Three Days along the Northumberland Coast Path

When it came to the most recent half term holiday both Mrs W and I were ready for a total rest, thus we split the childcare duties between us so each could have some solo time. I took Junior on a canoeing adventure for three days, pictures of which will soon be available here. After this was my solo time and I had two walks planned and used my proven approach of making the choice based on the weather forecast the day before setting off. This time the choice was between a stretch of the Dales Highway or a section of the Northumbria Coast Path.

With low cloud due in the Dales throughout the allotted time slot I had an early start to get me the three hours to Alnmouth (pronounced Alan-Mouth) for the start of my coastal walk.

Day 1 – Alnmouth to Low Newton-by-the-sea : 12 miles (*no sig. height gain)

This proved the least inspiring section of the walk, but it was good to be out and in fine weather.

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The afternoon proved better than the morning with Dunstanburgh Castle a highlight.

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The coast became more pleasant after this, albeit far from spectacular. What it did do was to lead to The Ship Inn at Low Newton. Here they have a micro-brewery in house and brew all their own ale. Their Red Ale was true to style and pleasant enough. Their Pale Ale “Sandcastles at Dawn” had interesting hop flavours but was oddly sweet. Sadly their approach to managing COVID control was to not allow anyone inside the building. Thus there was no opportunity to ask for a tour of their brew kit and ask for any advice on starting as a brew pub.

The best part of the day was the pitch I found my tent that evening.

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Gorgeous.

Day 2 – Low Newton to Belford / Beal – 18 miles*

The day started well with a pleasant route from my camping spot on the Snook Headland to Seahouses. When I’d planned my route I’d noted the possibility of an early lunch in Seahouses to take advantage of a fine Fish and Chip shop which I’d visited before when cycling the Coast and Castles Sustrans route. My extra early start however meant I arrived far too early for such a repast so I settled for a bacon roll and a rest. The next section of the path taught be two useful lessons. (1) Whilst the coastal path was pleasant, any diversion inland (in this case from Seahouses to Bamburgh) yielded landscape, and thus walking, of little or no interest. (2) If it looks like the alternative to an inland route is a busy road, consider also whether the state of the tide would allow a diversion onto the beach. This is exactly what I should have done, and would recommend, between Seahouses and Bamburgh.

Lunch at the North end of beach at Bamburgh went a long way towards making up for the mundane nature of the second half the morning.

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It also inspired me to look a little deeper at the inland section which the official route was due to take me on the following day. This didn’t look like much fun, so I shook the internet to find some bus timetables and was pleased by what fell out. If I was able to stretch my day to take me as far as Belford I could get a bus which would by-pass the rest of the route planned for day three and to within a mile of the campsite planned for the end of that day at Beal.

After I passed the end of the headland at Budle Point I took advantage of the low tide and headed down onto the beach. The map suggested it might be muddy / silt but a wide band of sand hugged the coastline. It proved a great perspective on the coast and gentle on the feet.

As I passed what should have been my campsite for that evening I saw both how large and packed it was and I was very glad to be walking on rather than stopping. Just before Waren Mill I could hop up onto the road and within 1 km I was back on the official route. Here the gentle rolling hills made for nice views and I enjoyed walking through a large grain storage co-op. Next I came to the East Coast Mainline and a first – the requirement to ring the signalman before crossing the line. I was soon in Belford. The pubs didn’t look the best, fortunately the beer selection in the Co-op was rather good and I set up my own beer garden in the afternoon sunshine whilst I waited for the next bus.

The campsite at ‘The Barn at Beal’ was a much smaller affair and had a fine view of Lindisfarne. I was rather tired after an 18 mile day but very pleased with the modification I’d made to my route.

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Day 3 Beal to Berwick-upon-Tweed – 11 miles*

This was to be the best day of my walk. Where I to walk this stretch of coast again I might well start at Beal and then get the chance to explore the taller cliffs and more dramatic coastline which I now know exists North of Berwick and into Scotland. I had a maximum of four days available to me and would have needed a further three days to get from Berwick to the next transport hub at Dunbar. From photo’s I’ve seen since, this would be a very tempting option for another time. Since I’ve come back I’ve talked with friends who have visited this section of coast who describe it as ‘Like dramatic Cornwall but without the people.’

But back to my walk rather than my day-dreaming. The first section of today’s route was both different and interesting as it was salt marsh. There were dykes and sheep a plenty for the first hour.

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After that the route followed a stony vehicle track for a while so once again I headed to the beach.

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On my route I fell upon a fascinating chap who was kayaking up the coast aiming for Berwick. He was camped on the beach having a rest day and hoping not to be moved on by pedantic twitchers. I enjoyed a chat and encouraged him that he was doing no harm.

I came within site of Berwick at around lunchtime but I decided to press on to get to the railway station to maximise my chance of a train back to Alnmouth.

