I’m not sure why, but taking a short break in Northumberland was never something that was particularly high on my agenda. Despite having visited Scotland on many occasions, I’d never really considered what lay between my home in Liverpool and the Scottish border, and this beautiful coastal county was just not on my radar.
Thankfully, it didn’t take much research before this ancient land, steeped in history and scattered with impressive castles and breezy coastlines, quickly became top of the list of places I most wanted to visit. And, after experiencing for myself what a friendly, fascinating and visually stunning place this is, I can’t wait to share with you what an amazing time we had! Read on to find out why you, too, should take a short break in Northumberland.
- 1 The Journey
- 2 Day One: Hexham & Hadrian’s Wall
- 3 Day Two: Hexham, Alnwick & Chatton
- 4 Day Three: Alnwick & The Northumberland Coast
- 5 Until Next Time…
We travelled up to Northumberland by car late Wednesday evening so the traffic was fairly light. It took us around 3 and a half hours from Manchester, stopping for a quick bite to eat in Kendal services on the way. As dusk fell, the sky turned a silky grey and the mountains loomed ahead of us, hazy like a painting, as we zipped along the empty motorway. Trees and wind farms became silhouettes and a few early stars could be seen peeping through the darkening sky. If I could enjoy the drive there this much, imagine how much I was going to love a whole 3 days in Northumberland!
A Short Break in Northumberland
Day One: Hexham & Hadrian’s Wall
After spending Thursday on an amazing Northumberland Bushcraft Experience, we woke on Friday morning excited to see what the rest of our time in this fascinating county had to offer. By the time we got to the Beaumont Hotel in the town of Hexham, it was mid Friday morning. Being early for check-in gave us the opportunity to enjoy a fresh coffee in the bright café/restaurant area whilst our room was prepped.
Our room was on the top floor of the hotel and had large sash windows, giving us a perfect view of the park opposite. Resisting the strong urge to sit and relax on the comfortable bed and people watch out the window, we laced up our hiking boots and set off in search of Hadrian’s Wall.
Housesteads Fort, Hadrian’s Wall
Just a short 30 minute drive away from Hexham town is Housesteads Roman Fort. Set upon the impressive boundaries of the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site, we spent a few hours in the blustery winds walking along the wall and roaming the ruins of what was once an important structure within the Roman Empire.
We also took a peek inside the interactive museum, where we learned about the significance of the fort and village life and watched a short film about how it was used in Roman times. It always perplexes me how such complex and often decorative structures were built without the use of the modern technology we have today. I particularly love that the Romans used underfloor heating – luxurious even by today’s standards!
After a few hours walking Hadrian’s Wall in the fresh country air, we headed back into Hexham, keen to see what the picturesque little town had to offer.
Hexham, once voted England’s favourite market town by Country Life Magazine, is small but perfectly formed. It’s a quaint little town with a friendly, local feel and everyone we came across, not surprisingly, seemed to love living and working there. Don’t let its size fool you into thinking there isn’t much to do here, either. As we found out, it’s almost too easy to fill a day meandering around the independent shops and boutiques, stopping for a drink and slice of cake in one of the many coffee shops and browsing the crafts and paintings created by talented local artists. And that’s before you’ve even visited the beautiful Hexham Abbey, established in 674AD, or set foot inside Hexham’s Old Gaol, England’s first purpose built prison, dating back to 1333.
Being a market town, it should come as no surprise that there is a market held here every Tuesday and Saturday in the ancient Market Place, as well as a bimonthly local farmers market on the second and fourth Saturday of the month. And, for any bookworms out there, there is also the annual Hexham Book Festival held in May, which just happened to be the weekend we were visiting!
We enjoyed a relaxed Friday afternoon wandering the winding historic streets of the town and exploring the vintage shops and local art galleries. As the shops closed for the day, we wandered over to The Sele, a large green space making up one quarter of Hexham’s town park (the others include the grounds of the abbey, the grounds of Hexham House and the small Church Flags area on Cowgarth). Here, we lazed on the grass in the sun, watching teenagers attempt daring stunts on the skateboard park and smiling as dogs ran free, tails wagging as they ignored their owners calls.
