Travel: White sand and holy places

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The Independent Online
Northumbria is a blissfully deserted county, both in its hilly interior reaching up to the Cheviot Hills, and along its clean, sandy coast. It is empty, despite being well served by the railways. The East Coast Main Line runs through here between Newcastle and Edinburgh. Great North Eastern Railways run trains stopping at either Alnmouth or Berwick, and some that call at both.

Alnmouth is one of the most pleasing villages in the British Isles. Its red-roofed houses sit contentedly on a spit of land at the mouth of, predictably enough, the river Aln, where it empties into the North Sea. A short terrace of brightly coloured cottages faces south into the protected harbour, and in front of it small fishing boats lie beached at low tide.

It is a view at which I have heard several train passengers ooh and aah, and swear that that is where they are going on their next holiday.

The ride from Alnwick to Berwick, England's most northerly town, takes just over 20 minutes. The weather can be wild, yet the landscape is surprisingly gentle. It is not nearly as bleak and harsh as visitors might expect. Leaving Alnmouth station (which is just outside the village) the train crosses rolling green hills, scattering sheep as it passes. There is a lot of evidence of ancient ridge and furrow farming in the fields - agricultural evidence of this county's ancient history.

Every now and then low hills block the view, but they soon fall away and passengers get a breathtaking glimpse of the shore. The waves are minty green in the sunlight, and the sweeps of sand look tropical white. As you follow the dunes with your eye from a speeding train, they run low down before sweeping up to 30ft or 40ft, and then back down to sea level again.

Not long after Alnmouth you will pass the RAF station at Boulmer. A rescue helicopter is based here, which you may see on manoeuvres, and near the shore is a spooky-looking military instal-lation wired off with tall mesh fences. If you ever walk past it, you can watch the security cameras turning their heads to follow you down the road.

Farther up the coast, but sadly not visible from the train, is the fishing village of Craster, famous for its factory churning out oak-smoked kippers which are sent all over the world to loyal expatriate customers. You may catch a glimpse of Dun-stanburgh Castle, standing silhouetted against the North Sea sky. To the north, beyond the castle, are the majestic sweeps of Embleton and Beadnell Bays, along which shepherds herd their flocks of sheep.

Now look out to sea and there, less than a mile offshore, are the Farne Islands, a bird-spotter's paradise. The islands are internationally famous as a bird reserve and in summer small fishing boats take two-hour tours out to the cliffs to marvel at the aerobatics of the terns and cormorants.

After the Farnes, the castle on the holy island of Lindisfarne appears, looking at first like a rock sticking up out of the waves. The island was one of the earliest Christian settlements, founded by St Cuthbert in the seventh century. The name comes from the combination of the word Lindis (the name of a nearby stream) and fahren (a Celtic word meaning a place of retreat). As the train gets closer to the shore the rest of the island appears, cut off from the mainland by the tide about five times a day.

The train approaches Berwick, high up above the terracotta rooftops, and crosses the Royal Border Bridge over the Tweed before drawing in to the station. This was built on the original site of the Great Hall of Berwick Castle where, in 1292, Edward I declared in favour of Balliol as King of Scotland.

Border disputes have plagued Berwick over the years and the town has changed hands between Eng-land and Scotland 13 times during its history. A modern dispute is going on right now, not about territory but about a public shelter. The borough council announced a contro-versial plan to demolish the shelter, made famous by the artist LS Lowry who painted it in 1939, showing it surrounded by his trademark matchstick people and cats and dogs. For the moment it still stands.

While in Berwick, don't forget to pick up a can of Berwick cockles, which are red-and-white-striped sweets. But beware - they can become addictive.

On the footplate

How much: Adult day return, pounds 14.20 (children aged five to 15, pounds 7.10)

Who to call: for more information call 0345 484950 or 0345 225225; Customers with special needs 0345 225444

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