Northumberland’s often brutal history is remembered at historical attractions and heritage sites across the county. This north-east county at the front line between Scotland and England has many reminders of centuries of conflict from the Roman Hadrian’s Wall, through to Norman castles and Elizabethan town ramparts. If you only have time to spend a week camping in Northumberland it can be difficult to know which places to visit. That’s why the Cool Camping team have been hard at work putting together a list of the must-see historical attractions in Northumberland to help you get started...
If it’s not the reason you’ve chosen to visit Northumberland on a camping holiday – you should at least pay a visit to this remarkable monument while you’re in the area. After all, this feat of Roman engineering which stretches 73 miles from the Irish Sea to the North Sea still dominates the landscape 2,000-years after it was built to mark the northern reaches of the Roman empire. It’s thought that it took 15,000 men less than six years to build it across some of the wildest countryside of Cumbria and Northumberland. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is still remarkably intact in many places with ruined Roman towns, gatehouses, milestones and fortresses along its way. A good way to see the wall and learn more about it, is to head for Housesteads or Chesters Roman Forts where there are visitor centres. If you want to go it alone though, there is also a long-distance trail, the Hadrian’s Wall Path, for dedicated walkers – but be warned it’s 84 miles in total and it usually takes a week to complete!
The toilets are among the highlights at Housesteads and that’s not just because you might be in need of emptying your bladder after a long journey to reach them. No, we’re talking about age-old communal Roman toilets that you can marvel at, rather than use. The remains at Housesteads also include a hospital and barrack block. And if the ruins themselves aren’t enough to give you a picture of life in Hadrian’s day, the English Heritage-managed museum and visitor centre has got it covered with an interactive exhibition and mini cinema showing a film about life on the wall. Housesteads, which is positioned on a dramatic escarpment, also gives you great views and a taste of the scale of Hadrian’s Wall.
More remarkably-intact remains are at Chesters Roman Fort, built in AD124 and one of 15 forts that were built along the 74 miles of Hadrian’s Wall. Excavation in the 19th-century revealed what can be seen today which includes unusually well-preserved Roman baths and a steam room. The baths are positioned on the north banks of the River Tyne and it’s still a nice place to relax though these days it’s better for spreading a blanket out and enjoying a picnic. The site was home to 500 soldiers for 300 years and you can see some of the artefacts that have been found around the site and learn about life in a Roman fort in the museum. There is also a tearoom on site.
A couple of miles south from Hadrian’s Wall are the remains of Corbridge Roman Town – built where one of the main routes north crosses the River Tyne. It was home to a thriving Roman community for 350 years from AD160. And for about 80 years before that it was the location of a series of Roman forts. It’s not surprising that all those Romans left a few traces of the way they used to live and in 1964, one of the most significant Roman history finds, the Corbridge Hoard, was unearthed here. These artefacts and more, a staggering 150,000 individual pieces, are on display in a 2018 exhibition, Re-imagining Corbridge at the site which is protected and managed by English Heritage.
Just making the journey to Lindisfarne is exciting as this tidal island, also known as Holy Island, is linked to the mainland by a tidal causeway and twice a day becomes cut off by rising sea water. Nowadays you can see the remains of a 12th-century priory but it was 11 centuries before that, in AD 635, when a community of Irish monks first settled here and made it one of the most important centres of early Christianity. It became a place of pilgrimage after it was claimed miracles occurred at the final resting place of St Cuthbert, a monk who had lived as a hermit on an island off Lindisfarne. It was also here that the Lindisfarne Gospels were produced, said to be one of the most-important books in the world. After a bloody raid by the Vikings, both St Cuthbert’s bones and the Lindisfarne Gospels were whisked to safety on the mainland. Although St Cuthbert is now interred at Durham cathedral and the gospels are in the British Library, the ruined priory and site of all this action is still well worth a visit.
A magnificent Norman castle that is still home to nobility, houses a massive art collection and has links to Shakespeare and Harry Potter. It’s fair to say that Alnick Castle has something for all ages. It is the seat of the Duke of Northumberland – and has been in the family for 700 years. Kids will love the activities which include Harry Potter-themed Broomstick Lessons with the castle (Hogwarts) as the background. In addition to the wizardry, the chance to explore the castle inside and out reveals the history of its residents and its impressive, lavish and still-used state rooms. Check out the impressive Renaissance-style painted and gilded ceilings, the 15,000-book library and Duke’s collection of paintings, furniture and ceramics.
Don’t forget your camera if you decide to make a visit to Dunstanburgh Castle. The romantic ruins of this 14th-century fort and their stunning location on the Northumberland coast are bound to inspire you as they have many artists over the years, including JMW Turner. As feels fitting for a castle, you can’t just drive up and park by the drawbridge but have to park at Craster, about 1.3 miles away. The cliff-top walk to reach the ruins adds to the atmosphere of the place and offers stunning views of the castle and the Dunstanburgh shoreline along the way, as well as the chance of spotting some of the area’s nesting sea birds. Dunstanburgh Castle is owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage – so members of either get in for free.
Pay your respects at the site of the bloody battle of Flooden Field. There is a stone cross commemorating the 14,000 men, including James IV of Scotland, who were killed in a brutal fight between the English and the Scots. The action took place in a single afternoon, on 9th September 1513, when the Scottish king led his men to fight against an English army led by Thomas Howard, Earl of Sussex, on behalf of the English monarchy. From the monument, you can follow the Battle Trail, a walking route of just under two miles, through what is now beautiful countryside. A series of interpretation boards along the route explain the progress of the battle.
You could forgive past residents of Berwick-upon-Tweed for being a little confused as, during the border wars, the town changed sides 13 times. Now firmly in Northumberland, four miles south of the Scottish border, it’s well worth a visit to see the legacy of all the fighting: the town’s Elizabethan ramparts. You can walk the walls to circle the town in about 45 minutes and access to them is free-of-charge but you may want to leave yourself a little longer for the visit as you will also come across the ruins of Berwick-upon-Tweed’s castle and the Barracks, which make for a welcome pit stop with toilets, a shop and exhibitions – for which there is a small charge to enter.
By Amy Woodland, March 2018