Lordly Strand Of Northumberland
( Originally Published 1920 )
The most interesting part of the coast - An unspoiled shore - Crossing the sands at Holy Island - Looking over Bamburghshire - The Joyous Gard of Lancelot - Tristram of Lyoness, the great huntsman - The Farnes and their birds - In the middle of last century - The scene to-day - Northumberland's heroine, Grace Darling.
THERE is not in Great Britain a more interesting stretch of sea shore than the seventy miles of Northumbrian coast lying between a point near Lamberton Toll in the north and Tyne-mouth in the south. And to the lover of nature and wild life, as weir as to the historian, the most fascinating part of it is that which stretches from Berwick to North Sunderland. It embraces Holy Island, Bamburgh and the shore off which lies a group of black rock islets, the Farnes, in summer gleaming with the plumage of multitudinous sea birds, in storm almost lost among the crashing waves, and always with turbulent water boiling through the narrow channels, rushing when the tide is flowing and rushing again when it is ebbing.
This portion of the coast retains its ancient and natural charm. No polluted river flows into the sea, no commercial town is near it. Its wild beauty has not been exchanged for the sophisticated attractions of a popular watering place, nor is there any bungalow town erected on its clean sands. It remains exactly what it was in pre-civilised days. History gave it many a crowded hour of glorious life in England's morning ; but the long day passed and Nature re-asserted her old calm mastery and assumed the relics as her own, adding her charm to those it had inherited from the ages. Therein lies a something peculiar and supreme belonging to this portion of the coast and this only.
This is not said in disparagement of the rest. Viewed from another angle, the commercial achievement of Newcastle and its neighbourhood commands unstinted admiration. Modern Northumberland is a great energetic county of which not only the inhabitant but the nation is proud. But Tyneside has paid for material prosperity by the sacrifice of natural beauty. To realise what has been lost, imagination must rebuild the scene as it was when the Venerable Bede was alive. Shorthose had not yet built the first wooden fortress, anterior to that of Henry II, which gave the town its name of Newcastle. On its site was a settlement of monks, but it was still Pons AElii close to the end of the Roman Wall. Tyne, not the murky smoke-and-mist-shrouded waterway of to-day, but a pure and limpid stream, flowed between wild banks of heather, bracken and scrubby wood. It ran past the Wall, too - that eloquent relic of imperial Rome. Bede could see it from his cell at Jarrow, and his accurate measurements show that he pondered over it and wondered.
What does the very name Wallsend suggest today ? Not the end of the Wall, but coal, the mother of industry, indeed, but mother, too, of smoke and soot and huge factories and general squalor. What beauty is attached to Newcastle and the mouth of the Tyne is what belongs to the useful and efficient, the beauty of an engine or a battleship. Newcastle and its mighty business extensions form a Titanic workshop.
What a contrast between all this and our eighteen or twenty miles of coast ! Look at it from Halidon Hill. You can, on a clear day, follow the coast from Spittal to the Farnes. There is Berwick still engirdled with walls, but carrying little to suggest its description by the monastic recluse who wrote the Chronicles of Lanercost, as " the Alexandria of the North, whose riches were the sea and the water its walls." Its " staitelie tours and turatis he on hicht " have disappeared. The Tweed flows past unstained, and fishermen with seine net and little black cobles pursue the same antique method of catching salmon as did their distant forefathers. A fine pier bends to protect the harbour, and a few miles south of it lies Holy Island, always dark and mysterious, with its castle-crowned rock and ruined Priory - a picture of wistful, dreamy beauty.
Cross the old Border Bridge at Berwick, follow the irregular broken coast line and you will find " no change " written every-where. The way lies through an alternation of beach and cliff, the Spittal sands yielding to the rocks at Scremerston and they give place to a low beach, with a setting of bent-grown sandhills, and so till you eventually arrive at " the haunted sands of Goswick." Here the tide ebbs from a shore that is almost fiat and leaves behind a vast area of " ribbéd sand." Over it the sea fowl have held sway from time immemorial. There is an old place rhyme which gives an explanation of the local names and appears to show that Lindisfarne Priory drew its supplies from these shore farms and that it was no uncommon experience for the collector to find that he had been anticipated by the raiding Scots.
