Northumberland Coast Path Day 4 (Part 1) – Bamburgh to Belford

Published 9 January 2022

Bamburgh lighthouse. Small, and not very lighthousey.

Heading along the county’s stunning coastline, the 62 mile/100km long Northumberland Coast Path offers some of the best coastal walking in the UK. Running from Creswell to the south of the county, all the way up to Berwick-upon-Tweed near the Scottish border, the path offers beautiful sandy beaches, a vast array of wildlife, rare birds, a glimpse of holy islands, and a good dose of history. With a good friend, I walked the trail over five days. For our fourth day we set off from Bamburgh, past a lighthouse, before turning inland for a trip to the railway.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a lighthouse as:

“a tall building near the coast or shore with a flashing light at the top to warn ships of rocks and other dangers.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition is more accommodating.

“A tower or other structure containing a beacon light to warn or guide ships at sea.”

There’s clearly some Oxford-Cambridge divide on this thing. But either way, Bamburgh’s lighthouse fails to meet the definition given in the Cambridge dictionary

It looks like a face!

For starters, Bamburgh Lighthouse isn’t tall. It’s actually rather rectangular, squat and blocky. Two stories high at best. The lamp is on top at least, but when it was built in 1910, the lamp actually stood on a skeletal tower nearby. It only got moved to its current location on top of the building in the 1970s.

It is at least near the coast. And the light presumably flashes. Although I can’t say I double checked this as that would have meant hanging round all day.

But it definitely wasn’t tall.

As well as confounding certain dictionary definitions, Bamburgh Lighthouse has another feature. It’s built next to a small, rocky cove. A small rocky cove where someone had painted a lamb on one of the rocks. Or was it a goat? A stag? To be honest, it was hard to be sure.

Before I left home for the Northumberland Coast Path I had been reading Five Go To Demon’s Rocks to my children at bedtime. My son especially likes the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. His devotion to them means that when we finally get to the end of this series, having read every single book, he usually forces me to start all over again from the very beginning.

The little cove next to Bamburgh lighthouse – complete with animal painted on rocks for some reason.

Five Go to Demon’s Rocks is a classic of the genre. In it, the four children (Julian, George, Dick, and Anne) head to a lighthouse – a proper lighthouse, built on rocks and everything – with Timmy the dog, a boy called Tinker, a monkey. Well of course they do. They then have adventure because that’s also compulsory in those novels. But the main thing is that they live in a lighthouse for a bit. This is, obviously, jolly exciting.

What would their view of this one be, I wondered? It didn’t look that exciting. Were there adventures to be had? Hard to tell. Although this one would have been better for the shops than the one in the novel, which got cut off when the tide was high. The children may, however, be impressed by the fact that the building looked like a face. Two small porthole style windows on the upper floor doubled for eyes, and a large green door the mouth.

And then I decided this was all getting a bit crazy. And that the true question was, why had someone painted a deer on those rocks?

World War II defences near Bamburgh

We potted around on the dunes for a bit, before coming up to an old lookout post from World War Two at Budle Bay.

There are several old war defences all along the coast, but this was by far the biggest we’d passed. Inside, it was nothing more than a plain room, with a big – unglazed – window and a floor with big metal bolts drilled into it. Presumably where an extremely large gun could be attached. And unlike most old war defences I’ve ever seen, it was spotlessly clean. There was not even a hint of litter. Quite often with these places, I have found them full of cans beer cans and bottles smashed. In one there was a rather damp and dirty looking mattress. This one had nothing at all. Were there no teenagers round here? Or did they all go and drink illicit booze elsewhere?

And then the Coast Path headed inland. Substantially so. We would barely see the sea for the rest of the day. This may have been a coast path, but until the village of Fenham, we’d be nowhere near the sea.

Outchester Ducket. Definitely not a windmill.

Instead we got to walk over yet another golf course. And then a series of tracks and lanes took us past an attractive mill building, now converted into flats. Then further up the road stood the stone tower of Outchester Ducket. It was a tall, stone building, and did look a bit like a windmill without its sails. Which could be why it’s marked as a windmill on the Ordnance Survey Map.

There is no obvious suggestion it ever was a windmill. Its original use was unclear. It may have been navigational aid for ships, or even just a folly. For many years it was used as a dovecot. But in recent times it has been restored and refurbished as a holiday cottage. A rather nice one too. I made a mental note to book in at the earliest opportunity.

Crossing the long mothballed railway line to Easington Quarry.

