Yet another wild and windy Footsteps walk; Craster, Dunstanburgh and Low Newton along the Northumberland Coast

Every Wednesday, I lead a Footsteps guided walk for guests staying at the Holiday Property Bond centre in Lucker and yesterday we followed one of the nation’s favourite walks, Craster to Low Newton and back.

Eight people joined the walk in Craster on a bright and sunny March morning. Sheltered as we were in the car park, we all knew from the weather forecast that it was going to be windy, but the sun was shining and our walking adventure lay ahead of us. We followed a path beside a rocky outcrop of the Whin Sill, the cliffs covered in gorse, which is just beginning to flower, bright yellow with the scent of coconut, a sure sign that Spring is now fast approaching.


Dunstanburgh Castle from the north, looking across Embleton Bay

We emerge from behind the Whin Sill and there before us, perched high beside the sea is Dunstanburgh Castle, a magnificent medieval fortification, built in the early 14th Century, ruined and deserted by the mid-15th Century. It dominates the landscape and we would always be able to look towards it, or back to it throughout the walk, all broken toothed and craggy, it’s a fabulous castle and much loved by those who visit Northumberland.  We stayed close to the coast and away from the more direct path; I was keen to see and share a view of the fulmars that nest high on the cliffs below the castle. There were at least 6-pairs of these handsome birds, huddled together busy reforming their pair-bonds after a winter spent at sea and preparing for the breeding season ahead.

Embleton Bay, Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Embleton Bay on the Northumberland Coast

We walked up the slope and around the castle, hoping to see some razorbills and guillemots on the high cliffs on the northern side of the castle, but there were none to be seen, which surprised me, there had been thousands further north at St. Abbs earlier in the week. The wind had really picked up now, so we pushed on following the coast through the dunes beside Embleton Bay. A keen eye picked out oystercatcher, turnstone, redshank and purple sandpiper picking their way between the shoreline boulders. We went over the highest dunes, just because the views are amazing; we held on to our hats and to each other and descended the dunes and headed for The Ship Inn and lunch at Low Newton.

After lunch, we began the return journey to Craster, the wind now thankfully blowing slightly from behind and over our right shoulders, so the going was a little easier. The path took us back past Dunstanburgh Castle and along a level coast path into the village. We could see smoke billowing from Robson’s, home of the Craster kipper, so we took the opportunity and popped into the shop to buy this fine local delicacy and then completed our walk in the local café with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. And that was it, we had enjoyed the sunshine, the magnificent views and battled the wind; so windswept and exhilarated we said our farewells and headed for home after another fine Footsteps walk in Northumberland.

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Discovering the geology of the Moffat Hills and the Grey Mare’s Tail

Despite a grim forecast, I made the 70-mile journey across the Border to a place I last visited as a boy some 50-years ago. I was on my way to take part in a geology study day, part of a programme of CPD* study days through the Mountain Training Association and led by Dr Al McGowan. Our meeting point was the car park below the Grey Mare’s Tail, way out in the Moffat Hills, a very beautiful part of the Scottish Southern Uplands. The cloud was low, there was drizzle and it was cold too, not a promising start. However, over the course of the day, the sun came out and lit up the snow-covered hills, the waterfalls and the stunning Moffat Valley.

Our first session took us up to Dob’s Linn and we were hunting for fossils, ‘graptolites‘ to be precise. We rummaged amongst the tumbled shales, picking through the slender shards of rock and we soon found what we were looking for, faint fossilised outlines, transporting us back in time to when this was a sea and filled with tiny creatures, a long way back in geological time. I was fascinated to observe a layer of volcanic ash embedded between the different layers. The ash can be dated, so by studying two different ash layers, aeons apart, you can work out the age of the rock and then you know how old the graptolites are, which is as I say fascinating.

We continued up towards the Linn, which is a mighty waterfall, maybe 30-40 metres high and falling over the cliff edge in two stages and after all the rain, it was full of water and roaring. The rock formations and the geology is well exposed and easy to observe, so we we were learning lots and enjoying the challenge of the steep hillside beside the waterfall.

Dob's Linn

Dob’s Linn in the Moffat Hills

Folded rocks at Dob's Linn

Folded rocks below Dob’s Linn

In the afternoon, we headed up the steep path to view the geology of the Grey Mare’s Tail, the fourth highest waterfall in Britain. We were able to observe lots of rock formations and as the sun came out and the clouds lifted, the snow covered hills appeared and it warmed up a few degrees too.

