Castle country

Looking to get away from it all while staying in the UK? Try some castle hunting in Northumberland


England’s ‘castle country’ is a land rich in tales of Vikings, warriors and ‘Border Reivers’, and with my own tribe packed into the car, I was ready to follow their example and attack Northumberland with gusto.

Like many in the UK, our flights and holidays abroad had been cancelled for 2020, so we were looking for a new part of Britain to discover, with plenty for kids to do but still letting us avoid the worst of the crowds.

Northumberland, being in driving distance of most of the country’s major cities (including our own home of Aberdeen), was ideal, with beaches and coast to explore along with those castles, the most of any county in England.

With Covid in mind, we checked into a cute (and socially distanced) self-catering cottage in the seaside town with the endearing name of Seahouses.

The kind of place where our kids could clamber over dramatic rock formations, buy doughnuts on the pier and walk the harbour walls, its relaxed feel and old-fashioned fun belie the historical volatility of an area so close to the Scottish border, a seat of power for Celts and Kings, rife with political struggle and conflict.

So where better to start than the bucket-list fortress of Bamburgh Castle nearby, which dominates the skyline for miles around?

My boys naturally fell into the character of tiny soldiers marching to man the cannons, stomping to guard the watch towers, and patrolling the castle walls as the North Sea winds whipped their shrieks into the air, ably following in the footsteps of the region’s first Anglo-Saxon king, Ida the Flamebearer (fantastic name), and his grandson Aethelfrith ‘The Destroyer’ (another cosy nickname).

The fortress suffered Viking attacks in 993 before William the Conqueror’s forces took the castle in 1066, and it was a regular target for border raids by the Scots. Having read the history boards, you might expect to see a castle in ruins, but far from it, it’s impressive both inside and out.

The sight of the vast hall could silence even my noisy youngsters, with its beautiful vaulted wooden ceiling and intricate bosses, rich tapestries and portraits. The armoury glinted with shields, guns and gauntlets as the children struck daring poses next to imposing suits of armour.

The castle dungeon, featuring wax models in various states of distress, left them slightly perturbed so for some light relief, we tried a slice of Border Tart in the café. Full of sweet pastry, dried fruit, nuts and sticky icing sugar, we hit the epic beach next to the castle. The sweeping sands proved a perfect setting to build our own impregnable castle of sand.

After such an adventurous start, the following day we sought a more calming experience, driving to the tidal Holy Island. Once we’d arrived at around 10am, we couldn’t leave until the waters receded later that day. Such a concept freaked the kids out, but we promised them we’d make it back to the mainland and wouldn’t have to live there forever.

The main attraction is Lindisfarne Priory where mediaeval monks settled in 635. In the priory’s small Visitor Centre, we recounted the site’s history, explaining how St Aidan travelled from Iona in Scotland to establish this new religious community.

While the kids took in as much as they could, the highlight was wandering among the elegant ruins and stopping at a little beach to watch seals slowly dip in and out of the water — an unexpected commune with nature.

Needing a warming drink, we slurped piping hot chocolate in the aptly named Pilgrims Coffee House before hiking off the sugar rush by following a coastal path to little Lindisfarne Castle.

Closed during our visit, I could only imagine the private parties and indulgence that took place within the walls of this isolated island escape, the holiday home of the founder of Country Life magazine. Then with the waters having receded enough to reveal the causeway, we fulfilled our promise to the kids and headed back along the road to the mainland.

The past year has reminded us to make the most of the simple pleasures, and Northumberland proved perfect for this too. As well as Northumberland Zoo, whose inhabitants include an axolotl, some much-loved meerkats, wallabies, lemurs and otters, we delighted in taking a dip at the Ocean Club Spa and Pool in Seahouses, after months of being barred from swimming pools.

It was easy to satisfy requests of “can we go to the beach?” too; the wide open sands of Beadnell and Alnmouth fitted the bill for jumping, splashing and paddling, as well as limiting any social interactions.

And, of course, we hadn’t finished with the castles. The dramatic ruins of Dunstanburgh are a destination in their own right, but also make a rewarding goal to end a rugged windswept seaside walk.

Our starting point was the picture-postcard fishing village of Craster, which does a mean line in kippers at the Piper’s Pitch van. Our youngsters weren’t overly interested in these but they easily managed the 1.3 mile walk past placid cows and crashing waves to reach the photogenic 14th century castle.

One unmissable castle has to be Alnwick, cooler for kids than any other stone fortress as it’s the site where Harry Potter learned to fly his broomstick in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Alnwick does host its own official broomstick flying lessons, but we created a DIY option with sticks we’d picked up on various walks.

Finding instructions on how to fly and make your magic wand levitate on the internet, the photograph fails were as amusing as our successes as we continued to our final stop of Alnwick Garden. This green-fingered brainchild of the Duchess of Northumberland brings out a childlike sense of joy and wonder in youngsters and adults alike.

For those expecting the standard ornate stately gardens that aristocratic families are wont to create, think again. The first thing that hit us was the aesthetic wow factor of the Great Cascade, a series of waterfalls featuring 120 water jets.

The kids played hide and seek in the Ornamental Garden, wound through more than 300 cherry trees in the Cherry Orchard, were dazed and confused in the Bamboo Labyrinth, and intrigued by the sinister Poison Garden and its deadly plants, morbidly fascinating for all ages.

The highlight of our visit was the Serpent Garden. Like characters from a fairytale, we weaved in and out of the tall yew hedges to discover a series of water sculptures. It’s hands-on and engaging, as each sculpture manipulates water in a different way.

At the centre of the coil we reached the serpent’s head, the ‘Torricelli’, where my children got absolutely drenched, much to other visitors’ amusement. As the boys were smiling from ear to ear, we knew it was all worth it.

Ultimately, Northumberland captures the imagination. It’s a place to become a pirate, a princess, a magician, a warrior woman, a king or a queen. Embrace the history and the drama of this region — escaping from 2021 has never felt so good.


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