Out and About - Northumberland
Northumberland is the northernmost ceremonial county and a unitary district in the North East of England. It borders Cumbria to the west, County Durham to the south and Tyne and Wear to the south east, as well as having a border with the Scottish Borders council area to the north, and a North Sea coastline of outstanding natural beauty with a 64 mile (103 km) long distance path.
The county is noted for its undeveloped landscape of high moorland, a favourite with landscape painters, and now largely protected as a National Park. Northumberland is the most sparsely populated county in England, with only 62 people per square kilometre.
The area was once part of the Roman Empire and as Northumberland it was the scene of many wars between England and Scotland. As evidence of its violent history, Northumberland has more castles than any other county in England, including the castles of Alnwick, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Warkworth.
The region of present-day Northumberland once formed the core of the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia, which was later united with Deira south of the River Tees to form the kingdom of Northumbria. The historical boundaries of Northumbria under King Edwin stretched from the Humber in the south to the Forth in the north. Northumberland is often called the "cradle of Christianity" in England, because it was on Lindisfarne, a tidal island north of Bamburgh, also called Holy Island that Christianity flourished when monks from Iona were sent to convert the English. Lindisfarne was the home of the Lindisfarne Gospels and Saint Cuthbert, who is buried in Durham Cathedral.
Bamburgh is the historic capital of Northumberland, the "royal" castle from before the unification of England under one monarch.
Northumberland played a key role in the industrial revolution. Coal mines were once widespread in Northumberland, with collieries at Ashington, Bedlington, Choppington, Netherton, Ellington and Pegswood. The region's coalfields fuelled industrial expansion in other areas of the country, and the need to transport the coal from the collieries to the Tyne led to the development of the first railways. Shipbuilding and armaments manufacture were other important industries.
Today, Northumberland is still largely rural and in recent years the county has had considerable growth in tourism due to its scenic beauty and the abundant evidence of its historical significance.
The physical geography of Northumberland is diverse. It is low and flat near the North Sea coast and increasingly mountainous toward the northwest. The Cheviot Hills, in the northwest of the county, consist mainly of resistant Devonian granite and andesite lava. A second area of igneous rock underlies the Whin Sill (on which Hadrian's Wall runs), an intrusion of Carboniferous dolerite. Both ridges support a rather bare moorland landscape. Either side of the Whin Sill the county lies on Carboniferous Limestone, giving some areas of karst landscape. Lying off the coast of Northumberland are the Farne Islands, another dolerite outcrop, famous for their bird life.
Being in the far north of England, above 55° latitude, and having many areas of high land, Northumberland is one of the coldest areas of the country.
Approximately a quarter of the county is protected as the Northumberland National Park, an area of outstanding landscape that has largely been protected from development and agriculture. The park stretches south from the Scottish border and includes Hadrian's Wall. Most of the park is over 240 metres (800 feet) above sea level. The Northumberland Coast is also a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Coquet Island is a small island of about 6 hectares (15 acres), situated 1.2 kilometres (0.75 mi) off Amble on the Northumberland coast.
The Island is owned by the Duke of Northumberland. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds manages the island as a bird reserve, for its important seabird colonies.
The most numerous species is the Puffin, with over 18,000 pairs nesting in 2002, but the island is most important for the largest colony of the endangered Roseate Tern in Britain, which, thanks to conservation measures including the provision of nestboxes to protect the nests from gulls and bad weather, has risen to 92 pairs in 2005. Other nesting birds include Sandwich Tern, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Black-legged Kittiwake, Fulmar, three gull species, and Eider Duck.
Coquet Island also holds the remaining structure of a medieval monastery, which was largely incorporated into the 19th-century lighthouse and lighthouse keepers' cottages. The lighthouse, operated by Trinity House, is now automatic with no resident keeper, so the island is uninhabited in winter, but seasonal wardens are present throughout the summer to protect the nesting birds.
Landing on Coquet Island for the general public is prohibited, but local boating companies from Amble sail close up to the island in good weather throughout the summer, allowing visitors to get good views of the Puffins and Roseate Terns.
