Northumberland – Nature, History and Castles
Northumberland, the land north of the River Humber, is one of the northernmost counties in England. Located on the east coast, it borders both Scotland and the North Sea. Thanks to this location, the region has been heavily influenced by a history of conflict both with the north and overseas. It has been the backdrop for numerous battles and sieges. Northumberland’s turbulent past as a contested border region means you’ll encounter a lot of history here. The wild natural landscape, unspoilt by modern influences, also characterises the region. So, let yourself be swept into the past and inspired by the beauty of the natural world!
The Natural World of Northumberland
Northumberland National Park
Northumberland National Park covers about a quarter of the county. This natural area, protected from development and agriculture, includes part of the North Pennines mountain range, hike-able along the 435-kilometre-long Pennine Way. The North Pennines are one of the most remote and unspoilt areas in all of England. Here you’ll find breathtaking landscapes with gushing waterfalls and sweeping green moors. It’s no wonder that this area holds the double distinction of being a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Britain’s first UNESCO European and Global Geopark.
For hikers, the Cheviot Hills with their highest peak, The Cheviot, run through the National Park. The 815-metre-high extinct volcanic crater is very popular among mountaineers. Fancy taking a look? On a fine day, you’ll have a great view of the British countryside and may even catch a glimpse of the Lake District or Edinburgh.
The Dark Kielder
There is so much to do in Kielder Water and Forest Park in the west of Northumberland; home to the biggest man-made lake in Northern Europe, it offers various accommodation like lodges, campsites, and cottages to be your homebase while you dive into activities like mountain biking, horse riding, or water sports.
Many consider Kielder Forest the darkest place in England. Light pollution is so low there that the Milky Way is even visible in places – the perfect spot for a night of enthralling stargazing! You might also spot the Northern Lights here if you’re lucky. This is exactly what Kielder Observatory is all about, bringing you closer to the stars and astronomy. If you decide to visit here, there are a few things to keep in mind. The phase of the moon is important, as it may be too bright to stargaze during a full moon. The seasons also play a role – the sun sets later in the summer months and even then, the nights are never as dark as in winter.
People consider coastal Northumberland an area of outstanding natural beauty, with sandy beaches, dunes, cliffs and secluded islands. One such group of islands is the Farne Islands. It consists of 15 to 20 small islands, depending on the water conditions, but due to the ebb and flow of the tide they are uninhabited and unable to accommodate visitors onto the land itself. You can nevertheless visit them by boat via the village of Seahouses. Due to the lack of human interference, the flora and fauna here are rich and diverse. Up to 150,000 seabirds, such as puffins, fight for breeding spots here every year. The largest grey seal colony in the country also flocks here, as well as dolphins and whales. This area is particularly popular with divers, and boat tour services are also available for you to watch the animals from a distance.
Historical Sites in Northumberland
Hadrian’s Wall is another key attraction of Northumberland. The wall was built in 122 AD, marking the border of the Roman Empire. The 117-kilometre-long structure has had a massive impact on the English landscape. Whole sections of it are still preserved today, and it served as the inspiration for George R. R. Martin’s hit series Game of Thrones. You can follow the wall’s course along the 135-kilometre Hadrian’s Wall Path from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, or cycle along Hadrian’s Cycleway.
If you’re really up for a challenge, try the famous coast-to-coast cycle. Once you finish in Tynemouth, you will be a stone’s throw away from Wallsend, the original edge of Hadrian’s Wall and now a modern town. There, you can immerse yourself in ancient life at Segedunum Roman Fort. Sycamore Gap is a particularly well-known spot along the route. Here you’ll find a sycamore several hundred years old, set in a dramatic depression in the landscape, and flanked by Hadrian’s Wall. The tree has become famous thanks to the 1991 film ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’. For this reason, many refer to it as the Robin Hood Tree.
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is only an island when the tide is high, and easily reachable by foot at low tide. The shortest connection to the mainland is 1.3 kilometres. Follow the historic Pilgrim’s Way to Holy Island. Just make sure you get back in time, or you’ll be cut off from the world for a while. The tombolo is covered by water twice a day for five hours at a time. So plan your visit carefully to avoid being caught between the island and the mainland when the water rises! Always keep an eye on the tides and the weather, and stay on the designated paths! The dramatic access route alone makes this island well worth a visit.
The Christianisation of England began here in the 7th century, and so many consider the Holy Island the birthplace of English Christianity and an important location in the histories of Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert, who are credited with converting Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Just a two-hour drive away, you will find the resting place of Saint Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral, the North East’s other UNESCO World Heritage Site and a filming location for movies like Harry Potter and Avengers.
