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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.

Maps

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

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.

For information on the city, visit Wikipedia or the Newcastle City Page

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.

Stanegate

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

Call in to look at the remains of the bath houses. See more information at the English Heritage or About Scotland.

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.

  • Steel Rigg car park is signed north at the crossroads by Once Brewed Information Centre. In 2 days, you can see the best of the wall by walking out and back in both directions.
    • Steel Rigg east to Sewing Shields and back is achievable in a day with time to visit Housesteads. From the car park, follow the wall and scramble up the crags. Then, there is a pleasant gentle walk along the ridge with views of Crag Lough, Greenlee and Broomlea Lochs to the north. After Crag Lough, you drop down to Hotbank Farm, then climb to the top of Hotbank Crags to Housesteads and Sewing Shield beyond.
    • West from Steel Rigg. Going west from Steel Rigg you climb to the top of Winshields, the highest point on the wall at 345m. There is then a roller coaster walk along the ridge to the road crossing at Shield on the Wall. For those only wanting a short walk, the next 2km to Cawfields is one of the easier stretches of the wall for walking with good views. (To do this, park at Cawfields, walk to Shield on the Wall and return the same way.) Look carefully to the south to see the vallum. The wall is several courses high along this stretch and there is a nice milecastle above Cawfields.
  • Cawfields car park is signed north from the Milecastle Inn. It is a lovely site next to a flooded quarry. Take note of the signs if you have children. It is deep and the water is cold. I think the stretch beyond Cawfield is not as scenically good, although you do walk through the unexcavated remains of Great Chesters Fort. Look out for the remains of the strong room. The final stretch along Walltown Crags is good. This is the highest part of the wall still standing, up to 2m high. To save the steep climb, turn round when the footpath begins to drop down alongside Walltown Quarry.
  • Walltown If you just want to see this stretch of the wall, turn off B6318 and follow signs to Walltown Quarry car park. Turn right at the crossroads by Carvoran Roman Army Museum and drive about 400m. There is a small car park off the road. Walk up to the wall. Carvoran Roman Army Museum is part of the Vindolanda Trust. We were disappointed by this but that was several years ago.

    West of here, the wall was built of turf. You can still see a bank in some places, but after the adrenaline raising section earlier, this area is tame.
  • Suggestions for Non Roman fans in the area

    If you just concentrate on the Romans you will miss lot.

    • Hexham is a delightful small town with a splendid Abbey with a saxon crypt.
    • Allen Banks. This is a delightful area of woodland along the banks of the River Allen with lots of paths to explore. Get more details and a map print of the brochure - Combine this with a visit to Allendale Town which is unspoilt and a step back in time.
    • Haltwhistle and the South Tyne Valley. Haltwhistle markets itself as the ‘Centre of Britain’ but don’t let that influence you as it is one of our favourite small towns in Northumberland with an industrial heritage. It is a very friendly, welcoming place.

      There is a lovely walk up Haltwhistle Burn (Ask Tourist Information located in the station building for details). The station is worth a visit with its splendid footbridge, water tower, and disused railway bridge over the river. This was the Haltwhistle to Alston branch line and is now a walking trail. (See the trail details) Drive up to Alston, a delightful old market town with cobbled streets. Railway buffs may want to visit South Tynedale Railway running along a rebuilt part of the old Alston Track. Drive back along the yellow road down the east side of the valley. You will need a map to follow the route. The road is narrow and gated. It gets little thru traffic but is a lovely drive through an unspoilt area.There are lots of good walks from Haltwhistle. (See details)

      Drive to Featherstone Castle (not open) and walk through the park along the river. The brick remains on the grass are all that is left of a World War II Prisoner of War camp. Combine this with a walk to Lambley Viaduct on the old railway line.

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

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.