Grey Mare's Tail

The Grey Mare’s Tail on a grey day

Beyond the waterfall, the path takes you up into the high Moffat Hills and we were soon on the edge of the snow line in some very beautiful countryside. We continued through a post-glacial landscape. Here there are many lumps and bumps, left over from the time when the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. Once you begin to look at the land forms, you can work out what’s going and the forces that created this remarkable place are plain to see. Our walk took us to the edge of Loch Skene (or Skeen) a corrie lochan, another opportunity to observe the geology and the forces that created this feature. The water flows out of the lochan and downhill, forming the Tail Burn and then to fill the Grey Mare’s Tail and there was an awful lot water up there to come tumbling down the valley.

Loch Skene

Loch Skene, the water source for the Grey Mare’s Tail

We descended to the car park in bright sunshine where our study day ended. It had been well-worth the journey, we had walked in some spectacular hill country and I had increased my understanding and knowledge of geology. My thanks to Dr Al McGowan for sharing his knowledge and I look forward to expanding my learning in this important earth science.

Dob's Linn in the Moffat Hills

Looking downhill from Dob’s Linn

*CPD continuing professional development


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The Mountain Training Hill Skills course

The Mountain Training Hill Skills course is the way ahead for anyone new to hill walking who wants to develop the skills needed to enjoy great days out in the hill and moorland areas in the UK. Northumberland is an ideal place to get started with some great hill walking in the Cheviot Hills of the National Park.

Ordnance Survey maps

The map, an essential part of hill walking and navigation

First, you have to go through the process of registering with Mountain Training, the body that oversees and manages outdoor qualifications in the UK. You can sign up from the age of fourteen, making it accessible for family adventures in the great outdoors. Once you have done that, the door opens on to a whole new world of professional outdoor leadership awards. However, there’s no need to get ahead of yourself and if all you’re really after is some basic skills to get you out walking in the uplands, then doing the Hill Skills course is a great first step along the path to being a successful and competent hill walker.

At Footsteps in Northumberland, we are a Hill Skills course provider and we deliver the courses in Wooler, a small market town on the very edge of Northumberland National Park and very close to some fine walking in the Cheviot Hills; it’s a perfect location. Our courses cost £90.00, plus there is a £20.00 Mountain Training registration fee (£10.00 for 14-17 year old candidates).

So what is a Hill Skills course like?

Each course delivers 16-hours of supervised training and the majority of the time is spent walking in the hills and valleys close to Wooler. There is a dedicated syllabus to follow, but much of that is done outdoors, which is as it should be.

On the first morning, we get together in a local centre to get to know each other and do the ‘indoor bits’ of the syllabus. This includes kit and equipment, an introduction to maps and some basic navigation skills. In addition, we do spend some time looking at digital mapping and introduce the hand held GPS (Geographical Positioning System) and how it links with digital mapping.  We’ll have a good look at the Mountain Training DLOG system, which is your personal online logbook and provides the perfect way to record your hill walking adventures. That does all need access to the internet; it presents well on a big screen and it wraps up our morning session in the classroom.

Wooler has an excellent outdoor clothing store ‘Gear for Girls‘, which is primarily focused on women’s outdoor clothing and footwear, so we spend some time in the shop, but only as an option if you want to.

The main focus of the Hill Skills course is hill walking, so that’s what we do. For the remainder of the first day and for the whole of the second, we are out and about in the Cheviots. Along the way, you practice navigation with a map and a compass, talk about weather and its impact on your day, land-use and land management, emergency procedures and lots of other hill walking subjects too.

Housey Crag in the Northumberland National Park

Housey Crag, a rocky outcrop at the foot of Hedgehope.

On completion, you get a certificate from Mountain Training, the skills and I hope the confidence to step out on your own hill walking adventures.

You can find out more about the Hill Skills from the dedicated page on our Footsteps website and also from the Mountain Training website, your first point of contact to get registered and the first step on your hill walking activities.

Our Hill Skills courses in 2017, all based in Wooler take place on 15-16 April, 6-7 May, 1-2 June, 5-6 August and 9-10 September.

Our first course of 2017 is definitely going ahead, with 2-candidates booked, which means we still have up to 6-places available. You can see the course on the Mountain Training website here.

We look forward to welcoming you on to a Mountain Training Hill Skills course soon.





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A wild and windy walk on the Pilgrim’s Way to Lindisfarne

It was a beautiful sunny Winter’s day on the Northumberland Coast, but the wind was blowing strongly from the west as we assembled in the car park on the mainland, ready to walk the Pilgrim’s Way to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Two cyclists whizzed past us, blown along by the wind, an easy crossing for them on the way out, it would be a tougher return journey later in the day.

The Pilgrim’s Way came into use in 635 AD, when Aidan, the Apostle of England arrived in Northumbria, that mighty Anglo-Saxon Kingdom, where he established his church on Lindisfarne; we would be walking in his Footsteps today. A word of warning, you must obey the tides and do not attempt the crossing if you start late; the tide will come in and put you in danger. Obey the tides and you are in for a glorious walk, there’s nowhere quite like it.

