Northumberland’s countryside is largely empty except for sheep. The Heritage Coast runs for 40 miles starting at the Scottish border and moving south to Amble. There are uncrowded sandy beaches, and near Warwick and Bamburgh, sand dunes. The RSPB bird sanctuary at Coquet Island is home to large numbers of puffins, common terns, eiders, and roseate terns. The islands can be visited by boat from the village of Amble.
The county is home to the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the volcanic Farne Island nature reserve where puffins, kittiwakes, guillimots and other sea birds like to stay. Grey seals also prefer the islands. Boats to the islands run from the village of Seahouses. Grace Darling of the islands (her father was a lighthouse keeper), won immortality by rescuing nine seamen off a steamship that had run aground. A museum in the town of Bamburgh details her story.
With Scotland and England fighting over the borderlands, Northumberland’s location made defense a necessity. The fighting resulted in over 113 castles and pele towers being built by the early 1400s in Northumberland. Most lie in ruins but enough survive to make the county a rewarding experience for castle lovers.
This warfare is evident in the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, a walled border town that was fought over and won by both the English and Scots many times. The ramparts, the gateways, and the bastions date from the 16th century. The Barracks from the same period have an exhibition showing life of the times, and a local history exhibition. A museum, courtroom, and lockup located in the town hall are available by guided tour.
Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans in the 2nd century as a defense against the marauding tribes of what is now Scotland reminds us of warfare from an earlier time. There are many places to visit along the wall, which stretches across the country from east to west. These include Corbridge, Housesteads, Vindolanda, and Walltown. Housesteads Roman Fort sits on a ridge overlooking open moors. Covering 5 acres, there is much to see. Look for the large outhouse.
Chesters Roman Fort near the town of Hexham is considered the best preserved of any Roman calvary fort in the country. It has a museum with a collection of excavated artifacts found at the site. At Corbridge are excavated Roman remains that include a granary. Here too is a museum. Don’t miss the Corbridge abbey church and its 7th century crypt, discovered by accident. There’s a Borders museum in the old jail building.
Alnwick, seat of the Percy family (Dukes of Northumberland) since 1309, has become world famous as the location for a number of scenes from the Harry Potter films. The castle does not retain its original fortress environment except in its exterior. The inside was remodeled by the first and fourth dukes in the Italian Renaissance style. Furniture, paintings by Canaletto, Titian, and Van Dyck, and porcelain as well as the beautiful décor can be enjoyed on a tour.
The Alnwick Gardens have been newly invented in the 21st century. Alnwick has one of the largest walled gardens in the world—there has been one here since the 18th century but it fell into disrepair in the 20th. Now a grand cascade with computer controlled water displays, an ornamental garden, and a rose garden delight visitors. A tree house, linked by suspended walkways, with room for 300 people, a poison garden, and a labyrinth are part of the year 2004 completions. In 2005 a glass walled pavilion is the newest star on the stage.
Warkworth Castle is the other chief baronial castle of the Percys. The Earl of the castle, a Catholic, joined the uprising against Queen Elizabeth. Her servants pillaged the castle, thus starting the process of decay and ruin, which we see today. The castle sits high on a hillside with its village tucked below. The first castle built in 1150 by the Earl of Northumberland, son of David 1, King of the Scots, eventually ended up in the hands of the Percys in 1332. A large number of ruins include the chapel, hall, solar, church—never finished—stables, and other outbuildings and the large keep.
Prudoe Castle, located on a steep slope of the Tyne River was acquired by the Percy family through marriage. The keep is one of Northumberland’s oldest. A video presentation of its history is provided.
14th century Etal Castle is located in sparsely settled countryside. Little is left of the castle—just a gatehouse and keep. It was captured and destroyed by the Scots just before the battle of Flodden Field in 1513. There is an excellent interpretive centre at the site where you can learn about the castle, border warfare, and the Battle of Flodden Field. The nearby village boasts a narrow gauge railway, water-driven corn mill and the Black Bull, Northumberland’s only thatched pub.
Chillingham Castle is noted for its many ghosts, and there are dungeons to chill at. It was originally built as a border fortress in the 12th century. Gardens, grounds, and a lake were redefined and added in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the interesting features of the castle is its “peeling back the layers” of some of the rooms to reveal past architecture and structure.
