Sometimes you just need a day out of your busy life to appreciate the beauty of somewhere that’s actually on your own doorstep, that has a tendency to get overlooked to the detriment of cheap European city breaks and a temptation to go further afield. My recent tour of Northumberland National Park with a group of bloggers from the North East reminded me of our local treasures, and also the joys of spending a day travelling around a region, something that I did a lot when travelling around the world years ago. The familiar feelings of excitement grew in my stomach as we were taken from place to place, not quite sure what was coming next… (I admit I wasn’t sure of the exact itinerary – but sometimes ignorance is bliss and I like to be surprised)!
We were picked up opposite Newcastle Central Station and seemed to very quickly arrive in the Northumberland National Park (it’s only a thirty minute drive from Newcastle City Centre). The Park is celebrating it’s 60th year since it was officially designated as a National Park, and a wide variety of events have been planned to commemorate this anniversary. The park is over 1000km2 and attracts over 1.5 million visitors a year, a massive boost to tourism in the local area. I was amazed at how little I knew about activities and great places to visit in this part of the world, but luckily I was going to find out quite a lot over the course of the day.
The park boasts wild natural beauty and amazing countryside; the air seems cleaner and you’re instantly uplifted just by being there. There are plenty of great places to eat and stay, as well a local festivals and ancient sites to explore.
Our first stop was Rothbury which is a town situated on the eastern edge of the Park, on the river Coquet. We’d set off pretty early so a coffee was required; we stopped off at Tomlinson’s Cafe and Bunkhouse. Located in a former Grade II listed schoolhouse built in 1841 (it was also an ironmongers and a garage) we discovered the cafe’s great selection of food and drinks, its low cost bunkhouse accommodation and its growing reputation as the National Park’s cycling hub. Keen mountain bikers will appreciate a comfortable, affordable place to stay (you can get a bunk and breakfast for £25 a night) when cycling the Sandstone Way – a stunning 192 km mainly off-road biking route stretching from Hexham to Berwick on Tweed (two of Northumberland’s most picturesque towns) running to the east of the National Park.
The cafe is quirky and bike themed, and staff can help cyclists of all levels with any bike matters and advice on the route. The bunkhouse sleeps a maximum of 21 people over 3 rooms and is ideal for families, groups and independent travellers. There’s also a communal lounge where you can rest after a long day of cycling or exploring. You can hire bikes and also arrange a cycle tour with an instructor. Don’t forget to try an electric bike, and after having a go I’m trying to work out how to get one (the boost you get is great for getting up hills)!
We had a quick walk around the centre – there are lovely little shops and boutiques, quaint cottages and inviting places to eat. We passed Lordenshaws on Simonside, where you can see the spectacular cup and ring marks left by ancient civilisations, Bronze Age burial mounds and Iron Age hill forts. Anyone fascinated by prehistory will not want to miss this site. Our next stop was the Simonside Hills, where after an easy five minute climb you get a great view of the Cheviot Hills. Anyone with an interest in wildlife will appreciate the curlew, red grouse, wild goats and red squirrels.
We drove through the Grasslees Valley/Otterburn Ranges on the way to Greenhaugh. This is one of the remotest parts of Northumberland, with an array of cycling routes and walks to choose from and breathtaking views. It’s a controlled access area/military training area so watch out for the red flags! We also passed through Elsdon, the largest settlement within the boundaries of the National Park. About 250 people live in this picturesque village, which is home to Tea Rooms, an ancient Parish Church, a tower house and the remains of a castle.
Nature lovers will adore Greenhaugh and its beautiful, tranquil hay meadows. Here you’ll find fortified farmhouses known as bastles, which were built in the 16th and 17th centuries to protect the inhabitants against raiders from England and Scotland. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the hay meadows but I have become acquainted with their beauty on the National Park website and I can’t wait to visit over the summer. There are plenty of lovely walks around this village, and it’s also a designated Dark Skies Discovery Site, which means it’s ideal to do some stargazing here (more on this later).
