Northumberland, in the past known as Northumbria, was part of the great Anglo-Saxon kingdom of that name, with territory extending from the Humber to the Firth of Forth. Present day Northumberland, encompassing a much smaller area, lies mostly to the north of Hadrian’s Wall and is no longer a kingdom, but it is the northernmost county in England. It stretches from urban Tyneside to the rolling wilderness of the Cheviot Hills. The hills still form the most imposing natural boundary between England and Scotland.
We've visited several of the most important places in the area (though there are many more yet to be explored). Our visits centred on the lovely coastal area and some of the important sites connected with Hadrian's Wall.
Hadrian’s Wall is an astounding feat of engineering. It’s the best known and the best preserved frontier of the Roman Empire. When Emperor Hadrian’s men set out to construct it they were faced with a relentlessly challenging and variable landscape to conquer. Neither the fierce torrents of fast rivers, nor the hard rock of the Whin Sill, nor mile upon mile of rolling hills would defeat them. The Wall is Britain’s most impressive and most important Roman monument. We have been privileged to visit some spectacular sections of the Wall on two occasions in recent years.
The Wall sprawled across 73 miles from Wallsend in the east to the Solway Firth in the west. Once built, Hadrian’s Wall boasted 80 milecastles, numerous observation towers and 17 larger forts. Punctuating every stretch of Wall between the milecastles were two towers so that observation points were created at every third of a mile. Constructed mainly from stone and in parts initially from turf, the Wall was six metres high in places and up to three metres deep. All along the south face of the Wall, if there was no river or crag to provide extra defence, a deep ditch called the Vallum was dug. The most amazing finds from the Vindolanda site are the thousands of writing tablets recording daily life – letters from soldiers asking for socks and underwear, a birthday party invitation to the fort commander’s wife, requests for payment, lists of goods supplied and troop deployments. The Vindolanda writing tablets were voted Britain's Top Treasure. They are a truly unique and remarkable record of everyday life in the Roman Empire enabling visitors to connect with the real people to whom Vindolanda was home 2000 years ago!
The Alnwick Garden is one of the world’s most ambitious new gardens. The Duchess of Northumberland’s vision for a forgotten plot is now a truly 21st century experience full of imagination, inspiration and fun. The Duchess wrote that it has become "a contemporary pleasure garden, which brings joy to millions. When I see photographs of it in darkness I feel that I am watching it sleep, resting in preparation for the people it has to entertain the following day. To me a garden without people is dead, and people have brought The Alnwick Garden to life and restored its soul.”
The dramatic ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle stand on a remote headland, reached by a beautiful coastal walk from nearby attractive fishing village of Craster. The village is also famous for the award winning kipper smoking industry carried on there - it's even rumoured that Royalty are enthusiastic customers!One of the most atmospheric and inspiring castles in England, Dunstanburgh Castle was built in the second decade of the 14th century. The most impressive part of the ruins is the massive gatehouse, flanked by two D-shaped towers. Views of the castle across the sweep of the coastline to the north and south are stunning, a fact that painter JMW Turner certainly appreciated and painted Dunstanburgh on several occasions.
The Lonely Planet Guide summed up this place as follows:"There's something almost other-worldly about this tiny, 2 square-mile island. Connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway that only appears at low tide, it's fiercely desolate and isolated,Holy Island is one of our most favourite places. The Priory ruins are some of the most evocative and beautiful we have seen and they in conjunction with the lovely peaceful countryside and coastal scenery combine to give it the sense which many visitors experience of it being a "thin place" ie somewhere that the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. As the ancient Celts put it :
Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter
The Britons were Christian before the Irish as Britain, unlike Ireland, was part of the Roman Empire. Some of the missionaries who first took the faith to Ireland were British - St.Patrick was the most famous, but not the only one. As the power of Rome declined the Angles from North Germany who were pagans gradually took power. In the north the kingdom of Northumbria was largely created by the Angle warrior-leader, Aethelfrith, but when he was killed in battle (616AD) his children fled into exile and some of these children found their way to what is now South-West Scotland. There they met the Irish monks of Iona and accepted the the Christian faith. Oswald, the second son of Aethelfrith, grew up determined to re-gain the throne of Northumbria and to let the pagans among his people hear about Christianity. In 633 he established himself as king and choose Bamburgh, a natural outcrop of rock on the North-East coast, as his main fortress. He then invited the monks of Iona to send a mission and eventually a small group led by Aidan arrived and chose to settle on the nearby island of Lindisfarne, They built a celtic-style monastery of wooden buildings: a small church, small, circular dwelling huts, perhaps one larger building for communal purposes and in time, workshops and so on as needed.The remains we see nowadays are those of the much later priory re-established in the 11th century, but didn't survive the Dissolution in 1537.
