‘The English don’t want us and the Scottish won’t have us.’ That phrase sums Northumberland’s history up in a nutshell. For centuries the county was a bloody buffer zone between the two great nations.
The important coastal town of Berwick-upon-Tweed has changed hands no less than thirteen times and the countryside was repeatedly burned and harried as armies marched over the ground and fired it into a smoking wasteland. The Northumbrian people also waged war on themselves in organised violent family gangs known as the Border Reivers – the original Mafia. Think Goodfellas with leather jerkins and steel bonnets instead of Armani suits, Northumbrian accents instead of Italian and lamb stew instead of meatballs and tomato sauce. The Robsons, Charltons, Fenwicks, Forsters and Milburns were just some of the prominent local Reiving families specialising in cattle theft, robbery and murder. They gave the words ‘blackmail’ and ‘bereave’ to the English language. The Romans were the first to find the people of the area, who were then known as the Votadini, so difficult to control that they built a wall stretching from sea to sea in an awesome display of power and authority. There are also some that reckon Northumberland is where the famous Ninth Legion vanished.
Their golden eagle standard is possibly out there somewhere, buried in a remote peat bog on one of the bleak purple hillsides. The county has its own tartan, a black and white checked plaid known as the Shepherd’s Tartan, and a small bagpipe that is played under the arm.
The county flag of the independent, yet warmly welcoming people, features red and yellow stripes which you will see flying from many buildings. Much of Northumberland is a National Park and the stretch up the north coast is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There is an abundance of wildlife that thrives in the tough wilderness of crags, moors, hills and valleys. The Farne Islands, just off the coast, are a sanctuary for 37,000 pairs of puffin and hosts one of England’s largest grey seal colonies. There are also cormorants, gulls, terns, guillemots and razorbills on the grey, high exposed white guano-splattered rocks. You can pay the islands a visit on boat trips from Seahouses. There is a herd of ancient wild white cattle at Chillingham, wild goats in Kidland Forest and the density of Kielder Forest has protected the native red squirrel population.
Otters, badgers and foxes are all found in the county and there is the occasional ‘big cat’ sighting too. The human population density is just 62 persons per square kilometre, giving the county the lowest population density in England. Plenty of space to think and walk here. Northumberland is, however, packed with history and littered with castles and battlefields, as well as some of the best – and quietest – beaches in the UK. They would be ideal for beach soccer tournaments but for one thing – the climate. The cheerleaders’ legs would go blue when a bracing breeze came whipping in off the cold grey North Sea! That’s something to bear in mind as you undertake the family-friendly walks in this book. It can get cold, wet and windy in the county, so remember to pack appropriate gear. Good walking boots will also help and a hot flask is always welcome. When the Vikings were charging off their longboats to terrorise the monks at Lindisfarne with battleaxes, they at least made sure that they’d come prepared. There are five major long-distance walking routes in Northumberland – The Hadrian’s Wall Path, The Pennine Way, St Cuthbert’s Path, Northumberland Coastal Path and St Oswald’s Way – as well as many days of excellent fell-walking in the rolling Cheviot Hills which straddle the border country. This book leaves those challenges to more experienced walkers; the routes that feature here don’t aim to be feats of endurance, but refreshing daytrips that include some of Northumberland’s finest points of interest and local history along the way. While it is unlikely you will need an Ordnance Survey map for the easier coastal walks in this book, for most routes – especially those in upland areas – putting one in your rucksack is advisable. The sketch maps provided are for rough guidance only. If walking alone, you should also tell someone where you are going, what your route will be and when you expect to return.
While the main towns in this guide are all accessible by rail and bus, the starting point for some of the walks can only be accessed by car. Please remember when parking in rural areas to be considerate of people who live and work there and, in particular, take care not to block gates.
Large areas of Northumberland National Park are accessible to the public as a result of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW). This means that you can now walk freely on designated ‘Access Land’ without having to stay on rights of way. Up-to-date information about access land, where you can go and what you can do is available on the Countryside Access website. Open Access Land across the National Park is clearly mapped on all the new Ordnance Survey Explorer Series maps, which were revised in time for the commencement of this new right. Look out for the waymarking symbols that show when you are entering or leaving Access Land.