Peaceful and trendy, Northumbria has it all
November 20, 2003
With its vast beaches and open countryside, its variety of activities and attractions, its magnificent castles and unique historic sites, Northumbria rates as one of England’s most fascinating — and underrated — tourist areas.
So it’s no surprise that last year it was designated Short Break Destination of the Year by the English Tourism Council.
Scene of ancient battles between the English and the Scots — and site of the Roman Hadrian’s Wall — the area probably contains more battlefields and stupendous castles than any other part of the country.
And the early Christian associations have left a legacy of ruined abbeys and monasteries — as well as, at Durham, one of the most impressive cathedrals in the country.
But today Northumbria is peaceful and quiet. Away from the well-trodden tourist trail, the area boasts clear streams and rivers, rolling wooded hills and wide panoramas. It is classic walking country, and also popular for cyclists — both for its quiet country lanes and farm tracks or, for the more adventurous, rugged off-road routes. There’s also Northumberland National Park, an area of bleak grandeur with some of the wildest, emptiest landscape in Britain.
And for nightlife there’s Newcastle upon Tyne, the area’s largest city, which is renowned for its pubs, clubs and good restaurants, and its claim of being one of the world’s top 10 party cities.
Newcastle, on the major A1 motorway and close to the start of Hadrian’s Wall, is an excellent base for touring the area. It began as a minor Roman station on Hadrian’s Wall. The Normans built a castle there in 1080 and, during the Middle Ages, it became a major trading center and market town. During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the city became famous for its shipbuilding and armaments factories.
As was the case with many other northern cities, the decline in heavy industry led to decades of struggle. But millions of pounds have recently been spent on regeneration, and Newcastle has been reborn as a trendy, stylish modern city.
Galleries and museums have been built or modernized, and the area along the river has been redeveloped. New city attractions include LIFE Interactive World, a multimedia museum that traces the story of man's evolution, and BALTIC, one of the biggest contemporary art spaces in Europe with five galleries and a rooftop restaurant.
These improvements recently led to Newcastle’s being on the short list for Britain’s nominee for the European City of Culture (Liverpool was eventually selected). It was also named top English city in a recent British newspaper readers’ poll.
Take a stroll along the sweep of Grey Street to admire the elegant Georgian and Victorian offices with their proud porticoes and stone columns. The street won an architectural award as the best in Britain in 2002.
Have a look at the castle, and don’t miss the famous views of the seven bridges that span the River Tyne. They include the High Level Bridge, the world’s first road and railway bridge; the Tyne Bridge, evocative of Sydney Harbour Bridge; and the striking new Millennium Footbridge, which resembles a giant eyelid.
The once-derelict area along the river now boasts some of the city’s best restaurants and is a thriving, cosmopolitan center of pubs and clubs, arts centers and modern sculptures.
But for many visitors to this area, the real highlight will be Hadrian’s Wall. This World Heritage Site once marked the northern limit of the Roman Empire and stretched 80 Roman miles (73 modern miles) from Wallsend, near Newcastle, to Bowness-on-Solway.
At every Roman mile along its length a small fort — called a milecastle — was erected and in between there were two observation turrets.
An incredible feat of engineering, the wall was built to control the movement of people across the frontier and took six years to complete. It cuts through some of England’s most attractive countryside and would easily warrant a holiday on its own.
A footpath opened along the wall this year, meaning that, for the first time in centuries, hikers can walk the length of the wall. The walk takes about a week.
Alternatively visitors can simply pick out some of the fascinating Roman sites and excellent museums along the route. Even before leaving Newcastle there’s the Museum of Antiquities, with its models of Hadrian’s Wall, and Segedunum Roman Fort with its reconstructed Roman bathhouse.
About 20 miles west of Newcastle is Corbridge, an attractive old town and home to the extensive Corbridge Roman Site. Once a garrison and supply base for the wall, Corbridge contains some remarkable sculptures as well as luxury items from all over the Roman Empire, such as oil jars from Spain, glass from Germany and pottery from France.
A couple of miles farther west is Hexham, well worth a detour for its old buildings. In particular is Hexham Abbey, a fine example of Early English architecture, with a seventh century crypt.
Note, however, that Hexham is a bustling shopping town (especially on Saturdays) and one of the few traffic bottlenecks of the area. If it is too crowded, an alternative is to head the few miles north to Chesters, a Roman fort and museum situated on the old Roman military road. Here visitors can enjoy the best remains of a Roman cavalry fort in Britain, along with a military bathhouse and barracks, and an extensive array of Roman finds.
A few miles west — along B6318 — is the best-known part of the wall. Here is Housesteads Fort, which claims to be the most complete Roman fort in the country. The site occupies a spectacular position with commanding views in both directions.
It’s easy to pick out the granaries and barracks, the hospital and gateways — and the communal latrines, where up to 12 soldiers could sit at one time.
And the museum tells the morbid story of the “Murder House” where concealed skeletons of a murdered couple — one with a knife fragment between its ribs — are evidence of a gruesome third century crime.
The section west of Housesteads is the most exhilarating and spectacular of the whole route, and it’s well worth walking along the wall to Once Brewed (there are regular buses back). Here the wall snakes over crests and down dips, hugging the rolling contours of the land and passing craggy outcrops and ridges.
At Once Brewed there is a large tourist center with excellent information on local sites and places to stay.
The Roman Army Museum at nearby Carvoran uses audio commentaries, films and a virtual guided tour to provide an insight into the daily lives of Roman soldiers. It’s staggering to think that this insignificant outpost of the Roman Empire required an estimated 10 per cent of the whole Roman army.
The award-winning Vindolanda Fort and Museum is also a good source of information and well worth a visit. This was one of the garrison forts built before Hadrian’s Wall.
