Elvis Presley Challenge No. 51 – Bamburgh Castle

George Osborne may be hurt by the booing that greets his every public appearance but he persists with austerity.   We will have aOsborne booed at Paralympics few infrastructure projects but Keynesian economic regeneration is to be denied.  Unemployment has not reached record levels but work patterns are changing.  The jobs that helped workers dream about 4x4s are being replaced by part time work.  People who once agonised about where they could have their third continental holiday that year have either seen their income fall so they are confined to rainy Britain or lost their jobs and become dependent on food banks.  All summer the weather has been relentlessly bad, the wettest for a hundred years in a country where the competition in lousy summers is tough.

But it has also been the summer of the successful Olympics.  London avoided gridlock and the British teams were at the front in the queue for medals.  Bomber Boris has triumphed.  David Cameron talks about an Olympic spirit that will make the country great again.   Hope is being nurtured in trusting hearts.  We should fear for them.

Twelve months ago I toured around Catalonia for a fortnight.  In the security queue at Manchester Airport, there were five middle aged women.  They wore large sombreros and underneath the wide brims their faces smiled at anyone who looked at them.   The women were loud and laughed a lot.   They worked together in an office and every year they holidayed once without their husbands.  That year it was Mexico.  This year, weekends in Butlins are becoming popular.    The British are holidaying in Britain again.

British holidaysThis is more of a sacrifice for British travellers than people outside the country realise.   The British are obsessed with travel.  Living on an island makes a difference; especially an island which its inhabitants think is the mainland of the world.  We are conditioned from childhood to think of everywhere else as the exception.   Life in Britain is normal; the rest of the world is unusual.  Europeans visit other countries.  The British go ‘abroad’.    Europeans expect places similar to their homelands.  We set off to explore.   A travel guide in Istanbul once explained it to me.   ‘The British groups are the worst,’ he said.   ‘They want to see everything.  The others soon get tired and sit down for a cup of coffee.’   I tried to explain the significance of the English Channel, how we think everything on the other side is exotic and transformational.

Obsessions that persist require the illusion of confirmatory experience and data.  And it exists.  There is all that sunshine, the way people abroad talk in another language when they are not talking to the British, and the mountains which are taller.   But, as the writer John Fowles argued, who needs endless sunshine and predictable days?  The British climate provides, without warning, atmosphere, mystery, challenges, drama, tranquillity and, sometimes, warm life.   Today, the English language is universal and global capitalism has bulldozed local exotica.  The British traveller can only seek consolation in sunburn and taller mountains.

The film director Ken Russell argued that we should value the music of Vaughan Williams because it glorified what was great about Britain, the landscape.   He understood.  Modest mountains can provide spiritual sustenance far more important than macho testing glory.

The walk from Seahouses to Bamburgh along the beach could not be made in a wheelchair although after the Paralympics we Seahouses harbourcannot be sure.  Most people will cope with the flat three mile walk along the beach between the two towns.  The Northumberland coast lacks the tall cliffs that mark the Yorkshire coast or the rich deep blue sea that can be seen in Pembrokeshire but it is a fine place to enjoy a day.  There are longer walks along the coast than Seahouses to Bamburgh and the whole coast should be walked if possible.  The sand is pale, the noise of the North Sea lapping against the beach has a unique tone that gives it urgent purpose and the sunlight is subtle.  Everything appears tantalisingly remote and calm.

Seahouses is a British seaside tourist town but the small scale helps it to retain appeal.  The main street has the obligatory chip shops, which are excellent, and arcades, which are depressing, but these are left within a few paces to reveal an unspoilt harbour for fishing craft.  The walk to Bamburgh begins to the left of the town.  Rocks stretch beyond the harbour out to the right.  The harbour conceals the town so it cannot be seen from the beach or the rocks.  This is the glory of Northumberland.  Remote isolation is found everywhere almost instantly.  Facing Seahouses across the sea are the Farne Islands whose surrounding sea is feeding ground for grey seals.  Inner Farne attracts thousands of puffins and other bird life.  The colony is maintained by volunteers who work on the island for three months.  Day trippers call so they can take photographs of the birds.  The volunteers are helpful and their smiles suggest that they have found a state of grace in their Northern retreat.   Depending on the British weather, the boat trips can be lively and a rival for some of the fairground rides at Alton Towers.  If the day is fine, the sun is strong and tans unavoidable.

Bamburgh CastleBamburgh Castle only appears to the walker towards the end of the trek.   The sight is powerful.  Painters and photographers have been tempted often by the view as they are by the not too far away castle on Holy Island.  Images, though, are no substitute for standing on clean pale sand while being chided by waves determined to claim attention.

Recently, there has been much debate about how public space has become privately owned.  What we once assumed would be free now usually demands an admission fee.  Bamburgh Castle is no exception but the price can be willingly paid.  Visitors can sit on the ramparts and listen to the North Sea while their eyes take in the cinemascope stretch of  water coloured sea, sky and sand.   It should convince anyone that a landscape does not need altitude to be seductive.  Inside the Castle, there are more attractions.  It has a fine armoury and a decent museum that is a tribute to Vickers Armstrong manufacturing and a reminder of when ordinary people made things with pride.

The main building is like the landscape outside, endlessly seductive.  The 14 rooms achieve the impossible and present castle living that appears to be comfortable and pleasant.  The paintings constitute a valuable collection but they are not presented as such so it is a pleasant surprise to spot familiar masters.   The Castle is used for wedding receptions which is very tempting but, no, I am not going through that again.

None of this should relate to Elvis although somebody like Larry Williams could have found a few song titles amongst the cliffs andElvis sandy beaches.  Oddly, landscapes always remind me of music.  I think of the exceptionally tall mountains as the powerful blues singers, solid and solitary.  Elvis makes me think of the Lake District.  His mountains are not as tall as those of Howling Wolf but he has the harmony and breadth you only find in a landscape famous for its variety and appeal.  Northumberland which is the least spoilt part of Britain is gentler than Scotland and the Lakes.  It corresponds to the more quiet performers but those with a unique quality that makes them essential, musicians who can make too easily ignored gems.

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If you want to read about what happened when Howard visited Brazil click http://amzn.to/U9JRCf


  1. Yet another extremely evocative piece which rekindled very fond memories of the Northumberland coast. I only wish that the image of George Osborne had not been an inclusion, but again mention of him was fundamental to Howard’s well presented debate.

  2. Nigerian’s and Brits are similar in terms of wanting to explore other countries, I feel the exploration spirit is one of the things on which the empire was built.

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