Due to its location, Holy Island has been an easy target for attacks, both from the north by the Scots and across the North Sea by foreign peoples including Vikings and Saxons. The Lindisfarne Raid of 793, with the pillaging of Lindisfarne Priory, was one of the most drastic attacks. This raid on what was then the Christian centre of England ushered in the Viking Age. Today you can visit the monastery ruins, and Lindisfarne remains an important place of pilgrimage. Lindisfarne Castle, built in 1550 to protect the island from the Scots, is located at the highest point of the island. Lindisfarne Mead – a unique fortified wine made on the island – is also a must-try when you’re in Northumberland!
Although Northumberland is very rural and has the lowest population density in England, there are still some note-worthy towns. Berwick-upon-Tweed, for example, is the northernmost town in England. It lies 105 kilometres north of Newcastle upon Tyne, the northernmost major city. In its 900-year history, the town and Norham Castle, also located there, has been captured and plundered 13 times. You’ll therefore find plenty of mighty fortresses, city walls and ruins.
Once the capital of Northumberland, Alnwick, pronounced ‘annick’, has a lot to offer. Alnwick Garden, for example, is home to not only typical local plant species, but also a special selection of toxic, intoxicating and narcotic plants. Guarded by a set of black iron gates, you can encounter and learn about poisonous plants such as belladonna, magic mushrooms, opium, and cannabis in the Poison Garden. However, you may only enter the Poison Garden in the company of a professional guide and after a safety briefing.
The Ornamental Garden has 16,500 plants of all kinds, while the Rose Garden boasts over 3,000 species of roses. With 120 fountains, the multi-level Grand Cascade is also not to be missed, nor is the bamboo maze. You’ll also find the world’s largest tree house here – a real sight to behold! Alnwick is also home to the quaint Barter Books, one of the largest second-hand bookshops in Europe.
If you are spending a few more days in Northumberland, travel down to Rothbury to witness the magnificent beauty of Cragside House. Built by architect Norman Shaw in 1880, the house is famous as the first in the world to have its lights powered by hydroelectricity. As with many historical sites in England, Cragside is run and maintained by the National Trust. You can save money by buying a single, joint, or family membership to gain free access to the Trust’s 500 sites across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Over 70 Castles
Historically, Northumberland is marked by battles, sieges and occupations. It’s no wonder that fortresses of all kinds characterise the landscape. You can find over 70 castles and ruins – more than in any other English county – including Dunstanburgh Castle, Featherstone Castle, Lindisfarne Castle, and Warkworth Castle, to name a few. Try to see as many as you can, as they all have fascinating individual stories. For now, we’ll highlight just two of them – Alnwick Castle and Bamburgh Castle.
Alnwick Castle – The Real Hogwarts
Alnwick Castle is the second-largest noble seat in England, second only to Windsor Castle. During the winter months, the Duke of Northumberland lives there. In the summer months, however, Alnwick Castle is open to the public.
The special thing about this castle is that many people will know it without ever actually being there. The castle appears as a backdrop in many films, including the world-famous Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the first two Harry Potter films! As soon as you enter the castle, you’ll see where Harry took his first flying lesson. You even have the chance to learn how to fly a broom yourself! But films like Robin Hood, the fifth instalment of the Transformers series, The Last Knight and the Christmas specials of Downtown Abbey were also filmed here. After your visit, you’ll certainly want to watch all these again and see them from a new perspective.
Bamburgh Castle – A Giant in the Landscape
Bamburgh Castle is one of the most impressive castles in England. It is so imposing that you can see it easily from Holy Island, eight kilometres away. It survived several attacks and raids until the Yorkists completely destroyed it in 1464. Full restoration was not achieved until the end of the 19th century. The castle is open to the public for you to admire in all its glory. Take a walk around the castle grounds or admire the beauty of the castle from the beach. It is one of the most important Anglo-Saxon archaeological sites in the world. Filmmakers also picked this site of unmatched beauty for scenes from The Last Kingdom and the fifth Transformers film.
Northumberland is perfect for everyone, especially lovers of nature or history! It simply captivates you with its unique landscape and imposing buildings, taking you back in time and leaving you spellbound and relaxed. It’s easy to imagine how life might have been hundreds of years ago. Film lovers also get their money’s worth here. Visit your favourite fictional places and put yourself in the characters’ shoes. Many creators found their inspiration here – perhaps you will too! Northumberland has a lot to offer and is definitely worth a visit on your trip through England.