The picturesque village of Alnmouth is a little over two miles north of Warkworth, and is situated on the northern side of the River Aln. From around the 1450s it was the port of Alnwick Castle as Alnwick itself is only three miles inland from here, although Alnmouth first received a charter as a port in 1307.
Alnmouth actually lies upon a small peninsula of land bordered on two sides by the River Aln and on another side by the sea. In times past the place was often called ‘Alemouth’ or even ‘Yellmouth’.
From the railway or main road to the west the view of Alnmouth is sublime and on closer inspection it does not disappoint.
Once part of the Barony of Alnwick, Alnmouth belonged to the Dukes of Northumberland and transported goods to London for the merchants of Alnwick.
Alnmouth exported mostly agricultural goods such as eggs, corn and pork, though it was never a major port. The trade in grain was especially important and reached its peak in the eighteenth century but later as the trade declined the riverside granaries were converted into private houses.
By the 1820s Alnmouth was principally a fishing town but had six public houses and accommodation for bathers, showing that tourism was already well-established by that time.
The main street of this village or little town is called Northumberland Street and consists of quaint stone houses with shops and inns and a church built by Matthew Thompson of Newcastle that dates from 1876.
There was some smuggling in times past though not perhaps on the scale witnessed at Boulmer to the north, though this may explain why the visiting 18th century preacher John Wesley described Alnmouth as:
“a small sea port town famous for all kinds of wickedness.”
You can park near the golf course to the north of the village then walk along the lovely beach which continues into the river estuary itself and then along the side of Alnmouth harbour with its moored up boats.
From the beach there are pleasant views of Coquet Island and its lighthouse out at sea. Also looking south and within the mouth of the river we see a small grassy hill called Church Hill with a wooden cross marking the site of the old church of Alnmouth.
The church of St Waleric which stood here had Saxon foundations but was later superseded by the church of St John the Baptist in Northumberland Street which was paid for by the Duke of Northumberland.
The old church on its hill was left neglected for many years and by 1738 was already starting to fall into ruin. In 1789 a Saxon cross was found on the site inscribed with the words “Myredeh me wrought” with the name of ‘Eadulf’ a king of Northumbria carved on its edge.
On Christmas Day 1806, the hill on which the old church had stood came to be cut off from Alnmouth by a change in the course of the river and the last remnant of the church was blown down with nothing left to see today. The old church was known in Alnmouth as Woden’s church but this was due to it being situated on the lands of a farm called Wooden or ‘Woden’ and not because the inhabitants preferred to worship pagan gods.
The old church at Alnmouth may have occupied the place called Twyford or ‘Adtwyfyrdi’ on the River Aln recorded in 684 AD as the place where a synod was presided over by Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which St Cuthbert was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne.
Twyford has also sometimes been identified with Whittingham on the River Aln to the west of Alnwick. However the name Twyford means ‘two fords’ and there were indeed once two fords across the Rive Aln at Alnmouth in times past with one heading across the river in the direction of Warkworth to the south and another linking Alnmouth to the village of Lesbury to the north east.
Until the 1960s there was a rowing boat ferry service across the mouth of the River Aln. The old ferryman’s hut is now a tiny heritage centre and is probably the smallest museum or visitor centre in the region.
During the American War of Independence, Alnmouth was the target of an attack by the American privateer John Paul Jones. On September 23rd 1779 Jones fired a cannonball at the defenceless Alnmouth church from his boat offshore.
Fortunately, the cannonball missed the church but landed in a field, bounced three times and hit a farmhouse roof. Nobody was hurt. Jones also attacked the town of Skinningrove on the Cleveland coast further to the south.
Acts of piracy out at sea were not uncommon off Alnmouth during that century. Incidents known to have occurred off Alnmouth in the 1700s include the seizure of a ship called The Thomas and Margaret of Sunderland along with a brigantine from Berwick that were both taken by the crew of a privateer ship in January 1744.
In April 1757 another privateer captured a Berwick sloop and in 1756 a French privateer captured a fishing smack that was full of salmon, this again belonged to the unfortunate port of Berwick.
