Stretching 64 miles north of Newcastle up to the Scottish border, the low-lying Northumberland coast is the region’s shining star, stunningly beautiful and packed with impressive sights. Here you’ll find the mighty fortresses at Warkworth, Alnwick and Bamburgh and the magnificent Elizabethan ramparts surrounding Berwick-upon-Tweed, while in between there are glorious sandy beaches as well as the site of the Lindisfarne monastery on Holy Island and the seabird and nature reserve of the Farne Islands, reached by boat from Seahouses.
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The appealing market town of ALNWICK (pronounced “Annick”), thirty miles north of Newcastle and four miles inland from Alnmouth, is renowned for its castle and gardens – seat of the dukes of Northumberland – which overlook the River Aln. It’s worth spending a couple of days here, exploring the medieval maze of streets, the elegant gatehouses on Pottergatea and Bondgate and the best bookshop in the north.
The Percys – who were raised to the dukedom of Northumberland in 1750 – have owned Alnwick Castle since 1309. In the eighteenth century, the first duke had the interior refurbished by Robert Adam in an extravagant Gothic style – which in turn was supplanted by the gaudy Italianate decoration preferred by the fourth duke in the 1850s. There’s plenty to see inside, though the interior can be crowded at times – not least with families on the Harry Potter trail, since the castle doubled as Hogwarts School in the first two films.
The grounds of the castle are taken up by the huge and beautiful Alnwick Garden, designed by an innovative Belgian team and full of quirky features such as a bamboo labyrinth maze, a serpent garden involving topiary snakes, and the popular Poison Garden, filled with the world’s deadliest plants. The heart of the garden is the computerized Grand Cascade, which shoots water jets in a regular synchronized display, while to the west is Europe’s largest treehouse with a restaurant within.
Seahouses and around
Seahouses and around
Around ten miles north from Craster, beyond the small village of Beadnell, lies the fishing port SEAHOUSES, the only place on the local coast that could remotely be described as a resort. It’s the embarkation point for boat trips out to the windswept Farne Islands, a rocky archipelago lying a few miles offshore.
The Farne Islands
Owned by the National Trust and maintained as a nature reserve, the Farne Islands are the summer home of hundreds of thousands of migrating sea birds, notably puffins, guillemots, terns, eider ducks and kittiwakes, and home to the only grey seal colony on the English coastline. A number of boat trips potter around the islands – the largest of which is Inner Farne – offering birdwatching tours, grey seal-watching tours and the Grace Darling tour, which takes visitors to the lighthouse on Longstone Island, where the famed local heroine lived.
One-time capital of Northumbria, the little village of BAMBURGH, just three miles from Seahouses, lies in the lee of its magnificent castle. Attractive stone cottages – holding the village shop, a café, pubs and B&Bs – flank each side of the triangular green, and at the top of the village on Radcliffe Road is the diminutive Grace Darling Museum. From behind the castle it’s a brisk, five-minute walk to two splendid sandy beaches, backed by rolling, tufted dunes.
Solid and chunky, Bamburgh Castle is a spectacular sight, its elongated battlements crowning a formidable basalt crag high above the beach. Its origins lie in Anglo-Saxon times, but it suffered a centuries-long decline – rotted by sea spray and buffeted by winter storms, the castle was bought by Lord Armstrong (of Rothbury’s Cragside) in 1894, who demolished most of the structure to replace it with a hybrid castle-mansion. Inside there’s plenty to explore, including the sturdy keep that houses an unnerving armoury packed with vicious-looking pikes, halberds, helmets and muskets; the King’s Hall, with its marvellous teak ceiling that was imported from Siam (Thailand) and carved in Victorian times; and a medieval kitchen complete with original jugs, pots and pans.
It’s a dramatic approach to HOLY ISLAND (Lindisfarne), past the barnacle-encrusted marker poles that line the three-mile-long causeway. Topped with a stumpy castle, the island is small (just 1.5 miles by one), sandy and bare, and in winter it can be bleak, but come summer day-trippers clog the car parks as soon as the causeway is open. Even then, though, Lindisfarne has a distinctive and isolated atmosphere. Give the place time and, if you can, stay overnight, when you’ll be able to see the historic remains without hundreds of others cluttering the views. The island’s surrounding tidal mud flats, salt marshes and dunes have been designated a nature reserve.
It was on Lindisfarne (as the island was once known) that St Aidan of Iona founded a monastery at the invitation of King Oswald of Northumbria in 634. The monks quickly established a reputation for scholarship and artistry, the latter exemplified by the Lindisfarne Gospels, the apotheosis of Celtic religious art, now kept in the British Library. The monastery had sixteen bishops in all, the most celebrated being the reluctant St Cuthbert, who never settled here – within two years, he was back in his hermit’s cell on the Farne Islands, where he died in 687. His colleagues rowed the body back to Lindisfarne, which became a place of pilgrimage until 875, when the monks abandoned the island in fear of marauding Vikings, taking Cuthbert’s remains with them.
Before the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603, BERWICK-UPON-TWEED, twelve miles north of Holy Island, was the quintessential frontier town, changing hands no fewer than fourteen times between 1174 and 1482, when the Scots finally ceded the stronghold to the English. Interminable cross-border warfare ruined Berwick’s economy, turning the prosperous Scottish port of the thirteenth century into an impoverished English garrison town. By the late sixteenth century, Berwick’s fortifications were in a dreadful state and Elizabeth I, fearing the resurgent alliance between France and Scotland, had the place rebuilt in line with the latest principles of military architecture. Berwick was reborn as an important seaport between 1750 and 1820, and is still peppered with elegant Georgian mansions dating from that period.
Berwick’s walls – one and a half miles long and still in pristine condition – are no more than 20ft high but incredibly thick. They are now the town’s major attraction; it’s possible to walk the mile-long circuit (1hr) round them, allowing for wonderful views out to sea, across the Tweed and over the orange-tiled rooftops of the town. Protected by ditches on three sides and the Tweed on the fourth, the walls are strengthened by immense bastions.