As the sun started to set, we made our way back to The Beaumont Hotel, housed within the row of decorative Victorian buildings overlooking the park.
Hexham: Eating and Drinking
Usually, I like to venture out and explore different bars and restaurants, but when you’re staying somewhere as fabulous as The Beaumont Hotel, it hardly seems necessary. The sun had decided to make an appearance for our short break in Northumberland, and to celebrate, the hotel had arranged some outside seating and thrown open their huge bi-folding doors, completely opening up the front of the hotel. The relaxed atmosphere welcomed groups of friends, couples, babies in pushchairs and well-behaved dogs, and we sat sipping on one of the many different varieties of gin and tonic the bar had on offer, watching the world go by outside.
We decided to stay for dinner at the Beaumont Hotel, and were not sorry we did as we settled down for a full 3 course dinner. For starters, I chose a rich, fluffy cheese soufflé whilst Steffan went for a silky smooth chicken liver parfait and lightly toasted brioche. Unfortunately, the kitchen had run out of the lamb, my first choice for mains, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we both tucked into delicious flame grilled steaks and chunky home cut chips instead. And, as if that wasn’t enough, we had just enough room left to squeeze in deserts of sticky toffee and date pudding and a cherry and chocolate compote. Phew!
A Short Break in Northumberland
Day Two: Hexham, Alnwick & Chatton
After a much needed sleep (read: food coma) in a deliciously comfortable bed, we woke refreshed, ready to make the most of the day ahead. After munching down a full English breakfast at The Beaumont Hotel, made with fresh local ingredients, we ventured out into town to visit Hexham Abbey and wander around the town and the weekend markets.
Hexham Abbey is an impressively beautiful building in the centre of town with a rich history. There has been a church on the site since 674AD, but it is the priory church, built from 1170-1250 that we can see and visit today. We spent a short time inside, enjoying the cool, calm and quiet – a complete contrast to the sunny, bustling market day outside!
We chose not to join one of the free tours, but we did manage to join a group as they made their way down into The Saxon Crypt, an underground area dating back to the time of the original church and built with stones taken from the old Roman fort. It’s pretty fascinating that something that spans such a wide breadth of history still remains, fully intact, hiding beneath the abbey!
After browsing the abbey’s interactive visitor centre, we made our way back outside, squinting, into the sunshine. Market day was in full swing, and we looked around at the flowers and fresh local fruit and veg, before grabbing a quick coffee in the sweet little courtyard of The Garden Coffee House and making our way to Alnwick.
It took us around an hour to reach Alnwick from Hexham, and arriving there at around 14:00, we decided not to waste any time and go straight to the famous Alnwick Castle, aka Hogwarts.
Northumberland is famous for having more castles than any other county in England, a testament to its turbulent and troubled past due to its location on the northern border. It’s difficult to know which castles to prioritise when planning a trip here; with over 70 to choose from, it would take more than one weekend in Northumberland to see them all! But despite being a pretty obvious choice, Alnwick Castle’s fame and movie star glamour won us over, and off we went to explore, what is not only an imposing and spectacular looking castle, but also an infamous film set!
Now, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make here. I’ve never really been a Harry Potter fan and until about a week before we were due to leave on our trip to Northumberland, I’d never even really seen the films, let alone read the books! But despite only watching the first film about a week before we left, knowing that I was about to visit Hogwarts unleashed some kind of childish excitement in me and I couldn’t wait to explore Alnwick Castle.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Despite being pretty commercialised and having a hint of a theme park feel about it, nothing can take away from the fact that this is a breathtakingly beautiful building in a stunning location. When I think of castles, romantic images of ruins and crumbling walls spring to mind, but Alnwick Castle does not fit that description at all. Lovingly restored and cared for, Alnwick Castle retains all of its glory. And my, what glory! It’s really no surprise it’s been used in movies such as Harry Potter and Transformers, and the TV shows Blackadder and Downton Abbey. If Alnwick Castle was a living breathing movie star, we’d all be swooning at its feet.
