TRAVEL / England Coast to Coast - The North: Castles and candyfloss: From the nearest thing to perfection in the beach department to the energy and bright vulgarity of traditional resorts, Frank Barrett rejoices in the delights of the north

Click to follow
BASED on the southern English prejudice that it's grim 'oop north', many people assume that all beaches within spitting distance of Newcastle upon Tyne are likely to be thronged with emaciated waifs gathering coal or unemployed shipbuilders fishing for bloaters. Even talking about the 'seaside of the North' has a faintly ludicrous sound to anyone brought up south of Watford Gap: like discussing the vineyards of the Rhondda or the rainforests of Milton Keynes.

We know that Tyneside has its shopping centres, its joyriders and its boisterous nightclubs - but beaches? While Brazilian footballers learned their silky skills juggling oranges with their feet on the Copacabana, it is hard to imagine that the youthful Gazza ever tarried long with his plastic football on the beaches of South Shields.

Whatever their views about the North-east, even the most die-hard southerners are familiar with the seaside of the North-west. They think of Blackpool: trams, illuminations, cloth- capped men in deck chairs dozing in the shadow of the pier where the evening show features George Formby and Gracie Fields.

Even that prince of free thinkers George Orwell had blind prejudices about the North, as The Road to Wigan Pier made clear. So we humbler mortals should be forgiven our ignorance - although we would be foolish to languish in it. The truth is that many Northumbrian beaches represent the nearest thing to perfection in the English beach department: unspoilt, remote, deserted, with windswept castles perched on craggy hilltops - and an abundance of birdlife, from puffins and kittiwakes to eider duck and guillemots.

The coastline of the North-west may be more developed, but it too has its pleasures and delights. And whether you love or hate Blackpool, its tireless energy and bright vulgarity have to be admired.

But one thing you would not want to do at the North-west seaside is actually swim in the sea. Better to stay in your deck chair and send the boy to get a poke of chips and a bumper summer fun issue of the Beezer. And while you're on your feet, pass me the flask and the packet of Hob Nobs . . .



For four years Freddy the dolphin provided Amble with an unexpected but extremely welcome tourist windfall. Two months ago, however, Freddy disappeared as suddenly as he had arrived. He had previously been known to make the odd outing down the coast to Tynemouth, but now he seems to have vanished without trace: some fear the worst. All this is bad news for the tourist office, which admits that things in Amble are 'a bit quiet now'.

Amble is a pleasant Northumbrian town that once served the ships carrying the coal from Newcastle. Now, the harbour traffic consists only of sailing boats. If tranquillity is not what you want, greater excitement can be found further south down the coast. The Spanish City eulogised by Dire Straits in their song 'Tunnel of Love' is not Barcelona or Seville - but the Spanish City fairground of Whitley Bay. For Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler - and several generations of Geordies - Whitley Bay was Newcastle's summer fun place par excellence. (On a literary note: it is here that Viz readers are taken on 'Fat Slags' tours.)

You probably won't find Mark Knopfler riding on the waltzer these days, but the Spanish City - like Whitley Bay itself - still offers a traditional whiff of old-fashioned seaside pleasures.

North of Amble lies the attractive small town of Alnmouth, on the estuary of the River Aln. Alnmouth is highly rated in the Seaside Awards for a 'well-equipped beach'. Warkworth, slightly to the north, is described as 'a perfect example of a rural beach'; Newton Haven (20 miles further up the coast, near Beadnell) is praised for a 'very clean and cared-for beach'.

This stretch of coast is short of decent hotels. Worth venturing 10 miles inland though, for Breamish House (066 578 266) in Powburn, which offers bed and breakfast plus dinner for pounds 105 per night for two people.

Tourist information: 0665 712313


Travellers to the Farne Islands make the hour-long crossing from Seahouses, where you can find the National Trust information centre (0665 721099). The islands have 17 different species of seabirds and a large colony of grey seals.

The Farne Islands are probably best known as the site of the Longstone lighthouse, from which, in 1838, Grace Darling and her father, the lighthouse-keeper, rowed out during a storm to the steamer Forfarshire and saved the lives of nine men. (There is a Grace Darling museum in Bamburgh).

Even if you have no plans to venture out to the Farne Islands, Seahouses is a pleasant resort well worth a visit in its own right. The Olde Ship Hotel (0665 720200) in Seahouses provides comfortable accommodation in a cheerful inn near the harbour. The public rooms have an outstanding collection of nautical memorabilia. Bed-and-breakfast prices start at pounds 30 per person.

South of Seahouses is the charming unspoilt port of Craster, famous for kippers which are smoked over oak shavings in sheds above the small harbour. To the north towards Bamburgh, however, are probably the best stretch of beaches on the Northumbrian coast.

Bamburgh is a delightful small seaside town - stone cottages clustered around a green, dominated by the impressive bulk of Bamburgh Castle. Bamburgh received a top rating in the Seaside Awards for having 'a beautiful sandy beach' which is 'exceptionally well maintained with all the facilities expected at a rural beach'.

The most dramatic sight on this stretch of coastline - and perhaps the loveliest on the whole English coast - is Lindisfarne Castle, perched high on its hill on Holy Island. It was originally built in 1550 to protect the harbour from the Scots, but given a new lease of life when the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was commissioned in 1903 to convert it to use as a private house. The grounds include a small walled garden created by Gertrude Jekyll.

