Northumberland Coast : Warkworth to Dunstanburgh

Warkworth: Hostpur’s Castle

Amble by the Sea, a former coal mining village at the mouth of the River Coquet, is the harbour for the tiny town of Warkworth which lies just inland. Warkworth, an old fortified village, is situated within a narrow loop of the River Coquet and as at Durham City, the exposed neck of the river meander is protected by a castle which adds to the natural defences of the site.

Warkworth Castle photographed by David Simpson
Warkworth Castle photographed by David Simpson

The castle, now a deserted but picturesque ruin, under the protection of English Heritage, was built in the 12th century on the site of an Anglo-Saxon stronghold belonging to the Northumbrian King Ceolwulph. The Anglo-Saxons are said to have used Warkworth as a natural harbour for their boats which were called keels (ceols).In 1332 Warkworth became the principal residence of that great northern family, the Percys, Earls of Northumberland. Alnwick Castle, further north was also associated with the Percy family.

Warkworth was once the home of the war hungry Harry `Hotspur’ Percy, whose father was an Earl of Northumberland and mother a Neville, of Raby Castle in County Durham. Warkworth is the setting for a number of scenes in William Shakespeare’s `Henry IV’. Hotspur is a principal character of `Henry IV’ and in one scene this most notorious of Northumbrians, is described by Henry, the Prince of Wales;

“I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the North; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast washes his hands and says to his wife – `Fie upon this quiet life! I want work’ `O my sweet Harry,’ says she `how many has thy killed today?’…. `some fourteen,’ an hour after; `a trifle a trifle.” From Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4

An American attack on Alnmouth

From north of the Coquet, a long stretch of sandy bay, leads three miles on to Alnmouth. In its pleasant situation at the mouth of the River Aln, it is hard to believe that John Wesley once described Alnmouth as

“a small sea port town famous for all kinds of wickedness.”

During the American War of Independence, Alnmouth was the surprised victim of an attack by the American privateer John Paul Jones. On September 23rd 1779, Jones fired a canon ball at the defenceless Alnmouth church from his boat offshore. Fortunately for the church it missed and landed in a field, bounced three times and hit a farmhouse roof. Jones also attacked the town of Skinningrove on the Cleveland coast further south.

Smiuggling at Boulmer

The coast becomes increasingly rocky to the north of Alnmouth, near the village of Boulmer, which was once the smuggling `capital’ of Northumberland. Contrabanders came from all over Northumberland and the Scottish borders to Boulmer, to deal in illicit goods during the smuggling heyday of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The smuggling fraternity included Isaac `the Smuggler’ Addison, landlord of Boulmer’s Fishing Boat Inn and the Scottish smugglers Wull Faa, the gypsy king of Kirk Yetholm and Wull Balmer of Jedburgh;

“Blind Wull Bawmer o’ Jethart His grips are no guid to come in; He felled all the gaugers i’ Jethart When comin’ frae Boomer wi’ gin.”

Many of the smugglers would make their way to Boulmer, from the wilds of Coquetdale and other border valleys, where numerous camoflagued distilleries were hidden in the hillsides out of the sight of the excisemen.

Smuggling was a highly profitable business and many of the participants, became local folk heroes, but it should be remembered that the activity could be of a highly dangerous nature. Those caught in the act would almost certainly face a sentence of death.

William Weaver Tomlinson’s Guide to Northumberland of 1888 claims that smuggled goods such as silks and casks of spirit were still occasionally dug up on the coast at Boulmer in the late nineteenth century. Today Boulmer is best known as the site of an RAF station.

Craster kippers and Whin Sill outcrops

Continuing along the coast from Boulmer we pass Howick, once the seat of Earl Grey, a former Prime Minister of England (1830-1834). Further on we find the village of Craster, near a rocky Whin Sill outcrop called Cullernose Point.

Whin sill outcrops can be found across the entire length of North East England from Teesdale to the Farne Islands and are formed of a hard black basaltic rock called Dolerite. The outcrops were caused by a volcanic intrusion 280 million years ago.

Craster takes its name from a local family called the Crasters, who have lived in this area since before Norman times. The village is known for its kippers which are smoked on oak chippings to give them the distinctive Northumbrian flavour.

Dunstanburgh Castle and the Legend of Sir Guy the Seeker

At Craster a mile long footpath leads to the extensive coastal ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, which are situated on a Whin Sill outcrop overlooking the sea.

Said to be on the site of an ancient stronghold of the ancient Britons Dunstanburgh was built in 1313 by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and extended in the 1380s by John of Gaunt. Although it is a ruin today it occupies the largest site of any castle in the region and has a very romantic location. As a Lancastrian stronghold, the castle played an important role in the Wars of the Roses.

Dunstanburgh Castle
Dunstanburgh Castle Photo © 2017 David Simpson

According to legend, there is a secret cavern hidden beneath the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle in which a beautiful young maiden lies sleeping in a deep spell cast upon her by an evil wizard.

The legend claims that on a wild stormy night, many centuries ago, a young knight by the name of Sir Guy the Seeker was looking for shelter at Dunstanburgh when he was approached by the wizard. With a fierce expression and flaming hair, the wizard terrified Sir Guy, but he meant the knight no harm and instead presented him with a challenge;

“Sir Knight ! Sir Knight !
If your heart be right,
And your nerves be firm and true,
Sir Knight ! Sir Knight a beauty bright
In durance waits for you”

Sir Guy accepted the challenge and asked to be taken to the place where the young girl lay sleeping. The wizard escorted Sir Guy along a dark winding stairway. Sir Guy’s heart started beating fast – was he the victim of a trick ?, could he trust the wizard to keep his promise that a young maiden lay sleeping awaiting a rescuer ?. He followed the wizard with fear.

And now they go both high and low,
Above and undergound,
And in and out, and about and about,
And round, and round, and round.

Eventually after much walking the stairway finally terminated at a great door which was bolted shut with the aid of a hideous venomous snake. Without fear the wizard removed the snake from the door which opened to reveal a huge but darkened hall.

At the end of the hall lay the beautiful young maiden as the wizard had promised. She was indeed beautiful as she lay sleeping in a tomb of crystal which was guided on either side by two ugly skeleton figures, the one on the right holding a falchion bright, the one on the left holding a horn.

The Wizard explained that the young maiden’s fate depended on whether he should chose the horn or the sword. After considering for much time, Sir Guy finally chose to blow the horn, but his choice proved disastrous, he fell into an immediate sleep and awoke to find himself caught once more in the storms outside Dunstanburgh Castle.

As might be expected Sir Guy was to spend the rest of his life searching for the secret cave where the girl lay sleeping. Alas, it was to no avail, the unhappy knight was to die a remorseful man. The words of the old wizard haunted his mind to the very end;

Shame on the coward who sounded a horn

When he might have unsheathed a sword!

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