We saw the Fairies Caves but no lonesome pines

Just over a month ago, Steph and I took the Metro to Cullercoats, a small community between Whitley Bay and Tynemouth on the North Sea coast, just a few miles from home. Our intention was to walk along the beach and coastal path from Cullercoats to Tynemouth, no more than a couple of miles. While we followed much of the coastal path, it’s not possible to show the actual detailed route we took across the beaches on the map below.

Just after we’d climbed out of Cullercoats Bay, and were looking south over Long Sands Beach, I had to pinch myself once again being so lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country. And with the coast just a few minutes from home.

Looking south towards Tynemouth at Long Sands Beach.

Anyway, back to the beginning of the walk. The Metro ride to Cullercoats took around 10 minutes (just five stops) from our ‘home’ station, Northumberland Park.

To fortify ourselves for the walk ahead, we stopped for a welcome cup of coffee at the Cullercoats Coffee Co., on the corner of Station Road and John St., and only a couple of hundred meters from the Metro station.

It must have been around 10 am, and we were surprised to find the coffee shop heaving with customers, with just one table for two empty on the kerbside. Luckily it was a bright and sunny day, and still quite warm for mid-October.


Cullercoats is a sandy bay enclosed by two piers. It once had a thriving fishing industry, and hosted an artists’ colony in the 19th century, with local fisher-folk often featuring in the paintings.

At low tide (when we visited) there are long stretches of exposed rocks and pools on either side of the bay entrance.

Newcastle University’s Dove Marine Laboratory and the Cullercoats Lifeboat Station (established in 1848, with the red doors) are based here.

At the base of the yellow sandstone cliffs behind the beach are several caves, known locally as the Fairies Caves. We didn’t venture inside but having now read a little more about them, that’s something we will do next time we visit.

And as we climbed over the headland at the south side of the bay we got our first view of Long Sands Beach, and St. George’s Anglican church on Grand Parade.


At the south end of the beach is Tynemouth Outdoor Pool, just below Sharpness Point. It has been abandoned since the 1990s. But in its heyday, it was a popular attraction for families enjoying their summer holidays on this beautiful northeast coast.

In Tynemouth, the Grand Hotel stands on Grand Parade above the Pool, overlooking Long Sands Beach.

Built in 1872, there have been numerous famous visitors, among them comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Stan Laurel lived in North Shields between 1897 and 1902 and attended the King’s School in Tynemouth.

In 1854, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi is believed to have stayed in a house that is now part of the King’s School. At least there’s a blue plaque to that effect. The school opened its doors in 1860.

The next bay south, below Tynemouth Priory and Castle (owned by English Heritage) is King Edward’s Bay, just a short walk from the town’s main street, Front Street.

King Edward’s Bay – with the breakwaters at the entrance to the River Tyne visible just beyond the headland.

We headed along Front Street towards Tynemouth Metro station. Since we moved up here two years ago, I’ve seen ‘Front Street’ in many towns and villages. I guess this must be the northeast equivalent of ‘High Street’ further south.

Front Street in Tynemouth is a wonderfully broad street, and although it’s now overburdened (in my opinion) with eating and drinking establishments, it’s not hard to imagine it during its Georgian or Victorian heydays.

There’s even a Back Front Street!

Tynemouth’s Metro station is an iron and glass architectural masterpiece, which opened on 7 July 1882 as part of the North East Railway. It’s now a Grade II listed building.

On weekdays, Metro trains run every 12 minutes, so we were home before too long.

And that’s what so nice about living where we do. So many attractions and walks within short distances, and which we can (being retired) drop everything and take time out to enjoy.


You may be wondering about the title reference to ‘lonesome pines’. It’s all to do with Laurel and Hardy.


 

Birding in the northeast . . .

We couldn’t have asked for better weather yesterday. Even though a little on the cool side, accompanied by a blustery wind, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. A perfect early Spring day.

So we headed for the National Trust’s Gibside estate, about 11½ miles southwest from where we live in North Tyneside, as the crow flies (or just over 15 miles by road).

