Archive for the ‘Northumberland’ Category

Looking north from Hadrians Wall into the badlands of Caledonia….

Carrying on with the theme of ‘Holidays from last Year’ (see my previous post for the first of these), here’s a second about a short break we had in Northumberland in the early autumn of 2021.

We’ve never really been to Northumberland. We’ve driven through it, up the A1 on the way to Edinburgh, and we’ve ridden trains up the East Coast Main Line and enjoyed the sights you see on that journey: Durham cathedral (ok, not actually Northumberland but never mind), crossing the Tyne on the way into Newcastle, Holy Island, Berwick-on-Tweed, Torcross  Nuclear Power Station (ok, that one’s definitely not in Northumberland, it’s well into Scotland, but still a remarkable site….). But we’ve never visited Northumberland, and never got away from the main arteries through the region.

In the early autumn of 2021 we had the opportunity to have a couple of nights’ stay at a reasonable price at Slaley Hall, a country house (possibly 19th century) that’s been converted into a hotel and golf course. It’s in the south of Northumberland, quite close to the County Durham border in fact. Its main attraction is the golf course, which looks beautiful from the hotel and is, I gather, rewarding to play. Certainly there were lots of golfers there, both staying at the hotel and visiting for the day. We, on the other hand, were there to enjoy the area and the countryside.

We’d booked a night in a Premier Inn in Country Durham for the night before; this would give us two full days in the area, plus as much of the day of our journey home as we felt like spending. We’d planned three possible destinations, weather permitting. The first would be to explore a National Trust site, Allen Banks. This lies along the River Allen which rises in hills on the Northumberland/Durham border and runs swiftly northwards to the River South Tyne. Not a long river – just 5 miles from where it forms at the confluence of two tributaries – it runs mainly through a steep-sided gorge before emptying into the South Tyne. It’s this gorge that the NT has taken over. In fact much of the gorge is cultivated – it’s a late Victorian garden!

Our second objective was Hadrian’s Wall, and specifically the site of Housesteads fort which lies on the wall. I had in fact visited Housesteads long before, but my memories of it were quite hazy.

Finally, if the weather was good on the day we were due to drive home, I felt that detouring to the coast and visiting Whitley Bay might be enjoyable, and very different from the two previous days. I’m pleased to say that we managed all of these things.

We drove up to the Premier Inn at Bishop Auckland in drenching rain – possibly the least pleasant drive I’ve done for many years. We were just there for a single night, and the hotel and attached restaurant/pub fulfilled its purpose. Then the following morning we headed across country, driving up though Weardale in the direction of Alston. In contrast to the day before this was a lovely drive. The sun was shining, the scenery was lovely, and the roads were deserted – I remember miles of road with no other vehicles in view, either in front or behind. Before we reached Alston we turned off north and went high over the watershed between the Wear and Tyne valleys, and dropped down into Allendale. We stopped at Allendale Town – actually a small village, but very beautiful. In the past, before transport was easy, this would have been a hub of activity. Today it’s quite sleepy and peaceful. We drove  down lower Allendale until we reached the Tyne valley and found our way to the Allen Banks NT site.

This was an impressive spot. We did a circular walk – a couple of miles up one side of the river, walking high up on the bank, then dropping down to the river, crossing it via an old foot bridge and basically walking back on the other side. We had some route-finding problems – our map suggested that on the way back we could get back down to the river edge and cross it via a suspension bridge, but we didn’t find any paths that would lead us to it so we navigated our way out via a different route. We later learned that the map was wrong – the suspension bridge was destroyed in a flood some years ago, and we had missed the warning notices near the car park. All together we were walking for a couple of hours or more; a lovely morning in beautiful and dramatic scenery. That took more or less to check-in time at the hotel, which we eventually found after a traumatic time navigating our way through Hexham.

The hotel itself was fine. Not perhaps as grand as it likes to suggest it is, but we had a good time. We particularly enjoyed the main bar area, which was bright, airy and comfortable.

The following day we went to Housesteads Roman fort, on Hadrian’s Wall. Obviously this is a ruin, but has been tidied up and made intelligible to a non-expert audience. In fact the information boards tell the fort’s history well – established before the Wall, then having its northern side turned into the Wall; abandoned when the frontier was pushed north to the Forth-Clyde gap; reestablished when that in turn was abandoned; and further changes in the late Roman period as the nature of the military units posted there changed. Finally, abandoned altogether (although I wonder how much of the masonry used to build it found its way into other nearby structures over the centuries). It’s an evocative site. From the fort you can walk along, and even (for a short distance) on the remains of the Wall – it stands maybe 5 feet above ground level near Housesteads. We walked along it as far as Milecastle 37, which is the best-preserved mile castle along the wall, and back again.

River South Tyne at Hayden Bridge

On the way back to the hotel we looked for some lunch in the small town of Haydon Bridge. We thought we were going to be unsuccessful until we walked into The General Havelock Inn, which was displaying a ‘Lunches served’ sign The pub itself is small and we weren’t feeling hopeful but we were shown into a restaurant at the back. This was obviously a former stone barn or something similar where we were served a simple ‘pub classic’ meal that was actually the best food we had throughout the holiday. Recommended, if you’re ever in that area.

Finally, on the last morning the sun shone again and we drove to the coast at Whitley Bay. We didn’t stay long – we still had a long drive home – but we had a good walk along the beach. We drove back down past the other seaside townships along the coast, through Cullercoats and Tynemouth  before heading for the Tyne tunnel. And we drove past the Spanish City amusement park – so of course I couldn’t help remembering that Dire Straits song, Tunnel of Love, with the line “From Cullercoats to Whitley Bay, out to Rockaway”. But all of these seaside towns looked attractive in their own way.

We enjoyed this break very much. As I said at the top, we’ve never been to this part of England before, and we liked it enough to seriously think about going back. Maybe further north, so that Alnwick, Holy Island and maybe Berwick would be within easy reach. Hopefully, that will happen this summer.

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