Bamburgh in Northumberland has to be one of the most picturesque villages in England, with its dramatic castle, massive sandy beach and the best view from a bench in the country.
I know most people hate January, but it’s always been one of my favourite months to go away. It’s cheaper, deserted and a great way to beat the January blues. Previous early year trips have taken me to Bruges, Dublin and Bratislava without the crowds, but this year I made the long drive up to Northumberland.
Bamburgh has resisted the trappings you might associate with other seaside villages – there are no amusement arcades or fish and chip shops. Instead, it has stayed classy with a couple of pubs, a cute fairy-lit village green, a great seafood restaurant (The Potted Lobster) and an excellent family butcher which has been around since 1887. Be sure to bring some Bamburgh Bangers (sausages) from R Carter and Son home with you – one of the best souvenirs I’ve brought back from my travels. I loved the shop’s simple but classic sign, too.
It’s a sleepy little place nowadays, with a population of under 500, and it’s hard to believe it was once the ancient capital of Northumbria, as the welcome to Bamburgh road-signs tell you.
The Northumberland coast is quite a battle-scarred region, with plenty of castles left as a legacy from centuries of wars and invasions. Bamburgh’s is arguably the most impressive, and is dramatically sited on a basalt outcrop on the edge of the North Sea – it has become the iconic image of Northumberland. I nearly filled my camera’s memory card, taking pictures of it from every direction. The castle is now a family home, opening its doors to visitors with a café, museum and wedding venue.
I used to think the best beaches in Britain were in Cornwall, but now I’m not so sure. The beach at Bamburgh is fringed with grassy dunes, and goes on forever with miles of gorgeous soft sand. We saw a few dog-walkers and a horse-rider, but very few others when we walked along the beach to the next resort south, Seahouses.
As we walked, we had a good view of the Farne Islands, a series of uninhabited islands a couple of miles off-shore. Uninhabited by people that is – the islands are a nature lovers paradise, with puffins, kittiwakes and a colony of grey seals. In warmer months, you can get a boat-trip around the islands, which is our number one reason to go back in the summer.
A few of these islands have lighthouses, and it is from one of these that lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling entered the history books in 1838. The steamship SS Forfarshire hit rocks nearby in stormy weather, and broke in two. Grace spotted a group of survivors about half a mile away, and rowed out to sea with her father to save them, becoming an instant national heroine.
There is a Grace Darling museum in the village, which was unfortunately closed, although there are plenty of information plaques in the village and elsewhere along the Northumberland coast if you want to hear her story. If it hasn’t already, it would make a great ITV drama, possibly starring Robson Green and a young Brenda Blethyn. Tragically, Grace died of tuberculosis aged just 26 four years after her heroics, and there is a memorial to her in the pretty churchyard opposite the museum.
One of my favourite spots in Bamburgh is a bench up on a hill, with magical views of the castle, the beach and the Farne Islands, with Holy Island clearly visible twenty miles or so to the north. Benches like this usually have plaques to say something like “Bert used to love it here, and will be missed”, but the plaque here says it was nominated in a 2013 Kingsmill bread poll as one of the top ten lunch spots in the UK. I had no lunch with me, but sat for a few minutes in awe as the sun set and the sky turned pink. I was the only person around, but I bet there’s a queue to sit there in summer.
Bamburgh after dark may not be the most boisterous of places – two pubs, one hotel and the seafood restaurant – but the highlight is the dark itself. As a city boy, I was amazed at how clear the night sky was with its billions of stars, and wasn’t surprised to hear parts of Northumberland have International Dark Sky Park status.