Craster in the early morning. The North Sea is calm, still like a mill pond. Down below the path oystercatchers pick their way across the rocks of what – at a higher tide – we have named ‘Jacob’s Island’ but which is now very much connected with the mainland. At low tide a rusted ship’s boiler can be seen resting on the damp sands, the legacy of a hundred-year-old wreck and a reminder that while the sea may be calm this morning, the rocks along the Northumbrian shore have claimed many ships over the centuries.
Through the village and there is little sign of life on the streets. Outside the cafe a young woman wipes the overnight moisture from the picnic tables on the terrace, preparing for a day of serving tea, cake and sandwiches to daytrippers and long-distance walkers following St Oswald’s Way along the coast. A drinks delivery is unloaded at the the pub and in the smokehouse someone is working as the smell of kippers drifts out from the stone buildings and down towards the harbour.
At low tide the solitary boat rests on the sands beneath the high walls topped with lobster pots. A couple of kids search through the seaweed in their wellington boots, looking for shells or pieces of salt-smoothed glass – brown, green or milky white. The harbour is surrounded by cottages and the lifeboat station, a picture-postcard vision of a fishing village, even if most of the houses are now holiday lets and the main business of the place (beyond the famous kippers) is now clearly tourism.
From the harbour the path of St Oswald’s Way leads out across the fields that run down to the rocks and the sea beneath. Later today the path will be filled with a steady line of walkers making their way between Craster and the striking ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle on the headland. Dunstanburgh was built in the 14th century and has been a ruin since the 16th, now owned by the National Trust. In the shadow of the castle the view out across the water offers sightings of eider ducks and shags and the promise of a harbour porpoise or a bottlenose dolphin, breaking the surface. Inland and the landscape stretches out towards the old volcanoes of the Cheviots that formed this part of the world.
Looking out across the sea is like looking out across a desert. Vast and – on the surface – basically empty. Plenty is of course hidden beneath the gentle waves that are now beginning to form but from above… nothing. Just space that you can populate yourself with your thoughts or memories of seaside rambles that have gone before.
At this time in the morning the castle is closed, but a path runs around the perimeter fence and down beneath walls that look like they could come crashing down any moment; down beneath the cliffs atop which the castle is perched and which are a populated by a screeching, echoing mass of birdlife; and down to the first of the dunes that frame the broad sweep of Embleton Bay and separate the beach from the golf club.
From here St Oswald’s Way continues north, to Bamburgh and Seahouses and the pilgrim path across the tidal sands to Holy Island and Lindisfarne. But for today, Embleton is enough. Retracing steps, the path leads back to Craster, where the boat rises in the harbour with the tide, the kippers are ready for breakfast and Jacob’s Island has become an island once more.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig