Category Archives: Outdoors

Blessed with Beaches

When you’re out with a young teenage kid it’s hard to beat the beaches of the North East coast. DAVID SIMPSON explores some of the best beaches in our region.

Bamburgh Castle and beach,
Bamburgh Castle and beach. Photo © David Simpson 2018

“Wow look at this view” you might hear me say as I drive through some lovely spot in the fabulous Northumberland and Durham countryside. My thirteen year old who says she loves it when I take her for drives in the countryside lifts her head, momentarily, from her phone, to see the lovely winding River Coquet up in the Northumberland dales, glistening in the summer sunshine. “That’s nice”, she says, before quickly returning to the engaging glow of that tiny screen.

Whitley Sands, Whitley Bay.
Whitley Sands, Whitley Bay. Photo © David Simpson 2018

It’s hard to inspire young people about our region’s wonderful scenery but at least when I test her patience by leaping out of the car (parking up first) to take a quick snap of an interesting castle, village, dale or vale, she can still maintain the undisturbed contact with her digital world.

“Is it ok if I take a quick picture?” I ask, though the question is rhetorical, I’m going to take that picture.

“So long as I don’t have to get out of the car”, she sighs.

Now I’m not complaining. I remember a distinct lack of passion for endless nature, knowledge, views and visitor centres in the distant days of my own youth out on those long day trips with my mum and dad. My feelings of indifference weren’t that much different to what my daughter feels now and there were no digital distractions for us kids back then.

Whitley Bay
Whitley Bay. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Head to the beach though and things are quite different, just as I’m sure they were for me:

“Here dad can you look after my phone while I explore?”

The beach, I’ve found, is the best place to bond with the girl. It’s just unbeatable.

It’s not just about bonding with your kids though. I’m single and in my occasional, mostly unsuccessful, ventures into online dating I’ve discovered just about every lovely lady out there in our region declares an interest in their online profile for “exploring the Northumberland Coast”.

Dunstanburgh castle from the beach at Embleton Bay. Photo © David Simpson 2015

There you’ll find it in profile after profile, like there’s some kind of hidden sponsorship deal. The coast is so predictably popular (though understandable given its ‘romantic’ beauty) that it makes me wonder how many couples wandering Amble, Alnmouth, Bamburgh, Beadnell, Whitburn, Whitley or wherever are only recently acquainted courtesy of findyournortheastcoastmate-dot-com if there’s such a thing.

Beautiful Bamburgh.
Beautiful Bamburgh. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Anyway, I digress. When I’m out with the teenager the beach is a definite best choice and there are so many to choose from. I only see her properly at weekends every couple of weeks and during this glorious summer or even back in the winter, we have often ended up strolling along one of the region’s beautiful beaches.

Beach at Seaburn / Roker
Beach at Seaburn – Roker : Photo © David Simpson 2015

Our coast really is stunning and not just in Northumberland. The beaches and coastline north and south of the Tyne as well as along the Durham coast or around the cliffs of Cleveland are all different and simply marvellous in so many ways.

So far this year we’ve done Marsden, Whitley Bay, Whitburn,  Seaburn, Saltburn, Tynemouth, Alnmouth, Bamburgh, Druridge Bay then Seaham, Seahouses, Seaton Carew and Crimdon and of course we’ve found the rocky shorelines around places like Craster or the Cleveland cliffs just as appealing. Some days were sunny, some days were winter grey and grim, but it never seems to spoil the fun.

Seaburn, Sunderland during the 2018 Tall Ships race.
Seaburn, Sunderland during the 2018 Tall Ships race. Photo © David Simpson 2018

You don’t have to spend lots of money to enjoy our splendid coast. Just take a packed lunch, though I admit a lovely fish shop, café or perhaps enjoying a bite on the beach with table service from Riley’s Fish Shack at bustling Tynemouth or an enormous ‘posh’ fish finger sandwich at the Marsden Grotto pub can be part of the delight.

Simply pottering about just seems to pass the time when I’m with the girl. This delighted beach dad can enjoy the views and take the occasional snap shot of spectacular scenes, passing ships or shapely sea shells but is just as happy gathering together a collection of countless coloured stones to make a mosaic on the beach or searching for crabs and limpets in a rock pool.

