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Posts Tagged ‘Northumberland’

Adventures in Bookland: Northumberland by Gemma Hall

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

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This is the second Bradt Slow Travel guide we’ve used, after their guide to the North York Moors by Mike Bagshaw. In common with the first, it provides a wealth of detail, digging deep down below the guide book surface and, in the process, revealing an author who really does know the area well. As I know Northumberland pretty well myself (four books, many magazine articles and frequent trips), I was looking for something detailed to provide some new perspectives on the county. Hall’s book does do this, particularly with respect to wildlife and walking – her love for both shines through – but, with a three year old whose legs stop working after walking for five minutes, we unfortunately weren’t able to follow the suggested walks on this visit.

I would rate the North York Moors guide as slightly better, but I think that’s largely because the author’s interests mapped more closely onto my own. But for any visitor to Northumberland, this is now the stand-out guide to the area.

England’s Last Wilderness

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

This article first appeared in TNT magazine.

Northumberland, the most sparsely populated county in England, is the nearest thing to wilderness south of Scotland. There are only 63 people per square kilometre and, standing on a mile of pristine beach, with a castle brooding over the shore and hills fringing the horizon, I wonder why. Then the wind starts. Ten minutes later, I’m sandblasted from the beach. So that’s why no one comes here.

Puffins on the Farne Islands

Puffins on the Farne Islands

Well, no. It’s not just the weather, though a typical Northumbrian day will include four seasons, a taste of an Ice Age and half an hour trying to see the hand in front of your face when the sea fog (sea fret as the locals call it) rolls in. Northumberland is border land, it’s been border land since the Romans came up here, decided they’d gone far enough and built a wall, and its history dictates its present in a way unknown elsewhere in England.

There’s no better way to understand history than digging it up, and with the Bamburgh Research Project (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk, from £171 per week) I could do just that. The BRP is an ongoing archaeological project, open to volunteers, excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle. If there’s a more spectacular place to do archaeology, I don’t know it. The castle squats on a huge great hunk of dolerite, an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill that formed 295 million years ago when magma squeezed between two layers of softer rock and set hard. Since then, the soft rock has been eroding away, and outcrops of the Great Whin Sill form some of the key landscape features of the north, including High Force waterfall in Durham and the Farne Islands, a couple of miles out into the North Sea from Bamburgh.

Digging for understanding

Digging for understanding

“You can tell by the sound your trowel makes what you’re digging through. Grit is hard and clacking, sand is abrasive and scraping, clay produces a smooth hiss.” Paul Gething, co-founder and co-director of the BRP, sits back on his haunches and explains to the week’s intake of volunteers what we need to look – and listen for – as we excavate. Among the amateur archaeologists are students gaining credits for archaeology degrees, a seventy-year-old inspired by Time Team and those inspired by what Paul calls “the raw power of the past”. Most spend the week camping with the archaeologists at a nearby camp site, juddering in to the castle each morning in a bumpy Land Rover before spending the day digging with increasingly finely graded implements (culminating in the gingerly wielded toothbrush that I used to scrape sand from a tibia emerging from a rediscovered graveyard), sifting excavated materials through flotation tanks, and tagging and bagging the day’s finds (from the ubiquitous bones and pottery, through stycas – Northumbrian coins – to exquisite pieces of gold jewellery).

Yeavering Bell

Yeavering Bell

But if you’re the sort of person who finds even the handful of people on the beach at Bamburgh too invasive, head inland. In the lee of the Cheviot Hills is Ad Gefrin. It’s a field now, but it was once the summer palace of the kings of Northumbria. Looming over Ad Gefrin, the conical hill of Yeavering Bell is also testament to the illusions of power. During the Iron Age, the greatest chieftain of the land built a fort atop the hill, its great, tumbledown stone ramparts still crowning the summit. But the chieftain is forgotten, his people gone and, as I stand on the summit, I reflect that I have not seen another human being all day. And, rubbing aching legs, that our ancestors must have had thighs like bloody tree trunks.