Covering 600 acres (just over 240 hectares), Gibside provides excellent walking. While the old house lies in ruins, and the chapel is not open every day, there’s plenty to explore on foot. We covered almost five miles.

Taking my trusty binoculars along (a pair of Swift Saratoga 8×40 that I’ve had for about 60 years) we hoped there might be some interesting wildlife to observe. On one of our previous visits, we’d come across a pair of roe deer among the pine trees. I was hopeful there might be some interesting birds along the River Derwent, the northern boundary of the Gibside estate.

And we weren’t disappointed. As we were leaving the Trust cafe after enjoying a refreshing regular Americano, a solitary grey heron flew low overhead, buffeted by the gusting winds, and crabbing to make headway. It’s one of the largest birds in this country, and doesn’t look designed for flying in high winds.

Grey heron

Then, as we walked down to the banks of the Derwent, we came across a pair of dippers on a shallow cascade; and further on, a pair of goosanders in full breeding plumage. What a magnificent sight!

Dipper

Goosanders

We’d seen a dipper a few weeks back alongside Seaton Burn in Holywell Dene close to home, the first I’d encountered in more than 20 years. And I’d seen my first ever goosander just a couple of months back on a local pond, so seeing a breeding pair yesterday was a real delight.

At the bird hide we watched great, blue, coal, and long-tailed tits, and as we sat having a picnic in the early afternoon sun (quite warm out of the breeze), beside the fish pond below the 18th century Banqueting Hall (not National Trust), we enjoyed the antics of a trio of little grebes, another species I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.

Little grebe

Then, as Steph was finishing her lunch, and I was taking a photo of the view, a red kite swooped overhead; we saw another one later in the walk.

Red kite

Then, just before we continued on our walk, I happened to look up at the Banqueting Hall and spotted a single roe deer grazing in front of the building. What luck!


Since moving to North Tyneside from the West Midlands around 18 months ago, I have revived my interest in and enjoyment of bird watching.

Compared with our garden and surrounding countryside in north Worcestershire (some 230 miles south of where we now live)—and which I wrote about in one of my early blog posts in May 2012—there seem to be more birding opportunities here in the northeast: in the garden, on the coast (which is less than five miles as the crow flies), and the river valleys, moors, and hills of Northumberland.

Close to where we now live, the land has slowly recovered over the last four decades since the coal mines were closed. A mosaic of streams, hedgerows, scrub land, reed beds, ponds, arable and grassland, not to mention woodlands in various stages of development, has now replaced what had been a desolate industrial landscape, supporting an abundance of bird life and even some large mammals like roe deer. The routes of the former mine railways—the waggonways—have been left as footpaths and bridleways, serving as excellent wildlife corridors across North Tyneside and connecting urban sites with the surrounding countryside.

To date, my northeast bird list comprises about 80 species observed and one, a grasshopper warbler, heard but not seen (according to a more experienced birder than me).

Some species, like goldfinches (left below) or bullfinches (right) which I saw only occasionally down south, are quite common here, often in flocks of 20-30 birds.

Herring and black-headed gulls are ‘as common as sparrows’ (which we don’t actually see very often, although I did come across the more scarce tree sparrow just a week ago while on one of my walks).

House sparrow (L) and tree sparrow

Rather than describe all the birds on my current list, do go back to that earlier post to see many of the birds that we see regularly here. I’ll just highlight some of those that have particularly caught my attention.


When we moved into our new house just over a year ago, the rear and front gardens were just patches of grass. Calling them ‘lawns’ would be an exaggeration. Steph worked hard from the end of April 2021 to design and build a new garden, hopefully attracting more insect and bird life.

Certainly the insects increased in number and type, with many different types of bees visiting the range of flowering plants that we introduced.

Throughout the summer and into autumn, there was a family of five or six pied wagtails (right) that we saw in the garden almost everyday. They disappeared during the coldest weeks of the winter, but have once again started to show up in the garden.

