Travel Letter Index

Our visit to Northumberland.
Saturday 10th September 2005. 

Having prepared our packing on Friday evening we completed the task on Saturday morning, but still managed to arrive without salt and the bird books. As we will not do a great deal of ‘twitching' during the week and all the main sites have pictures of birds you are likely to see, a major tragedy has been averted.   Both the general grocery stores in the village are open seven days a week and amazingly salt is available.

We set out at 11.42 am and travelled along at an easy pace until we joined the M1.   Within a few minutes we were instructed to slow down, shortly afterwards we were at a standstill for several minutes and the rain came down and spray was a problem.   We moved slowly, then stopped, then carried on slowly for several miles from south of Hardwick Hall until we were level with central Sheffield where we joined the M18.   Bliss – we kept moving and I dared hope that we might arrive before midnight.   As we progressed northwards the traffic thinned and we reached Belford at 4.15pm, which was ahead of our estimated time of arrival according to the computer, but instead of keeping to the M1 all the way to Leeds we had used the M18, which led us on to the A1M further south and this seemed to speed up the journey.

We found the A1 attractive.   Some of the scenery was beautiful, despite also going through some post – industrial landscapes.   By the time we left South Yorkshire the rain was not a problem and as we travelled further north we even saw glimpses of sunshine.  

Belford is a mile west of the A1 almost equidistant from Alnwick and Berwick – upon – Tweed .   The centre is grey brick cottages with a market square, three pubs, a fish and chip shop, a post office and two general stores.   We collected the key to our cottage and as we expected it to be basic we were pleasantly surprised to find it was scrupulously clean, with the bathroom and two bedrooms upstairs.   Alan had looked at so many possible self – catering establishments that we had become confused about the details and one we had looked at had a down stairs bath room.

We decided to stay in with fish and chip suppers for our first evening but first we inspected Bamburgh , with an impressive castle and Seahouses , with views towards Farne Islands .   The coast was supposed to be a cycling route but it was very busy and one hill was very steep.   Home to our cottage with sheep at the end of the garden, in the fields, and fish and chips cooked to order and the Last Night of the Proms.   We even left our bikes locked on the car rack overnight.


Sunday 11 th September 2005.

After a slow start to the day, I made tea and read the newspapers, Alan had a lie in then we had breakfast and set out for Bellingham and the Kielder Forest .   The route was rural, undulating, beautiful and took quite a long time.   The roads did not encourage speed and we were not in a hurry.   At one point we had seen more motor bikes than cars. As we travelled we realised the popularity of motor cycling in the area.   The countryside is wide open and empty and the roads have bends that bikers seem to enjoy.   We reached Belingham where we had hoped to stay within an hour and a half and it made us realise that we were better off with Belford as our base because it was near the coast and close to places we wanted to visit such as The Farne Islands and Holy Island .


My interest in Bellingham was that the council estate I grew up on was named after it and occasionally our post was redirected from there because the London District code of SE6 had been left off.   After Bellingham and post card buying we continued for nearly ten miles to the Kielder lake , where we ate our picnic lunch and then set out on our bikes.   We went across the dam for the first mile on a tarmac surface and then started on the forest trail, which went up and up and up.   It was a rough surface and my wheels slipped on large pebbles.   Eventually I gave up and walked. The climb had caused me to be breathless.   So we turned back from the top of the hill and made the journey down.   It felt frightening because it was very steep and my wheels continued to slip.   I was also disappointed and furious with myself for spoiling Alan's pleasure.   When we returned to the cottage he looked up that part of the route which was described as “demanding” and so I felt a bit better.   I was determined to have another go later.

The view from the top of the hill


Our other main concern was that we were low on petrol.   We returned to Bellingham and then crossed the moor to the nearest A road in the hope of finding a filling station.   As we approach the top of one steep slope we received a warning bleep that we were low on petrol.   Fortunately, we had been given a false reading of the contents of the tank because of the steepness of the hill.   On the main road the reserve changed from 24 miles (phew!) to 40.   We reached Corbridge with the only petrol station for many miles with less than 35 miles left. We meandered our way North from there on lanes with different scenery compared with the earlier dramatic views. We next took A1 back to Belford.

