THROUGH fertile fields the Coquet pursues its course to the sea from Warkworth. On the south of the wide estuary stands the busy town of Amble, and at high tide the gleaming waters and the shipping make a fine picture, whilst beyond on the heaving sea is Coquet Island with its conspicuous whitewashed lighthouse.
Amble is of ancient origin as a township. On the links have been found a prehistoric burial place, and at Gloster Hill, adjoining, some traces of Roman occupation. The Priory of Tynemouth was endowed with the tithes of Amble in 1090, one of the earliest records of its existence. It possessed a Benedictine monastery, and the remains of the interesting pre-Reformation manor house are still to be seen. Now it is encircled by collieries, to which it owes its prosperity and shipping. The town claims a song which is usually associated with Falmouth, but the reference to the north certainly gives Amble a strong claim to it, and the tune is called a characteristic Northumberland one, although, apart from Tyneside and its many ballads, we are not aware of much tune-fulness in our northernmost county. The first verse goes :
Oh, Amble is a fine town, with ships upon the bay ; And I wish with my heart I was only there today ; And I wish with my heart I was far away from here, A-sitting in my parlour and talking to my dear. And it’s home, dearie, home ! Oh, it’s home I want to be ! My top sails are hoisted and I must out to sea. For the 0ak, and the ash, and the bonnie rowan tree They’re all a’growing green in the North Countree. Oh ! It’s home, dearie, home.
A mile off shore is Coquet Island, sixteen acres in extent, where from very early times had been a cell for Benedictine monks. Some Saxon relics have been found on it, which point to remote civilisation – a coin of the Emperor Valerian, a ring with an old English rune, possibly ninth century, a bronze buckle, and an enamelled ornament. In Elizabethan days it became the resort of lawless folk and money-coiners, and during the Civil War was taken by the Scots. Leland says that ” The Isle of Coquet standeth upon a very good vayne of secoles ; and at the ebbe, men digge in the shore by the clives ” ; and a writer in 1747 describes it : ” Coquet Island lies at the mouth of the River of that name where was anciently a castle with a Monastery but both have been long demolished, and here are no habitations but Hutts for the Diggers of Sea-coal. Vast flocks of wild fowl continually harbour and lay their eggs on this island, by the sale of which the fishermen make great advantages as well as by the fish which they catch here in abundance.” After storms coal is often washed up on Amble shore. At the building of the lighthouse (in which is incorporated the vault of the old tower) the terns and eider duck disappeared and the seals which used to inhabit the north end of the island were shot down. The light-house is eighty feet high and the intermittent light is visible four-teen miles off, whilst an explosive fog signal warns the mariner in thick weather on this dangerous coast. Two picturesque incidents Bates records about Coquet Island. In 684 Elfled, Abbess of Whitby, asked St. Cuthbert to meet her on the island to discuss her brother King Egfred’s affairs. He told her that the King had only a year to live and would be succeeded by another whom she would also regard as a brother. ” Thou seest this great and broad sea, how it aboundeth in islands. It is easy for God to provide someone out of one of these to be set over the Kingdom of the English.” Elfled thought he referred to a reputed son of her father, Oswi.
At a later date Robert Fitz-Roger, at Warkworth,had a curious dispute with an eccentric hermit of Coquet Island called Martin.
The latter built a windmill, which infuriated the lord of the manor, and he sent men with mattocks and axes to destroy it in the sight of the terrified Martin, but the chronicler adds that it was a strange fancy for a professed hermit to indulge in, as mills, like shows, were apt to harbour promiscuous society. So poor Martin, enlivening his solitude with a little worldly speculation, was quickly chastened by the jealous knight who reigned at Warkworth.