We crossed over a railway line on a small level crossing. It was heavily overgrown, with gates on on either side of it, blocking the way over the rusting rails. On the other side of the gates, it was impossible to even see the track such was the amount of the grass that grew over it. Were it not for a few rusting lampposts, you’d be hard pushed to even know there had been a railway there at all.

This was the short branch line to the long-closed Easington Quarry, and it sits gently decaying, mothballed in the vain hope that trains would come this way again. That’s rather unlikely. The branch line’s connection with the mainline has long been. But trains hadn’t gone completely from here. The sounds of a high-speed train fill the area.

And a short way on we came to another level crossing, this one with a sign telling walkers to phone the signal box before proceeding. For this was the East Coast Mainline and four tracks worth of railway need to be crossed.

Opening a yellow box, I found a phone handset, picked it up, and heard a buzzing noise.

Brr… Brr… Brr…

I waited. And waited. No one replied.

Four tracks to cross, having phoned up the signaller to check it was safe first.

I hung up, and we contemplated what to do now. It wasn’t particularly clear who we were phoning other than ‘Tweedmouth Signal Box’. Another sign said in case of no answer to ring National Rail in York and gave a number to do that on. Was the technology failing, or was someone merely indisposed?

I picked up the receiver again, just in case.

Brr… Brr… Brr…

Putting the handset down, I dragged my mobile out of my pocket. Halfway through entering the mysterious number in York, a mysterious buzzing nose started.

Tal and myself looked at each other in a moments confusion, before finally twigging. The phone was ringing and it was for us.

“Sorry, I’m on my own here” came a voice with a light Scottish accent, coming from the mysterious signal box.

“Oh. Okay. We’re at Belford Burn crossing, wanting to know if we can cross the line.”

“Oh aye? How many are in your party?”

“Two,” I said, quickly counting Tal and myself.

“Ah right. And how long do you think it will take you to do the crossing? Believe it or not, I have to fill in a form every time someone crosses.”

The level crossing on the East Coast Mainline.

I did believe it and I stared at Tal, and at the four railway tracks ahead of us, and my mind went blank. How fast would we walk across then? Errr. I had no idea.

“About a minute?” I said hesitantly after contemplating this question for what felt like an eternity.

“Okay then, in that case you’re good to cross,” we were told. And cross is what we did. And two minutes after we’d crossed the stile on the other side, a very fast train headed north zoomed past us. Another followed going south not long after. With them travelling at 125mph, it was no wonder we were told to check all was okay before starting crossing. The consequences of not doing so simply didn’t bear thinking about.

Grain silos at Belford

On the other side of the East Coast Mainline lay an industrial complex. One with many, many grain silos. This was the kind of excitement we could enjoy now that the Northumberland Coast Path had thrown off the shackles of being next to the sea. Then it was time to cross the A1 road. This may be a busy main road connecting London and Scotland, but crossing it felt strangely less daunting after having done the railway. Also, we didn’t need to make a phone call before doing it, so that was nice.

A little beyond lay the town of Belford, a place of which we knew next to nothing. My guidebook barely mentioned the place. It struggled to say anything much more than that it was a former post town, and that there was a good range of accommodation, shops, and pubs.

This seemed to sum up Belford quite well. There was some accommodation. And we could see some pubs. Although as for shops, it looked like the place had seen better days. Many were empty, and of those that did appear to be still be in businesses, most were closed; their doors locked.

The centre of Belford in the rain.

It was lunchtime, we needed to eat, and it was raining heavily, and had been for some time. Tal mooted the question of whether we should stop somewhere and dry out. But even he, the person who had suggested it, hadn’t seen the point. The rain for forecast to continue for most of the day. Stopping somewhere in the warm and dry was unlikely to improve our lot in the long term. Having learned our lesson from the previous day, we were both togged up in waterproofs. We’d be alright. Besides, we’d brought food with us, purchased from a butcher in Bamburgh that had once been visited by Rick Stein. A few months later, I’d be watching the TV only to see the Hairy Bikers go in there too. Foodwise we were therefore fine. What we did need was somewhere to sit and eat it.

We wandered round the small town centre seeking anywhere we could hide from the rain in. But there was nothing. No stone shelters. No park with a bandstand. Not even a bench that had been covered by a large overhanging roof for no apparent reason. We even tried the churchyard in case they had a porch or a lychgate or something. But we found nothing. In the end we perched on an uncomfortable narrow bench on what appeared to be Belford’s only bus shelter, scoffed our food, and set out into the rain once more.

Next time: trees and rain. A cave is missed. But there is a cupcake.

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