As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Northumberland National Park, Jo Keeling picks out a selection of gardens, animal centres and other family fun experiences in this glorious protected area in northeast England.
The most dramatic section of Hadrian’s Wall cuts through the southern edge of the national park – a slug of hard igneous rock that reaches as far as Holy Island on the coast. The fortifications and settlements here give a rare and compelling insight into life on the Roman Frontier. It was at Corbridge that Romans and civilians stocked up on provisions while at nearby Housesteads; you can stroll through the barracks, seek out the oldest toilets you’re ever likely to see and examine rare Roman artefacts such as hobnail boots and Dutch cooking pots.
The county’s independent spirit runs through its museums and heritage attractions. At Cragside, step into the eccentric world of an Victorian inventor who became the first person to light their home by hydroelectricity. Mr George’s Museum of Time houses a wide selection of timepieces from chain-wound pocket watches, gadgets and tools, or descend into a Saxon crypt below Hexham Abbey to explore England’s oldest purpose-built prison and unravel the brutal history of the Border Reivers.
Set in the centre of Hexham, the abbey welcomes pilgrims and visitors who would like to spend time in a place that has offered solace and refuge to worshippers for over 1,340 years. To explore the oldest part of the building, descend into the Saxon crypt – tunnels and rooms left intact ever since Queen Etheldreda granted the land to Wilfrid, Bishop of York in 674 AD. In Norman times, Wilfrid’s original abbey was replaced by an Augustinian priory and the choir, transepts and cloisters date from this period (1170-1250) and are built in the Early English style. Touch the weathered Acca’s Cross, commemorating Acca, the abbey’s second bishop; enjoy the rich, jewel-like colours of six tall stained glass windows and follow the 35 worn stone steps of the Medieval Night Stair, leading to a broad gallery behind a stone parapet or simply take your time to soak up the atmosphere. hexhamabbey.org.uk
Housesteads Roman Fort
Housesteads is Britain’s most complete Roman fort, a once self-sufficient fortress set on a dramatic escarpment near to Hadrian’s Wall. Here, you can imagine what life was like for the 800 soldiers living on the edge of the Roman Empire by strolling through the barracks to the military hospital and granary, seeking out the oldest toilets you’re ever likely to see and learning more about the artefacts unearthed on the site in the interactive museum. The items found give a thoughtful insight into the culture and values of the Roman Army: see a rare Roman hobnail boot, a cooking pot made in a native Dutch style to remind the soldiers of home and an amber talismen said to bring the wearer good health and protect them from danger. english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/housesteads-roman-fort-hadrians-wall/
Chillingham Castle is an 12th century stronghold and home to Sir Humphry Wakefield and his family. Following a Scottish raid the previous year when William Wallace allegedly burnt women and children to death in the local abbey, Chillingham Castle became base-camp for King Edward’s 1298 counter attack. Since 1246, the castle has been in the hands of the same bloodline and each heir have put their mark on the castle: the Earl Grey lords added dungeons and torture chambers; in 1344 King Edward III’s gave permission for battlements; the Elizabethans added long galleries; Capability Brown landscaped the grounds in 1752; Sir Jeffrey Wyatville designed a glorious Italian garden in the 19th century. Today, this family home is open to the public and for events. The grounds are also home to the only wild cattle in the world, more endangered than the Giant Panda and Mountain Gorilla. These are wild and fascinating beasts, so don’t approach without a warden. chillingham-castle.com
Tosson Tower and Woodhouses Bastle
The remains of these two fortified buildings – the 15th-century Tosson Tower and 16th-century bastle (meaning fortified farmhouse) – are impressive sights. Thousands of bastles were built in response to the raids from the Border Reivers, with walls a metre and a half thick and stone spouts for pouring molten lead on enemies below. The Tosson Tower's walls are two metres thick, and would have had owners' quarters above, and possibly an attic. Both remains can be viewed on guided tour days. northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk/places-to-visit/coquetdale/tosson-tower-woodhouses-bastle/
Corbridge Roman Town (Hadrian's Wall)
Not all the sites on Hadrian's Wall were fortresses. Corbridge was a bustling town 2.5 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall developed around AD 160 as a base for legionary soldiers; it was here that Romans and civilians stocked up on provisions. It now offers a tempting time-capsule of Roman life at the Wall. Walk down a once bustling Roman high street; seek out granaries, workshops and a fountain house; and marvel at the Corbridge Hoard – unbelievably preserved armour, tools, weaponry, wax writing tablets and papyrus found within an iron-bound, leather-covered wooden chest. english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/corbridge-roman-town-hadrians-wall/
Cragside House, Gardens and Estate
