Keys to the Past


Thematic Overview - Maritime

The North Sea runs along the eastern side of Durham and Northumberland and all the region's rivers flow into it. In the south, low cliffs cut by steep-sided wooded valleys and large areas of sand dunes border the coast of County Durham. North of the Tyne, the Northumbrian coast is low-lying with sandy beaches. However, to the north rocky outcrops form a number of islands including Holy Island, the Farne Islands and Coquet Island at the mouth of the River Coquet.


The sea has long held a central place in many aspects of north-eastern life. As early as the Mesolithic period the coast and estuaries were important sources of foods. People hunted wild birds and caught fish, as well as collecting shellfish and seaweed. The remains of the early hunting camps used by these people have been found at several sites, including Fillpoke Beacon and Crimdon Dene in County Durham, and Ross Links, Newbiggin and Howick in Northumberland.

Although from the Neolithic, people began to grow crops and farm animals, the coast and the sea continued to provide food for the local communities. However, the sea was not just used as a source of food. The presence of early burial sites overlooking the sea, such as at Low Hauxley, suggests that the early inhabitants of north-east [England] saw the sea as a source of much beauty and even religious importance. The religious importance of the sea is an aspect of the Northumbria coast that recurs throughout history.


The Roman conquerors controlled much land up as far as the mouth of the Tyne, and on occasions up into Northumberland. They certainly used the east coast as a means of bringing goods and supplies to their garrisons on the northern frontier. As well as using local ships the army also had its own barges, which sailed on the river Tyne and were probably based at South Shields.

Some of the men who crewed these boats came from as far as Iraq. It is possible that they may have built defences along the coast to protect themselves against raiders from the north. Although it has been suggested that a signal station may have stood near Seaham in County Durham, no such remains have been found. This is in contrast to the situation along the west coast in Cumbria, where the remains of several small Roman forts have been discovered.

The Romans probably also employed local sailors to keep a watch on their enemies to the north. These sailors were not always trustworthy, and a Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus records that these groups known as areani betrayed the Romans, leading to a huge invasion known as the Barbarian Conspiracy in AD367.

Early Medieval

In the early medieval period many invaders came to the north-east of England by sea, including the Picts from Scotland and the Anglians from northern Germany. Although some of the important centres of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria were inland, one of the palaces of the Northumbrian kings stood on a rocky crag at Bamburgh Castle, overlooking the sea. This site has wide views along the coast and a commanding view of Holy Island. It is possible that a landing place lay just to the north of the palace amongst the present day sand-dunes.

The simple ships of the Anglo-Saxons were powered by oars and sails and had been designed to be beached on sandy coastlines, and did not need elaborate docks or quays. The Anglo-Saxon church in Northumbria also saw the sea as a holy place. Many of their most important churches were close to the sea.

Religious Solitude

The monastery at Lindisfarne could only be reached by a causeway during low tide, and other important monasteries or churches near the coast include Wearmouth, Jarrow, Monkwearmouth and Alnmouth. As well as these large holy sites, some monks retreated to small islands or coastal sites where they built small chapels. At these more remote locations such holy men attempted to live a quiet life of prayer and solitude.

A number of such holy retreats have been identified in Northumberland, from archaeological remains and the historical writings of Anglo-Saxon monks such as Bede. Cuthbert, an early abbot of Lindisfarne, sought peace on the small isle that bears his name, just off Holy Island. Hermits also lived on Coquet Island and the Farne Islands, and a small chapel dedicated to St Ebba at Beadnell bears the name of an Anglo-Saxon princess, but may in fact be much later in date.

Medieval Fisheries and Transports

In the medieval period the sea continued to be important to local communities. Historical documents record several fisheries along the coast, such as at Blume near Blyth. The traditional boat used by north-eastern fishermen was known as the 'coble'. Like its Anglo-Saxon predecessors it was designed to work from beaches rather than harbours. They were around 9m long and 2.5m wide, and had no cabin or deck.