As well as smashing through my preconceived ideas that castles had to be crumbling, ruined structures, Alnwick Castle also holds the claim of being one of the largest inhabited castles in Britain. Yes, that’s right. PEOPLE ACTUALLY LIVE HERE! Alnwick Castle is the winter home of the Duke of Northumberland and his family; the 12th Duke to live within the castle walls. Signs of modern life are perhaps most apparent within the State Home, where we took a tour with our friendly and super knowledgeable guide, Pete. The library, probably my most favourite room in the State Home, looks every bit how you would expect a fairy tale library to look. Seemingly taken straight from a scene of Beauty and the Beast, the room naturally gives off a warm, golden glow and the books, all 14,000 of them, are arranged on two tiers around the perimeter. But look a little bit closer, and there are sure signs of a modern life: a large flat screen TV and giant bean-bags that look like they would envelop you whole, not to mention the fully stocked drinks cabinet! Family photographs adorn the room, and a huge portrait painting of the current Duke and Duchess, dressed in casual attire and posing with their family dog, is proudly displayed over one of three marble fireplaces. I’m sure their summer residence is also just lovely, but surely nothing can beat those winter months, curled up with a book on a giant bean bag in your very own castle? I might even look forward to winter if it meant I could go and live like a fairytale princess for a while!
Back outside, children taking part in one of the regular free broomstick classes zip around the grounds excitedly on their Nimbus 3000s. There’s also a chance to try your hand at archery or medieval crafts, go on a Dragon Quest (only for the brave!) and join a film location or historical grounds tour. Thankfully, entrance tickets are valid for a whole year from the date of purchase, so we have the perfect excuse to come back and try out all the activities we sadly didn’t have time for on this trip.
Getting back in the car, our plan was to check into our next hotel and come straight back out to explore Alnwick town. However, after tapping the postcode to The Percy Arms Hotel into the satnav, it became apparent that I had made a slight error with the booking. The Percy Arms Hotel, despite having an Alnwick address, was actually around half an hours drive outside of Alnwick in a place called Chatton. Undeterred, and knowing that, with the Percy Arms being a pub, there would be a good hearty meal at the end of it, we decided to drive straight to Chatton, rest up, and come back to Alnwick in the morning.
Chatton turned out to be one of the best mistakes I’ve ever made. It took us much longer than the sat-nav’s predicted 30 minutes as we stopped every couple of miles to take photographs, each view of the rolling English countryside more perfect and picturesque than the last. Finally arriving at the Percy Arms Hotel, we were greeted with a complimentary slice of chocolate cake (is there anything better than free chocolate cake?) and a selection of loose leaf teas, and shown to our luxuriously homely room for the night.
We decided to take our time here to relax a little (something that, with our Go! Go! Go! mentality, we’re not all that great at when on holiday!) and joined the mix of tourists and locals outside in the late afternoon sunshine for a drink. Later, as the sun started to go down and the early evening chill started to set in, we retreated back inside to enjoy some good pub grub.
We woke early the next morning, refreshed from a deep sleep in one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in. Tucking into a hearty breakfast, we debated whether to change our plans and stick around in Chatton, the nearby haunted Chillingham Castle capturing my imagination. But, deciding to save the ghosts for a future trip, we made up our minds to stick to the original plan and make our way back into Alnwick to explore what the town itself had to offer.
A Short Break in Northumberland
Day Three: Alnwick & The Northumberland Coast
Alnwick itself is a bigger town than Hexham and surprisingly, felt a little less touristy. Shops seemed geared up to locals’ practical needs (e.g. Boots the Chemist and Iceland) rather than the quaint, artisan gift shops and galleries that Hexham had in abundance. That’s not to say Alnwick isn’t worth a visit; it most definitely is! There are still some delicious delicatessens and coffee shops and, possibly reason alone to visit Alnwick, Barter Books.