The North East coast simply rocks
The North East coast simply rocks and is never more than a stone’s throw away. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The girl loves this kind of thing too or perhaps just writing her name or mine or her mum’s in huge letters in the sand. It’s good simple fun and so too is ‘plodging in a pool’, to use a North East phrase.

My daughter found a nice pool formed by one of those huge concrete cubes, designed to keep the Germans out, though in fairness I saw no beach towels here. This was on the beach at Alnmouth and she was strangely engrossed by that pool. A great place for her to test her briefly reclaimed phone’s waterproof photography credentials (it fortunately passed), before it was returned to me and forgotten again.

Whichever beach you choose, simply wandering along the shoreline with the mesmerising sound of crashing waves is just so peaceful and life affirming and if there also happens to be an extraordinarily majestic giant sand castle called Bamburgh looming in the distance, well that’s just a bonus.

Now we’re not going to choose a favourite beach or coastal spot because, well, we couldn’t possibly be forced into any particular coastal corner. They’re all so different anyway with their own individual charms, so I’ll start by mentioning the last beach we visited at Alnmouth.

View of Alnmouth
View of Alnmouth. Photo © David Simpson 2018

We do love Alnmouth. So often people comment on how pretty it seems from the passing car as they head north along the coastal route but if you take a right turn and actually get out and explore this place it really is rather charming.

River meets the sea at Alnmouth
River meets the sea at Alnmouth. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Park up near the golf course to the north but watch out for golf balls. From here you can wander south along the beach, which then continues slightly inland along the little estuary of the River Aln itself and then onwards into the harbour with its moored up boats. From there you can wander into the delightful little village of Alnmouth itself – or is it, perhaps, a very tiny town?

Incidentally, my favourite fact about Alnmouth is that it was once fired upon by American privateer John Paul Jones during the American War of Independence when he came by in his passing warship. The cannonball missed the village church , bounced a couple of times and hit a farm building. Nobody was harmed.

Down at Saltburn in the far south of the region (a part of Yorkshire we especially love) there’s a slightly stony stream that cuts across the beach to enter the sea where you can roll up your trousers, take off your socks and shoes and plodge across. Ah, the simple pleasures!

Saltburn.
Saltburn. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Here at Saltburn the daughter and I spent quite a lot of time at the end of the pier just watching kids effortlessly catching crabs in nets on long fishing lines dropped into and raised from the sea below. The daughter was delighted when she spotted a curious whiskered seal that popped its head out of the water to watch a couple of kids paddle by in a dinghy.

Saltburn Pier.
Saltburn Pier. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The sands of Northumberland’s Druridge Bay at five miles long are a delightful find that are perhaps not so well-known. They’re relatively sedate, quite different to the buoyant beaches of say Whitley Bay or South Shields to the south. Part of a country park, Druridge Bay has the added bonus of the lovely Ladyburn Lake, a substantial freshwater lake to the rear of the Druridge dunes.

Druridge Bay
A grey day won’t stop play at Druridge Bay. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Tynemouth and Cullercoats are always firm favourites and justifiably popular. Whitley Bay looked lovely and lively in the sunshine on our recent visits even before they reopened the beautiful, elegant revamped Spanish City.

St Mary's Island near Whitley Bay.
St Mary’s Island near Whitley Bay. Photo © David Simpson 2018

We love the sandcastle sculptures there which are quite quirky and as for St Mary’s Island, I’m sure it’s been said so many times before but it’s simply picture postcard perfect.

Marsden Bay near South Shields.
Marsden Bay near South Shields. Photo © David Simpson 2018

South of the Tyne, Marsden Bay is still a great spot and the novelty of the lift down the cliff to the grotto pub and beach below never loses its simple appeal.

Further south, Sunderland is a city of super beaches which are always good for a wander. We recently walked down from wonderful Whitburn to Seaham and Roker during the Tall Ships Race as the ships headed out to sea and it was certainly a serene sight to see.

Crimdon Beach
Crimdon beach looking towards Hartlepool and the distant cliffs of the Cleveland coast beyond. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The Durham coast, once shunned by tourists for its industrial blight of now distant times has emerged as a new jewel following decades of intensive clean up and has several smashing beaches to explore. Many are still largely unknown even to residents of that county.

The unique terrain and natural environment formed by the meeting of the Magnesian limestone and the sea  makes the Durham coast a special spot for nature especially when coupled with the beautiful neighbouring wooded denes that are a regular feature of this particular coast.

