this exposed hilltop the stones have felt the effects of 4,000 years of wind and rain erosion scoring deep cuts and scars in the soft sandstone and at least one of the rocks appears to bear man-made cup-markings whose symbolism is unknown.

The stones vary in height from 1.5m to 2.3m and are arranged in a rough circle with a diameter of about 10m.

Various nicknames have been given to the stones such as ‘Singing Stones’, perhaps due to the sound made by wind passing over their surface. Also ‘The Seven Turnip Pickers’ which could be a reference to the tale that seven farm labourers were turned into stone by God as punishment for working here on the Sabbath.

From some angles they resemble clenched fists or a set of receding teeth.

How to Get to Duddo Stone Circle

You have to walk through fields of Weetabix to reach the stones.

The location is marked on this map. There is space for a few cars on the grass verge at the point marked. Be sure not to block the farmer’s access.

The walking distance from the parking to the stone circle and back is under 1.5 miles (2.3km). Allow an hour for the round trip.

Access is permitted during daylight hours only.

No camping. Dogs are to be kept on a lead.

Nearby

Norham Castle
Ford & Etal
Holy Island

Find more Northumberland attractions here.

Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens

Belsay Hall is one of Northumberland’s top tourist attractions comprising a medieval castle, a stately home and picturesque gardens linking the two.

The Belsay Estate was home to the Middleton family (not related to Kate Middleton) for 700 years from 1270 when Sir Richard Middleton was Lord Chancellor to King Henry II. The hall, castle and gardens were taken into the guardianship of the state in 1980 and are now managed by English Heritage.

The impressive fortified pele tower of Belsay Castle was built in the late 14th century to defend the occupants against frequent raids and unrest in this border region of England. After the conflict between Scotland and England died down the Middletons converted the castle into a more comfortable home by adding the elegant country house extension that we see here (now without a roof) which was built from 1603-1614.

The family abandoned the castle in 1817 and moved into the nearby newly-built Belsay Hall whose Greek Revival architectural style was inspired by the owner’s honeymoon trip to Greece. This owner, Sir Charles Monck, was also a Middleton but changed his name in order to inherit the substantial estates of his wealthy maternal grandfather.

Today the Hall is empty of furniture, which is a shame but it does enable visitors to appreciate the beauty of the Roman/Greek architecture. During our visit one room was being used for a ‘multi-sensory installation’ featuring words and music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

The Castle and Hall sit in 30 acres of grounds. Sir Charles made use of the excavations left behind when the stone for the hall was cut to create a quarry garden. With its sheer-sided canyon walls it has its own micro-climate out of the wind enabling exotic trees and rare plants to survive (although when we visited last October it was freezing)! There is also a Rhododendron Garden, which comes into flower in spring, and more formal gardens around the Hall.

For me, the majestic Yew trees and other conifers and hardwoods were the stars of the gardens.

The former stable block houses the tea room, shop, ticket office, toilets etc.

You can find details of opening hours and prices on their English Heritage’s website (indoor spaces are currently closed due to Covid restrictions).

How To Get to Belsay Hall

The hall is located about 15 miles north-west of Newcastle Upon Tyne.

The exact location is marked on this map:

You can find more Northumberland Attractions here.

Tynemouth Priory and Castle

Tynemouth Priory and Castle is a good place to visit. The main highlights here are the ruined priory, the shrine area where a Saxon saint was believed to be buried, a gatehouse, the castle walls, a 20th century restored coastal defence battery and fine views from its cliff-top position.

The priory was founded in the 7th century. St. Oswine (or Oswin), a king of Northumbria and cousin of St.Bede, was killed and buried here in 651. Two other kings were also buried here: Osred II, king of Northumbria, in 792 and Malcolm III, king of Scotland who was killed at the battle of Alnwick in 1093. Malcolm’s body was later reburied in Scotland.

The priory was plundered and partly destroyed by the Danes on several occasions during the 800s and Oswin’s grave was forgotten until 1065 when a priest found some bones under the church and claimed them to be the saint’s remains. Local people began to make pilgrimages to the grave in the hope that their prayers would be answered, and their donations brought prosperity to the priory.

A Benedictine monastery was founded here in the 11th century and within its walls were kitchen gardens, farm animals and orchards as well as cloisters and other buildings for the monks.

The ruined church we see today was started in 1090 and renovated around 1210.

The monastery was ordered closed by Henry VIII in 1539 and most of the monastic buildings were dismantled. Then the site was used as a major coastal fort and was occupied by soldiers right up until 1960.

The gatehouse was constructed following a raid by the Scots in 1388. The ground floor consists of a series of passages and guardrooms while the upper floors contain a great hall and a grand chamber which would have accommodated a high ranking official or royal visitors.

The Percy chantry was built in the 15th Century. The Percys were earls of Northumberland and the ornate chapel ceiling shown here is carved with their family emblems.

This concrete gun emplacement is one of two constructed in 1902 when Britain was concerned about Germany’s increasing naval threat. The gun is a 6 inch steel Mark XXIII.

Looking back at the castle from Tynemouth Pier you can see the 13 concrete buttresses built over 100 years ago to strengthen the crumbling cliff edge on which the coastal battery stands.

This cannon is from an earlier era. There have been coastal defences at Tynemouth since the 1640s.

After visiting Tynemouth Priory and Castle you can wander down to the lovely beach at King Edward’s Bay and perhaps sample some fish and chips at the highly rated Riley’s Fish Shack.

The attraction is managed by English Heritage and you can find details of opening hours and prices on their website.

How To Get to Tynemouth Priory and Castle

The location is marked on this map: