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Frankly, you’ll be spoiled for choice if you’re looking for things to see and do in North East England. From dramatic, wild coast and countryside, to wildlife, castles, Roman remains, the simple grandeur of Durham and the culture and vibrancy of Newcastle upon Tyne, there is something for everyone. To start you off, here is a selection of 10 of the best places to visit:
Alnwick Castle & Garden
Alnwick Castle dates from the 11th century and has been in the hands of the Percy family, the Dukes of Northumberland, since the 14th century. The castle is one of the most visited in England, steeped in the Percy family history with gruesome discoveries to be made as well as magnificent state rooms. It is often used for filming and has starred in Harry Potter and Downton Abbey, for example. The castle also houses a number of special exhibitions, including the Regimental Museum of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. Adjacent to the castle is the Alnwick Garden, a formal garden built around a huge cascading fountain and featuring one of the most astonishing tree houses you will ever see. Website for Alnwick Castle.
Beamish is an astonishing open air museum, telling the story of life in North East England during the 1820s, 1900s & 1940s. It was the vision of Dr Frank Atkinson, the museum’s founder and first director, who could see the industrial heritage of the north east fading away and set out to preserve it. So, in 300 acres on the site of a Durham coalfield, you will find a town from the 1900s, a pit village, colliery, Edwardian railway, 1940s farm – and more. Many of the buildings have been painstakingly relocated from their original sites and rebuilt; others are faithful replicas. There are thousands of exhibits, many of them working, and the museum is further brought to life with the help of costumed re-enactors. Website for the Beamish Museum.
Durham Cathedral’s official name is ‘the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham’. It is the home of the shrine of St Cuthbert and burial place of the Venerable Bede. The cathedral, along with Durham Castle, occupies a rocky promontory high above the river Wear – originally an excellent defensive position, now merely dramatic and picturesque. It was founded in 1093 and the outstanding architectural features (probably) are the massive, soaring, Romanesque/Norman arches in the nave. There’s a wonderful simplicity about Durham Cathedral.
The Bishops of Durham – ‘the Prince Bishops’ used to wield temporal, as well as spiritual, power and effectively ruled the diocese for 850 years. That did not stop Oliver Cromwell using the Cathedral to hold 3,000 Scots prisoners after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650; many of them died within the Cathedral. Durham Cathedral, along with the adjacent Castle, is a World Heritage Site.
The Farne Islands are located a few miles off the Northumbrian coast and are known for their wildlife and association with St Cuthbert. In summer, the islands are home to some 150,000 breeding pairs of seabirds – most famously, puffins; but razorbills, guillemots and eider ducks are also among the around 23 different varieties of birds that can be seen there. The islands are also home to the largest breeding colony of grey, or Atlantic, seals in England; about 1,000 pups are born there every autumn. There are 28 islands but only 3 can be visited – Inner Farne, Staple Island and Longstone Island. Inner Farne and Staple are owned by the National Trust. St Cuthbert, who is pretty much patron saint of the North of England, lived on Inner Farne as a hermit in the 7th century; his chapel on the island dates from the 14th century. Young Victorian heroine Grace Darling lived with her family on Longstone Rock, where her father was lighthouse keeper. It was from there that she and her father set out in their small open boat to rescue survivors from the stricken SS Forfarshire which had struck Big Harcar rock in 1838. Visit Northumberland website.
Lindisfarne – also known as Holy Island – is a tidal island and village packed with history, as well as being famous for its mead. It is one of the most important centres of early English Christianity. King Oswald invited Celtic monks from Iona to spread Christianity in Northumbria and St Aidan founded a monastery on Lindisfarne in 635 AD. St Cuthbert joined the monastery sometime in the 670s and went on to become Lindisfarne’s greatest monk-bishop and the most venerated saint in northern England in the Middle Ages. The Lindisfarne Gospels were created here in the early 8th century. The monks left following violent Viking attacks and today’s visible priory ruins (English Heritage) date from the early 12th century. Next to the old priory is the fascinating parish church of St Mary the Virgin. On the south east corner of the island is Lindisfarne Castle (National Trust), which began life as a defensive fort in the mid-16th century and was bought by Edward Hudson, the owner of Country Life magazine in 1901, who had it completely refurbished by Sir Edwin Lutyens as a holiday home. Beyond the main attractions are views and walks and places to eat – but beware: Holy Island is only accessible at certain times via a causeway across the sea that is covered twice a day and the tides come in very quickly. Visit Northumberland website.
Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle occupies the north bank of the Tyne, opposite the town of Gateshead. It was a fortress town, named for its 11th century Norman castle. A thousand years earlier, the Romans built a fort to guard their bridge over the Tyne – Pons Aelius. From the Middle Ages, it became known for its coal exports, and in later centuries came engineering, steel and shipbuilding; Tyneside was famed throughout the world for its ships. In modern post-industrial times, Newcastle upon Tyne has become renowned as a party town, with lively clubs, pubs and restaurants making it a magnet for hen parties and stag nights. But it also has a thriving and less boisterous cultural side, with dynamic music, theatre and art scenes and noteworthy museums. The Discovery Museum explores the area’s maritime, scientific and technological significance; The Life Science Centre is an interactive science village with a planetarium, themed shows and a 4D ‘motion ride’; The Great North Museum is a refurbished Victorian museum with natural history and Hadrian’s Wall displays; The Centre for Contemporary Art occupies a former grain warehouse on the Gateshead side of the river. Then there’s the medieval castle (bizarrely bisected by the main north-south railway line), St Nicholas’ Cathedral and Bessie Surtees’ House (two houses dating from 16th and 17th centuries). Or wander through the elegant city centre to Earl Grey’s Monument, or take in the family-friendly Sunday market along Quayside. Visit Newcastle website.
Beautiful sandy beaches, dramatic scenery and wildlife are all features of coastal North East England. You’ll find them, along with interesting – and sometimes attractive, towns and villages, all the way north from Hartlepool. Forced to pick just one to visit, I settled on Bamburgh. Fortified since ancient times, its castle – standing on a massive, 180-foot (55 metres) high lump of basalt – is one of Northumbria’s most iconic images. Once a stronghold of Northumbrian kings, and restored by Victorian arms manufacturer William Armstrong*, it is open to the public. But Bamburgh is an attractive little village in its own right, with plenty of watering holes, the RNLI Grace Darling Museum and the Church of St Aiden. Its beach is simply wonderful; if not always warm enough for bathing, it is lovely to walk along, paddling as you go, or for quick kick-about with the kids. Bamburgh website.
Northumberland National Park
Less than an hour from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland National Park was established in 1956 and covers an area of over 400 square miles. Hadrian’s Wall runs through the southern part of the park. Further north is Kielder Forest (which is administered separately from the National Park), reputedly the largest man-made forest in England, and Kielder Water, Europe’s largest artificial lake. Straddling the border between England and Scotland are the Cheviots, a range of hills that rise to 2674 feet (815 metres) at the Cheviot, the highest hill, and parts of which are bleak and remote. It is serious walking country, with several well-mapped trails.
Almost a quarter of the National Park is owned by the Ministry of Defence and used as a military training area. It is accessible at specified times and, as you can see, can contain some things not normally stumbled across when out for your daily leg-stretch. Northumberland National Park is famous for its lack of light pollution – it contains the largest area of protected night sky in Europe. Principal settlements in Northumberland National Park are Hexham, Haltwhistle, Bellingham, Rothbury and Wooler – all worth a visit. Northumberland National Park website.
Kielder Forest Park website.
The North East is packed with evidence of the Roman occupation, but pride of place must go to the Wall, which stretched 73 miles (118 km) from the Solway Firth in the west to Wallsend in the east. The Emperor Hadrian ordered its construction in 120 AD to defend the north-west border of the Empire. Troops were stationed at milecastles along its length and forts were later built at 5 mile (8 km) intervals. It was abandoned in the late 4th century. Much of it remains and it is possible to walk the entire length, if you’re that way inclined. There are multiple sites that can be visited, many of them in the care of English Heritage. The best preserved site along the wall is Housesteads Fort. At Vindolanda, where there is also a fascinating museum, excavations are ongoing and can be observed. To the far east, at Wallsend, is the site of Segedunum – which lay underneath Wallsend’s shipbuilding community until the houses were demolished to expose the foundations of the fort. Hadrian’s Wall is a World Heritage Site.
The turbulent history of the north of England has left the remains of many castles. Warkworth is a favourite – partly because its village is so lovely. Once a favourite residence of the powerful Percy family, Warkworth Castle and village occupy a natural defensive position on a spur in the River Coquet, about a mile from the sea. The Percys were involved in many feuds and plots, not least playing a key part in the Wars of the Roses. Though ruined, their castle at Warkworth displays more than a hint of its previous grandeur, with rich heraldic carvings, including the great lion of the Percys looking down from the 14th century great tower, beautiful Gothic-style windows and grand rooms. The 4th Earl even planned to build a church inside the castle walls – though it was never finished. Warkworth also features in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Nearby and included in the entrance fee, is the Hermitage – a medieval chapel carved out of rock and accessible (at limited times) only by boat.
So those are some of the best places to visit in North East England. Helpful links to more information have been included in this piece. You will also find inspiration from the Attraction Directory, which lists most of the places listed above, as well as by browsing articles categorised ‘north east’ on the website.