Take a hike

Bamburgh Castle

MATTHEW CAFFREY chronicles his recent experiences whilst exploring the Northumberland Coastal Path

Matthew Cafrey

Matthew Cafrey

The view of the garden from your desk looks mighty appealing when you’ve been sitting applying for jobs for days, months on end.

One day – probably one rainy, grey Northumberland morning – I was procrastinating, reading an article by a photographer I admire. He and his dog, Dillon, had, like me, been feeling the pinch of the pandemic. Freelance work had dried up, travel had been cancelled, the future was looking scary. It all sounded familiar. So, to beat the blues, to rediscover the road and leave his woes behind, he took off on an everyday adventure around his backyard, the imposing Atlantic coastline of Cornwall. So I thought, why not me?

To this point, my life has been overshadowed by perpetual wanderlust; visions of far-flung places and exotic landscapes. But in that moment, it seemed to me strange that I knew more of the Galician coastline than the one that inks the North Eastern corner of our country, the corner that I have called home for four years of my life.

Sitting at the desk in my girlfriend’s childhood bedroom, I began running through all the reasons that I shouldn’t set out, that I couldn’t have my own everyday adventure. The list was short. I had no work schedule, no social life. I had multiple applications floating about in the ether and not a lot to do before I heard back from them. That familiar little rush of adrenalin began to flood through me as my mind was made up.

At the end of the same week we were frantically packing ahead of an early Friday morning start. The three of us (myself, my girlfriend Kate and her sister Becky) struggled to divide a Vango two-person tent between us, squeeze ziplock bags of couscous into bulging pockets and worried about whether we’d find enough water on the walk. The next morning, in a blur of coffee and last-minute adjustments, we set out for the start of the Northumberland Coastal Path.

Creswell was understandably quiet as we arrived at 7.30am. Sea fret rolled in from some unseen place and we each shared a cautious glance before saddling up and joining the sandpipers on the beach. We had begun. The Northumberland Coastal Path, stretching from Creswell to Berwick-upon-Tweed, covers 62 miles from south to north. Compared to the 630-mile South West Coast Path, which served as our inspiration, it was a literal walk in the park. We planned to reach Berwick on our fourth day.

That first morning was a struggle. We were cold, our shoulders weren’t used to carrying such a load and the car (our chance to return to the comfort of a full-fridge and a purring cat) was virtually still in sight. We were wet with the mist and cold. But we soon warmed up. Conversation came easily and our feet gradually fell lighter and, keeping the sea to our right and the guide kept tucked safely out of sight, we made good progress. The beautiful seaside town of Alnmouth was our destination on that first day and we propped ourselves up at a picnic table overlooking stand-up paddle boarders in the swell, families having barbeques on the beach and young children splashing in the white water. The beer was cold and our supper warming. It was easy to be happy out here away from a world where pandemics and unemployment form the focus of every decision. But for a while at least it was just us and the sea.

The following days passed in much the same way. We slept where we found flat ground, huddled together in the tightly packed tent. Our bags, which we had to leave outside overnight for lack of space, were soaked with dew come morning. We swam in opal seas and threw tennis balls for dogs who didn’t belong to us. There was a night of excitement as we sighted of a pod of dolphins leaping and playing under the shadow of Bamburgh Castle. We marvelled at the history of this coastline and wondered about the many battles that had been fought and lost on these beaches. The whole coastline is extraordinarily evocative, but the stretch between Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh evoked feeling of the type I have rarely experienced.

We averaged 18 miles each day. There were blisters and bad knees. I’d made a bad decision to wear trainers rather than boots and my feet were in tatters. There was exhaustion and longing and there were tears. But always, no matter what, we enjoyed an evening in one another’s company, a cold beer and a warm meal. And those pleasures, simple as they may seem, were worth all of the rest.

The fourth and final day of our journey dawned grey and as we sat around eating breakfast and drinking coffee, the heavens opened. The next few hours were spent largely in silence. Becky tried to scare me with the frogs that came crawling out to sit in the damp grasses. We were drenched through every layer we wore, right to the bone and esteem was low. But Berwick was in sight and that spurred us on. To our right was our ever-present companion and she was as atmospheric and striking as ever, unsettled and rippled by the rain. At our destination we huddled inside a café, apologising profusely for the puddles we were leaving on the wooden floor. A large man waiting in the doorway with his gentle dogs asked us if we’d come far and his eyebrows disappeared into the hood of his raincoat when we told him. Whilst we waited for our lift (and hopefully some dry clothes), we relaxed and breathed and chatted as we had done since Creswell.

That evening, tired but showered and warm, I logged onto my email account to find a message apologising and rejecting me for a job I had interviewed for the previous week. The monotony of the application/rejection cycle had been getting me down. But this email didn’t faze me. I thought about the last few days, about the beauty all around us, the adventure right in front of us. On the walk you only focused on what you could see, what was present. Whatever may come in the next few months or years, it was reassuring to know that this ancient landscape that I’ve come to know as home is a fixture of majesty and calm in the storm of modern life.