260. Berwick-upon-Tweed to Holy Island

May 2008

This walk is the last one wholly along the east coast of England, as on the next walk I have to write up I will have crossed into Scotland.

As has often been the case, I was doing this walk from home. I had booked a train ticket from London to Berwick-upon-Tweed for £14 and the same price coming back. It was a long journey but is quite a pleasant one as I had booked a seat on the right hand side of the train so as to enjoy the views of the coast and various other sites on the way.

The train crossed the river Tweed and then arrived at Berwick-upon-Tweed more or less on time.

Crossing the river Tweed

Berwick-upon-Tweed station

At this point I’d hardly walked any of the coast of Northumberland (I’m not writing the walks up in the same order done), so my plan was to head south from Berwick-upon-Tweed. I had no particular destination in mind and was armed with all the local bus timetables so I could end the walk somewhere with enough time to get a bus back to Berwick-upon-Tweed before my train home (my cheap ticket was only valid on a specific train, the last one for the day from Berwick-upon-Tweed to London so I needed to be back for that train).

I began by following the station approach round and found a path off to the right which headed down through a pleasant park to the river Tweed. On reaching the river Tweed there was a pleasant tarmac path alongside the river. Of course I needed to cross the river, as I needed to head south and Berwick-upon-Tweed is the closest place to the sea you can cross and has a couple of bridges.

The riverside path offered a wonderful view of the Royal Border Bridge.

The Royal Border Bridge, Berwick-upon-Tweed

The Royal Border Bridge, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Despite the name, this bridge hasn’t ever been the border between England or Scotland so far as I am aware. However it is possible it was once the border of the now former country of Berwickshire which might explain the name (but I’m not certain of it). Naming aside, it is an impressive structure. Of course I had just travelled across it on the train, but now I wanted to cross back to the other side of the river.

I followed the river path south towards the other two bridges in the town. The first of these, which you can see in the picture below is the Royal Tweed Bridge which was once the route of the A1 and just beyond it the much older Berwick Bridge which was built between 1611 and 1624.

The Royal Tweed Bridge, Berwick-upon-Tweed

I was heading for this latter bridge, since it is closest to the coast and the path I was following passed under the Royal Tweed Bridge.

Berwick Bridge, Berwick-upon-Tweed

As I approached this older bridge the streets became cobbled and I did wonder if this was the original road surface. To the left I had a view of some of the town centre.

Berwick-upon-Tweed

Now I reached the Berwick Bridge and headed across it. This bridge is still open to traffic, though because the road is narrow now (it was after all built nearly 400 years ago, long before cars) it is now open to vehicles in only one direction, so not much traffic uses it, most uses the Royal Tweed Bridge alongside.

Berwick Bridge, Berwick-upon-Tweed

The bridge offered fine views of the lovely town of Berwick-upon-Tweed which still has much of it’s original town walls intact and looked lovely from the bridge.

Berwick-upon-Tweed

The bridge had regular refuges, presumably wider areas to allow horses and carts to pass each other.

Berwick Bridge, Berwick-upon-Tweed

The west side of the river where I know was goes by the name of Tweedmouth.

Tweedmouth

Here I turned left along the road past a the docks – it was not as pretty on this side of the river as the other. I continued along Dock Street with the docks off to my left, much of it behind high metal fences. However soon the docks and hence the fence on my left ended and then there was a pleasant grassed river side park so I headed into this to walk right alongside the river on the grass, it was closer to the water and the short grass was nicer to walk on than the tarmac pavement.

The River Tweed and Berwick-upon-Tweed from Tweedmouth

The park ended at the lifeboat station and here I re-joined Dock Road. I was now near the mouth of the River Tweed and had fine views back over to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The River Tweed and Berwick-upon-Tweed from Tweedmouth

Soon sand dunes appeared at the mouth of the river, a sure sign I’m nearly back at the sea.

Spittal Beach

Sure enough I could turn left off Dock Road onto Sandstell Road which then ended at a beach car park at the mouth of the river Tweed.

Rounding the corner I had now left Tweedmouth and entered Spittal. Which doesn’t sound very nice at all but actually did seem rather nice, despite the unfortunate name. Now I had a fine sandy beach in front of me and views over the long harbour wall at the north end of the river mouth.

Spittal Beach

Spittal is very much a coastal resort, soon passing the “Family Fun Centre” behind the beach.

