Stuart Forster, a native of North East England, looks at reasons to visit Northumberland, England’s most northerly county.
Northumberland, England’s most northerly county, is peppered with castles that collectively stand as a legacy of the region’s dramatic history. A far more ancient monument, Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Roman Army, snakes across hilltops and through the rugged landscape of Northumberland National Park. For fans of the outdoors they are just some of the reasons why this is popular walking country.
Yet it’s a landscape that’s all too often overlooked by visitors to Britain. Rather than Hadrian’s Wall, it’s often Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, that travellers tend to prioritise if they have time to see just one ancient monument. For scenic countryside, it’s the Highlands of Scotland or hills of the Lake District that tourists often favour. Northumberland is all too often bypassed purely because of its geographic location. That means footpaths are not overrun, there’s room on the beaches during sunny days, and the scenic coastal road — which meanders for 56km between Lindisfarne and Alnmouth — is rarely snarled with traffic.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Hadrian’s Wall was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Emperor Hadrian ordered the wall to be erected nearly 1,900 years ago as part of efforts to consolidate the frontiers of his vast territory. Some of the best-preserved sections run across the isolated countryside between Sycamore Gap and Housesteads Fort.
Over the intervening centuries locals used the wall as a ready-made source of quarried stone. Many of the buildings in Corbridge and Hexham were built with material looted from the wall. During medieval times, when cross-border raiding was common, the stone was used to construct pele towers — some of which resemble castle keeps — into which people could retreat when raiders, known as reivers, launched violent assaults to rustle livestock and steal valuables. Their story is told within the museum at Hexham Old Gaol, which is said to be the oldest purpose-built prison in England. Examples of pele towers can still be seen at Cressell and Corbridge.
The castles of Northumberland
Grander fortifications, including the castles standing at Dunstanburgh and Warkworth, are physical evidence of how the kings of England and Scotland long disputed this region. Warkworth Castle stands just five minutes uphill from the village market cross where James Stuart, known as the Old Pretender, was proclaimed King James III of England in 1715, at the head of an invading Jacobite Army.
Alnwick Castle is the modern-day family home of the Dukes of Northumberland. Sculpted stone figures depicting medieval soldiers top the crenallated tower above the castle’s bailey. Many visitors recognise the castle from the films Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It has been used by filmmakers as sets in numerous movies, as well as Brancaster Castle in special editions of the popular Downton Abbey television series.
Visiting the Alnwick Garden
The Alnwick Garden, within easy walking distance of the castle, is one of the county’s most popular tourist attractions. In addition to seasonal blooms it features a fairy tale trail, popular with children, and its centrepiece is a cascading fountain. Guided tours of the poison garden — which is guarded by locked, black wrought iron gates bearing a skull and crossbones — provide insights into the potentially deadly effects of plants such as tobacco, belladonna and hemlock. The garden’s tree house counts among the largest in the world and is the location of a popular café and restaurant.
The town’s former railway station is now the home to one of Britain’s biggest second-hand book stores, Barter Books, where it’s easy to spend hours browsing the shelves. A toy train whirrs along tracks set above the books. A box of books bought by the shop in 2000 contained the red ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster, bearing a crown, that was printed by the British government in 1939 for display in case of invasion by German forces during World War Two. That single poster spawned countless copies and has inspired hundreds of spin-offs, both in Britain and beyond.
Of course, so such poster existed at the time of the Norse invasions that set panic among the monks living on Lindisfarne and in the monasteries of the Kingdom of Northumbria, which were renowned as bastions of medieval scholarship. Monks working within them produced enduring illuminated manuscripts, including the Lindisfarne Gospels — the original is displayed at the British Library in London.
Lindisfarne and Berwick-upon-Tweed
Locals tend to refer to Lindisfarne as Holy Island. Providing that the tide is out, it can be reached by a causeway. Pockets of quicksand mean that deviating from the road should be avoided. In 1901 Edwin Luytens, who was later appointed as one of the architects of the governmental buildings in New Delhi, designed the residential quarters that now form a part of Lindisfarne Castle.
The walled town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, around 10km north of Lindisfarne, is home to England’s most northerly railway station. The local football club is the only one based in England to play in the Scottish League. A popular urban myth means many people believe that Berwick remained at war with Russia, following the Crimean War of the 1850s, into the 1960s. Falsely, it was said that Berwick had been named in the declaration of war but not the peace treaty. Long ago, it was explicitly named in such documents due to it frequently changing hands between Scotland and England.
Southwards of Lindisfarne lie the Farne Islands, which can be reached via boat tours departing from Seahouses. The largest of the islands was long home to the monk Cuthbert, who was canonised following his death and is now interred at Durham Cathedral. These days the remoteness of the islands ensures they provide sanctuary to colonies of seabirds, including more than 30,000 puffins, and in excess of 5,000 grey seals, who bask on the rocky shores between expeditions into the North Sea to catch fish.
Among the rarest of the wildlife inhabiting Northumberland is the herd of wild cattle roaming the grounds of Chillingham Castle. The white, short-horned creatures have existed in isolation for over seven centuries. Red squirrels live in pockets of woodland throughout the county, including in Kielder Forest Park, by the shore of a man-made lake that was established as a reservoir during the 1970s. Roe deer and otters also find habitat in the area. Hides, dotted among the woodland, provide shelter for people to observe and photograph the wildlife.
Kielder falls within Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, the largest in all of Europe. It holds gold tier status, the highest awarded by the International Dark Skies Association, meaning low levels of light pollution. That makes the park a popular destination with astronomers and astrophotographers keen to view and photograph the Milky Way and events such as the Perseid meteor shower that is visible in night skies until 24 August.
For other types of nightlife visitors to the region tend to head to Newcastle. But, after a long day of walking and fresh air out in Northumberland’s countryside, only the hardiest of souls have the energy to keep dancing into the small hours.
Reasons to visit Northumberland, England’s most northerly county
If you have suggestions about other attractions that people should visit in Northumberland please feel welcome to leave a comment below.
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Photos illustrating this post are by North East England-based Why Eye Photography.
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