Heather moorlands, dark skies, Roman fortifications and a windswept coastline replete with castles: Northumberland is as diverse as it is fascinating.
Bordering Cumbria and Scotland, this wild northern edge of England has endured a turbulent history of Viking raids, royal rebellions and skirmishes between Rome and the ancient tribes of Britain. This history has forged a fascinating landscape dotted with romantic ruins, imposing castles and the Roman Hadrian’s Wall. The county prides itself on an independent spirit, seen in the abundance of local food, served simply in a wealth of traditional pubs. Once you’ve had your fill, explore the windswept coastline, stargaze in Britain’s darkest skies and visit an isolated archipelago home to puffins, grey seals and minke whales.
Northumberland has more castles than any other English county – not surprising considering its turbulent past. The most romantic is Bamburgh, seat of the former Kings of Northumbria, which has survived bloody Viking raids, sieges and revolts. Behind the 12th-century walls you’ll find the elaborate King’s Hall, which once hosted dazzling banquets. Further south lie the sombre remains of Dunstanburgh Castle, now haunted by the ghost of a decapitated nobleman.
A boat trip to this cluster of islands lying a few miles off the coast is sure to be a highlight of your trip. From May to July you can see 37,000 nesting pairs of puffins. The surrounding waters are home to dolphins, porpoises and minke whales and each autumn 1,000 grey seal pups rest on the rocks. Pilgrims should continue north to Holy Island, site of the earliest Christian monastery in Northumberland.
The abundant North Sea
The North Sea offers an abundance of fresh fish. Head to Low Newton or Craster to experience Northumberland seafood served simply: smoked kippers with brown bread and butter, crab ‘stotties’ (generously filled buns) and fresh lobster. For something more refined, indulge in afternoon tea at the birthplace of Earl Grey. A Chinese mandarin concocted the tea for British Prime Minister Charles Grey (1764-1845), using bergamot to offset the taste of lime in the water at Howick Hall.
The yellow AD122 bus drives along the military road next to Hadrian’s Wall, making it exceptionally easy to visit Britain’s best-preserved Roman monument. An 84-mile (135-km) National Trail follows the wall from coast to coast. Walk along the most spectacular section by jumping off at the Twice Brewed Inn and heading east. To the south, the undulating hills are peppered with sheep and dense clumps of forest. Look north and you’re peering beyond the frontier of the Roman Empire. Visit Sycamore Gap, made famous by Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Housesteads, Britain’s most complete Roman fort, with an old bath house, taverns, granary and latrines.
It’s official – Northumberland has some of the darkest skies in Britain. On a clear night you can see the Milky Way with your bare eyes and view planets through binoculars. If you’re lucky, the Northern Lights may even put on a spectacular show. Head to the award-winning Kielder Observatory to learn all about our sun, view galaxies and take close-up photos of the moon with your smartphone.