Spittal

Though it was still a little early in the year and not all that warm, there were still a fair few people sitting on the beach, though they were fairly well wrapped up.

Spittal Beach

Spittal Beach

As I neared the end of Spittal I also neared the end of the promenade and so turned to the left up onto the Berwickshire Coast Path which has, for some reason, been running inland along the road up to this point, rather than along the promenade.

Spittal Beach

The road, Main Street, was not very main, soon narrowing to a single-track road (officially now a byway rather than road) as I passed a sign welcoming me to the Northumerland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Spittal Beach

Now there were cliffs and the path made it’s way onto the top of the cliffs, offering me a fine view back over the beach.

Spittal Beach

Spittal Beach

The foreshore soon became rocky with some more interesting geology on show – there seemed to be straight diagonal lines in the cliffs (see below). I did wonder if this is natural or man-made but the map did not show any former quarries.

The coast near Spittal

The cliffs below the path soon became grass covered, sloping gently down to the sea. On my right the path was now running right alongside the railway line, the East Coast Mainline, which is the main route between London and Edinburgh, so trains pass frequently.

Train on the East Coast Main Line near Berwick-upon-Tweed

To my left the coast had a number of narrow gulleys presumably where streams had eroded the cliffs, many of which had pretty yellow gorse bushes growing in them, and along the cliff tops.

The coast near Spittal

Rounding the corner I now had another mostly rocky bay ahead of me, though with a bit of sand visible too. Although it had become quite misty I could still see the cottage of “Sea House” ahead on the cliff top, which was marked on the map.

The coast near Borewell

This was a really lovely walk so far with the cliffs very pretty covered with the bright yellow gorse bushes and a pleasant beach below. It was nice to have a good coast path that was actually right on the cliff top.

The coast near Borewell

I soon passed Sea House which seemed to be a large farm house joined to a barn beside it.

Sea House, Borewell

The coast path goes the landward side of this and then it became a minor road that serves this house, but not a lot else and hence there was very little traffic.

Cocklawburn Beach

The road had clearly had to be moved inland at one point because the old alignment of the road simply fell of the cliff!

Cocklawburn Beach

Ahead I could see a lovely sandy beach. This is Cocklawburn Beach and very soon there was a path from the cliff top down onto the beach, so I took it (leaving the official coast path, as I did so).

Cocklawburn Beach

Cheswick Links

The beach was mostly sand, but with a few areas of rocks, but I was able to get over these quite easily and I preferred to be walking on the beach than the coast path above. In fact, I’d be walking almost the entire rest of the walk on the beach!

There were a few people on the beach initially but as I headed south it became a much larger beach, Cheswick Sands. This didn’t have any car parks marked on the map, which probably accounts for the lack of people. It was a beautiful wild and deserted beach.

The weather took and odd twist too. I had noticed it had been becoming a bit misty for a while and now I had a sort of mist coming in over the beach, except it only seemed to be misty about 1ft off the ground and above that it was clear, it was quite odd.

Cheswick Links

I believe this is called fret and is quite common on the east coast, but it’s the first time I’d experienced it just at a low level like this, rather than a bank of sea mist that goes right over your head.

Cheswick Sands

It was slightly eery and came and went a bit as I continued south. In fact although no car parks were marked on the map there actually are some and so I occasionally came across groups of people when I came close to one of the car parks (at one point I could see cars and motor homes above the dunes), but mostly I had this lovely beach to myself.

Cheswick Sands

In places there were some larger areas of rocks on the beach. At this point my map did not show the Northumberland Coast Path any longer. I think the route was fairly newly opened back in 2008 and hadn’t made it onto all the Ordnance Survey maps by then, or perhaps my map was a few years out of date. Either way, it meant I didn’t know the route of the coast path.

So unaware of if there was any proper coast path I stuck to the beach, climbing over these areas of rocks.

Cheswick Sands

Mostly they were flat and easy to get over and much of the rocks looked like limestone paving, except it was on the beach rather than moors.

Cheswick Sands

Cheswick Sands

I was now in an area called Goswick and the beach just seemed to get even bigger!

Goswick Sands

Goswick Sands

The sand seemed to stretch for a long way out to sea now there were few footprints on the sands – but there had clearly been horses here sometime today!

