Northumberland is one of Britain’s most beautiful counties, but this wild and wonderful place is also one of the least visited.
It’s on my doorstep so no surprise that I’m its biggest fan. With fabulous beaches, historic castles and a stunning coastline, it’s a shame that more people haven’t discovered its charms… but perhaps that’s what makes it special?
Here are 12 great things to do in Northumberland if you’re looking for a relaxing weekend or holiday away from the crowds. You won’t be disappointed.
1. Discover Dramatic Castles
Northumberland is located on the borders of England and Scotland which made it a fiercely disputed territory for centuries. This is why the county has a huge number of castles dotted along its coastline and borders.
Bamburgh Castle dates from the 6th Century. The castle was remodelled is the 18th and 19th centuries but shows evidence of its early medieval past.
In the 7th Century Bamburgh became home to the powerful kings of Northumbria. It was a “strongly fortified city” covering an impressively large site with almost impregnable defences.
Its dramatic history includes forays by the marauding Vikings who attacked and ransacked the castle in 993 AD. Today’s visitors can enjoy tales of its bloody past from the safety of its walls whilst admiring the castle’s spectacular location overlooking the sea.
Nearby Alnwick Castle is equally impressive, home to the Percy family and the Dukes of Northumberland – and it’s famous as one of the locations featured in the Harry Potter movies.
Alnwick Castle has stood in its current location for nearly 1,000 years and was used as a garrison and a defence for England’s border against attack from Scottish forces in the Middle Ages. Much of the castle remains but has been modernised over the years – don’t miss its impressive Italianate State Rooms.
Northumberland has more castles and pele towers than any other county in England, a legacy of its turbulent past. Norham and Aydon are my top picks of the smaller castles and manor houses. Langley Castle Hotel near Hexham is a good place to stay if you fancy pretending to be lord or lady of the manor.
Another place to add to your tourist schedule is Warkworth Castle, a ruined fortress which also defended this war-torn area of the English and Scottish Borders.
The castle was once home to ‘Harry Hotspur’, immortalised in Shakespeare’s history plays, and the bane of Scottish raiders. There are great coastal views from the castle walls, and you’ll want to linger in Warkworth’s pretty village which has a laid-back atmosphere.
2. Take to the forest – Kielder
Kielder Water and Forest Park is a huge, wild recreation area with activities to suit everyone from sports addicts to casual walkers and scenic ‘car tripsters’.
It’s a great place for water sports lovers with opportunities for sailing, canoeing, water skiing and fishing on the Kielder Reservoir.
The Forest Drive is a 12 mile stretch of gravel road which takes you through the coniferous forest and over the top of the moors and back down into farmland near Kielder Castle.
On a clear day you can see forever when you reach the top of the Kielder Forest Drive with a mix of beautiful panoramas and woodland scenery. It’s like being on the top of the world with its big skies and majestic landscapes.
The forest drive takes you across one of England’s highest roads, peaking at over 1,500 feet at the barren moorland landscape of Blakehope Nick. Fasten your seat belts, you’re in for a thrilling drive.
Look out for deer and wild goats on the wilder sections of the route and keep your eyes open for red grouse on the moors and buzzards hovering overhead.
Don’t forget to bring your bike as this is ideal cycling country. There are over 100 miles of traffic-free rides radiating from the trail hub at Kielder Castle. The trails cater for everyone from inexperienced cyclists to hardcore mountain bikers.
Bikes can also be hired from The Bike Place and Purple Mountain in Kielder. It’s a great experience for adults and kids alike, but the weather can be changeable so don’t forget to bring outdoor kit for all occasions.
3. Enjoy Fish and Ships
The Northumberland coast is a brilliant place for sea food and fish with local produce caught fresh from the North Sea.
Enjoy some of the best fish and chips in Britain or try traditional smoked kippers at a local smokehouse overlooking one of Northumberland’s many picturesque harbours.