A little egret, a recent arrival in Northumberland stalked the mud beside the road as we headed across the causeway bridge at the start of the walk. More birds, turnstone, redshank, dunlin, curlew and oystercatcher were scattered across the mud and sand, eagerly picking or probing in their endless search for food to sustain them.

Pilgrim's Way, Lindisfarne

The poles lead you across the bay

The Pilgrim’s Way is marked by a line of poles; they lie in a dead straight line across the bay and they keep you on the path, as you splash your way across on the 3-mile walk from the mainland to the Holy Island. This is a big landscape, the sand and mudflats stretch away into the far distance all around you. To the north, Berwick and the Scottish Coast, to the west the Cheviot Hills and to the south Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands. To the east beyond Lindisfarne lies Denmark and the Jutland Peninsula across the cold North Sea. But we were focused on the path before us, dodging patches of sea water and slippery mud and blown comfortably along with the west wind at our backs.

We soon passed the halfway point, marked by a second refuge box and continued on towards the Island. A large flock of grey plover, blinked white against the mud and flew occasionally in mini-murmurations flashing white against the clear blue sky. All too soon, we made island-fall and headed for our first stop, the delightful Pilgrim’s Cafe, great coffee and excellent cake, warm too inside, but the garden was pleasant in the winter sunshine, so we paused a while there.

The Northumberland Coast

Looking south towards Bamburgh Castle from the Coastguard Lookout on Lindisfarne

We popped into St. Mary’s Church then headed for the old Coastguard Lookout, with its fabulous views and much to my surprise, we could see a large group of grey seals ‘hauled out’ below the Pinnacles, those dominating Victorian navigation beacons that overlook the entrance to Lindisfarne Bay. We went via the Harbour up to the Edwardian garden, designed by Gertrude Jekyll; in Winter, it’s largely ‘sleeping’, but it’s a colourful joy at the height of Summer.

Soon, we were back at the start of the Pilgrim’s Way, ready for the return journey. The wind was blowing hard and I knew it was going to be a tough walk back and so it proved. There is something about taking on the natural elements and succeeding, so with a few rest stops along the way and by turning our backs to the wind, we made steady progress back to where we began. Two exhausted cyclists crawled past, they like us had taken on the weather and had had their own adventure on the road to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

Lindisfarne Causeway

The causeway leading from Lindisfarne to the mainland

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A walk in Winter along the Northumberland Coast, Craster and Low Newton

The Northumberland Coast Path between Craster and Low Newton is rightly regarded as one of the nation’s most popular walks. It has a lot to offer, a Medieval castle, wide sweeping sand bays, nature reserves, a pub or two and some splendid views. We set off from Craster, taking an inland path in the shadow of the Whin Sill, a remarkable geological feature on one side and farmland on the other. We emerge from a gap in the Whin Sill to stand in amazement to look down towards Dunstanburgh Castle, that icon of the Northumberland coast and a ruin since the mid-fifteenth Century.

Dunstanburgh Castle

Dunstanburgh Castle, an iconic feature on the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

The path sweeps around the castle, past a shoreline littered with large boulders and the remarkable Greymare Rock, a lump of folded and ancient limestone, clearly visible when the tide is out, but concealed beneath the waves at high tide and often missed by those who walk this way. An early fulmar was gliding above the castle, the males arrive early here to establish a nesting territory. The females will soon follow to catch up with their mates from the previous year.

Continuing, the path skirts the golf course, past derelict World War II pill boxes, still standing, solid and un-moving as they were when I was a boy on holiday here in the 1960s with my family at Embleton Bay. With the tide out the bay is huge and and with a blue sky, above, the sea reflects the colour, flat calm today, but always cold of course. From the top of the dunes, the views are wonderful and it’s well worth the effort to reach this vantage point.

Dunstanburgh Castle

Dunstanburgh Castle and Embleton Bay

Our next stop is The Ship Inn at Low Newton, always welcoming inside, but it was warm enough to sit outside in the February sunshine, so we did, before we set off once again taking an inland path past the Newton Pools nature reserve. There are always lots of ducks and waders here, perhaps contemplating the journey north back to their Arctic breeding grounds on this fine, sunny day, but prepared to wait a bit longer before taking wing and heading north.

Northumberland Coast

Embleton Bay and Low Newton

The path home takes us off the coast along a path past a derelict lime kiln, with views to snowy Cheviot Hills and that castle, ever present on this walk and our guiding beacon as we head towards Craster. We walked again through the gap in the Win Sill, across the fields and along the coast into the village for a cup of tea and the end of the walk. The scent of smoking kippers is too much to resist, so I picked a couple up in Robson’s Smokery and took them home for my tea.

For more walks like this, please visit our Footsteps website and we look forward to walking with you soon in Northumberland.