On August 15, 1779, an engagement took place between a British man-of-war called Content and two French privateer ships which lasted for two hours before the French fled. A vessel called Greenlander ran in close to the shore during the incident but did not take part in the engagement. There was much fear from the excited spectators on land that the Frenchmen might attempt to land and a group of volunteers with a mounted cannon arrived from Alnwick Castle.
On the coast just north of Alnmouth are the Marden Rocks and a tiny bay that separates Alnmouth from the rocks of Seaton Point at Boulmer.
Hipsburn, Lesbury and Shilbottle
Considering its size Alnmouth is very fortunate to still have a railway station (which opened in 1847) on the main East Coast Main Line from London to Edinburgh although the station is in fact situated at Hipsburn near Lesbury, a mile to the west of the village.
There was once an adjoining branch line just to the north of here which was linked to the railway station at Alnwick that is now the Barter Books bookstore.
Hipsburn is thought to derive from ‘Hyppelsburn’ meaning ‘stepping stone stream’. There’s a small stream here and to the north a bridge across the Aln links Hipsburn to Lesbury.
In fact there are two bridges at Lesbury, namely the New Lesbury Bridge of 2004 with its distinctive white tubular arches and the old, handsome medieval bridge of the fifteenth century just downstream which it superseded. Now only used by pedestrians with no road access, it is surprising to know that the old bridge once carried heavy traffic as recently as 2004. There’s also a little footbridge at the east end of Lesbury further downstream.
Old spellings of the name Lesbury show that it was once the ‘Leech’s burgh’ which means it was the manor or fortified place of the Leech (leech being an old word for a physician).
A pleasant village of stone houses, the church at Lesbury dates to the thireteenth century though it saw significant restoration in the nineteenth century. It stands on an earlier Saxon site that was granted to Alnwick Abbey by Eustace St John in 1147. The Victorian restoration was undertaken by the architect, Anthony Salvin.
A seventeenth century vicar of Lesbury is said to have lived to the grand age of 110 years and what’s more in his old age cut new teeth, gained the flaxen hair of a child and a remarkable improvement in his vision all of which even much younger men might have envied.
Whether the sudden acquisition of these youthful attributes was a genuine occurrence is not known but birth and death records show that when he died in 1659 he was in fact 101 and not 110.
A couple of miles inland from Alnmouth to the south west of Hipsburn and Lesbury is the pretty village of Shilbottle. The name derives from ‘Schippling bothill’ meaning the ‘abode or dwelling of the Shipley people’ though who the Shipley people were we do not know.
Like Lesbury, Shilbottle is a village of pleasant stone houses and a church dedicated to St James with a partly Norman nave plus later Victorian restorations. A turreted tower house near the church is Shilbottle Tower, a former vicar’s pele tower with a vaulted floor. The tower was first recorded in existence in 1415 but it likely dates to the previous century or earlier.
A colliery is first mentioned at Shilbottle in the 1820s. Owned by Thomas and Hugh Taylor it was situated on land land leased from the Duke of Northumberland and then employed around 70 men and boys. It was located near Buston to the east of Shilbottle and closed in 1982. The town of Alnwick is a couple of miles to the north of Shilbottle and the place-name is very familiar for the signposting off the nearby A1.
Smuggling at Boulmer
At Boulmer to the north of Alnmouth the coast becomes increasingly rocky. Here the rocks include Seaton Point and Marmouth Scars. Marmouth presumably means the mouth of the mere from the opening into the sea of the shallow lagoon between the rocks which form Boulmer Haven.
The lagoon would be the ‘Bulan-Mere’ of the old Anglo-Saxon name which became Bulmer or Boulmer pronounced ‘Boomer’ today. Bulan-Mere means ‘Lake of the Bull’ though Bull may have been someone’s nickname rather than an actual bull.
Today Boulmer is best known as the home to RAF Boulmer which is just to the south west of the little village but the occasional sonic boom of aircraft noise does not account for the pronunciation of the village name.