Walk along Amble harbour and stop off for fish and chips, some of the best on the Northumberland coast. I love sitting eating my fish supper on the harbour wall, but there are several indoor restaurants if you prefer the sit-down ‘posh’ experience.
The Amble Quayside Chippy is Ant and Dec’s favourite – and mine too. But watch out if you’re sitting outside because fried fish is also a firm favourite with the local black-headed gulls.
Look away for an instant, and your yummy fish and chip supper could be stolen by a marauding gull. These birds know a good thing when they smell it!
Whilst you’re in town, don’t miss the Northumberland Seafood Centre in Amble which stocks fish directly from local fishermen, and offers a range of seafood from familiar favorites to less well-known varieties.
The range of fish includes gurnard, pollock, sand dab, squid, witch, red fish, ling, monkfish and red mullet.
I fancied trying the witch fish but chickened out – the name was intriguing but slightly scary!
Up the coast in nearby Craster, why not try two very different culinary delights – smoked kippers and local crab.
Robsons Smokehouse is the unpretentious, authentic place to go to sample some of the best produce. Alternative, drop into the Jolly Fisherman public house in Craster with its enticing menu featuring shellfish and kippers.
After a recent makeover, this characterful pub has gone upmarket with seafood chowder and prawn toast amongst the offering, keeping locally sourced products at the heart of the menu. There are great sea views too.
Another top remote spot is The Ship Inn on the beach at Low Newton-By-the-Sea where you can sit outside admiring the stunning coastal views whilst eating your crab sandwiches or kippers.
4. Get stuck on an island – Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne is an exhilarating place any time of the year with its wild landscape and scenic beach walks. At only 2 kilometres square, Lindisfarne is small but perfectly formed. A true island retreat – and my favourite bolt hole to escape the modern world.
Lindisfarne has a special ambience because it gets cut off from the mainland by the tides every day. There’s always the possibility that you’ll lose track of the tide times and get stranded overnight.
There’s nothing better than watching the tide rolling in slowly and covering the Causeway to the island as you drive home, before the road back to the mainland gets flooded.
Lindisfarne is also known as Holy Island and is so named because it was the cradle of English Christianity. St Aidan founded a church and monastery on the island in 635 AD and established a community of monks.
The ruined Priory with its red sandstone Romanesque arches is located in a dramatic setting close to the coast. Don’t forget to try the traditional Lindisfarne Mead, once made by the monks.
Lindisfarne Castle is another of the island’s wonders. Part folly, part wonder of the Edwardian world, this is a fairy tale castle in miniature.
Built in 1550 on the Whin Sill, a rocky outcrop, it was redesigned by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens during the Edwardian period and became the country retreat of Edward Hudson, the editor of Country Life magazine in the 1920s.
Its cave-like interior, partly hewn out of the rocks, is like Harry Potter’s dream home. It’s one of many highlights of a trip to Lindisfarne.
5. Discover Cool, Contemporary Art
Northumberland is a great place for art lovers, boasting several outdoor sculpture trails and internationally renowned projects.
Not to be missed is James Turrell’s Skyspace installation near Kielder Observatory. The Skyspace is basically a circular room with a hole in the roof where the artist plays with the visitor’s perceptions of light and space.
The light changes as the sky above responds to the time of day, seasonal variations and different weather conditions. Pick your time for the most dramatic visual experience.
Don’t miss over 20 public art installations around Kielder Reservoir including the Wave Chamber (a camera obscura in a hut), Belevedere (a stainless steel shelter) and the Minotaur maze (at Kielder Castle).
Very different is Northumberlandia, a massive land sculpture project in Blagdon. Designed by artist Charles Jencks, this unusual public art work is set in a 46 acre park built on a former open cast coal mining site.
This giant female landscape art work features a mother figure with giant breasts and a curvaceous figure imprinted in the soil. A sort of Geordie Madonna.