Goswick Sands

Goswick Sands

The sea mist continued to come and go a bit, adding to the atmosphere (albeit, it made it a bit cooler when it did come in). The beach was quite beautiful with the ripple of waves left in the sand and various pools of water left amongst the rocks.

The beach at Goswick Links

I headed further out from the shore because the sand was very soft and it was a bit firmer near the waters edge. Ahead in the mist above the dunes I could make out the few buildings of Goswick ahead. One of them was a derelict tower. It looked to be made of concrete and I suspect was a remnant left from World War II. A lookout probably (though it did cross my mind that these wide flat sands might have been used as an impromptu airport at some point during the war).

Goswick Links

For a while the mist came in a bit thicker and started to restrict visibility ahead.

Crossing to Holy Island over the sands

However soon it cleared again and I could now see across the bay with sand dunes visible out to sea. I checked the map and realised this was Snook Point and the very western end of Holy Island.

Time was pressing on and I would soon have to make my way back to Berwick-upon-Tweed for my train home. Checking the bus timetables my original vague plan was that I’d probably have to head back to the A1 at Beal in order to pick up a bus back. But another bus that served Beal was the bus out to Holy Island. This only runs on a Wednesday and Saturday at this time of year, but today was Saturday. So I checked the very complex timetable (the times of the buses vary each day it runs due to the tides) and found that today the bus was very well timed from Holy Island back to Berwick-upon-Tweed for my train.

This was good news as it meant that rather than having to walk back along the road to the A1, I could pick up the bus at the coastal end of the causeway to avoid a boring road walk inland purely to catch the bus.

However checking my map I could also see there was an area of marsh ahead (and remember, the official coast path was not marked on my map – though it is marked now), so I was a bit concerned as to how to get over this in order to reach the causeway.

Looking out to sea I realised that the nearest part of Holy Island was only around half a mile away across the sand. The map showed it was sand all the way over this way and I knew that the tide was still going out. So I decided a better plan was to walk out over the sands to Holy Island and take the bus back there. I had never been to Holy Island before (but heard a lot about it). I was quite excited at the possibility of walking out there and always enjoy visiting islands, so decided on that course of action.

I could see a sign out on the beach over on the island, so decided to make for that, assuming that this marked a good place to cross.

I should add a disclaimer at this point. This isn’t a good idea! The only safe place to cross is either on the road or the Pilgrims Way, marked by poles (you are meant to walk just left of the posts when heading out I gather). Any other way is dangerous because of the risks of quicksands (which have been known to swallow entire cars) and the incoming tide, as the published safe crossing times only relate to the official crossing places. I didn’t know this at the time though, so I had no idea what I was about to do wasn’t a good idea or very safe. It’s also not a good idea if visibility is poor like, for instance, if there has been some sea mist around, as there had been (ahem).

So I set off over the sands. Initially the going was good, the sand was firm. However as I headed further out the sand was still covered with about 1cm of water. Not deep enough to cause a problem, but not completely dry either.

Crossing to Holy Island over the sands

I came across a few places where I felt I began to sink into the sand, presumably because there is mud underneath so I walked quickly so as not to sink into the mud and fortunately whenever this happened found the ground ahead was firm.

After a while the beach became dry again as I neared the island. Here I found the sign I was heading to was not marking a good place to cross as I had assumed and was facing the direction for those on the island to read, the side facing out to sea was blank. The signed warned that to go ahead onto the sands I had just walked over was dangerous. The sign warned:-

DANGER – Former military target area. Do not touch any metallic objects, they may explode and kill you. Explosive Hazard. Localised quick sand.

Oops. Well I had made it safely but perhaps that was more luck the judgement! Fortunately, I did not need to return the same way! I was no safely on the dry sands of Holy Island, but you’ll notice there are no footprints (other than my own) and of course now I knew why – no one else had been daft enough to cross that way.

Arrival on Holy Island

Here is a map of the route I took, taken from my GPS which was tracking the route though as I hope I made clear before it’s really not a good idea to try and go the same way as I’ve since found out it is dangerous to cross anywhere but the official points.

My route to Holy Island

I turned right on reaching the beach and followed it around to reach the road. I followed the road the rest of the way, though there was more traffic than I had expected, but at least it did not have any sinking sand! Soon I passed a sign welcoming me to the island.

Welcome to Holy Island

Ahead I could see the wonderful castle perched on a rocky outcrop, the only part of the island that was more than a few metres above sea level.

