A week in Northumberland, England’s secret top summer destination
The northern county’s spectacular scenery includes beaches, islands and many castles
Bamburgh Castle was once the seat of Northumbria’s kings. Photograph: Des Fox
“Why are you going there?” friends asked when we explained how our family holiday in 2018 would be to Northumberland, the most north-eastern county in England. Partly based on a suggestion of accommodation on an eco-farm (which wasn’t big enough for the five of us), we decided we’d explore the coastline of this border county, renowned for its sandy beaches, castles, cliffs and Christian heritage.
My husband also has a penchant for being on the North Sea – having spent summers in Holland in his student days.
So, as our teenage daughter looked wistfully at friends’ Instagram posts of holidays in Portugal, Spain and Italy, we took the morning ferry crossing from Belfast to Cairnryan, and drove across the narrowest part of the UK – not far from where the Roman Emperor Hadrian built his wall, leaving Scotland outside the then-expansive Roman Empire.
Moving through stone villages and the beautifully undulating Cheviot Hills, we arrived at our farm cottage in time for an evening walk on the seven-mile-long Goswick Sands – an estuarial beach which is home to colonies of wading birds, ducks and geese in the winter months. Not unlike Ireland’s west coast, this part of England is blessed with sandy beaches – many of which are empty until mid-July when British schoolchildren get their summer holidays.
But, unlike the west of Ireland, the coastline of Northumberland is bordered by rich farmland and striking Norman castles, whose owners’ allegiance moved between Scotland and England in those long medieval battles during the War of the Roses.
The Holy Island
The main attraction of Northumberland is Lindisfarne – known locally at the Holy Island. The island is reached via a two-mile-long causeway, which is only passable during low tide, so it’s essential to check tide times before planning to spend some time there.
Inhabited in the seventh century by Irish monk St Aidan who was sent from the Scottish island of Iona to convert the pagans of Northumbria to Christianity, Lindisfarne gained further glory when a local farming youth followed St Aidan’s calling: St Cuthbert went on to become Bishop of Lindisfarne and his remains are held in the magnificent Gothic Durham Cathedral.
When Holy Island was ransacked by the Vikings, the monks fled but later returned in the 11th century to establish a Benedictine priory. You can visit the priory ruins next to a church which celebrated the medieval Lindisfarne Gospels (held in the British Library), whose calligraphy equals that of the Book of Kells in Trinity College Dublin.
The monks also made mead, and you can try out Lindisfarne Mead while on the island. Made from honey, it was given to Norse married couples for 28 days after their wedding to ensure fertility, which gave us the word honeymoon.
Apart from its rich Christian heritage, Lindisfarne is a national nature reserve and part of a European network of designated protected sites. Taking the three-hour walk around the entire island was one of the highlights of our holidays. The gentle grassy paths meander through the wetlands and sand dunes, which give way to a couple of sandy beaches calling us in for a quick dip in the North Sea.
Lindisfarne Castle (which was under restoration in 2018) is also worth a visit, as is its small walled garden – originally designed by the influential arts and crafts designer Gertrude Jekyll – which is filled with a colourful and beautifully scented mix of flowers.
There are a few simple cafes on the Holy Island (and a lovely sandstone hotel that beckons for another time), but the Barn at Beal cafe a few minutes’ drive back across the causeway offers spectacular views of Holy Island and a varied menu to suit all palates.
We didn’t make it out to the Farne Islands. Sometimes called Europe’s Galapagos, they are home to nesting puffins, terns and eider ducks. Boat trips run regularly from Seahouses – just south of Bamburgh.
Villages and beaches
Summer holidays are not complete without a day on the beach, and I highly recommend Bamburgh beach. The still-occupied Bamburgh Castle – once the seat of the Northumbrian kings – is perched on the crags above the beach. And the village of Bamburgh is equally impressive with elegant stone cottages, a cricket crease where you can sit and watch, and the best ice cream we had on our visit to Northumberland.
The Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh is also worth a visit, as it was here that the great tradition of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution began when, in 1838, a 23-year-old woman and her father, the lighthouse keeper, rescued nine people from a wrecked steamboat.
Walking is what attracts most visitors to this part of England. You can walk or cycle the entire 39-mile coastline from Berwick-Upon-Tweed (a ghostlike town whose heyday is long past) to Coquet estuary. Dramatic cliffs south of Berwick give way to sandy beaches of Cheswick, extensive mudflats of Lindisfarne and Budle Bay. Later, more reefs and sea cliffs are punctuated by rocky headlands and small picturesque coves.
To see some of this spectacular scenery, we chose to do a two-hour looped walk from the pretty harbour village of Craster around the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, now a National Trust property. We were disappointed not to fit in another walk along the 100km St Cuthbert’s Way from Merose in the Scottish borders to the Holy Island.
Aware that you don’t get to see everything on your first visit (we didn’t make it to Alnwick Castle and Bowes Museum in the French-château-style Barnard Castle), we did fit in the eco-farm that first put the idea of visiting Northumberland into our heads.
The charming eco-friendly farm cottages at Hunting Hall Farm were renovated with the help of teenagers in the local wildlife trust. Tom and Karen Burn also won awards for their farming with nature, and we took the self-guided hour-long farm trail with its grassy wildlife margins bordering the fields, woodland, pond, meadow and rich hedgerows attractive to birds, insects and other wildlife.
With Edinburgh just one hour’s drive north, we also took the opportunity to visit the Scottish capital during our week in Northumberland. But that’s a tale for another day.