There’s four miles of footpaths around the landform which is made from 1.5 million tonnes of rock, clay and soil. At 100 feet tall and 1/4 mile long, she’s a striking sight that brightens up an otherwise industrial, drab landscape.
6. Go beachcombing
Northumberland boasts some of the finest beaches in Britain – but they’re amongst the emptiest because they’re remote and a long way from big towns and cities.
Druridge Bay is one of the most popular, within easy driving distance of Newcastle and Morpeth – renowned for its sand dunes, beach walks and windy weather.
But Bamburgh Beach is my personal favourite with its pristine golden sands which are some of the best you’ll find anywhere in Europe.
Its relative solitude and unspoilt sands stretch as far as the eye can see, making this a treat for beachcombers, young and old.
Another lesser known spot is Warkworth Beach where half a mile of golden sands lie ahead of you as you walk its length.
One of the joys of being on this beach is the lack of people – on a quiet day in winter or spring, you can walk along the whole stretch without seeing anyone except a handful of dog walkers.
Tourists fly hundreds of miles to sit on a beach like this in Spain or the Maldives. But a word of warning – Warworth is not Benidorm or Ibiza – the weather isn’t its greatest selling point. Bring plenty of outdoor gear in case the weather turns cold or windy.
7. Walk with the Romans – Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall is Britain’s answer to the Great Wall of China. Built by the Romans between AD 122 and AD 130, this remarkable ancient structure stretches from Carlisle on England’s west coast to Wallsend on the east.
Along its route you’ll see fortresses, milecastles, ruined garrisons and temples set in a rural landscape that has changed little over the centuries.
Housesteads is one of my favourite Roman sites, perched on top of a rugged ridge in a windswept location.
If you stand in the centre of the former garrison it’s easy to imagine how the 800 Roman soldiers must have shivered and sniffled their way through the cold and wet British winter.
A trip provides a real sense of the rugged and bleak conditions the Roman soldiers who have battled to cope with as well as the challenge of defending this tricky border outpost.
Chesters Fort is very different Roman site with its sheltered, valley bottom site guarding a Roman crossing on the river. It is the best preserved Roman cavalry fort and bath house in Britain, and once housed a garrison of 500 troops.
It’s well worth a walk around its scenic ruins but, if the weather turns cold or wet, it’s tempting to dive into the small museum or drop into the cosy cafe for cake and tea.
Vindolanda is located a couple of miles from the wall and combines the military and the domestic sides of the Roman empire, reflecting the fact that it was a frontier fort and settlement before Hadrian’s Wall was built.
There’s the remains of the barracks, a bathhouse, military buildings and civilian houses as well as reconstructions of a Roman temple and a Romano-British house. It also boasts a museum featuring Roman artefacts, statues and altar pieces which are exquisitely beautiful.
8. Discover Industrial Heritage
Northumberland has a proud mining and industrial history. A great place to get a glimpse of life down the pits is the Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Ashington.
South East Northumberland was once one of Britain’s biggest and richest coalfields. Back in 1913, the Great North Coalfield employed almost ¼ million men, producing over 56 million tons of coal every year from about 400 pits.
Ashington developed from a small hamlet in the 1840s to a rapidly expanding colliery town with five pits employing around 5,500 men in the 1920s.
Ashington is also famous for its pitmen artists who painted their lives above and below ground. They were talented but untrained, learning their trade the hard way – working at the pit face and painting in their spare time.
The amateur artists were dubbed the “Pitmen Painters” and it’s definitely worth a trip to see their work at the Woodhorn Colliery Museum.
I love the raw quality of their paintings and the way they throw you into the heart and soul of the mining community. A truly authentic experience.
9. Go Wild on The Farnes
The Farne Islands are one of Europe’s most important seabird sanctuaries. The islands host one of the great wildlife spectacles anywhere in the world between May-August when it turns into one giant seabird colony.