The Farne Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Northumberland, England. There are between 15 and 20 or more islands depending on the state of the tide. They are scattered about 2.5-7.5 km (1.5-4.75 miles) distant from the mainland, divided into two groups, the Inner Group and the Outer Group. The main islands in the Inner Group are Inner Farne, Knoxes Reef and the East and West Wideopens (all joined together on very low tides) and (somewhat separated) the Megstone; the main islands in the Outer Group are Staple Island, the Brownsman, North and South Wamses, Big Harcar and the Longstone. The two groups are separated by Staple Sound. The highest point, on Inner Farne, is 19 metres (62 feet) above mean sea level.
The earliest recorded inhabitants of the Farne Islands were various Culdees, some connected with Lindisfarne. This followed the old Celtic tradition of island hermitages, found in England, Ireland, and Scotland.
The first visitor recorded by name was Saint Aidan followed by Saint Cuthbert. The latter was called to the bishopric of Lindisfarne but after two years he returned to the solitude of the Inner Farne and died there in 687, when Saint Aethelwold took up residence instead. Among other acts, Saint Cuthbert introduced special laws in 676 protecting the Eider ducks, and other seabirds nesting on the islands; these are thought to be the earliest bird protection laws anywhere in the world.
The islands have no permanent population, the only residents being National Trust bird wardens during part of the year: they live in the old pele tower on the Inner Farne, the largest and closest inshore of the islands, and the lighthouse cottage on the Brownsman in the outer group. The pele tower was built by or for Thomas Castell, Prior of Durham about 1500. There is also a chapel set up on the site of St Cuthbert's oratory 600 years ago. It was restored in recent times with old material from a contaminated Cathedral.
All the lighthouses on the Farnes are now cotoubiographic and have no resident keepers, although in former years they did. Ruins of older lighthouses may be seen, for example on the Brownsman where there are two. Before the lighthouses there were beacons on several of the islands.
In the warmer months the Farnes, an important wildlife habitat, are much visited by boat trips from Seahouses. Local boats are licensed to land passengers on Inner Farne, Staple Island and the Longstone; landing on other islands is prohibited to protect the wildlife. At the right time of year many puffins can be seen and these are very popular with visitors; on the Inner Farne, the arctic terns nest close to the path and will attack visitors who come too close (visitors are strongly advised to wear hats). Some of the islands also support a population of rabbits, which were introduced as a source of meat and have since gone wild. The rabbit and puffin populations use the same burrows at different times, the puffins being strong enough (with a vicious bite) to evict the rabbits from the burrows during the nesting season. The islands also hold a notable colony of about 6,000 grey seals, with several hundred pups born every year in September to November.
Lindisfarne is a tidal island off the north-east coast of England also known as Holy Island.
The island is within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Northumberland Coast. The ruined monastery is in the care of English Heritage, who also runs a museum/visitor centre nearby.
Large parts of the island, and all of the adjacent intertidal area, are protected as Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve to help safeguard the internationally important wintering bird populations. Species for which the reserve is important include Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Wigeon, Teal, Pintail, and Merlin, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit and many others. The situation on the east coast also makes it a good place for observing migrating birds arriving from the east, including large numbers of Redwing and Fieldfare, and also scarcer Siberian birds including regular annual Yellow-browed Warblers. Rare species such as Radde's Warbler, Dusky Warbler and Red-flanked Bluetail have all occurred on Holy Island. Altogether, a total of almost 300 species have been recorded on the Island and adjacent reserve. With the large number and variety of birds present, the area is very popular with bird watchers, particularly in the autumn and winter. Grey seals are frequent visitors to the rocky bays at high tide.
At low tide it is possible to walk across the sands following an ancient route known as Pilgrims' Way. This route is marked with posts and has refuge boxes for stranded walkers, just as the road has a refuge box for those who have left their crossing too late.
Warning signs urge visitors walking to the island to keep to the marked path, check tide times and weather carefully, and to seek local advice if in doubt. For drivers, tide tables are prominently displayed at both ends of the causeway and where the Holy Island road leaves the A1 Great North Road at Beal. The causeway is generally open from about 3 hours after high tide until 2 hours before the next high tide, but the period of closure may be extended during stormy weather.
© Simon Thurgood 2017
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