The town of Seaham Harbour has seen a stunning transformation and despite the rather industrial names of two of its  beaches –  ‘Blast Beach’ and ‘Chemical Beach’, –  the names are in fact quite misleading as it is nature that now rules.

Blast Beach, Seaham
Blast Beach, Seaham Photo © David Simpson 2018

Speaking of jewels you may find pretty gems of many colours washed up on a beach here at Seaham. These wave-weathered, smooth, rounded pieces of glass were discarded into the sea by a Victorian glass works that once stood hereabouts and create a delightful little treasure to hunt for if you know where to look.

Indeed the whole North East coast could be described as a wonderful gem in itself. I’m always flabbergasted to hear even the best-known beaches of our region described as ‘the best-kept secret’.  For me and my girl it’s no secret at all, the North East coast is our familiar friend and a place where happy memories are made.

External sites:

Northumberland Coast AONB:

http://www.northumberlandcoastaonb.org/

Durham Heritage Coast: 

www.durhamheritagecoast.org/

A North East Beach Guide:

www.thebeachguide.co.uk/north-east-england

England Coast Path: 

www.nationaltrail.co.uk/england-coast-path

Cyclist’s Paradise:  Keeping fit and enjoying the region’s landscapes

DAVID SIMPSON shares his passion for cycling as he explores old railway routes and scenery across the North East from the saddle of his trusty mountain bike

Lydgetts junction cycle hub near Consett. Photo: David Simpson
Lydgetts junction cycle hub near Consett. Photo: David Simpson

Cycling and especially mountain biking is one of the best ways to see our region. Taking in the wonderful varied scenery of our beloved North East from the cyclist’s saddle is one of life’s great pleasures.  Travel from village to village, town to town and watch the delightful changes in the region’s rolling scenery mile by mile. Head along rural riverside routes into industrial heartlands, take in lovely country roads or try out the course of a former railway route at your own leisurely pace. Simply marvellous!

Sure, you can do some of these things from the comfort of your car but can you take a break without the headache of finding a parking space and can you go ‘off road’, away from all the traffic? Cycling is great because you always feel that you’re part of the outdoors, rather than just passing through within the confines of a wheeled metal box. That feeling of being part of the scenery is something that you never quite get from inside the car, even when the window is wound right down.

Scenery near Sunderland
Scenery from a recent Durham to Sunderland cycle ride. Photo: David Simpson.

Best of all though, cycling keeps you fit, in both mind and body. Mentally, I’m at my sharpest and happiest when I’ve been doing lots of cycling and it’s really invigorating. Walking, running or team sports might work for you but it’s cycling for me. It works well with my lifestyle and interests: my love for history, for taking photographs and a passion for the region’s varied landscapes makes cycling the perfect fit.

Now let’s be clear, I’m not one of the Lycra brigade. No, no, no, when I’m out cycling, I prefer skinny, stretchy jeans, old trainers, a long-sleeved shirt plus a jumper or fleece in the backpack just in case it gets too chilly. That’s more my scene. Purists might frown on this but that doesn’t bother me, though I should say a helmet is always a must. Taking something high-viz too if you’re going to be out in the twilight could also be wise and don’t forget a spare bottle of water or squash and a snack to keep you going if you feel peckish en route.

C2C Cycle route. Photo: David Simpson
The C2C Cycle route. Photo: David Simpson

No, it’s not about the streamlined look or the speed for me. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the thrill of the racing bike fraternity whizzing through the blurry countryside constantly improving on their best times, clocking up mile after mile on twisty roads and climbing hills with endless motor cars for company. There’s plenty of great scope for that activity across the region and I am sure the exertion is exhilarating but it’s not really for me.

I’ll often ride more than thirty or forty miles a time on the mountain bike but sometimes I’ll just go for twenty or a modest ten or perhaps even six or seven miles just to get out of the house. The more miles you do though the easier the distances become. I don’t mind cycling on the road some of the time but more often than not I head off along one of those superb off-the-road cycle paths that crisscross our region.

Many of these routes are the legacy of Dr Beeching, the man who closed so many railways back in the sixties, but that was due to the burgeoning growth of the motorists. I don’t suppose Beeching ever envisaged the growth in popularity of cycling though many of the cycle ways he has unwittingly created, from old railway routes, provide ideal and relatively easy going paths that often stretch for many miles. It all makes sense: those routes were designed for steam locomotives that wanted to avoid steep hills and take the easiest routes. All good news for leisurely cyclists like me.

