A traveller in search of wilderness is unlikely to look for it in England. They might fly into London, steel themselves to a few days crushed in the crowds visiting the capital’s historic and cultural monuments – before slipping off to Wales, Scotland or Ireland, to find space and peace.
Even a once wild and remote area like the Lake District, the dramatic and mountainous National Park located in north-west England, is now often overflowing with tourists. But 300 miles north of London, and fifty miles east of the Lake District, lies England’s most sparsely-populated county, Northumberland.
[Also see our travel article “Wild Escapism in Dartmoor National Park“]
Embedded like an emerald between the Scottish border and the North Sea, the county is a world away from the populous arable land that counts as countryside in the south. In patches Northumberland is as dramatic as the Lake District, but it offers a tranquillity and sense of discovery that its more famous neighbour lost years ago.
Northumberland is where I grew up, in a small village in the valley of the River Tyne. The area has such a distinctive feel that it is where my school friends and I tend to locate our roots. None of us are particularly patriotic; none of us identify strongly as ‘British’ or ‘English’. If any specific geographical region is etched in our bones, it is Northumberland.
A visitor to Northumberland can explore the same diversity of terrain that brewed my wanderlust as a child and teenager: path-threaded forest, gorse-spiked coastline, fire-warmed pubs, rugged moorland and rolling hills. Snaking across the fields and crags is Hadrian’s Wall, a defensive structure dotted with stone forts, built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in AD 122. In a country as small, populated and accessible as England, Northumberland stands as the most wild and least charted destination.
[Also see our travel article “The Cities, Coast and Parks of Yorkshire“]
An intrepid traveller could start their exploration on Northumberland’s east coast, designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty by the UK government. Admittedly, it’s rarely an ideal place for sun tanning, but it’s beauty is elemental, encompassing some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in Britain. For 100 miles the North Sea crashes against cliffs, swirls round sand dunes, and claws up golden beaches.
Walking along the shoreline is an invigorating experience. You can hike between seaside fishing communities still characterised by their docklands: pungent with the mingled smell of seaweed and fish n chips.
As a child I remember walking with my parents along the sand from one such village, Craster, to Dunstanburgh Castle, a half-decayed fortress located on a spectacular spike of headland. We’d spend half an hour roaming the ruins before strolling back beside the waves, the salt-wind lashing our cheeks. Once in Craster, we’d hustle into The Jolly Fisherman to eat crab and smoked salmon sandwiches.
Twenty miles north another citadel rears over the sea. Bamburgh Castle is fully restored, its interior open to members of the public, containing more than 2000 artifacts including arms, art, furniture, and porcelain.
Alongside aristocratic castles and small fishing villages, the Northumbrian coast is also home to a diverse range of wildlife. The Farne Islands, accessible by boat from the town of Seahouses, have a vibrant avian population comprising 23 species, including 37,000 pairs of puffins – possibly the most exciting seabird colony in England. Every autumn, 1000 grey seal pups are born on the archipelago.
Birdwatching is also a popular activity in Druridge Bay, a stunning seven-mile stretch of sand in the south of the county, with large populations of waders and waterfowl. On the memorably-named Holy Island, a few miles short of Scotland, there is a famous wintering flock of pale-bellied brent geese.
All three of these destinations are the settings of fascinating human stories as well as flourishing animal life. A lighthouse by The Farne Islands was at the centre of a legendary sea-rescue. A 13-year-old girl, Grace Darling, spotted a shipwreck from an upstairs window of the lighthouse. She alerted her father and together they braved a ferocious storm in a small rowing boat to rescue five survivors.
A hundred years later, Drudridge Bay was considered a possible landing place for German invasion during World War Two. Anti-tank blocks and pill boxes are still visible now, often used as roosting spots by seabirds. And windswept on Holy Island stands the gutted structure of Lindisfarne Priory (or Abbey), a monastic retreat founded in AD 635. Through the first few centuries of its existence the monks’ peace was disturbed by successive waves of Viking pillage.
Each of these stories is told in visitor centres located at the sites.
Following an exploration of the coast, traveller’s can focus their attention inland. Cutting across Northumberland is one of the UK’s most iconic landmarks: Hadrian’s Wall. This northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire was built by Emperor Hadrian with the aim, according to the Emperor’s classical biographer, of “separating the Romans from the Barbarians.” It is an incredible fragment of history: stretching for 73 miles from coast to coast, in many places its thick grey stone still juts six feet from the grass.
At approximately one-mile intervals the wall is dotted with the ruins of milecastles, small rectangular forts that guarded gateways into the Roman Empire. Historians deduce that each milecastle was manned by about twenty Roman soldiers, housed in nearby barrack blocks. As well as these smaller structures, the ruins of several larger forts, central defence hubs, can be explored at a number of points along the wall.
There are two main draws to Hadrian’s Wall: its historical interest, and the dramatic landscape in which it stands. Different sites allow a visitor to experience each of these aspects.
Thirty miles inland, Housesteads is the most complete Roman fort in Britain. Starting in the car park at the foot of a steep slope, you walk for twenty minutes to reach the extensive ruins – the remains of barrack blocks and the commandant’s house, spread over the green hillside. 1800 years ago, eight hundred soldiers had their homes here.