Puffins fill the seas, skies and cliff tops, paddling across the waters and shuffling onto the land to make their nests.
Guillemots and Razorbills colonise the rocky crags whilst gulls and other seabirds fly in to get their share of the action. For nature lovers, this is birding heaven with thousands of birds everywhere you look.
Take a boat trip from Seahouses to the Farnes and you’re guaranteed to see puffins flying overhead and swimming out at sea in summer. Thirty six thousand puffins can be seen on the Farnes during early summer when the birds make their nests in burrows on the island.
Two thousand pairs of Arctic Terns on the largest of the Farne Islands, Inner Farne. It’s an astonishing experience watching them pairing up and flying overhead.
The Farne Islands have been nicknamed ‘dive bomb alley’ during the height of the nesting season. Don’t forget to wear a hat or there’s a strong chance you’ll get pecked by a protective parent bird!
The terns can become very aggressive towards anyone who encroaches on their territory when they have eggs on the ground. But they’re beautiful to watch, if you don’t get too close for comfort.
Boat trips around the islands sail out as far as the distinctive red and white Longstone Lighthouse. Most trips also drop in to one of the wildlife islands – Inner Farne or Staple Island. Look out for grey seals around the islands all year round.
Pick a relatively calm day as the weather around the Farnes is notorious for being a bit bumpy and rough. This was where Grace Darling carried out her famous shipwreck rescue in Victorian times – you have been warned.
10. Discover Great Country Houses
Northumberland was a leisure playground for the aristocracy and rich industrialists during the 18th and 19th centuries. There’s no shortage of attractive country houses to explore, many in spectacular locations.
Cragside resembles a fancy French chateau, perched high above the moors in Rothbury, one of the most beautiful areas of the Northumberland National Park.
This was the first house in Britain to be lit by hydroelectricity, because its owner Lord Armstrong was a Victorian inventor and engineer. He also created the stunning estate gardens and plantations which you can drive around in a circular loop.
There are lots of great picnic spots, viewpoints and country walks… and the gardens are at their prettiest during rhododendron season.
Wallington is another of Northumberland’s great country houses, combining the great outdoors with a superb historic house and pleasant woodland walks.
The Palladian-style hall was built on the site of an earlier house and pele tower. The formality of its 18th Century landscaped gardens were heavily influenced by ‘Capability’ Brown with woodlands, lakes, garden ponds and sweeping vistas across the countryside.
A highlight is the beautiful walled garden hidden in the woods with its Edwardian Conservatory, home to an array of colourful plants throughout the year.
Sir Walter Trevelyan filled the greenhouses at Wallington full of rare plant specimens from all corners of the globe during the 1800s.
Wallington’s estate is renowned for its red squirrels which are most easily spotted close to the wildlife hide, a short distance from the house near Middle Pond. Expect lots of cute critters!
Wallington’s house has strong associations with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Critic and artist John Ruskin stayed at the hall and other famous guests included artist John Millais and the poet Algernon Swinburne.
Wallington’s central hall is decorated with impressive murals depicting scenes from Northumbrian history, many illustrated by the artist William Bell Scott.
Belsay Hall is a classical Greek Revival villa built in 1807 and designed by Sir Charles Monck at the height of the Regency period.
Today its rooms are largely empty so you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure up images from its glittering heyday.
Belsay’s gardens are some of the best in Northumberland with the ‘hidden’ Quarry Garden being the star attraction boasting lush summer flowers and spring bluebells.
During your trip, don’t forget to step further back in time and explore the ruins of Belsay Castle, dominated by a 14th Century defensive ‘pele tower’.
Built as a refuge at a time of Anglo-Scottish warfare, it was used later as a Jacobean mansion where the family lived until 1817 when they moved into the new Belsay Hall.
11. Take to the seas
The Northumberland coast is one of the best places in the British Isles to take to the seas, especially if you’re an experienced sailor. There are sailing clubs at Amble, Beadnell and Blyth.
