Castles, Battlesites & Ghosts
MotorBike Tours Northumberland
We start this venture from the amazing Eat & Sleep Lindisfarne, having rested well in a bunk room and feasted the following morning with a delicious breakfast in their cafe.
From Eat & Sleep Lindisfarne we are going to head south, having first completed breakfast and repacked our motorbikes.
A fabulous aspect of our overnight stay is the close proximity of the A1, so on leaving the parking area we turn left and find ourselves immediately on the A1, a bonus. Also, should you need to fill up with fuel there is a fuel station literally yards away as we depart.
We follow the A1 south with the stunning Northumberland coast on the left as we head towards our first castle. Not too far along the road we turn left to follow the brown sign of ‘coastal route’ which takes us gently around to the wonderful Budle Bay. It is a 1 mile (1.6 km) wide bay on the Northumberland coast between Bamburgh to the southeast and Lindisfarne to the northwest. As far as the eye can see it is stuffed to the brim with wildlife; I would like to say every kind of seabird on the planet (well maybe not quite), plus if the tide is out the beach stretches to the horizon providing a most impressive sight. In the distance, you will be able to pick out Lindisfarne Castle standing proudly on the horizon too.
Dragging ourselves away from this beautiful location we keep heading south on the B1342 towards Bamburgh, which I will say right now in my humble opinion is the best village on the Northumberland coast. It is quaint and peaceful, but more importantly, it is the home to two magnificent attractions, Bamburgh Castle and the RNLI Grace Darling Museum.
On arrival into Bamburgh, on this route, the first of the attractions you will come across is the Grace Darling Museum. For those of you who have never heard of this fine lady, allow me to explain. Just south of Bamburgh and before you reach Seahouses if you look out to sea you will see a set of islands. These islands are the Farne Islands, famous in their own right for the abundance of wildlife, from seabirds to seals. The islands are also famous for the shipwreck that took place on 7th September 1838 of the SS Forfarshire belonging to the Dundee & Hull Steam Packet Company. The SS Forfarshire was a paddle steamship, with luxury accommodation.
She was built in 1834 by Thomas Adamson of Dundee, for the Dundee and Hull Steam Packet Company, at a cost of £20,000 and was powered by three boilers and two 90 horsepower steam engines. She was 132 feet in length and 20 feet wide, plus two paddles. She was dark in appearance, possibly black. Like many early steamships, she also carried masts, with sails. At Hull, in Yorkshire, on Wednesday 5 September 1838, the Steamship Forfarshire was loaded with passengers and a full cargo, bound for Dundee. There were around forty cabin and deck passengers. The exact number is unknown as there were no passenger lists; fares were collected onboard. There was a total of twenty-two crew members, plus Captain John Humble, who had brought his wife along for the trip. Whilst still docked at Hull, the ship’s boilers had been inspected and a repair made. For some awaiting their first sea trip or first trip on a paddle steamer, this caused a little concern.
The ship sailed from Hull at 6.30pm, reaching the open sea at Spurn Point in some three hours. During the night, in heavy seas off Flamborough Head, one of the boilers sprang a leak. The crew made repairs that involved emptying the boiler, a noisy process that could not be disguised. This no doubt disturbed the sleeping cabin passengers and deck passengers and some began to question the crew’s actions.
As day broke on Thursday 6 September, there were more problems with the boilers. There was much talk and speculation; some now felt the Forfarshire was unsafe and should head for North Shields or Newcastle. The captain assured passengers there was nothing to be concerned about.
During the early evening, they continued their journey north, passing the Farne Islands close to the Northumberland coastline, but problems persisted and the crew were forced to raise some sails to assist passage. By 11.00pm the ship had progressed beyond Berwick-upon-Tweed, but the weather quickly changed, with gale-force winds from the north battering the Forfarshire. The extra pressure exerted on the boilers caused more leaks. It was not possible to get sufficient steam to make headway. The passengers’ earlier fears were confirmed when the boilers failed and the captain had to stop the engines. In storm-force conditions, the Forfarshire began to drift south.
At 1.00am off St Abbs Head on Friday 7 September and with just a makeshift sail Captain Humble made the decision to turn back and seek shelter near the Farne Islands. But the storm increased. The dark night, the high seas and the lashing rain made it difficult to navigate; a changing tidal stream encountered off Berwick made it increasingly difficult to steer a course. Added to this the ship’s paddle-boxes were a hindrance in such conditions. At last, Captain Humble could make out a light – the lighthouse of the Inner Farne. He hoped to find some little shelter and anchor there until the storm passed. Keeping the lighthouse to his port bow he headed towards the Fairway, the stretch of water between Inner Farne and the coast, but he had miscalculated. The light he had seen had been that of Longstone, further out to sea and surrounded by many dangerous rocks – and the Forfarshire struck them. At 4.00am it hit the Big Harcar Rock, about one mile from the Longstone Light.
