Planning a trip through Europe can be a tough process and often takes a good deal of preparation. No matter how much time you have, the countless travel possibilities makes it hard to narrow down an itinerary. Of course, a good mix of popular destinations and a few off-the-beaten path sites is always a good plan. Today’s guest contributor, Debi Lander from ByLanderSea, is here to take us on a unique English adventure to Northumberland, a wondrous place filled with scenic landscapes, majestic castles, and ornate gardens. Oh, and she even met a real life Lord of the Manor.
While the treasures of London or Edinburgh call for at least a once-in-a-lifetime visit, these cities take a big bite out of the travel budget. I recently visited Northumberland, the region of England below the Scottish borders and discovered a hidden gem. Dramatic coastlines, mountain crags, and picturesque farmland dotted with medieval castles, World Heritage sites, and blooming gardens surrounded me. Large crowds were gone because Northumberland is the least populated county in England. While you need to rent a car to tour the region, the attraction fees, dining and lodging cost are less than the capital cities.
Coming from Scotland, my first stop was the lyrically named town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. The ownership changed 14 times between the Scots and English during the 12thto 15th centuries. The English gained permanent control in 1482, but in many ways, the town feels like Scotland. I continued to hear Scottish accents and was even offered black pudding at breakfast.
Berwick-upon-Tweed retains medieval town walls with pathways worthy of a good morning stroll. I started near the train station and meandered down to the base of the Royal Borders Bridge, a brick architectural viaduct constructed between 1847-50. The railroad bridge includes 28 arches and is still in use. The ruins of Berwick Castle also lie near the base of the bridge and here the Tweed flows into the North Sea. I continued uphill to have a look down on the town and its strategic location along the Tweed and the coastline.
Moving on with my day, I drove to the suburbs on some single-track roads to find Ford & Etal, a large rural agricultural estate. What a find it was with twenty different attractions. All were low-key, many family-friendly, but don’t expect a theme park. Guests can choose to tour a working water-driven corn mill, take a bread baking class, or drop-in at the Hay Farm Heavy Horse Center among others.
One of the favorite activities is riding a child-sized narrow-gauge steam train that looks similar to Thomas the Tank. Oh, how my grandson would have loved this. Hop on at Heatherslaw, and ride a short distance to Etal. Just so happens that Lord Joicey, who owns and manages the estate, rode with me on the train. The lady behind him couldn’t believe she was overhearing stories about Lord Joicey’s grandfather and I must admit I enjoyed watching her. She finally had to break into the conversation. Although I tried to act nonchalant, I’d never met a Lord before either. FYI; Lord Joicey was a most charming and down to earth man.
We got off the train near the ruins of Etal Castle where I stopped to take a photo. In addition to the castle, Etal presents itself as a cutesy little town where you can grab a bite and, when open, visit a thatched roof pub for a drink. The Heavy Horse Farm sits nearby, and I was eager to meet the gentle giants, a herd of gorgeous Clydesdales. Visitors come here to learn about the breed.
For those interested, Ford & Etal also offers horseback riding, hiking or cycling on scenic bridleways and footpaths or kayaking. It’s simply a great place to spend time outdoors.
As I drove toward Bamburgh Castle, I came over a rise and then had to put on the brakes. Wow – the enormous castle made me gasp. It’s a showstopper that towers on the shores of North Sea like the Kraken rising from the deep. The stretch of sand dunes below attracts sunbathers and swimmers during warm weather. These dunes were also the location for actor Richard Burton and actress Elizabeth Taylor’s romantic interludes. Bamburgh is self-toured, but guides stationed in the rooms happily answer all questions. The castle included a medieval keep and renovated, grander apartments. For me, however, the exterior remained the most impressive.
Alnwick Castle and Gardens
I spend the entire next day at Alnwick Castle and Gardens, a destination that ranks with Windsor Castle as one of the best attractions in the United Kingdom. Approach the massive fortress and look skyward for stone figures that guard the towers. They were put there in the 1400’s to fool the enemy. Then, pass over the moat and drawbridge and climb the curtain walls. It’s easy to imagine archers with crossbows and sentries on these battlements. If you dare, peek into the dungeon.
Enter the castle’s state apartments where extensive restorations achieved the “fit for a King” style. The palace-like rooms include original silk wall coverings, sculpted Carrara marble fireplaces, and masterpieces acquired over centuries. Paintings include Titian, Van Dyke and Canalettlos, as well as furniture once belonging to Louis XIV of France. The dining room is set for an episode of Downton Abbey, a touch that made the location all the more enchanting to me. Some of the costumes and props are also on view. The China Gallery brims with what seems like service for thousands.
While swept away by opulence and elegance, the library offers comfort, begging you to pull out a book and settle down for a good read. (If only I’d been invited.) No surprise hearing the Duke and Duchess call it home during the off-season.
Alnwick buzzes with more surprises. The castle courtyard receives credit as the place where early Harry Potter movies filmed the student’s flying lessons. Visitors of all ages can hardly resist the opportunity to pick up a broomstick and attend classes held throughout the day.
The Duchess of Northumberland is passionate about gardens and spent millions renovating numerous acres. Now, the Gardens alone are worthy of a full day visit. Start at the Grand Cascade, impressive as a flowing tiered waterfall, but spectacular when the fountains spray upward on the hour. You must be guided through the locked and fenced Poison Garden, but can roam at will through a Bamboo Labyrinth, around modern water sculpture, and through the formal designs.