Former railway station at Lanchester in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson
Former railway station at Lanchester in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson

Old railway routes converted into long-distance paths are one of the great gems of our region’s countryside and are great ways to get out and about in the North East. In recent rides I’ve headed out in various directions using a village near Durham City as a base. The other week I cycled from Durham into Sunderland through lovely countryside with views of the sea along the way.

Surprisingly, much of the track through Sunderland itself encompasses fields, trees, parks and even a lake. Except for the occasional glimpse of a block of flats nearby, you barely notice you’re in an urban environment until you eventually emerge in the city centre and then after crossing a couple of main roads at pedestrian crossings you head over the Wearmouth Bridge and back into the countryside along the banks of the River Wear – though I took a brief diversion to the river mouth first just to see the sea.

Cycling by the River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Cycling by the River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

In County Durham there are pathway ‘hubs’ that provide good centres for exploring various walking and cycle routes where railways once ran. Broompark, just west of Durham City is one such hub. There’s parking there and a picnic area too, so you can take your bike along on the car then make your way by bike along a choice of three routes. I’ve tried all three. One heads along the pretty wooded valley of the little River Deerness to Esh Winning and on towards a place called Stanley Crook and another heads north along the Browney valley to Lanchester and then on towards Consett. The third heads south to Bishop Auckland culminating in a good view of the Bishop of Durham’s home town that can be reached across the Newton Cap Viaduct.

Perhaps the major hub for cyclists in the North East is Lydgetts Junction at Consett, arguably the central hub for all North East cycle paths. Here routes head out to Newcastle and Tynemouth, south into Durham, east to Sunderland and west all the way to Cumbria via the splendid Hownsgill viaduct.

Sculpture on C2C Cycle route near Lydgetts Junction, Consett. Photo: David Simpson
Sculpture on C2C Cycle route near Lydgetts Junction, Consett. Photo: David Simpson

It’s always good to combine parts of routes and even improvise with a bit of research beforehand. Recently, I headed out from my village base east of Durham City to join the Deerness route at Broompark but then left its course at Esh Winning to make the steep climb by local roads through Quebec and Cornsay Colliery to lovely Lanchester. There, joining the Lanchester Valley route to Consett I joined  the C2C route at Lydgetts Junction –  with its impressive art installation sculptures along the way – as I continued through Leadgate, Stanley, Beamish and Pelton where I improvised in a descent into Chester-le-Street on my way back to my village base completing about 44 miles.

Souter Lighthouse
Souter Lighthouse is one of the many beautiful features on the coastal route between the Tyne and Wear. Photo: David Simpson

Many routes link in with the longer-distance coast-to-coast cycle paths like the C2C (sea to sea) route I have mentioned. This route links the coastal Cumbrian towns of Whitehaven, Workington and St Bees to Sunderland, South Shields and Tynemouth. An alternative cross-Pennine route is the W2W (Walney to Wear) route linking Walney in southern Cumbria to Sunderland, part of which we followed on our recent ride from Durham to Sunderland.

The great thing is, you don’t have to stray far from the cities to enjoy great cycle rides. There are good cycle rides around Stockton and Hartlepool into the fringes of the County Durham countryside for example and in Tyne and Wear there’s a particularly enjoyable coastal ride from the mouth of the Tyne to the mouth of the Wear – and back.

You can cycle along the bank of the River Tyne all the way to Wylam and then back along the other side of the river and once you’re back at the beginning there’s no extra charge for taking cycles across the Shields ferry to reach the other side.

Bicycles are welcome on the Shields Ferry. Photo: David Simpson
Bicycles are welcome on the Shields Ferry. Photo: David Simpson

Superb cycling can be found in Northumberland too, often with the Cheviots serving as a wonderful backdrop with some routes taking in coastal areas and castles. A cycling friend of mine recently tried out a circular route from Wooler across to Holy Island which looks appealing.

In North Yorkshire the Vale of York and Vale of Mowbray around Thirsk and Northallerton offer relatively gentle cycling with gradual climbs into the Yorkshire Dales to the west or challenging cycling in the North York Moors to the east.

Sustrans provide a useful zoomable map of all the major cycle routes in the region (see the links below) but it’s also worth checking out the region’s woods and forests that can appeal to thrill-seekers or those who just want to take a cycling stroll. Hamsterley and Kielder for example have superb mountain biking trails to explore.