Not much is known about Aidan's early life. What is certain is that he was an Irish monk from the monastery St.Columba had founded on the island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. The monks lived a life of prayer, study and austerity but also prepared to go out on mission. First these Irish speaking monks needed to learn the local language and their English king, Oswald, who had learnt Irish in his boyhood in exile, helped them. Memories of Aidan suggested that he was a person with a gentle, friendly nature. This is borne out by his methods as a missionary, which was to walk the lanes, talk to all the people he met, be interested in their daily lives and interest them in Christianity if he could. His monks visited and revisited the villages where he sowed the seeds and in time local Christian communities were formed. One story tells that the king, worried that bishop Aidan would walk like a peasant, gave him a horse but Aidan gave it away to a beggar. He wanted to walk, to be on the same level as the people he met.Another famous name associated with Holy Island is that of Cuthbert. He was born in the north of Northumbria about 635 AD into a wealthy family and raised with the expectaion that he would become a warrior. One night when he was about seventeen years old, however, he was looking after a neighbour's sheep and he saw a light descend to Earth and then return, escorting, he believed, a human soul to Heaven. The date was August 31st 651AD - the night that Aidan died. He took this as a sign from God and presented himself to the monastery at Melrose, founded by Aidan, and asked to be admitted as a monk. .About the age of thirty he moved to Lindisfarne and he was much in demand as a spiritual guide and was also known for the gift of healing. He was an outgoing, cheerful, compassionate person. Even when he tried to become a hermit on a nearby small island people crossed over in their little boats to consult him.(See the page on Durham to discover how Cuthbert's body came to rest there)
Holy Island has a very special place in history as the birthplace of the Lindisfarne Gospels, among the most famous illuminated books in the world. According to an inscription added in the 10th century at the end of the original text, the manuscript was made in honour of God and of St. Cuthbert by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who died in 721. Eadfrith played a major part in establishing Cuthbert's cult.It's hard to imagine the skill, dedication and perseverance it must have taken to produce such a magnificent manuscript in the spartan Celtic monastery on this little windswept island. As you cross the empty flats, it's easy to imagine the marauding Vikings who repeatedly sacked the settlement between 793 and 875, when the monks finally took the hint and left, they carried with them the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels (now in the British Library in London) and the miraculously preserved body of St Cuthbert, A priory was re-established in the 11th century, but didn't survive the Dissolution in 1537. No wonder the monks who had to flee following one of the many Viking invasions were determined to carry their two greatest treasures - the body of Cuthbert and the Gospel manuscript - no matter what it cost them. We were very privileged in 2013 to see the original when it made one of its few appearances outside the British Library at the splendid exhibition in the Cathedral Close in Durham.
This is a smallish (70 pitches approx), friendly, family run caravan park situated one mile from the sea and surrounded by areas of outstanding natural beauty. We arrived there quite by accident, as we had originally booked into the nearby Dunstan Hill site run by the Caravan and Camping Club, but we got there a day early when they had no space. They recommended that we try Proctor's so we did and were so delighted with it we cancelled the C and C booking entirely and stayed there instead for the duration! Basically, it's a large flat field, with fairly old-fashioned, but well-maintained and clean, spacious facilities. (The facility block isn't heated, so not for softies!) When we were there they did have tents as well as caravans, but now they no longer allow tents. Their website could do with an update of its design, in order to showcase it more effectively. Proctor's is in a great location to explore the beautiful Northumberland coast and we would not hesitate to stay there again next time we have a chance to visit the area. It's some time now since we visited, but it's still getting excellent reviews.