Beadnell Bay is one of Northumberland’s most popular small seaside towns. The sheltered horseshoe of the bay makes it popular with water sports fans. There’s everything from kite surfing, kayaking, wake boarding to sailing and dinghying.
At low tide, walk along the beach to look at the fleet of small yachts and boats waiting for their next excursion. Look out for special events and regattas at the sailing club and along the coast.
Beadnell has another claim to fame – it’s the only west-facing harbour on the east coast. It’s a colourful place where you’ll see traditional Northumberland cobles, a type of fishing boat, heading out to fish for wild salmon, crabs and sea-trout.
Amble is a honey pot for sailors because of its large marina and history of fishing and sailing. Why not wander along the new coastal path around Coble Quay and become a yachting voyeur. Imagine which boat you’d like to sail, if you won the Lottery.
A word of warning… if you sail into or out of Amble, it has notoriously tricky tide times so you’ll need to plan your schedule ahead.
Look out for training courses in sailing and dinghying at Northumbria Sailing
12. Walk Elizabethan Walls – Berwick-upon-Tweed
I love Berwick’s border country vibe – it’s a little bit English, a little bit Scottish. No surprise because it lies on the northernmost border between the two countries which were at loggerheads for centuries.
One of the town’s wonders are its Elizabethan Walls, the only exmple of bastioned town walls in Britain. They’re some of the best preserved in Europe.
Built in 1558, Berwick’s Walls were designed to keep out the Scots who repeatedly laid claim to the town from just over the border.
The walls are a mile and a-quarter in length and it’s surprising how much has survived including the fortifications, ramparts, gates and ditches. Take a walking tour of the walls and admire the sea views from the ramparts.
There’s also the L.S. Lowry trail which celebrates the famous artist’s associations with Berwick. Lowry painted Berwick’s cobbled streets and seaside when he took holidays in the town from the 1930’s to the early 1970s.
You can follow in the footsteps of the matchstick men painter with a walking tour that takes in the Elizabethan Walls, the historic town centre and the River Tweed.
Tammy Travel Tips – Northumberland Holidays
The Visit Northumbria website is a useful starting point for booking accommodation and provides an overview of tourist attractions and events.
Going out on a boat trip is a great way of seeing the spectacular North East coastline. There are half day trips to the Farnes, shorter tours of Coquet Island (from Amble), and a range of pleasure boat tours up and down the coast from Seahouses.
For an action-packed day trip, Alnwick has a good range of tourist attractions packed into a small area around its pretty town centre.
Combine a trip to historic Alnwick Castle in the morning with lunch at Barter’s Books (an independent book store and cafe), and then finish the day with an afternoon tour of Alnwick Gardens, a spectacular horticultural experience. The Tree House Restaurant in Alnwick Gardens is reminiscent of a Harry Potter film set.
For those who prefer a wilderness experience, the Otterburn and Wooler areas offer a moorland walks, Iron Age hill forts and vast expanses of nature.
Where to stay? It’s possible to drive to Northumberland from nearby Newcastle upon Tyne, but I’d recommend staying in the county if you’re planning to squeeze in a lot of trips.
Other good places to base yourself in are Alnwick, Rothbury, Alnmouth and Bellingham. Hexham and Corbridge are pretty market towns close to Hadrian’s Wall.
There are lots of self-catering holiday cottages in Northumberland, but I’d recommend staying on the coast, perhaps in Craster or Low Newton-By-The-Sea. Coastal retreats are ideal if you have kids and/or a dog on board.
If you’re travelling by motorhome or caravan, there are plenty of large and small sites throughout the county including bigger club sites at Embleton, Kielder and Nunnykirk.
I’d also recommend smaller certified motorhome sites at Bamburgh, Bellingham, Beal Farm (near Lindisfarne) and the Rothbury/Thropton area.
Check winter opening times for all attractions and camping/caravan sites.