With its wide open spaces and minimal light pollution, the county of Northumberland in North East England is home to Europe’s largest area of protected dark sky and the forth largest in the world. It’s thanks to these dark skies that visitors to the region are able to see the universe in all its dazzling, star-shining glory.
Northumberland National Park is Britain’s least populated National Park, and within this remote and unspoilt wilderness are observatories, designated Dark Sky Discovery Sites, and purpose-built stargazing pavilions. With astro-tourism growing in popularity, there’s even Dark Sky friendly accommodation – some hotels, B&Bs and self-catering cottages organise special stargazing evenings, and can provide guests with telescopes and other equipment.
Views of the Milky Way aren’t the region’s only star attraction. A trio of Northumberland’s stellar sites topped a national poll organised by BBC TV’s popular Countryfile programme: Hadrian’s Wall has been previously named Heritage Site of the Year, Bamburgh Castle, Landmark of the Year, and Northumberland National Park as National Park of the Year. The region also has a stunning coastline, a favourite with surfers. Several islands just off the coast are home to diverse wildlife including puffins and seals, and another is known as the birthplace of English Christianity. Thanks to the abundance of nature, Northumberland has a bountiful natural pantry: visitors may enjoy local lobster, home-grown fruit and vegetables, and other fresh, local flavours. Surprisingly, this rural region isn’t as remote as you might expect – in fact, it’s easily accessible from big cities such as Newcastle and Carlisle. ►visitnorthumberland.com
Where to stay
Built in 1818, Doxford Hall is a grand country house hotel. There’s a fine dining restaurant, a spa with swimming pool, sauna and steam room, and its grounds boast a maze and formal gardens.
The Cookie Jar is cosy retreat, located in the old medieval market town of Alnwick, on the doorstep of Alnwick Castle. The boutique hotel style, cosy retreat, for those visiting the seat of the Duke of Northumberland and for those who live locally in this gem of a county.
For stylish and unique luxury holiday homes in Northumberland look no further than Croquet Cottages. With fabulous interiors, amazing attention to detail and their signature concierge service combine to provide the best privately-owned luxury holiday homes in Northumberland.
With recent accolades from Visit England and North East Tourism Awards, St Cuthbert’s House is a consistent award-winner. It’s one of several excellent B&B’s in the fishing village of Seahouses.
For starry stays, there’s Dark Sky friendly accommodation, including ‘Stay & Gaze’ properties that provide stargazing equipment. Burnfoot Holiday Cottages comprises eight luxury cottages in converted 19th-century farm buildings, and offers stargazing evenings with a local astronomer.
10:00 Enjoy a castle + surf combo
Bamburgh Castle is a formidable fortress. The Royal Seat of the Kings of Northumbria, it sits on a rocky plateau with fantastic views of the sea and beach below. The Keep, the castle’s ancient heart, dates from 1164 – its unusual bottle-shaped doorway was built to allow soldiers on horseback to enter at a gallop without dismounting. Within these impenetrable walls is a collection of impressive, battle-scarred, arms and armour. Built for pleasure as opposed to war, the King’s Hall is the castle’s magnificent Victorian banqueting room with carved ceiling and regal décor. The beach at Bamburgh is one of Britain’s best – how often can you sunbathe in the shadow of a castle? It’s also popular with surfers in winter and spring.
13:00 Eat fresh, locally caught fish for lunch on the coast
Located in the village of Bamburgh, The Lord Crewe restaurant and rooms is stylish and contemporary. Its kitchen focuses on local ingredients, including plenty of fresh fish: specialities include local lobster, and a Provence-style fish soup using locally landed North Sea fish. The nearby fishing village of Seahouses is also ideal for lunch. Try The Olde Ship Inn, a traditional pub with maritime connections set above the harbour, or local favourite Élan, a casual Italian pizzeria. Farther south along the coast, The Ship Inn at Low Newton has a microbrewery: ales include Sandcastles At Dawn, a light, crisp golden beer, and Dolly Daydream, a robust ruby red ale. It’s renowned for its crab sandwiches, served in a stottie (a flat, round loaf of bread, typical of the area)
14:30 Sail out to sea to spot puffins and seal pups
Broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough named the Farne Islands his favourite place in Britain to see nature at its best. Located just off the coast, this cluster of islands are owned by the National Trust and are easily reached by boat – Serenity Farne Islands Boat Tours offer trips from Seahouses to the islands throughout the year, accompanied by an onboard wildlife guide. During summertime around 150,000 breeding pairs of seabirds cram onto these islands, including puffins, razorbills, guillemots and eider ducks. They’re also home to the largest breeding colony of grey seals in England, with around 1,000 fluffy white seal pups born here each autumn. As well as being a sanctuary for seabirds and seals, the islands also have links with Celtic Christianity.
Or… Cross a dramatic causeway to Lindisfarne, a small tidal island accessible by car or on foot at low tide. Also know as Holy Island, it was the site of an early Christian monastery and one of the most important centres of early Christianity in England. Monks first settled here in AD 635. The ruined Lindisfarne Priory that stands here today dates from the 12th-century. Another landmark is Lindisfarne Castle. This small 16th-century castle was much altered in the 1900s – then a holiday home, its wealthy owner had it renovated in an Arts and Crafts style by famous architect Edwin Lutyens. With its sand dunes and beaches, this part of the coast is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The sea submerges the causeway at high tide – tide tables indicate the safe crossing periods, so check these to avoid becoming trapped.
