Blame the parents? While childhood summer holidays revolved around camping in a field on my uncle and aunt’s farm in the Scottish Borders (nearest town Berwick-upon-Tweed), once ensconced, there was no dipping back into England.
Latterly, my daughter spent a year living in Hartlepool, providing the ideal excuse for visiting that area and enjoying the many seaside delights of places such as Seaton Carew, in Co Durham.
Northumberland, meanwhile, simply failed to get a look-in. Until now. A gap in our learning was certainly there to be filled and, like me, partner Lin had no recollections of ever visiting there.
A quick armchair tour of England’s most northerly county makes note of Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site; England’s least visited national park (Northumberland); Europe’s largest constructed lake and England’s largest forest (Kielder Water and Forest Park); the Cheviot Hills; the home of Hogwarts (Alnwick Castle) if you’re a Harry Potter fan; Europe’s largest area of protected night skies (in 2013, a swathe of the county was granted Gold International Dark Sky status); and some 39 miles of coastline.
We needed to focus for our five-day trip, hence the decision to keep things coastal, narrowing it down further to the stretch between Bamburgh in the north and Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in the south. We had Halloween to contend with, too, as our tour took place in the last week of October.
On the tourist trail
“You’ve decided to do all the touristy things,” opined a friend when I showed him the itinerary for our first-ever trip to his home county. And why not? A four-hour drive from our house, it had better be worth it. (Spoiler alert: it was.)
He went on to make other recommendations, not least a handful of locations that definitely could not be classed as tourist hotspots. But our itinerary was complete; fitting everything in was the next challenge.
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon, just a couple of hours later than planned (isn’t that always the way?). Being late autumn, our timing didn’t allow for our planned visit to the beach at Beadnell.
Instead, we were (oh so easily) lured into Box Pizza, an independent restaurant forged from a couple of shipping containers – no kidding, but it’s cosier than you might imagine – serving the most delicious pizzas using local ingredients and baked in their impressive wood-fired oven.
Sadly, the restaurant is currently closed because of the pandemic restrictions, but it is still offering online customers a ‘make your own pizza’ kit.
Then it was on to our first site, Waren Caravan & Camping Park, arriving in the dark with reception long closed, but instructions for pitching left for us behind the bar in the large clubhouse.
Off to the smokehouse
Our first day proper and we were off to a flyer, heading out to Craster, a 30-minute drive from the site. This seemingly unassuming village, set right on the coast, is perhaps best known as the home of L. Robson & Sons, a smokehouse producing the famous Craster kippers. We had a lucky break in finding a spot to park our Benimar in the public parking area, a short walk from the village (you’ll be very fortunate indeed if you find any space in the village itself).
At the smokehouse, it was fascinating to learn how they smoke herrings, which then become kippers. In the past, all herring would have been caught by local fishermen. Today, diminishing stocks mean thy now come in from the North Atlantic, in 20kg frozen blocks. But the smoking process remains the same – the fish are kept on tenterhooks (now you know where the phrase comes from), and given three smokes of 3.5 to four hours each. Technically, it’s known as a cold smoking process, but the wood-fired walk-in ovens are very much the real thing.
Kippers are the stock in trade, with about four tonnes produced every week, but they smoke a lot of other stuff here, too – including haddock, cod, salmon, crab and lobster. Most of the latter ends up in France. A good selection is on sale in the smokehouse shop, of course.
So impressed were we with all of this, we had to try some stuff out for ourselves. The Robson family also owns the adjacent seafood restaurant (although I lost count of how many times we were told we must visit the Jolly Fisherman pub across the road, for crab sandwiches and big chips) – and there’s a rather adventurous menu here, including, of course, those Craster kippers.
Take in the castles
Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh topped our list of castles to visit. They couldn’t be more different – the former a ruin, the latter very much in working order. Dunstanburgh Castle is just a dogs-on-leads mile along the coast from Craster village. You can’t miss its distinctive remains, pointing up into the sky, its twin-towered gatehouse offering a suggestion of how grand it must have been.
