Bamburgh Castle in the early morning

Northern Light

5th June 2009

Alan Jamieson returns to his home territory of Northumberland, and finds it increasingly popular with holiday-makers.

‘Northumberland?’ someone asked me. ‘Who goes on holiday there?’ Well, unfortunately for those who treasure this well-kept secret, more and more people are taking off for the north country: visitor attractions and accommodation providers all report a consistent rise in popularity year on year. It is true, of course, that the magnificent sandy beaches, castles, Roman forts and windswept hills attract fewer visitors than, say, Southend or St Tropez… but that’s one of the main attractions of Northumberland – it’s empty. On Monday I saw a car in Kirknewton, deep in the Cheviot hills, and on Thursday I saw another. Really busy, Kirknewton.

Admittedly the folk there are wild: after a thousand years of struggling to keep the Scots out, they are bound to be canny fighters. But they are welcoming too, even to visitors from ‘the South’. If your name is Charlton, Dodd, Anderson, Armstrong, Scott, Nixon or Rutherford there’s a very good chance that your ancestors carried a sword or a pitchfork in defence of their homeland, and you’ll be doubly welcome.

A question for a quiz-night: which English county has the most castles? Correct – Northumberland. At the latest count it had 32, including several cunning hidey-holes and ‘pele towers’ – small fortified keeps (it’s all about those pesky Scots again) which were later transformed into cosy homes for landowners. Emperor Hadrian was, memorably, the first to put up defences: the 73 miles of Hadrian’s Wall are probably the main tourist attraction. Standing on the Wall at Housesteads, the Roman fort that once held 800 inadequately clad and no doubt shivering legionaries, the heather moors stretch out to another barrier, the Cheviot Hills. It’s inspiring. It’s magnificent.

The Roman fort at Housesteads

If you visit only one fort on the Wall, it has to be Housesteads. Here, the Wall itself is six feet in height and runs along a cliff called Cuddy’s Crag. You can examine the stone outlines of the Commander’s House (or the praetorium as its earliest occupants would have called it); you can tramp over the hospital, the granaries and the barrack rooms; you can dangle your feet in the Roman latrines. What could be more invigorating?– to the imagination, that is.

Dotted along the Wall are the remains of other forts and milecastles. At Vindolanda the excavations are continuing, and there’s a museum filled with treasures. Among my favourites are paper-thin wooden writing-tablets; there’s one from a Roman mother promising her son some warm underwear. As a student, about a hundred years ago, I carefully trowelled bits of pottery from clinging clay under the watchful eye of Professor Ian Richmond, the famous historian of Hadrian’s Wall. Visiting Vercovicium today, you can see archaeologists still exploring the two thousand year old mysteries.

Of the castles, start with Bamburgh. It sits, fierce and forbidding, above a windswept bay, and from its ramparts you can look north towards Berwick and the Border hills or south to the Farne Islands, a sanctuary for Arctic terns, puffins, razorbills and grey seals. The castle is lived-in, but open to visitors who marvel at the Norman keep, and at the King’s Hall with its magnificent beamed teak ceiling. In the old laundry is a collection of the inventions of Lord Armstrong, the great Victorian engineer (of whom more later). In unspolit Bamburgh village there is a museum to Grace Darling, one of England’s heroines. In 1838, with a storm raging in the North Sea, Grace and her father took to the sea in an open lifeboat to save nine men from a wrecked paddle steamer. The lifeboat and some of Grace’s belongings are on show in the museum.

Dunstanburgh is another dominating castle but a ruin, a gloomy fortress of rock. Further up the coast towards Berwick (not to be missed as the last outpost of England and, of course, with its own castle and a long ramparted wall) is Lindisfarne. Monks, led by St Aidan, came here in AD 635. It’s obvious that they liked solitude because Lindisfarne is joined to the mainland only by a narrow causeway, covered at high tide. Lindisfarne – Holy Island – became a centre of early Christianity: its priory is now a ruin but what atmosphere! Before a return trip across the causeway (or by boat) there’s a pint of Holy Island bitter to be drunk in the Ship Inn. Two pints and you’d miss the tide.

Visit Cragside too, for a complete contrast. The home of Lord Armstrong, this was the earliest house in the whole world to be lit by electricity powered by waterwheels and steam. An early industrialist, Armstrong owned massive works at Elswick on the River Tyne that produced guns, shells, artillery and warships. Millions of the shells that pounded Germany in two world wars came from Elswick. In the 1860s, Armstrong built Cragside in the Rothbury Hills to escape from the din and dust of his factories. Hydraulics was his passion (each to his own), and at Cragside are pulleys, levers and lifts – almost as numerous as his pictures of woodland scenes and dreamy Pre-Raphaelite damsels (he used his wealth sensibly). The site was hewn from a cliff and the grand mansion is said to be ‘Free Tudor’ in style – beams, turrets, carved gables, mullioned windows and tall chimneys. Thousands of visitors come to Cragside to view the magnificence of a gentleman’s unique Victorian residence (with kitchens in Upstairs, Downstairs style too).

Alnwick Castle

More castles? Try Alnwick, ‘where history lives’, according to its marketing slogn. It was a fortress in the 14th century and has been lived in ever since by the Percy family, who kindly allow visitors to share the experience of being Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. The State Rooms are fabulously set out, as if prepared for a banquet, but it’s the military fortifications that really impress visitors, with stone towers, ramparts, baileys, curtain walls, a barbican gate and ‘Hotspur’s Seat’. Harry Hotspur (one of the earlier Percys) was a knight who fought in his first battle at the age of eight, was knighted at 11, and challenged his adversaries (a bit later) in hand-to-hand fights.

Beyond the knights and the jousting, there are the Alnwick Gardens with tumbling cascades, woodlands, a ‘poison garden’ (pick your own belladonna) and a tree house for the children. Add paintings (including works by Canaletto and Titian), furniture and china, and the fact that Harry Potter was filmed here, and I defy you to find a more impressive castle than this, except perhaps Windsor.

Northumberland isn’t just Roman ruins, castles and heather moors, though. There are miles and miles (37 miles to be accurate) of sweeping sandy beaches with fey seaside villages such as Craster (try the smoked kippers, a local speciality). In Hexham there’s a Saxon abbey and a 14th century gaol (at present unoccupied). Within the 400 square miles of the Northumberland National Park are Kielder Water and Forest, easy to explore by cycle, boat or on foot. And there are plenty of other amazing attractions nearby, including Newcastle, a vibrant city with seven bridges straddling the Tyne, yet another Norman castle (‘new’ in the 12th century), and friendly folk (if you can unpick the accent). Fifteen miles further down the A1 is Durham with its massive 12th century cathedral built on a rocky clifftop.

As for the Angel of the North, they are all angels up there. If you doubt me, take a trip to find out for yourself…

Find Your Local