Watched bird bites back

Watched bird bites back

A mile out from Bamburgh and accessible by boat from Seahouses (www.farne-islands.com, from £13), the Farne Islands provide a clucking, hissing cornucopia of life: 37,000 pairs of puffins, 50,000 guillemots, more than 20 other species of birds and 6,000 grey seals. St Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the island in the seventh century, when he instituted laws for the protection of Eider ducks and nesting birds; the National Trust rangers that live on the islands today continue his work. There’s stiff competition for the posts, but the eleven rangers, who remain on the islands for nine months from April to November, have as raw an experience of nature as anyone in Britain.

But that’s Northumberland: England’s last wilderness.

Recommendations

Eat

Seahouses has a number of establishments vying for the title of best fish and chips shop in the north east. Neptune Restaurant (www.neptunefishandchips.co.uk, from £7.95 for cod and chips, with pot of tea and bread and butter) is one of the main contenders. The Copper Kettle Tearooms (www.copperkettletearooms.com, mains from £4.95) in Bamburgh cooks its home prepared food fresh each day, so can run out in the afternoon – get there early.

Drink

Most Northumbrian pubs serve hearty food, but a good pint can be had at the Castle Inn (http://castleinnbamburgh.co.uk/, pints from £3) in Bamburgh and the backdrop is hard to beat. Local pubs can be insular, but the Victoria Hotel (www.victoriahotel.net, from £3.40) is friendly and doesn’t demur when BRP students spend hours over a single coffee while using its free WiFi.

Stay

Up the coast from Bamburgh, Pot-A-Doodle Do Wigwam Village (www.northumbrianwigwams.com, from £15 per person per night) provides accommodation in wooden wigwams, with three yurts thrown in for good measure. The living quarters at St. Cuthbert’s House (www.stcuthbertshouse.com, from £90 for a double), a renovated 200-year-old chapel, are considerably more luxurious. Their breakfasts, locally sourced, are wonderful.

Travel Northumberland

Friday, March 14th, 2014

I first wrote this article for Time Out magazine. Since our first son was one at the time, it’s older than I thought!

Bamburgh Castle and beach - at high tide!

Bamburgh Castle and beach – at high tide!

‘It’s perfect, isn’t it?’ My gesture took in not one but two castles, three lighthouses and a beach, broad and empty as the moon.

‘If perfection includes sand blasting and freezing water,’ said my wife.

And there you have it in a nutshell. The Northumberland coast produces extreme reactions. People either think it the most wonderful place they’ve ever seen, and make annual visits as faithfully as the pilgrims to Holy Island, or they get on a plane to a country where toes dipped in the sea don’t turn blue, and wind defences are not a prerequisite for a day at the beach.
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It’s Here!!!!

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Now, pdfs and all the other technological and digital whizz bangs that allow files and pictures to be shared between computers and tablets and pills and potions and what not are all very well, but, believe me, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to compare with holding the first paper copy of the book you’ve spent the last three years working on in your hands.

There it is, pictures, words, the whole blessed shebang: a real, actual, frankly all-but-breathing thing! You can take your Kindles and your iPads and all the other devices that depend on moving electrons around and shove them. Give me paper, give me vellum, give me inky fingers and pages you can flick through marvelling at the pictures, the design, the way the words sit upon the page.

So, here it is, Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, held in my slightly shaky hands!

In my hands.

 

 

 

Northumbria is Middle-earth

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Now, as you may know (and if you don’t, I’ll need to make my self-advertisement even more blatant), my ebook on Tolkien, Professor Tolkien of Oxford, has just come out, and my old-fashioned paper book on the history and archaeology of Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom is out 1 October. What I had not known before is that other eyes than mine have seen the connection between the two. When places are touted as the inspiration for Middle-earth, the areas around Birmingham where Tolkien grew up (which were then bucolic expanses of greenery rather than suburbs) usually win out. But, it turns out, and this will not be a surprise to visitors, Northumberland fits better today. For the poster for The Hobbit features Gandalf striding across the Shire, but the backdrop is Northumberland. The ruined castle to the right of centre is Edlingham Castle. The hills are the Simonside Hills, according to folklore the home of dwarves, the duergar, who lead travellers astray.

So, Northumbria is Middle-earth. I knew it!