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Craster and a Ruined Castle

From a village famous for its kippers to a castle that inspired Turner.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient 275ft (84m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Generally good tracks, some field paths tussocky, 1 stile

Landscape Coastal pasture and dunes

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 332 Alnwick & Amble

Start/finish NU 256198

Dog friendliness On lead through village and by coast; sheep grazing

Parking Pay-and-display behind Craster tourist information centre

Public toilets Beside information centre

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1 From the car park, turn right towards the village. Immediately before the harbour, go left into Dunstanburgh Road, signed 'Castle', and carry on through a gate at the end above a rocky shore towards Dunstanburgh Castle.

2 After two more gates, if you want to visit the castle, keep to the main track, which winds around to its entrance. Otherwise, bear left on a less-distinct path through a shallow gorge on the landward side. Continuing below the castle, the ruins of the Lilburn Tower, perched dramatically on top of a rocky spur outcrop, are an impressive feature.

3 Beyond, as you pass above a bouldery beach, glance back to the cliffs protecting Dunstanburgh Castle's northern aspect, which, in the early summer, echo to the screams of innumerable seabirds, squabbling for nesting sites on the narrow ledges.

4 Through a kissing gate at the edge of a golf course, bear right to remain above the shore, where dramatic folding of the rocks is plainly evident. Ahead stretches the sandy expanse of Embleton Bay and, if the tide permits, you can continue along the beach.

5 Shortly, look for a prominent break in the dunes, through which a path leads across the golf course to meet a lane. Follow it up to Dunstan Steads, turning left immediately before on to a drive, signed 'Dunstan Square'. Where this bends behind the buildings, bear left across an open area to a gate and continue over the open fields on a farm track.

6 After a mile (1.6km), at Dunstan Square, pass through two successive gates by a barn and then turn left through a third gate, signed 'Craster'. Walk down the field edge, through another gate at the bottom, and then on along a track rising through a break in the cliffs ahead, The Heughs. Keep going across the top to the field corner and turn through a gate on the right.

7 Walk away, initially beside the left-hand boundary, but after 150yds (137m), by a gate, bear right to follow the line of the ridge higher up. Eventually meeting the corner of a wall, continue ahead beside it. Shortly after crossing a track, go on over a stile, beyond which the path becomes more enclosed. Approaching the village, the path turns abruptly left behind a house and emerges on to a street. Follow it down to the main lane and turn right, back to the car park.

Standing in dramatic isolation on a craggy outcrop of whinstone cliff, and overlooking the vast emptiness of the North Sea, is one of England's most spectacular medieval ruins, Dunstanburgh Castle. Its lonely silhouette has inspired several artists, such as the great landscape painter J M W Turner, and the castle's atmospheric shell featured as a set in the film version of Hamlet (1991) starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close.

Building began around 1313 by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, the richest and most powerful baron of his day and a fierce opponent of his cousin, Edward II. Edward, though, upset more than Lancaster at his court, by his devotion to Piers Gaveston, son of a Gascon nobleman. After Edward created Gaveston Earl of Cornwall, Lancaster mustered an opposition that contrived the execution of the King's favourite for treason. However, Lancaster's popularity amongst the other barons waned and he met his own sticky end after leaving the security of his Dunstanburgh stronghold to venture south in an ill-conceived alliance with the Scots. Meeting the King's forces at Boroughbridge, his army was routed and Lancaster captured. Rank brought him no protection from the regal wrath and, six days later, the King avenged the death of his friend Gaveston by the execution of Lancaster, also on charges of treason.

The outer curtain walls of the castle cover more than 9 acres (3.6ha), exploiting the natural defences of a high, sheer sea cliff to the north and a craggy coast to the east. The steep western flank of the outcrop presented its own difficulties for would-be assailants. Part of the original construction, the outer wall is 10ft (3m) thick in places and was entered by a massive three-storey gatehouse protected by two towers rising high above. A later Earl of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, converted this gatehouse into the keep and built an alternative entrance further along the outer wall, although of this nothing but the foundations remain.

Other additions included the Lilburn Tower on the western wall, serving as a look-out and defence against land attack from the north, whilst the south and east were protected by the Constable's and Egyncleugh towers. However, although the mighty fortress must have appeared an impregnable defence against the military strategy and war engines of its day, it was not designed to withstand the cannon that followed. The castle was besieged during the 1460s in the Wars of the Roses as the Yorkists moved to gain control in Northumberland and suffered a pounding at the hands of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. It was never re-fortified and quietly crumbled to become the splendid ruin seen today.

What to look for

Wandering through Craster, your nose is sure to lure you to Robinson's Smokehouse, where kipper-making has been a family business for four generations. Famed throughout the country, they are cured in a traditional manner and, although the herrings are no longer landed at Craster harbour, the kippers are as good as any you will find.

While you're there

The nearby Howick Estate has been held by the Grey family since 1319 and, although the 18th-century hall isn't open to the public, its beautiful grounds are. Woodland walks and formal gardens have been thoughtfully designed to capture attention throughout the seasons. From April until June there is a spectacular display of azalea, rhododendron and magnolia. Later, your attention is focussed upon herbaceous borders, which provide colour until the woodland and ornamental trees don their autumnal cloaks.

Where to eat and drink

It's not easy to resist the pervasive aroma of the smokehouse, where a small restaurant serves, not only kippers, but other local delicacies too. Alternatively, try the village pub, the Jolly Fisherman, well-respected and especially famous for its crab sandwiches. The café by the car park is also conveniently sited for a range of hot and cold snacks.

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