Travel review: Northumberland

Castle view from beach
Castle view from beach

When a place boasts of having an independent spirit – you know you are going to be in for a magical time!

The county of Northumberland is one of my all time favourites. It is packed with lovely deserted beaches, fabulous castle and historic houses and plenty of activities to keep everyone entertained. And is only a short drive from Lancashire.

With Ruaridh (7) and Flora (4) in tow, we headed for the quaint town of Warkworth to stay in a relative’s caravan which is perched high on the cliffs and looks down on the dunes and water.

Warkworth itself is a nice spot to visit, its ruined castle perches at the top of the town and the main street is awash with quirky shops and fine dining.

But on this trip we were to visit three very different places which are within driving distance of Warkworth. First stop on a sunny, but cold Saturday morning was a visit to the old-fashioned seaside town of Seahouses. We were there to join the crew of Billy Shiel boats on a tour of the Farne Islands, home to 23 species of birds, including 37,000 pairs of puffins.

The island is owned by the National Trust and to reach it, you need to take a trip on one of the many boats.

Billy Shiel’s tour lasts two and a half hours and includes a fabulous close up look at the birds perched on the cliff face, a sail through the grey seal colonies, where to the delight of Flora, the wide eyed mammals played for the cameras and treated us all to close up acrobatics display, plus a visit to the island itself.

The boat trip follows the route taken by lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling on September 7th, 1838 when she spotted the wreck and survivors of the Forfarshire on rocks nearby and helped to carry out the rescue.

The island is home to the Victorian lighthouse Darling lived in and there is also a small medieval tower which is today used by rangers who live on the island and study the activities of the birds.

The sea was a bit choppy on our trip which added to the fun for the children who just loved bouncing through the waves and we were all ready for a bag of fish and chips back on dry land.

It was then a short drive to Bamburgh Castle, which has been the family home of the Armstrongs since 1894.

With wonderful views over the the Farne Islands, the historic site spans over nine acres of land and is one of the largest inhabited castles in the country.

And for Ruaridh and Flora, who just love castles, it was a great chance to explore. They are at the age where they like to see for themselves, rather than go on a guided tour, so they can explore at their own pace.

For Ruaridh that means reading all the information, while Flora pretends she is the princess! And Bamburgh is ideal for this. It sits on an outcrop of volcanic dolerite, known locally as whinstone for the sound it makes when hit by a stone mason’s hammer.

The castle is one of the most important Anglo Saxon archaeological sites in the world and you can witness where the latest dig is. Ruaridh and Flora particularly enjoyed the children’s pit which contained items to find and then re-bury.

A stroll round the castle walls allows you to try out traditional games and have your photograph taken on a huge stone throne.

There is a museum dedicated to William Armstrong, a scientist who restored the castle back to its medieval glory and whose descendents still live in part of the building.

For visitors inside the castle is imposing and interesting, with the Great Kitchen, the King’s Hall and the Captain’s Lodgings amongst the most impressive.

Back on the castle trail and to a completely different animal compared to Bamburgh. Welcome to the strangest and most haunted in Britain. The aptly named Chillingham Castle has been in the family of the Earl of Greys since the 12th century and is now home to Sir Humphrey and Lady Wakefield.

In 1298 it became the base camp for the conquering attack on William Wallace by King Edward 1st. These days it is a haven for ghost hunters with night time tours available for the brave hearted keen to spot the white pantry ghost! Inside the castle the rooms are a haven of antiques and interesting nick nacks which the Wakefield’s have collected on their travels. The Great Hall was our favourite room, decorated with spears, banners, tapestries and a cloth capturing the batte of Omdurman, the site of the last calvary charge.

The state rooms are lavishly decorated too and there is a spine tingling torture chamber which leaves little to the imagination!

Outside the beautiful Italian garden which was laid in 1828 by Royal designer Sir Jeffrey Wyatville is a lovely spot to stroll around and there are woodland walks and a large lake to enjoy too.

Nearby to the castle live the famous Chillingham Wild Cattle, the only ones of their type in the world and who once roamed the forests of Britain.

Magnificent to see, the beasts are untamed and so a guided tour is a must, especially to see new calf Whylde, who even has his own blog.

Why? – because the cattle sum up the county’s motto – being independent spirits!

Factfile:

For a chance to see the famous birds of The Farne Islands, take a tour with Billy Shiels, www.farne-islands.com

Bamburgh Castle can be enjoyed via a virtual tour before you witness it for yourself. Log onto www.bamburghcastle.com

Chillingham Castle is a must for ghost hunters and lovers of quirky homes! Check out www.chillingham-castle.com

Tourist information: There is lots to see and do in the county. Check out www.visitnorthumberland.com