We’d worked up a bit of an appetite by this point so we went for lunch at the Hollybush Inn, a quaint B&B/country pub. The staff were really friendly and I loved the log fire in the bar. the menu was really varied and used many local ingredients. My cassoulet was excellent, easily as good as anything I’d tried in France. They have great vegetarian options as well and even though I couldn’t manage a dessert I tried the sticky toffee pudding and it was divine! You can borrow binoculars, jackets, wooly hats and gloves if you fancy doing a bit of stargazing after dinner.
After replenishing our energy levels we set off again to check out Mestival in Hesleyside, a unique festival which involves an extremely muddy fun run for adults and children alike. We arrived during a downpour, which seemed appropriate for event, which involves participants tackling a 10km muddy challenge with hay bale obstacles, a water slide and a guarantee of ending up covered in mud by the end of it! We got to watch some of the kids run and it looked like so much fun, they were head-to-toe in mud and having mud fights (I felt sorry for the parents having to clean up the mess afterwards)!
The run goes hand-in-hand with a country festival – think live music, good food, stalls and activities aplenty in the Mestival Village (the first event of its kind in the region). Last week was the first ever Mestival and the organisers hope to see the event go from strength to strength in the future. The Village is situated in the grounds of Hesleyside Hall, a private country house and ancestral home of the Charlton family. The Hall is impressive and looks stunning inside, a perfect place for a wedding or a special overnight stay. If you’re planning on visiting the area or decide to go to Mestival next year, the Hesleyside Huts are a great, quirky place to stay if you don’t fancy camping. These luxury huts were featured on Robson Green’s ‘Tales of Northumberland’ and I cannot wait to stay here, the huts are cosy yet luxurious complete with campfires and cooking equipment and beautifully decorated.
We managed to dry off a bit before heading to the Battlesteads Hotel and Observatory in Wark on Tyne near Hexham. As I mentioned earlier, part of the Northumberland National Park has been designated as the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park (since 2013) by the International Dark Sky Association. This is Europe’s largest area of protected night sky, and it is officially the best place in England for people to stargaze. As a recently self-proclaimed astronomy geek, I was really excited by the Observatory.
Photos 2,3,4,5 and 6 courtesy of Kate-Frankie Brennan
We were introduced to Roy Alexander from Astro Ventures, a planetary physicist, teacher and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is passionate about teaching visitors about astronomy and runs talks, activities and drop-in sessions at the Observatory. We found out how to navigate our way around the sky at night looking North, and the child-like wonder I felt at school when learning about the solar system came flooding back. We were also shown how to focus binoculars (I was amazed to find that it’s quite easy after struggling to do it before) and I also touched a piece of an astroid and a piece of Mars. Roy’s passion and teaching experience clearly shone through during our short talk – the telescope in the observatory is impressive and I found myself trying to figure out when I could come back and take a peek through it. Weekly events at the observatory include Aurora Hunting, Astrophotography, Stargazing and Night Sky Tours, Shooting Star Suppers and Beginners Astronomy Classes. The Observatory has recently been awarded Dark Sky and Gaze status by Northumberland Tourism. It is literally my new favourite place!
Astronomy fans and anyone interested in learning more can stay can stay in Luxury Huts located just metres from the Observatory and enjoy superb meals in the bar and restaurant right next to it. I loved the emphasis on sustainability at Battlesteads – they have carbon-neutral heating and hot water, extensive gardens with polytunnels which provide fresh fruit and veg for the kitchen throughout the year – it has a Gold Award from the Green Tourism Business Scheme.
We reluctantly returned to the city, excited about what we had seen. I couldn’t believe the sheer number of activities and adventures on offer in the National Park. I’m already planning my next trip back! We are incredibly lucky to have an area of outstanding natural beauty on our doorstep, and hopefully those from further afield will hear about everything that it has to offer and plan a visit.
Thanks to Travel Massive for organising this fantastic trip. Travel Massive is an organisation of volunteer run, local groups connecting travel industry and bloggers/writers. It is free, open to everyone in travel and a way to connect and share globally.