Out and about. Scenery near Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Out and about on the bike. Scenery near Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

Whatever kind of cycling you do, it’s always enjoyable to keep a record of your routes, speeds and distances mile by mile, to see how much you’ve ascended and descended and how many calories you’ve burned. It’s a satisfying way to round off a good cycle ride. You can post the details on social media too and it’s a good way to log your progress and share with others.

That’s all part of the fun and can be facilitated by downloading great route-tracking GPS apps like Endomondo, Strava or Mapmyride to your mobile phone. It’s always good to review your times and distances, when you get back to base, and to check your best and slowest lap, though often, I find, I’ve lost more than an hour or so stopping to take photos or admire the beautiful views along the way. I’m certainly not going to complain about that.

Tyne Bridge. Photo: David Simpson
Tyne Bridge. Photo: David Simpson

Update!

We’ve been out on the bike again (the day after this blog) this time from Consett to Newcastle and back (38 miles) taking in the Derwent valley and Tyne riverside with Lydgett’s junction as our starting base. Another lovely route. Check out our sunny day of cycling photos of the Derwent Valley here and of Newcastle-Gateshead here.

Useful links

Railway-paths in County Durham  (for cyclists, walkers, runners, horse riders and wheelchair users) with downloadable pdfs of maps and route features.

Sustrans C2C Cycle Route  and other routes throughout the North East of England.

Cycle Routes in Northumberland from Cycle Northumberland

Cycle friendly cafes: englandsnortheast.co.uk/2016/08/21/many-reasons-get-yer-bike/ a blog by Helen Gildersleeve

www.cycle-route.com Has an astonishing  choice of suggested cycle routes. Select by nation and county for an extensive list of routes with map details.

Kielder Forest Mountain Bike Trails: www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/OverviewA0panel.pdf/$file/OverviewA0panel.pdf

Hamsterley Forest Cycle Trails: www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/nee-hamsterley-cycle-trails.pdf/$file/nee-hamsterley-cycle-trails.pdf

Cyclists on the Shields ferry: www.nexus.org.uk/ferry/guide-ferry  Large groups of cyclists should contact the ferry in advance.

GPS Cycling apps

Endomondo: www.endomondo.com/

Strava: www.strava.com/

Mapmyride: www.mapmyride.com/app/

Reconnecting with the great outdoors

PAUL WHITE pays homage to the region’s scenery and explores the beautiful Low Barns Nature Reserve in the Wear Valley of County Durham.

The great outdoors in North East England
Photo: Paul White

In the last year or so, I’ve reconnected with my love of the outdoors.

I remember when I was a kid, I had books galore on things like birds and could recognise many breeds and even some of their calls. I’d spend my weekends and holidays exploring the area in and around my uncle’s farm and any sunny day would be spent out and about.

That sort of thing was probably lost to football and girls and, to be fair, not that I was that good as far as either were concerned (all together now, “aww”).

Then life got busier as I got older and, as much as I enjoy a nice walk, other things got in the way.

But since starting to work with Northumbrian Water a year back, I’ve found new connections with the great outdoors. I won’t go into too much detail about the great work the company does for the environment, but suffice to say, I’ve learned to find time to just put my walking boots on and get outside more.

The great outdoors in North East England
Photo: Paul White

Having had the need to visit Low Barns Nature Reserve at Witton-le-Wear a few weeks back for a whistle-stop tour, I decided to go back and take a more leisurely look around.

The site is one of many run by Durham Wildlife Trust and I had vague recollections of primary school trips there, but, despite it being only around five miles from home, I hadn’t been back since.

I’d certainly been missing out on this wonderfully tranquil place. From the reed beds (which are on the site of an old sewage treatment works – how’s that for a stunning change of use?) to the banks of the Wear, it has so much to enjoy.

The great outdoors in North East England
Photo: Paul White

And the peacefulness is incredible. Needless to say, we signed up as members of the Trust on the spot and will be planning on visiting as many of the other sites around the North East as we can.

Between that and spending Easter weekend in beautiful Weardale, as well as recent trips to Kielder Water & Forest Park, I can safely say I’m hooked once more on the beauty of the North East.

Our region truly is stunning and not one of us can say we have explored and seen it all. So get out there and find those places that really inspire you with natural beauty.