And when we took a trip in July to the headwaters of the River Coquet and the Cheviot Hills, we saw many pied wagtails flitting back and forth along the banks of the river.

Upper Coquetdale

Another surprising visitor to the garden, just once, was an uncommon mistle thrush (right), a much larger cousin of the song thrush.

Song thrush numbers have declined dramatically, but they were a common presence in my younger days, over 60 years ago. However, over the past week, I’ve seen three song thrushes and heard them belting out their glorious songs.

Close to home is an overflow pond for the local stream or burn that has its source less than half a mile away to the west.

Surrounded by lush vegetation, particularly knapweed and bulrushes closer to the water’s edge, this pond hosts several species like mallards and moorhens. Throughout most of last year, and until quite recently, there was a semi-resident grey heron. I hope he will return as the frog population grows in the Spring. Recently, however, a little egret has made an appearance over a couple of days.

Little egret

And in the summer months, the site hosts a thriving population of reed warblers, reed buntings, and whitethroats.

The goldfinches have an autumn feast when the knapweed seed heads ripen.

On the coast we see the usual range of waders such as oystercatchers, ringed plovers, sanderling, dunlin, and turnstones. One of my favorites however is the redshank (right), easily spotted because of its bright orange-red bill and legs. And, of course, several species of gull.

Another new species is the golden plover that I’ve seen on local farmland during the winter as well as at the coast foraging among the rocks. In summer it can be found inland on the hills and moors.

Golden plover

On the cliffs just south of the River Tyne (south of our home) and further north at Dunstanburgh Castle near Craster on the Northumberland coast are colonies of kittiwakes (below) and cormorants.

Cormorants on the coast south of the River Tyne at Whitburn.

We’ve also seen other cliff-dwelling species like guillemots and razorbills surfing on the waves, but we’re waiting on a trip out to the Farne Islands later in May to really get a look at these up-close.

But perhaps the most impressive sight, to date, have been flocks of pink-footed geese. We saw them first in a field (together with a small flock of about 30 curlews) near Seaton Sluice back in the Autumn. Then, on a walk close to home I could hear them honking in the distance and, gaining some height on the spoil heap at the former Fenwick Colliery, we could see a flock of several hundred grazing in a nearby field.

Pink-footed goose

But it wasn’t until about a month ago, when we were sat enjoying a picnic lunch just south of Amble, that I saw a ‘murmuration‘ of large birds which I’m pretty certain were pink-footed geese even though I didn’t have a clear sight as they were too far away to the west and I was looking into the sun. There must have been 1000 birds or more (based on my rough and ready count), flying this way then that, and finally spiraling down one after the other to land close to Hauxley Reserve. Until I have experienced a starling murmuration, this one will have to suffice, even though it was less frenetic than the starling version.


As in that earlier post, most of the bird images here were taken (with his permission) from the wonderful website of amateur photographer Barry Boswell (below), where you can find these and many more. Just click on the image below.

Barry has accumulated an impressive portfolio of bird photos. It’s remarkable how digital photography has revolutionized this particular hobby. When I see images of this quality I do wonder where he (and others with the same passion) get their patience, and indeed bird-spotting luck. Patience has never been one of my virtues.

Unlike the 500 mm lens (and Canon bodies) that Barry is sporting in the image above, I only have an 18-200 mm telephoto lens on a Nikon D5000 DSLR body.


 

 

No longer carrying coals to Newcastle*

Steph and I moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne at the beginning of October, leaving Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, and the West Midlands far behind. Just under 230 miles behind, in fact.

We have a six month rental on a nice house in the Shiremoor district of the city (North Tyneside Council) while we wait for the purchase of our new home to go through. We were fortunate to find somewhere to buy very soon after we made the move. Let’s hope the whole transaction goes more smoothly than did the sale of our Bromsgrove house.