Step into the wonderfully eccentric world of Victorian industrialist, inventor and landscape design genius Lord Armstrong. In 1863 Armstrong, an eminent engineer, scientist and philanthropist, bought a steep-sided narrow valley where the Debdon Burn flows towards the River Coquet at Rothbury. He then proceeded to build a new home perched on a ledge of rock overlooking the burn and set about covering the rocky hillside with plants and mosses. He had five artificial lakes dug, which he then used to generate hydroelectricity (Cragside was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity). This also meant that the house boasted incompatible luxuries – hot running water, a rain shower, Turkish baths and a plunge bath. Nowadays, the house is crammed with gadgets and the gardens are a delight with a labyrinth and rhododendron tunnels to explore. On Wednesdays, house chefs in costume cook up Victorian recipes: if you’re lucky you might see the ‘Scotch Mill’ water turbine turning the meat in front of the range. nationaltrust.org.uk/cragside
The Heritage Centre at Bellingham
Next door to the Carriage Tea Room, this small museum documents the lives and traditions of many generations in the North Tyne Valley and Redesdale. Explore a working forge, (donated by local blacksmith Arthur Grimwood), complete with tools, hearth, bellows and a bottle of his favourite tipple; examine railway memorabilia celebrating the Border Counties and Wannie Lines; listen to heritage recordings of locals talking about their lives in Northumberland and dress up in replica military costume to find out more about the Reiver raiders. bellingham-heritage.org.uk/
Hexham Old Gaol
Step inside the oldest purpose-built prison in England, constructed in June 1330 and ruled over by the fearsome Archbishop of York. The building has since been used as a bank, solicitor’s office, watchtower during the Second World War and billiard’s club. Today, you can explore all four floors – descend into the dungeon and imagine what it must have been like to await trial in the gloom; meet a fearsome gaoler; try on a prisoner’s shoe stocks for size and learn about the history of the Borders laws and Reiver families. museumsnorthumberland.org.uk/
Vindolanda (Chesterholm) Hadrian's Wall
Vindolanda offers a tempting insight into life on the Roman wall in the exposed north eastern edge of the empire. You can split your trip into two halfs. First, visit the Roman Army Museum where you can learn about the different types of soldier stationed here; investigate artefacts and sit in a Roman classroom while a holographic teacher delivers you an 18-minute lesson in citizenship, geography and numeracy along with some light Latin. There’s also a cinema space where you can watch a 3D film that follows the life of a young recruit and a chance to see countless Roman artefacts. The shoes, textiles, coins and incredible wooden writing tablets give a rare and compelling insight into everyday life on the Roman Frontier, covering matters from birthdays and underpants! After you’ve absorbed all the facts, you’ll be all set to explore this well-excavated Roman auxiliary fort complete with military buildings, stores, house and two bathhouses. vindolanda.com/
Mr George's Museum of Time
This watch and clock museum in Haltwhistle centres around the 'Mr George the clock man' series of children's stories written by local author Diana Bell, which charted the adventures of a watch repairer and his daughter as they travelled around Northumberland. The museum houses a wide selection of timepieces from chain wound pocket watches of the 18th and 19th centuries to mechanical wristwatches of the 1980s, along with a collection of gadgets and repairing tools. timeforgeorge.co.uk/
Kielder Castle Visitor Centre
Sitting on the far northern tip of Kielder Water, this 18th-century hunting lodge now houses a series of exhibitions exploring the surrounding forest and its wildlife. Peep inside a raptor’s nest with the live osprey cam or explore the lifecycle of the rare red squirrel with an interactive display. In the grounds, you’ll find a Minotaur maze leading to a glittering room made from basalt and recycled glass, a red squirrel hide and bird watching platform as well as a tempting array of mountain biking trails. visitkielder.com/visit/kielder-castle-visitor-centre
Tower Knowe Visitor Centre
Tower Knowle is one of three visitor centres on the shores of Kielder Water and a fantastic entry point from which to explore the lake and Forest Park. You can park here, use the facilities and grab a cup of coffee at the Cafe on the Water, before boarding the Osprey ferry or setting off on foot or by bike along the 26-mile Lakeside Way. If you’d like to try your hand at fishing, you can also pick up a starter pack here and set out in search of wild brown trout and resident rainbows. visitkielder.com/visit/tower-knowe-visitor-centre
Motorists travelling along the Military Road (B6138) from the east will see a sign for Once Brewed when they reach this small village, YHA Hostel, pub and Tourist Information Centre, while those arriving from the west will see a sign for Twice Brewed. There are many stories explaining the names, from Yorkist foot soldiers demanding stronger beer on the eve of the Battle of Hexham in 1464, to the way Hadrian’s Wall snakes its way along the brows (or brews) of two hills. The dual Visitor Centre and National Park Centre sits in the heart of Hadrian’s Wall country, on the route of the Pennine Way National Trail and close to the most spectacular parts of the Wall. The AD122 bus stops here so you can hop on and off to explore the Roman sites and viewpoints. Inside the centre, there are interpretive displays, free wifi and a cafe serving tea and sandwiches.
For more information on characterful places to stay, local food and drink, and nearby outdoor activities, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Northumberland National Park