Northumberland is scarcely a ‘secret’, but I had long presumed that it was so far away from where I lived, I would never visit.
Then, a chance (and generous) gift from my sons of four nights in a boutique hotel to mark a big wedding anniversary took me there.
The North-East, with its dramatic coastline, friendliness and notable buildings, is often (unfairly) overlooked. We stayed in Alnwick (pronounced ‘Annick’: the ‘l’ and the ‘w’ don’t feature in local parlance), dominated by its castle, home to the Duke of Northumberland and the setting for many scenes in the Harry Potter films.
Grandeur: Spectacular Alnwick Castle was a film location for the first two Harry Potter movies
The castle is closed in winter, and the coronavirus pandemic is delaying its reopening this year. But its delightful garden, open year-round, is still accepting visitors. Wander around the water features, explore the labyrinth, then have lunch in the weird and wonderful Treehouse restaurant.
Our bedroom at The Cookie Jar hotel looked out on the castle battlements. We took much pleasure in watching the birds (rooks, crows, jackdaws and ravens) circling the towers; outside our window, a pair were creating a nest in a disused chimney.
Next door, the community-run Bailiffgate Museum, dedicated to the history of Alnwick and housed in a former chapel, is a fine place to get one’s bearings.
Alnwick is compact; the visitor can walk everywhere.
We dropped in at the Tanners Arms, by Bondgate Tower, the 15th-century entrance to the town. With its range of ales, open fire, unusual layout (drinkers sit along the walls, leaving the floor space empty) and helpful bar staff, the pub was exactly what we needed after the Great North Road.
Castles dot the magnificent Northumberland shoreline, with sandy beaches and rocky headlands from Bamburgh as far north as Lindisfarne.
Castles dot the shoreline in Northumberland. One of the most famous is Bamburgh Castle, pictured
On a day when the sun shone (we had no rain during our stay: it mainly falls west, rather than east, of the Pennines), we drove to the tiny fishing village of Craster, home to fleshy kippers sold across Britain. From there we walked the bracing mile to Dunstanburgh Castle, a coastal ruin visible for miles, and joined dozens of other walkers, mainly with dogs, on the tramp across the springy turf.
Then we returned to Craster for a crab sandwich at the Jolly Fisherman’s. At nearby L. Robson & Sons, the 100-year-old village smokehouse, we were told that sadly nothing smoked would survive the car journey home.
Back in Alnwick, we made for Barter Books, a vast emporium of second-hand volumes in Alnwick’s disused railway station, which has been dubbed ‘the British Library of second-hand bookshops’. After browsing, the bibliophile can eat in the one-time station buffet.
The beach at Alnmouth, a coastal village that Robert says is ‘full of charm’
It was at Barter Books that a long-forgotten World War II poster — Keep Calm And Carry On — was rediscovered. This was framed, hung and became an instant hit, spawning the millions of copies and endless parodies.
At high tide, we walked along the sea-lapped shore at Alnmouth (a coastal village full of charm) and across England’s oldest (151 years) nine-hole golf course. Then we dined at an Italian restaurant within the Hope & Anchor pub.
Near by at Warkworth Castle, former seat of the late-medieval nobleman Harry Hotspur, the wind whistled and we shuddered at what life there must once have been like. Farther south lies the port of Amble, with its thriving Sunday market where fish are sold straight from the sea.
When it came time to leave, it was low tide and Warkworth Castle loomed in the distance. We vowed to return to this wonderful county.