It’s truly a National Treasure
It was no surprise to hear that Northumberland National Park (NNP) was voted National Park of the Year at the COUNTRYFILE magazine awards 2015/16. The area is well known for the famous Hadrians Wall and Fort remains however, there is so much more to see and do in this beautiful part of North East England which covers an area of 1,049 km or 405 square miles. I regularly enjoy days out and short breaks here with my husband Ron.
I’ve always loved Northumberland. I was born and raised in one of its many mining towns only leaving to join Ron in Sunderland, which was actually a part of the old Kingdom of Northumbria many centuries ago.
So, you can imagine my delight to be invited along, as a guest of NNP Authority, to experience some highlights of what the park has to offer. I was part of a small group from Travel Massive (Newcastle) and our host for the day was Duncan Wise, Visitor Development and Marketing Manager for NNP. His friendly manner, enthusiasm and knowledge helped make our day a big hit.
After setting off from Newcastle with my fellow travellers, including Ron, we headed to the first stop on our itinerary, Rothbury, on a road I’m very familiar with. This time however, neither of us were driving so we could enjoy the fantastic scenery even more. One point to add is that the main road into Rothbury, the B6344 road at Crag End, has now been reopened after being closed for major repairs.
Rothbury, on the edge of the NNP, is one of most popular and picturesque towns in Northumberland, It’s also close to many major attractions and the coast. On arrival we headed to Tomlinson’s Café and Bunkhouse, a fantastic base from which to enjoy the surrounding area with many public footpaths and cycle tracks starting only metres from the property. It is also perfectly placed for cyclists wishing to enjoy all or part of The Sandstone Way, England’s first long distance mountain bike trail. It’s approx. 120 miles/192 km long and runs along the Sandstone Ridge in North Northumberland. Starting and finishing at two of Northumberland’s most historic towns, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Hexham, the route will take you through a landscape full of beautiful scenery, breathtaking views, historical sights and charming villages.
The café is large and airy with a welcoming atmosphere and the modern rustic décor suits the building perfectly. We were welcomed with hot drinks in the comfortable lounge area where Duncan gave us an overview of the NNP. We were joined by owner Jackie who told us of the buildings origins, it was formerly a school house, and explained the wonderful facilities on offer. A tour of the Bunkhouse showed it is ideal for families, groups and solo travelers, offering comfortable rooms with en-suite facilities. 21 people can be accommodated over the three light and airy rooms of 6,7 or 8 beds. There’s also a Double en-suite room. The communal lounge has amazing views toward the River Coquet along with a large TV, Sky and WIFI which is free for guests, plus a small kitchenette. The rates are purse friendly too at £20 per bed or £25 with mini breakfast, tea or coffee. It’s easy to see why it was awarded a Trip Advisor certificate of excellence in 2015.
They also have a range of bikes for hire catering for all abilities and will soon be introducing electric bikes for hire. I took the opportunity to try one of these bikes and liked the idea of the little surge of power just when you need it. I enjoyed it so much I’m considering buying one.
Leaving Rothbury, we headed to the Simonside Hills and Lordenshaws. I’ve not visited this area before and its beauty was evident immediately even in the inclement weather. Climbing one of the footpaths gave fantastic views toward the Cheviot Hills, Sandstone Ridge and the coast. The landscape is home to the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, Bronze Age burial grounds and prehistoric ‘cup and ring’ rock carvings made by our ancestors although it is still not truly known what the carvings mean. There are posts pointing to areas of interest, with QR codes to scan with your smartphone for more information.
From Lordenshaws we headed toward Greenhaugh for lunch. We drove through the Grasslees Valley and Otterburn Ranges which are used for military training and are home to the second largest live firing range in the country. The ranges can be explored and have some of the most spectacular views in the NNP, although visitors should be aware that parts are closed when the red flags are flying.
We had a brief informative stop in Elsdon, the largest village within NNP with a population of around 240 people! NNP is the least populated of The Parks of England and Wales, having a population of about 2000, that’s just two people per square mile. Elsdon features lovely stone houses in a picturesque setting surrounding the village green and is home to a popular tea room which serves the legendary homemade Gibbet cake. Popular with cyclist and walkers alike, it’s a starting point for many countryside walks.
We also stopped briefly to view the remains of a Tosson Tower, a Peel Tower built around 600 years ago as a home for the Ogle family and a defence against invasion by the Scots.
We arrived in Greenhaugh, which is one of those places that makes you want to move to the countryside. It’s only small but as one local told me, It the equivalent of their ‘city’ in a parish with a population of around 160 people. This area is home to some beautiful Hay Meadows which have an abundance of wild flowers and would be ideal to explore on foot. Our venue for lunch was The Holly Bush Inn which promised a lot with its Kerb appeal and it certainly delivered once inside. Passing a welcoming open fire in the bar, we were seated in one of the two dining areas. Both are decorated stylishly in differing themes. We were introduced to owner Mary and her son Frankie who run the Inn together. As well the bar and dining facilities the Inn offers 7 beautifully decorated en-suite rooms and a Stargazers Apartment.
