Craster Night Walk
Mon 21st October 2013
We met at Craster Quarry car park just after sunset and things looked promising, there were patches of open sky overhead and out to the east over the sea but it was too early to see any stars yet. Fifteen minutes later we were on the dip-slope of whin sill rock looking east out to sea listening to the waves crashing onto the rock of the wave-cut platform, it was almost high tide. We couldn’t see very much in the misty twilight with a hazy glow around any points of artificial light but it is amazing how the other senses compensate for reduced vision, especially the senses of hearing and smell.
In the failing light this was just about the last time I actually “saw” Andrea, my carer for the day, who was bringing up the rear - 20 people need careful monitoring on a dark night. The aim was for everyone to avoid using artificial light to begin with until their eyes became dark adapted and to experience just how much could actually be seen at night. We’d use the lights and headtorches later for the damp bit as light showers were forecast between 20.00 and 22.00 hours. We even inspected a newly built section of drystone wall built of whin sill dolerite in the semi-darkness. An hour earlier that would have seemed very odd indeed, it probably still did to some of our number. We continued via a break in the west facing scarp face of the sill, an old quarry, to the north-south trending valley beneath The Heughs (Northumbrian for a sharp ended low hill) towards Dunstan Square. Shielded by the cliff face we could no longer hear the sea but some of us could hear the trains on the East Coast Mainline nearly four kilometres away to the west, others were just chatting and enjoying themselves or trying not to fall over in the dark. The silhouettes of the farm buildings gave us something to aim for as we ascended the slope through the fields. The most awkward thing so far was finding the gate fastenings in the dark. Just here we got our first view of the rising moon through broken cloud but it was too weak to give shadows. The midlevel cloud did treat us however to a show of iridescence, the pastel coloured mother-of-pearl bands of colours caused in this case by moonlight being diffracted as it passes through cloud. I’m sure some of our number were suitably unimpressed, it was a subtle effect but interesting nonetheless – well for me anyway.
The next bit towards Dunstan Steads was easy, a concrete bridleway and part of a long distance cycleway, linked the two farms. Along this section we past a 1940’s pillbox adjacent to our route which provided continuity with indistinct views of Dunstanburgh Castle we got between the gaps in the hedge as we made our way north. We were getting good at spotting the wet and soggy bits by now and at avoiding ground with a high squelch factor. Passing the barns, sheds and holiday cottages at Dunstan Steads we turned east down towards the sea. As we passed through the gate to cross the links of Dunstanburgh Castle Gold Course the forecast “light shower” started and continued quite intensely for nearly half an hour. After donning wet weather gear (quickly) the route was altered to take advantage of a hedgerow in the vain hope that it would provide an element of protection for the section towards Dunstanburgh Castle, it didn’t! At one point the rain, definitely not a shower; I could see the size of the droplets in my headtorch, blanked out our view of the castle which we had been able to see in silhouette for most of the walk. The plan to stop for a picnic below the north end of the castle near Gull Crag was rapidly abandoned in favour of a strong British tradition, a car picnic back at Craster, oh well. It was here that I fell over, thank you for not pointing and laughing or applauding or for those who didn’t see it for not asking me to do it again.
The rain eased as we went around the landward side of the castle up towards the main entrance. The castle was closed the clue being a big chain and lock on the flimsy entrance gate. Being truly British we formed a queue in the darkness and waited for something to happen. What we saw were the navigation lights of a Seaking helicopter from RAF Boulmer doing some night flying and the beam of the lighthouse on Coquet Island off Amble 18 kilometres to the south. Walking south down the gentle slope towards Craster we crossed the numerous ridge and furrow remains of arable cultivation that were actually easier to see in torchlight than in full daylight. As we went the position of the former castle harbour, now long gone, was pointed out but the biggest sensory impact was the smell of the sea. Some exceptional and particularly sensitive individuals could also smell the beer in the pub in Craster too. As everyone was by now “quite damp” not to mention hungry and ready for a drink I decided not to divert off the tourist route to visit the site of the former Second World War radar station. The two remaining reinforced concrete buildings, the transmitter and receiver operations block and the standby set house (i.e. generator) are easily seen on the dip-slope of the whin sill. This Chain Home Low radar station operated from 1941 to 1944 as part of the coastal defences of the UK after which it was converted into a Prisoner of War Camp initially for German prisoners and later for Italians some of whom worked at Dunstan Steads the first farm we had walked past earlier in the evening.
We had a quick look at Craster harbour and village which is unusual in being built predominantly of the hard and difficult to shape whin sill dolerite before some lucky people deserted us for the pub whilst the rest of us made tracks for the car park, a belated picnic and the drive home. It was a pleasure to see old friends and some new faces on the walk. I hope that young Scott (aged 9) wasn’t put-off by the atmospheric conditions, it’s a pity we didn’t see more of the night sky. Did anyone else notice how the sky began to clear when we got back to Craster? Do have a look at the route we followed on Google Earth so that you can work out where we went. Thank you to all for attending and especially to Andrea for her help and support throughout. One of these days we will get lucky and get a clear sky and strong moon shadows. Only two evenings previously the conditions were excellent and the Milky Way looked superb, we must try again soon.
Monday, 21 October 2013