19:30 Head inland for dinner, darkness and stargazing
Set in the picturesque village of Wark on the edge of the Dark Sky Park boundary, Battlesteads is a pub, restaurant and hotel with 22 swish guestrooms. The menu focuses on locally sourced produce, complemented by home-grown fruit and vegetables. A champion of sustainability, it’s the region’s greenest hotel, holding a Gold Award from the Green Tourism Business Scheme. There’s also an observatory on site – ideal for those wanting to marvel at the Milky Way for dessert!
22:00 See the stars shining bright in Northumberland’s dark skies
The largest, wildest and most sparsely populated National Park in England, Northumberland National Park offers some of the country’s best stargazing experiences and clearest night skies. Within the park are a number of places designated as Dark Sky Discovery Sites. Located away from local light pollution to ensure they’re as dark as possible, these sites are also chosen because they provide good sightlines of the sky, and have good public access including firm ground for wheelchairs. One such site is the Stonehaugh Stargazing Pavilion, an imaginative timber structure conceived in 2014 by students at Newcastle University’s School of Architecture. Although each site is different, the sky you see from each place is the same. There are a lot of stars to see on clear nights, but having a telescope will enhance the visibility of distant galaxies, nebula and star clusters – fortunately, some of the regions Dark Sky friendly accommodation offer ‘Stay & Gaze’ packages including equipment you may borrow. If you’re fortunate, this may even include a thermos flask of hot tea!
Or… visitors during winter months may wish to remain by the coast beyond Seahouses, because the regions skies are also a window into Aurora Borealis. Witnessing the natural phenomenon known as the ‘Northern Lights’ typically involves a trip to Norway, Iceland or the Arctic Circle – but it can be seen between December and April on the Northumberland Coast.
10:00 Enjoy the gardens and family activities at an iconic castle
2016 is the 300th anniversary of renowned landscape gardener Capability Brown. Born in Northumberland at Kirkharle, he redesigned the landscape in front of Alnwick Castle. You may recognise this iconic castle from its numerous TV and film appearances, including Downton Abbey and two Harry Potter films – it’s in fact hosting a Downton Abbey Exhibition throughout 2016. Visitors may tour the State Rooms with their magnificent art collection, as well as enjoy family friendly activities involving costumes, medieval crafts and dragons. Capability Brown is also believed to have had a hand in the reconstruction of grounds at Wallington Hall, which includes lakes, woods and parkland and is now part of the National Trust.
13:00 Dine in a medieval castle
Built in 1350, historic Langley Castle is now an impressive luxury hotel. Feast like a nobleman in the castle’s atmospheric restaurant, surrounded by medieval flourishes including coats of arms and suits of armour. There’s a three-course Sunday lunch, plus a Table d’Hôte menu featuring fine fare such as sea scallops with celeriac and lovage, venison tartare, hake with hazelnut and truffle pesto, and beef cooked on the charcoal grill. Afterwards, enjoy coffee or perhaps a digestif by the roaring fire in the Drawing Room – afternoon tea and light snacks are also served here. For simple, hearty fare, nearby Carts Bog Inn is a traditional old country pub serving classic pub food.
14:30 Stand on the edge of what was once the Roman Empire
An epic World Heritage site, Hadrian’s Wall extends for 73 miles from coast to coast, traversing three British counties. Among the best remains along this Roman frontier is Housesteads, the most complete example of a Roman fort in Britain. Standing proud in the rugged Northumberland National Park, you’ll discover the remains of barrack blocks where 800 soldiers once lived, as well as a hospital and communal-style Roman toilets. An interactive on-site museum displays objects once belonging to Roman soldiers, its mini-cinema re-imagining the forts story. In case you’re feeling energetic, English Heritage have created the Housesteads Roman Trail, a walking route along Hadrian’s Wall that incorporates historical sites and picturesque views.
17:30 Picnic al fresco, or dine a la carte
Plan to pick up some delicious picnic items in the market town of Hexham, which has several delis as well as a weekend farmers market – then have a picnic at Hadrian’s Wall, or a sandwich supper on the shore of Kielder Water. For something more substantial, Hexham has numerous pubs, cafés and restaurants, with one recommendation being Bouchon, a regarded and affordable French bistro.
18:00 Enjoy a quiet moment at Britain’s most tranquil spot
According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the country’s most tranquil spot is Kielder Water and Forest Park. This lovely expanse of water is northern Europe’s largest man-made lake, surrounded by England’s largest forest. As well as a place to see stars at night, during the day it’s popular with walkers and mountain bikers.
21:30 Engage with the universe around us
Set in the heart of Kielder Forest, Kielder Observatory provides an opportunity to engage with the Universe around us. On a clear night visitors will see distant objects such as galaxies and nebulae, as well as comets, the Moon and other planets. Powered by solar panels and a wind turbine, this observatory was sympathetically designed by award-winning architects to be in keeping with the ethos of the forest.
HOW TO GET THERE:
England’s northern-most county, Northumberland is in north-east England, on the border with Scotland. With its National Park and villages, this rural region is best explored by car, and is easily accessible from the city of Newcastle, just one hour’s drive south of the region.
*Lead image: Aerial view of Bamburgh Castle on the coast of Northumberland, England. ©VisitBritain/Yin Sun Photography