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Here my relaxed attitude to rail travel let me down. When I’m using the train on such a walk as this I don’t check the timetable as I’ve found that a late running earlier train can often get me to where I want ahead of the one I might have planned to catch. Next time I’ll be more methodical as I found that Alnmouth is considered a very minor station and it would be three hours before the next stopping train was due. Fortunately I’d noted that the bus I’d used on my detour was going from Berwick to Newcastle and I knew it went via Alnwick. After lunch with a lovely view over the River Tweed I got a bus back to Alnmouth via Alnwick.

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It got be there before the train would even have set off, at a fraction of the cost and with a much shorter walk to my car at the far end.

Conclusions

It was good to have a few days away, but I cannot say that I’d recommend this section of coastal path. It lacks the drama an interest of Pembrokeshire or the South West Peninsula. Back in 2012 we cycled up this stretch of coast and this, I would suggest, is the ideal pace at which to see Northumbria. If you cover 50 miles in a day then the thinly distributed nature of points of interest is no longer a problem. Where you wishing to take advantage of the drier weather of the East Coast and wanting to walk, you would be well advised to look into walking the section from Beal (or Berwick) north to Dunbar.

A Little of what You Fancy – Walking and Wild Camping around the Llyn Peninsula

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I owe a big debt of gratitude to the Scouting movement. Back in the 1980’s I joined a Scout Troop and this not only gave me a life long love for the outdoors, but the mindset and skillset to be able to enjoy it to the full. I’ll admit that back in my teens I did a few backpacking trips which I only actually enjoyed in retrospect, mostly down to being very unfit and because of the pain of carrying an external frame rucksack. The first multi-day walk I enjoyed rather than endured was a section of the Dorset / SW Peninsula Coast Path. By this point I was fitter and had a better rucksack. From this has stemmed a love which has lasted the thick end of 40 years, coastal walking.

I think long distance walking is a little like music or beer. There are a whole range of styles of both which have merit, not everyone likes every style, but most people enjoy a range even if there are one or two they would rather avoid. Sour Beers, Dance Music and the Pennine Way in my case! Whilst today I mostly walk in hill country, there will always be a special place in my heart for coastal walking.

One secret to thriving through this pandemic has been to be flexible and to grab opportunities when they arise. The 5-9th May was my chance as whilst it was sad that a planned event for Mrs W and I had fallen through, it gave me the chance to disappear for a full five days, my first proper holiday in twelve months. One of the massive benefits of solo backpacking is that there is usually no need to book anything in advance. This leads to my next secret to success; planning two walks in different parts of the country. I then choose which to do based on a last minute look at the weather forecast. As I said, whilst I love the hills, I had a deep desire for some coastal walking and had two options set before me, the Northumbria Coast Path or a section of the Wales Coast Path around the Llyn Peninsula. As you’ll now know, this time it was the West which one.

My Route

I’m not a ‘complete the set’ / ‘tick all the boxes’ person, but instead I often like to cherry pick sections of great walks. This time I reckoned that the approx. 50 miles from Nefyn to Abersoch represented the most attractive part of the Llyn Peninsula. If you go further East from Nefyn there are big stretches next to A-roads and if you continue beyond Llanbedrog / Abersoch the geography becomes rather flat, low and – to my taste – uninspiring.

Llyn Coast Path Route Picture

I’ll say now that I loved this walk, but were I to do it again, I’d walk it in reverse as the best part of the section out of Nefyn was the view of Snowdonia which which always over my shoulder. The walk and scenery was extremely good, but this would have been better still. Also at this point it is worth noting that this walk would be a great introduction to coastal walking because the amount of height gain (i.e. cumulative height of hills climbed) is very modest in comparison to either Pembrokeshire or the SW Peninsula Coast Path. This is likely to be the route I use to introduce my son to backpacking in a couple of years time – it offers a really good pleasure / effort ratio.

Day 1 – Nefyn to Nr Porth Colmon – Highlights

14 miles / < 100 m Height Gain

I’ll allow a slide-show of pictures to tell most of the story.

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At the time I did this walk, it was legal to use campsites but not any of their ‘facilities’. Paying £10 to have access to a water tap made the cost of water higher than a Craft Keg Ale so I’d decided to wild camp where possible. On Day One I had hoped to stop just before Penllech Beach on the cliff top, but the ground was either too sloped for a tent, or where it was flat enough it was all used for grazing livestock and was always within view of farmhouses. A challenge of the narrowness of the peninsula. Therefore I walked on and found a good spot just beyond Porth Colmon, looking down on Porth Wen Bach.

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Day 2 – Porth Wen Bach to Pen-y-Cil – Highlights

12 miles / 350 m Height Gain

Another day of gorgeous sunshine, and whilst Day One was very pleasant, today the scenery became more dramatic, the headlands forming the tip of the peninsula being a major highlight.

