I am not sure what prompted us to travel to Northeast England. I think I had seen photographs of good waves along the beaches of Sandsend, Scarborough and Saltburn-by-the-Sea. I had never thought much about the North Sea as a surfing destination, but images of certain glassy walls of moving water can lure a surfer to unlikely places on this small planet of ours.
And so it was that we found ourselves landing at Newcastle International Airport in Woolsington on a fine clear day with high hopes of some sort of adventure. We had rented a house in the tiny village of Boynton, far to the south, but decided to spend a couple of days exploring to the north for starters.
Here was yet another corner of the ancient Celtic world, one primarily populated by the Brigantes a long, long time ago. Brigantes refers to “high” or “elevated” and it may mean these ancient ones were noble or tall or simply that they lived high up in the hills. The Parisi occupied southerly parts of modern Yorkshire, and the first record of them appears in Ptolemy’s Geographica. Based on some cursory research, however, it was obvious that we’d be hard-pressed to find any physical evidence left anywhere from these ancient Celts.
Our route north took us through Gosforth, Wide Open, Dudley, Cramlington and Morpeth. Along the way we almost visited Alnwick Castle, made famous in the Harry Potter films. I say almost because, as we pulled into the parking lot, I spied nearly a dozen tour buses. The site of hundreds of tourists spilling out of those buses sent a shiver down my spine and, much to Linda’s chagrin, I had us back on the road almost at once with me uttering yet again, “If you’ve seen one castle…” Sleep deprived from the overnight flight from Nova Scotia to Heathrow, I failed to comprehend how much Linda really wanted to visit Alnwick. Gentlemen, I would advise you that if you find yourself in Yorkshire (or anywhere else on this spinning globe) and your wife wants to visit a certain castle, do pull off the road and oblige.
So, instead of Alnwick, we drove on to Bamburgh, home of another famous castle. The Normans built part of what is still standing, and it was improved or altered by various conquerors over the years. Here was the site of a previous fort known as Din Guarie -built by Celts – and it was probably the capital of this region from 420 to 547 AD. It went through several owners until the ever-nasty Vikings arrived in 993 to destroy it. The current castle remains most impressive and worthy of note, and was used for the setting of at least two MacBeth movies but, alas, no Harry Potter blockbusters.
Below the castle, we walked a long empty beach, noted the lack of any surf, but began to get a sense of the big swaths of coastal landscape which remained thankfully undisturbed by thousands of years of human habitation.
The preservation of grand chunks of forests, coastland, estuaries, moors and mountains is a testament to the British love of all things natural.
After Bamburgh, we retraced our route, retreating south as the Romans once did in the fifth century. We lodged for the night at one of those cozy inns on the highway with a public house down below. In the pub, everything was old and crooked the way we liked it, and I’m sure there was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding involved.
Not far from our lodging was Hadrian’s Wall, built in the first century to keep the “barbarians” to the north out of the Roman Empire. It stretches 117 kilometres from Solway in the west to the appropriately named Wallsend in the east.
In the morning we did a fair bit of driving on the A1. The trouble with driving on motorways is that you really don’t get any sense of the life in the communities you zip past. I’m sure there were exciting dart tournaments in Kibblesworth, and probably a great punk music scene in Great Lumley, and no doubt a great comedy club renaissance in a place called Shiney Row or Thorpe Thewles. But I will probably never know.
Passing over the River Tees, I grew despondent staring out at the great sprawling industrial areas of Middlesbrough, but things changed greatly by the time we entered the North York Moors – a vast, seemingly untamed wilderness for the most part, still a bit stark this early in the season, but certainly a place to let loose a brooding literary imagination.
As we motored our way through the moors, I noticed on the map that the next large town was Scarborough, and I immediately began to hum that famous Simon and Garfunkel tune that had been resurrected from folklore and revamped as part of the soundtrack to The Graduate. Sadly, what I remember most about Scarborough were the dozen or so roundabouts with edgy aggressive drivers having little patience for a Canadian trying valiantly to get his rental car into the proper lane. So, no thank you, Mr. Art Garfunkel, I guess I am not going to Scarborough Fair.