Barter Books, Alnwick
Barter Books is one of the largest (and quirkiest), second-hand bookshops in Britain. Located in the old Victorian Alnwick Railway Station, the bookshop makes use of the old parcel office, train platforms and side waiting rooms to house thousands of books both old and not so old, roaring open fires, a rickety model train, plenty of mismatched seating, a children’s room and a cozy coffee shop. Opened in 1991 by husband and wife team Mary and Stuart Manely, the renovation process saw the discovery of the original ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster – one of the most iconic and replicated posters the world over! It’s a literary heaven; a quiet haven to escape to. If Alnwick Castle is Hogwarts, I think we just found Platform 9 ¾ .
The Treehouse Restaurant, Alnwick
Dragging ourselves away from the magical sanctuary of Barter Books, we made our way to our next, equally fantastical destination: The Treehouse Restaurant. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like – a restaurant housed inside an actual giant treehouse!
In the gorgeous weather, it seemed a shame to be eating inside, but once we’d stepped beyond the leafy doorway, I stopped caring. Decked out in twinkling fairy lights with wooden walkways and wobbly rope bridges, I felt like we’d come for lunch in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree! After packing away 2 truly delicious courses each, it was time to round off our weekend with a visit to one of Northumberland’s stunning beaches.
The Northumberland Coast
Kelly, our cheery waitress in the Treehouse Restaurant, had given us two very different but equally worthy recommendations for local beaches. Keen to pack as much of this beautiful part of the world in as possible (see what I mean about go go go?!) we decided not to decide between them and just go to both.
Sugar Sands was our first stop. Kelly had told us this beach was a bit of a hidden gem and she wasn’t wrong! We found ourselves driving down a long narrow winding road, sheep and cows grazing lazily in the lush green fields either side of us, until eventually, we arrived at the gate of Low Steads Farm. Slotting 50p into the honesty box for parking, we parked up on a grassy ridge, jumped out the car and drank in the fresh sea air. Stretches of soft sand surrounded by low grassy cliffs and intercepted with shallow rock pools greeted us, and we half walked, half scrambled up the rocks, to take in both sides of this quiet, blustery paradise. Sandcastles adorned the beach and children ran out to the chilly waters in wetsuits, body boards clutched under their arms. Being here almost felt like we’d been let in on a local secret.
Conscious of time, we reluctantly left the secluded Sugar Sands and drove the half hour or so to our final destination: Bamburgh Beach.
Being right next to Bamburgh Castle, another one of the largest inhabited castles in the country (I still just can’t get over the fact that people actually live in these amazing buildings!), Bamburgh Beach is hardly Northumberland’s best kept secret. But that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Winding through a maze of grassy sand dunes, we emerged onto soft, pristine sands, spanning for what seemed like miles in both directions. And watching the waves roll into the shore, it’s not hard to see why this spot is regarded as a consistently good spot for surfing and surf lessons. But what is perhaps most impressive, is the sight of the imposingly grand Bamburgh Castle, sitting atop its rocky plateau and dominating the skyline behind the beach. I found it hard to stop gazing back at it in awe as we strolled barefoot along the powdery sand. It’s quite possibly one of the most breath taking views I have ever seen!
A Short Break in Northumberland
Until Next Time…
And so it was with images of grand castles, fairy-tale treehouses, and luscious countryside that our short break in Northumberland came to an end. It’s taken me 33 years to realise the existence of this amazing part of the world, and I’m left with the feeling that I’ve only just scratched the surface of the magic held within this beautiful northern county.
Tired, but full to the brim with happiness with what had been a fantastic few days, we started the drive back to the North West, safe in the knowledge that we would be making the return trip for another short break in Northumberland in the not so distant future.
Hungry for more tips to help you plan your short break in Northumberland?
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Head on over to Visit Northumberland: The Ultimate 2-3 Day Itinerary and start planning your perfect trip.
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