England’s most northerly county, Northumberland, is an undiscovered gem. It offers a combination of wild escape, spectacular landscape and masses of history that’s hard to top anywhere else. To fully appreciate the region’s allure, we’ve compiled some of the best things to do in Northumberland.
The evocative and empty hills of Northumberland National Park fill much of the county’s interior with rolling, heather-covered moorland laced with walking trails. The untouched coastline sits primarily within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The area is renowned for its extensive, empty beaches and glorious light.
These peaceful landscapes mask a bruising history. Northumberland has been at the heart of battles and invasions. Romans, Vikings and feuding royal families have all left their mark. Historic sites range from the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, which once stood on the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, to the mighty time-toppled castles that line the coast. These historic sights provide a fascinating insight into Northumberland’s battle-sieged past. Charming market towns and fishing villages offer a wealth of places to go, each with its own character.
With so much to see and do, we’ve handpicked some of the highlights and best days out in Northumberland. From exploring the landscapes and strolling the beaches to hiking Hadrian’s Wall and uncovering the past at Bamburgh Castle, discover things to do in Northumberland.
The vast, desolate beauty of Northumberland National Park is among the county’s wildest places. This is of England’s least-visited national parks. It’s bordered to the south by the Whin Sill, a unique geological formation, with Hadrian’s Wall hugging its crest. To the north, the border with Scotland sits nestled within the rolling moors of the Cheviot Hills. Here, you’ll uncover hidden delights, from hillforts to lonely hills. The Cheviot Hills are also where you’ll find the area’s highest peak, the Cheviot (815 m/2674 ft), offering near-endless views. In between is Coquetdale and the Simonside Hills, dotted with cosy villages.
Your exploration doesn’t finish as the sun sets. The night skies above Northumberland National Park are unimpeded by light pollution. They have been awarded Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status for the clear views of the stars.
Top tip: The longer autumn and winter evenings are especially good for stargazing when the sky is clear.
Northumberland’s coastline stretches over 64 km/40 miles. This coastline hides some cracking beaches, where you can stroll away from the crowds along two of the county’s National Nature Reserves. Make your way to Bamburgh or Embleton Bay for magical castle views backed by sweeping dunes.
Walk barefoot on the generous sweep of soft sand at Alnmouth Beach, overlooked by colourful cottages. Discover the unspoilt sweep of the coast at Cresswell. Alternatively, visit the sandy stretch at Beadnell for breaks and swells. This area is popular with surfers, bodyboarders and kite and windsurfers.
Top tip: You’ll uncover traditional fishing towns and be able to pick up delicious seafood and taste superb fish and chips all along the coast too.
Buried deep within the lush foliage of Kielder Forest, you’ll find the largest artificial lake in northern Europe. Follow the trails around the tranquil expanse of Kielder Water, or hire a bike to ride around the lake’s 26-mile shoreline.
Alternatively, take to the water for watersports, including canoeing, kayaking and water skiing. There’s wildlife to keep your eyes peeled for, including deer and red squirrels. Admire the scattered art installations around the lake. These were created in response to the environment and the area’s fascinating history. After dark, turn your eyes to the skies. Kielder Water sits within the protected dark sky reserve, meaning stargazing is spectacular.
Top tip: Visit the observatory here to use their powerful telescope to scan the galaxy or join one of their regular events to explore a night sky that’s out of this world.
If it’s birds and wildlife that you’re looking for, take a boat tour from the attractive fishing village of Seahouses. You’ll sail a couple of miles off the coast, discovering the Farne Islands.
This isolated set of rocky outcrops forms one of the UK’s most important birdlife sites. This is a haven for inquisitive Atlantic grey seals, clown-billed puffins and vast flocks of seabirds, including guillemots and terns, which come here to breed.
Top tip: The North Sea waters are often choppy and invariably gusting strongly, but the wildlife sightings make the crossing worthwhile.
Perhaps the most defining artificial landmark in Northumberland is Hadrian’s Wall. Built upon the order of Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD, the wall protected the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. It was an impressive defensive fortification that spanned the width of England.
Walk the full line of the wall along the Hadrian’s Wall Path. Alternatively, discover sections while riding Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway, NCN72. If walking or cycling an 129 km/80 mile loop from Bowness to Wallsend seems like too serious an undertaking, head instead to the well-preserved sections within Northumberland. Historical sites to enjoy include Housesteads Roman Fort and Vindolanda.
Here you’ll get a good impression of what Hadrian’s Wall would have looked like as it climbed across the crags and features of the countryside. Discover what life for the soldiers stationed on its ramparts must have been like. There are museums with collections of artefacts at both.
Top tip: Time your visit to coincide with the active excavations at Vindolanda to gain further insight into one of the most important Roman monuments in the UK.
Continue your dive into Roman history by heading south of Hadrian’s Wall. Discover what was once the most northerly town in the Roman Empire, Corbridge Roman Town. This bustling garrison acted as a resupply station for the milecastles and forts along the wall.
At the site today, you can walk in the sandal-steps of Roman feet along the main street and see the buildings used by artisans and traders. Drop into the museum to gaze upon the Corbridge Hoard. The hoard is a treasure trove of armour and weaponry, tools, ceramics and jewellery unearthed at the site.
Top tip: The modern town of Corbridge lies just a short walk away and is worth the stroll along the banks of the River Tyne to explore.
The historic island of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, sits just off the Northumberland coast. Access is by a narrow causeway you can only cross at low tide. The grassy crag on the island is topped by the remains of a small 16th century castle. The 12th century ruins of Lindisfarne Priory mark the spot where an Irish monk, St Aidan, converted the region to Christianity. St Aidan founded the island’s original monastery in 635 AD.