Bamburgh castle sits on the coastline by a sandy beach. It was a royal site in 547. The Norman keep has survived, but the rest was remodeled in the mid 1700s and again at the beginning of the 20th century, thus eliminating much of its historic mood. There is a collection of armour, porcelain, china, and other items. The best feature is the views from the ramparts over the islands and hills.
14th century Dunstanburgh castle requires a 1˝-mile walk to reach its location high on a basalt crag overlooking the sea. The ruins include a gatehouse and curtain walls. Inland is Aydon castle, a fortified manor house established in the late 13th century. It is interesting, as it has survived intact, having been converted in the 17th century to a farmhouse.
The majority of Northumberland’s historic homes started life as fortified castles. An exception is Cragside, one of the county’s most interesting. It was built in the 19th century for the 1st Lord Armstrong and had all the newest modern conveniences including running hot and cold water, telephones, central heating, and an elevator. It has the distinction of being the first private home in the world lit by hydroelectric power. More than 30 rooms are on show and give a fascinating vision of the life of the wealthy. Outside, the 1000-acre woodland garden shows off rhododendrons, a lake, a large rock garden, and a play area for children.
Belsay Hall, Castle and gardens is an interesting complex. It has been in the same family for 600 years. The 30 acres of grounds contain 19th century gardens set in an old quarry, a 14th century castle, a manor house, and the hall built in the 19th century in the classical style and now ruined.
Wallington is a 17th century manor house, extended in the 18th with a Palladian exterior and interior plasterwork. Much in the house is original to it. Ceramics, paintings, and fifteen doll houses dating from Victorian times and complete with furnishings are on view. The house has an interesting central courtyard and kitchen.
Holy Island contributes two of Northumberland’s historic sites. You will need to check local tide tables to reach the island by a three-mile causeway and plan your return based on the tides if you are travelling by car. Lindisfarne Priory ruins are on the site of one of the country’s most important early Christian sites. St Cuthbert converted much of the surrounding countryside to Christianity, and the 11th century priory was soon on every pilgrim’s list of places to visit. An exhibition tells the story. Lindisfarne castle was built in 1550 and remodeled as a private home by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1903. The house and gardens can be visited.
Northumberland National Park is small at only 400 square miles, but most of it is remote, whereas Kielder Water Forest Park is easily accessible by car and has many attractions on offer including Kielder Birds of Prey Centre.
For opening times and full details of attractions see the Attractions section of our website.
Alnwick Castle (HHA)
Alnwick, in the town centre
Tel. 0 1665 510 777
Web: Alnwick Castle
Denwick Lane, Alnwick, uust off the A1
Tel. 0 1665 511 350
See our article at Alnwick Garden
Web: Alnwick Garden
Aydon Castle (EH)
Two miles north-east of Corbridge
Tel. 0 1434 632 450
Bamburgh Castle (HHA)
On B1342 by the sea east of Belford
Tel. 0 1668 214 515
Web: Bamburgh Castle
Bellingham Heritage Centre Museum
Tel. 0 1434 220 050
Belsay Hall, Castle, and Gardens
Belsay, seven miles from Ponteland
Tel. 0 1661 881 636
Berwick-upon-Tweed Borough Museum and Scottish Borderers’ Museum
On the Parade, off Church St, Berwick-upon-Tweed town centre
Tel. 0 1289 304 493
Berwick-upon-Tweed Ramparts and Barracks (EH)
Berwick-upon-Tweed, on English/Scottish border
Tel. 0 1289 304 493
Border History Museum
Old Gaol, Hallgate, Hexham
Tel. 0 1434 652 439
Brinkburn Priory (EH)
Long Framlington, Morpeth
4.5 miles south-east of Rothbury; off the B6344, 10 minute walk from car park
Tel. 0 1665 570 628
Cawfields Roman Milecastle
1.4 miles north of Haltwhistle off B6318; half mile uphill walk to the wall
Tel. 0 1434 344 396
Cherryburn, the Engraver’s House
