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Northumberland - God's Own Country
Eleanor Wasley (Eleanor)
I was at Durham University in the 1960s and fell in love with the North East. Over the years, we have holidayed regularly in Tynedale. Each time we go back, it feels like going home. I love the wide open spaces and feel I can breathe again. It truly is God’s Own Country.
It is also one of England’s hidden secrets. Most people rush through on their way to Scotland. This is a shame as Northumberland has everything- from the Romans, early Christian Heritage, to the industrial revolution; There are glorious empty beaches stretching for miles to the largest man made lake and man made forest in the country, Holy Island (only approachable at low tide across a causeway over the sand), or a boat trip to the Farne Islands for bird watching and seals; Northumberland has huge defensive castles to deter the Scots and pele towers or bastles from the times of the Border Reivers. (It wasn’t called the debatable lands for nothing!); There are abbeys and delightful small churches, a handful of small market towns and many small villages. The walking is some of the best in the country with the Hadrian’s Wall Footpath and the Pennine Way for starters.
Northumberland is a time well spent. Take it slowly and don’t rush. The Northumbrians are delightful and welcoming. You will leave feeling you have made many friends.
The following is very much my own personal comments, impressions and opinions - places we have discovered over many years. It is not an exhaustive list of things to do and see. It is mixture of ‘must sees’ as well as some of the ‘off the tourist beat’ hidden secrets.
For most of the time, a good road atlas on a scale of 4 inches to one mile will be perfectly adequate. If you want to explore an area in more detail, then it might be worth investing in copies of the Ordnance Survey Landranger maps. At 1:50000 (2cm to 1km), these mark all roads and footpaths. I’ve indicted in the text which Landranger map you will need.
Serious walkers may want to invest in 1:25000 maps (4cm to 1km) in either the Explorer or Outdoor Leisure series produced by Ordnance Survey. These show all field boundaries. Northumberland is marvelous walking country. Once off Hadrian’s Wall and Pennine Way footpaths, you may not see a soul. Get some walking ideas.
You should be able to buy maps once you arrive without too many problems. If you want them before they can be bought from Stanfords.
Newcastle is the economic focus of the area. It was a major Victorian City and still has many fine buildings. Its wealth came from coal, ship building and heavy industry. Traces of the medieval city and building can still be seen:
Newcastle and the North East suffered badly with the loss of its industrial heart. Over the last 20 years, with major investment, Newcastle has ‘rediscovered’ itself and is once more a vibrant and exciting city. The Baltic Flour Mills (across the river in Gateshead) and the Millennium (or blinking bridge) are part of this new confidence.
However, the main reason visitors go to Northumberland is for its scenery and heritage. This is what I will concentrate on in this article.
The Romans and Hadrian’s Wall
To many people, this IS Northumberland and the main reason most people visit. Hadrian’s Wall is a world heritage site and snakes across some of the most dramatic scenery in England.
Useful websites are:
View a pdf which shows a map showing the main sites along the wall in the care of English Heritage and some information about them. It is dated 2007, so information about opening hours and entry fees may be inaccurate.
There is a footpath along the length of the wall. Visit the official website which gives loads of information.
Unless you specifically want to walk the whole length of the wall, limit yourself to the middle section between Housesteads and Walltown. This has the best remains, the best scenery and the best walking. It is the most rewarding part of the wall for visitors. Further east, the wall has been ‘robbed out’ as the stones were used for building. Many old buildings will have Roman wall stones. Corbridge Church has a saxon tower with a Roman arch inside.
Best access to the wall is along B6318, which rollercoasters across the landscape following the line of the wall. You get good views of the wall, the ditch to the north and the vallum to the south. It is referred to as the ‘Military Road’, but it is NOT Roman. It is one of a series of roads built by General Wade across Britain after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, when Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, was defeated by the Army of King George. These roads were designed to let Hanoverian troops move quickly across the country if there was another invasion.
The Romans built their supply road to the south of the wall. This is called the "Stanegate" and can still be seen in places. Stanegate gave access to a series of supply forts to the south of the wall at Corbridge and Vindolanda. Both of these are worth visiting.
Corbridge is one of the less visited Roman forts with large, well preserved granaries. See more information about Corbridge. Corbridge itself is a charming village and, if you have time, it owes a visit. As well as the fort itself, the large civilian settlement outside--Vindolanda--has been excavated. A small section of the stone wall and the turf wall have been reconstructed on part of the site. There is an excellent museum. The boggy and acid ground provided excellent conditions for preserving writing tablets.
The Roman Wall
Coming out of Newcastle, you will see small sections of wall just a few stones high that will give you a glimpse of what is to come. The two main sights are Chesters and Housesteads.
