Sunday 22 September 2013

A trip to Northumbria - Part 1: Dunstanburgh Castle

The cold rain beat against my face. It blew in from the churning slate-grey of the North Sea. Clouds roiled above, heavily-laden; the weather was not going to break for some time, though there were small patches of lighter sky that hinted at the sun trying to push its way through the gloom. I pulled my collar up and trudged on. Water streamed down my face and I regretted not having put up my hood when I had set out from the tiny village of Craster on the mile and a quarter long walk to Dunstanburgh Castle. Too late now. I was already drenched and there was still quite a trek to go.
The elements were trying to dampen my spirits, but I was happy. For this was the first time I had been back to this wonderful place for over thirty years and it felt like coming home. I lived in Northumberland for three years as a child and I fell in love with the rugged coastline then. Dunstanburgh Castle had always been one of my favourite places, and as I had driven into Craster that morning in the hire car, I had felt an almost overwhelming sense of belonging. I experienced such strong emotions that I wondered how it was possible for somewhere in which I had spent such a relatively small amount of time to feel like home.
The area of Northumberland roughly corresponds to the kingdom of Bernicia, which is where I chose to set my novel, The Serpent Sword. So it was with relish that I seized the chance to visit when my wife said she had a study day at Northumbria University in Newcastle as part of her degree course. It all made perfect sense: she would do her study day, I would visit some of the locations in my novel and we would then spend a couple of days together while my parents looked after our kids. Everyone's a winner. Well, except perhaps my parents...
That morning had been a bit awkward. My wife was extremely nervous about meeting her tutors and fellow students at the start of her final year dissertation, but I was as excited as a child about to go to the funfair. I tried not to show it, but failed miserably. She can always read my moods easily. After a while of putting up with my nervous chatter and bouncy good humour over breakfast, while she stewed with worry over how she was going to tackle her dissertation, she told me that karma was a bitch and I'd get my payback for being so happy when she was so wound up. I toned it down and shut up.
After dropping her off at the university with suitably supportive words and a new leather-bound notebook I had bought for her in an attempt to undo my earlier thoughtlessness, I jumped in the hire car, set the sat nav on my phone, and set off for the first of the three places I planned to visit before being back at the hotel by six o'clock. It was nearly eleven in the morning, so time was ticking and I would need to rush to see all three sites: Dunstanburgh Castle, Bamburgh Castle and Gefrin.
An hour later I was at Craster and setting off on the damp walk to Dunstanburgh Castle. The castle was built several centuries after the events in my novel, but I have loved it ever since I first visited as a child. It is a very atmospheric place and as it is a castle on a cliff over the North Sea and only a few miles south of Bamburgh, I think I had merged the two castles together into one place in my mind. Perhaps even adding another place in Scotland into the mix too -- St. Abb's Head.
As I walked towards the ruins I looked out at the waves crashing into the rocky beach and images from my story flooded my mind.
"Far away on the horizon, beyond the sun-dappled waves of the Whale Road, storm clouds were brewing."
The sound of the waves, constant, yet ever-changing permeated the whole site. I would have heard the same crash, roar and occasional slap of waves breaking on the rocks if I had walked along this stretch of beach in the year 633 AD. The world changes so fast, but so much is just the same as it was for our forebears and it is easy in places such as Dunstanburgh Castle, especially on a blustery day with few people around, to imagine yourself transported to a past age.
Dunstanburgh Castle overshadows the area
When I reached the castle, I wandered around the ruins, taking care not to slip on the slick stones. I sat on a green, weathered rock inside the keep, sheltering from the rain and ate the sandwich I'd brought. I checked the time on my mobile phone, the reliance on modern technology bringing the present crashing back, and realised I'd need to hurry back to the car. There were still two more places for me to visit.

The ruins look out ominously over the beach and surf
I walked back as quickly as I could, the rain heavier now, really soaking me through. When I reached the gate back to Craster, I took shelter for a moment under the awning of the National Trust van and had a brief chat with the man (one Andrew Harkinns, I think his name tag said) who was there. His job was to sign up new members for the National Trust, but I don't think he was doing much business.
He asked me if I was going anywhere else and I mentioned I was off to Bamburgh and then Gefrin. He had never heard of Gefrin, so I briefly told him where it was and what its importance was in the seventh century (which I will cover in another blog). When I mentioned I was a "struggling author", he said I was the second author he'd talked to in as many days, though the other one was not struggling. Apparently she had told him she was number 48 in the Amazon Historical Romance chart. I've no idea who she was, but lucky her!
As I left, Andrew promised he'd look up Gefrin and me online, so if he has found this blog - hello!
I headed back to my car and continued up the coast for the second of my destinations: Bamburgh Castle. In the time of my novel it was called Bebbanburg and was the seat of power of the Bernician kings.
My visit to Bebbanburg, retracing the steps of my book's protagonist, will be a tale for my next blog post.

A nice couple from Yorkshire took a photo of me to prove I was really there


  1. What a fantastic experience. There is nothing quite as exhilerating as treading in your protagonists' footsteps and forgetting about the 21st century. Fabulous. Look forward to your further blog posts.

    1. Glad you liked it. It was a great day. I'll write more about the beautiful sites I visited in Northumberland once I've done some more editing! It is hard to find the time to do everything. :-)

  2. I was luckier; the sun was shining when I visited Dunstanburgh this June.

    1. The sun is overrated. It was more atmospheric in the rain... ;-)

    2. I already had Whitby in a fog for atmospheric. Doesn't make for good photos. ;-)