Boulmer was once notoriously famed as the smuggling ‘capital’ of Northumberland. Here contraband traders came from all over the county as well as the Scottish borders to collect illicit, mostly alcoholic goods such as gin and spirits delivered from abroad during the smuggling heyday of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Known smugglers who frequented Boulmer included Jock Melvin, Ruthor Grahamshaw, Laird Cranstoun of Smailham, Wull Faa (the gypsy king of Kirk Yetholm) and Wull Balmer of Jedburgh who was recalled in an old verse:
“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.”
Even Isaac ‘the Smuggler’ Addison, landlord of Boulmer’s Fishing Boat Inn was in on the act.
Many of the smugglers would make their way to Boulmer, from the wilds of Coquetdale and other border valleys, where numerous camouflaged distilleries were hidden in the hillsides out of the sight of the excise men. There were many scrapes and daring deeds involving the smugglers in their successful attempts to outwit the lawmen.
Smuggling was a highly profitable business and many of the participants, became 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. Some items were never seemingly recovered by the smugglers as it is known that smuggled goods like silks and casks of spirit were still occasionally dug up on the coast at Boulmer in the late nineteenth century.
Today, the little village of Boulmer consists of stone houses clustered along a single street, some of which are holiday cottages. There’s also a lifeboat station and of course the Fishing Boat Inn, though Isaac ‘the Smuggler’ has long since ceased to be the landlord.
There was no church at Boulmer in times past with the nearest one being just inland at Longhoughton. We might wonder if the people of the village of Longhoughton also took part in the disreputable activity of smuggling given one local vicar’s opinion of its inhabitants.
The Reverend George Doncan who was the vicar at Longhouhton from 1696 to 1719 certainly held a very low regard for his parishioners recording his opinion of each one in the parish register with Latin phrases such as ‘nequissimus homo’ (most worthless man); ‘omni modo nequam’ (in every sense worthless); ‘malos malorum’ (vile of the vile); ‘viles ebriosa peccat’ (a vile, drunken, female sinner); ‘improbus Hibernicus miles‘ (a dishonest Irish soldier).
The list of insults goes on, describing other individuals as brutish, dissenters, warlocks, quacks and wicked naves. In fairness he did describe a very small handful of his parishioners in more positive terms like ‘pious’, ‘honest’ and ‘upright’.
The church of St Peter at Longhoughton at which Doncan was vicar underwent much restoration in the 1870s but significant parts date from medieval times including the chancel arch and the tower dating back to the Norman era. The tower of the church is described by Nikolaus Pevsner as being ‘pele-like’ and the defensive qualities of the building were recognised by the locals who took refuge there during a border raid of 1567.
Longhoughton was once the site of market but the market cross went missing for many years until it was recovered hidden inside the grave of a smuggler. It was removed from the grave and placed inside the church for protection.
Stone Age Howick
To the north of Boulmer Haven we find the coastal rocks of Boulmer Steel, Red Ends and Longhoughton Steel. Then we encounter the tiny beaches of Howdiemount Sands and Sugar Sands before reaching the mouth of the Howick Burn and its pretty wooded dene. A little further inland this dene is the setting for the parkland of Howick Hall.
Slightly further up the coast near Howick Haven we walk in the presence of ancient footsteps. Here in 1983, at a weathered sandy spot near the edge of the cliff, an amateur archaeologist called John Davies uncovered ancient flints and blades. More finds followed in 2000, revealing an associated dwelling. The severe erosion at the site which had helped to expose its presence also highlighted the urgent need for archaeological investigation and the site was extensively excavated in 2002.
The excavation unveiled what was dubbed at the time ‘the earliest dwelling house in Britain’. Since then a few new sites across Britain have challenged this claim but it is certainly the oldest in our region.
Dating from 7800 BC the site belongs to the Mesolithic period (Middle Stone Age) and was a home to ancient hunter gatherers. It was in use for over a hundred years and included a circular shaped house. There was evidence of a diet that included roasted hazelnuts, seal, fox and wild boar. In fact the location was probably chosen for its rich variety of potential food including fish, eggs and shellfish with freshwater also available nearby.