The fishing village of Hauxley is a little to the south of Amble. It has a lifeboat station above the rocky entrance to its harbour, and beyond it are the Bondicarr Rocks and Druridge Bay. There is now a flourishing coalfield near it. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century the only industries were fishing and the burning of kelp, which was made from the seaweed in summer. The kelp was dried in the sun, and after being treated by fire was sold to glass and soap manufacturers. On the links, where it was dried, one of the latest smugglers is commemorated by a hill called Tom Forsyth’s Hill. Forsyth operated even in the nineteenth century, and forty horses have been seen there awaiting the arrival of the lugger. In those days too it was thought to be an ill winter that brought no wrecks, and within memory is the story of the old fishwife who, after a suspension of shipwrecks, shut her cat up in the cupboard to bring luck.
In the village street is a cottage with a moulded window and a doorhead with the date 1600 – all that remains of the original mansion of the Widdringtons. At Hauxley Hall, a hundred years ago, lived one of the Surtees, a partner in a Newcastle bank that failed. He was so afraid of arrest that he never came out except on Sundays, and had a shuttered lattice in the outer door so that callers could be observed and interrogated from it. The Whitehouse sands at Hauxley preserve the recollection of the white-painted hut where a lieutenant and a few bluejackets lived during the Napoleonic Wars watching for the advance ships of the disturber of European peace.
From the Bondicarr rocks extends the fine half-circle of Druridge Bay, with beautiful white sands rich in shells.
Turning inland from Amble or Warkworth, or by following a road leading from Druridge Bay, about two miles from the coast, is the village of Widdrington. The station is on the main line, but the village is a mile and a half off. Chevy Chase has handed down to us for ever the memory of Widdrington, the doughty
” Squyar of Northumbarlonde Ric. Wytharyngton was his nam.”
It shall never be told in Sothe Ynglonde, he says To kyng Henry the fourth for sham. I wat yone byn great lordes twan I am a poor squyar of lande ; I wyll never se my captayne fyght on a fylde And stande myselfe and loocke on.
For Wytharyngton my harte was wo, That ever he slayne shulde be, For when both his leggis were hewyne in to Yet he knyled and fought on hys kni.
The splendid tower of Widdrington, built in 1341, with lofty battlements, was ruthlessly levelled in 1777, and the shooting box which replaced it has also been demolished. The Widdringtons were devoted to the Stuarts, and taking part in the ill-fated rebellion of 1715, their estates were forfeited to the Crown. Robert Carey, in his hasty ride to Edinburgh to take the news of Elizabeth’s death to the least admirable of the Stuarts, stopped at Widdrington and proclaimed King James. He had left London after nine in the morning and reached Widdrington the next night. It was the first place the King drew rein at after leaving Berwick in April 1603, and he was entertained there by Sir Robert Carey and “his virtuous ladye.” Less than a hundred years ago there was a curious tradition that Widdrington had at one time been devastated by a foreign invasion. It has been proved that the French landed on the coast by the following extract from the parish book of Billingham, in the county of Durham :
July 31st 1692. Collected in ye parish church of Billingham in ye Countie pallatine of Durham, for a briefe for ye inhabitants of Druidge, Widdrington, Chibborne, for a losse by ye French landing there, three shillings, seven pence.
No history book refers to this, and it would be interesting to know if any remembrance of a two-centuries-ago panic in these hamlets was awakened with the threat of the German invasion recently, and if particular precautions were taken at Druridge Bay. The lieutenant and his bluejackets at Whitehouse sands must surely have hastened to the assistance of Widdrington. What a pity no local chronicler or letter-writer mentions it, or the garrulous pen of Longhoughton’s vicar,a century later, might have preserved some story of this historic and unnoticed incident.
Widdrington Church stands on a knoll within the same field where the tower once was, and dates from the latter part of the twelfth century. The chancel and south aisle and south door are fourteenth-century, and in the wall is a piscina of a date no later than 1200. On the north side of the chancel are two recesses which have evidently contained effigies of the Widdringtons ; over the arch of one is the Widdrington arms. There are two old grave covers with crosses engraved in the church. The learned John Horsley, the first historian of Northumberland, was the Nonconformist minister of Widdrington at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The romance of the name Widdrington is attached solely to the family of that name. After hundreds of years’ possession they lost all through loyalty to the Jacobite cause. The village is not very interesting.