Chesters Roman Fort
Housesteads Roman Fort
This is the place EVERYONE goes to visit, if only to see the latrines. It is a marvelous setting on the hillside above the South Tyne Valley. Be warned it is a steep 10 minute walk up from the parking lot to the fort. See more information at English Heritage or BBC
There is excellent walking from the fort along the wall in both directions. Most people go west following the wall through the trees to the remains of a milecastle. You can continue west over Hotbank Crags to Hotbank and views of Crag Lough. To lose the crowds, go east. Drop down through the east gate to the Nag Burn and pick up the line of the wall. Follow this to the top of Sewing Shields Crags and Sewing Shields Farm beyond. Sewing Shield Crags is one of the legendary burial places of King Arthur. Make sure you know what to do if he wakes ...
Walking the Wall
OS Landranger map 87 covers this stretch of the wall. Although, if you want to go further west than Haltwhistle, you will need map 86 as well. You will also need sturdy shoes or boots as stiles and gateways can get very muddy after the rain. You are asked not to walk on the wall itself. Be warned there are a lot of ups and downs in places, but the scenery is dramatic. Listen for the bubbling call of the curlew - the bird shown on all signs for the Northumberland National Park.Parking is available at Housesteads, Steel Rigg, Cawfields and Walltown Quarry.
Suggestions for Non Roman fans in the area
If you just concentrate on the Romans you will miss lot.
North Tyne, Kielder Water and Kielder Forest
This is off the main tourist beat - there is little information on the web apart from Northumberland Tourist Board and Northumbrian water web sites. The Tourist Information Maps website lists some of the things to see, although there is very little information.
The area gets few foreign visitors, and many British tourists only manage a day visit. This is a shame as the area warrants a longer stop. Here are some pictures to wet your appetite.
There are miles and miles of forest roads for walking or cycling. You will need a copy of OS Landranger 80 for these. It is possible to get lost in the forest, even with a map. Count junctions and watch out for new roads which may not be marked on the map. Both Northumbria Water and Forestry Commission have short way marked trails. It is many years since we walked these so I can’t give up to date information about many of the footpaths. They can be muddy after rain. Then, either drive up the A68 or A69 to Otterburn and then cut across to Bellingham. Alternatively take the B6320, a lovely drive as the road winds its way up the valley. Stop to have a look at Simonburn Church.
Bellingham is the main service centre of the North Tyne Valley. It is a thriving small town and far enough from the Hexham to retain its shopping parade. It feels like stepping back in time.
There is little information on the web. See some old photos of Bellingham. One of the delightful things about Bellingham is that it has hardly changed since these pictures were taken. However, go quickly as that is changing. It has been noticeable over the last few years that traditional family run shops have closed and no one has taken them over.
We recommend the small bakers, especially the ginger slices. Shopping is still a leisurely and enjoyable experience. On a Saturday morning, the queue stretches outside the door and conversations go up and down the line. Visit the church with its vaulted stone roof, built so it couldn’t be burnt by Scottish raiders.This is border reivers country. Look for ‘the Lang pack’ in the churchyard (I won’t tell you about that - you will have to go and find out) and St Cuthbert’s Well. Hareshaw Linn is a lovely walk. Keep your eyes open you may see the elusive Red Squirrel. Download this brochure for a really quirky view.
From Bellingham, follow the signs to Kielder. This is a ‘new’ road. The section from Bellingham was improved to carry heavy construction traffic when the dam was built. Watch out for barn owls if you drive between Bellingham and Lanehead at dusk. Beyond the dam, a completely new road was built to Kielder as the old road was flooded by the reservoir. You can still see parts of it.
If you feel like living dangerously, follow the old road to Falstone and do a detour into Falstone village. Then rejoin the main road near the dam. You will need a map for this. At Lanehead, turn right then left to drop down to Redmire. In 2km, take the left fork at Rushend and follow your nose. The road gets little traffic, is gated and has grass growing down the centre. You will see a completely different view of the valley. The view up the valley as you drop down to Falstone is one of the best.
Tower Knowe Visitor Centre
Tower Knowe Visitor Centre is run by Northumbrian Water. EVERYONE stops here. There are toilets, a cafe, information centre and small exhibition. It can get VERY busy. Book your cruise on Osprey here. Visit NorthUmbrian Water for more information. If you want to avoid the worst of the crowds, drive across the dam and park in the large car park at Hawkhope. There is a pleasant marked walk to Belling crags with views across the lake.
Leaplish Waterside Park
Leaplish Waterside Park has self catering accommodation, restaurant, water activities and Bird of Prey Centre. You can take a pleasant Leaplish Circular walk.
Kielder Castle Forest Park Centre
Kielder Castle Forest Park Centre is run by Forestry Commission. As well as an information Centre, there is a small exhibition and cafe. There are several pleasant way marked walks, cycle trails from here and an orienteering course. Go and find Kielder Viaduct on the old North Tyne Railway. Duchess and Duke’s trail are nice easy walks. For the more energetic there is Deadwater Fell. This is reached along forest roads and the view well repays the climb. Take a sweater with you. It is very exposed, and even in summer, the weather can change suddenly. It is possible to head across the moors to Peel Fell. This is only recommended after a prolonged dry spell as it is VERY wet.
