‘C’s the day
Coastline, castles, cathedral and countryside... England’s north-east is a fabulous region to tour, says Jonathan Manning
From the wheelhouse of St Cuthbert II, a small, open boat that ferries tourists on guided wildlife-watching tours of the Farne Islands, the captain points out a handful of Arctic terns. The birds, he tells us, have the longest migration of any animal, flying from the Antarctic to the Arctic and back again every year. The Northumberland coast may not quite be Arctic – although try telling that to children who have been persuaded for a few fleeting seconds that the sea beside the beach is warm enough for swimming – but the terns’ annual round trip of almost 20,000 miles shows an impressive devotion to the north-east of England.
They’re not the only regular visitors returning to this often overlooked region. Increasing numbers of caravanners and motorhomers are discovering that the area’s abundance of natural, historic and contemporary attractions help to provide fabulous holidays. From coastline to castles, hills to heritage railways, this a premier destination.
This tour starts at Durham Grange, possibly the easiest campsite to access on the entire Club network. It’s barely yards from a dual carriageway and the A1, which makes it a favourite stop-over for tourers heading to and from Scotland. But to use the site merely as a transit pitch would be criminal, given that a short drive leads to the heart of the city of Durham. The large student community ensures the centre has a buzz about it, with a seemingly endless selection of pubs and cafés down by the river and along the curling high street. That street leads up to Durham Castle (a hall of residence for students, although guided tours are available) and on to the cathedral, the city’s star attraction.
There is a £5 ‘voluntary’ entry fee, but it’s a small price to pay to explore the magnificent, near-thousand-year-old sanctuary. The Norman nave soars to a gloomy vaulted ceiling, before giving way to intricately carved choir stalls and the light, bright high altar, where kaleidoscopic colours rain through stained glass.
The huge, famed Rose Window steals the limelight, but two other windows also capture my attention. The first is a depiction of the Last Supper, seen from above, in bright primary colours. It was commissioned and paid for by the staff of Durham’s Marks & Spencer in 1984, continuing the tradition of benefactors paying to beautify this space. The second is a relatively recent window installed in memory of Sara Pilkington, a student who died suddenly of cardiac complications in 2012. Perhaps it’s my age as a parent of university-age children, but the window somehow makes the cathedral feel particularly relevant and current.
Younger visitors will no doubt be more interested to hear that Harry, Ron and Hermione hurried along the cloister passageways in the film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Back outside, I follow the old city walls to the Saturday market, picking up a couple of tasty treats before setting off to find arguably the best view in Durham. The cathedral sits on a steep hill that tumbles through ancient woodland to the River Wear, and from the far bank there’s a fantastic and much photographed panorama across the weir to a wharf building, with the towers of the cathedral dominating the skyline.
Settle to Carlisle Railway
Staying this close to the east coast, it’s become a family tradition to head to the sea at the crack of dawn to watch the sunrise, so I drive to Seaham, birthplace of my mother.
The transformation of this town over the past 30 to 40 years has been dramatic: from seaside colliery village, with a beach blackened by coal dust, to a pristine stretch of sand where collectors look for rare sea glass. And, happily, the spectacular sunrise justifies my yawns.
Following a giant zig-zag, my itinerary now requires I cross the country via the fast-flowing A68 and A69 to idyllic Englethwaite Hall Club Campsite, close to Carlisle. Set in the grounds of a former country house, this is a blissful location with hardstanding pitches scattered amid rhododendron bushes and tall trees. A fun ‘fairy walk’ through a glen passes tiny front doors and brightly painted wooden toadstools, while a fishing lake (£5 day ticket, £15 annual pass) next to the site holds rod-bending carp. The Settle-Carlisle railway runs along the foot of the site, with a nearby stop in neighbouring Armathwaite enabling travellers to head for – obviously – Carlisle (14 minutes) and Settle (1 hour 20 minutes). The southerly journey includes a crossing of the impressive Ribblehead Viaduct.
But it’s a different historic structure that captures my attention, and I spend a long and tiring day walking different sections of Hadrian’s Wall, which runs from the Solway Firth to Wallsend in Newcastle. The wall itself drifts in and out of the landscape, its stones plundered over the centuries to build other walls, barns and the cross-country ‘military road’. The most eye-catching sections that remain intact are at Birdoswald, Chesters, and especially Housesteads, where the Roman wall rises and falls above the dramatic rocky outcrops of the Sill. The brilliantly-named AD122 (the year the wall was built) bus service runs hourly through the summer from Haltwhistle to Hexham, making one-way walks possible.
I point my nose north-eastwards, and eventually pitch up to a warm welcome at Bolam West Houses Farm CL, around 16 miles north-west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where neatly tended pitches sit in a stone-walled paddock.
“We’re central for everything,” say owners John and Kathleen. “It’s easy to get to the coast, Hadrian’s Wall, National Trust properties or into the hills. And on clear nights, campers love the dark skies.”
I decide to drive south-east for 20 minutes to see an extraordinary new sculpture built on a colossal scale. If the Angel of the North welcomes visitors to this part of the world with vast open arms, the free-to-visit Northumberlandia greets people lying down. Formed from 1.5 million tonnes of rock, clay and soil from neighbouring Shotton Surface Mine, and stretching a quarter of a mile from head to toe, the scale of Northumberlandia is staggering, although finding a vantage point to take it all in proves impossible. I scamper up the well-built paths to the highest point, the head, and try to trace the human form by following the paths and bumps.
