International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
The old border badlands of England’s northeast may have been fought over for centuries, by the Scots and the English, not to mention the Vikings and the Romans,-- but today the Northumberland region remains strangely devoid of tourists, as most only flash by on their journey between Scotland and England. Peace now reigns between the two countries – who repeatedly quarrelled over the region until the Act of Union in 1707 – but the bloody past has left inedible traces on this epic land, blessed with sweeping sand-fringed coastline, some of England’s finest castles and most picturesque villages and home to such charming oddities as a poisoned garden laden with deadly plants.
When the region was an independent kingdom between approximately 653 and 954, it covered lands that stretched as far north as the Firth of Forth in Scotland, incorporating today’s Scottish capital of Edinburgh -- one theory even suggests that Edinburgh is actually named after the Northumbrian king Edwin, literally meaning “Edwin’s burgh”. But unlike much of Scotland, the region now known as Northumberland was firmly absorbed into the Roman Empire, a legacy that can still be seen today by walking the route of Hadrian’s Wall, a defensive frontier erected by the Romans across what is now northern England.
The few travellers that do visit Northumberland often head straight for its beaches. Druridge Bay, located between the village of Cresswell and the town of Amble on England’s east coast, is an expansive, seven-mile-long sweep of pristine sand. In summer, it is dotted with families enjoying its shallow waters, but given its size, there is always more than enough space. Out of season, you may be the only person strolling on the sands where Viking longships may have beached when they harangued the coastline between the 8th and the 11th Centuries. The beach is also popular with birdwatchers who come in hopeof seeing the rare golden eye snipe.
Away from the beach, Northumberland is littered with castles, some romantic ruins and others that feel as though their sentries have just popped off for a cup of tea and will be back any moment. Alnwick Castle, the first written mention of which was in the 11th Century, is one of the latter, a stunning edifice that dominates the green fields, patches of forest and rolling countryside that surround the historic town of Alnwick. The castle was a bulwark, standing guard against various opposing armies and raiding parties for centuries. Today, archers in period costume still take aim at targets on the grounds as though preparing for war.
Ironically, much of the English castle’s impressive interior owes its current grand appearance to seminal Scottish architect Robert Adam, one of the many architects who refurbished the castle over the years. Adam also designed the nearby Lion Bridge in an ornate style reminiscent of his plans for a never built bridge at Edinburgh Castle.
No visit to Alnwick Castle would be complete without popping into the nearby Alnwick Gardens, where “the Grand Cascade” -- a swirl of manmade pools that tumble down the hill towards the garden’s restaurant -- erupts every half hour in a spectacular display. Also worth seeing is the garden’s wonderfully idiosyncratic Poison Garden, which you can only access on a tour where cheery guides tell chilling tales of what the plants could do if you so much as brushed against them.
Five miles to the south, the village of Alnmouth tends to draw gasps from passengers on the nearby Edinburgh-London train line for its narrow lanes, cute cottages and old stone buildings. Its waterfront is flanked on one side by a row of pastel-hued homes and on the other by a long strip of sandy beach.
Historic buildings, some of which date as far back as the 17th Century, crowd Alnmouth’s core, with plenty of pubs and tearooms on hand to keep you going. The Sun Inn is the sort of traditional boozer that first-time visitors to England may have imagined only existed in films, with the added attraction of plentiful fresh seafood, like scampi and chips on offer. The appositely named Tea Cosy Tearoom (23 Northumberland Street; 01-665-83-0393) turns into a sophisticated bistro at night, also showcasing the freshest of Northumberland’s rich larder, such as local crab.
Rich history and brooding ghosts are never far away in Northumberland, though. In the region’s even more remote north, Holy Isle lies just offshore, accessible for some of the day on foot, but treacherous if you get caught after the causeway becomes submerged at high tide. Also known as Lindisfarne, Holy Isle has been a place of worship and Christian pilgrimage for centuries, since the first monks made their way to the isle around 635.
Staying overnight at the friendly and relaxed family-run Lindisfarne Hotel, I wandered among the litter of old ecclesiastical buildings and the island’s towering castle after the last day trippers left. Much of the island is now a nature reserve, and I ended my trip to this wild and unexplored corner of England with just seals and seabirds for company -- glad for the time being that more people do not yet know about Northumberland.