The forest drive is well worth doing. It takes you up the valley, past East Kielder Farm and climbs up over Kielder Moor before dropping down into Redesdale. The road is paved to East Kielder but beyond is a forest road - fairly narrow and a bit bumpy. Average speed 20mph. You won’t want to go any faster! There is a pleasant parking area in an old quarry beside the river just before East Kielder.
Lewisburn and Bloody Bush
Do try and find time to include this. It is one of the nicest parts of the forest and, best of all, gets few visitors. The car park is reached along a forest road off the main road to Kielder. It is not well signed and easy to miss. Coming from Bellingham, it is the left hand turn just after the right hand turn (signed) to Matthew Linn. It is just BEFORE the large bridge across the Lewisburn. It is a very pleasant 2km drive up the valley to a large open car park. Continue on foot along the road to The Forks (2 houses). Take the left hand fork and follow the Lewisburn as far as you can. The OS 1:50000 map shows a footpath going up a ride to a top road. This does not exist. Retrace your footsteps. At the Forks, continue up the main valley (now the Akenshaw Burn) to the bridge. For a short walk, cross the bridge and look for a footpath back through the trees on the opposite side of the burn. This will take you back to the car park. Allow 1-2 hours for this. If you have time, it is worth continuing up the valley, following the old toll road to the Scottish border at Bloody Bush with its huge pillar with tolls on it. Take a map with you. The forest ends and you can follow the footpath across the moors to the mast on Larriston Fell. You will need to allow 4+ hours for this, depending on how fast you walk. This is Kielder at its best!
Sidwood and the Border Reivers
Again, this takes you well away from the main tourist areas and into a very different part of the forest. From the 14th to the 16th century, the Reivers were the riding and raiding families on both sides of the English/Scottish Border. Back then, no man could sleep safely and no cattle could be left unguarded. They lived by stealing and the enemy was anyone outside one’s own clan. Centuries of warfare between the two countries had created a lawless society where people just tried to survive. Riders, raiders, guerrilla fighters, and gangsters, the border reivers gave the words ‘bereaved’ and ‘blackmail’ to the English language. All that remains now are there fortified bastles and peles.
From Bellingham, drive to Lanehead. Turn right following signs to Greenhaugh. Take the next two left turns and then next right to Redheugh. Either: 1) Park under the trees just inside the forest, and follow the footpath along the river with the deciduous forest to Sidwood. We’ve seen barn owls and foxes along this stretch OR 2) drive along the road and park in the large grassy area near Sidwood. There is a sign in the car park about the Border Reivers Trail. This is a lovely way marked walk along the river banks to Waterhead to Barty’s Peel. On the way back, you are signed along the road at Waterhead to the remains of Black Middens Peel. Beyond, there is a big bend in the road. Take the footpath across the field which crosses the river and picks up the footpath back to Sidwood. This is another cracking walk and, chances are, you won’t see anyone on it. Allow about 4 hours for the whole walk. If you don't have a lot of time, the walk from Redheugh to Sidwood and back takes less than an hour.
This is one of the great walks. You don’t need to do the whole walk as it can be broken down into smaller manageable chunks. Most people start the walk from Edale, so by the time you reach Northumberland, the number of walkers have dropped. There is so much information on the walk, I don’t intend to give much detail here. (Visit their official website) One of the best guide books is still A. Wainwright's “Pennine Way Companion” with its hand drawn maps, beautiful hand written descriptions, and pen and ink sketches. Everyone has their favorite bit of the walk. Try walking the section from Bellingham across Padon Hill to the edge of the forest. This is best when the area is in full flower. Your feet throw up a dust of pollen and you can smell the honey in the air.
Other Good Walking Areas
Castles and Stately Homes
Again, you are spoilt for choice and this is a very brief section covering some of our favourites.
If you like ruins ...
or those still lived in ...
The Northumbrian Coast
This faces the North Sea and the word ‘bracing’ springs to mind. You may not want to lie on the beach, but the long beaches are great for tramping.
A Final Summary
I’m aware I’ve only scratched the surface of Northumberland. I’ve not mentioned the museums, theatres, restaurants or pubs, or the mighty Cheviot. There is so much industrial archaeology to be discovered from old lime kilns, coal mines, and deserted railway lines. The northeast was the birthplace of railways. Stevenson of Rocket fame was born at Wylam on the River Tyne. His birthplace is open as a museum. There are some splendid station buildings and bridges to discover. There is Tynemouth Priory and Berwick with its magnificent Elizabethan walls, Tiny Gatehouse with its old bastles, and Elsdon with its pele. Drive the A68 over Carter Bar and stop for the view ...
... But Most of All, enjoy it and make your own discoveries.
Author: Eleanor Wasley
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