Lindisfarne Castle

It was such an impressive sight and I did wonder what it must have been like to reach here after a long pilgrimage. I headed over to the road leading out to the castle but sadly did not have time to visit (though I did on my next walk … which was the one I wrote up previously so if you’ve been reading you’ll already know that).

Lindisfarne Castle

I headed to the pretty harbour and the beach behind it and the jumble of fishing equipment left on the grass, mud and sand behind the beach.

Lindisfarne Castle

Holy Island

Then I had time to look at the ruins of the priory, from the outside at least. The red stone reminded me of the coast in Devon, where red cliffs are common.

Remains of Lindisfarne Priory

Remains of Lindisfarne Priory

There was also another tiny island off-shore with a cross on the top (marked as a ruined chapel on the map).

Holy Island

I then headed inland to explore the village centre briefly but then it was time to find the bus stop – and hope that the bus arrived.

Holy Island

Holy Island

Holy Island

It is always a bit of a worry when I have a specific train to catch (as the financial consequences of missing it would be severe – a hotel for the night and the cost of a new ticket at a much much higher price bought on the day for the next day) but especially so here when the bus had so many different times and I worried I might have mis-read it or got the wrong date.

Thankfully the bus did turn up, albeit it a couple of minutes late and soon headed back over the causeway. I managed to get a photo of one of the refuges for those caught out by the tide as we passed by on the bus.

Holy Island causeway refuge

The bus got me back to Berwick-upon-Tweed a bit before my train so I decided to get off in the town and have a little wander around that first (since the station is a bit north of the town centre).

Berwick-upon-Tweed

After getting some food at the Co-Op by the gate over the town walls (it has since closed down, it’s now the B&M shop) I headed for the station for the long journey home.

Once again I enjoyed the usual sights of Alnmouth, the Tyne, Durham Cathedral and the castle but I particularly enjoyed passing right along the coast I had just walked south of Berwick-upon-Tweed, but this time I was sitting down and having a rest, rather than having to walk it!

The River Tweed, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Here is a view of Alnmouth, taken from the train on the way home.

Alnmouth

This had been an excellent day and a very enjoyable walk throughout. I had started from an interesting and attractive town (with a lot of history to it), which is also the most northerly town in England, passed some wonderful remote and beautiful beaches and ended up a the famous tidal island of Holy Island. There had been so much to see the whole way and the coast had also been very varied. It was also quite an adventure to walk over the sands to Holy Island, even if I did take a somewhat dodgy route.

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk. Note that only 2 journeys per day operate on the days on which the bus runs, and you must consult the table to find out at what times it runs on each day, due to the tide times.

Borders Buses route 477 : Holy Island – Beal (Holy Island Road End) – Haggerston – Scremerston – Berwick-upon-Tweed (town centre and railway station). Generally runs twice per day on Wednesday and Saturday only for most of the year. During the school summer holidays, runs Monday – Saturday. On most days of operation there are two buses each day, the times of which vary due to the tides.

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link

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4 Responses to 260. Berwick-upon-Tweed to Holy Island

  1. owdjockey says:

    Hi Jon, an enjoyable over a part of the coast that I also find beautiful. It was my first introduction to walking the coast southwards and I really enjoyed it. Did you see any of Ls Lowry signs in Berwick? Apparently he was a frequent visitor to the Town and there is a trail with his name going out towards Tweedmouth.
    When I approached Holy Island I crossed over the marsh area, which was ok, I even found a brand new leather football that had been washed up by the tide with Liverpool FC emblazoned on it (my dogs now had a new toy!). Very brave to head across the unmarked sands to Holy Island.
    Are you doing one more trip this year?

    • jcombe says:

      Yes there were a few signs about L S Lowry in fact I saw one on the water front at Tweedmouth (I even took a photo of it, but didn’t include it on this write up).

      Not sure if it was brave or stupid to head over the sands to Holy Island the way I did really but I made it without incident yes!

      I think I’ve done my last trip to the Highlands this year but I was in Scotland for the weekend last weekend in fact as I have decided to start doing a few bits of the coast further south where, being a bit closer I can just get to for the weekend, to make a bit more progress. So I did Maidens to Irvine this last weekend in Ayrshire (I stayed in Ayr).

  2. Well, at least I knew reading your tale that it was 10 year ago so you obviously survived! We were in Holy Island a few years ago and Berwick this summer. Both lovely, as you discovered.

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