The conversion of England to Christianity began in this wild, rugged border county.
There are many wonderful places to visit here. Northumberland has impressive castles (more than in any other county in the UK), rolling hills, pretty villages with houses of soft grey stone, and unspoilt beaches with fine white sand. Many artists head to this area, attracted by the dramatic landscapes and the distinctive, pale light. Film-makers and TV producers also love it. Harry Potter, Elizabeth, Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves and Alien 3 are among the films made here.
I consider Northumberland to be my spiritual home, even though I was born in an adjacent county. My family has been taking holidays here since I was a teenager. For a number of years we owned a caravan near the little fishing town of Seahouses. During spring and summer we would pack up the car on Friday afternoons and head north for the weekend.
My sister now lives in the county, near Rothbury – the top photo was taken near her house. Even though I visit rarely nowadays, living some 12,000 miles away, Northumberland remains a very special place for me. Here are some of my favourite places.
A favourite family day out from our caravan, Lindisfarne – or Holy Island – is accessed at low tide by a mile-long causeway. It was always a thrill to drive over as the last of the tidal streams left the road, still soaking with puddles and streaked with sand. Of course, it was important to study the tide tables and return in good time. There were always stories of cars becoming stranded half-way across the causeway, caught out by rising waters. On one special occasion, we stayed overnight on the island in a guest house. It felt so exciting to remain there when the tide came in!
Lindisfarne is an important site of early Christian history in England. An Irish monk named Aidan was invited by King Oswald of Northumbria to reconvert the area from paganism to Christianity. Along with other Irish monks, Aidan founded a monastery on the island in 635 and became the first Bishop of Lindisfarne. The mission was successful, and Aidan and his fellow monks subsequently reconverted the rest of England and part of the European continent.
Another important bishop was Cuthbert, who went to Lindisfarne in the 670s. Revered as a pastor, healer and scholar, he was buried on the island after his death in 687. Following alleged miracles at the site of his shrine, a cult of St Cuthbert developed, and the monastery became a major centre of pilgrimage and Christian learning. The wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels, illuminated manuscripts produced by the monks in the early 700s, can be viewed in the British Library. They are regarded as the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon art to have survived.
Today, you can stroll around the small township, taste Lindisfarne mead at St Aidan’s Winery, visit the castle, wander around the priory ruins and enjoy the many countryside walks.
2. The Cheviot hills
The Cheviot hills (see top photo) lie within the Northumberland National Park, an area of 405 square miles of breathtaking countryside. They dominate the skyline to the west as you head north along the coast. If you enjoy countryside walking and hiking, you’ll love this area, which is wild and mostly unpopulated. The moors are covered with heather in summer. You’ll find rolling hills, rivers and brooks with clear fresh water, and the remains of ancient fortresses.
Also within the Park is the famous Hadrian’s Wall, built around 119AD by the Romans to protect the northern frontier of their empire.
3. Low Newton-by-the-Sea
This pretty village on the coast near Seahouses is popular for its attractive beach and village square, with whitewashed stone cottages. From the beach you can see the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle in the distance.
Also worthy of mention is the Ship Inn, an atmospheric and much-loved Northumbrian pub located in the square.
The village of Craster is one of the many attractive fishing towns and villages along the coast. It’s an attractive place to visit in its own right. But Craster has a particular claim to fame – its kippers. These are highly regarded and renowned throughout England.
You can visit the smokehouse, which is located in the centre of the village, and take some home for breakfast.
One of the larger towns in Northumberland, Alnwick is where we used to go for our shopping, church services and cafe visits. It’s an attractive and bustling place with a twice-weekly market. As you stroll around, you might notice a dirty-looking window with some very dusty old bottles behind it, in the wall of the Dirty Bottles Taproom and Smokehouse. It is rumoured that they are cursed and that anyone who touches these bottles will die. They have allegedly remained untouched for over 150 years. These bottles have always intrigued me, and part of me wants to touch them to find out if the story is true!
You can visit Alnwick Castle, seat of the Earls of Northumberland. The castle was the location for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. Also worth visiting are the gardens, which the current Duke’s wife has transformed. Tickets can be purchased online, which is well worth doing as the castle and gardens are very popular.
Another major attraction, much loved by us, is Barter Books. One of the largest second-hand bookstores in England, Barter Books gained global fame when the popular World War 2 poster ‘Keep calm and carry on’ was discovered here. The shop is located in the former Alnwick railway station, and there is no other bookshop quite like it. You can spend hours in here! The former buffet is now a cosy cafe, and has a roaring fire going in winter.
6. Ford and Etal
These two pretty villages lie within the Ford and Etal Estate, which has belonged to the same family for more than a century. Each village has a castle, though Etal is a ruin.
There’s plenty to see and do here – you can visit Heatherslaw Corn Mill, ride a vintage railway, enjoy a traditional English afternoon tea or view the pre-Raphaelite murals in Lady Waterford Hall. Horse riding and other outdoor pursuits are available for the more adventurous.
The Victorian industrialist, benefactor and inventor Lord William Armstrong has left his mark throughout Northumberland. Cragside, near Rothbury, was originally built as his summer house, but eventually became his main home. It was the first home in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. Today, the estate is in the care of the National Trust.
Lord Armstrong extended and improved his home over the years, and developed the vast gardens and lakes in the grounds. The house has the look of a fairytale castle, and the gardens are fabulous. If you visit in spring or summer, the floral displays are stunning, and there are butterflies and dragonflies everywhere. I remember visiting one time with my sister and brother-in-law when there was a huge swarm of bees clinging to the archway over the entrance to the estate. Walking under that arch, with an incredibly loud buzzing noise from above and bees flying everywhere, was very scary!
You can see exhibits of Lord Armstrong’s inventions, both inside the house and in various outbuildings on the estate. You can also enjoy his collections of art and ceramics. Further examples can be seen in Bamburgh Castle, which he bought in 1894 and transformed into his vision of what a castle should be.
I might be biased, but of all the wonderful beaches I’ve had the privilege to visit around the world, Bamburgh is the most beautiful. Where else can you walk along pristine white sand, overlooked by a dramatically beautiful castle? Although there are coastal castles elsewhere – in Scotland for example – I haven’t yet discovered any as stunning as this one.
You can visit the castle, stay overnight and even get married there. The beach is particularly atmospheric when the retreating tide carves intricate swirling patterns in the fine white sand and creates little streams that glitter in the sun.
9. The Royal Border Bridge
Berwick upon Tweed is the last major town in England as you head towards Scotland. For me, this northbound rail journey on the East Coast Line was a regular one between my home city of Newcastle Upon Tyne and my university in Scotland.
The approach to Berwick station is dramatic, as it takes you over the fabulous Royal Border Bridge, designed by Robert Stephenson and opened in 1850.
Although the actual border is a few miles north of the river, this always felt like a fittingly spectacular, elevated farewell to England, and to Northumberland. It was impossible to cross that bridge without feeling a pang of homesickness, even though I loved Scotland.
The bridge is a Grade 1 listed viaduct and has 28 graceful arches. This photo by Martin Addison shows the curve of the line as it approaches the bridge, exactly as I remember it.
If you are interested in north east England, you might enjoy my post on Barnard Castle.
UPDATE, APRIL 2021
One of the original commenters on this post was George Edmonds-Brown, my former colleague and a Northumbrian himself. Sadly George has since passed away. I’d like to acknowledge him in a way that I know he would appreciate most – by plugging his excellent novels, all available on Amazon. They draw heavily upon his own experiences as a British diplomat and are recounted with irreverence and humour. RIP George.
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