One of the most memorable and striking sights along the Northumberland coast is Dunstanburgh Castle. Its ruins stand on a remote headland, reached by a beautiful coastal walk from the nearby village of Craster. It is this distance from any other building, any other sign of human habitation, that makes Dunstanburgh seem rather magical.
Come with me please on one of the most scenic short walks in the country …
Were it not for one thing there would be little to distinguish Craster from several other pretty Northumberland coastal villages. It has a small harbour with strong walls to shelter the boats from the North Sea. Stone cottages cluster around this harbour; there is a pub, a couple of cafés …
But as soon as you park in the car park, located in a disused quarry on the edge of the village, and take the footpath between the houses to reach the centre, you can smell the distinctive Craster scent of smoking fish. For Craster is the home of the kipper, or smoked herring. The Robson family have been curing herrings here for over a hundred years, and still do so in the original 1856 smokehouse. You can taste this delicacy in their restaurant, as well as in other establishments around the village; but they are also exported around the country and beyond.
The Robsons’ website explains the process:
‘First, the herring are split on a machine capable of splitting 500kg per hour, this replaces the numerous “herring girls” that used to split the herring by hand. Then the herring are placed in a brine solution of plain salt and water for a predetermined length of time depending on their size and, lastly, they are hung on tenter hooks and placed in the cavernous smokehouses. Fires are placed under the rows of herring made of whitewood shavings and oak sawdust and these smoulder away for up to 16 hours before the kippers are ready.’
Craster is named after the Craster family who owned this estate from 1272 to 1965. The harbour was built to commemorate the death of a member of the family who died in 1904, while serving in the army in Tibet. You can see his memorial on the harbour wall. The much taller structure at the end of the harbour was used to lift stone from the nearby quarry on to boats in the harbour; it was then shipped to London where it was used for kerb stones.
The quarry was shut down in 1939 and, as well as being in part used for the car park, is also now a nature reserve. There is a footpath through the woods here; but we are yet to follow it, as our favourite walk is the one that leads to the castle.
The walk to Dunstanburgh Castle
Even without a castle at the end of it this would be a lovely walk, with the waves of the North Sea lapping (or crashing on to, depending on weather and season) the pebble shore and rocks to your right, and the gentle folds of the sheep-scattered fields to your left.
Part way along people had created a group of small cairns. Some may frown upon this human rearrangement of nature, others feel moved to add to it. I simply found it an interesting photographic stop along the way.
On this occasion there was a sea fret (mist) and the castle was invisible from Craster; normally you can see your destination clearly as you walk (my feature photo was taken on a previous, less misty day).
But today the ruins emerged only slowly, and atmospherically, from the mist.
If you prefer your castles in picturesque ruins, rather than the almost intact state of, say, Bamburgh, you will like Dunstanburgh. It was built by Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322 on the site of a former Iron Age Fort. He was leading a rebellion against the king, Edward II, and needed a place of refuge should things turn nasty. And turn nasty they did; he was captured at the Battle of Boroughbridge without ever being able to reach Dunstanburgh.
The castle become the property of the crown and later passed to John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. He expanded it to serve as a possible defence against attack from Scotland. It changed hands several times during the Wars of the Roses and was damaged during a succession of sieges, so by the 16th century was already in a state of decay. The ruins attracted artists, most notably Turner and Thomas Girtin.
The most notable structure is the great Gatehouse, three storeys high and still impressive despite its ruined state. It gives some sense of the grandeur of the castle, which was the largest in Northumberland.
The castle is today owned by the National Trust, who naturally charge for admission. On that most recent visit we decided against going in, and unfortunately I have no photos from past visits (way back in pre-digital days); so for now these misty exterior shots will have to suffice to illustrate this Monday Walk for Jo.
I visit Northumberland regularly. These photos were taken on two visits to Craster, in 2016 and 2018.