We leave North Berwick and head for another small harbour town on the same windswept, cold northern coast of Lothian – Dunbar.
Dunbar was a name that has been bothering me for a while; I was certain there was something of interest there, but couldn’t remember what, exactly, other than the location of Cromwell’s famous battle that we had to remember for the Citizenship Test. It wasn’t until we arrived at the harbour – always the best place to search for interesting things in a coastal town – that I remembered. The castle!
There is little left of the castle now, but the few remaining ruins betray its immense size. Once a border fortress between the Britons and the Angles of Bernicia, the castle was expanded through several centuries by successive owners, until at last a royal order had it demolished in 16th century. The castle foundations and ruined towers span hundreds of feet, and several rock outcrops surrounding the harbour, and are nowadays a home to a grand colony of kittiwakes; the birds were already gone for the winter, but from the number of nests they left on the red stones we could easily imagine how noisy and smelly the place must be in the breeding season.
Past Dunbar we got on the A1 – the longest road in Britain, once known as the Great North Road. If we were to follow it without stopping, in mere 350 miles we’d reach London. It’s a sobering thought; on the map, it seems we’re still a long way to go, but really, we’re almost at an end of our adventure.
For now, we must content ourselves with reaching England. Somehow, we manage to miss the border; coming from the North, there is no big “Welcome to England” poster, equivalent to the Scottish one seen from the South. A border over which countless souls perished is now just a point on the map, that you can pass through without even realizing.
We drive across an old bridge over the River Tweed in Berwick – a town famously taken over by Scots and English several times in its history, and, perhaps more famously (and wrongly) believed to be at war with Russia since 1856 – and head straight for the Holy Island. The tides are on our side: we’ll be able to hop in and out of the island before dusk.
We had stayed on Lindisfarne before, so it’s just a brief visit this time. We couldn’t camp anyway – sadly, it’s not allowed – so we have to see everything before the tide comes in and cuts us off. The tide on Lindisfarne is a spectacle not to be missed, and, to my mind, far greater attraction than the ruined Priory or the small, oft photographed 16th century castle; there are other castles and other abbeys in England, but not many tidal events like this one.
First come the birds; in their thousands, the knots, redshanks, godwits, oystercatchers, all descend on the swamping, slowly submerging beach to feast on the gullible sea creatures that come up to the surface. Holy Island is a birders’ paradise – it has the most recorded bird species ever seen in one place, and is a vital stop on spring and autumn migrations. The noise of that multitude before the evening tide is deafening.
After the birds come… the walkers and the cars, those who are late, running and speeding through the quickly submerging causeway either onto, or out of the small island. Once in a while, every few years, some of them will fail to get across, and have to find shelter in the refuge towers.
Then comes the water; it’s no Severn Bore – it comes quiet, not making a fuss of itself, but it comes nonetheless, fast and unstoppable. Before you notice, the causeway is impassable; a blink of an eye later, it’s gone completely. The silence falls, the sea devours all land, and the Holy Island is once again cut off from the land, as if it had always been like that.
The Lindisfarne Priory is, of course, a famous place in history of England and English Christianity; established by the Iona monks, it radiated wisdom and faith throughout the North; England’s two chief Saints, Cuthbert and Oswald, lived and were buried here; England’s first Viking raid took place on its shores – and it’s still easy to imagine the dragon ships emerging from the mist (there’s almost always mist on Lindisfarne) onto the flat beach next to the abbey walls.
Its venerable history notwithstanding, it is now another of the long list of picturesque ruins left by the cleansing efforts of Henry VIII and his protestant successors. Sometimes I think people give hard time to Stalin or Mao for destroying churches and temples, but they rarely stop to consider the countless monasteries brought to complete ruin by Henry’s decisions. At least the tradition of mead-making survives here, and the meadery has even grown since we last saw it, now having a big new modern shop and visitor centre.
We escape the oncoming tide, and still have enough of the day left to go past the massive Bamburgh Castle – basically a huge 19th century folly, created by a wealthy magnate on the foundations and around the keep of an ancient Norman fortress – and pop into a nearby fishing town of Seahouses, for a pint at the local pub which we remember fondly; the horizon of Seahouses is dotted with black islets – it’s the Farne Isles, the location of a vast colony of grey seals. Several boats take the tourists to see the islands; in the summer, there’s even more to see here in terms of wildlife, including tens of thousands of puffins scrambling about their holes in the ground; but the seals are always here, and always put on a good show, and, let me tell you, if you’ve never seen a proper seal colony, it’s quite a shock.
The boat departs the harbour, and in about half an hour reaches the first of the tiny islets; as the skipper narrates the story of Grace Darling and her daring sea rescue, a few seals pop up out of the water, and a few more lay lazily about the rocks. But before you have time to say “Awww…”, the boat turns around, and the full extent of the colony is suddenly revealed: six thousands of the mammals are sprawled all over the reef, like so many sacks of fat with cute puppy muzzles attached.
We stay the night at a large-ish C&CC campsite at Dunstan Hill; the owners are an odd bunch, and somehow we don’t feel very welcome, but that may be just because we’re a bit tired and cranky. It’s in a good location – out on a field above Craster, and from certain points you get a good view of another of Northumbria’s gargantuan castles, the Dunstanburgh. The facilities are far too few for the size of the site, luckily it’s low season so it’s not crowded. Hard to say anything else about the place, really.