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The Holy Island of Lindisfarne – Centuries of history to discover

I had my misgivings as I set off from home in heavy drizzle and fog for a walk on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. After all, I had twelve customers booked in for the walk and even the best-equipped and keenest of walkers don’t like to be walking in the rain. The sun though was beginning to break through as I drove across the causeway and as the skies brightened, my misgivings disappeared and I began to look forward to another fine day walking around the ‘jewel of the Northumberland Coast’, Lindisfarne.

The Pilgrim's Way

The old Pilgrim’s Way to Lindisfarne

We began the walk in the village itself, pausing at the start or end if you like of both St. Cuthbert’s and St. Oswald’s Way by the Priory. A moment to consider these significant characters in the history of our country. A statue of St. Aidan, who arrived on Lindisfarne in 635 AD stands in the churchyard and we paused to consider his role in the rise of 7th Century Christianity in Northumberland. We made our way around the shoreline with St. Cuthbert’s Island lying a few yards off shore, still cut off by the tide today as it was in his day. It was a place where he sought solitude in prayer and quiet contemplation; perhaps it still does today for visitors to the Holy Island.

Gertrude Jekyll and Lindisfarne

Gertrude Jekylls’ Garden (in July) and Lindisfarne Castle

Up on The Heugh, a rocky outcrop of the Great Whin Sill stands the former Coastguard Lookout, now a visitor centre. It has magnificent 360 degree views of the Island and great chunks of the Northumberland Coast and across the Border into Scotland.

After coffee and cake in the Post Office Cafe, we set off to walk a loop out to the wilder side of Lindisfarne. In winter, there is less to see  in terms of wildflowers, but the scenery is great and the colours in the landscape are wonderful. Away to our left, we could see the Island’s roe deer, a herd of 20-25 animals that live here and can nearly always be seen at this time of the year. Pale bellied brent geese, curlew and oystercatchers were spotted as we made our away along the path.

We followed the course of a 19th Century tramway, built to carry quarried limestone to the Victorian lime kilns below the castle. Then past the castle itself up to the garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll in the early 20th Century for the new owner of Lindisfarne Castle, Edward Hudson, founder, publisher and proprietor of Country Life magazine in 1897.

On a four mile walk, we had discussed Anglo-Saxon history, visited a Saxon/Norman church, followed a Victorian tramway, explored the 19th Century lime kilns, walked beneath the walls of a Tudor castle and paused a while in an Edwardian garden; Lindisfarne has it all and a bit more. Twelve happy customers with some tales to share and brilliant winter weather too; a perfect Footsteps guided walk.

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Snow, snow and more snow, walking in Northumberland National Park

It’s rare that I venture out in the snow, but the weather forecast was for a fine day with some sunshine and not much wind. I could see The Cheviot, snow-topped and the National Park’s highest hill at 815 metres as I drove into the College Valley in the north of the Park. The approach on foot is good and the path took me once again into ‘the wilderness’ at the western end of the valley and up Red Cribs onto the Pennine Way. Ahead of me, well to be honest I couldn’t see much, low cloud and snow merged into a white wall and after a brief stop at the Refuge Hut, I began the ascent to Auchope Cairn. In very poor visibility, but with the Border fence as my ‘handrail’ I got to the cairns and paused to catch my breath.

Auchope Cairn

At Auchope Cairn in the snow, it looks worse than it actually is

That was probably the hardest part of the day and the Cheviot plateau levels out beyond here and a paved path constructed of limestone slabs leads you gently upwards to the summit. It still wasn’t easy, but despite the low concealing cloud, the way ahead wasn’t too difficult to follow. The snow, only a couple of inches deep and less than that in most places did look remarkably dramatic and I was thoroughly enjoying the experience.

The fence wires held lines of frozen ice and snow, quite a site and the peat bogs or hags, much hated by walkers in these peaty hills were just solid and it was possible to walk upon them and not sink into the gloop.

The Cheviot iced up

Fence wires holding lines of frozen snow

The top of The Cheviot has its own trig point, it’s much visited and it has recently been repaired by the National Park Authority and it’s always a welcome sight. I was hoping the sun would come out, just to light up the snowy landscape and it did, very briefly and the summit looked glorious.

The Cheviot

The summit of The Cheviot, briefly lit by the sun

Northumberland National Park in Winter

A snowy sunlit landscape on top of The Cheviot

From the summit, the paved path continues to the stile at the edge of the plateau, which was looking snow-bound to say the least and with the snow all around me I began my descent, crossing the snow line at about 500-metres. It had been a remarkable, challenging and exciting day, it looked like it was going to be hard, but the conditions had been good and the snow, which was extensive had been kind to me in the end. It may be a while until we get the type of snow conditions that make a walk like that possible, but I’ll be looking out for that day for sure.

The Cheviot

The ladder stile on The Cheviot Plateau, in its winter garb.

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