Remote and breathtakingly beautiful, the county of Northumberland forms the bulk of the northeast of England. An enticing medley of delightful market towns, glorious golden beaches, wooded dells, wild uplands and an unsurpassed collection of historical monuments, it’s undoubtedly the main draw in the Northeast, and where you should focus the majority of your time. South of Northumberland lies County Durham, famous for its lovely university town and magnificent twelfth-century cathedral, while to the southeast and edged by the North Sea is industrial Tyne and Wear. It’s home to the busy and burgeoning metropolis of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a dynamic and distinctive city crammed with cultural attractions, great shops and an exceptionally energetic nightlife.
While its most recent past is defined by industry and in particular post-industrial hardship, the Northeast has an eventful early history: Romans, Vikings and Normans have all left dramatic evidence of their colonization, none more cherished than the 84-mile-long Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans in 122 AD to contain the troublesome tribes of the far north. Thousands come each year to walk along parts, or all, of the Wall, or to cycle the nearby National Route 72. Neighbouring Northumberland National Park also has plenty for outdoors enthusiasts, with its huge reservoir, Kielder Water and surrounding footpaths and cycleways.
As well as Roman ruins, medieval castles scatter the region, the best preserved being Alnwick, with its wonderful gardens, and stocky Bamburgh, on the coast. The shoreline round here, from Amble past Bamburgh to the Scottish border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed – and officially the end of Northumberland – is simply stunning, boasting miles of pancake-flat, dune-backed beach and a handful of off-shore islands. Reached by a tidal causeway, the lonely little islet of Lindisfarne – Holy Island – where early Christian monks created the Lindisfarne Gospels, is the most famous, while not far away to the south, near Seahouses, the Farne Islands are the perfect habitat for large colonies of seabirds including puffins, guillemots and kittiwakes.
South of Northumberland, County Durham and Tyne and Wear better illustrate the Northeast’s industrial heritage. It was here in 1825 that the world’s first railway opened – the Darlington and Stockton line – with local coal and ore fuelling the shipbuilding and heavy-engineering companies of Tyneside. Abandoned coalfields, train lines, quaysides and factories throughout the area have been transformed into superb, child-friendly tourist attractions.
County Durham has shaken off its grimy reputation in recent years and recast itself as a thriving tourist area. The well-to-do market towns of Bishop Auckland and Barnard Castle make great day-trips from Durham, and there’s plenty of excellent walking and cycling in the wilds of the two Pennine valleys, Teesdale and Weardale. You’ll find some top-class museums in the area, too, including Beamish, Locomotion and the Bowes Museum.
spreads out over 300 acres, with buildings taken from all over the region painstakingly reassembled in six main sections linked by restored trams and buses. Complete with costumed shopkeepers, workers and householders, four of the sections show life in 1913, before the upheavals of World War I, including a
complete with drift mine (regular tours throughout the day) and a large-scale recreation of the High Street in a market
. Two areas date to 1825, at the beginning of the northeast’s industrial development, including a
, with horse yard, formal gardens, vegetable plots and orchards. You can ride on the beautifully restored steam-powered carousel, the
– dating from the 1890s – and the
, which is pulled along by a replica of George Stephenson’s
, the first passenger-carrying steam train in the world.
Sitting to the north of Teesdale, the valley of WEARDALE was once hunting ground reserved for the Prince Bishops, but was later transformed into a major centre for lead-mining and limestone quarrying; this industrial heritage is celebrated at the excellent Killhope Iron Mining museum and the Weardale Museum in Irehopesburn. The main settlement is Stanhope, a small market town with a pleasant open-air heated swimming pool, perfect for cooling off after a long walk in the hills.
If you’re keen to learn about Weardale’s mining past, a visit to Killhope Lead Mining Museum, five miles west of Ireshopeburn, is an absolute must. After many successful years as one of the richest mines in Britain, Killhope shut for good in 1910, and now houses a terrific, child-friendly museum that brings to life the difficulties and dangers of a mining life. The site is littered with preserved machinery and nineteenth-century buildings, including the Mine Shop where workers would spend the night after finishing a late shift. The highlight of the visit comes when you descend Park Level Mine – you’ll be given wellies, a hard hat and a torch – in the company of a guide who expounds entertainingly about the realities of life underground, notably the perils of the “Black Spit”, a lung disease which killed many men by their mid-forties.
There are a number of attractions near Newcastle, all accessible by Metro. The train runs east towards Wallsend, where Segendum fort marks the beginning of Hadrian’s Wall, while further east Bede’s World pays homage to Christianity’s most important historian. Further out, near Sunderland, is the splendid Washington Wildfowl Centre.
Tyneside and Newcastle’s native inhabitants are known as Geordies, the word probably derived from a diminutive of the name ”George”. There are various explanations of who George was (King George II, railwayman George Stephenson), all plausible, none now verifiable. Geordies speak a highly distinctive dialect and accent, heavily derived from Old English. Phrases you’re likely to come across include: haway man! (come on!), scran (food), a’reet (hello) and propa belta (really good) – and you can also expect to be widely referred to as “pet” or “flower”.