These days, Holy Island remains an important pilgrimage site. The tiny island is popular with historians, walkers and people interested in wildlife. There are empty beaches to amble along and a pretty village to drift through. Lindisfarne village is where you can pick up locally produced trinkets and mead.
Curious about this unique place? Learn more about Lindisfarne here.
Top tip: Consider the walk across the exposed sands at low tide as a stirring way to reach the island. Remember to check tide times before setting off so you don’t get caught out.
The pioneering Cragside House in Rothbury is a magnificent Arts and Crafts style building set among 1,000 acres of grounds and woodland. Stroll the extensive gardens, then step inside the former home of Lord William Armstrong, an inventor and businessman.
Discover why the property is considered Britain’s original ‘smart home’. An innovative hydroelectricity system meant this was the first property to be lit by electricity. Labour-saving gadgets throughout the property included a water-powered roasting spit and a luggage lift driven by hydraulics.
Top tip: Lose yourself on gorgeous walks through the gardens, especially in summer when rhododendrons burst into bloom.
Northumberland boasts the densest population of castles anywhere in England. Bamburgh Castle is first among equals in a long list of impressive fortifications. Bamburgh, with its watchtowers and ramparts, sits atop a prominent bluff. The site overlooks a gorgeous sweeping beach.
The mighty Norman keep and surrounding defensive structures that sprawl across the clifftop date back 1,400 years. They have borne witness to battles and sieges, rebellious royals and the birth of myths and legends. The castle has been carefully restored and maintained since the 19th century. Visitors can get a good impression of life in the castle, with stately apartments, staterooms, grounds and dungeons to discover.
Top tip: Drop down through the dunes to the beach below the castle to look back and soak up the stirring vista. There are also views out to the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne to look for.
Vying for your attention is the imposing Alnwick Castle (pronounced An-ik). This 11th century fortress was built to protect people from marauding border clans. Over the years, this Norman-style fortress evolved into a grand gothic building before morphing into its current castle. Since the early 1300s, it has been home to the Percy family. Alnwick remains England’s second largest inhabited castle, after Windsor Castle. It is complete with attractive parklands sculpted by ‘Capability’ Brown and a collection of artwork by Italian Old Masters.
It is perhaps best known for its starring role as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. You can tour film locations and learn to fly a broomstick like the young wizards. Alnwick was also a setting for the TV series Downton Abbey.
Top tip: Stop into the award-winning Alnwick Gardens next door, where the Duchess of Northumberland has carefully created a series of pretty, flower-filled spaces. Look out for the 21-tiered water feature at the heart of the manicured gardens. You’ll also need to be careful in the poison garden and take care to find your way out of the bamboo labyrinth.
While on your tour of Northumberland castles, make time to stop and explore Warkworth, which stands above a loop in the River Coquet. With 800 years of history to discover at this fortress, admire its attractive medieval architecture that still packs a punch. For three centuries the Percy family resided here, and you can see traces of their lives throughout. Combine a trip to both Warkworth and Alnwick castles to fully immerse yourself in their family history.
Top tip: Look out for the Hermitage, although you’ll need to take a boat to reach the remains of the chapel carved directly into a cliff.
The atmospheric, romantic ruins of Dunstanburgh can only be reached on foot. The crumbling twin towers of the 14th century castle lie at the end of a two-mile coastal walk from Craster. The walk follows the Northumberland Coastal Path.
Farmland gives way to far-reaching seascapes here. The castle is an iconic backdrop, making it easy to see why the painter JMW Turner was inspired by this stretch of the country. Watch for seals and dolphins offshore during the walk. After, discover the gatehouse and ruins, clambering up Lilburn tower for sweeping views.
Top tip: You can continue your walk by pushing down the beach to Embleton for more outstanding views of Northumberland’s coast.
While exploring Alnwick Castle, linger a little in the sleepy town of the same name. Wander the cobblestone heart of the town, dipping in and out of independent shops and cafes. Time your visit for Thursday or Saturday to catch the traditional market and get caught up in the lively bustle that comes with it.
Top tip: Escape the throng by ducking into Barter Books in the town’s grand Victorian station. This is a rambling, quirky secondhand bookshop with armchairs, open fires and a simple cafe. A model train recalls the building’s past.
Lying inland, close to great rolling landscapes and the long sandstone ridge of the Simonside Hills is the charming town of Rothbury. Walk the trails through meadows and wildflower fields or stroll the bankside paths of the River Coquet. Stop to browse the independent stores lining the high street before recharging with a coffee and cake at one of the local cafes.
Top tip: Cragside House is close by.
Craster is the gateway to a stretch of attractive, rugged coastline. There’s no beach here, but you quickly walk out onto some fine coastal paths that trek towards the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle and on to Embleton Bay. Howick Hall, the ancestral home of the Earls Grey, who have lent their name to the famous tea, is close by.
Top tip: There are a number of places to grab great seafood or a treat from a traditional smokehouse.
Berwick-upon-Tweed is the most northern town in England. It boasts several great beaches and stunning coastal scenery. Its proximity to Scotland also means there’s a rich history revolving around the border skirmishes fought over hundreds of years. Head to Berwick Castle, with its medieval ramparts, to learn more about the battles.
Top tip: Cross the Royal Border Bridge, a Grade I-listed viaduct designed by Robert Stephenson, or stroll the Berwickshire Coastal Path from Berwick-upon-Tweed beach over the border.
The village of Amble stands at the mouth of the River Coquet, and is ideally placed to explore Warkworth Castle. Amble is a bustling harbourside coastal town that still thrives on its fishing industry. Walk the waterfront, stop in at the seafood centre to discover markets, stalls and cooking demonstrations, and look out for locally produced food and drink.
Top tip: If you want to try your hand at catching your own, take a chartered fishing boat out and see what the catch of the day looks like.
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