From Goswick we've geese ; from Cheswick we've cheese
Extensive as are the sands of Goswick and Cheswick, they are not so spacious as those of Holy Island. Usually the visitor first catches sight of them when he arrives at the sea shore after a mile and a half's drive through purely agricultural country from Beal station. His first impression will vary with the state of the tide and the condition of the atmosphere. On a sunny June morning, when a foreground to a gently heaving and still more gently murmuring sea is made by the shimmer from wet sand, still pool and trickling stream, the white-winged sea-gulls hover above the " low-lying shores of a beautiful land " fringed with " tender curving lines of creamy spray." Should the weather change and bring a haar from the sea, a new charm of mystery is added as the cloud of fog opens and closes over the scene.
It has been proposed more than once to make a bridge across the sands, but it is to be hoped that such a project will never be carried out. It would reduce a romantic feature of the island to commonplace, and there is no excuse of commercial necessity for this undertaking. Every crossing, whatever be the season of the year, is new. On a summer night when the sky is flecked with clouds and the moon is sailing through them, now obscured, now brightly shining on the dimpling water and the far-reaching sands, patterned with castings of the sand eel, one thinks of the " far countree " to which Kilmeny was carried or repeats such lines as :
On such a night
Did the meek-eyed, sandalled monk ever turn his thought to the exquisite and tender loveliness revealed by his island mother in her intimate moments ? No, is the probable answer. He was but a sojourner here, who preferred the hardships of life because through them alone might he win eternal happiness.
The external features of the island are easily apprehended. At the south are rocks of black basalt, part of Northumberland's great Whin Sill, hardened lava, formed when Cheviot stump was a volcano. On the top of one of them sits the castle, like a bird on its nest. Away to the north is a barren, but beautiful, region of blown sand, wind-woven into dunes and hollows. Between these two are lands of great fertility and a little lake, much haunted by the wild birds indigenous to the island. Let there be added a hag or moss where grow many beautiful wild flowers, among them the grass of Parnassus, of which so many poets have sung. In order to obtain a satisfactory view of the neighbourhood it is best to mount to the castle battlements from which Bamburghshire, " the richest coontie in England," as the natives used to call it, stretches out. Its county town is Bamburgh, shorn of its ancient importance, but with a castle which, by the lapse of time, has become more interesting than ever it was before. " King Ida's castle huge and square " still bears the majestic appearance it must have presented when rebuilt in the twelfth century. Ida, first of the Saxons to become King of Bernicia, is said to have noticed the strength of the basaltic rock and built a tower and surrounded it at first with a hedge and then with a wall. But it must have been a modest edifice in comparison to what it became afterwards. It is interesting as a royal palace, and, in Freeman's phrase, the cradle of Northumbrian history ; but the light of romance falls on it too. For surely it was the Joyous Card of Lancelot du Lake. " Some say it was Alnwick and some say it was Bamburgh," Mallory remarks when telling how Lancelot came hither to die. What a delightful expression that of the Bishop : " I saw the angels heave Sir Lancelot up to Heaven ! "
On a sunny day, when the cloud shadows chase one another over the widely diversified country which stretches from the sea to the Cheviot ranges, one likes to think of Tristram of Lyonness and La Beale Isoud riding out with hawk on hand from the gateway of Bamburgh. If the Northumbrians of that day were the true progenitors of those who inhabit its district now, they must greatly have delighted in Tristram. He was a master of venerie, who hunted the deer with as much zest as the members of the North Northumberland hunt the fox. Mallory says he was " the noblest blower of the horn of all manner of measures." It is not altogether an idle or an impossible fancy that the thanes and villeins of Bamburgh, of Wooler and Milfield, of Mindrum and Yetholm, knew the sound of his horn as he blew the uncoupling, the seeking, the rechate, the flight, the death, the strake, and many other blasts and terms. King Arthur and Lancelot and Tristram, Guinevere and La Beale Isoud may have been familiar figures, and there are many legends connected with the shadowy company.