And already we are enjoying getting to know the immediate surrounding area, and a little further afield, although the current Covid-19 lockdown restrictions don’t permit us to travel very far. We are fortunate that one of the closest beaches, at Seaton Sluice, is just 10 minutes away by car, and we have already enjoyed several walks between there and Blyth (a couple of miles or so north along the beach), to Cresswell and Druridge Bay somewhat further north, part way along a wooded valley known as Holywell Dene, to Plessey Woods with the grandchildren and, a few weeks back (before the latest lockdown came into force), we revisited the National Trust’s Cragside, a magnificent Victorian mansion that was built on the open moors near Rothbury in Northumberland.


Since my retirement in 2010, I took to walking almost everyday, weather permitting, as a replacement for the badminton I used to play regularly in the previous decade in Los Baños in the Philippines. As I have written in many blog posts, Walking with my mobile, I explored Bromsgrove and the surrounding district. I tried to walk at least a couple of miles each time (sometimes further), but for a minimum of 45 minutes as recommended. Not that I always achieved that.

Anyway, I did wonder what the walking would be like here in the northeast, close to home. And I haven’t been disappointed. What a delight! There’s a rich legacy of an important industrial past, a heritage in fact.

Heavy industry, and the economic wellbeing of this area north and south of the River Tyne were, for centuries, dependent on the mining of coal (‘black gold’), and the various quays along the river became among the most important in the world for the export of coal, much of it going south to warm the houses of the metropolis, London. But also further afield.

The Northumberland and Durham Coalfields (north and south of the Tyne) are one and the same larger coalfield, often referred to as the Great Northern Coalfield. And the area northeast of Newcastle city center, where we are currently living, is dotted with former coal mines and spoil heaps. But they have, to all intents and purpose, disappeared from the landscape. Mines were closed up to 40 years ago, and the pithead infrastructure was mostly demolished. Only in a few places do any building survive. Spoil heaps were flattened, the landscape rehabilitated, and these open spaces allocated for building, or parks like the Silverlink Biodiversity Park that is just a mile from our home.

But what is more remarkable—and I’m going to have to do more research and blog more extensively in the future—is the network of paths, 150 miles of them in North Tyneside alone that have become not only an important recreation and leisure amenity for everyone to enjoy (walking, cycling, and horse riding) but they are important biodiversity corridors into the city with many bird species, and mammals such as deer, rabbits, and hares. I’ve not seen any deer or hares yet, but rabbits and many bird species are quite common.

So why all these paths? Well, they are the disused trackbeds of railways built to haul the coal from the collieries north of the River Tyne down to the coal wharfs (or staithes), where it was loaded on to waiting ships. These paths are called waggonways.

Each mine or colliery built its own. Originally coal trucks ran on wooden rails. With the development of steam power, engine houses were built to lower and raise sets of wagons to the river, attached to cables. At the beginning of the 20th century these were replaced by steam locomotives that ran up and down the waggonways with their full load to the staithes, and empty on the return journey back to the mines. These photos were taken along the Cramlington Waggonway, which is the closest to home, less than a quarter of a mile.

I need to find so much more about the waggonways and the history of coal mining in this area. That should keep me busy for quite some time. In the meantime, we shall enjoy exploring these unique routes through the city, and the biodiversity that they harbor.


Much as we are enjoying walking along the waggonways, I have to mention the wanton and I guess mostly lazy littering that we have noticed along the paths. But some quite deliberate as I saw a bag of household waste tossed into the bushes. Much of the litter comprises used beer cans or plastic water bottles, some plastic bags. But, in these Covid times, also an increasing number of disposable face masks.

Now whether littering on this scale is endemic in the ‘local culture’ so to speak or, because of the pandemic, North Tyneside Council is unable to deploy workers to clear up the litter, I have no idea. But it is a sad reflection on a certain section of the local community that they feel they can pollute these environments in the way they do.


* The saying ‘to carry coals to Newcastle’ means to do or bring something superfluous or unnecessary, and has been in use since at least the 1500s. So what is its basis? As a major coal-exporting town, it would have been a worthless endeavor to try and sell coal from outside the local coalfields in Newcastle itself. And so, the saying gained a wider currency signifying something unnecessary.