Holy Island is reached from the mainland by a causeway which is impassable at high tide. Check in advance for times when it is possible to cross (0289 330733).

Tourist information: 0665 720884



Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutiny on the Bounty, is Maryport's most famous son (Christian Street is named in his honour). His home town used to be a busy port, shipping locally-made iron rails for railways all over the world; these days, this pleasant north-western town with its fine cobbled main square seeks a living from tourism.

On a clear day, from the cliffs of St Bees Head you can see right across to the Isle of Man - and you do better to look west than south towards the familiar menacing towers of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant (whose visitor centre is the top tourist attraction in the Lake District - a fact probably explained by a shortage of wet-weather diversions).

Bypass Sellafield and Seascale, and head instead for Ravenglass. There you can enjoy the pleasures of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway (0229 717171) - England's oldest narrow-gauge steam railway, known locally as 'T'laal Ratty' (The Old Ratty). It has been operating along the seven-mile stretch between Ravenglass and Eskdale for more than 100 years. Trains run daily from the beginning of April to the end of October, though there is a reduced service off-season.

The Ratty's services connect with British Rail's Cumbrian Coast services between Carlisle, Barrow-in-Furness and Lancaster. If you're travelling in the region without a car, the Ratty provides a good way of getting quickly into the heart of the Lake District.

For waterside accommodation, rather than somewhere with a seaside view, you would do well to follow the Old Ratty inland to the spectacular fringes of the Lake District and take a room at the Wasdale Head Inn (09467 26229) in a superb location overlooking Wastwater: prices start at pounds 106 per night for two people, including a five-course dinner and breakfast.

Tourist information: 0900 813378


Though not quite on the sea - the harbour silted up a couple of hundred years ago - Ulverston is a fine old town, perhaps best known these days as the birthplace of Stan Laurel (there is a Laurel and Hardy museum, which claims to have the world's largest collection of memorabilia).

There are good walks along the Ulverston Canal, built in 1795 to provide a link to the sea through the sands. Grange-over-Sands is an attractive town in a sheltered position. Originally a port, its trade changed to tourism with the coming of the railway in 1857.

Nearby are the remains of Cartmel Priory, a National Trust property: you can see the gatehouse and the church which were spared when the Augustinian priory itself was destroyed after the Dissolution. Uplands (05395 36248) near Cartmel is a well-liked, five-room country house hotel on a hillside with two acres of garden and splendid views over Morecambe Bay. The food is particularly highly praised. Half-board terms for two people start at pounds 118 per night.

Arnside, a few miles east, is one of the nicest seaside places on the whole north-west coast: a good base for walkers and ornithologists.

Tourist information: 0229 57120


Stanley Holloway's famous 1933 monologue Albert and the Lion begins: 'There's a famous seaside place called Blackpool, that's noted for fresh air and fun'. But the vacationing Ramsbottom family found that Blackpool, even in its heyday, lacked a certain je ne sais quoi: 'They didn't think much to the ocean: the waves, they was fiddlin' and small. There was no wrecks and nobody drownded; fact nothing to laugh at at all.'

Blackpool has changed since the Ramsbottoms' day, but not much. It can still accommodate huge numbers of visitors with its 120,000 'holiday beds'. The town's tourist board regularly points out that there are more hotel rooms in Blackpool than in Portugal, and that the resort attracts more visitors than the whole of Greece. There are 17 million each year, spending pounds 445m. Blackpool's funfair, the Pleasure Beach, entertains around 6.5 million visitors a year; its owner claims that it is second only to the Vatican.

Even if you are not keen, your children will enjoy it. Stay at the Imperial (0253 23971) - base of Tory bigwigs when the party conference is in town. Weekend break rates start at pounds 69 per person per night half-board.

Morecambe, about 20 miles further up the coast, was once called 'the Naples of the North': one supposes that the comparison was made because of the town's craggy backdrop of Cumbrian hills. It has a four-mile promenade from which the wide sweep of Morecambe Bay is an impressive sight, particularly at low tide.

Romantics will want to make a pilgrimage to Carnforth railway station, where much of the filming of David Lean's Brief Encounter was done. South of Blackpool, the twin resorts of Lytham and St Anne's offer more genteel delights - boating pools, miniature railways and golf courses. Southport has a touch of class: elegant tree-lined boulevards, well-tended gardens and a handsome Victorian shopping centre.

In the North-west the sea is definitely for looking at and not bathing in. All monitoring groups condemn the sea-water quality here: indeed, the European Commission is in the process of prosecuting Blackpool, Southport and Formby for the lack of adequate sewage controls.

Tourist information: 0253 21623


BEST BEACH: Beadnell Bay, Northumberland


BEST SEASIDE INN: The Olde Ship Hotel, Seahouses


BEST PLACE FOR A ROMANTIC TRYST: The Tunnel of Love at Spanish City, in Whitley Bay

BEST SEASIDE WALK: The 25-mile footpath from Alnmouth to Bamburgh

SIGHT MOST WORTH A VISIT: Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island

SIGHT LEAST WORTH A VISIT: Sellafield Nuclear Power Station

(Photographs and map omitted)