The sight is impressive and sparks the imagination, inducing a hunger for more information – which is provided by the on-site museum. The museum has recently been restored, re-opening in the first half of 2012. Its curators have discovered the wonders of multimedia and it is far more engaging as a result. CGI footage on a large screen swoops through the fort as it operated 1800 years ago. We see Roman soldiers casually talking or heading to the toilets, the visible remains of which are transformed into glorious digitised functionality.
Other forts along the wall offer similar museums. One of the most fascinating museums is the one accompanying Vindolanda Fort, a few miles west of Housesteads. Alongside the usual mounds of excavated treasure, the museum displays writing tablets that are highly evocative of daily life – including an invitation to a birthday party and inventories detailing the camp’s needs. There are also reconstructions of what life was like for those living at Vindolanda after the Romas left Britain, opening a visitor’s eyes to a dark, dangerous, and unpredictable period of lawless raids when after the Roman departure.
An alternative to prodding around dimly-lit museums is to take one of the Wall’s most stunning sections and hike alongside the stone for several miles. In my opinion, the most dramatic part is Steel Rigg, a stretch of the Wall defined by steep peaks and troughs in the landscape. A path from the car park follows the Wall through flat muddy fields and nascent marshland before coming to the foot of jagged and sheer crags. Rough steps have been carved into the rock and, as you climb them, the Wall rises to your right. To your left, rough moor and marshland spreads ragged greens and ochres to the northern horizon. At the foot of the cliff, a few fishermen are usually visible among the reeds fringing a blue-grey lake, Crag Lough.
It takes little imagination to be thrilled by the thought that, 1800 years ago, citizens of the Roman Empire looked out over a similar view. This sense is particularly stirring when the moorland is obscured by mist, fog rolling across Crag Lough like sheep’s wool, the haze knitting everything into an illusion of timelessness.
All three sites – Housesteads, Vindolanda and Steel Rigg – are located within a radius of ten miles, and can easily be visited in a single day.
If Northumberland is well-known for any single activity, it is hill walking. England’s Country Life magazine recently called it “the best place for walking in the country”. For the most remote and tranquil routes, a visitor should head north – into that wild expanse visible from the highest points of Steel Rigg.
The northern third of the county is dominated by Northumberland National Park. The Park covers a quarter of a million acres, with 600 miles of marked footpaths and bridleways. Wildlife rare in the rest of England – driven out by dense concentrations of human activity – thrive here: otters, red squirrels, black grouse and thousands of wading birds.
There are a number of vast and beautiful areas to choose between within the National Park. At the very top, stitching together Scotland and England, run the Cheviot Hills, described as the “heathered roof of the world.” These offer a myriad of possible routes through the undulating, rock-and-heather covered moorland. Situated a little further south are the northernmost of the Pennines, a mountain range known as “the backbone of Britain.” The 268-mile Pennine Walking Trail, stretching down into the heart of England, starts in Northumberland National Park.
Both the Cheviots and the Pennines are ideal for exploration on horseback as well as on foot. Old shepherd’s trails, bridleways, and paths formed by disused railway lines are easy terrain for horse’s hooves. Or, for that matter, for bicycle tyres: tackling the hills on a mountain bike, riding beneath huge skies, is an exhilarating experience.
Despite its remoteness, accommodation is readily available in the Park. This ranges from campsites, to farmhouse bed and breakfasts, and the occasional luxurious country hotel.
And Finally: The Pubs
After a lengthy trip seeing all of the natural wonder that Northumberland has to offer, most travellers will probably be a little worn out. Time, surely, to round off the trip with a pint or two in a local pub.
This provides another excellent reason to get out of the capital and into England’s wilder corners. Tourists come to London and, having heard of Britain’s famous pub culture, ram themselves into some overcrowded drinking hole near Covent Garden. The dark-wood walls and tables, the cushioned seats, the physical accoutrements of homeliness for which British pubs are famous are all present. But actually getting one’s arse on a chair, finding a table to share with friends, being able to gesticulate with the expansive well-being of one’s intoxication, can be somewhat of a challenge.
Pubs are really at their finest in the countryside. It is such a pleasure to stride into one at the end of a day’s walking or cycling. Large tables are invariably available to comfortably sit around with a group of friends. The walls are usually eccentrically decorated, often with a jumble of redundant technologies – wooden wagon wheels, bronze kettles, leather bellows. Four or five pints – dark ales in winter, light lagers in summer – are supped as the daylight dwindles beyond the grimy windows. At night, a pair of smokers rise unsteadily and head outside to draw on cigarettes while gazing at a wide, star-speckled sky.
In 2010, a Northumbrian pub, the Battlesteads Hotel in Wark-on-Tyne, took first prize in the Great British Pub Awards. But my personal favourites are the ones I’d frequent in my late-adolescence: The Carts Bog, built two hundred years ago in a field near the hamlet of Langley; The Crown, in the nearby village of Catton; or The Rat, a more upmarket joint overlooking the pretty market town of Hexham. My friends and I would drink in these places until closing time, then set out to walk the five miles home along starlit country lanes.
Memories such as these resonate with a vitality that epitomises what makes Northumberland one of the most inspiring and characterful places in England.
Not that I’m in any way biased, of course.