The crew frantically lowered the quarter boat and eight of them jumped in. One cabin passenger, Ruthven Ritchie, had managed to leap into the boat, carrying his trousers over his arm! Whatever the intentions of the crew in the boat, and whether or not they began to search for survivors, the strong current through the channel of Piper Gut carried their small boat away from the wreck and into the open sea, to safety.
The Forfarshire lurched and struck the rock again, splitting the vessel in two. The front half became wedged on the rock; the aft, with the cargo and all below deck, was lost to the sea. The passengers would have drowned in their cabins, including Captain Humble and his wife. Most of the others were swept overboard.
A few had survived on the deck, clinging on to what remained of the Forfarshire. The storm continued but the tide was falling, exposing more rock and causing the battered remains of the ship to become unstable. At this point, John Tulloch, the ship’s carpenter, and Daniel Donovan, a steerage passenger, decided to jump onto the rock itself and encouraged the few other survivors to join them, including Mrs. Sarah Dawson, with her two children. Anxiously, they helped each other onto the rock but not before they noticed another passenger, the Reverend Robb, crouched in the engine room, hands clasped in a final act of prayer. They approached him. He was dead. From his bodily position, it appeared he had not tried to save himself; he had resigned himself to his fate. They decided to save his body from the sea and dragged him onto the rock. Barely able to stand and facing the teeth of the gale, the few survivors saw the light of the nearby Longstone Lighthouse manned by William Darling and occupied by him and his family.
The wreck of the steamer Forfarshire lay on Big Harcar Rock, within a mile of Longstone Lighthouse. On the mainland, in the early morning, it had been spotted from Bamburgh Castle walls and reported to Robert Smeddle. He immediately raced on horseback to alert the lifeboat crew, three miles away at Seahouses. As soon as news of the shipwreck reached them, seven lifeboatmen, including the Darlings’ youngest son, put out from Seahouses harbour. It was around 7.30am. The swell of the sea was severe and they chose to take out an ordinary fishing coble, it being more manageable. They rowed for five miles, head-on into the teeth of the storm, unaware of the major role about to be played by the Darlings. With a superhuman effort, they battled non-stop for two and a half hours to reach the wreckage of the Forfarshire at around 10.00am.
The Seahouses men found no survivors. A scene of devastation was all around and they saw the bodies of Reverend Robb and the two children on the rock. Unknown to them, William Darling had made his second successful trip, barely half an hour earlier. Their own efforts had been fruitless. Due to the continuing storm conditions, they were unable to return home to the mainland and quickly decided to continue on to Longstone, to take refuge in the Darlings’ lighthouse. With great difficulty, the lifeboatmen reached Longstone and hauled their boat up onto the rocks. Exhausted, they climbed the steps, entered the kitchen and then stood, speechless. They had expected to find only Grace and her parents inside; instead, there were twelve people staring back at them. William and Grace, equally shocked, thought it impossible for the Seahouses boat to launch a rescue in such conditions. A moment of shared disbelief followed as everyone worked out what had happened – the boat had put out from Seahouses; perhaps more remarkably, William and Grace alone, in their coble, had rescued nine survivors.
The men learned with astonishment the role Grace had played in all this. William Brooks Darling must have been thrilled at the outstanding bravery of his sister and been proud of the determination shown by his father in achieving such a rescue. After the initial acclaim, however, came the realisation for the seven men that having expected to eat, get warm and find rest in the lighthouse there was actually no room for them. There were now nineteen people and only seven ‘apartments’ as Grace called them.
The seven lifeboatmen had to find shelter outside as best they could in dilapidated outbuildings that flooded at every high tide. Nursing nine survivors, some sick and injured, Mrs. Darling and Grace did all they could to clothe and feed their sixteen visitors but provisions were running out and the storm continued. It was three days before anyone could leave Longstone. If it had been possible to do so there is no doubt the Seahouses men would have returned home earlier, at the first opportunity. Their families, having not heard from them, must have feared the worst.
Their forced delay in leaving Longstone confirms the extent of the conditions. Some commentators have played down the Darlings’ role in the rescue, saying the storm was slight and that Grace, left on her own, steadied the boat at Harcar Rocks with ease. They are clearly wrong. When the lifeboatmen eventually launched their boat on day three, the state of the sea was still so rough it proved impossible for them to approach Seahouses and their homes; they had to continue further down the coast to land at Beadnell, where they stayed the night.
The three Robson brothers, with Robert Knox, William Brooks Darling, his friend William Swan and Thomas Cuthbertson had undertaken a most perilous journey in the hope of saving lives. Undoubtedly they would have reached the survivors on Harcar Rock and saved them. The Darlings happened to beat them to it and received the accolades. The brave actions of the Seahouses men went uncredited and unrewarded and their deed has been largely forgotten ever since. Quietly and without fuss, they returned to their families and their ordinary lives. Life for the Darlings would never be the same again.
I am sure you will agree a simply fascinating story and you can discover so much more by visiting the Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh and the websitewww.GraceDarling.co.uk