Hay gathering time at Bamburgh
Sunrise over the Farne Islands
Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle - coastal view

Northumberland guide

...wonderful wilderness

Modern England can be characterised by heaving, densely populated towns and cities, increasingly infiltrated by American culture.

Even our quiet, rural beauty spots – some still claiming to be undiscovered - can be overrun by visitors. Northumberland remains the country’s one, genuine exception.

Admittedly, accessibility isn’t Northumberland’s strong point – it’s a fair trek for the majority of the UK – but this in turn helps to maintain the county’s wild, barren and deserted beauty.

England’s northernmost county is also the least densely populated, while Northumberland National Park – which occupies approximately a quarter of the county – is almost inexplicably the least visited of the National Parks.

The sixth largest county in England, Northumberland exudes an air of mystical magic that in this writer’s opinion is unrivalled in the UK. Desolate inland landscapes give way to a stunning, sweeping coastline to the east. The beaches are long, windswept and thoroughly dramatic, speckled by a series of faded fortresses, seaward islands...and golf courses.

History & Culture

There can hardly be a more storied county in the country; the scene of numerous border battles between England and Scotland, evidenced by Hadrian’s Wall - which snakes across the south of the county - and the number of castles dotted along the coastline. In fact there are more castles across Northumberland than in any other county in England, the most recognisable of which would have to be Alnwick Castle - famous to children everywhere as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.

Northumberland arguably enjoys the strongest cultural and regional identity in England, with many of its quirky traditions not found anywhere else in the country. Folk dances and jigs borne out of mining villages live on, alongside a fierce and continuous tradition for folk music. 

The Northumbrian smallpipe is an instrument unique to north-east England, while a sturdy tradition for the fiddle, established in the 1690s, still permeates today. Claiming its own, idiosyncratic style, Northumbrian folk music – inspired, always, by its rugged landscapes and the black, briny foam of the North Sea – is today as healthy as it’s ever been, boasting a vibrant and thriving scene.

Tar Barrel In Dale

Examples of the local folk dances and music can be found in many of the small villages, throughout the year. One of the most celebrated is the New Year’s Eve Ta Bar’l (Tar Barrel) ceremony in the southerly, inland village of Allendale, near Hexham.

The ancient custom – which dates back to 1858 - involves villagers parading around the village in costume while carrying burning tar barrels on their heads, until they reach the market place at midnight whereupon the barrels are flung onto a bonfire and everyone makes rather merry.

Castles 'n' Coast

Further east is Northumberland’s Heritage Coast, taking in 40 miles of long, sandy and deserted beaches from Amble right up to the Scottish border, just beyond Berwick-upon-Tweed. The castles of Bamburgh, Alnwick, Warkworth and Dunstanburgh pepper the coastline – along with Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island.

Winding their way around the castles and beyond is a series of superb golf courses, with links courses by the dozen and over 40 courses in total. The two championship courses at Slaley Hall - which doubles as an elegant, luxury hotel, now part of the De Vere group - are the most well-known, but scenic gems such as Dunstanburgh Castle in Embleton must not be ignored. Golf in these parts is relaxing, testing and affordable.

The many great hostelries in the area are far too numerous to mention, but one particular favourite of the Let’s Stay team definitely warrants a shout.  Just a mile or two up the coast from Embleton Bay is Low Newton by the Sea, home to the delightful Ship Inn.

Serving superb locally-sourced, honest food, and specialising – of course - in seafood, The Ship Inn has its own on-site micro-brewery and is a real must-visit. The pub recently featured on the BBC2 show ‘Oz & James Drink to Britain’, where Oz Clarke and James May devoured fresh lobster and washed it down with the inn’s finest ale –  to predictable great acclaim. The only problem with this place is once you’re here, you don’t want to leave.


Most of Northumberland’s relatively small population is concentrated in the south east, the overspill from the urban conurbations of Tyneside, leaving the majority of this vast county in a bona-fide peace and quiet seldom found anywhere else. The county council claims Northumberland, despite its vast size, is home to five times as many sheep as people, which speaks for itself.

It is however well served by places to stay. An array of Northumberland cottages provides a great choice of self-catering accommodation from Seahouses to Slaley.

Sea Breeze Cottage is an attractive stone cottage in the village of Spittal, and sleeps five people. As the name suggests, this holiday home is just five minutes from the shore and enjoys all the village has to offer, including pubs and restaurants.

Beach Cottage in Beadnell Bay is an 18th century, dog-friendly cottage which sleeps six. With Seahouses and Bamburgh both close by, this lovely stone built holiday home is in a prime location on the Heritage Coast.

Further inland is Moorgair Cottage - also a stone built cottage, and adjoining the owners farmhouse. Located in the hamlet of Slaley, six miles from Hexham, this let sleeps five in two bedrooms.

Holidaying at home remains a popular choice for tourists in these hard-bitten times, and there’s absolutely no reason why Northumberland shouldn’t be a major destination on the UK tourist map. With so much to offer in unparalleled wide open spaces, Northumberland is perfect for a magical break.

Whether you’re summer walking in the Cheviot Hills, golfing in Bamburgh, taking in Tar Barrel in Allendale on New Year’s Eve, or something entirely different, a stay in Northumberland is sure to leave an indelible impression on its visitors at any time of year. Wilderness has never been so wonderful.

Sean Cummins

December 2010


Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015