Escape to the country
Despite a national landmark, astounding scenery and a window into space, Northumberland National Park is an unsung holiday destination, but loved by those who discover it, says Tristan Parker
Officially named a National Park in 1956, the status of this wild and unique region, encompassing moorland, forests, dramatic cliffs, heathland and more, was sealed long before that – almost 2,000 years, in fact, when Hadrian’s Wall was built, with 33 of its 73 miles traversing some of Northumberland’s most rugged and beautiful terrain.
The wall may be the initial draw for many who make their way to the park, but it’s certainly not the only one – with stunning landscape, abundant outdoor activities, history everywhere you look and charming villages to explore. And if it feels spacious and uncrowded, that’s because it is. This is the least populated national park in England (home to around 2,000 people) and the least visited, but still loved by those who do get to see it, having thrice won National Park of the Year in the BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards.
But although you can spend an entire holiday within the park, don’t discount venturing outside the main site, as wider Northumberland is similarly packed with marvellous holiday activities, living up to its nickname, ‘the last hidden kingdom’. Then you can get back to the serenity and unforgettable vistas of the park. During your trip, you’ll be mystified as to why it’s the least visited National Park, but you’ll be glad it is – and you’ll secretly hope it stays that way, too. Just don’t bet on it.
Northumberland boasts 70 castle sites (more than any other county in England) and there are plenty in the National Park. One of the most popular is 12th-century Harbottle Castle, built for King Henry II, then captured by Robert the Bruce more than 150 years later. A short jaunt outside the park’s perimeter are the well-preserved ruins of Dunstanburgh, set on a hilltop overlooking Embleton Bay and the North Sea, and the handsome Alnwick Castle, whose architecture has featured in Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter films. And of course, there’s Bamburgh Castle, a magnificent site dating back over 1,400 years and one of the county’s most popular attractions.
Northumberland’s low levels of light pollution helped 572 sq miles of the park to be designated England’s first International Dark Sky Park in 2013 (the UK’s largest), making it one of the country’s finest stargazing spots. The Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy (a cool 2.5 million light years away) are visible without binoculars or telescopes, though these will boost your viewing. Some of the many great spots from which to be wowed by the universe include Cawfields (on Hadrian’s Wall) and Harbottle Castle. Or go into ‘deep space’ without leaving the park at Kielder Observatory, which hosts year-round events for viewing all manner of astronomical wonders.
All kinds of bird species enjoy the National Park just as much as humans do, and you can expect to see a fine selection depending on the season. Oystercatchers and the arcing beak of the curlew can be seen in spring and summer, winter brings jays, whooper swans and grey heron, while the distinctive red grouse can be seen all year round. Or take a boat trip from the coast on a guided expedition to spot puffins and razorbills, as
well as seals and other marine wildlife.
How important can a heap of stones be? As the ‘heap’ was ordered by Emperor Hadrian in AD122 and stretches from coast to coast between the east and west of England, then the answer is ‘very important’, proven by its Unesco World Heritage Site status. Forts, temples, museums, bathhouses and archaeological sites line sections of the wall, meaning it’s fascinating for history fans, but still of interest to everyone else, even if just as a memorable country stroll. Speaking of which, those wishing to really stretch their legs should consider the Hadrian’s Wall Path, an 84-mile signposted trail through beautiful scenery, snaking between Newcastle and Bowness-on-Solway.
Nip over the border to visit this charming Scottish market town. Alongside a well-stocked museum in the Gracefield Arts Centre (with work from the Glasgow Boys collective), the town has several notable literary connections, including Peter Pan author JM Barrie and poet Robert Burns, who spent his final years here. Learn more about ‘Rabbie’ at a dedicated museum or enjoy the bracing Scottish air at the Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve.
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE
For some urban pleasures, a day trip to this buzzing city on the River Tyne supplies everything you need. After ticking off headline sites like the Tyne Bridge and the glimmering Sage Gateshead concert venue, head to the trendy Ouseburn district and peek into artist studios, independent shops and cafes serving first-rate speciality coffee. Art and culture lovers will feel right at home, thanks to the city’s myriad galleries and museums.
England’s most northerly town is full of winding alleyways, coastal views and picture-perfect scenes, especially seen from a train crossing the Royal Border Bridge – LS Lowry holidayed here and captured Berwick’s streets in his paintings. A walk to the end of the pier, complete with cute lighthouse, is a must.
Climate: Northumberland and the park can get cold at any time of year, so pack warm clothes, particularly if you’re planning on being outdoors a lot. That’s not to say summer doesn’t bring some lovely days, and keep in mind that the park is still a magical place in any season.
Where to stay: There are accommodation options for all budgets – cosy B&Bs, campsites, shepherds’ huts, gorgeous holiday cottages or plush boutique hotels if you want to splash out.
Getting around: A car is useful for travelling freely around the park, especially to the more remote locations. If travelling by train, heading to Newcastle can be a good choice, as the city has local rail routes into the park. The Hadrian’s Wall Country Bus AD122 is also useful for exploring key areas, including Newcastle.