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Monday, 22 August 2011

Holiday Culture - Northumberland Delights

Star rating – 10/10

I’ve just got back from a fabulous walking holiday in Northumberland – and what a revelation! Hidden gems; dreaming cathedral spires; peaceful solitude in scenic beauty spots; and some fabulous castles. Not all strictly culture – but well worth a blog entry I thought. And it was sunny the whole time, whilst the south east got rain and floods...

I started on route with a quick stop over in Durham, mainly to see the Cathedral, where my Dad was a choir boy. It is a really pleasant small place, with a nice market square, and quaint cobbled streets leading up to the cathedral itself. And the cathedral architecture is spectacular – proudly boasting the world’s first structural pointed arch; the beautiful shrine of Saint Cuthbert, more of him later; and at the top of 325 steps, a tower with stunning views of all the surrounding area. It was a great start to the trip. Then onwards north, past the bold, brilliant and fabulous Angel of the North by Antony Gormley on the outskirts of Newcastle, which proudly dominates the approach.

Hadrian’s Wall is simply stunning. I walked a 10 mile stretch around Housesteads Roman Fort, and was rewarded with breathtaking views; and a real escape from it all to imagining the life of a Roman soldier there. I will skirt over the couple of unplanned detours I took from my path to confront some potentially angry bulls in fields, and my hasty retreats.

I paid the now obligatory visit to Alnwick Castle and Gardens, hoping to avoid small children with Harry Potter fixations as much as possible, and was very underwhelmed. I thought it was over rated, and smacked of a big money making venture by the current 12th Duke of Northumberland. Inside the castle, which they are keen to stress is a ‘real live family home’, you can see photos of his children, Jocasta and Sebastian (ok I made the names up but you get the picture) riding horses and stroking Labradors. And a video of the Duke played stressing how much all his 300 employees loved working on his estate, although he didn’t actually know them all... The exception to the disappointment was the small Poison Garden, which was very interesting, mainly thanks to the talents and very dry wit of my guide Bridget, who did dwell on the dark side of the toxic plants she showed us rather superbly.

Bamburgh Castle, just a little way up the coast from Alnwick, is what I call a proper castle. The view of it as you approach along the coast ride, dominating the skyline and coast for miles around, is stunning. Like Alnwick it is privately owned, but not brash and commercial, it speaks for itself and is an absolute delight. Bamburgh itself is a charming little place, with nice little pubs and tea rooms, a beautiful beach, and the grave of Northumbrian heroine Grace Darling in the local churchyard. If you don’t know her story, then as a young woman she rowed out with her father several times to save the lives of sailors in a stricken ship in seas so treacherous that even the life boat wouldn’t venture out. She then died about a year later of TB aged just 26 – a tragic end but a great story.

Lindisfarne, or Holy Island as it is now officially known, is another absolute gem of Northumbria. It is beautiful, isolated and peaceful, at least it is if you get there as I did just as the causeway opened and before the hoards of day trippers descended. I walked around its perimeter for 4 or 5 miles in total peace, and decadently sat looking out into the expanse of the North Sea for an hour or so in the sunshine and silence. The ruined Priory which Saint Cuthbert helped to make famous, and the small castle, converted in 1902 by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, are both worth a look.

Exploring further north still, and Berwick upon Tweed was another great find, with a fascinating history. It has changed hands between the English and Scots quite a few times over the years, and its rambling ramparts are testament to its military history. There is also a fascinating connection with L.S. Lowry that I was delighted to discover. He was especially fond of the town, and at one point was even considering relocating there, being especially ‘drawn to decay’. His wonderful drawings of many of the buildings there are dotted around for visitors to see.

Warkworth was the last castle of my trip, and another beautiful little place. The castle sits above a pretty river, with an idyllic pathway. It is another ruin but a really fabulous example of Northumberland’s heritage. The nearby beach was empty and beautiful, and I was sad to tear myself away from the North Sea view for the last time.

What a coast line – a great holiday with few crowds, fabulous walking, and lots of sunshine. What more could you want?

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