The handsome city of DURHAM is best known for its beautiful Norman cathedral – there’s a tremendous view of it as you approach the city by train from the south – and its flourishing university, founded in 1832. Together, these form a little island of privilege in what’s otherwise a moderately sized, working-class city. It’s worth visiting for a couple of days – there are plenty of attractions, but it’s more the overall atmosphere that captivates, enhanced by the omnipresent golden stone, slender bridges and glint of the river. The heart of the city is the marketplace, flanked by the Guildhall and St Nicholas Church. The cathedral and church sit on a wooded peninsula to the west, while southwards stretch narrow streets lined with shops and cafés.
Durham’s history revolves around its cathedral. Completed in just forty years, the cathedral was founded in 1093 to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, arguably the Northeast’s most important and venerated saint. Soon after Cuthbert was laid to rest here, the bishops of Durham were granted extensive powers to control the troublesome northern marches of the Kingdom – a rabble of invading Picts from Scotland and revolting Norman earls – ruling as semi-independent Prince Bishops, with their own army, mint and courts of law. At the peak of their power in the fourteenth century, the office went into decline – especially in the wake of the Reformation – yet clung to the vestiges of their authority until 1836, when they ceded them to the Crown. They abandoned Durham Castle for their palace in Bishop Auckland and transferred their old home to the fledgling Durham University, England’s third-oldest seat of learning after Oxford and Cambridge.
From the marketplace, it’s a five-minute walk up Saddler Street to
, considered a supreme example of the Norman-Romanesque style. The awe-inspiring
used pointed arches for the first time in England, raising the vaulted ceiling to new and dizzying heights. The weight of the stone is borne by massive pillars, their heaviness relieved by striking Moorish-influenced geometric patterns. A door on the western side gives access to the
, from where there are beautiful views. Separated from the nave by a Victorian marble screen is the
, where the dark Restoration stalls are overshadowed by the 13ft-high
. Beyond, the
Chapel of the Nine Altars
dates from the thirteenth century. Here, and around the
Shrine of St Cuthbert
, much of the stonework is of local Weardale marble, each dark shaft bearing its own pattern of fossils. Cuthbert himself lies beneath a plain marble slab, his shrine having gained a reputation over the centuries for its curative powers. The legend was given credence in 1104, when the saint’s body was exhumed in Chester-le-Street for reburial here, and was found to be completely uncorrupted, more than four hundred years after his death on Lindisfarne. Almost certainly, this was the result of his fellow monks having (unintentionally) preserved the body by laying it in sand containing salt crystals.
Back near the entrance, at the west end of the church is the Galilee Chapel; begun in the 1170s, its light and exotic decoration is in imitation of the Great Mosque of Córdoba. The chapel contains the simple tombstone of the Venerable Bede, the Northumbrian monk credited with being England’s first historian. Bede died at the monastery of Jarrow in 735, and his remains were first transferred to the cathedral in 1020.
A large wooden doorway opposite the cathedral’s main entrance leads into the spacious cloisters, flanked by what remains of the monastic buildings. On the right of the passage lies the Monks’ Dormitory with its original twelfth-century oak roof – it now houses the cathedral library. At the end of the passage, in the undercroft, the Treasures of St Cuthbert exhibition displays some striking relics, including the cathedral’s original twelfth-century lion-head Sanctuary Knocker (the one on the main door is a replica), and a splendid facsimile copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels (the originals are in the British Library in London). A couple of interesting audiovisual displays detail the history of the cathedral, too.
Born in North Northumbria in 653, Cuthbert spent most of his youth in Melrose Abbey in Scotland, from where he moved briefly to Lindisfarne Island, which was at that time a well-known centre of religious endeavour. Preferring the peace and rugged solitude of the Farne Islands, he lived on Inner Farne for thirty years. News of his piety spread, however, and he was head-hunted to become Bishop of Lindisfarne, a position he accepted reluctantly. Uncomfortable in the limelight, he soon returned to Inner Farne, and when he died his remains were moved to Lindisfarne before being carted off to Durham Cathedral which soon became a pilgrimage site.
Hadrian’s Wall was constructed in 122 AD at the behest of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Keen for peace and safety within his empire, fearing attacks from Pictish Scotland, Hadrian commissioned a long wall to act as a border, snaking its way from the Tyne to the Solway Firth. It was built up to a height of 15ft in places and was interspersed by milecastles, which functioned as gates, depots and mini-barracks. The best-preserved portions of the Wall are concentrated between Chesters Roman Fort, four miles north of Hexham, and Haltwhistle, sixteen miles to the west, which passes Housesteads Roman Fort, Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum. Most people come to walk or cycle the length of the Wall. There are plenty of lovely places to stay and eat around and along the Wall; the handsome market towns of Hexham, Haltwhistle and Corbridge also make good bases.
The best way to visit the Wall is to walk or cycle the length of it. The Hadrian’s Wall Footpath runs for 84 miles alongside the Wall itself from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway. It takes on average seven days to complete and there’s an optional Passport system involving collecting a series of stamps to prove you’ve done it. The National Route 72, shares some of the same route as the Footpath, and runs from South Shields to Ravenglass in Cumbria. There’s bike hire in Newcastle.