About a mile from Widdrington is Chibburn Preceptory, a house of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, standing in rich meadows where the Chibburn runs to the sea about half a mile off. This Order originated in the twelfth century, and Chibburn was probably founded by a Widdrington in the fourteenth. The buildings originally enclosed a courtyard and were defended by a moat, of which there are remains on the west and south sides. Part of the interior, which was the chapel, is now a stable, and behind the manger at the east end are the traces of a piscina. On the west side is a block still inhabited. This had been used as a dower house by the Widdrington family. There is much speculation about the dates of the various parts and the uses of the buildings, and it is all of extraordinary interest. There are several ornamented doorways, and some old woodwork. It is unfortunate that it has been adapted now for labourers to live in; but even so, the chants of the Knights Hospitaliers, antique, pious figures, still echo for the solitary listener across the fields.
Towards the southern extremity of Druridge Bay is the fishing village of Cresswell, and looking out to sea from among the trees is the old pele tower of Cresswell. Druridge Bay terminates in the reef at Snab Point, a dangerous rocky coast and the scene of many shipwrecks and brave rescues. Walking along the coast to Newbiggin we pass the Lyne sands, where is a small hamlet called Lyne, and a stream of the same name enters the sea. The large fishing village of Newbiggin, now also a popular watering-place, is only interesting for the prominent position on the promontory of Newbiggin Point of the Church of St. Bartholomew. It is the sailor’s notable landmark here. Part of the churchyard has been crumbled away by the waves and the bones of the dead scattered much in the same way as the sea has undermined Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. South of the mouth of the Wansbeck, with Cambois and North Seaton on either side, the sandy coast stretches to the busy town and harbour of Blyth, where the Blyth enters the sea after a short course of twenty miles. It flows past Belsay and then, uniting with the Pont, winds through the lovely vale of Stannington and the ” sounding woods ” of Plessey referred to in ” Marmion.” A stretch of sand dunes swept and torn by the wind continues to Seaton Sluice. A feature of the coast between the Blyth and Tyne is the common occurrence of landslips, usually after heavy rainfall. Seaton Sluice used to be an important harbour and bears witness to the enterprise of the Delaval family in the past. One of them placed large sluice gates on the burn which the incoming tide closed. When the tide retreated, the strong current opening the gates carried all before it and thus twice a day washed the haven clean. A later Delaval made a great cutting to the harbour through the solid sandstone cliff. All along the coast-line are prettily wooded denes bordering the streams which rush to the sea. They form a welcome break in these dreary colliery districts. The Abbess in ” Marmion,” as she sailed to Lindisfarne, ” marked amidst its trees the hall of lofty Seaton Delaval.” This magnificent mansion was built by Sir John Vanbrugh, the great architect of Blenheim. The first castle, long razed, was begun by Ramon de Laval, one of the companions of the Conqueror, who obtained these lands as reward for his services in subjugating England. Vanbrugh’s house suffered from two fires and is now partially ruined.
The little chapel to Our Lady, near it, possibly built in the twelfth century, has a claim to be considered of Saxon origin. This is the opinion of J. E. Morris, who calls it the most interesting ecclesiastical structure in Northumberland. Another authority regards it as a pure and perfect specimen of Norman architecture. Above the west door are six shields with the arms of the Delavals, and the walls are decorated with armour, tattered banners, and escutcheons. There are two recumbent figures, one of a knight in armour, the other a female figure, each with a dog at its feet, Delavals, possibly, of the fourteenth century.
High cliffs from Seaton Sluice continue past Hartley, a quaint village with red-tiled roofs, and beyond it is a continuous stretch of popular coast resorts.
At Whitley Sands, a great resort of trippers, are fine table rocks. All the sea-front here has assumed a suburban aspect, although at Cullercoats the picturesque fishwives strike a primitive note. It is singularly refreshing amidst the bustle of Newcastle Station to see one of these brown-faced, hatless women, largely petticoated, with her creel giving out as she passes the too distinct smell of fins and scales.