Bamburgh is as grand, but in a different way. There’s easy motorhome parking here (and indeed at Bamburgh village’s main car park almost directly across the road), or we could have walked some three miles along the beach from Seahouses. You can walk dogs in the grounds but, of course, can’t take them indoors.
Our castle visit easily took up most of a day, as we explored the grounds, went inside for the Armoury, State Room, arts and crafts collections, archaeology and aviation museums, and more.
Bamburgh has been home to the Armstrong family since 1894, when it was purchased by William, a visionary and inventor, often referred to as ‘Britain’s forgotten genius’.
Make of this what you will, but he was the first engineer to be given a peerage, an early advocate for water and solar power behind Cragside) the first house ever to be powered by hydroelectricity), founder of Newcastle University, and widely recognised as the world’s first arms dealer.
Briefly on our second site
We had two nights at our second site, the very popular Springhill Farm. To my embarrassment, we hardly saw it at all – our stretched itinerary meant we were arriving and leaving when reception was closed. We did take advantage of the lovely warm facilities block, however, noting also the particularly spacious pitches for motorhomes. It’s also handy for the seaside town of Seahouses, where – after a long day spent discovering the area – we succumbed to fish and chips.
Needless to say, there was plenty more that we missed: Alnwick, Warkworth and more on the castles front; pretty Alnmouth, which we drove past twice, saying we really should drop in.
It seemed we weren’t the only ones wanting to visit this part of the world, either. Apparently, 2019 was a bumper summer for Northumberland, with things continuing to be plenty busy even when we finally made it, for our late October trip.
The brown-signed Coastal Route proved to be an absolute joy, and one that I’d suggest most motorhomes can easily take in their stride.
Tea with the earl, or a holy coffee?
Want to know where Earl Grey tea comes from? Yes, Northumberland. Howick Hall, seat of the Grey family, to be precise. House and grounds, but no dogs! Easy parking for motorhomes, though, and there is a sheltered area if you want to park up and leave your pooch on board.
Our pick of the cafés had to be Pilgrims Coffee House, on Holy Island. I hope the islanders will forgive the pun, but they really are hell-bent on sustainability here. They even have their own roasters – the smell embraces you if you catch it at the right moment – as well as making all of their own food on the premises, sourcing key ingredients locally.
One particularly delicious example, Cuthbert’s Slice, is a flapjack that, as we discovered, you won’t get anywhere else – because it’s their own recipe (caraway seeds and lemon drizzle icing feature, along with more usual ingredients).
One of our reasons for wanting to explore Northumberland was simply the fact that we hadn’t visited before. Possibly our top place to visit was Holy Island, aka Lindisfarne.
You have to get your timing right, though. There are three miles of causeway to cross, connecting the mainland to the island; get your tidal timings wrong and you’re in big trouble.
There’s no shortage of warnings, yet I was told that three or four cars are caught out every year (fortunately nothing fatal, just great embarrassment). An alternative is to walk – the Pilgrims’ Way is marked by posts. We took the motorhome, as did plenty of others, judging by the numbers parked up in the huge car park, which is just a short walk from the main village area.
There’s a choice of two historically significant places to visit on Holy island – English Heritage’s Priory or National Trust’s Castle.
I guess we were in the majority, in walking between the two and visiting one – in our case it was the priory that grabbed the attention, although it might have been different if the weather wasn’t on our side.
I suspect, too, we weren’t the only ones to try photographing the castle as seen through the priory ruins (or, indeed, vice versa).
We also visited St Aidan’s Winery (home of the famed Lindisfarne Mead), but it all looked a bit too touristy for us. Pilgrims Coffee House, mentioned above, was far more to our taste.
Former mining town Newbiggin-by-the-Sea proved something of a discovery. You won’t find it very easily in the official tourist guides, unless you’re prepared to dig a little deeper. But first impressions were highly promising.
First off, it was easy to park – for free – in the main zone just adjacent to the Maritime Centre, which houses the local museum, café, art gallery and exhibition area.
