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The Alternative Winter Holiday

We gave up on M. Macron and his country about a week before they gave up on us. That is to say we abandoned our plans for a skiing trip in January because of all the tests and documentation required and the possibility that we wouldn’t be allowed into restaurants or cable cars and then the French Government banned all visitors from Britain because of the spread of the Omicron Covid variant except for certain special reasons which didn’t include skiing and eating.

But two of us, my brother-in-law Joe and his wife Wendy, had booked holiday that could not be unbooked so we were on holiday, by necessity a “staycation”, but where to go? I had thoughts about the Lincolnshire Wolds, apparently and intriguingly the least visited of all designated areas of the English countryside, but nobody else seemed to share these thoughts so we soon agreed on Northumberland. There were lots of places there that Joe and Wendy had never visited and even some that we hadn’t. We chose a rented house in Alnmouth which lies, where it ought to, at the mouth of the river Aln. The thing about Alnmouth is that there was a mighty storm in 1806 which changed the course and nature of the river so that Alnmouth ceased to be an agricultural port of some significance and became a kind of obscure resort island between the sea and the estuary.

And here’s a little saga that reflects on 2022 and perhaps on Northumberland. There are two restaurants in the village (as it now is) and we wanted to eat in both of them. One was straightforward, but the other, Bistro 23, announced on its website that it was only open on certain weekday evenings. I rang to find when they would be open. When I suggested a particular date they said they didn’t know; January was traditionally a dead month with few bookings. So I booked hypothetically and they said they would get back in touch with me if they were going to open. I thought they never would, but they did and when we eventually ate there it was all but full. I had hake in a creamy sauce with capers and spring onions and wonderfully crispy roast potatoes. By general agreement it was the best meal we had in Northumberland and the competition was fierce. The proprietor confided that 2021 was the best year of their nineteen year history and that previously they would never have imagined that you could fill a restaurant in the backwoods of Northumberland in January, but their concern is that it will all dip lower than ever when the “staycation boom” is over and travel returns to something like normality.

Anyway, to use the ancient Lancastrian incantation, we were very lucky with the weather. This was most famously said by the footballer Steve Kindon after he had played in Saudi Arabia in July in a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. But we needed no irony. We really were very, very lucky with the weather. You go on holiday in England in January and you equip yourselves with every kind of scarf and coat and glove and what happens? The sun shines every waking minute. Our only possible complaint was that we didn’t see the aurora borealis which had been seen in Alnmouth the previous week though we did see an enormous “wolf moon” hanging over the North Sea. The staycationers weren’t that numerous: when we were on Holy Island there were sixteen cars in the car park. I’ve seen more coaches than that. So we saw the views from the higher parts of the island in perfect circumstances: brilliant blue sea, crashing white waves, a horizon of castles and islands and hills all picked out clearly by the winter sun.

We walked a lot of coastal path, made easier by the new signs indicating the England coastal path because now, in theory, you can walk round the whole country. I was complimented for showing a rare pace on the beautiful section from Boulmer north to Craster, but I was nervous that my companions would for some reason be deprived of the famous crab sandwiches at the Jolly Fisherman in Craster. The pub might be closed for a winter break or too full or all the best tables might be taken or they could have run out of crab. I hadn’t bothered to ring because it was impossible to say what time we could get there. In the event it was all perfect – a table overlooking the sea, crab sandwiches and chips washed down with Guinness and cider. And then on to Dunstanburgh Castle; apparently I slowed down a lot after lunch.

Northumberland has many great set piece attractions like Alnwick Castle, Cragside and Hadrian’s Wall. But there are many smaller, lonelier delights. In a deserted part of Coquetdale (apparently pronounced kohketdale) we discovered Edlingham Castle which the English Heritage website informs one is unattended and may be visited “at any reasonable daylight hour”. It is in pasture land in a valley surrounded by brown moorland and dark green forest. What is a castle, anyway? I ask this because Edlingham (not to be confused with Eglingham which is some miles to the north) was built as a manor house in the relatively peaceful thirteenth century. There were then three centuries of war and banditry during which the house had fortifications built around it and on top of it. The story is obvious from looking at it and some of the fortifications are now kept upright by metal hawsers. Nearby is the tiny, fully intact rarity of a stone Saxon church. There were once six hundred people living in this bit of valley; now there are these two extraordinary ancient buildings and a couple of farms. There were no other visitors.

Further up Coquetdale is Rothbury which surprised us in a really good way. The main street, broad and stone built, seems to think it’s still the 1950s. There are bakers and greengrocers, clothes shops and shoe shops and a wonderful old hardware store. Yet the population of Rothbury is just a little over 2000, the size of many Warwickshire villages, some of which have no commercial facilities whatsoever. Yet Berwick-upon-Tweed, six times the size, for all its magnificent city walls and grand architecture (especially the Georgian houses overlooking the river) has a main street which is an extreme example of the commercial death and dereliction of twenty first century high streets. We could only believe it was because Rothbury was so small and so far away that it had remained more or less immune from the effects of out-of-town shopping. In fact the habitations of the Northumbrian interior are tiny: Wooler is slightly smaller than Rothbury and Wark and Otterburn only have a few hundred people.

Alnmouth has actually lost a quarter of its population in this century. The main factor is the conversion of the fixed housing stock into holiday rentals, a use that makes them far more valuable. But is this a good thing? We had a wonderful time and wonderful times are, ceteris paribus, a good thing. And the visitors create many jobs. It can be easily argued that most young people would want to leave anyway. But the idea of an ancient village becoming predominantly a place of rented holiday homes is not attractive. We asked ourselves how we would fancy different neighbours every week.

After a week in Alnmouth we poddled slowly back down the coast for a short stay in our native County Durham through Blyth (not pretty, but interesting), Seaton Sluice (much nicer than it sounds) and Whitley Bay, which looks as if it has had billions spent on it and which was heaving with people, An English resort? In January? We took the products of our foraging with us: potatoes from Wooler, haggis from Berwick, eggs and smoked salmon from Amble market. Where once such goods were regularly extracted by the reivers at the point of a sword and later hard currency was required in 2022 it was all done with a debit card.

Lincoln Allison January 2022