Station Bank, Mickley near Stocksfield
Tel. 0 1661 843 276
Chester Roman Fort and Museum (EH)
One quarter mile west of Chollerford; near Hexam
Chollerford near Hexam
Tel. 0 1434 681 379
Chatton, Chillingham, two miles south of the B6348; signed from the main road
Tel. 0 1668 215 359
For photos and more information see our article Chillingham Castle
Web: Chillingham Castle
Corbridge Roman Site (EH)
.5 mile north-west of Corbridge
Tel. 0 1434 632 349
1.5 miles from Rothbury, Morpeth
Tel. 0 1669 620 150
Dunstanburgh Castle (EH) (NT)
On the B1339, 8 miles north-east of Alnwick, then 1.5 mile walk to coast from ticket booth at parking area
Tel. 0 1665 576 231
Etal Castle (EH)
Near Etal village by Cornhill-on-Tweed
Tel. 0 1890 820 322
Highland Cattle Centre
Dere St Farm, near Stocksfield; access via B6309
Tel: 0 7968 865 591
Housesteads Roman Fort (EH) (NT)
Near Bardon Mill by Haydon Bridge
Tel. 0 1434 344 363
Kielder Water Forest Park
B6320 from Otterburn to Bellingham, follow brown signs to Kielder Water & Forest Park; map on website
Tel. 0 1434 220 616 (Bellingham Tourist Information); Leaplish Waterside Park, 0 1434 251 000
Tower Knowe Visitor Centre 0 1434 240 436
See our articles Kielder Water Forest Park and Kielder Birds of Prey Centre for photos and more information
Web: Visit Kielder
Lindisfarne Castle (NT)
Holy Island, across water from Berwick
Tel. 0 1289 389 244
Holy Island Tide Tables: Holy Island Tide Tables
Lindisfarne Priory (EH)
Tel. 0 1289 389 200
Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum
Bridge St, Morpeth
Tel. 0 1670 500 717
Norham, near Berwick, on minor road off B6470
Tel. 0 1289 304 493
Chathill, signed from A1 north of Alnwick
Tel. 0 1665 589 227
Prudhoe Castle (EH)
Tel. 0 1661 833 459
Roman Army Museum (Carvoran)
Greenhead near Walltown, Northumberland
North of B6318
Tel. 0 1434 344 277
Seaton Delaval Hall
The Avenue, Seaton Sluice, on the A190 3 miles from Whitley Bay
Tel. 0 191 237 9100
St Ebba Monastery
One mile north of St Abbs, Northumberland
Vindolanda Roman Museum and Site
Signed near village of Bardon Mill; 13 miles from Hexham on A69
Tel. 0 1434 344 277
Cambo, Morpeth, north-west of Belsay
Tel. 0 1670 773 600
Warkworth Castle (EH)
Warkworth, on the A1068
Tel. 0 1665 711 423
For photos and more information see our article Warkworth Castle
Queen Elizabeth II country park on A189 halfway between Alnwick and Newcastle city centre at Ashington
Tel. 0 1670 52 80 80
Web: Experience Woodhorn
Woodhouses Bastle House
For photos and more on the castles see our article Castle Trail
Northumberland Tourist Information Centres
2 The Shambles, Alnwick
Tel. 0 1665 511 333
Open: end first week May-end Oct, daily, 9am-6pm; shorter times rest of year
Queen St, Amble
Tel. 0 1665 712 313
Open: Easter-end Oct, daily, 10am-5pmm except 10.30am-4.30pm on Sun
The Manor Office, Hallgate, Hexham
Tel. 0 1434 652 220
Open: year round
The Chantry, Bridge Street, Morpeth
Tel. 0 1670 500 700
Once Brewed National Park Centre
Military Rd, Bardon Mill, Hexham
Tel. 0 1434 344 395
Open: daily in summer, 9.30am-5pm; in winter weekends only, 10am-3pm
Seafield car park, Seafield Rd, Seahouses
Tel. 0 1289 301 777
Open: April-end Sep, daily, 10am-5pm; Oct, daily, 10am-4pm
The Cheviot Centre
12 Padgepool Place, Wooler
Tel. 0 1668 282 123
Open: Easter-end Oct, daily, 10am-4.30pm; weekends, 10am-2pm rest of year; closed 1-1.30pm for lunch
Insider Tip: Northumberland is one of our favourite counties for wild countryside, castles, and imaginings. It has an atmosphere all its own.
Don’t confuse the name Northumbria with the county’s name Northumberland. Northumbria is a political division for administrative purposes made up of Northumberland, Tyne & Wear, County Durham, and the Tees Valley (formerly Cleveland).
Photos by Barbara Ballard and may not be used without written permission.
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Some of our Northumberland Articles
Northumberland’s Castle Trail
Northumberland National Park
Kielder Water Forest Park
Bird of Prey Centre at Kielder
Howick Hall Gardens
Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens
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