We chose to have a bar meal at the best local hotel which also has a restaurant.   A maudlin Irishman was at the bar regaling anyone who would listen with accounts of his terrible childhood.   He and his companions were smoking and so the bar stank and so did we by the time we had eaten.   We decided not to eat food in a smoky environment again.   We discovered that the hotel also had a bistro that was smoke free and served the same bar meals.


Monday 12 th September 2005

Soon after we had begun our journey along the A1 towards Berwick – upon – Tweed Alan suddenly dived off into a lane to inspect a cycling route to Lindisfarne .   Some roads are designated cycle ways. Cars are allowed to use them but they are quiet, often narrow lanes, and not many motorists choose to use them.   People who were not familiar with the area would need an OS map rather than a road atlas to discover them.   We went to the start of Lindisfarne causeway and decided that we would call in on our way back from Berwick, rather than return to our base and then set out with bikes.   I thought I might find it difficult to cycle all the way there and back.

We parked beside the Tweed and strolled in to Berwick, a town of viaducts and bridges.   The walk along the ramparts was delightful in warm sunshine with lovely views out to sea.  


View from the city wall

As English Heritage is responsible for the Barracks we went in, not from an interest in military history but because we were both needing a toilet! We did have a brief look at the exhibits but moved on to do some shopping before returning to the car.  

We went to Lindisfarne , known locally as Holy Island , and I was sorry that we had not at least cycled across the causeway.   The car park was crowded but still had ample room but at busy holiday times if it fills up the crowds must be awesome.   We visited the ruins of the priory and the exhibition then decided not to bother with the castle as it was passed one thirty and our insides were rumbling.   Instead we returned to our cottage for a picnic lunch.

In the afternoon we left the car behind and set out on our bikes.   After walking up the last incline of the hill out of the village, a one in six, I did not need to walk again until we returned and ascended the other side of said hill.   Our ride was glorious in warm sunshine and over achievable undulations, with a walk along a bridleway to a confrontation with some curious bullocks/steers on the other side of a gate.

The bullocks are the other side of the gate!


We ate in the Bistro of the Bluebell, free from smoke and drinkers weeping into their beer and then as Pepys would have said ‘Home to bed'.


Tuesday 13 th September 2005 

As my self confidence in my ability had been renewed yesterday we decided to return to the Kielder forest to follow a less challenging trail than the one we encountered on Sunday.   We also hoped to visit Cragside , a National Trust property, as long as we could arrive before the last entry time of 4.30 pm.   We decided not to repeat our lengthy cross country route and opted instead to travel down the A1 to Alnwick , where we decided that we must return later in the week to visit the castle, then westwards through dramatic scenery to Bellingham .   Our stop here was to post cards which we hoped would be stamped with the local post mark.   We bought steak and home made sausages from the local butcher, who like most people in this region was extremely friendly and welcoming.   This is beef country, with bullocks and steers in abundance.   We even saw a full grown bull which was separated from the cows and their calves by a road.   He seemed to be regarding them with bad – tempered longing.  

Rain had been forecast and as we approached the forest we entered low cloud.   It was damping, not pouring so we set out to explore the extent of the lake.   We drove out to Kielder village at the western edge and then returned and called in to every forest by way en route.   Finally we stopped at Leaplish and cycled in the low cloud around Bull Crag Loop, a promontory jutting into the lake.   It was a treat, not too uneven and with lovely views, which were visible despite the weather.   I tried not to use first gear because as I tried to use it as we left the car park my chain had fallen off.   However, whilst riding up hill against the wind caused me to walk and Alan took over my machine for a few yards to prove that I could change down smoothly and without losing the chain.   So I was able to cycle the rest of the way, even up the final stretch, which was up hill on the road.   The experience, apart from being a huge pleasure gave me a further feeling of elation and achievement.  

