The spirit lingers on


The sorrowful cry of a herring gull, the village’s sharp-eyed guardian, greets me as it mourns the decline of Craster’s fishing community. Stacked lobster pots are arranged precariously, cluttering the seaweed-encrusted harbour wall. These devious traps appear benign, but they are deadly when deployed at sea, their orange fluorescent netting gleaming in the sun. I sit down, hunched over, gazing intently into the brackish waters below. The unknown is discomforting yet strangely compelling. Fronds of seaweed wave derisively up at me – moving with both an elegance and an air of contempt. Limpet shells scatter the stone wall, interrupting the curtain of tangled seaweed, resurfacing the rocks. I observe the sheltering arms of the harbour walls holding the fishing boats safe, restraining the often-boisterous sea, keeping it at bay. Ahead of me lies a row of wooden bollards each wrapped with a coil of rope suggesting cotton on a reel, securing a small flotilla of fishing vessels sheltered in the refuge of a concrete cove.

Yet this respite is only temporary with the boats soon to wrestle with the relentless aggression of the North Sea, fishermen forced to risk their lives to provide for their families. The remnants of an abandoned lugger, stand testament to this danger, undulating softly with the sea’s rhythmical movements, weakly trying to remain buoyant; a futile struggle as it soon will become another soulless shell on the seabed’s ever burgeoning graveyard of the damned. My eyes travel along the vast horizon of the North Sea, which is tantalising yet deceiving. The lustre of the light reveals multiple shades of blue dancing across the surface of the water, but this sea can lie – calm and enticing today, destructive and repellent tomorrow. The intense smell of Craster kippers hovers in the air, the smoky scent rising from the famous Robson’s smokery.

Cautiously navigating the crumbling cliff top path along the wave-battered coastline your eyes are drawn through the misty veil of the ocean’s spray to the hulking, secluded ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, like witch’s fingers frozen in time against the melancholic expanse of a brooding northern sky. Built in 1313 a fortress no more but still dominating the topography emphasising the strategic importance of the rocky crag overhanging into the sea, the gateway to the north, conjuring a distant memory of the ghostly shadows of the long dead that once teamed across the coastal plain to bask in the glory of this citadel of the north. The remains of the Great Gatehouse loom above me. A sense of intimidation and insignificance courses through my veins as I gaze in fascination upon the narrow, arched canopy of the entrance. In times of peace the Gatehouse was a thoroughfare of commerce and life but in times of war a murderous killing field with a mighty portcullis barring the path to invaders and steaming oil poured on assailants from above. I place a hand upon the outer wall and beyond the coarse surface I can feel a strength emanating from deep within. These walls will still endure after I am long gone as a testament to the skill of the stone masons and craftsmen of Norman England but the laughter and cries of its lifeless inhabitants will forever be immortalised in history.

Your eyes are drawn through the misty veil of the ocean’s spray to the hulking, secluded ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, like witch’s fingers frozen in time against the melancholic expanse of a brooding northern sky

Below the castle, steep-sided, sheer basaltic cliffs reveal their geological past in the layers of strata exposed by the ruthless and constant erosion from the sea. While ascending the cliff path, below me the repeated assault of the pallid-coloured waves attack the cliff face. The sea continues its merciless siege against the castle, a ceaseless foe that no army could defeat. The sea once secured the castle’s eastern flank from marauding enemies, seven-hundred years later, the sea is no longer a protector, now a hostile rival. On this remote headland, the wind direction has changed and fine sand is blowing up and running along the beach. The grains sting my eyes and invade my hair like scurrying ants. My fingers are numb to the cold and the salt of seawater, cracks in my finger joints have reopened like an old memory resurfacing. Heading north to Low-Newton-by-the-Sea, the basalt boulders look like slumbering seals. An ethereal haze of sea spray engulfs these aptly named Death Rocks. An abundance of seaweed is selfishly sprawled over the rocks trying to catch me unawares. A pair of oystercatchers fly by low and fast, screaming splendidly, their orange bills contrasting with the blue-green sea over which they navigate their way. Their faint reflection is caught by the sea, wingtips just evading the sea’s covetous grasp. Then the clouds disperse assertively, a celestial glow catches my eyes. The light bleeds onto the beach, enveloping the surroundings with a rich, other-worldly aureole. It is as if the coast has been set alight and will burn.

An ethereal haze of sea spray engulfs these aptly named Death Rocks

Behind me, the threatening ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle cast a dark shadow across the landscape in contrast to the seemingly endless beach of Beadnell Bay stretching out before me. As I lightly pad across the soft sand my vision is drawn to the enormity of my surroundings. Boundless sand is mirrored by the open expanse of the sea glistening in the evening haze with the medieval fishing village barely visible in the bright effervescent sunlight pouring through the calming clouds. The sand dunes encase the beach with a lone spit of steep, shelving sand protruding out bravely into the sea. Each wave appears to become more protracted than the last, brutally stealing the beach. A kite surfer whips by, bouncing over the waves, propelled by a red sail like a giant Chinese lantern in the sky. A curved band of gnarled dry seaweed crunches underfoot as I direct my feet towards the trusted harbour. A small yacht moored out in the bay pulls against its anchor – desperate to escape on the tide. A series of wooden signs in the sand warn me I am skirting the edge of a bird sanctuary, where the tern will hatch in blustery Northumberland this summer and by winter they will have migrated to the warmth of West Africa. By now the beach is in the process of being reclaimed by the unrelenting sea. As the tide rolls in, so does the continuous mass of spume. Underfoot the beach has become uneven as I walk across the tops of hundreds of sandy worm casts like a vast army of closely packed warriors in formation, preparing to attack. Leaving me with no option but to crush them down stride after stride across the last mile of my journey.

The tide sprints in forcing me towards the sand dunes that rise from the beach like a ravaged city wall. Ahead of me lies the only west-facing harbour on England’s east coast, projecting out into the North Sea. Its pair of rugged and redundant two-hundred-year-old limekilns stand gaunt and proud like bookends, cast aside and devoid of books. A poignant reminder that this stretch of coast, now merely a tourist attraction, was once the beating heart of a prosperous and thriving Northumbrian kingdom. The limekilns hulking lower bulk looms large as I climb, my knees protesting as I ascend the stairs from the beach onto the harbour wall.

As darkness descends; above me, the stars are awake, floating haphazardly in the sky. The bitter cold relentlessly bites at my skin, ricocheting shivers through my body. I feel nature is against me, as if we are at war, whilst behind me the beach has disappeared into a smudged darkness of sea, sand and dunes. A lone dog walker is the only sign of life. Their solitary presence is a reminder that as time passes, it is man that comes and goes while the landscape lives on, timelessly. The blazing torches no longer shine from the battlements at Dunstanburgh Castle, the lime kilns roar no more and the fishermen rue their dwindling catch. Northumbria’s golden age may be lost forever but the spirit lingers on through history.

Images by: Mat Fascione and Russel Wills via Wikimedia Commons

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