My first glimpse of Bamburgh came on a flying visit five years ago, and ever since then I’ve longed to climb the towering castle walls, walk the wide stretch of sand and burrow down in the dunes, staring out to sea beyond the surf to the distant Farne Islands.
As one of the area’s most popular surf spots, ‘The Ancient Capital of Northumbria’ seemed the perfect place for my inaugural SUP paddle of 2014, boosted by a 180 degree view of some of the most varied and beautiful coastal scenery to be found anywhere in England, with twin castles to the north and south, rugged islands and little white lighthouses.
Access to the beach is via a tiny winding lane called, rather unsurprisingly, ‘The Wynding’; though this actually means ‘narrow street’ in the local dialect, and cars and vans were crammed all over the verges-some having been there all night-with hopeful telescopes scanning the horizon for puffins and dolphins and bouncing the spring sunshine in dazzling reflections around the bay.
In fact the weather was so unseasonably warm I didn’t feel like getting soaking wet straight away, so we set out to explore on land first; weaving through hidden hollows, ducking concrete gun emplacements, following the intricate weft of paths among the dunes until, pushing through the marram grasses our feet sank into the finest sand imaginable, light as fairy dust and speckled with glittering quartz.
Down on the beach, Bamburgh feels truly massive, exposed and very windy, and as we walked down to the sea rivers of sand smoked past, hurrying on their way to Lindisfarne like holy incense on the breeze. Out on the Sound, white horses galloped over the waves and a sense of foreboding washed over me as I spotted the tumultuous tidal race that terrorises the Farne Isles. So low, and half-sunken like icebergs under the waves, it’s easy to imagine how these islands not only claimed so many lives, but created one of England’s greatest heroines. One stormy night in 1838, a young girl, daughter of the lighthouse keeper, bravely rowed these waters to rescue nine shipwrecked mariners from an icy demise. Almost two centuries later, the story of Grace Darling is still being told at the dedicated museum in the village.
Walking back to the road, we passed several hardy couples and families doggedly sunbathing, with true British resolve, in their windswept windbreak enclosures. Over many years of visiting England’s beaches and feeling the inevitable chill of the wind up my legs, I’ve come to appreciate the value of these gaudy-striped, quasi-communist portable fences, so much so I’m even tempted to join the club and buy my own.
Back at the car, after summoning up some courage and eating a sausage roll for much needed energy, I struggled into a thick wetsuit and windmilled my way down to the surf, lost among the distant Lowry figures, the SUP flapping under my arms like a billowing spinnaker. I’d have been better off in a sailing boat, but if I stayed close to the shore I’d be fine; I promised my girlfriend, as long as I managed to avoid the huge population of hungry seals lazing on the rocks, or the terrifying rip current waiting to whisk me out to sea.
Once in the water, the power of the waves seemed vast in comparison to their size. At only two or three feet, these mini walls of water were more than capable of throwing me backwards, sideways or in any direction they chose, and they did, frequently. Every minute loss of balance resulted in a cold swim beneath the seven degree water, which ran down my face like a cold shower and rendered my all-weather camera unconscious after only one ‘atmospheric’ shot. At last I broke through the surf zone and onto the open sea, where the waves were longer and more benign, though occasionally a huge one would roll through, pick up the board and discard it in a deep trough, obscuring the beach from view before hitting the sand, splitting and shredding into spray.
Exhausted, and struggling to make any headway against the wind I returned to the beach and splashed ashore, slightly frustrated with my less than masterful performance on the ocean. Though as one of only three people to make it onto the waves that day, I suppose I can claim a victory; though maybe I should have tried somewhere a bit calmer!