To put this distant time into perspective we should consider that the late Iron Age of the Ancient Britons just before the Romans arrived was only about 2,000 years ago while the early era of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria was as recent as 1,400 years ago. The Mesolithic settlement at Howick was by comparison occupied some 9,800 years ago. At around this time the coast here stretched a further 100 to 200 metres or so to the east in what was then a much shallower sea. Much further to the south, a land bridge at that time linked Britain to Europe across the North Sea and was beginning to be breached by the sea.
Following the excavation at Howick, a reconstruction of the house was created near the site of the settlement. Unfortunately, this modern attempt at recreating the ancient home struggled to cope with the harsh coastal weather conditions that destroyed it in 2010.
About a quarter of a mile to the south west near the Howick Burn are the substantial earthworks of an Iron Age settlement but in comparison to the Mesolithic site this could almost be described as being a feature of modern times.
Howick Village and Church
The quiet village of Howick is a short walk from the rocky coast and is a tiny place. There are a handful of stone cottages that have long neat gardens. Here also is an old rectory, which is now a bed and breakfast establishment and an old school house that is now a holiday cottage. Along the coast to the south is a former bathing house that serves as a holiday cottage too. Historically, the village was the home to servants who worked at Howick Hall, which is about half a mile to the west.
Howick church, dedicated to St Michael, stands within the grounds of Howick Hall to the south of the Howick Burn with the hall across the dene to its north. The church was built in a temple-like style by Sir Henry Grey in 1746 on the site of an earlier medieval church that had fallen into decay. In 1849 it was ‘Normanized’ with a Norman style front and windows added. In 1913 the crew of a French trawler called The Tadorne that was wrecked off the Howick coast were buried in its churchyard.
Rectors of Howick included Dr Isaac Basire, a prebendary of Durham Cathedral who later became the personal chaplain of King Charles I. Of course, Charles met a sorry end in the English Civil War and Basire fled abroad, travelling widely and becoming a missionary amongst the Arabs, the Egyptians and Greeks. Returning to England during the reign of Charles II, he was appointed Archdeacon of Northumberland.
Howick Hall and Gardens
Historically the manor of Howick included Howick village and belonged in medieval times to the Muschampes. From around 1319 it was partly owned by the Greys of Chillingham along with the Herons of Ford but the Greys gradually acquired the whole manor.
Howick Hall was built by Sir Henry Grey in 1782 and designed by William Newton of Newcastle in the Palladian style of the architect James Paine. An earlier fortified house, first mentioned in 1416, was taken down.
In 1720 Henry Grey of Howick, (later Sir Henry), a High Sheriff of Northumberland, married Hannah Wood, heir of Thomas Wood of Fallodon. This Fallodon is near Embleton four miles north of Howick and not to be confused with the famous battle site of Flodden (a different spelling), near Wooler. Through this marriage Fallodon became an additional family seat of the Greys.
Henry and Hannah’s son, also called Sir Henry Grey (1722-1808) of Howick was twice MP for Northumberland and it was this Henry that built the hall. Sir Henry died, unmarried at the age of 78. He had outlived his younger brother Charles, the First Earl Grey of Howick (1729-1807) the noted military general who commanded the British in several battles during the American War of Independence.
In 1762 Grey, then a colonel, married Elizabeth Grey (daughter of George Grey of Southwick near Sunderland) and in 1764 Elizabeth gave birth at Fallodon to their son, Charles, who would become the famed Second Earl Grey.
Charles the second earl Grey would become a Whig politician who served as British Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834 and introduced the Great Reform Bill in 1832. He would also be famous for his association with the well-known tea named in his honour as well as for the monument to his memory in Grey Street in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne. Although born at Fallodon, Howick Hall was his home and was much loved by him.
The earl’s connection with Earl Grey tea came about after a Mandarin Chinese speaker blended a special blend of bergamot tea for the Greys to suit the limey water at Howick.
As a political hostess during her husband’s term as Prime Minister, the earl’s wife, Lady Grey, served this tea to guests in London and it proved so popular that she encouraged its marketing to a wider public and it proved a successful enterprise for companies like Twinings. However the Greys did not seize the opportunity to profit from the popularity of the tea with which they were so closely associated.