Vibrant and handsome, NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE has emerged from its industrial heyday and its post-industrial difficulties with barely a smut on its face. Its reputation for lively nightlife is just the tip of the iceberg; with its collection of top-class art galleries, museums and flourishing theatre scene – not to mention the shopping – the city is up there among the most exciting in Britain.
The de facto capital of the area between Yorkshire and Scotland, the city was named for its “new castle” founded in 1080 and hit the limelight during the Industrial Revolution – Grainger Town in the city’s centre is lined with elegant, listed classical buildings, indicating its past wealth and importance as one of Britain’s biggest and most important exporters of coal, iron and machinery. The decline of industry damaged Newcastle badly, signalling decades of poverty and hardship – a period recalled by Antony Gormley’s mighty statue the Angel of the North, which, since its appearance in 1998, has become both a poignant eulogy for the days of industry and a symbol of resurgence and regeneration.
Budget hotel chains offer plenty of good-value rooms in the city centre and down by the Quayside, while the biggest concentration of small hotels and guesthouses – and the YHA hostel – lies a mile north of the centre in popular, student-filled Jesmond, along and off Osborne Road.
Newcastle’s boisterous pubs, bars and clubs are concentrated in several areas: in the Bigg Market (between Grey St and Grainger St), around the Quayside and in the developing Ouseburn area, where bars tend to be quirkier and more sophisticated; in Jesmond, with its thriving student-filled strip of café/bars; and in the mainstream leisure-and-cinema complex known as The Gate (Newgate St). The gay area, known as the “Pink Triangle”, focuses on the Centre for Life, spreading out to Waterloo Street and Westmorland and Scotswood roads. Top drinking brew is Newcastle Brown – an ale known locally as “Dog” – produced in this city since 1927.
Newcastle has a great variety of places to eat, from expensive, top-quality restaurants showcasing the talents of young and creative chefs, to fun, relaxed cafés and budget-friendly Chinese restaurants (mostly around Stowell Street in Chinatown). The popular chain restaurants are down by the Quayside.
Visitors are encouraged to think of the city as Newcastle Gateshead, an amalgamation of the two conurbations straddling the Tyne. On Gateshead Quays are the BALTIC contemporary arts centre and Norman Foster’s Sage music centre, and on the opposite side, Newcastle’s Quayside is scene of much of the city’s contemporary nightlife. The city splits into several distinct areas, though it’s only a matter of minutes to walk between them. The castle and cathedral occupy the heights immediately above the River Tyne, while north of here lies the city centre, Grainger Town. Chinatown and the two big draws of the Discovery Museum and the Life Science Centre are west of the centre, while east is the renowned Laing Gallery. In the north of the city, on the university campus, is the Great North Museum: Hancock and even further north, through the landscaped Exhibition Park, is the Town Moor, 1200 acres of common land where freemen of the city – including Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela and Bob Geldof – are entitled to graze their cattle. The old industrial Ouseburn Valley, home to an alternative cultural scene, interesting galleries, the excellent Seven Stories children’s museum and some popular bars, is a short walk east along the river from the city centre.
Newcastle’s biggest club night is Shindig, taking place on Saturdays and switching locations around the city. Gigs, club nights and the gay scene are reviewed exhaustively in The Crack, available in shops, pubs and bars.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Northwest Northumberland, the great triangular chunk of land between Hadrian’s Wall and the coastal plain, is dominated by the wide-skied landscapes of Northumberland National Park, whose four hundred windswept square miles rise to the Cheviot Hills on the Scottish border. The bulk of the Park is taken up by Kielder Water and Forest nature reserve, a superb destination for watersports and outdoor activities; the small town of Bellingham makes a good base for the reserve, as do Rothbury and Wooler, both of which also provide easy access to some superb walking in the craggy Cheviot Hills.
Surrounded by 250 acres of dense, pine forest, Kielder Water is the largest reservoir in England. The road from Bellingham follows the North Tyne River west and skirts the forested edge of the lake, passing an assortment of visitor centres, waterside parks, picnic areas and anchorages that fringe its southern shore. Mountain biking, hiking, horseriding and fishing are some of the land-based activities on offer, and watersports like waterskiing, sailing, kayaking and windsurfing are hugely popular, too. The mass of woodlands and wetlands mean that wildlife is abundant – you might spot badgers, deer, otters, ospreys and red squirrels. Leaplish Waterside Park, on the western flank of the reservoir, is the best place to head if you’re visiting for the first time and need to get your bearings.
Admittedly not much of a tourist hotspot in comparison to Northumberland or County Durham, the TEES VALLEY – once an industrial powerhouse and birthplace of one of the greatest developments in Britain, the public steam railway – nevertheless has some enjoyable attractions. Darlington, with its strong railway heritage, is a pleasant place to spend a day, while Middlesbrough’s MIMA and Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience are extremely worthwhile, the latter particularly if you have children to entertain.