But Boynton was everything we hoped it would be: a quaint cottage off on a tiny paved track of a road, everything in bloom, horses nearby eating grass, an old stone chapel next door, and hiking paths leading off through fields of wild flowers. The next morning we set off walking a back road towards Grindale and found ourselves gazing across a near-endless canola field on a most pleasant morning. A fine spring morning in rural Yorkshire is worth celebrating and many a poet has done just that I am sure.
Soon after that we paid respects to the Rudston Monolith, said to be the tallest prehistoric standing stone in Britain at eight meters in height. Strong, dedicated workers had once lugged the big rock here form Cayton Bay, sixteen kilometres to the east. As I gazed at this ancient monument, I envisioned myself as a tribal leader from Yorkshire those many years ago, announcing to my fellow citizens, “C’mon lads, let’s find a really big rectangular stone and set it upright in this field so people hundreds of years from now can wonder what it may mean.”
Well beyond Rudston on our travels inland through Thwing, Bugthorpe and Skirpenbeck, we arrived at the city of York. We ditched the car, of course, and wandered the narrow, enchanting streets with its old storefronts of wood, brick and stone. It seemed that everyone was walking around eating something – hot dogs, ice cream cones, ham sandwiches or some kind of cake. York must certainly be a city that makes everyone hungry. We dodged endless processions of eaters it seemed on our quest for the cathedral. Once there, we took as many pictures as the other tourists. Inside those stone walls, I felt the sort of piety one is expected to feel in those sanctuaries designed to inspire spiritual moods. I always think I’ll be disappointed when I join the mobs of sightseers and enter into famous places of worship. But I’m not.
The smell of old stone, the sun streaming through stained glass, impossibly high ceilings, the arches, the statues of the once-famous and now forgotten dead – they all add up to a true feeling of awe and produce a meditative mind.
I am forever thankful to those dedicated souls who conceived and built and sacrificed to leave us such edifices to remind North Americans that once upon a time, folks cared more about their deity than their dollars (or their quid).
In the days ahead, having fulfilled our desire for urban adventure, it was back to the coast to explore Flamborough Head with its limestone cliffs and steep, stony trails down to exotic pocket beaches. To the north, we found Filey less inspiring, but braved the surly traffic of Scarborough once more to seek out Robin Hood’s Bay. Here was a small seaport town tucked between two hills, and a most happy place to tromp around on cobbled streets envisioning the life of fishermen and smugglers from days gone by. I walked by a building with a big sign announcing that here was the Robin Hood’s Bay Men’s Institute and wondered what on earth that could be. There seems to be scant evidence that Robin Hood ever spent much or any time here, but the village is nonetheless a place with many stories of danger and adventure dating back to 1538, known then as a “fisher hamlet of twenty boats.”
The tide was out and we could hike the shoreline for many miles to the south towards a headland known as South Cheek. Again there was not the slightest sign of surf, but walking along on the ocean floor was a most satisfying experience. Along the way we passed an impressive spot called the Boggle Hole, well marked with a National Trust sign. I later read one Trip Advisor reviewer who regarded it as “the best kept secret in England” or something like that. Nonetheless, if you are ever in this corner of the world, I suggest Robin Hood’s Bay and the Boggle Hole are both worth a visit.
Whitby was a much larger coastal town and was once apparently scary enough to inspire Bram Stoker to use it as a location for part of Dracula. Captain James Cook had learned to be a sailor here before scouting off to far corners of the world and getting himself killed in Hawaii while trying to kidnap a local king.
I recall having an afternoon pint of ale sitting in a second story pub overlooking the beach at Whitby. The walls were covered in velour and the barkeep played endless tunes by another king, Elvis Presley, prompting me to yet again ponder what a curious and surprising island this England can be.