I decided to let my inner-child out and follow the Fairy Tale Trail through the upper Ornamental gardens. I even ducked through the child-size gate while looking for clues. Children can don costumes to wear during the hunt and follow clues leading them to objects such as Cinderella’s glass slipper, the rose from Beauty and the Beast and Humpty Dumpty. It’s brilliant fun amidst the most glorious flowers and arrangements.
After Alnwick’s extravagant lifestyle, I turned back the time-machine and headed towards Hadrian’s Wall, a 73-mile long stretch of stonewall and guard towers begun around 120 AD. The Romans incorporated a natural wall created millions of years ago when the continental plates collided. The remains of Hadrian’s Wall run through some of the most photogenic countryside anywhere and are designated as a World Heritage site.
First stop was Housesteads; the first Roman fort constructed in England. You have to hike to the ruins and visitor center (unless you have a disability sticker) to get close enough to see the foundations. Be sure to watch the video that shows how the fort would have looked when in use.
The ruins of Vindolanda, just a short drive away, were a total surprise, and I’m almost embarrassed to say I knew nothing of one of Europe’s most important archeological sites. The Vindolanda Writing Tablets are precious 2,000-year-old parchment documents found here. I learned about them in the museum bursting with priceless relics. Every summer the digging continues and who knows what will be discovered next.
Next day, I called at Wallington House, a National Trust property. You might think a British mansion house would only appeal to adults, but this place includes a special indoor hunt for kids, plus is packed with eccentric objects. The room displaying multiple dollhouses and toy soldier armies spun my head with magical delight. The English have a knack with gardens and the ones at Wallington are killer. I especially enjoyed the butterfly garden.
Newcastle-Upon-Tyne is the largest city in the area, easily reached by train or auto. If you prefer, you can start a regional tour here and use Newcastle as a base for day-trips. While Newcastle’s downtown offers some authentic historical sites, its revitalization program includes a state of the art performance hall and a modern art museum housed in an old factory. I was drawn to the fantastic Georgian architecture and a memorial to Earl Grey: a local who became Prime Minister and did much to abolish slavery but is most often remembered for concocting a blended tea, then selling the recipe to his friend Lord Lipton. Don’t miss the noontime opening of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the world’s only tilting bridge. An arm of the pedestrian bridge swings upward to allow large boats to pass. I also stopped to visit the Angel of the North, a huge statue with a 175-foot wingspan (greater than a Boeing 767 aircraft) erected in 1998. Now, it’s become an icon for the city.
Moving southward to the fringes of Northumberland, you encounter Durham, home to the third oldest university in England, after Oxford and Cambridge. The small city also cherishes its World Heritage designation given for the Durham Cathedral and Castle. The cathedral is considered the greatest Norman building in England and is the burial site of St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede. The guided tour reveals fascinating details about these men, their chapels and other secrets concerning the cathedral’s construction and history. An exhibit called Open Treasures displays many of the religious relics, and the jewels found in St. Cuthbert’s grave will be added soon. The cloistered courtyard provides calm, open space, and I found carved Green Men camouflaged in some ceiling tiles. Another favorite was a replica of the church built with Lego blocks.
Just across the cathedral green, you’ll find the Durham Castle. The University now manages the castle, and some students take meals in what looks like Hogwart’s dining hall. Guided tours take visitors through the former home of the Prince-Bishops of Durham.
I picked up a brochure advertising a special historical shoe exhibit at the Bowes Museum, outside of Durham City. It turns out the Bowes is housed in a French chateau in the town of Barnard Castle. I adored the fabulous array of shoes on display but was totally surprised by the vast collection of art and paintings. In the end, that’s what I loved about Northumberland; it’s many noble and noteworthy surprises. I would happily return and highly recommend a visit.
Helpful tourist sites:
- Northumberland: http://www.visitnorthumberland.com
- Newcastle: http://www.newcastlegateshead.com
- Durham: http://www.thisisdurham.com
I stayed in the following hotels. Each was special in its own way and I’d be hard pressed to choose just one.
Bamburgh Castle Inn: Located on Seahouses Harbor, near Bamburgh Castle, with wonderful views of the marina and coast. The Inn is an upscale, full-service hotel and member of the Inn Collection Group. Ideal for exploring the beaches or taking boat excursions to nearby Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
Battlesteads Hotel & Restaurant: Located in the tiny town of Wark on Tyne, in Hexham, near Hadrian’s Wall. A country pub/hotel with 22- ensuite rooms and an 80-seat restaurant with outstanding food. I ordered the tasting meal paired with wines and am happy to report it was one of the best meals of my life. Breakfast was also outstanding. Battlesteads is an award-winning green hotel.
MacDonald Linden Hall Golf Country Club: Located off the beaten track in Longhorsley, Morpeth. Once you find it, you may not want to leave. Fifty luxury guestrooms, a superb spa (make reservations ahead of arrival), and an 18-hole golf course, plus access to others. Separate casual pub restaurant or enjoy elegant dining in the main manor house. Linden Hall is a very relaxing place.
Hilton Newcastle Gateshead: Located downtown within walking distance of all the attractions in the city. This is a new business-style hotel with all the amenities you’d expect. The Gin Bar is highly recommended with their own brand of England’s favorite spirit.
Kingslodge Inn: located in Durham City, also owned by the Inn Collection Group. The spacious Inn includes woodland grounds, yet is still within walking distance to the city, cathedral and castle. Excellent restaurant with home-cooked pub fare and full English breakfast. This hotel is perfect for a getaway weekend.