We are entering the last legs of our spotlight series that takes a look at the National Parks of Great Britain. There are only a few more to go. This week we are heading back to the northernmost parts of England to showcase some of the highlights of Northumberland.
Designated a National Park in 1956, Northumberland covers an area of about 400 square miles. It lies entirely within the county of the same name, with the Scottish border running along its northern edge. While some parks such as the Lake District are quite densely populated (relatively speaking), Northumberland is the least populated of the parks. Just 2,200 people reside within park boundaries. Its remote location means it is also one of the quietest parks in terms of visitors. An estimated 1.5 million visit each year. In other words, if you are looking for the great outdoors and nary a chance of seeing another face, this is the spot. But don’t mistake low visitor numbers with there being nothing to see. Far from it!
Visitor centres are located in Walltown and Rothbury. Both are easily accessible by car or by public transport and the staff can provide maps and tips on how best to explore the park.
In July 2017, The Sill will open. This is a state-of-the-art visitor centre and the UK’s first National Landscape Discovery Centre. In addition to incredible views of Hadrian’s Wall, The Sill will feature a youth hostel, cafe, exhibitions, and regional arts and crafts.
What to do.
There are lots of ways to get around and see the magnificent landscapes of the park, walking and cycling being the most popular. Walkers will find more than 600 miles of signposted trails, suitable for a variety of different ability levels. For those worried about getting lost, or for those who want some company along the trail, volunteers host a series of guided walks from April to October. Several other guided walk companies are also in the area. Staff at the Visitor Centres can provide more information about these. Alternatively, download the visitors guide which is full fantastic tips for walks, picnic spots, and more.
If you prefer to head out on your own, make sure you are properly prepared for any changing weather conditions and that you know your route.
Some of the most popular walking trails run along Hadrian’s Wall at the southern end of the park. We’ll look at that more in the section below. Don’t ignore the rest of the park though – there are wonderful trails through the valleys of North Tyne, the Otterburn Ranges (taking care to watch for the red flags that indicate controlled access areas), and through the Cheviot Hills.
If you prefer getting around on wheels as opposed to foot, cycle paths and trails are available for both road and mountain bikers. Every year the park sponsors the Curlew Cup, a 100km women’s race. For serious leisure cyclists, Hadrian’s Cycleway runs 174 miles and includes a little bit of everything: Roman history, gorgeous countryside, and dramatic coastlines. A newer route is the 120 mile Sandstone Way, running from Berwick Upon Tweed to Hexham.
Other activities include fishing (perhaps catch your own salmon or trout dinner), geocaching, horseriding, canoeing, and birdwatching. But there’s more to Northumberland National Park. A reason to stay after sunset. The United Kingdom’s largest Dark Sky Preserve is here. Enjoy breathtaking views of the constellations, completely unspoiled by light pollution. Bring a telescope or just lie back and take it all in. Perfect starlit tranquility.
What to see.
We’ve already mentioned it briefly – Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site is the big tourist draw in this part of the country. It is a common misconception that the wall marks the border between England and Scotland. In fact, it lies at the southern end of Northumberland National Park, with the border at the opposite end. However, it was once a border against the wild northern frontier. It was built by 15,000 men over a six-year period and reached 80 miles from coast to coast. An impressive amount of the wall remains standing today, as do several of the forts along its length.
The park may now be sparsely populated but its location made it a hub of activity in bygone days. In the far eastern part of the park are the Tosson Lime Kilns, There were once some 400 similar kilns throughout the area, but this one has been carefully preserved for visitors.
Avoid the crowds.
Northumberland National Park is the least populated of the British national parks. It also has the fewest visitors, so getting away from the crowds will not be difficult. Most visitors gravitate towards Hadrian’s Wall. While that is certainly not to be missed, the hills and valleys further north offer spectacular views that are all too often ignored by the casual tourist. So don’t be afraid to venture into the more remote areas. You will be well rewarded.
Where to stay.
There are campsites at several locations through the park. Since this is Dark Sky country, the adventurous might want to spend a night or two wild camping up in the Cheviots.
Whatever your accommodation preference–hotel, bed and breakfast, or self-catering–you will find a huge range of options to suit a variety of budgets. Our sidebar includes several affiliate links to hotel chains and cottages within the area.