Northumberland lies in the northeast of England, bordering Scotland and stretching along the North Sea. England and the entire UK have some spectacular coastlines, offering visitors everything from beaches to cliffs, hidden coves to iconic chalk formations. That said, Northumberland has undoubtedly one of the most magnificent coasts of them all, complete with an ancient tidal island, imposing castles, tiny fishing villages, sandy beaches that seem to stretch endlessly, and mind-blowing history. It has 40 miles of coastline, 30 of which are pristine beaches. And every single foot of the 40 miles is worthwhile exploring.
The county is not necessarily on the radar of foreign visitors, which makes it still a bit of a so-called “hidden gem.” Having explored the UK near and far, and having called this country home for many years, Northumberland’s coastline ranks high on my personal list of favorite UK coastal destinations, and some of its aspects even win the top spot.
Here are my 10 reasons for falling in love with this northern beauty.
Northumberland is roughly 1,900 square miles large and has some 70 castles in various states of repair. This means wherever you go, you’ll find a castle. And some of them are stupendous. My favorites along the coast are the enormous Bamburgh Castle, which sits on a long sandy beach and can be seen for miles. Then there is Alnwick Castle, which is the second-largest inhabited castle in the UK, after Windsor Castle, and the much smaller, but picture-perfect Warkworth Castle. There are plenty more, but if you just see these three, you’ll have seen the best of them, in my opinion.
A rugged, colder coast often makes for great wildlife habitats, and the Northumberland Coast is no exception. When I visited a few weeks ago, I saw, for example, grey seals, eider ducks, dolphins, terns, shags, an osprey, and my absolute favorites: puffins. This coast is particularly interesting for bird-lovers, with some 270 plus species of birds recorded, though some of which are migratory. To catch those elusive puffins, come between April and late June, and take a boat tour to the Farne Islands, off the small town of Seahouses. I went on a 2-hour trip and saw all the above. Plus you learn some interesting history as well, such as the story of Grace Darling who lived in one of the lighthouses on the islands.
Holy Island of Lindisfarne
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, usually known as either Holy Island or Lindisfarne, is a tidal island north of Bamburgh. First settled in A.D. 635 by St. Aidan, and with a Viking history, the island is one of the most important centers of early English Christianity and can be accessed by road at certain times of the day, with very precise tide calendars published daily. On the island, you’ll find a small village, home to some 180 people, a 1400-year-old priory and, yes, of course, a castle, this one dating to 1550. It is a great spot for walking and has a couple of pubs and cafes for sustenance, just don’t forget the tide times, otherwise, you will get stuck. (If you do get stuck, there are a handful of hotels, but with very limited room options.)
If you are coming from overseas, it is unlikely that you will have a pup traveling with you, but I did on this road trip. While in some parts of the UK having a dog with you will block you from hotels, restaurants, cafes, and sights, in Northumberland they practically expect you to bring a furry friend. From the wildlife cruise to the Farne Islands to Bamburgh Castle (dogs allowed on the grounds but not in the castle), restaurants and cafes, and even my favorite bookstore (see below), dogs are welcome everywhere. So much so, that my pooch got served treats, and when I ordered her a sausage, it came in a twin bowl, with water, all cut up for her. Even the nicer restaurants allow dogs inside, and it made for a much less stressful vacation, knowing you would not have to search high and low for places you could bring your pup, or leave her outside, waiting. Even the beaches, which along most of the coasts around the UK stop being dog-friendly during the summer months, are open to dogs here, often with poop bags and bins provided as well.
A Booklover’s Paradise
I have to admit to being a bookworm and cannot bypass a bookstore if I see one. Often, when I travel, I have a quick search as to any special stores which I might just want to pop by (as in stay a couple of hours), and this time, I hit the jackpot. Barter Books in Alnwick is a place to stay for a few hours. Located in a former train station, this large second-hand bookstore has it all: a superb selection of old books, from old travel books (I bought a guidebook on Egypt dating to the mid-1800s) to more modern novels, history, cooking, transport, art, reference. Basically, anything you could possibly want to read. There is a reading nook in front of an open fireplace, two cafes (one for people, the other for people with dogs) with a great selection of snacks and cakes, a miniature train chugging along on top of the bookshelves, and very helpful staff if you get lost among the aisles and can’t find what you are looking for. Bring time and an extra suitcase.
Famous Filming Locations
As I was climbing the ramparts of Bamburgh Castle, I became aware that something was going on which could not be put down to normal castle renovations, with strange additions to the ramparts, cranes in odd places, and the like. Turns out, they were filming the latest installment of the Indiana Jones films in and around the castle. Sadly, I did not spot Harrison Ford. Alnwick Castle also stood in as Brancaster Castle in Downton Abbey but is probably more famous as the setting for Hogwarts in several of the Harry Potter films and as having appeared in the English comedy series Blackadder. Hadrian’s Wall (see below) featured in Game of Thrones, while the TV series Vera is set along the coast.
Great Walking Trails
Northumberland is superb for walking and hiking, offering a mix of shorter, more sedate trails but also some that will challenge you. One of my favorites, which is not too long, is the walk from the small fishing town of Craster, famous for its smoked kippers, to Dunstanburgh Castle. Yes, a castle I had not mentioned yet. It is roughly two miles each way, along a scenic coastal path. And talking about coastal paths: The official Northumberland Coast Path is acknowledged as one of the best walks in the entire UK, if not the world. Stretching over some 62 miles, it takes in beaches, cliffs, castles, nature reserves, bays, and countryside. It’s one of the best ways to explore this stunning coast, and you can get a passport and tick off sections bit by bit. If the whole thing in one go is too much, save some for your next visit.
Stretching 73 miles from coast to coast, Hadrian’s Wall is the much tinier, English version of the Great Wall of China. Built by the Romans to keep out the barbarians who lived in the north of the island, it also marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. It can be seen and visited in sections, or, if you are game, you can follow the length of this UNESCO World Heritage site on foot, along the Hadrian’s Wall Path.
Northumberland is not all about the countryside or the coast, it has a fabulous city as well, indeed Newcastle is one of my favorite cities in England. The city’s origins date back to the Romans, who started Hadrian’s Wall in this spot. Later, during the Industrial Revolution, it became a successful manufacturing center for ships and steam engines, with easy access to the sea. Today, the long history makes for a unique architectural hotch-potch with every century having left something behind, all blended nicely with some modern additions. Famous for the myriad of bridges crossing the river Tyne, it is a city full of life, a buzzing restaurant and bar scene, a superb contemporary art center, and great shopping.
Obviously, with all the walking, exploring, and sightseeing, you will get hungry. Luckily, you are in Northumberland, and the food here is great. Especially, of course, if you like fresh seafood. Typical foods that are a must-try are the Craster kippers, and ham and pease pudding, which is a smooth paste made from split peas and served with a local flatbread and a side of ham hock. Try this at the Jolly Fisherman in Craster. For excellent seafood in a lovely setting, head for Bamburgh and the Potted Lobster. A daily-changing menu offers a modern take on what was caught in the morning, and the food is simply superb. Do not miss the side of truffle and parmesan chips (fries) with aioli.
Pro Tip: To get the most out of this county, you need to explore it by car. Choose a base, such as the adorable village of Warkworth, where you can stay right opposite the castle in the Sun Hotel, which also offers parking. From here the rest can easily be seen on day trips.