Whatever elements you find yourself battling against when taking the coastal way to Dunstanburgh Castle one thing is for sure – getting there will be worth it.
Stepping through the kissing gate that sets you on your way from the fishing village of Craster – world famous for its kippers – the panorama that greets the visitor is testament to two things: the ever changing beauty of nature and the defiant permanence of history.
The coastal path runs parallel to the North Sea for about a mile from Craster to the castle which dominates the headland of Cullernose Point, an outcrop of Great Whin Sill (hard black basaltic rock) and itself a feature of great interest to geologists.
But it is Dunstanburgh Castle that steals the show.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the area has historic roots going back to the Iron Age as the site of a promonotory fort and where Roman pottery finds have been made as evidence of later occupation.
No further significant footprint was made on the site until today’s building started life as a showpiece 14th century des-res for Thomas 2nd Earl of Lancaster: a stronghold that became a focal point for political intrigue, rebellion and plots against Edward II.
A cousin to Edward, Thomas was, through inheritance and marriage, second only to him in terms of land and wealth. Master of five earldoms he owned many key fortesses of which Pontefract Castle and Dunstanburgh Castle were the jewels.
At the start of King Edward’s reign Thomas was a loyal subject, but as the conflict between the king and nobles wore on, Lancaster’s allegiances changed. Following the King’s defeat at Bannockburn in 1314, a weakened Edward submitted to Lancaster, who in effect became ruler of England.
Lancaster was deposed four years later. In response a second rebellion led by Lancaster was launched but was met with complete annihilation at the battle of Boroughbridge. Thomas was taken prisoner on his way north, presumably to his northern stronghold, convicted of treason and executed near Pontefract Castle in 1322
The turbulance of the 14th century has prompted much debate about Dunstanburgh. History suggests it switched from an extravagant enclave to a formidable fortress on the back of Thomas’s ambitions. Vague remnants of a medieval dock below the support the theory that Dunstanburgh became a place of strategic retreat.
The fortress passed into the Royalist hands of John of Gaunt, ‘Lieutenant of the Marches towards Scotland’ where its defences were soon to be tested by fierce Scottish Border attacks in 1384. Following this period Dunstanburgh was held for the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, before falling to the Earl of Warwick.
It was its strategic location that persuaded the Ministry of Defence to use Dunstanburgh as a top secret Battle of Britain radar station, protected by barbed wire and a minefield (now removed).
The castle is now owned by the National Trust and in the care of English Heritage. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and lies within the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which is home to a wide variety of local flora and fauna.
And along the path from Craster there’s the endless joy of rockpooling (children optional!) amongst the numerous boulders and coves.
This wonderful stretch of the fabled Northumbrian coastline was a favourite of the artist Turner who painted Dunstanburgh many times.
Once the prized possession of a mediaeval aristocracy, Dunstanburgh Castle now belongs us all and is an outstanding part of Northumberland’s rich history and heritage.
A joy to visit – whatever the weather.
Photographs: Lisa Beale