Ten of the best places to visit in North East England

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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, North East EnglandAlnwick 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 Museum

Beamish Museum, North East EnglandBeamish 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

Durham Cathedral near Framwellgate BridgeDurham 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.

Farne Islands

Puffins, North East EnglandThe 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.

Holy Island

Lindisfarne Castle, North East EnglandLindisfarne – 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

Tyne Bridge, Newcastle, GatesheadNewcastle 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.

Bamburgh

Bamburgh CastleBeautiful 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

Kielder Water, North East EnglandLess 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.

Tank, Otterburn, NorthumberlandAlmost 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.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian's WallThe 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.

Warkworth Castle

Warkworth Castle, Northumberland, English HeritageThe 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.

69 thoughts on “Ten of the best places to visit in North East England

  1. Clare Pooley

    The north east of England is a favourite of ours and we have visited most the places on your list. One of our holidays was spent visiting most of the castles one after another as that was the only way we could placate our younger daughter.

  2. Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad

    Ooh, I’ve never even heard of Warkworth! Alnwick Castle has been on my list for a while, mostly for the Harry Potter association. 🙂 Holy Island looks fantastic – I’ve seen signs for it but never looked it up so I had no idea what it was like, but this has made me want to check it out. Also I was totally expecting Barnard Castle on this list, or does it not live up to the hype? 😉

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Ooops – should I have included Barnard Castle?! It is certainly a great castle, though not as good as Warkworth in my view and the visit was slightly marred by a dodgy meal/restaurant. These ‘Ten best places’ type articles are entirely subjective, of course! I think you’d love Holy Island – maybe not as spectacular as Orkney… 🙂

      1. Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad

        We’ll have to check those out! I actually have no idea about Barnard Castle, it’s just topical. 😉 (I’m trying not to make a joke about testing your eyesight with it not being as good “in your view”… :D)

  3. junedesilva

    I am sorry (ashamed?) to say that I have never been to NE England, at least not yet! I have long been aware of all the beautiful places to explore in this particular area and your post makes me want to discover them even more. Perhaps with foreign travel looking less appealing and a new puppy (!) arriving next week, there will be many reasons to visit, sooner rather than later.

      1. junedesilva

        And from Surrey! It’s been 4 years since our last dog, so I am beside myself with excitement. He’s a Border Collie, so should love beaches.

  4. Michelle Ann

    This area of England is probably the one considered least touristy, but your post shows what an amazing variety of interesting places are available to visit. Must plan a holiday there one day!

  5. Lesley

    Good memories of visits made to all except for Walkworth. Durham Cathedral was where old family friends were married and a worshipper and cricket fan used to ponder if the Aisle matting would ‘take spin’.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Memories help make us, don’t they? Love the idea of using the Cathedral for a cricket match. Warkworth is great – wonderful chocolate shop (a shop that sells chocolate, rather than one made of it).

  6. Jean Whitehead

    I have been to all the places you mentioned they are all wonderful especially the coast. My husband came from the Newcastle-upon-Tyne and took my to all these beautiful places, it was a treat for a London born girl. I miss it.

  7. Alli Templeton

    Hi Mike, some of my absolute favourite places here, and I was really looking forward to going back to visit them on our holiday in Northumberland this year. Sadly, of course, it wasn’t to be, so looking forward to seeing them all next year instead. In the meantime, it was good to see your lovely photos of them instead. Hope you’re keeping well and sane. 🙂

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      So many disrupted plans, Alli – but of course that’s the least of it, really. Yes, hanging onto sanity – always a challenge! Hope you are all staying safe and well – and thank you for dropping in.

      1. Alli Templeton

        Thanks Mike. Having to ban myself from blogging intermittently at the moment while I do the last two modules of my degree (last one starts October, hopefully). It’s all been getting a bit intense, especially with all that’s been going on. We’re fine, thanks, but emotionally drained with all this madness. Looking forward to Northumberland next year, although I doubt my photos will be any match for yours! 🙂

  8. hilarymb

    Thanks Mike … I’ve been to a few … I had a memorable holiday with my father in the 70s … he’d been at school with a Percy … and we stayed at Alnmouth, visiting a few other sites … the weather was bliss – actually too hot … but a great introduction with my Dad. Take care – Hilary

  9. mekslibrarian

    Ah, if only it were possible to get over to the UK! Actually, my sister and I were scheduled to begin our annual Yorkshire Holiday today… but of course, apart from not even getting a flight, we would have to sit in our cottage for two weeks of quarantine and then head straight back home as our holiday and lease of the cottage would then be up… And much as we love our cottage in Ripon, we don’t love it THAT much.
    By the way, a while ago I have finally downloaded the ebook version of your book. It will keep me company on many train trips!

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Ah – I’ll suggest 10 of the best in Yorkshire at some point; you can tell me where you disagree! Shame about the travel situation – as I said below, we won’t get back to normality until we have a vaccine. Thank you very much for buying the book – I hope you enjoy it and it raises the occasional smile. Let me know what you think of it – reviews on Amazon and/or Goodreads gratefully received!

  10. SueW

    My youngest was at university in Newcastle, and my eldest grandson is also a student there. It’s nine years since my son finished university and we’ve been saying ever since that it’s time for another visit to the North East, I love the area

  11. andyabcdef

    I guess Hadrian thought that the Scots and the Picts hadn’t heard of ladders then. Truly stunning castles.

      1. andyabcdef

        In those days the cost would have been in the grain to feed the slave labour and a bit of centurian management time thrown in for good measure. Perhaps it was the trade in ladders across the border that they were trying to control ! Devious those Romans. I would have been up there writing “Romans they go to the house!” any chance I got!

  12. artandarchitecturemainly

    Although I lived two years in the SE corner of Britain, I tried to visit other parts in Summer Academies during later long July holidays. Durham was a delight. Probably living under the all-powerful bishops of Durham would have been problematic, but it led to a well developed and unified city with its own parliament, fairs, markets and courts. Even an early university.

  13. Ellen

    Sorry to report we had to cancel our trip to Oxford in September. Not the easiest time to travel especially if you are over 65. Still hope to be able to reschedule sometime in the next couple of years if British Airways gives us a travel voucher. Always enjoy your Bits about Britain.

  14. pennyhampson2

    It’s one of the few parts of Britain I haven’t explored yet. Having read your article it’s definitely moving up my list! Thanks, Hugh.

  15. Eunice

    I got lost in Warkworth Castle a few years ago trying to find the way out 🙂 I missed out on the Hermitage though as I didn’t know about it at the time 🙁 I like your photo of Beamish, it’s an excellent shot – I’ve never been but it looks and sounds very interesting. One for the future maybe 🙂

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks, Eunice. I loved Warkworth, but also missed out on the Hermitage – it was closed. The Beamish photo isn’t one of mine, but it is a good shot. The sort of place to spend a day in and still not see everything.

      1. markspitzerdesigns

        You’re right about golf courses, though some of the links courses in that part of the world have spectacular settings along the coasts. I played some of them a few years ago, though technically they were in Scotland, like North Berwick.
        https://markspitzerdesigns.wordpress.com/category/golf-scotland/north-berwick-and-glen/ Have a look.
        As for Vera – one of the best BritBox offerings we get. We’re always wondering where the incredible settings they use are located – her cottage home in the middle of “nowhere” for instance.

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