Beauty, battles and bounteous wildlife: Northumberland isa must for visitors, writes Tony Dawe.
Its position as England’s most northerly county makes Northumberland appear remote, a distant place for many Britons and overseas travellers to visit. Yet its geography is its joy. Rugged and romantic, the sweeping landscape offers infinite opportunities to experience the great outdoors.
National trails and cycleways snake across the land, footpaths weave through the Cheviot and Simonside Hills and, with Europe’s largest area of protected night sky, 572 square miles have been designated a Dark Sky Park. The coast and countryside support an abundance of wildlife rare elsewhere, including red squirrels, otters, ospreys and puffins.
Northumberland’s location has guaranteed a turbulent history. The Tyne Valley provided the base for Roman occupiers to make their final assault on Scotland and, when they retrenched, the hills to the north became their northern boundary with the building of Hadrian’s Wall.
The Vikings assailed the coast and, after they had been repulsed, the threat from Scottish raiders and English enemies inspired the construction of dominant castles along the coast: Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Warkworth. The Wars of the Roses brought sieges and battles.
This restless history and the challenging countryside have given Northumberland and its people an independent spirit, a strength and character that make it even more intriguing. And, truly, it is not that far away; accessible more quickly by rail from London and the South East, the Midlands and Scotland than much-heralded Devon and Cornwall and West Wales.
Awaiting visitors are centres to introduce them to the varied and remarkable regions of the county: to the walks and wildlife of Kielder Water and Forest Park, to Northumberland National Park and to Hadrian’s Wall. Tourist information centres are dotted along the coast and at Wooler, on the edge of the Cheviot Hills, and at Hexham in the Tyne Valley.
Museums at the Roman towns and forts along Hadrian’s Wall are full of amazing artefacts and stories of the occupiers’ four centuries in Britain. The Bellingham Heritage Centre in North Tynedale outlines the history of the Border Reivers, the inter-warring families in the middle of the last millennium, while the Woodhorn Museum at Ashington outlines a more recent industrial heritage and features works by the Pitmen Painters.
This month, funding was confirmed for a £12m centre intended to revolutionise the way visitors will be engaged and inspired to discover the rich heritage of Northumberland. The country’s first national landscape discovery centre, to be called The Sill, will provide information and events to help interpret the history andcountryside, a café, shop and hostel.
Many of the facilities will be underground to reduce the impact on the environment but The Sill will have a rooftop park to enable visitors to appreciate the dramatic landscape. The new attraction will replace the Once Brewed centre, three miles from Housesteads Roman Fort and so called because unlike the pub next door where the beer was “twice brewed”, the tea here is once brewed.