This September we took the dog to Northumberland. It’s a county I’ve long wanted to visit but as it’s a six hour drive from home, one that’s been on the back burner until now. What changed? The desire, in 2020, to holiday in off the beaten track places and, more practically, the sad loss of our beloved Einstein who couldn’t have coped with the long car ride like his nephew Edison.
Where we stayed
Home for the week was a beautiful cottage in tiny Harbottle, in Coquetdale. With a pub, a ruined castle and no bus service, the village fitted the bill perfectly. Availability was limited – such holidays have been greatly in demand in the UK this summer – but when Tapestry Cottage cropped up on the Canine Cottages website it seemed to be just what we were looking for, with a secure garden and plenty of room. When we decided to bring the holiday forward a week, both the owner and Canine Cottages were very responsive and bent over backwards to help us rearrange our stay.
Clear directions and key safe entry made check in straightforward. On stepping in through the front door, the first things we saw were the welcome folder and a chocolate cake. As first impressions go, that was a pretty good start. In the spotlessly clean kitchen we found a bag of dog treats beside the human welcome pack and a bottle of Prosecco in the fridge. All the basic necessities were there: milk, bread, eggs and so on, taking the pressure off finding some provisions nearby. Another big tick in the box was the reliable WiFi signal. Three roomy bedrooms, a comfortable living room and a well-equipped kitchen would help make this an easy stay. Had we needed it, there was plenty of logs for the wood burner, but the central heating was more than adequate.
Plenty to do
Having the dog in tow, I’d researched what we might do well in advance. Despite being just half an hour up the road, both Alnwick Castle and Alnwick Garden were out as they weren’t dog friendly. Bamburgh Castle too was similarly ruled out. Had there been the option to buy a cheaper grounds-only ticket we’d have probably called in.
We visited two of the four forts along Hadrian’s Wall – Chesters and Housesteads. The former was a delight to explore; a relatively flat site sloping gently towards the river made this an easy dog walk while the presence of a well informed (and socially distanced) volunteer added to our understanding of the place.
Without his intervention, we’d have seen the baths but probably would have overlooked the intact strong room and certainly would have had no clue that the Romans paid the soldiers billeted there with fake coins.
Housesteads, too, didn’t disappoint, not least its famous latrines. A sprawling site scattered on a hillside, it was a bit more of a hike to get up there but the views from the top were worth the effort. It was also just a short walk to venture along part of the wall to Milecastle 38. Had time permitted, we could have continued along to Steel Rigg on foot via Sycamore Gap, an 8 mile circular walk. Instead, we hopped back in the car and viewed Steel Rigg from the other side.
Northumberland contains around 70 castles, in varying states of repair. Dunstanburgh is a ruin, but it occupies a spectacular site overlooking the North Sea. Earl Thomas of Lancaster began construction in 1313, deliberately positioning it within sight of Bamburgh Castle to annoy the King, Edward II, who he’d come to despise.
The weather forecast was for sun and we decided to make the best of it. The hike along the clifftop was flat and not at all challenging, though we kept Edison on a short lead because of the many sheep and cows grazing near the footpath. The castle itself, with a twin-towered keep, was breathtaking, with gorgeous views out to sea and inland, though it’s little more than a shell.
Back in Craster, there was time for lunch of hot kippers, a local favourite. For well over a century, family firm L. Robson & Sons have been turning freshly caught herring into oak smoked kippers in a smokehouse built by the Craster family in 1856, the only one that survives.
We opted to continue up the coast and make the most of the warm weather, parking up just north of Bamburgh. The wide sandy beach here is backed by low, grassy dunes and the views across to the coastal castle are wonderful.
It was lovely to see so many dogs, surfers and families sharing the beach, and better still to see how clean it was. I’d read that this was one of the east’s most impressive stretches of coastline (it’s designated an AONB, of course) and it wasn’t hard to justify such a compliment.
Nearby Seahouses made a convenient stop for fish and chips – eaten overlooking the pretty harbour – though unless you plan to take a seal boat cruise out to the Farne Islands it’s probably not scenic enough to warrant a separate visit. Dogs are permitted on the boats but Edison can get a bit of a bark on when it comes to other mammals so we decided not to inflict him on other passengers. I’d not long been out on a seal watching trip from Harwich in Essex, so wasn’t too bothered about missing this lot.
Shortly before our visit, there’d been a programme on television presented by George Clarke. Among the properties he visited was a place called Cragside, built by Sir William, later 1st Lord Armstrong. It was the first house to be lit by hydroelectric power and we were keen to learn more about the place.
Unsurprisingly, the house itself wasn’t dog friendly, so we began instead with a circuit of the 6 mile Carriage Drive, parking up and taking short strolls with Edison to explore the extensive site. With a mix of lakes, woodland containing seven million trees and plenty of rhododendrons and azaleas to walk in, it was a pleasure to tire out the dog sufficiently for him to nap in the boot. One of us stayed in the car while the other toured the house, but had it not been raining by then we could just as happily have sat in the courtyard and enjoyed a cake from the cafe.
The house itself, while not overall a disappointment, wasn’t fully open. Thanks to the need for a one way route because of the risk of coronavirus transmission, parts of the house were off limits. There wasn’t as much information to read about the science behind the house which was a shame. The grounds more than compensated, however, and the sun made a brief appearance to set off the autumnal colours.
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne
Living close to Mersea Island we are used to checking tide tables before driving across the causeway, but the Holy Island of Lindisfarne took this to a whole other level. Its causeway is far longer than Mersea’s and much flatter to the water. It’s important to check the published safe crossing times as cars do get stranded on a regular basis. There’s a refuge for those stranded to wait for rescue but we were warned cars are abandoned to the tide.
St Aidan established a monastery on the island in 635 AD after being gifted the land by King Oswald. Long a place of pilgrimage, poles mark a safe route known as the Pilgrim’s Way across the sand, so long as you cross on a receding tide. The road was not built until 1954.
We needed to be off the island by 1pm to beat the tide, but as Lindisfarne Castle and the Lindisfarne Centre are both currently closed, we figured that we’d have enough time to see the priory and have a stroll around. As dogs are not permitted in the priory museum, we decided it wasn’t worth paying the entrance fee and settled for a walk up to the Lookout Tower. The priory complex can be seen in its entirety from up there. We were blessed with another clear and sunny day and the views of the castle, distant Bamburgh Castle, the priory and the causeway were simply splendid.
High tide meant that we were off the island by lunchtime, so backtracking down the coast we chose Warkworth Castle as our afternoon visit. A far more intact ruin than Dunstanburgh, its location is equally impressive, contained within the neck of a meander on the River Coquet. I’d taught about it for years as an example of a defensive site for the GCSE Geography course I delivered but it was great to finally see it in real life rather than the crude sketch I’d shown my students.
As with most visitor attractions right now, it was necessary to pre-book a slot. Outside school holidays, I was advised it was usually OK to wait until the day to be sure of good weather; many people simply booked while in the car park, I was told. The first stone building on the site dates from the 12th century, with later additions and repairs made over the centuries by the Percy family who were given Warkworth Castle by King Edward III. At one time, it was the home of Henry Hotspur, who you may remember from your English class as immortalised by Shakespeare.
We couldn’t resist one more portion of fish and chips, this time in Amble. It claims to have the largest gnomon of any sundial in Europe (that’s the sundial indicator if like me you’d never heard the term before). Melt in the mouth cod overlooking the independent retailers of Amble Harbour Village was a fine end to the day. Well almost – this cria at the farm in Sharperton was too cute to drive past.