As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the Northumberland National Park, Nicola Forsyth picks out some of the things to see and do among the majestic moorlands, spruce forests and rolling hills in England’s northernmost national park.
Despite spanning more than 1,050 square kilometres, Northumberland National Park is one of the least populated and least visited of England's National Parks - making it the ideal destination for nature lovers seeking peaceful escapism. Highlights include the Upper Coquet Valley, the Cheviot Hills, cycling trails in the Simonside Hills and a section of Hadrian’s Wall.
Photos: Diana Jarvis/Green Traveller
Where to stay
The Park has accommodation to suit all budgets - from sociable pit stops for walkers and cyclists traversing Hadrian’s Wall to luxury stays complete with four-poster beds and spa baths to rustic wooden cabins and yurts. Boasting some of the darkest skies in Britain - the Park is an ideal place to stargaze.
Glampers will love Wild Northumbrian in Hexham where you can stay in a tipi or yurt among the wildflower meadows of the Tarset Valley and stargaze at the nearby Kielder Observatory. They also recommend local activities and experiences including bushcraft basics, wildlife photography and holistic therapy treatments from the comfort of your accommodation. If you want to experience a Norwegian-style Mountain Lodge, The Hytte, is a grass-roofed timber cabin complete with open plan living room, private garden and decked verandah offering countryside views. In true Scandi fashion, the lodge, which has won awards for its sustainability credentials, also has a hot tub and sauna for taking in the sunset.
Deep in Hadrian's Wall and Border Country, Battlesteads Hotel and Restaurant is a wonderful place to relax in front of the fireplace during winter and soak up rays in its secret garden during summer. The surrounding Roman ruins and castles await your visit and there’s a packed calendar of events and activities to immerse yourself in.
Overlooking Holy Island on the Northumberland coast between the mainland and Lindisfarne, you’ll find Fenham Farm, which offers seven independently accessed en-suite rooms, converted from original farm buildings. The farm has a Gold award from the Green Tourism Business Scheme thanks to its commitments to reducing, reusing and recycling. Bird spotters visiting during winter may catch a glimpse of some of the six internationally important species of wildfowl and wading birds that call Lindisfarne Nature Reserve home.
For 5-star luxury, head to St Cuthbert's House - a B&B located in a 200 year old former church in the village of Seahouses on the coast, and near the Cheviot Hills. It boasts super king size beds and local food. It's one of our favourite places to stay, as much for its green credentials as its fabulous location.
If you've always dreamed of staying in a Medieval Castle then Langley Castle Hotel is for you. It offers nine rooms within the Castle and another 18 within the grounds - combining luxury and traditional decor. Features include four-poster beds, oak-panelled walls and an open fire in the drawing room. If you can bring yourself to leave, the castle is perfectly located for exploring the woodlands and open meadows of the South Tyne valley. It even offers Game of Thrones style weddings for those so inclined!
Where to eat
Many of the eateries proudly serve locally-sourced food. With the Park’s relatively close proximity to some of the best livestock producers in the UK and the North Sea you can expect to see organic lamb, Galloway beef, fresh crab and kippers on the menu. One of the best ways to sample them is by heading to Hexham Farmers’ Market (second and fourth Saturday of each month - sometimes more frequently in summer) where you can stock up on fine local fare produced within a 50 miles radius from around 30 farmers and producers.
Local delicacies include border tart, singing hinnies (a Northumbrian bannock), and ‘locally flavoured’ Doddington’s ice cream - including Newcastle Brown Ale, Alnwick Rum Truffle and Roman Britain.
Active visitors in need of a pit stop won’t be disappointed with the variety of places to refuel either. For a more quirky option why not sample a homemade scone in a renovated 1957 MK1 train carriage? Renovated by volunteers, Carriages Tea Room at Bellingham Station still retains a number of its original features. It also doubles up as a museum of sorts - with the ‘Wannie Line’ exhibit in the rear carriage, where you can learn about local history and wildlife.
