Around Northumberland in 96 miles . . . and several thousand years

Steph and I have been Friends of the Alnwick Garden since April 2021, and being only 34 miles north of where we live in Newcastle, we try to visit the Garden every couple of months or so. It’s always nice to see how the Garden awakens in the Spring, flourishes during Summer, and closes down in the Autumn and Winter. And we always enjoy a welcome cup of Americano in the Pavilion Cafe.

However a stroll round the Garden usually takes no more than 90 minutes, so we often try to combine a visit there with somewhere else: on one of Northumberland’s glorious beaches, or deep in the county’s fabulous landscape.

And that’s just what we did last week, heading south from Alnwick to Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort, south of Rothbury and beyond.

This is the route we took, and I have marked the various interesting sites along the way that encompass various aspects of Northumberland’s history over the millennia. We only stopped at three of these (having visited the others many times before): Lordenshaws, Mote Hills motte and bailey castle at Elsdon, and Winter’s Gibbet high on the moorland beyond Elsdon.

So without further ado, let’s explore what can be seen along this route.

(1) The Alnwick Garden Planning for the Alnwick Garden began in 1997, with the first phase opening in 2001. It was the inspiration of Jane, Duchess of Northumberland. The land was donated by her husband, Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, and covers 42 acres. The garden is managed by a charitable trust. The garden also includes a display of some of the world’s most poisonous plants, and there is a narrative of how they have been used for various nefarious purposes.

(2) Alnwick Castle Home of the Percy family for over 700 years, and residence of the 12th Duke of Northumberland and his family, the first parts of Alnwick Castle were erected in 1096.

Today, it’s open to the public, although we have never visited. The castle has been the filming location for several movies and television programs such as two of the Harry Potter films, and Downton Abbey.


Leaving the Alnwick Garden, we headed south towards Rothbury on the B6341, with views back towards the coast from the high, heather-covered moors, then descending towards Edlingham and magnificent views over the Upper Coquet valley all the way to the Cheviot Hills and the Scottish border.

(3) Edlingham railway viaduct The viaduct (seen in the image below, beyond Edlingham Castle) on the Alnwick to Coldstream (Cornhill) Railway, was opened in 1897.

The line was closed to passenger traffic in 1930. Freight services continued until 1965.

(4) Edlingham Castle and chapel The castle dates from the 14th century, although there was an earlier manor house on the site dating from about 1300. It was the home of Sir William Felton. The castle was abandoned as a residence in the mid-17th century.

Close by the castle is the 11th century chapel of St John the Baptist. Services are still held in the chapel.

Here is a link to a photo album.

(5) Cragside This must be one of the jewels in the National Trust crown, being the first house in the world powered by hydro-electricity. It was built by Lord William and Lady Margaret Armstrong. What is particularly striking about Cragside, in addition to the magnificent house and its location, is the fact that the Armstrongs transformed an area of high Northumberland heath into a remarkable garden with trees a hundred feet tall or more, something that they would never have seen. We’ve visited there several times, even before we moved to the Northeast in 2020.

(6) Rothbury Proudly proclaimed as the ‘Capital of Coquetdale‘, Rothbury is a small, traditional market town, and a convenient staging post for tourists wishing to explore the surrounding Northumbrian landscape. It was the birthplace, in 1970, of radio and TV celebrity Alexander Armstrong (a distant cousin of the Cragside Armstrongs). In 2010, Rothbury was also the focus of a massive police manhunt.


From Rothbury, the route climbs towards the Simonside Hills. Lordenshaws hill fort is close by. On this section of the route—as from Alnwick to Rothbury—the damage to trees caused by Storm Arwen in November 2021 was very much in evidence.

(7) Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort and rock carvings This was our second visit to Lordenshaws. The Iron Age fort was built around 2000 years ago. There is also a Bronze Age burial mound. Close-by are the cup and ring marks etched in large boulders, and dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, 6000 to 3500 years ago. Also, the views from there over Coquetdale are impressive.

Heading west from Lordenshaws, we traveled below the Simonside ridge before reaching the meandering River Coquet. Then climbing once more before descending into the village of Elsdon, a small hamlet we had visited in 1998 and which, for us, held an interesting story.

(8) Tosson Tower The tower appears in the video above around 5 minutes mark.

It is a Pele tower built in the 14th or 15th century to protect against raiders in this border region with Scotland. It had walls 2 m thick. We didn’t stop as the tower is on private land.

I’d been trying to locate some of the villages we had visited in Northumberland in 1998. And as we entered Elsdon I realized this was one of them. On that holiday we never had a set route, just ending up each day finding bed and breakfast accommodation when and where we could. In Elsdon, we had an evening meal in the local Bird in Bush pub, before retiring for an early night. You can imagine our surprise the following morning when we came down to breakfast to discover that the landlady’s husband, who we’d met the evening before, had suffered a heart attack during the night. A doctor and ambulance had been called and he was in hospital, probably in Morpeth. We slept through the whole commotion!