Whilst eating my lunch I spilled tomato juice on my white sweat shirt and as we were hoping to visit Cragside on the way back I didn't feel like doing it in a messy garment. As a result, while Alan was fixing the bikes back on the roof rack I went into the café/pub to order hot drinks after our damp ride. There was a small store attached selling a range of basic food and clothing.   I bought a beautifully soft sweater for £18, until I paid for it when it proved to be in the sale for half the price.   We realized that the store was a side shoot of the much larger Otterburn Mill in the village/small town of that name.  

The assistant was interesting; a champion mountain biker over Swaledale , also a fell runner in the winter.   She had a very slender top half but from her waist down her body was strongly built and well developed – not surprisingly.

We stopped of at Otterburn Mill   to buy fruit and vegetables and I happened to purchase a new fleece for £15 – bargain.

This delay meant that we did not arrive at Cragside in time to visit, by a minute, so we returned to Alnwick and attempted to follow the coast road to Seahouses . There was a closed road but we persisted in order to find out the times for the boat trips to the Farne Islands for the next day.   We stayed in for our evening meal and ate steak bought from the excellent butcher at Bellingham .


Wednesday 14 th September 2005

Soon after we were buying our tickets for a round trip of the Farne islands, which was to take us on the route of Grace Darling's rescue mission.   It was a breezy sunny day ashore but as we left the harbour the boat was bucking and rocking. I have always recognized Grace Darling as a heroine, but today the reality struck me.   With her father she rowed a boat, not in the choppy conditions that we were experiencing, but in heavy seas, a tempest, to rescue survivors on rocks in the outer Farnes , some distance from the Longstone lighthouse where her father was the keeper.   The boiler blew up on a paddle steamer heading for Scotland , which left the vessel drifting helplessly in heavy seas off Northumberland.   It foundered on rocks and out of the forty three passengers nine escaped in a life boat and were rescued further south, she and her father rescued nine other survivors and the remainder perished.   At the time she was twenty two, four years later she had died from tuberculosis.   I have a postcard of her portrait, she looks serene and beautiful.

We saw gannets with a six foot wingspan and so replete they rested on the rocks and would not fly.   Guillemots, like penguins but no Puffins because they had migrated to northern Scotland until next March.   There were also many Terns and all varieties of Gulls.

The seals inspecting us inspecting them.


We spent the afternoon strolling on small sections of the coast using the binoculars to focus on birds.   It was sunny but very windy.


Thursday 15 th September 2005

We awoke to drenching rain, but as our plans were to visit Alnwick castle and Cragside we were unperturbed.   Whilst we stopped for petrol I realized that we had forgotten the picnic lunch so we returned the three miles to the cottage to collect it.   This caused us no delay as we were only fifteen minutes journey from Alnwick , at 10. 30 am and it didn't open until 11.   We walked through pouring rain to the castle and made straight for the coffee shop, then we visited the sumptuous state rooms.   The house is still inhabited by the Percy family and has been for the past seven hundred years.   There were photographs of the present family in every room.   One famous ancestor was Harry Hotspur of Henry 1V fame.   Another was Thomas, who masterminded the Gunpowder Plot.   He was a cousin to the then Lord of Northumberland and he ran the Alnwick estate for him until 1605, for ten years.   As this year the 400 years since the non – event there was an exhibition and commentary on Thomas' life.   Before the plot was discovered he visited his cousin at Syon house, now in Brent and still owned by the Northumberland family.   As a result the Duke, who always proclaimed his innocence, was imprisoned in the Tower for seventeen years, where he lived like a Lord.   His food and drink were brought in, he had a library and did experiment in alchemy and went riding.   His cousin was hung and quartered, probably drawn as well – ouch!


The state apartments were treasure houses of paintings, sculptures, porcelain, furniture, carpets and gold and silver.   The only other part we visited was the dungeon with a grilled over oubliette and suitable agonized noises from a prisoner.   We didn't attempt to see the gardens as the weather was still unsuitable and we wished to visit Cragside .