On Holy Island a number of post-medieval cobles have been turned into storage sheds. Some fishermen did not fish all year round, and may have only gone to sea during the summer when the weather was best. During the fishing season they sometimes lived in temporary shielings, such as one which stands at Cheswick. Once the fish was landed much of it was preserved by salting or smoking so that it would keep longer. Traces of medieval fish preserving have been found on Holy Island. Some Northumberland villages, such as Amble and Beadnell, had to pay a tax known as canefish, which was a quarter of their catch. This shows that the local lords of the manor controlled the fishing in these villages.

As well as providing food the sea was also important as means of transporting goods. Berwick was at this time Scotland's most important port. Although the coal trade had not yet reached the importance it would have in later years it was already transported along the coast in special boats known as 'keels'. These are first recorded carrying coal in 1356.

Threat of Invasion

The sea continued to carry raiders south from Scotland. Although most warfare with Scotland took place on land some raiders arrived by sea. Bamburgh was fortified, becoming an important stronghold, and other important coastal castles include the spectacular castle at Dunstanburgh. Smaller fortified towers also stood at Craster, Little Houghton and Beadnell. The raids did not reach as far south as County Durham, so few medieval coastal defences are known.

In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries the raiding from Scotland and the Continent were considered to be a greater threat. The defences against these attacks were increasingly built by the government rather than members of the local aristocracy. Holy Island became an important naval base, and the site known as the Palace was built as a supply depot for the army and navy. Forts were also built on the island at Beblowe and The Heugh.

The towns of Berwick also became a major focus for defences, and those built in the 16th century protected the mouth of the harbour and the town from attack by sea, as well as from land.

Defence work carried out under Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth replaced earlier earth defences built by their father Henry VIII with huge earth and masonry defences. The low thick walls were proof against canon balls, and a series of bastions were built so that all parts of the wall could be covered by defensive fire.

Trade, Export and Smuggling

In the 17th and 18th century Northumberland and Durham began to increasingly export goods to the South of England. Grain, coal and lime were all transported by ship. A series of harbours grew up along the coastline. Alnmouth was an important port for exporting grain from the surrounding agricultural land. It also imported timber from the Baltic and guano (bird droppings used as fertilizer). Many brick granaries were built to store the grain before it was sent south in ships. However, in 1806 a huge storm changed the course of the River Aln making the harbour too shallow to take the large grain ships.

Alnmouth rapidly declined in importance, and many of the old granaries were converted into other uses, such as the Marine House Private Hotel, which can still be seen. The remains of the old harbour master's office have also been turned into a house. Illegal trade also began to flourish, especially in the early 19th century when high taxes to pay for the Napoleonic Wars encouraged smuggling. In 1762 a haul of over 2700 gallons of Brandy, 1000 gallons of wine and 400 gallons of rum and gin was landed in Beadnell.

Agricultural goods continued to be exported from other towns. In the course of 1816 Berwick sent over £30,000 worth of eggs to London by sea. Berwick was also the centre of salmon fishing industry on the Tweed. Most of these salmon were sent to the markets in the south. Some of the ships used in this trade had holes drilled in their hull, so that sea water could flow through tanks in which the salmon were kept alive until they reached London. Later, when faster ships were built, ice was used to preserve the fish, and many ice-houses were built around Berwick.

Fishing Industry

Berwick-upon-Tweed was also an important centre for the fishing industry, though this declined in the 19th century when Leith, near Edinburgh, took over as the main fishing port. Berwick also had a small whaling fleet which hunted whales off the coast of Greenland. However, this had declined by the late 1830s. Whaling also provided employment in Blyth, where there was a small factory which turned old nails into harpoon heads.

Because of the shallow sloping shore and the lack of natural harbours along the coast of Durham and Northumberland large ships found it difficult to get near the shore. In the 17th and 18th centuries many small harbours were built. Beadnell, Seaton Sluice, and Seaham Harbour all had new harbours and port facilities added in the 19th century. Some ports, such as Amble developed specifically to carry coal from local collieries. New harbours at other villages allowed a range of new activities to develop. For example, lime was exported from the lime kilns at Beadnell.

