Despite being one of the most picturesque counties in the UK, Northumberland seems to have escaped the tourist hordes and has retained its wonderfully wild, remote appeal. Laying just below the Scottish border, it’s one of those places that always seems to take longer to get to than you expect, which is a good thing. We always feel like we’re properly on holiday when we come to Northumberland for a weekend, even though we only live a few hours away. The rugged coastline is punctuated with wide sandy beaches, usually with hardly anyone else on them, whilst castles keep watch from their lofty perches on rocky volcanic outcrops overlooking the North Sea. Endless green countryside stretches for miles, interrupted here and there with farm shops selling homemade cake, and villages that just ooze charm with their old stone houses and tiny fishing harbours.
If it’s your first time in Northumberland, this is what we suggest you see and do:
A Perfect Weekend in Northumberland
Check into your accommodation for the weekend, and relax after what has probably been a fairly long journey. For something a bit luxurious and quirky, we suggest checking out the Cookie Jar in Alnwick. It’s a former convent that has been transformed into a stylish small boutique hotel, with decadent furnishings and free in-room cookies! The star of the show is the indulgent Chapel suite, with lofty arched ceilings, a copper roll-top bath and stained glass windows! The small yet elegant bistro is open for dinner at weekends, and does a rather tasty afternoon tea.
If you’re looking for something a little cheaper and want to be right on the coast, we recommend Fenham Farm B&B at Beal on the mainland, overlooking Holy Island. The farm lies within an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and has walks right from the door out through fields, along leafy lanes, and beside the coast. Owners Gill and Walter are super friendly, and rustle up delicious homemade breakfasts in the Granary each morning. The bedrooms are bright and airy, with blue sea-themed decor in old renovated farm buildings.
After breakfast head out to the quaint fishing village of Craster on the coast about seven miles north of Alnwick. There’s a pay and display car park here just a short walk from the village. After admiring the colourful fishing boats bobbing in the harbour, take a gentle 1.3 mile walk along the coastal path to the ruined castle of Dunstanburgh which stands on a remote windswept headland. The castle is moody and imposing, with a dramatic clifftop setting and far-reaching views along the beach below. Built in the 14th Century and surviving the War of the Roses, Dunstanburgh Castle is one of the most scenically located sites in all of Northumberland. It’s jointly owned by the National Trust and English Heritage so if you’re a member of either, you’ll get in free.
Back in the village check out the smokehouse and try some of the legendary Craster Kippers if that’s your thing and you’re feeling peckish after a blast of fresh sea air!
If you have time and enjoy admiring plants and sipping tea, then just south of Craster you’ll find Howick Hall Gardens and Arboretum, the ancestral seat of the Earls Grey (yes, of tea fame!). The estate covers 65 acres, and strolling through the gardens and arboretum is a great way to work up an appetite for a bite to eat in the Earl Grey Tearoom. Unfortunately the hall itself is closed to visitors.
Next head to the famous Barter Books in the centre of Alnwick town. This glorious secondhand bookshop is housed in the old Victorian Railway Station, complete with shelves of ancient books and old maps, comfy armchairs for you to curl up in, and a cute little cafe serving light bites for lunch. You’re welcome to get stuck into a hearty tome whilst you’re here, and if you want to buy anything you can either pay the usual way, or barter with a book that you’ve brought with you, which is much more fun! Keep an eye out for the model train that trundles around above your head
Next up is the impressive Alnwick Castle, one of the most iconic sights on this part of the coast, and home to the Dukes of Northumberland for centuries. You might recognise it as being a filming location for several well-known movies and TV dramas, including Harry Potter, Downton Abbey, and one of my personal favourites, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Wizarding fans can take part in a broomstick training session, whilst period drama aficionados will enjoy guided tours of the lavish state rooms.
Stretching out for 12 acres beside the castle are the extensive Alnwick Gardens, including a rather unique ‘Poison Garden’ full of dangerous plants which can only be visited with a guide. A peaceful place to spend a sunny afternoon, the gardens are full of rose beds, cherry blossoms and swinging benches.
For a unique dinner experience, try the Treehouse Restaurant which is located between the castle and gardens, in one of the largest treehouses in the world. Be sure to book ahead as it is popular.
Before visiting the Holy Island of Lindisfarne you need to check the tide timetable to work out when the causeway (the only access!) is safe to cross. You should allow at least a couple of hours on the island so make sure you give yourselves enough time to return again! Back in 635 AD St. Aidan founded his monastery on the island, and you can still see the remains of the priory today after it was destroyed by Henry VIII during his Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Lindisfarne Gospels, which were created right here on the island, can be seen in the Heritage Centre.
Once a 16th Century fort and later a lookout then a holiday home, the main draw of the island is Lindisfarne Castle, which is now open to visitors. As castles go, it’s pretty small, but the views out over the surrounding island and back towards the mainland are incredible on a clear day. Personally our favourite part of exploring the island was discovering the old overturned fishing boats that are now used as sheds. Best man caves ever! Pop into Pilgrims Coffee for a cuppa and a bite to eat, and don’t forget to stock up on locally brewed honey mead at St. Aidan’s Winery.
Your final excursion should be to Bamburgh, and the castle perched dramatically on a volcanic rocky outcrop overlooking the North Sea. There has been a fort or castle here since pre-historic times, living through Viking raids, the Norman Conquest and the War of the Roses. Now owned and still lived in by the Armstrong family, visitors can walk through the grand state rooms, stroll through the grounds and even see the remains of a Spitfire plane in the aviation museum on site. Bamburgh Castle has been used as a filming location for old screen favourites such as El Cid and Ivanhoe, so keep your eyes peeled for some familiar scenes.
If you have time after the castle, check out the Grace Darling Museum, or head down to the beach for some fresh air and maybe a spot of hide and seek in the dunes!