Here excavation is ongoing and there are reconstructions of Roman weapons and buildings, as well as an array of rare Roman finds displayed in attractive gardens.
Most interesting of all are the Roman letters that have been retrieved. One, asking for warm underwear and socks, bears witness to the bleak, inhospitable conditions that the soldiers had to endure (even today the forts can be windy, cold places).
From Vindolanda, it’s a short drive along A69 back to Newcastle.
Just as famous as Hadrian’s Wall are Northumberland’s magnificent medieval castles. One of the best is at Alnwick, about an hour north of Newcastle along the A1 motorway. A medieval market town, Alnwick developed as a staging post between Newcastle and Berwick upon Tweed. It was recently voted the best place in England to live — and it’s not a bad place for visitors either.
Stroll through the cobbled streets and narrow alleys. Enjoy a coffee in the recently refurbished market place. And don't miss a visit to Barter Books — one of the largest secondhand bookshops in the country, with more than 200,000 books housed in a Victorian railway station.
But the real draw here has to be Alnwick Castle, the home of the Earl of Northumberland. The castle has been in the Percy family for nearly 700 years and is commonly known as the “Windsor of the North.”
Set in landscaped gardens, the monumental silhouette of this rambling structure is best viewed from across the river. A riot of turrets and towers, sheer stone battlements and carved figures, it looks every inch the quintessential medieval fortress. No wonder that it has been used in television series such as “Blackadder” and films such as “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Elizabeth” and, more recently, the Harry Potter series.
Within the massive stone walls are large grassy embankments and courtyards — including the one where Harry Potter and his friends learned to fly on broomsticks. And there are museums of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and the Percy Tenantry Volunteers, who were formed in response to the perceived threat from Napoleon.
But the real highlights are the sumptuous state rooms — in Italian Renaissance design — with carved ceilings, marble fireplaces, exquisite inlaid furniture, collections of Meissen china and paintings by Canaletto, Van Dyck and Titian. Don’t miss the splendidly opulent library.
Just a short stroll from the castle is Alnwick Garden, an ongoing project recently opened to the public. The vast water garden is unusual in being an example of contemporary garden design, rather than a mature garden.
The centerpiece is the Grand Cascade, a massive flight of stone steps with cascades of water that flow down over the Terrace into the large lower basin. Some 120 different fountains present spectacular aquatic displays every 15 minutes.
— Richard Moverley is a free-lance writer living in England.
If you go
• Information — Tourism & Conference Center, 128 Grainger St., Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 5AF; telephone (+44) (0)191-2778000; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Shambles, Alnwick, Northumberland, NE66 1TN; telephone (+44) (0)1665-510665; email email@example.com. Ask for the “Alnwick District Holiday Guide,” which gives excellent information about sights and accommodations.
National Park Centre, Military Road, Bardon Mill, Once Brewed, NE47 7AN; telephone (+44) (0)1434-344396; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask for a copy of “Park Visitor,” which gives excellent information on attractions in and around Hadrian’s Wall and also on special days and festivals organized by the park.
Useful Web sites: www.visitbritain.com and www.visitnorthumbria.com.
• Saving money — There are a host of passes in England that offer cheap entrance to local attractions. The best of them is the Powerpass, an annual pass that resembles a credit card and is available from tourist information centers. The pass costs 2 pounds — which goes to charity — and allows 2 for 1 admission to more than 100 stately homes, museums and attractions in Northumbria and Yorkshire.
Attractions currently included on the pass are Alnwick Castle, Alnwick Garden, Arbeia Roman Fort, Binchester Roman Fort, Chesters Roman Fort, Corbridge Roman Site, Segedunum Roman Fort, Washington Old Hall and The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. For two adults this would be a 10 pounds saving for Alnwick Castle and Garden alone. For those travelling south, there are lots of attractions in York also included.
• Attractions — Segedunum Roman Fort. Open daily November through March, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (5 p.m. the rest of the year). Admission 3.50 pounds for adults, 1.95 pounds for children and concessions. Telephone (+44) (0)191 2955757; www.twmuseums.org.uk.
Corbridge Roman Site. Open daily October through March, from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. in October and until 4 p.m. in winter (6 p.m. the rest of the year). Admission 3.10 pounds for adults, 2.30 for concessions, and 1.60 pounds for children. Telephone (+44) (0) 1434-632349. www.english-heritage.org.uk
Chesters Roman Fort. Telephone (+44) (0) 1434 681379. Opening hours, Web site and prices same as Corbridge.
Housesteads Roman Fort. Telephone (+44) (0) 1434-344363. Opening hours, Web site and prices same as Corbridge.
Vindolanda Fort. Open daily October through March, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. (5:30 p.m. in summer). Admission 4.10 pounds for adults, 3.50 pounds for concession, 2.90 pounds for children. Discounted joint tickets available for here and Roman Army Museum. Telephone (+44) (0) 1434 344277; www.vindolanda.com
Roman Army Museum. Opening hours and Web site same as Vindolanda. Admission 3.30 pouns for adults, 2.90 pounds for concession, 2.20 pounds for children. Telephone (+44) (0) 16977 47485.
The Alnwick Garden and Alnwick Castle. Open daily April through October, 11a.m.–5p.m.. Admission to castle 7.50 pounds for adults, 6.50 pounds for concession, children under 16 free with accompanying adult. Admission to garden, 4 pounds for adults, 3.50 pounds for concessions, children under 16 free with accompanying adult. Joint tickets cost 10 pounds adults, 9 pounds for concessions. You can usually enter the castle grounds without a ticket, but tickets are necessary for the state rooms. Information at: www.alnwickgarden.com/www.alnwickcastle.com