The Treehouse at Alnwick Gardens

It took us only fifteen minutes to get there and as the weather was still miserable we picnicked in the car and then went into the house.  


It is an amazing place.   The first house in England to have hydroelectricity throughout by 1880.   It took another fifty years before our council estate caught up.   It also had a lift, an ingenious mechanical device, and a primitive dishwasher in the kitchen.   All invented by the owner.   The lower two floors had rooms of ‘homely size, but on the second floor was the ‘gallery' of astounding proportions and with an Inglenook, which could have replaced a room in some modern houses.   Up further stairs were the ‘owl apartments with en suite bathroom especially reserved for guests and Edward V11 and his wife stayed there as Prince and Princess of Wales.

There is a six mile drive around the grounds which we followed and it was obvious that a good time to visit is when the rhododendrons are in bloom.   The route took us quite high, with splendid views.

We realized that both the places we had visited today deserved a full day to be devoted to them.


Friday September 16th 2005

After a turbulent night of rain and strong winds we awoke to a wet start but by the time we set out with the bikes on the roof for Bambrugh there was no rain but the wind was so strong that I had to work hard to open the car door, because a strong north easterly was beating against it.   As the first two hundred yards or so were on a busy main road I opted to walk until our route through the lanes commenced.   It was a memorable route up hill and down dale.   We saw four cars and three workmen in the entire fifteen mile journey. Sometimes we were blown along and at others we were battling against the wind; it was exhilarating.

We returned to the cottage for lunch and then set out to ‘do' four castles – ho ho ! - .   Our expectations were that the first three were ruins and that the fourth, Bambrugh , warranted a longer visit.  

Bamburg Castle from the beach.

Our first stop, Chillingham Castle , was not a ruin and proved to be unlike anything we had previously experienced.   It had an authentic mediaeval ambience.   We could easily imagine the privations of living in a cold border castle, especially in winter.   However, reading the family history we learned that it has been in the present family since the Norman Conquest, over nine hundred years ago.   The present owner, who is married to his fourth cousin, member of the original Grey family, took it over twenty years ago and has reclaimed it from dereliction.   It is a monument to him and an interesting and intriguing place.   One ghoulish room was the torture chamber complete with various unpleasant and murderous devices all containing realistic bodies and skeletons.   The family was obviously well respected as they have entertained both Edward 1, 'Hammer of the Scots', and James 1, on his way to his coronation in London . The present owner has also r estored the Italian knot garden.

We didn't leave until four.   I wanted to see the Grace Darling museum in Bamburg but it was closed.   Instead we walked along the beach and watched a serious kite sailing enthusiast and enjoyed the pure air.


Saturday September 17th 2005 

As we had to vacate the cottage by 10 am we left promptly and made steady progress until we were just north of Leeds We came to a halt near the top of a hill which swept downhill away from us and then immediately up the other side.   Halfway up the ascending hill ahead of us, less than a mile away a large vehicle was on fire and along the hard shoulder an ambulance and several fire engines went by.   So, within a few minutes four lanes of the A1M were brought to a standstill and off course the congestion behind us must have been increasing every second.   As we were obviously going nowhere we settled down to eat our lunch – this was a first.   Alan then decided to get out and take some photographs.   We then took it in turns to view the action through our bird watching binoculars.   Unfortunately, when we had stopped at Scotch Corner the only papers available were the Financial Times, the Sun and a choice of northern local journals and papers so we could not read a newspaper.   The vehicle looked like a coach but as only the one ambulance had arrived and left quickly there seemed to be few casualties, if any.   Watching the fire crews at work helped to pass the time and the lorry driver beside us in the next lane was apparently intrigued by our antics. We thought he might have earned a pint or two in his local, describing what he seemed to think was our strange behaviour.   The fire was out within half an hour but as only one lane was open it took us another thirty minutes to pass the scene.   It turned out to be a council refuse truck, which explained it high shape and the lack of people being taken away.   Once the road was fully open we cruised home rapidly.