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Nearing the end of the day I came across a spring on one of the steep slopes between Mynydd Mawr and Pen-y-Cil. Not St Mary’s Well, not marked on my 1:50k map but very welcome. Here I gathered some water, but needed much patience to get a whole litre. I thus opted to seek out an easier source for the final 500 ml which I needed. I didn’t find another source and was about to give up and walk to a farm when a great and friendly couple, whom I’d met earlier in the day, caught up with me again and gave me their left over water as they were just about to finish their day walk and head home. I found a fabulous pitch that night, right next to the cliff with views of islands in both directions.

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Day 3 Pen-y-Cil to Hells Mouth Beach (NE end)

14 miles / 180 m Height Gain

This was by far the warmest and sunniest day, with the sun beaming down even as I had my breakfast (in bed naturally!) After freshening up in Aberdaron and restocking with fruit I was set for the day ahead. Again I’ll allow the pictures to tell the story.

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I was planning on camping with the Dunes at far end of Hells Mouth Beach. The official path heads inland some distance from the beach, but looking at the tide timetable told me that I could walk along the beach if I wished. It being just 12 days to my 50th Birthday I thought I’d set myself the challenge of yomping across the beach as fast as I could and use my GPS to see if I could achieve anything like the speed I was capable over a measured mile when I was 18. Given that I had an 11 kg pack on my back I was delighted to be just 0.1 mph slower than 32 years prior. I thus arrived at my proposed camping spot rather too early to pitch! So I walked the 1 km inland to the Sun Inn at Llanengan. A couple of pints of Dizzy Blonde and a few chapters of my book proved an excellent entrée to my evening meal.

The forecast expected the weather to change dramatically overnight with heavy rain and winds gusting to 41 mph predicted. It’s odd to rig a tent for a storm on a warm sunny evening. It was my first chance to use my (mini) delta ground anchors in anger. My impression of them in the garden at home was that they were no more difficult to pull from the ground than a regular Y peg, but they did hold a lot better in sand than regular pegs. I double pegged (or pegged and anchored) all the main guys and headed to bed.

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Day 4 Hells Mouth Beach to Abersoch

9 miles / 180 m Height Gain (in an afternoon)

The weather arrived at 0300 as per the forecast and I was very happy to be in a Hilleberg. The forecast suggested that the rain would change from very heavy (2-3mm/hr) to light (0.6 mm/hr) at 1100 so I enjoyed a morning of reading my novel and then packed by bag and was ready to emerge and strike camp at 1100 on the dot. In reality, at 1050 the rain stopped and didn’t come back for the rest of the day. I felt very blessed. Further, in the time it took me to dig and backfill my latrine hole (!) the strong wind had blown the tent all but dry.

I walked up into the cloud and there I remained for around 90 min, when it miraculously started to lift and the sun burnt through. Thus I did have views of the cliffs for the second half of my walk to Abersoch.

Originally I had the option of continuing on to Llanbedrog but this would not have allowed me to catch the last bus, so Abersoch was my final destination. I had the bus back to Nefyn to myself so the driver kindly asked me where in town I wanted to be dropped. I explained where the car was and he dropped me at the end of the road. Now that’s service!

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So an excellent four days, a super holiday, and probably the ideal introduction to backpacking for Junior in a couple of years time.

Gear Appraisal – what did I learn about my kit?

Sleeping Pad – Thermorest Prolite Apex

Looking at the weather forecast before I set off suggested one night that would drop to 1 Celcius and other nights between 4-7 C. My sleeping bag is ‘comfort rated’ to 4C but I know that with the aid of a jacket over my feet I’ve taken a similarly rated bag down to -1C. The solution I opted for this time was to take my winter sleeping pad, a Thermarest ProLite Apex and my two season sleeping bag. This worked really well as is an approach I’ll note for the future. ProLite Apex + 2 Season Bag = 1200 g. ProLite 3 + 4 Season Bag = 1600 g.

With the Apex only weighing 110g more than the ProLite 3 I’m tempted to use it year round because it is just so luxuriously comfortable.

Tent – Hilleberg Enan

I remain really impressed with this tent. As long as you have a light breeze it remains condensation free. Even when the wind is whistling between the inner and the fly, the all-mesh door seems to keep out the breeze from the inner. The space in this tent is optimal for someone who is 5’11”: Generous in length; sufficient in headroom; good sized porch for wet gear, rucksack and cooking gear*; good in wind speeds of up to 45 mph and thoroughly capable of handling a torrential downpour as long as you close the vent at the windward end.

*I am not recommending cooking in the vestibule with the door closed (although there would be enough room should you choose to take this risk).

Titan Ground Anchors

I remain highly sceptical about these being able to live up to their claims for holding power. I’ve not done pull tests with a spring balance, but ‘by feel’ they held no better in our back lawn than a regular Hilleberg Y peg (akin to MSR Mini Groundhogs). However, they do work a lot better in sand and probably offer a good compromise between regular and sand stakes given that they are only 1/3 the size and half the weight of a sand stake. I should get myself a spring balance because my feeling is that (in regular soil) double pegging with standard Y or V pegs offers a much stronger solution at lower weight.