Hiking in Northumberland...England's most spectacular and most overlooked county?
I love Northumberland but it often strikes me that a lot of people - and by that, I mean those down south - would consider a short break to Mars more readily than they would to England's most northerly county.
But they really don't know what they're missing.
I chatted to Patrick Norris - an ex-member of the Royal Navy and a submariner who moved into countryside management as part of a team that planted over a million and a half trees in Wiltshire - who is now a walking guide based in Northumberland, about why he loves the county so much.
If someone had never been to Northumberland before, where do you think would be a good place to stay for a long weekend?
I think basing yourself in Wooler would be a good bet. It’s a nice little market town with a good range of cafes, restaurants and pubs on the edge of the Northumberland National Park in the north of the county. From there you’ve got access to some good hill walking and you’re also not that far from the coast.
What’s your favourite day walk?
Everyone should walk the Pilgrims Way to the holy island of Lindisfarne. It’s one that’s been around since about the middle of the seventh century where a series of poles mark the safe route across the sands at low tide.
You’re walking (barefoot if you want) in the footsteps of Aiden, Cuthbert, Anglo Saxon kings and Vikings. I walked it yesterday and there were around a thousand grey seals hauled out across the bay.
And the wildflower meadows on Lindisfarne right now are just mind-blowing. Once you’re there you can reward yourself at the Pilgrims Coffee House which does fantastic coffee and cake.
Another favourite walk of mine - because not many people do it - is Bewick Moor. It’s one of the finest prehistoric landscapes in the country, with iron age hill forts, bronze age burial cairns and late Neolithic “cup and ring” rock carvings.
Mentions of them on Twitter tend to draw in the “alien landings” crowd, but they’re very beautiful and probably some of the oldest artefacts in this country that you can get up close to and actually feel.
If you had a bit longer time, what would be your favourite walk to do over a long weekend?
Again, in the north of the National Park, there’s a place called the College Valley, which is very isolated, on a private estate.
As you walk along it, there’s a fantastic river (the College Burn) and you can find some wild Cheviot goats, a prehistoric breed with Middle Eastern origins that some people say have been in the valley for 7,000 years. You might see barn owls hunting too.
Then you can slog up onto the Pennine Way at the head of the valley with its post-glacial landscapes and either turn left onto Cheviot itself, the highest summit in Northumberland, or go right, along the border fence to The Schil and some summits called Black Hag and Blackhaggs Rigg and then back down into the valley, which all in all is a cracking walk.
It’s kind of wild and remote but not too difficult to follow if you had a map.
Even on the Pennine Way, you don’t meet a soul, and you can see to Scotland and to Bamburgh on a clear day.
If someone has limited time, what stretch of Hadrian’s Wall would you recommend seeing?
I’d recommend Walltown to Housesteads, which for me is the most dramatic section. At Walltown you’ve got the Roman Army Museum, which has a super 3D film that gives you an eagle’s eye view of the area and sets you up for the rest of the walk. It’s about ten miles, with lots of wall castles and all the high points of the wall. You can get the AD122 bus* to Walltown and walk back to Housesteads or vice versa. (*This doesn’t run all year)
If you had to pick, what’s your favourite – Northumberland’s coast or inland?
Inland, the national park can be a bit bleak and a little bit empty, but if empty and bleak and wild is your choice then it would be inland I think.
But then being out on the Pilgrims Way on the coast is great, so it’s kind of hard to choose.
Because of the seasonality, there’s always something in Northumberland. Come the autumn, when the migrant birds are arriving, you get up to 100,000 birds on Lindisfarne there with October being the peak. We get Wigeon from Russia, Whooper Swans from Iceland, we get Knot from northern Canada that are on their way to Africa, it’s pretty spectacular. You don’t even particularly need to like birds – just watching 5,000 pink-footed geese take to the wing is pretty special.
Can you tell me more about Northumberland National Park and Kielder Forest Park? I understand both are good for stargazing because of the lack of light pollution at night?
Northumberland is one of the best places to go stargazing in England and it’s a good selling point. There’s an observatory at Kielder which is well worth a visit but be warned that astronomers don’t sleep!
You can see the Northern Lights here too, conditions permitting of course. We do seem to get a lot of purple and green skies here, and when the lights are good they’re very good. I’m going to start doing an afternoon into evening walk this autumn to take advantage of the dark skies.
Is there an "almost secret” part of the county you like to explore that perhaps not even many locals would know about?
I’d go back to Bewick Moor. There were peregrine falcons nesting when I was there a while ago so, at the right time, I can take people up there to see and hear them. It’s stuffed full of wildflowers, you never see a soul and there’s a pub, The Tankerville Arms in Eglingham, at the end!
Photo credits: Top photo = Patrick Norris; Lindisfarne = Northumberland Tourist Board; Hadrian's Wall = Toa Heftiba; Bamburgh = Philip Veater; Kielder Observatory = Amy Gatenby
Visit Patrick's website at Footsteps Northumberland