If you find yourself feeling peckish after a day exploring Kielder Water and Forest Park then stop off at the nearby Boat Inn where you can enjoy locally-sourced food whilst enjoying views of the lake. To see more of the lake hop on the Osprey Ferry or tackle the marathon length Lakeside Way. Not far away you’ll also find The Pheasant Inn - a family-run 17th Century traditional pub, that also serves as a B&B and has a self-catering cottage onsite to sleep up to four guests. Famed for it’s Sunday lunch, which was named ‘Best in the North’ by The Observer, it serves up hearty local produce - some of which is grown in the pub’s kitchen garden - and ales.
Four miles from Hadrian’s Wall, you’ll find the former coaching inn, the Red Lion, which dates back to the 1190s. Whilst it’s been renovated since then, it retains some of the original wood and stonework from its inception. The menu serves up Northumbrian classics and locally-caught fish as well as seasonal homegrown vegetables. Be sure to check out the Stanegate Room, for a lesson in local history as well as the chance to admire the handiwork of talented local artists and crafters. It’s dog friendly and also offers a B&B service.
Where to visit
Ramblers won’t want to miss the opportunity to visit the section of Hadrian’s Wall that cuts through the southern edge of the national park which snakes as far as Holy Island on the coast. The fortifications and settlements here give an insight into life on the Roman Frontier.
Developed in AD 160, Corbridge Roman Town sits 2.5 miles south of the Wall and served as a base for legionary soldiers. Here you can marvel at the Corbridge Hoard, which is considered to be one of the most significant discoveries in Roman history and includes well preserved armour, tools, weaponry, wax writing tablets and papyrus found within an iron-bound, leather-covered wooden chest. To learn more about life on the Wall, visit the Roman Army Museum at Vindolanda in Chesterholm where you can take in many lessons - one of which with a holographic teacher! Once you’ve taken in all the artefacts, learned a bit of basic Latin and enjoyed the 3D cinema experience set off on foot to see for yourself the well-excavated Roman auxiliary fort. If that doesn’t satisfy your fort fix, go on to visit Housesteads - Britain’s most complete Roman fort. Stroll the barracks, military hospital, granary and the oldest toilets you’re ever likely to see.
For grizzly tales of dungeons and torture chambers visit Chillingham Castle. The 12th century stronghold has seen its share of warfare and from the likes of William Wallace and King Edward. Today, it is open to the public and for events - and is home to the only wild cattle in the world (which are more endangered than the Giant Panda and Mountain Gorilla!).
More dungeons can be viewed at Hexham Old Gaol, England’s oldest purpose-built prison, dating back to 1330 and ruled by the Archbishop of York. More recently it has been a bank, solicitor’s office, watchtower during the Second World War and billiard’s club.
The region boasts another first, this one far less fear-inducing - the first house to be lit by electricity. Cragside House, Gardens and Estate was home to eccentric Victorian industrialist, inventor and businessman Lord Armstrong and his wife Margaret Armstrong, whose love of nature inspired the design of both the house and sprawling gardens, which include more than 7 million trees - and some of the tallest conifers in the UK.
Things to do
Combining sprawling countryside, ancient history, wildlife and modern quirks, families and adults alike will find plenty to occupy themselves.
Animal lovers may want to head to Kielder Water and Forest Park to spot Northumberland’s ‘big six’: ospreys, pipistrelle bats, roe deer, otters and roughly half of England’s native red squirrel population. It is also home to Calvert Trust Kielder, which was set up to help people with disabilities and their families get the most from the great outdoors, and offers a number of activities, including a high ropes course, archery, kayaking, climbing and abseiling and zip-wire, as well as a hydrotherapy swimming pool, sauna and sensory room. For more encounters of the furred kind, don’t leave Northumberland without a visit to Barnacre Alpacas where you can observe, feed and walk one of the farm’s 300+ award winning alpacas. There are two holiday cottages onsite if you can’t bring yourself to leave.
The hills around Kielder are dotted with mountain biking trails and above it all you will find Northumberland’s Dark Sky Zone, which caters to budding star gazers. Nearby Kielder Observatory and Battlesteads run events if you want to learn more about deep sky observing.
Foodies can experience the local produce direct from source by booking a half or full day foraging course with Northern Wilds Food Foraging. Feast on your finds back at the Wild Food Wagon, a converted 4x4 military truck with a wood-fired rayburn.
For more ideas on where to stay, local food and drink, visitor attractions and activities, see our Green Traveller's Guide to the Northumberland National Park