For lunch, Ron and I opted for the Lamb Stew using local produce. I love stew and this did not disappoint, it was accompanied by crusty white bread and was comfort food at its best, both delicious and warming. Ron and I then headed into the rear gardens as the sun had put in an appearance at last! The gardens feature a large fire pit and have fantastic views across the countryside and expansive sky, perfect to enjoy some Stargazing. At approx. 580sq miles, the skies over Greenhaugh are the darkest in England and were awarded Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status by the International Dark Skies Association. A quick chat with the chef who was enjoying a break, revealed how passionate he is about creating great home cooked food.
Returning inside Mary offered us desert and needing no persuading, we opted for Eton Mess (me) and Rhubarb Crumble (Ron), both were scrumptious and served at the large trestle table which is placed to encourage people to mix. It works, as we enjoyed a chat with a couple who were staying in the area.
In a nutshell, this Inn serves up great food, facilities and friendly service and I’m happy to say, at the time of writing I’ve already been back! (but that’s a story for another day).
Hesleyside is the ancestral home of the Charlton family. Their beautiful country house is set in woodland and has grounds designed by Capability Brown. This made for a stunning, if not unusual setting, for a 10k fun run of mud, mud and more mud with various obstacles thrown in to add to the challenge.
It really did look like Muddy Good Fun (as the promotors put it) and if I’d been younger and without neck issues, I’d have loved to give it a go. But as a spectator, it was great to see the huge smiles on the muddy faces of the participants, especially the kids, who were bombarded with water bombs by family members.
We didn’t have much time to enjoy the live bands and stalls but the atmosphere was great despite the weather. Sheltering from rain, we observed people taking part in games and even Ukulele lessons. We even bumped a friend who was there to take part.
Last stop on our tour was The Battlesteads Hotel and Observatory. I was looking forward to this for two reasons. Firstly, I’d already had the pleasure of enjoying a few drinks in their sunny garden so was looking forward to returning; secondly, I’ve always wanted to visit an Observatory.
There was no sunshine this time but at least the rain had stopped. The garden had been enhanced even more since my last visit and was very impressive! It still had the raised herb beds I remembered and these are just a small nod to the wider sustainable tourism ethos of the hotel. Beyond this, further gardens of homegrown produce blended into the countryside views and the Hotels own carbon neutral heating system, the first to be installed in the county, is discreetly tucked away.
We were joined by Astronomer Roy Alexander who delivers the various Stargazing courses available. He explained that the Hotel and Observatory are located in the Dark Sky Discovery site of Wark Village. This combination offers the beauty of the dark skies with the comfort of modern day facilities. These include an inviting bar with restaurant, 22 individually decorated en-suite bedrooms and 5 newly constructed eco lodges.
Moving on to the observatory we were seated in the warm room, where you could help yourself to tea and coffee. From the very beginning, Roy held our attention with his enthusiasm for his subject as he spoke passionately about his background in science to the present day, before talking about the delights of the dark skies.
Many people have a dream to see The Aurora Borealis or ‘Northern light’s’ and he explained they have been visible clearly on many occasions before providing information about apps which can help identify the best place and time to view them.
As well as Pointing out easy ways to identify popular constellations using binoculars Roy then explained how to adjust them correctly before sending us outside to have a go. I also held a piece of meteorite and touched a piece of Mars. This thrilled me no end and Roy helped me photograph the Mars fragment using my smartphone and a microscope!
The conclusion of our visit was an introduction to the centerpiece of the Observatory – the impressive Telescope, which can be set up for multiple visitors to use at the same time. Unfortunately, the rain meant the roof could not be opened so we were unable to take a look into the late afternoon sky.
On asking Roy what he liked to observe the most, he replied The Moon without hesitation. He loves the way the sun, at various times of the day, casts shadows over the mood highlighting the landscape to great effect. I can honestly say I could have sat there for hours listening to his pearls of astronomical wisdom and myself and Ron would love to return.
The whole set up at Battlesteads lends itself to delivering a fantastic experience for both residents and non-residents alike. I cannot comment on the rooms and food, however the hotel is renowned for both and holds a Trip Advisor certificate of Excellence. Although we did not stay overnight, I can imagine it would be extra special. We were so impressed that we’d love to return to stay in the Hotel to enjoy a real twist on Sleeping Under The Stars!
Plus, as Roy says, how many observatories can boast their own bar? who could resist?
Our tour was now at an end and we returned to Newcastle having had a fantastic day, learning new facts about the regions history along with forming new friendships. I feel that there’s so much of this area just waiting to be discovered an on writing this myself and Ron have already paid a return visit..
Hope you enjoyed reading about NNP and if you have any favourite places in the park I’d love to hear about them.
Bye for now, June x
*Our tour of the NNP was organized by Kate, who leads our group of travel enthusiasts Travel Massive Newcastle, in conjunction with NNP Authority and Round Table Solutions. **Group photo courtesy of Kate.