East Side Story

In my last blog post, I talked about how I’m a West End Girl. I always have been. I grew up in North Wales, with frequent excursions to the west coast, I’ve found spiritual homes in the west of India and Ireland, and actual homes in the west of London and now Sussex. So when a friend who is a hiker and journalist asked me to be a plus one on his exploratory trip Northumberland, I did hesitate for a moment. I’d been there before, as a result of university summers with Geordie friends, so I knew how beautifully bleak it is, with long stretches of beach punctuated by castles, but east coasts don’t hold as much interest for me in general. They’re flatter, less shattered by wind and weather and I do like a bit of dramatic Atlantic coastline.

My friend’s brief was to hike the Northumberland Coastal Path (62 miles) over four days and write about his experience for BBC Countryfile magazine. I hadn’t hiked much with him before, but I thought, what the hell? We’re all staycationing now so why not start with this? It would be a chance to revisit all those places I’d loved in the ’90s – I had images of kippers from Craster and fish and chips in Seahouses in my brain, alongside the bleak ruins of Dunstanburgh castle. I’m in, I said.

Dunstanburgh

We’d be carrying all our stuff but staying in B&B accommodation so this was my opportunity to showcase my light-packing skills. I carried a 33L Osprey rucksack, which, when full, is a perfectly carry-able weight for a day hike. One thing I did before I set off was to make piles of the things I thought I’d need for the trip, and then systematically remove anything I thought was ‘excess’. As women, we often take multiple choices for outfits but I find once I’m out there that I can wear things more than once (shock!) and sometimes even three or four times. I learned that on my trip to Kyrgyzstan a few years ago where we didn’t have showers for six days. It’s ok to rough it a bit – and actually it’s quite liberating.

With my worldly goods on my back. Capture: Peter Elia.

Since I’ve started growing out my silver hair and not wearing any make-up except for mascara, my packing list has got shorter and shorter. Women are often burdened by what they think they’ll need for a trip, when really, if we just thought like men – “I’ll need four t-shirts, two pairs of shorts and four pairs of pants” – we’d be way more able to take ourselves around the world at a moment’s notice. I’d always viewed The Man Who Hiked The World‘s trips with awe, thinking, “Well, I could never do that”. But then I did, in Kyrgyzstan, and I’ve already told you how life-changing that trip was for me.

One thing we talked about during the trip is whether or not this sort of thing qualifies as a holiday. I felt very strongly on my trips to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia that they were not holidays. Adventures, yes, but not a holiday. For me, a holiday implies some sort of rest element, and maybe a bit of culture, not a relentless slog up mountains and camping next to glacial lakes with ‘natural’ toilets. We agreed that to be a holiday, you’d have a shorter day hike, perhaps ten miles instead of the 15-20 we were doing in Northumberland, then do more each evening and maybe include a rest day for cultural visits.

Pre-Bamburgh breakfast at the Bamburgh Castle Inn, Seahouses, overlooking the Farne Islands.

As always, I push myself too hard (and, I’ve discovered, wear the wrong size shoes) so I had an enforced rest day in Bamburgh where I was able to hike barefoot along the beach and back to the castle, limp around it, and then visit the Clocktower Cafe for a massive scone with jam and cream. TMWHTW went on ahead, determined to continue on the coastal path for his article.

You may remember this happening to me on the Isle of Wight when I tried to circumnavigate it. But magic happened that day as it did this time. I was forced to rest at Freshwater and duly discovered the delights of Dimbola Lodge and Wightwood Pizza. I have been back there every year since. If I’d just hiked through it, I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything was there.

Happy, freckly me! Capture: Peter Elia

Similarly, I felt happy and rested after my solo Bamburgh trip and happily caught up with TMWHTW over dinner that night, my blisters already healing. I think I need moments on my own and moments of rest. They make me happy.

The other thing that makes me happy while out walking is stopping to talk to people. TMWHTW had to do it for his article and I tagged along, finding all the ‘interviews’ with locals along the way fascinating. From a meat-pie merchant to a kipper-smoker, it was so interesting to hear how old and new family businesses had and were coping with seismic shifts in business opportunities over the past weeks, months and decades. There is a quiet, open gentleness to the (mainly) men we spoke to in the north east, which reminded me of my university friends’ dads who were both the same. There were people who were passionate about the coastline and its wildlife and the businesses they’d set up there.

Pilgrims veggie pies on Lindisfarne

One of the highlights for me was the starting point at Cresswell at the Drift Cafe. TMWHTW sat and talked to someone from AONB Northumberland who knows the coastal path in minute detail and the quiet owner of the cafe who offered us lovely coffee and cakes (all with great COVID measures in place, obviously). There’s something about a start point on a hike – it’s so full of hope, joy and excitement, and even though the weather wasn’t perfect that day, the size of those massive sandy beaches and windswept dunes is enough to make your soul soar.

The main highlight for me was the accommodation at Alnmouth at the Shoreside Huts. It was ridiculously romantic, in the original sense of the word: huts on a hillside perch, overlooking the sea but not overlooked; a woodburner that kept us toasty even with the door open; food supplied by a local deli for that evening and breakfast the next morning.

Shoreline Huts – I could live here…

I could have stayed there forever. We got up at 5am to see the sunrise holding hot mugs of tea made on the little stove. There was someone else doing the same thing out on the rocks below. The coastline is studded with incredible birdlife such as kittiwakes and Arctic terns and the locals know all about them. We laughed when we heard the owner of the Shoreline Huts, Dale, refer to the Farne Islands as the ‘Geordie Galapagos’. We did a Serenity Boats sunset trip, but sadly without a sunset. Still, we did see seals, the incredible migratory Arctic terns and the cutest little puffins, who were on their way off from the Farnes, we were told.

Sunrise at Alnmouth

I did feel discombobulated walking with the sea on my right – I like it to be on my left, but AONB Ian had told us that it is best to hike the path south-to-north so that the sun is on your back, not on your face (I like to walk into the sun, not away from it, but boy I was glad of his advice later on what was to be the hottest day of the year).

We ended up in Berwick-upon-Tweed – somewhere I’ve routinely driven or trained past on the way up and down to Edinburgh Festival or my ex-in-laws. I had no idea how beautiful it is, and worthy of a stay in itself. We met with a local tour guide and incredible information store, Derek Sharman (Derek from Berwick!). He took us on a sunset tour of the amazing Elizabethan walls that I had no idea were there. Put it this way, I ended up looking up housing for sale in this beautiful Georgian town.

Beautiful Berwick at sunset

Could I live on an east coast? I could probably get used to it… Having coffee early on a sunny morning on Lindisfarne kind of confirmed that for me. While TMWHKW was scrambling over the outer edges of the island to get the best shot of the Priory before the crowds arrived, I bumped into someone from Wrexham, near my hometown in North Wales. He was wearing an ‘Eryri’ (Snowdon) t-shirt so I had to ask him if he was Welsh. We get everywhere, you know. We looked out over the causeway where the tide was slowly coming in and I realised it was just like the River Dee which separates my hometown from the Wirral – a shifting quicksand area that stops hikers from walking on this part of the coast.

Lindisfarne in the early morning – tide coming in

“I wished we’d stayed here overnight,” said TMWHTW, packing up his camera.

Well, there’s always a next time…

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