Seahouses is a large village on the Northumberland coast some 12 miles north of Alnwick as the seagull flies, and 18 miles south-east of Berwick-upon-Tweed. It is a popular leisure destination and can become busy during peak holiday periods. It offers a range of "seaside" attractions in its own right, and is also an ideal touring base for this part of coastal Northumberland. Also popular are the boat trips provided by a number of operators to the Farne Islands, which lie between two and five miles to the north.
Seahouses is a fairly young settlement. North Sunderland, immediately inland, is rather older, though there was little here until the 1800s. The Church of St Paul, in North Sunderland, whose parish includes Seahouses, was built in the early 1830s, and the nearby United Reformed Church was built in 1810. The oldest building in the area is Shoreston Hall, a mile to the north-west, which was built in the 1600s. By the mid 1800s, North Sunderland seems to have been a fairly dispersed but still small settlement whose economy was primarily based on coal mining, limestone quarrying and agriculture.
At the coastal end of North Sunderland was what was originally known as Sea Houses of North Sunderland. A small inner harbour was built here in the 1790s, mainly to service the local lime industry. Lime had long been quarried to the south of North Sunderland, and this was brought to a large block of lime kilns built on the harbourside in 1795. When layered with coal which was extracted from local pits to the west and north of North Sunderland and burned, the result was quicklime, used for making lime mortar; in agriculture for neutralising acid soils and lightening clay soils; as a disinfectant; to make caustic soda and soap; to bleach paper; and (perhaps most remarkably) to make sugar whiter. The lime produced in the limekilns at Sea Houses was loaded onto ships in the harbour for transport to a range of destinations.
Sea Houses of North Sunderland gained a privately operated lifeboat station in 1827, and this was taken over by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1859. The first lifeboat for which records exist was delivered in 1852. It was 30ft long, was rowed by 10 oarsmen, and cost £150. The Mersey Class lifeboat in use today, R.N.L.B. Grace Darling, cost £455,000. A notable early rescue attempt was in 1838, when the paddle steamer Forfarshire, with some 60 people on board, was wrecked on Big Harcar, one of the Farne Islands. The North Sunderland lifeboat crew rowed out in a light rowing boat they believed would be able to get close to the rocks on which the Forfarshire had broken up, but found that all the survivors had already been rescued by Grace Darling and her father William, the keeper of the Longstone Lighthouse, which was located not far from the wreck.
The lime kilns at Sea Houses of North Sunderland ceased operation in 1858, presumably because they had difficulty competing with other suppliers who could carry their product to the customer using the newly available railways. A visitor in the 1860s or 1870s would have found Sea Houses of North Sunderland to be a rather run down place, with its main industry closed. The harbour here continued to be used by locally based fishing boats, however, and to provide transport to the Farne Islands for the steady trickle of early tourists and naturalists who wanted to go there.
Things began to look up again in the 1880s. Trustees of the local landowner, Lord Crewe, spent £25,000 on building a much larger outer harbour at what became known as Seahouses. The aim was to provide a major boost for the local economy, and it worked. The new outer harbour at Seahouses was said to be large enough to accommodate 300 fishing boats and the village soon became an important herring fishing and processing station. During the summer season boats would come here from all over the UK to fish, and the quaysides would be filled with herring girls, gutting and salting herring and placing them in barrels for export.
At times the crush of fishing vessels made access difficult for other users of the harbour, but Seahouses was also used for the export of agricultural produce grown in the area including grain, turnips and potatoes.
In 1898 a branch railway was built from Chathill Station on the East Coast Main Line to a station in North Sunderland. This helped with the transport of fish caught by the Seahouses fleet, but also brought about the end of Seahouses as a commercial port. And over time, it also led to a new role for Seahouses, as visitors began to arrive in increasing numbers by train. By the 1920s there were still only two hotels in Seahouses, plus a number of inns. Many visitors took lodgings with the families of local fishermen, at a going rate of around £2 per person for accommodation and all meals.
In the 1950s visitors increasingly moved from rail to road for their transport. Caravan sites opened to the north and south of Seahouses, and this was the decade in which the numbers of guest houses and B&Bs began to take off. Meanwhile, cafes, restaurants and other services and activities for visitors became established. The branch line railway scarcely made it into the fifties, closing completely in 1951.
Today's Seahouses can be a bustling place, and at times the permanent local population of around 1,800 can be trebled by visitors. Seahouses itself repays exploration. The harbour is attractive and endlessly fascinating, though these days the fishing boats tends to be outnumbered by the pleasure boats. From Seahouses you can travel to the Farne Islands using a number of different operators: the wooden booths along the harbourside make clear what is on offer and when sailings take place. There are also boat trips available from Seahouses to Lindisfarne.
The warren of older buildings in the area to the south of the harbour is rapidly being developed for residential use, but it is fascinating to stumble over a smokehouse still working in what has become a residential area. It is also interesting to look out for what appears to be a stone igloo at the end of the breakwater marking the outermost limits of the harbour. This listed building is actually a powder house for storing the blasting powder used during the construction of the outer harbour.
The centre of Seahouses is full of tourist shops and cafes, including a number of fish and chip restaurants. They are probably all very good, but we can personally recommend the Neptune Fish Restaurant, overlooking the roundabout on which the war memorial is located, as excellent.