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Northumberland - The author’s take
Going Slow in Northumberland
The beach at Alnmouth © Dave Head Shutterstock
It encourages visitors to seek out the unobvious, explore footpaths, railway trails, byways and B-roads – and linger awhile.
A comprehensive and independent guide to Northumberland seemed to be missing on the travel shelves of bookshops labelled ‘North’ before the first edition of this book was published in 2012. I hope this guide continues to fill that gap and offer something a little different in its approach. It’s far-reaching in its scope: from the Tyne to the Tweed and encompassing Newcastle and its hinterlands; the bays, islands and fortresses along the coast; Hadrian’s Wall; the Cheviot Hills and the North Pennine fringes. There’s a strong leaning towards places with heritage appeal, adventures on foot and by bicycle, the lesser known and the outdoors.
But what about that word ‘Slow’? It’s a deliberate nod to the Slow Food and Slow Tourism movements and you’ll find these pages embrace a similar ethos in their celebration of local distinctiveness, vernacular architecture, regional flavours and simple pleasures. Try to seek out the unobvious, explore footpaths, railway trails, byways and B-roads – and linger awhile.
I spent a year researching and writing the first edition of this guide and another six months updating it, which involved revisiting my favourite spots and picking through the hills and coastline in search of the hidden and unsung corners of Northumberland. Friends, relatives and contacts provided tips and suggestions, but many of the curious and more unusual places peppered in these pages were gleaned by cycling the back roads, chatting to locals, driving along unclassified lanes, going for a wander and, most of all, having a nosey around.
Some places may be too obscure, unconventional or out of the way to tempt many visitors, but even if you don’t seek them out, I hope you enjoy reading about them. Sometimes it’s nice just to know that attractions like the Cement Menagerie in Branxton and Prudhoe’s manmade chalk grasslands exist; and to imagine as you read these words that Rapper sword dancers are practising upstairs in Byker’s Cumberland Arms, a Northumbrian piper is playing a centuries-old ballad in Morpeth Chantry, and the primeval stone faces depicting the Green Man in Old Bewick’s church are gnashing their teeth at worshippers as they have done for hundreds of years.
The author’s story
There really are few places in England where you can wander alone in the countryside like this and it’s undoubtedly one of the county’s greatest draws.
‘I like it cold’ wrote W H Auden, the ‘Pennine Poet’. His words strike a chord with me, having grown up in Newcastle and having studied at the universities of Edinburgh and Lund, Sweden. Sunny, cool and wild – that’s my kind of place. Northumberland is often all of those things.
In revisiting old haunts as well as places I knew less well for this update, I often reported home that I’d walked for half a day in the Cheviot Hills, over a Pennine Moor or along one of my favourite remote beaches (Ross Back Sands, for example) and only encountered the odd person and occasionally no-one at all. There really are few places in England where you can wander alone in the countryside like this and it’s undoubtedly one of the county’s greatest draws.
Northumberland is wild in another sense, too, and I’m also fascinated by those buildings that evoke the rough, lawless centuries during invasions from the north and at the height of clan warfare in the 16th and early 17th centuries: the shattered bastle houses of Redesdale, fortified manor houses in the Tyne Valley, and Northumberland’s medieval castles. The buildings that deeply affect me, though, are the uniform rows of Victorian red-brick terraces you see across Tyneside and in a number of Northumbrian towns and villages. When the East Coast Main Line train nears Newcastle and before the Tyne Bridge comes into view, they are the first buildings that tell me I’m home.