If you travel as far as you can from London, without leaving the ground, but staying in England, you end up in Northumberland. Your journey to the rump of ancient Northumbria will not be in vain. This last piece of Albion is a peach. Here you’ll find castles and beaches, villages lost in time and brooding hills. And in a short distance you can spend a week or more. Here are treats for those who make it this far.
One day I shall go to Alnwick and do nothing more than visit Barter Books, a wonderful labyrinth of a second-hand bookshop. It’s easy to lose yourself in this old railway station, with a toy train rattling quietly over the tops of the shelves. You get a discount if you spend more than £50, which I did solely by stopping by their London section. There’s a cafe which serves cake, tea and other good fuel for keen readers, who may enter some kind of state of Nirvana here.
Alnwick’s headline attraction, however, is not this literary gem, it is the Castle and Gardens that stand between the A1 and Alnmouth and the fine market town itself. Both are beautiful and interesting, but if you’ve already tested the patience of any young children in your care in Barter Books, or plan to do so later, make the Gardens your first stop.
The quiet lanes of Nortumberland’s backroads hum with the din of tractors and diggers going about their daily business, and kids will love messing about with the sit-on pedal powered versions at Alnwick Gardens. Provided you can tear them away from those, there are fountains to paddle in and shovel water to and from – bring a change of clothes – and a huge treehouse restaurant with observation tower and rope-bridges straight out of Return if the Jedi, but minus rebellious minature bears.
At Norham, by the church of St Cuthbert, you can see where St Aiden (check!) crossed the Tweed on his way from Iona in 635. If the weather’s good, you can dive in and re-enact the crossing. The Tweed is a fine wild swimming river, and there’s another fine way in on the Scottish side of the Union Bridge. In early September it was clear and cool, maybe 14c. Aiden went on to found the Priory at Lindisfarne, or Holy Island as it’s known today. Aiden went on to found the Priory at Lindisfarne.
By the way, Turner painted the fine ruin of Norham Castle, making it look much more splendid than it does today. However, you can’t go and see the Fighting Temeraire anywhere, so stop by if you’re passing.
Lindisfarne gets a lot of visitors, some pilgrims who have walked from Iona, most day-trippers looking to dodge the tides. the drive across is unique in England and possibly Europe, striking out across tidal flats, sometimes with the approaching or retreating water washing at your wheels. Check the tide times and heed local warnings as it’s not called Holy Island for nothing.
Our hosts insisted that the best time to go is when the tide is in and you’re stuck for a few hours. Even if you go when everyone else does there are still plenty of places to hide from the hordes, most of whom don’t seem to get much farther than the gift shops which do a fine trade in mead, the fermented honey drink mastered by the monks. The walk out to the castle, with views over to the other Farne Islands and a North Sea breeze feels like a god excuse for the crab sandwiches for sale once you get there. Small boys may enjoy skimming stones and rock-pooling here too. Local knowledge also insist that the best and quietest beaches in Northumberland are here. I can’t give a personal guarantee but if you have the time, take your OS, walking boots and swimmers.
Although we visited in late summer, on one of our trips across the causeway the weather was wild enough to a make one imagine the bleakness the Monk’s dark age existence here. It would have been cold and tough. But then those who took holy orders often had much better lives than their secular brethren, with reliable food, education and some security from the violence which often racked Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. They were, however, not immune to Viking raids, and their richness made them targets for the odd sacking. Stand on the shore, crab sandwich in hand, and imagine Europe’s most fearsome warriors turning up unannounced and unwelcome. lindisfarne is a place which gives rise to such grand and terrible thoughts.
South of Holy Island and back on dry land is a strong contender for England’s finest stretch of sand. Bamburgh beach has a long sweep of sand running down to gentle waves, with rock pools at the northern end and a surfable break. Elsewhere this is perfect paddling and sandcastle territory, with dune-grass cutting the beach off from the road. Best of all though are the views of Bamburgh Castle, brooding sentinel keeping its eye on those brave enough to take the plunge.
After visiting such a bracing location as Bamburgh chances are you’ll feel go rated and healthy. The logical thing to do next, then, is to stuff your face with fish and chips. Ideally followed by an ice cream. Everyone at Seahouses, just down the coast, has had the same idea so you may have to queue for your just-fried crunchy fish and rough-cut chips. Once you’ve got them, resist the temptation to join the grockles on the benches outside the Bamburgh Castle Hotel and instead walk out onto the quay for a little way. The views are better and you can watch the fishing boats and tour boats heading for the Farne Islands in search of puffins, seals and porpoise.
There’s more – much more – including richly-rewarding raids over the borders into some of southern Scotland’s loveliest towns, but one visit needn’t be too rushed. It may rain on one or more of the day’s you’re here. If and when the sun shines, you’ll feel like you’ve found the perfect piece of England. You might just have it pretty much to yourself.