The green cover of the book was instantly recognisable. A Kingdom by the Sea, written in 1967 by a London Journalist, Betty James, might have gone unnoticed by other visitors to Barter Books in Alnwick. But this book brought back memories of my childhood because it’s a travelogue of the North east of England that specifically mentions my mum.
Dougie and I were enjoying a browse in this fantastic secondhand bookshop, located in Alnwick’s former railway station. It was the beginning of the first full day of a walking holiday we’d booked as a last-minute cancellation via our trusted self-guided walking specialists, Inntravel. Most years we’d be booking a trip with them to Europe, as we did for our wonderful adventures in Austria, Mallorca and Portugal. Choosing to stay in the UK this year, a four-night break, Alnwick and the Northumberland coast, was the ideal way to visit my mum in Newcastle and tag on a little holiday.
It didn’t take me long to find the paragraph I was looking for in Betty James’ book. In the chapter where she is invited to an evening of traditional Northumbrian entertainment, featuring smallpipes, sword dancers and comedians, Betty described how she became tearful with the emotion of the music and performances. She then wrote:
“The evening ended with Eileen Brennan singing ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ without benefit of microphone and so beautifully that she jolly nearly set me off again.”
My mum, now in her 80s, was a professional singer in the North East for many years. She still has a well-thumbed copy of the book at home but I couldn’t resist buying this one just for me. I started reading it that night as we packed our rucksacks, ready to walk along the Northumberland coast. It was only then it struck me that this book was a funny, informative description of a woman’s travels, something I’ve been trying to do in this blog over the last 14 years. So, as we marched along the coast in the following few days, I used Betty as my guide to see how she viewed this area over 50 years ago.
“Don’t rush through this lovely little town”, urged Ms James as she noted the Percy Lion atop its tall column in Alnwick. There’s so much to do in Alnwick and thankfully on previous visits we had already explored the castle and the garden. So with our day and a half to spend here we had time to mooch. Within five minutes of arriving I’d been blind-sided by a cute orange leather handbag (not really what I needed to take with me for the remainder of a walking holiday). Thankfully for my wallet and luggage capacity our full day in the town was spent walking around the Duke of Northumberland’s magnificent estate, Hulne Park.
It was in Alnwick that Betty “realised the exemplary care taken by all North-Easterners to serve good, fresh food”. She suggested a drink in the pub, Dirty Bottles, because of the deathly legend surrounding it. Two centuries ago, the innkeeper dropped dead while adjusting the bottles in the window. It was said that if anyone tried to move them they would share the same fate. As a result, the “Dirty Bottles” were sealed between two windows. We walked past the pub and there were, indeed, dusty glass bottles behind the window. Unfortunately the pub was shut: staff had been instructed to self-isolate because of a Covid contact. All those precautions for a 200 year old legend and they’re scuppered by the modern plague. It looked a super place to visit though – it’s on the list for another day.
Nearby was The Cookie Jar, a former convent next to the castle. Our contemporary guide, the Inntravel notes provided for our trip, recommended an evening meal here so we took this advice. An excellent decision. The meal was superb: delicious food, beautifully presented. We ambled back to our B&B, Greycroft, and the wonderful hospitality of Audrey and her son, Tom. A complimentary tipple to take up to bed was just one of the ways Greycroft proved to be spot on with its customer service. Betty would have loved this and their huge, locally-sourced breakfasts.
Craster and Dunstanburgh
The coastal walk began in Craster, after a short bus ride from the centre of Alnwick. Betty talked a lot about Craster kippers in her book and how it’s useful to bring a camping stove with you to cook kippers on the beach. She recommended buying more than two each to share with interested beachgoers. “Cook up a preliminary kipper or two and chuck them to the crowd…the further you throw them the less likely you are to be worried again until you’ve licked the frying pan and scarpered.”
To be honest, so keen to be cracking on with the walk, we skipped the Craster kippers and headed towards the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle. With the rain beginning to spit, we nodded at said castle and refrained from searching for the Dunstanburgh Diamonds, coloured quartz crystals that might be found on the shore beneath the castle. According to Betty James they form part of “an immense treasure some captive wench in a crystal tomb guarded by two skeletons will present to her deliverer”.
Ms James’ description of Beadnell was very appealing. “The harbour is particularly colourful, with an old lime kiln on the edge surrounded by piles of lobster pots painted orange, emerald and black”. It was the final destination on our walk that first day and the rain had made an appearance. It didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the day: it was just a treat to be away from home, striding out across the vast sandy beaches of Embleton Bay and Beadnell Bay and annoying the golfers by unwittingly standing in their way as we checked the map.
Our Inntravel notes suggested we might want to just head to the hotel if the weather wasn’t good, rather than explore the harbour area. We thought this was a good option, happy to defer the harbour until the following day. Famous last words – never did get to see the orange lobster pots. We did, however, have a very warm welcome from Beadnell Towers where we would be staying for the next two nights. This boutique hotel has been sympathetically renovated, revealing the beauty of 18th century stonework and timber. It’s just fabulous – ticked all the boxes for decor, food and comfort.
Betty James referred to Bambrugh as “the pride of Northumberland” with its “glorious castle”, “Lord Armstrong’s infinitely majestic stronghold”. She informed her readers that the castle was the location for the 1964 film Becket. Today it’s more recognisable for the 1980s TV series, Robin of Sherwood, and doubtless future generations will see it as a location in the Indiana Jones movie due to be released in 2022. Whatever the cultural reference, it’s a breathtaking sight, especially when you walk across the sand and it suddenly appears, popping out of the dunes.
Both the Inntravel notes and A Kingdom by the Sea referenced the Bamburgh-born heroine, Grace Darling, who, aged 23, helped to rescue nine survivors of the shipwreck of the Forfarshire, which had run aground off the Farne Islands. There’s a RNLI museum which tells her story but it was surprisingly shut on a Saturday. Located in a modern building now, I’m hopeful the artefacts which delighted Betty James in the 1960s are still on display.
“The Grace Darling museum is a delightfully nostalgic welter of bonnets, a chair-cover knitted by her, and a letter from the proprietor of the Adelphi Theatre offering her £10 a week to appear on the London stage – an offer one presumes she smartly rejected.”
As we packed our bags to return home, energised by the sea air, good food and warm hospitality, we agreed to come back again… and again… and again. Having family in the area, and years of happy memories, will be enough encouragement.
In the final paragraph of the book, Betty James summed up how I’m feeling about this splendid region of the UK.
“Dear North East coast, I love you.”