Stretching beyond this is a beach, part of the longest promenade in Northumberland. The sand here was actually imported from Skegness, some 200 miles to the south, as part of a redevelopment project in 2007. At the same time, a special commissioned sculpture was being placed out in the bay. Called Couple, it features statues of two people looking out to sea and it’s all very evocative. We took in some of the fine promenade, making it as far as Caffè Bertorelli, where the late afternoon sun made it just about bearable to sit outside and take in some seaside atmosphere with our coffee. It’s worth a trip inside, too, to admire the art deco interior and get an instant social history of Newbiggin, or if you fancy trying some of the family’s ice-cream. As for the rest of the town, there really is a bit of everything here, even an inn, the Cresswell Arms, bearing the sign ‘Last Pub Before Norway’.
Breakfast before heading home
The next day we had a four-hour drive home, so we decided to pack up and go out for breakfast. A hearty meal (neither of us had eaten haggis for breakfast before) at Drift Café was on the menu.
Don’t be fooled by the unassuming exterior. Inside, it’s not just about delicious food – they even employ a professional cake maker – the whole atmosphere is welcoming (for dogs, too). The café takes its name (and part of the building) from the drift mine that operated here.
A quick look around Cresswell village and just a little of the seven miles of beach, and we were heading south – with some of Northumberland’s many attractions ticked off our list.
- Duration Five days
- When October 2019
- Why? Castles, coastline, cafés and more
- Motorhome Benimar Tessoro 483
WHERE WE STAYED
Waren Caravan and Camping Park
- Waren Mills, Bamburgh, NE70 7EE
- Web meadowhead.co.uk/parks/waren
- Charges (pitch+2+hook-up) £49.22 (premium pitch plus £4.40 for dog).
- Full-facilities site. Separate touring fields. Wi-Fi starts at £5 for 24 hours.
- Seahouses, NE68 7UR
- Web springhill-farm.co.uk
- Charges (pitch+2+hook-up) £32 (hardstanding)
FIND OUT MORE
L Robson & Sons and Craster Seafood Restaurant
This world-famous smokehouse combines traditional and modern methods to produce Craster kippers, plus all kinds of other smoked seafoods. Also here are a shop and a super restaurant. Love the website address!
Unmissable 12th-century castle ruins on the coast, a short walk (about a mile) from Craster village. Entrance to the castle is free for English Heritage and National Trust members.
Howick Hall Gardens & Arboretum
Go for the fabulous gardens (including the 65-acre arboretum) and walks. But if you have time while you’re here, stop to enjoy a cup of tea – this is the home of Earl Grey.
Another quite remarkable castle. Home to inventor, industrialist and philanthropist William Armstrong from 1894, with loads of great history to explore, indoors and out.
Shares top billing as the main attraction on Holy Island, along with Lindisfarne Castle. Founded as a monastery in AD635, and today you can explore 12th-century ruins and learn the fascinating history of Saint Cuthbert, the world-renowned Lindisfarne Gospels and much more.
This self-confessed “castle (that’s not a castle), on an island (that’s not an island)” was originally built as a fort, before being transformed into luxurious holiday home for Edward Hudson, who founded Country Life magazine in 1897.
Newbiggin Maritime Museum
Volunteer-run venue where entrance to the art exhibition, shop and café are all free, with small charges for the museum. Open all year. Free parking adjacent.
FOOD AND DRINK
Lewis’s Fish Restaurant
You’re spoilt for choice if you want fish and chips in Seahouses, but this place has a bit of character as well as quality food.
Pilgrims Coffee House
Ooh, what a find this is. For a start, it’s perfectly placed as you stroll between castle and priory on the majestic island of Lindisfarne. Gorgeous café with food and drink to match. And this is a real coffee-lover’s heaven, too.
Brilliant for breakfast, as we can confirm, and almost certainly equally excellent throughout the rest of the day, as well. Welcoming and dog-friendly.
- Fuel £212.10
- Attractions £65.90
- Parking £13.40
- Meals out £90.85
- Other food and drink (best) £35.00
- Campsite fees £81.22
- Total £498.47
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The brown-signed Coastal Route proved to be an absolute joy, and one that I'd suggest most motorhomes can easily take in their stride