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Extricating the fashion designer Nigel Cabourn from his office at the bottom of the garden at his home in Newcastle is quite difficult. He’s so excited about his new women’s collection, and having got hold of a second world war oilskin parka, that he can hardly be prised away.
When he eventually is, he insists on taking half his staff with him. According to him, what they need is a brisk march along the nearby coastline. It’s what we all need, announces Cabourn, driving us along the A1 to the tiny village of High Newton-by-the-Sea at a thundering speed.
Eventually we arrive at the Links car park, where we turn our faces into the formidable North Sea wind. The clouds are scudding above us, but the sun is shining. On the horizon can be seen the Farne Islands, a tiny rocky archipelago. We turn our back on them and start to walk south, along the beautiful and deserted coastal route.
Cabourn, 63, grew up in Scunthorpe but his creative vision was formed in Newcastle. “I went to Newcastle College of Fashion in 1967. To be there at 17 was heaven,” he says as we turn right out of the car park and cross the dunes to Beadnell Bay. The tide is out; the bay is a wide, sheer sweep of white sand. He never graduated. “I knew at 19 that I wanted to run my own business. The principal encouraged me to leave. Now I employ young people from the college. I love working with young people; they have so much less baggage.”
The day is sunny. The climate is, shall we say, bracing. “At least we’re not crossing the Antarctic in minus 40,” says Cabourn. Scott of the Antarctic and his colleagues are something of a muse to Cabourn, whose high-end men’s outerwear is entirely inspired by vintage military clothing and characters from the great days of British exploration. Today he is dressed in second world war green denim trousers, a Mallory-style jacket in Harris tweed and 1970 US army boots. And a red bow tie. The look is stylish, if somewhat eccentric. It is clear he sees our outing as some kind of clothing road test. “I’m hoping it will rain,” he yells enthusiastically.
A contemporary of Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood and Margaret Howell, all of whom he holds in high regard, he chose not to follow them to London but stayed, stubbornly, in the northeast. His clothes now sell across the world; Cabourn designs them all in his garden office backing on to Newcastle Cricket Club.
“It’s hard to be successful in the northeast, but it’s a trade-off. I felt I owed it to my children to stay here. Plus, I design men’s outerwear. You can test it out here on a regular basis,” he says.
We walk along the dunes and past a rocky promontory, stepping into a tiny cove known, for reasons no one in our group knows, as Football Hole. A singing lark flies high above us. In the sea, a large seal appears and then dives underwater again.
Standing on the dunes, we can just make out Bamburgh Castle to the north, then we turn around and see the ruined profile of colossal 12th-century Dunstanburgh Castle to the south. This forbidding-looking edifice is our destination: “It looks like witches’ teeth from here,” observes Cabourn. The lovely salty smell of seaweed fills our noses as we pick over the stones and reach the sand. At the end of Football Hole, we cross over Pen Carr and Lobster Carr, two rocky spits of land, and see the tiny village of Low Newton-by-the-Sea, crouched alongside Newton Haven, two miles of perfect white sand.
Cabourn gestures to a black-and-white hut perched on the grassy dunes, which his father-in-law used to own. “Most weekends in the summer, we would bring the children here,” he says. “There is no electricity and only gas. No cars, either. We would pull them across this beach in a wheelbarrow. We used to play beach tennis on the hard sand. I’d mark out a court on the sand. It’s such a great game.”
As the evening drew on, the family would have huge bonfires. “Our neighbour once turned up in these dreadful shorts,” says Cabourn. “When he took them off to have a swim, I put them on the fire. He was so annoyed! Ha ha!”
We walk along the length of Newton Haven and into Embleton Bay towards Dunstanburgh Castle, which looms atop a sheer, 150ft cliff. It was built in 1313 for the Earl of Lancaster, cousin of Edward II. After he was executed in 1322 it was taken over by John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, but fell into ruin at the time of the Wars of the Roses. Its gigantic twin-towered Horrible Histories-style gatehouse was primarily designed to awe visitors arriving by boat. It was used in Roman Polanski’s film Cul-de-Sac, starring Donald Pleasence, and was also an inspiration for JMW Turner, who painted it at dawn.
We climb up one of the towers and are rewarded with a spectacular view south towards Craster, home of the kippers. Out west, grey clouds appear to be ominously banking over the Cheviots. “It’s a microclimate here,” says Cabourn. “All the rain falls on the Cheviots.”
Not quite; as we walk back over the links of Dunstanburgh Castle golf course, the rain starts. A quick right-hand turn by a concrete second world war pillbox, a slippery descent down the dunes, and we are back on the beach. At the Ship Inn, which brews its own beer, we fall on lunch consisting of the aforementioned Craster kippers, served with brown bread and butter, before heading up the main road to High Newton, where we run into a dozen people bristling with binoculars, tripods and cameras. A minute bird is flying around a gorse bush. “We are watching a collared flycatcher,” says one of the group excitedly. “Hardly ever seen in Britain.”
“Where have you come from?” asks Cabourn. “Blackburn,” they say.
A right-hand turn at the Joiner’s Arms in High Newton, and we are back in the car park, our boots full of fine white sand, our lungs full of fresh Northumberland air.
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