A few miles to the north, Nunnykirk Club Campsite captures the essence of the ‘getting away from it all’ cliché, a remote Eden populated by deer, woodpeckers, owls, hares and bats. There are no facilities, but 26 seasonal pitches provide copious evidence that there’s no shortage of self-sufficient campers who appreciate a leafy basecamp for superb walks in the Simonside Hills and a launchpad for Northumberland’s attractions.
On a rainy day I take the advice of Site Managers David and Katherine and head to Cragside, in nearby Rothbury. It’s a stunning National Trust property once owned by the Victorian industrialist and armaments manufacturer Lord Armstrong. He was a pioneering and fabulously wealthy engineer, who installed a suite of cutting-edge luxuries in the house (hydro-electricity, hot and cold running water, hydraulic luggage lift). Even now, the reception rooms and bedrooms feel warm and welcoming.
With the clouds dispersing, I explore Cragside’s 1,000 acres of grounds, following a path down through a steep rock garden – a man-made mountainside – past a dazzling display of azaleas and rhododendrons to a handsome iron bridge, and through a forest of exotic trees and bushes to find the original powerhouse that generated the hydro power. It’s easy to spend a day at Cragside, and with an adult ticket costing £21, most visitors will want to get their money’s worth.
So wealthy was Lord Armstrong that he also restored Bamburgh Castle, a few miles away on the coast. The proliferation of castles in the region presents something of a conundrum for all but the most devoted history buff determined to visit them all, so here’s a potted guide. Warkworth Castle (English Heritage) is a ruined medieval fortress in remarkably good nick, set above the River Coquet in the pretty village of Warkworth; Alnwick is a formidable, photogenic castle blessed with centuries of art riches collected by the Dukes of Northumberland and next door to The Alnwick Garden (beware your camping companion spending a suspiciously long time in the Poison Garden if you weren’t as kind or constructive as you might have been when putting up the awning!); Dunstanburgh cuts a haunting silhouette on the coast, with the option of a lovely walk along Embleton Beach to Low Newton-by-the-Sea, location of the irresistible Ship Inn.
There’s more! Chillingham claims to be Britain’s most haunted castle, and is home to a herd of exceptionally rare, wild cattle; Etal (English Heritage, free to visit) is a smallish ruin; homely Lindisfarne Castle (National Trust) is cut off from the mainland by tides that race across the causeway twice a day; and Bamburgh is a well modernised castle in spellbinding surroundings, perched high on a rocky outcrop and gazing out over miles of sand dunes and beach.
The list goes on, the number of strongholds evidence of the stormy relationship between England and Scotland over the centuries.
All of these fortifications are easily accessible from River Breamish, a Club campsite masquerading as a 10½-acre nature reserve, complete with decent-sized pond and birdwatching hide, a pretty woodland walk, and the river itself. The site had a major refurbishment last year, which included the installation of 16 serviced pitches, and a busy booking schedule reflects its location and proximity to many of the area’s highlights.
While Northumberland’s coastline is an unmissable feature, it would be a shame not to explore its rugged interior, too, especially the brooding beauty of the Cheviot Hills near Brandon Ford CL. This is a great spot, with hardstanding, fully serviced pitches, all perfectly placed for a stroll or pedal up the gorgeous Breamish Valley to Ingram. Here, a tucked-away café includes a visitor centre that outlines the history of the valley from the Ice Age to the raids of the bloodthirsty Border Reivers.
Driving north, I head to the final destination on this tour, the ever-popular Berwick Seaview Club Campsite. Pitches gaze out to Berwick, over the Tweed estuary, where dolphins had been swimming earlier in the day, according to Site Manager Christian. It’s a three-minute stroll to the nearest beach, 15 minutes on foot into own, and 50 minutes by train either to Newcastle or Edinburgh, so all bases are well covered for motorhomers who want to park up for their stay.
Time and tide
Grey seals and puffins are just some examples of the fantastic wildlife to be found on the north-east coast
With a car to hand I head south to Lindisfarne (Holy Island) and triple check the tide times before crossing the causeway to this otherworldly location that somehow maintains its spiritual feel despite the crowds. Farther south, Bamburgh Castle’s perch above magnificent miles of dune and beach makes for a fabulous afternoon’s walk, capped by a delicious liquorice and blackcurrant ice cream from the Wyndenwell café in the village.
Tastier still are the fish and chips from Hook in Seahouses, which I defend from gulls before taking a sunset cruise to see the seals and seabirds of the Farne Islands. As we head out to sea, the views open to the castles of Lindisfarne, Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, while gannets and small skeins of eider fly overhead. Across the 28 rocky islands (14 at high tide), puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and terns scrabble for a nesting site, some resorting to precarious rock stacks and cliffs. Together, they create an infernal noise and a putrid smell – the cliffs may be white, but they’re not made of chalk.
Everyone coos when seals bob up close to the boat and smiles as puffins take off, their oversized orange feet splashing on the North Sea before their stubby wings become a blur of black as they whizz over the waves. About 100,000 pairs of seabirds nest on the islands, returning annually to this amazing part of the world, and a growing number of Club members are following suit, appreciating the countryside, coastline, cathedrals and castles that provide a fabulous holiday destination.