Northumbria: A beach of one's own...

Returning to the Northumbria of his childhood, Alex Leith finds the sea as cold and the beaches as windswept. The cosy pubs and deep-fried haggis are, however, welcome new departures

In 1962, two years before I was born, my maternal grandfather, a Newcastle butcher, bought a cottage in Beadnell, a little seaside village in Northumberland between Alnwick and Berwick. He paid for it, legend goes, in cash. He used to go up there at the weekends and drink with his mates in the Beadnell Hall Hotel, a classy place with a stuffed lion in the hallway. His wife, my granny, would play bridge with her friends, "the girls", in the cottage. My parents, my brother and I would come up from the south every year, for the whole summer. This was from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies. I remember the long journeys up, especially the last leg from Newcastle, in a little blue Wolseley which later turned into a white Mini. There were landmarks and games to pass the time.

The bus from Newcastle today takes a slightly different route, so I miss out on the dip-in-the-road-which-leaves-your-stomach-in-the-air and the guessing-if-the-level-crossing-is-open-or-closed, but I do see the Alnwick lion-on-a-pillar, its improbable tail sticking out horizontally into the sky. Around Craster, six miles from Beadnell, a familiar smell wafts through the window: rotting seaweed. Then the monkey-puzzle tree, which means we've arrived. I haven't been here for more than a decade. And I'm wondering, will this visit simply be an exercise in nostalgia-wallowing, or will the place have enough charm to add valuable new experiences to the memory bank?

There is some extra furniture in the cottage, but otherwise it hasn't changed. My mother wants it to remain the same: the original garish carpets; the space-age lamp-shade; the bar-like kitchen unit. A stroll around the village reveals that it, too, is more or less the same as I remember it. There are a few new buildings, sure, and Beadnell Hall has been converted into a residential block. But the village has kept its backwater charm: the little neo-Gothic church; the village shop; the jackdaws hopping around the Victorian graveyard.

On the way to the beach I stop at the seaweed-clad rocks from which I used to fish. There's a heron, majestically ungainly, staring at me, as if recognising that patient little boy. I wasn't much competition; I never caught a thing.

Shortly I am standing on one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, my jeans rolled up to the knee, my feet in the sea. It's low tide. The beach is fine-beige-sanded, dune-backed, three miles long, half a mile wide. In the pretty harbour to my left there are several colourful fishing boats. Lobsterpots are piled high on the quay. Far away to my right I can make out the jagged silhouette of the ruins of Dunstanburgh castle. It's warm, but the place is virtually deserted. There are some kids in the sea, wearing wet-suits. My feet get very cold. I wonder if I will have the guts to swim.

I used to run straight into the sea when I was a kid, being careful not to step on the lugworm casts that litter the beach. I learnt to walk on Beadnell beach. This is the first sea I ever bathed in. In my young head the word "beach" meant Beadnell beach, "sea" meant the North Sea, "castle" meant the hilltop ruins of Dunstanburgh.

I spend some time sitting on the harbour quay. I marvel at the wicked simplicity of the lobsterpots, which are piled high all over the harbour and in front of the lime kilns behind. I have never seen a lobster in Beadnell. Two fishermen, wearing waders and deadpan expressions, get into a blue boat and chug out to a spot 50 yards from shore. They pull up a net, extricate three wriggling fish, then chug back. As they enter the harbour I see the fish, big and spotty, in the bottom of the boat.

"Are they sea trout?" I yell down, though I know the answer.

"Aye," says the older man.

Later in the evening, having walked back through the caravan park and the cow-field with the pill box, I dine in the Craster Arms, an old fortified farmhouse converted into a pub, which has been there since I remember, though it didn't used to have a beer garden. On the menu is "fresh Beadnell Bay sea trout" with hollandaise sauce. It comes with coleslaw and chips. The slice of trout is delicious. I wonder if this is my second sighting of the fish. I gulp at a pint of Scotch ale.

The next day some friends arrive and we throw ourselves into the activities that Beadnell affords. I can't return to that carefree state of my childhood, but I can have a damned good try. I run into the sea, yelling, am shocked by the cold, and emerge five minutes later onto the beach, glowing like the Ready Brek kid. A sea mist suddenly materialises, and we can't see 10 yards in front of ourselves. Then the sun burns it off, and we walk seven miles over the dunes to Craster. We stop off for a pint of cider in the Ship Inn in Newton-by-the-Sea, a wonderful pub flanked by fishermen's cottages. We drink, we laugh, we get a taxi home. More pints in the other pub, the Lobsterpot.

I wake up for my last day in Beadnell. We drive to Seahouses, the village full of arcades and chip shops, two miles up the coast. We get on a boat to the Farne Islands, watching the seals watching us, and get off on Staples Island, a bird sanctuary, a number of white-stained rocks emerging upright-domino-like from the sea. After a while you get used to the overpowering smell of guano. There are thousands of birds: puffins, guillemots, kittyhawks and shags. The shags are majestic in flight, and there's something medieval about them as they land, but close up they look ugly if you approach their nests. The puffins are a delight, the Norman Wisdoms of the bird world.

Later that evening my parents arrive. They still summer in Beadnell. We eat a fish and chip supper, with deep-fried haggis as a side dish, and I wander to the harbour to watch the sun set. I get absorbed by the terns, catching their last fish of the day. The yellow sun disappears behind the dunes.

My father drives me back to Alnwick the next day. I envy him his long summer stretching ahead, watching birds through his binoculars, my indomitable mother swimming in the sea, walking in the dunes. He retraces the route we used to take, all those years ago. The level crossing is closed: I win. And then I realise that, although this journey is inculcated into my memory, I have no recollection of it this way round. The monkey-puzzle tree, the funny-tailed lion, the sudden dip in the road all symbolise arrival, not departure. I can't wait to see them again.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

GNER (08457 225225; www.gner.co.uk) and Virgin Trains (08457 222333; www.virgintrains.co.uk) both serve Newcastle. Beadnell is on the Newcastle to Berwick- upon-Tweed bus line (08701 201088; www.arriva.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

Northumberland Coastal Retreats (0191 236 5971; www.coastalretreats.co.uk). Cottages start at around £500 per week.

VISITING THERE

Dunstanburgh Castle (01665 576231; www.nationaltrust.org.uk). Opens daily from 10am-6pm; admission £2.60.

Alnwick Garden (01665 511350; www.alnwickgarden.com). Opens daily from 10am-7pm; admission £6.

Alnwick Castle (01665 510777; www.alnwickcastle.com). Opens daily from 11am-5pm; admission £7.95.

Staple Island and Inner Farne Islands ferries (01665 720 308; www.farne-islands.com). Boat trips to Staple Island and Inner Farne bird sanctuaries start from £9.

EATING AND DRINKING THERE

Craster Arms, 2-4 Beadnell, Chathill (01665 720272).

Ship Inn, The Square, Low Newton-by-the-sea, Alnwick (01665 576262).

MORE INFORMATION

Beadnell Tourist Information ( www.beadnellvillage.co.uk).

Visit Northumbria (0870 160 1781; www.visitnorthumbria.com).

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