Northumberland is the northernmost county in England. It’s also the least densely populated, with only 62 people per square kilometre inhabiting its windswept shores. Bamburgh and Seahouses are about an hour’s drive from the thriving city of Newcastle, and only a short drive from the border with Scotland. The area showcases a unique and distinctive blend of ancient Viking history, great expanses of sandy beaches and wild stretches of beautifully protected coastline.
Amidst this, little villages such as Bamburgh – with clusters of honey-coloured stone houses – sit on the shoreline, facing the elements. This is an area steeped in history and, despite a thriving tourist scene, the low population means that quiet pockets of ancient Northumberland can always be found too. I was captivated by the county’s warmth of welcome, its sense of authenticity and plentiful, restorative fresh air.
10am GOING NORTH
I wake up by the Tyne, having spent the previous night in Newcastle before embarking on the drive north. It’s not long before the Northumberland coastline emerges on the horizon, and I stop off at the Amble Harbour Village for coffee, a collection of 15 retail ‘pods’ among dormant trawlers and lobster pots. The remnants of a passing storm whip up the sea and I have my first taste of the region’s ruggedness – all fresh Scandi breezes and brilliant, sparkling coastal light.
3pm GARDEN VISIT
Warmed by coffee I head off to Howick Hall and Gardens, the home of the current Lord and Lady Howick. I meet head gardener Robert, who recounts stories of his adventures to far-flung corners of the globe to collect new species for this 65-acre garden. I’m impressed by his dedication. We stroll down shaded paths shrouded by camellias and rhododendrons, sheltered from the North Sea winds by centuries-old trees on the garden’s perimeter. As we walk, I catch glimpses of the coast (01665 577285, howickhallgardens.com).
4pm EXPLORING SEAHOUSES
A late lunch is on the menu and I drive to the aptly named Seahouses, where rows of cottages enjoy unrivalled views across the ocean. The village feels how a working harbour should, bustling with quiet industriousness but soulful, cosy and welcoming. I can imagine just how appealing the warm glow of its lights must feel to fishermen returning home after battling the unforgiving North Sea. After fish and chips in local diner Pinnacles (01665 720708, pinnaclesfishandchips.com), I meander along the sand dunes before holing up at The Olde Ship (01665 720200, seahouses.co.uk/theoldeship), with its interesting collection of shipping paraphernalia.
6pm BY THE FIRESIDE
I retire to my overnight accommodation, The Old Rectory B&B in Howick, which has cats, an open fire and good books. I spend some time relaxing here, poring over my photographs and notes from the day, and make some plans for tomorrow (01665 577590, oldrectoryhowick.co.uk).
9pm ALE & STARS
Well rested, I head off to the local pub, The Cottage Inn, for an after-dinner pint, where locals welcome me at the bar. After a couple of pints of Farne Island ale I wander back to my home for the night, gazing up at the black skies and the carpet of alarmingly bright stars above me, and see why this area is noted for its dark skies (01665 576658 cottageinnhotel.co.uk).
10am HISTORY LESSON
I rise early for a leisurely breakfast before the short drive to Warkworth Castle. Warkworth is a very pretty village, but it’s not until you come across its looming motte-and-bailey castle that its location really makes sense. A castle tour brings the dramatic history of the Yorkist Percy family to life, and puts the area’s historical importance into context. I spend the best part of the morning wandering in the Keep’s maze of rooms, imagining banquets, roaring fires and music being played as part of the daily life of this impressive fortress (0370 3331181, english-heritage.org.uk).
1pm SAVING GRACE
In the afternoon I join the beautiful coast road north, which takes me to my next destination – the RNLI’s Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh. I learn about this Victorian heroine, who rowed to the stricken vessel the SS Forfarshire on the Farne Islands from Longstone lighthouse on the morning of 7 September 1838 with her father William. They saved nine souls and Grace became a national icon. Tragically, she died of consumption only four years later. I enjoyed this lovingly curated museum, which recounts the story of the rescue in impressive detail (01668 214910, rnli.org/find-my-nearest/museums/grace-darling-museum).