Earl Grey (left) passed away at Howick in 1845 aged 81 but the house continued its association with his family. His eldest son, Henry the 3rd Earl Grey inherited Howick and was an influential colonial secretary. Through the family’s influence we find places in New Zealand, Canada and South Africa called Howick. Henry’s brother Albert, the 4th Earl, was Governor General of Canada.
Albert’s son, Charles Grey, the fifth Earl Grey was the man who created, along with his wife Mabel, the beautiful informal gardens for which Howick Hall is principally known today. The fifth earl died in 1963 and Howick passed to his daughter, Lady Mary Howick, who continued to develop the gardens.
Lady Howick, who died in 2001 aged 94, was married to Evelyn Baring (died 1973), a member of the noted banking family and a former Governor of Kenya who was created 1st Baron Howick of Glendale in 1960. Their son, the 2nd Baron Howick of Glendale is the present owner of the hall and has resided with his family in the west wing of the house since 1973.
Today the beautiful Howick Hall Gardens can be enjoyed by the public. They are noted for their splendid range of trees, particularly maples, and for the Silverwood woodland garden created by Lord Grey in 1930. An arboretum opened in 2006 and features trees and shrubs from all around the world which are organised according to their geographical origins.
The grounds include a number of pleasing walks and visitors can of course enjoy tea, including the famous Earl Grey Tea, in the beautiful Earl Grey teahouse which occupies the east quadrant of the hall. Notable paintings in the tearoom include Sir Thomas Lawrence’s 1828 portrait of the 2nd Earl Grey. A visitor centre at the hall includes as its centrepiece, a beautiful illustrated map showing the features of the gardens and grounds created by Sarah Farooqi.
Craster: Kippers and the Whin Sill
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.
The name of picturesque Craster is thought to come from ‘craw ceastere’ referring to some kind of fortified place inhabited by crows or someone called Crow.
A family called the Crasters lived in the area for centuries. Craster is famous for its kippers which are smoked on oak chippings to give them the distinctive Northumbrian flavour. The village is a starting point for the short coastal walk to the wonderful Dunstanburgh Castle.
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 a stronghold of the ancient Britons Dunstanburgh was built in 1313 by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and was 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.
Sir Guy the Seeker
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 and 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 choose 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!
Embleton and Beadnell
Embleton and Beadnell are best known for the beaches of the sandy bays to which the two villages give their name to the north of Dunstanburgh. Backed by sandy dunes in the typical fashion of the Northumberland coast, Embleton Bay stretches north from Dunstanburgh to Low Newton-by-the Sea and is one of Northumberland’s quietest beaches. It is reached by a country lane and offers good views of Dunstanburgh Castle beyond the whin sill rocks to the south.
The pleasant village of Embleton probably named from being ‘Eanbuld’s farm’ in Anglo-Saxon times, lies inland. The village church is thirteenth century and nearby is Embleton Tower, a pele tower resembling a small castle that dates to 1395. The tower long-served as a vicarage and was extended in the 1820s by the architect John Dobson.
Embleton was the birthplace of the renowned journalist, newspaper editor and campaigner W.T. Stead (William Thomas 1849-1912) who was editor of The Northern Echo in Darlington and then later the editor of London’s Pall Mall Gazette. Described as the founder of modern journalism, Stead died on board RMS Titanic in 1912.
Beadnell Bay has a longer section of beach than Embleton Bay and the two are separated by a small cove called Football Hole. The bay stretches from High Newton-by-the-Sea to the whin sill rocks and inlets near Beadnell itself which go by amusing names like Knacker Hole and Lady’s Hole. The north end of the beach is overlooked by a caravan park.
The name Beadnell derives from Bede’s halh, the spur of land belonging to Bede, but probably not the famous Venerable Bede. However, a medieval chapel once stood close to the rocks hereabouts dedicated to another Northumbrian saint, St Ebba. The main streets in the village are The Wynding and the Haven in which we find a charming little 18th century church which is dedicated, like the earlier chapel, to St Ebba. Nearby is a hall of the same century.
More rocks and beach stretch north from Beadnell forming part of the Annstead Dunes nature reserve. To the north is the little town of of Seahouses, a popular focal point for visitors to the Northumberland coast and Bamburgh and the place to be for boat trips to the Farne Islands.