A winter's break away from the world: Northumberland

All I want from life is the opportunity to walk on the beach: be by the seaside, listen to the crashing waves and enjoy it with those I love. Tim and I knew Christmas would be hectic but lovely, spending time with our families. But we wanted to escape and it was an easy decision to make a booking at Pear Tree Cottage in Beadnell on the Northumberland Coast. The cottage is part of a complex on the edge of the village, and is truly cosy with cream walls and plush fittings: leather sofas, oak furniture and silk bedspreads. The two-man walk-in shower complete with jets, a rain shower, a hand shower, seats and a radio, should have been luxurious but unfortunately was too complicated for its own good and many of the jets no longer worked. Still, with its heating and thick carpets, the cottage is the ideal retreat after a blustery day on the coast - and we had plenty of those ...

Blown from Craster to Dunstanburgh Castle
The forecast was anything but promising for the duration of our stay, so we decided to zip up our waterproofs and make do. One day, we awoke to sunshine and set off on the walk from pretty fishing town Craster to desolate Dunstanburgh Castle. The wind was fearsome and tireless, the waves battering the coast, Dunstanburg's haunting outline ever present in the distance.

As the weather began to turn, and the gusts of wind came complete with stinging rain, we sped up towards the protection of the ruins. Rather unfortunately, we had misread the opening hours and the castle was closed! Just what you get at this time of year I suppose! We continued further, skirting the golf course until we joined the beach, which was crammed with dog walkers.

So interesting is the scenery: a smooth beach winding beneath Dunstanburgh, where it transforms into a symphony of rocks and a curtain of cliff - surely imposing to any potential intruder. By the time we returned, soggy and muffled inside our waterproofs, the weather was truly dreadful. The path was a procession of shadows bowed against the wind and rain. And it took no deliberation at all to head into the cafe at Craster and warm up!
A surprise sky in Seahouses
It was as if by magic that the sky later cleared, illuminating the colourful fishing boats in Seahouses Harbour and lending Bamburgh Castle a golden halo. Beyond, a world of sand dunes and sea, where waves like horses soaring Grand National fences hurtle towards the shore. A landscape as if in Farrow and Ball shades. A crispness to the air and a magic that there is nothing between land and sea.

As we meandered down the beach in the late afternoon, we gazed up to a sky pale blue to the North and fiery pink and purple to the South, the wet sand an iridescent reflection of the respective colours. New Year's Eve fireworks from the harbour wall came as a real treat later on, and a quick drink at The Craster Arms in Beadnell, complete with the haunting echoes of a bagpiper practising for midnight's rendition of Auld Lang Syne, cemented the feeling in my mind that Northumberland is the ideal spot for a festive season away from it all.
Welcome 2014
At least New Year's Day began clear and sunny, and we welcomed the new year with a brisk stroll along the beach beneath Beadnell. There is nowhere I would ever rather be than at the coast. Frustratingly, the day became somewhat damper and we drove into the expanse of wilderness that is the Cheviots in driving rain. Our waterproofs barely dry from the previous day, we donned them again to a soggy walk to the Humbleton Iron Age Hill Fort close to quaint town Wooler. We didn't find it - I blame the rain - and instead found a sodden field of cows.

But at least it meant that we well and truly deserved the two hours later spent on the sofa, languidly sipping green tea and munching shortbread biscuits.

Chasing sand in Budle Bay
A golden carpet stretching, unbroken, as far as the eye can see. Waves lapping gently against the sand, melting onwards and then rolling up and away. Footprints making tracks here, there and nowhere in particular. The Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, a surprising sweep of land, carefully placed off shore. Behind us, the king of all castles, Bamburgh Castle, shrouded in gold leaf. And dogs, myriad dogs, galloping flat out across the sand.

As if the treat of the beaches weren't enough, we crowned our visit with dinner at The Mizen Head - a restaurant on the road into Bamburgh, with a stylish coastal estate feel and local artwork decorating the walls. It specialises in local sea food, and the menu is limited but of a high quality. I started with pates of smoked Craster Kipper and smoked salmon on rustic toast, while Tim opted for fillet of slip sole. Next, I ate fish goujons of monkfish, plaice and sole - posh fish fingers - and Tim savoured scallops, artfully presented on an open shell. Friendly staff and efficient service, as well as a roaring fire, make for cosy and sumptuous dining. In fitting style, we ended our visit with the most divine cream tea of just-right scones with clotted cream and homemade jam at The Copper Kettle within the quaint concertina of cottages that makes up Bamburgh's Main Street.

Hull's Old Town: Characterful pubs and a veggie restaurant with a difference ...

I'm embarrassed to admit that it is some years since I really spent time in Hull, despite it being just 30 minutes away from home down the A63. I was therefore thoroughly and pleasantly surprised to spend an afternoon there, rediscovering just how wrong the negative stereotypes about the place are. The marina is smart, with an air of exciting cosmopolitanism - the promise that goes with a city lying on the banks of the River Humber and a stone's throw from the North Sea.

There are arty touches all over - from the fish engraved into paving stones along the 'Fish Trail' (details from Tourist Information in the centre) to statues representing scenes from the city's history, such as a scene of a family en route to America. These are elements of a city that is at one with its heritage, elements of surprise that come as a real treat. There is a buzz about the place, added to by the beauty in the Georgian architecture.

The saddest aspect is the desolation of the high street: shops standing empty or occupied by tat chains. Once in the Old Town, you enter a realm of cobbled streets, characterful pubs and quirky restaurants. We went to The Sailmakers (a spacious pub with aquariums and plush sofas) and Ye Olde White Harte (a tiny space panelled in dark wood that is 'haunted' and has an ambiance created by chatter alone). We dined at Hitchcock's, a vegetarian restaurant with a difference. The cuisine is based on a particular country each evening, determined by the first table to book. When you arrive, you must ring a bell to be let in. You enter a low-lit warren crammed with tables, life-size models of kooky wild animals - think zebras with afros - and a tantalising banquet of home-cooked vegetarian fare.

The unique beauty of Spurn Point, Boxing Day 2013 ...

There is a sense of eerie foreboding about the place - hard to identify because the sky is clear and the sea bright beneath it, the quick sand banks of the River Humber shining like a mirror. But where a large sand dune should have prevented a view from one to the other now stands emptiness. A tractor-ploughed track demarcates the road - whose concrete slabs have been carried over onto the beach.

During the storm that created the destruction at Spurn Point, a narrow spit of sand on the East Yorkshire coast, the sea and river would have met above where we are standing. There would have been no long, spidery shadows across the beach as there are today, artwork on the sand. There are human shapes projected against the fiery skyline: signs of life in a landscape changed but not destroyed.

A seal pokes its head above the surf, its round eyes surveying the beach before it glides playfully into the wave and slithers towards us. It grapples its way onto the shiny sand, a cumbersome and ungainly shape looking for some rest beneath the sun. It curves its body this way and that, searching for the best angle, growling when a passer-by gets too close but quickly looking content again.

A 'High Tide' warning sign urges us back to the car park and we abandon our walk to the lighthouse, coldly distant and far away in the haze. The car park is covered in silt; the caravans in the holiday park strewn like unwanted toys. But this spit of land, where a golden wasteland meets with a big blue sky - a horizon punctuated only by the truncated prongs of a former jetty - has never looked more beautiful than on this glorious Boxing Day.
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