These new harbours also allowed larger fishing boats to be used, replacing the traditional cobles. This was important, as herring began to be found in great numbers in the North Sea, and larger boats meant that bigger catches could be made. New fisheries in the North Atlantic were also being opened up. It took a long time to reach these areas off the east coast of Canada, and the voyages could only be made in larger ships. The increasing importance of fishing also meant that new facilities for processing fish on-land were required. The large saltworks at Amble provided salt for preserving fish and smoke houses were built on Holy Island and at Seahouses and Craster.

The biggest port along the coast in the 19th century, excluding those on the Tyne, was Blyth. The Blyth Harbour and Dock Company was formed in 1853 and they were given permission to dredge the harbour in 1858. This allowed larger ships to enter the port and by 1900 over 3 million tons of coal was being exported each year. The first report of shipbuilding in Blyth appears in 1748 but it was not until the early part of the 20th century that shipbuilding rose to a formidable level.

The Blyth Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company had five dry docks and four building slipways and was one of the largest shipbuilding yards on the North East coast. During the World War I and II, the Blyth shipyards built many ships for the Navy including the first aircraft carrier, H.M.S. Ark Royal in 1914. Shipbuilding continued in Blyth after World War II until 1967 when the shipyard was closed down.


The increased level of shipping due to the growing fishing fleets and the rise in North Sea trade meant that there were growing numbers of wrecks and disasters. Perhaps the most famous of these came in 1838 when the SS Forfarshire struck the Big Harcar rocks off the Farne Islands. Together with her father, the keeper of the Longstone lighthouse, Grace Darling put to sea in a coble and saved nine lives. Her tomb can be seen in Bamburgh. Attempts began to be made to prevent such accidents by builing lighthouses to warn ships of dangerous rocks and reefs. Most were built between 1750 and 1850.

The Longstone lighthouse on the Farne Islands was built in 1776 and replaced in 1826, the light on Coquet Island was built in 1839 and the High and Low Light on the Farne Islands were built in 1810. An organised coastguard was formed in the early 19th century. Coastguard cottages can still be seen at Hawthorn Hythe and Newton. The Royal National Lifeboat Institute was founded in 1824, and soon a series of lifeboats were placed England's north-east coast. Britain's oldest operational lifeboat house can still be seen at Newbiggin. It was built in 1851 after a fishing disaster led to the death of ten fishermen.

Coastal Defences

Defence of the coast continued to be a concern into the 19th and 20th centuries. The possible threat of invasion from France during the early 19th century led to batteries being built. Many people saw a continued threat of invasion into the late 19th century, and in 1881 the Duke of Northumberland built an artillery battery just to the north of Alnmouth. Some of these earlier defences were refortified in World War I and a major new artillery fort was built at Seaton Sluice to protect Tyneside from possible bombardment by the enemy fleet. In World War II many more earlier defences were reused. For example, the turret on the Alnmouth Battery was turned into a pillbox.

The broad, flat coastline of Northumberland made an ideal beach for an invasion force, so the army built a defensive line of concrete cubesalong much of the coast. This was known as the 'Ironside Crust' after General Ironside, the army officer in charge of the project. The remains of many pillboxes are still visible, such as those at Dunstanstead Links and Hemscotthill Links.

The remains of a searchlight base can still be seen at Hadston Carrs and anti-tank traps can be seen near Alnmouth. In Durham pillboxes can be seen at Dawdon Blast Beach and the remains of defensive trenches from World War II can be seen at Crimdon Dene, close to a number of large concrete tank traps.


Today, although there are small fishing industries at several villages, much of the North East coastline is best known as a tourist attraction. The region is rich in historical sites, such as the castles at Bamburgh, Holy Island and Dunstanburgh and caravan parks are sited close to several Northumbrian fishing villages; Alnmouth even had a holiday camp as far back as the 1920s.

The Durham coast was until recently scarred by the many remains of 19th and 20th century collieries. However, many of these are now closed and ambitious plans to remove all these industrial remains and improve the state of the coastline are underway.