3pm A JOURNEY TO THE ISLANDS
Inspired by Grace Darling and the intrepid rescue, I head to the harbour at Seahouses to meet George, owner of Golden Gate Boat Trips, and an experienced skipper and lighthouse keeper. I’m hooked as he tells stories of his 40-plus years at sea while we bounce over the increasing swell towards the Farne Islands. Once there, I see thousands of seals basking in the sunshine. We also pass Longstone lighthouse, home of the Darlings. It’s only up close that I appreciate how dangerous these craggy outcrops would be in bad weather (01665 721210, discoverthefarneislands.co.uk).
6pm THE POTTED LOBSTER
After a bracing afternoon in the elements, I treat myself to superb local seafood at The Potted Lobster in Bamburgh. In cosy surroundings I eat buttered potted lobster on warm bread for my starter, followed by delicious homemade fish goujons, washed down with a pint of local Rigg & Furrow Northumberland ale. I enjoy taking my time and soaking up the low-key evening as I bury myself deep into my book (01668 214088, thepottedlobsterbamburgh.co.uk).
10am CASTLE TOUR
Waking up in Bamburgh, the next destination has to be the famous castle that stands guard over the town. I’m shown around this fascinating place by the current owner, and marvel at the incredible sense of history. The castle’s views across the unspoilt Northumberland countryside and coastline are unrivalled, and I soak up the ancient atmosphere and artefacts within the castle walls (01668 214208, bamburghcastle.com).
1pm A HOLY PLACE
To further deepen my knowledge of the area’s history, I go to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne to walk around the 11th-century priory. Crossing from the mainland feels like an event in itself as twice a day the road is submerged by sea – driving on a small stretch of tarmac surrounded by seaweed and sand is strange. I ponder how it must have felt to land on these shores to help spread Christianity in England, as St Cuthbert did more than 1,500 years ago (lindisfarne.org.uk).
3pm WALKING ON PRISTINE SAND
Back south towards Bamburgh I decide to stretch my legs on the huge length of sand that extends out beyond the castle and meets the North Sea, with great views to the Farne Islands. The beach is almost empty, apart from a few windswept dogs and their owners. I stroll across to Budle Bay, a significant port in the Middle Ages, and complete my walk by climbing through the vast sand dunes to the golf course, and then back into Bamburgh itself.
6pm WARMING UP AT THE INN
My next port of call is The Bamburgh Castle Inn, just down the road in Seahouses, where I’m spending my last night of this visit to the Northumberland coast. I embrace the evening atmosphere in the pub, as locals come and go, swapping stories of their winter projects or their seafaring activities over the weekend. Sufficiently warmed by the fire, I return to my room content, and admire the view of the resting boats in the little harbour, with the cresting waves beyond (01665 720283, bamburghcastlehotel.co.uk).
How to get there…
Flybe flights to Newcastle are available from London City, Cardiff, Southampton, Aberdeen, Newquay and Exeter (flybe.com). London to Newcastle train tickets via LNER start from £21pp if booked in advance. Renting a car to travel around the coast is the best option, once you’ve arrived in Newcastle.
Need to know: stay at…
THE OLD RECTORY in Howick is a luxurious, cosy B&B with large rooms, roaring fires and private parking only 400 yards from the sea. Prices from £75 per room (01665 577590, oldrectoryhowick.co.uk).
BUDLE HALL is a family-run country house B&B with large, well-appointed rooms. Doubles from £100 a night (01668 214297, budlehall.com).
THE BAMBURGH CASTLE INN is a modern hotel overlooking Seahouses Harbour. It has an excellent restaurant serving local food, ales and wines. Doubles from £104, with breakfast included (0191 5803610, bamburghcastlehotel.co.uk)