By Debi Lander
On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I chose to avoid London and Edinburgh for budgetary reasons and instead discovered a hidden gem: Northumberland, the region of England below the Scottish borders. Northumberland offers dramatic coastlines, mountain crags and picturesque farmland dotted with medieval castles, World Heritage sites and blooming gardens. Plus, all the attractions are less crowded, as Northumberland is the least populated county in England.
Newcastle-Upon-Tyne is the largest city in the area, easily reached by train or auto. To tour Northumberland, however, you will need a rental car. While Newcastle offers some authentic historical sites, its downtown revival includes a state of the art performance hall and a modern art museum housed in an old factory. I was drawn to the fantastic Georgian architecture and a memorial to Earl Grey, a local who became Prime Minister and did much to abolish slavery but is most often remembered for concocting a blended tea, then selling the recipe to his friend Lord Lipton. Don’t miss the noontime opening of the Millennium Bridge, the world’s only pedestrian tilting bridge. An arm of the bridge swings upward to allow large boats to pass.
Nearby, Alnwick Castle and Gardens ranks with Windsor Castle as one of the best attractions in Britain. Approach the stone fortress and pass over the moat and drawbridge, climb the ramparts and peek into the dungeon. The Duke of Northumberland, head of the Percy family, has owned the property for more than 700 years and is one of the richest families in England. Enter the castle’s state apartments and be swept away by opulence, elegance and at the same time comfort.
Alnwick buzzes with more surprises. The dining room is set for an episode of “Downton Abbey,” a touch that makes the place all the more enchanting. Some of the costumes and props are also on view. The China Gallery brims with what seems like service for thousands. The early Harry Potter movies used an Alnwick courtyard for the flying lesson scenes. Visitors can pick up a broomstick and also attend a class.
The Duchess of Northumberland is passionate about gardens and spent millions renovating numerous acres. The Gardens alone are worthy of a full day visit. Start at the Grand Cascade, an impressive flowing tiered waterfall that’s spectacular when the fountains spray upward on the hour. You must be guided through the locked and fenced Poison Garden, but can roam at will through a Bamboo Labyrinth, around modern water sculpture and through the formal designs.
From this extravagant lifestyle, I turned back the time machine and headed towards Hadrian’s Wall. First stop was Housesteads, the first Roman fort started in 122 AD. Hadrian’s Wall made good use of a natural wall created when the continental plates collided. The extraordinary effort to construct the 73-mile long fortification took just eight years. The World Heritage remains run through some of the most beautiful countryside anywhere.
Vindolanda was a total surprise, and I’m almost embarrassed to say I knew nothing of one of Europe’s most important archeological sites. The Vindolanda Writing Tablets are precious 2,000-year-old documents.
Next day, I called at Wallington House, a British mansion house packed with eccentric objects. The room displaying dollhouses and toy soldier armies returned me to childhood fantasy.
I also toured Bamburgh Castle towering on the shores of North Sea like a behemoth rising from the water. The stretch of beach below attracts sunbathers and swimmers during warm weather.
Northumberland proved noble and noteworthy, and I highly recommend you consider a visit.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photos courtesy Debi Lander.