Pennine Way

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

  • Coquet Valley. It is a lovely drive up through Alwinton, through rolling green hillsides, and to the Roman Camps at Chew Green at the top of the valley. This really is wilderness. Landranger Map 80 marks lots of footpaths along the old drove roads which make good walking. See details of one walk at Walking Britain.
  • Breamish Valley and Ingram. You will need Landranger Map 81. We’ve not walked this area. It is on the list but we’ve still to do it. See more information on Breamish Valley.

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 ...

  • Prudhoe on the banks of the Tyne
  • Dunstanburgh Castle majestic ruins reached by a bracing walk across the cliffs. Make sure you stop in Craster for some genuine kippers.
  • Warkworth Castle in one of the few ‘chocolate box’ villages in Northumberland. The castle ruins stand proud above the village with the church at the other end of the street.
  • There is another hidden gem close by - Warkworth Hermitage. This can only be reached by rowing boat across the river. It is a monk's cell carved into the rock face and very special.
  • Aydon Castle, a 13th century manor house near Corbridge, is another hidden gem.
  • Belsay Hall and Castle - There are centuries of history here from the ruins of 14th century castle, 17th century manor house and 19th century Greek revival style Hall. Visit in May when the rhododendrons are in bloom. There is a lovely walk through the quarry gardens which provided the stone for the 19th century hall.

or those still lived in ...

  • Alnwick Castle, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, must be at the top of your list. This castle was used for filming scenes for the Harry Potter movie series. The gardens designed by the Duchess are splendid.
  • Make time to wander round the town and visit Barter Books in the old Station Building.
  • Chillingham Castle, in the north of the county and off the tourist beat, is worth visiting. Look out for the herd of wild white cattle.
  • Wallington Hall is a pleasant house with a very nice walled garden.
  • William Armstrong, Cragside and Banburgh Castle-Armstrong was an industrialist on Tyneside who made his money from armaments. He was a great benefactor and gave many gifts to the city and people of Newcastle. To understand his buildings, you need to understand something about the man.
    • Cragside, near Rothbury, became his main home and was the first house to be lit with hydroelectric power. It is a marvelous example of Victorian wealth and ingenuity. Follow the walk round the grounds to understand what he did. There are lots of footpaths. Visit in May for the rhododendrons or in autumn for the colors.
    • Make sure you allow time to also walk round Rothbury. This is like stepping back into the past. It is an unspoilt small town with broad tree lined streets.

    • Bamburgh Castle has one of the most spectacular settings of any British castle, built on a crag above the North Sea. Armstrong bought the ruined castle and restored it for use as a convalescent home for his workers. The Great Hall is paneled with teak, which was a gift from the King of Siam.

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.

  • Try Druridge Bay
  • Seahouses is a pretty seaside town. Visit the Grace Darling Museum. You can book boat trips to the Farne Islands here. Several different companies operate, but it is a long time since I did the trip so am unable to comment on the different deals. A Google search of "Farne Islands Boat trips" will give lots of information. This site tells you a bit about the islands and different tours available.
  • Lindisfarne or Holy Island is reached at low tide by a causeway across the sands. Tide tables are posted and do pay heed to them. The beach is very flat so the tide comes in very quickly. There is a refuge half way across for anyone foolish enough to be caught by the rising tide.
  • Holy Island is a popular tourist ‘honey pot’ especially when the sun shines. It will be busy, but you can escape the worst of the crowds if you are prepared to walk. To experience the atmosphere, you need to stay overnight. Part of the attraction is the causeway, but it is rich with early Christian heritage.

Visit the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. Lindisfarne Castle high on the rock above the island is also worth visiting.

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.


Related Articles:

Countryside Walking in England

Countryside Code- Rules for Walkers

Traveling between York and Edinburgh

Additional Resources

Discuss this article in our forums

http://www.visitnorthumberland.com

http://www.nnpa.org.uk

http://www.visitnortheastengland.com

http://www.northeastengland.talktalk.net/Newcastle%20upon%20Tyne%20History.htm

Author: Eleanor Wasley

Eleanor Wasley

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