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Geology - Saltpan Rocks - Cocklawburn Photo: Clive Crossley

The Northumberland coast’s variety reflects the complex nature of the geodiversity that underlies it. Along the coast the action of the sea and human activities laid bare these foundations. They now provide clues to how the landscape has been created and why it has been colonised by nature and exploited by humankind.

Hard rocks of the coast

The majority of the Northumberland coastline is based on a series of limestones of the lower carboniferous age, which alternate with layers of sandstone and shales to provide distinctive and varied character. They form jagged wave-cut platforms that extend horizontally from the base of low cliffs and beaches, forming sharp, dramatic reefs and headlands along the shore.

The most dramatic rock type of the AONB is what is derived from the Whin Sill, an igneous rock, known as whinstone, which formed as the volcanic magma of this dolerite intrusion cooled. Being such a hard, resistant rock, dolerite stands out as prominent cliffs or crags including those which form the rocky Farne Islands.

In modern times whinstone has been extensively quarried to be used in the construction of roads.

Soft shore land forms

One of the most distinctive landforms within the AONB are sand dunes. Northumberland has one of the longest stretches of semi-continuous dune coast to be found in Britain. Northumbrian dunes are generally single ridge’ being shaped by prevailing westerly and dominant north easterly winds.

The majority of the sand dunes of the Northumberland coast were formed relatively recently, some studies suggest only 300 to 400 years ago, but more extensive and much older systems, some dating back 2,000 to 3,000 years, are to be found in the Holy Island, Ross, Bamburgh and Goswick areas. Northumberland Soft shore land forms produce a number of habitats which contain a rich variety of wildlife.

Geodiversity Audit and Action Plan

We commissioned a Geodiversity Audit and Action Plan in 2009. The principal aim of this plan is to guide the conservation and interpretation of the geological features of the Northumberland Coast. It is also intended to support the development of sustainable nature-based tourism in the area.

The Audit summarises the geological and geomorphological heritage of the area and identifies:

• the different rock types;
• the importance of the rock types or particular sites in terms of biodiversity and their impact on the landscape;
• the uses of the rocks; and
• any wider significance of each rock type.

The Action Plan is arranged under the headings:

• Understanding more about our geodiversity (addressing the need for continued research and study);
• Conserving our geodiversity (addressing designations and site-based conservation work);
• Interpreting our geodiversity (addressing how people might be guided towards greater enjoyment and understanding of the coast’s geological heritage); and
• Education and lifelong learning about our geodiversity (addressing how programmes of formal and information education might be developed).

The action plan is very ambitious and was written at a time when more funding was available to implement such projects. We will review the action plan in 2016.

Download the Geodiversity audit and action plan

Exploring the Geology


To help you explore the fascinating geology of the Northumberland coast we have produced two self-guided geology trails for you to download as pdf files.

• Howick and Cullernose Point
• Bamburgh


We have produced a guide book to help you explore the geology and landscape of the AONB. You can buy it from our publications page.

Exploring the Geology and Landscape of the Northumberland Coast


Northumbrian Earth deliver a series of geo-walks during the summer months and can offer bespoke walks and other geological services and activities.

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