The Farnes lie almost direct east from Bamburgh. In old times they were closely connected with Holy Island, as they formed part of the patrimony of the church in Lindisfarne, passing afterwards to the Priory and Convent of Durham. In the troubled times of Border fighting every island was looked upon as being safer than the mainland. Until the middle of last century there was a population on the islands and a certain amount of agriculture carried on. To-day they are tenanted by birds only, since the modern lighthouse does not demand the constant presence of a keeper. It is remarkable that the curious names of the islands were-nearly the same in the twelfth century as they are to-day. In all there are over a score at low water and fifteen in all tides. Northumberland is a county rich in bird life and nowhere richer than on the coast. The Farnes, under the care of an association, are now kept as a sanctuary for sea-birds. The nesting species are eider-duck, puffin, razorbill, guillemot, cormorant, roseate tern, Arctic tern, common tern, Sandwich tern, lesser black-backed gull, kittiwake, herring gull, ring dotterel, and oystercatcher. The ornithologist finds here one of his best hunting grounds, and the lover of nature could desire to see no more delightful picture than is presented by the feathered nations in the middle of the breeding season, say, early in June. Tern, soaring and dipping into the water, guillemots crowded on the rocks so that they can scarcely find standing room, the gulls in their swinging flight, odd-looking puffins and a black crowd of cormorants make a living picture of bird life such as can be seen in very few other places.
It is not necessary here to dwell on the individual islands, though the mind lingers over the quaint old names - the Knoxes, the Wawmses, Megstone, Longstone, Crumstone Farne, and the rest. The most delightful way of exploring them is by sailing from Holy Island.
That was how Miss Turner, the famous photographer of flying birds, went, and no words can describe the vivid, wild beauty of bird and breeze and rock so graphically as her pictures. She was on a first visit to Holy Island, and both sides of her personality were kindled to enthusiasm - the ornithologist discovered an ancient yet fresh and fair world teeming with the life in which she is most interested : the artist found the sea-birds in a natural and most picturesque setting.
Before crossing to the Farnes she had been engrossed in the quieter but perfect loveliness of the larger island. She had made pictures of the winged visitors to a little fresh water pool near the sand dunes. In photographing the visitors to it - a common tern " standing on one of the stones and talking to his own reflection," an eider duck alighting, a ringed plover, a stockdove, a sheldrake - she contrives to get into the picture the mounds of sand and the scanty vegetation slowly beginning to appear on them, till those who know and remember almost exclaim : " Here is ` all the charm of all the Muses flowering in ' - a photograph ! " It carries us at once to the wind-swept shore.
The little island lake, changing from its winter aspect of ruffled water framed in withering reeds to a summer wilderness of water plants, is a wonder and delight to the lover of nature, as it must be to the birds that haunt and nest there. It is best seen what time the strifes and loves of the coot and waterhen are being transacted when the jack snipes are on the bank, fishermen heron wading in the shallows, and the wanton lapwing, having got himself another crest, flies and pipes.
From the sedgy mere and the sand dunes of Holy Island to the bare and jutting rocks of the Farnes is a short but glorious sail. Most of the islands are of the dark basalt which occurs at intervals on this northern coast as far south as Cullernose Point, a magnificent cliff from which the Whin Sill turns inland. Stern and forbidding in winter, the Farne Islands are scenes of life and gaiety in late spring and early summer, when the sea-birds gather from the quiet creeks and far distant lands of their roaming. They have arranged themselves in some appearance of order - cormorants on the Megstone, guillemots and kittiwakes on the Pinnacles, puffins in the rabbit-holes of the Wawmses make their simple nests. No addition to the number of tribes appears to take place. In 1856 Prideaux Selby, the famous and exact Northumbrian ornithologist, prepared a catalogue, which stands good for to-day, of the birds which inhabit or resort to the Farne Islands. Selby did not include migrants or strangers blown on the rocks during a storm. His list, however, tells the visitor exactly what birds are to be looked for in the breeding season. A different story is that of the immense crowds of small birds that alight on the Farnes and Holy Island during the migratory period. George Bolam, in The Birds of Northumberland and the Eastern Borders," gives a fine account of the innumerable thrushes, the ring-ouzels, meadow pipits, finches, linnets, warblers, wrens, buntings, stonechats and other species that rose from turnips, stubble and grass of Holy Island on a day in mid-October.