(9) Mote Hills motte and bailey castle, Elsdon Parking close by the village hall (where the toilets are open to the public!), we walked the short distance up a lane to Mote Hills, the earthwork remains of a late 11th/early 12th century motte and bailey castle, and one of the finest in the country. It’s very impressive, from a distance and close up.

Click on the image below to enlarge.

We had come across the Umfraville family on one of our earlier trips, in Upper Coquetdale, at Harbottle castle. And like the castle at Elsdon, Harbottle was built on a steep mound, the motte. At Elsdon the slopes must be 60° at least, and after struggling up the sides (before we found a much easier exit) I could imagine just how easy the site would have been to defend against unwanted visitors.


Having spent around 30 minutes exploring the remains of this interesting castle, we left Elsdon, and headed southeast to the last stop on that day’s tour of Northumberland: Winter’s Gibbet.

(10) Winter’s Gibbet High on the moors southeast from Elsdon, and with a magnificent 360° panorama, stands a sinister reminder of a late 18th century crime.

Winter’s Gibbet stands out clearly against the skyline. It a replica of the one first erected in 1792.

It was here that the body of one William Winter was hung in chains and left to rot following his execution (in August 1792 in Newcastle, along with two women accomplices) for the murder a year earlier of an old woman, Margaret Crozier who lived in a nearby Pele tower. It was the custom back in the day to leave the body of a murderer in a place overlooking the scene of their horrific crime. Click on the image below to enlarge.

William Winter was the only criminal to be ‘displayed’ at this gibbet.

From Winter’s Gibbet we headed home, passing on the way Wallington Hall, the village of Kirkharle, and Belsay Hall.

(11) Wallington This is a late 18th century mansion in the Palladian style, that replaced a medieval Pele tower on the estate (the cellars of which are still visible in the basement). It passed to the Trevelyan family in 1777.

We have visited Wallington on several occasions, and enjoyed not only walks in the garden and parkland, but also understanding the links of the Trevelyan family with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the late 19th century. I have written about our visits in three blog posts.

Capability Brown

(12) Kirkharle Just west of the A696 and about two miles south of Wallington, lies the village of Kirkharle. Birthplace in 1715/16 of the famous landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who I wrote about after a visit to the National Trust’s Croome in Worcestershire. Brown received one of his earliest commissions from Earl Coventry to redesign the landscape at Croome and dig a large lake, the ‘Croome river’.

(13) Belsay Hall and castle This was one of the first English Heritage properties we visited even before we moved to the Northeast. It lies about 14 miles northwest of Newcastle.

Besides the Regency style house built in the early 19th century, the Belsay estate includes an impressive garden within the quarry from which stone for the house (and castle?) was taken, and the ruins of a 14th century castle, original home of the Middleton family.

There is access to the roof of the tower with good views over the estate and the Northumbrian hills to the north.


Northumberland has something for everyone. I think we’ve hardly scratched the surface in terms of its history. And although we have traveled quite extensively already throughout the county, there is still plenty more to explore. After all, it is 1820 square miles (or 4716 km²).

 

 

 

 

Benign decay in the Northumberland countryside

Belsay Hall, some 14 miles northwest from Newcastle upon Tyne, is a country mansion, constructed between 1810 and 1817 in the so-called Greek Revival style. It is believed to be the first house in the country to be built along these lines.

Steph and I visited Belsay Hall in late July 2009, along with our younger daughter Philippa and Andi (who she married in 2010).

The east front and main entrance

Its owner was Sir Charles Monck who, until taking up residence in his new house, occupied the 14th century castle on the Belsay estate nearby, and which is also open to the public.

Belsay Hall is a square building, and today is completely empty inside, being left in what has been described as ‘benign decay’. The only maintenance prevents the building from deteriorating further. The house is decorated throughout in the ‘Greek style’, pillars everywhere.

The stables and coach house, which are sited just to the northeast of the main entrance, are also open to the public.

On the south side of the house, there is a terrace and formal gardens.

After exploring the house, we made our way to the castle, a half mile walk through the Quarry Garden, a cool, dark, and damp environment favored by luxuriant ferns. The house was built from stone quarried here.

There is access to the roof of the tower and, on a nice day, I’m sure there must be fine views over the surrounding landscape. It was rather grey and misty on the day we visited.

In July 2009, there was a very special art installation mounted in the Great Hall.

Lucky Spot, as it is known, is a three dimensional chandelier in the shape of a leaping Appaloosa horse, hanging from the rafters of the Great Hall. Made from 8000 large crystals beads, it was a collaboration between Stella McCartney (daughter of former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney) and the Austrian glass maker Swarovski. I’ve read that Stella McCartney was inspired to create Lucky Spot after a visit to Belsay.

Catching the light from all directions, this is one of the more impressive pieces of art that I have come across.

Once we move up to the northeast, a return visit to Belsay is definitely on the cards. This time I’ll make sure to use my camera rather more liberally than I did in 2009.