As the days went by, we continued to scour the coastline, looking for idyllic seaside communities. Scarborough was still a bit too frantic for my liking – and is home to the rudest drivers in the United Kingdom – so I will thumb my nose at it should I come this way again. Filey, however, seemed like a much more pleasant coastal town on our second visit, with a sandy beach that stretched for many worthwhile kilometres. We made the mistake of driving south one day to Hornsea only to discover that it too has a fine beach, but is home to a large caravan park. I understand that folks need to get out of the city and be able to afford some kind of pied-a-terre by the sea, but those multitude of aluminum boxes by the water can’t help but detract from the natural beauty. Forgive me. I’ll stop whining now.
While retreating to Boynton each night, we had yet dared to drive deeper into the nearby city of Bridlington than necessary. This usually just meant a foray into the Morrison’s to buy a pint of Hobgoblin and some freshly caught fish. (If York was good for the soul, then the Bridlington Morrison’s was equally good for the sole.) But our time was slipping away so I finally announced that yes, we would chance it and drive to the coast at Bridlington to walk the well-trod promenade by the sea.
The British don’t tan well, as you may have noticed, and I am as pale as they, but the nation’s health care system really should invest a bit more money in promoting sunscreen. It was a Saturday as we strode the planks in Bridlington, and a lively one at that with vendors and amusement rides and crowds of bustling people. I kept thinking that you could replace Bridlington with Brighton and probably no one would notice. Old seaside British resorts have a feel to them. I can’t quite place it, but if you study the faces of vacationers, it’s like they are all silently saying to you, “I’m here on a holiday and, despite the noise and the crowds and the cold sea wind, I’m going to bloody well enjoy myself and to hell with you.”
Or something like that.
But, with the proper mindset, the Bridlington boardwalk can be a grand place to stroll and take in the throngs of humanity eating fish and chips from cardboard plates. All that salt air eventually got to us, I guess, for we finally gave in and bought our own fishy plate from a crowded fish and chips shop. On a small floppy plate, we were delivered a battered slab of fish three times the size of the plate itself. Along with the greasiest chips I’d encountered outside South Philadelphia was a generous dollop of mushy peas. The fish and chips were extremely unhealthy I am sure, but delicious nonetheless. Yet, like all foreign travellers to England, we wondered, what could they possibly be thinking by adding the green mush?
After the fish was somewhat digested, and the madding crowds put behind us, we aimed our rental car east and away from Bridlington. It’s certainly not the Sodom and Gomorrah of this north coast but we did not look back. Instead, we drove east to the Bempton Cliffs and the world famous birds.
Once you leave the car park at Bempton, you enter another world. It is a realm ruled by vaulting sea mist, magnificent otherworldly vistas, birds and birders. Bempton Cliffs and the fields nearby are home to many exotic and ordinary species of birds. Along the cliffs you can spot razorbills, puffins, gannets, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, shags and herring gulls. Just a few metres away from the coast in the fields you can watch tree sparrows, linnets, skylarks, meadow pipits, and at least two kinds of buntings. Flying predators such as short-eared owls and peregrines are often about. If that’s not enough for you, keep looking and you’re likely to see whitethroats, willow warblers, chiffchaffs, reed warblers, sedge warblers, redstarts, goldcrests, stonechats, wheatears and whinchats.
Bempton is a place of raw natural splendor and should not be missed. Looking out over Thornwick Bay, as the mist cleared, I found myself soaring with the seabirds, catching spiraling updrafts of salty air and leaving all the frenzy of modern England behind.
The early settlers here, the Celts among them, would have lowered themselves down on ropes to rob the eggs from the nests of these soaring seabirds. But today, these are protected areas, celebrated by the benign armies of bird watchers who come here from around the world. For our final day of travels in this corner of the Celtic world, the birds lifted our spirits high into the heavens, reminding us that we share this planet with some amazing creatures and need to do all we can to protect them while we support and celebrate all those who dedicate their lives to the preservation of living creatures and natural beauty.