Although the bird nations remain very much what they were, the population has grown tremendously since protection was organised and the islands transformed into a sanctuary for sea-birds. How they were previously kept down was told by William Howitt, who visited the Farnes about the middle of last century. His description of the Pinnacles has never been bettered : There were the guillemots " sitting erect as close as they could crowd and waving their little dark wings as if for joy." And "on the sides of the cliffs on little projections sate gulls, looking very white and silvery against the dark arch." He ascended "wrinkled hills of black stone and descended into worn and dismal dales of the same ; into some of them when the tide got entrance, it came pouring and roaring in raging whiteness and churning the loose fragments of whinstone into round pebbles." And "over our heads screamed hundreds of hovering birds, the gull mingling in hideous laughter most wildly." He goes on to say that between May and July thousands of eggs are collected and sold, many being sent to London. Gathering samphire on Dover Cliffs was child's play in comparison with egg-collecting on the Farnes - " the fowlers pass from crag to crag over the roaring sea and even from one to another of these perpendicular isolated rocks, the Pinnacles, by means of a narrow board placed from one to the other, and forming a bridge over such horrid gaps that the very sight of it stills one with terror."
No sights such as this harrow the visitor of to-day. Peace reigns except for the internecine bickering of the birds, their rivalry, thieving and revenges. On the rock, in the sea and in the air, fowl in multitudes innumerable hatch their eggs, hunt their prey, and disport themselves without molestation. The visitor watches in the same spirit that inspired Cuthbert when he surrendered to them the little crop of barley grown for his own use. In each he finds a separate grace to admire - as the tern or sea-swallow for the elegance of its flight and the skill of its fishing, the puffin for his oddity, the eider duck for her tameness and confidence, the gulls for their wild shriek born of the ocean and its thunder. Even the ghoulish cormorant, despite its noisome, insanitary home, evokes reluctant admiration when, with wide dark wings, it floats rather than flies above the surface of the water.
An advantage of Holy Island is that frequent visits may be made to the Farnes ; the bird lover and the naturalist, indeed all but the mere sightseer, will want to go again and again. You want to see the Crumstone covered at high water, but a resort of seals at ebb ; to study the uproarious channels between the islands. It was in Staple Sound, where there is a deep passage between the Ox Scaurs on the north and the Crumstone on the south, that the Pegasus struck.
Northumberland's heroine, Grace Darling, is associated with the Harcar. Rocks, on which the Forfarshire struck at three o'clock on a wild tempestuous September morning in 1838. Nine people escaped in a boat, which drifted miraculously through the only possible passage. The stern, quarter-deck and cabins were swept down the furious channel called the Piper Gut, while the other half of the vessel remained on the rock. Such of the passengers as survived clung to the swaying vessel as the waves dashed over it, threatening death at every crash. On the Longstone Lighthouse Grace and her father heard their cries, and the rescue has often been described in prose and verse.
After a sunny, windy day on the Farnes one returns to Holy Island with a mind surcharged. Within it there goes on a reverberation of colour as well as sound, flashing white wings, birds speeding across the water and the air, screaming fowl and beating wave commingled. There is added an intense longing to realise that past of which we know so little. Something of it is revealed on the land, but the sea carries no outward mark of its history, and its worst tragedies can only be surmised. How much romance lies buried under the waves of that coast between Berwick and the Farnes ! Some hint of it may be disclosed by a study, however imperfect, of the records preserved no less in stone than on sheepskin, by which we can piece together a story of the central part, Lindisfarne. It will carry us through the noblest period of Northumbrian history and cast a ray of light on that of Early England.