An intro to… Northumberland

Thinking of heading to Northumberland to enjoy the wide variety of walking the county offers? Vivienne Crow, author of the Cicerone guidebook, looks at what walkers can expect.

Where, exactly, is Northumberland?

Northumberland is England’s most northerly county. Sitting right up against the Scottish border, its English neighbours are Cumbria, County Durham and Tyne & Wear. Stretching from Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north-east to Haltwhistle in the south-west – two places that, even as the crow flies, are about 95km apart – it covers more than 5000 square kilometres. Not quite the biggest county in England, but it feels like it as you wander its hills, valleys, moors and beaches.

So, what’s so special about walking here?

That’s a tricky question to answer in just a few paragraphs, but I’ll try… It’s got a lot to do with all the history in the landscape – from cliff-top castles and the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site to long-abandoned prehistoric settlements hidden in the hills. It’s also got something to do with those big northern skies, largely free of pollution and unfettered by man-made constructions, which allow views that stretch on for miles and miles and miles… It’s undoubtedly got a lot to do with the landscape itself: remote hills, seemingly endless beaches, wild moors, dramatic geological features and valleys that are so mesmerisingly beautiful they defy description. It’s surely related to the wildlife, too – from the upland birds that are sometimes the walkers’ sole companions to the wildflowers, insects and reptiles that inhabit the coastal dunes.

There are wide, open spaces here like no others found south of the Scottish border. This is England’s most sparsely populated county – with just 62 people per square kilometre. To put that into perspective, it compares with 73 in neighbouring Cumbria with its large areas of uninhabited fell and moorland, or, at the other extreme, 3142 in the West Midlands and 5521 in Greater London. Want to escape from it all? This is the place to come!

Roughly 25 per cent of the county, including Hadrian’s Wall and the Cheviot Hills, is protected within the boundaries of the Northumberland National Park. The county also has two designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Northumberland Coast and the North Pennines.

Bet you didn't know that...

The North Pennines and Cheviot Hills are important for a variety of bird species, including red grouse, some of England’s last remaining populations of elusive black grouse, and the heavily persecuted and extremely rare hen harrier, as well as merlin, kestrel, short-eared owl, peregrine falcon, ring ouzel, skylark, lapwing, golden plover, whinchat and wheatear.

What sort of walking can I expect in Northumberland?

Do you want the long answer or the short answer? The short answer is… expect variety. And the long answer?

The Cicerone guidebook Walking in Northumberland divides the county into five areas:

  • North-east Northumberland includes the coast and the area inland as far as the Cheviot Hills. The county’s North Sea strip is characterised by long, sandy beaches, dune systems and mudflats. The only significant area of cliffs is in the far north near Berwick-upon-Tweed. Just inland, you’ll find areas of low moorland such as Doddington Moor and the Kyloe Hills, where many of the county’s mysterious cup-and-ring-marked rocks can be found, as well as some of its sandstone crags.
  • National Park (north) takes in the Cheviot Hills and the area around Rothbury. If you love hill-walking, you’ll love this area. It’s home to Northumberland’s highest point, the Cheviot. This rises to 815m in a rolling range of mostly grass- and heather-covered hills that are home to enigmatic prehistoric remains and feral goats. But it’s not all about big days on big hills: the walks covered in this section range from just 6.5km to 21.6km.
  • The Kielder section includes walks on surfaced paths in the sprawling border forests and along the shores of the UK’s largest artificial lake, as well as a hike on the lonely moorland high above the trees.
  • Tyne Valley and National Park (south) covers Hadrian’s Wall and some of the most impressive Roman remains in the UK. In places, the wall runs along the apex of a roller-coaster ridge of dolerite formed by a magma flow about 300 million years ago. The combination of this striking natural feature and the enduring man-made structure, stretching ahead into the distance, makes for some memorable walking.
  • The North Pennines section takes in the spacious heather moorland of Allendale, Hexhamshire and Blanchland, dotted with the remains of the once lucrative lead mining industry.

What’s the best time of year for walking in Northumberland?

Although you’ll have a better chance of fine weather and more daylight from April to October, there are no good or bad times of year to visit. Each season holds its own delights – from the vibrant purple heather of the summer moorlands to autumn’s colourful displays; from the snow-covered slopes of the winter Cheviots to the calls of upland waders returning to the hills in the spring.

If it’s statistics you’re after, July and August are the warmest months, with a mean daily maximum temperature of about 18C. The coldest months are January and February, with a mean daily minimum of 1.5C. According to rainfall totals for Boulmer on the coast, the wettest period is from October to December, while April to July are the driest months. Obviously, these figures will differ according to altitude as well as latitude and longitude. And, don’t forget, they’re only averages.

As with any part of the world, being prepared is the key to ensuring you enjoy the walking experience, whatever the weather, and stay safe.

Where should I base myself for the best walking opportunities?

If you’re a Northumberland novice and fancy exploring the county, take your time and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Wooler and Rothbury are excellent bases for exploring both the Cheviot Hills and the coast, and much in between. For Hadrian’s Wall, head for Haltwhistle or Hexham, both of which are also well placed for the North Pennines. Other good bases for walking include Seahouses, Craster, Belford and Berwick-upon-Tweed for the coast; Kielder; Blanchland and Allendale Town for the North Pennines; or, for full immersion in the Cheviot Hills, head for remote Alwinton.

Tourism is an important part of Northumberland’s economy, so the county is relatively well served by accommodation providers and dining facilities, but some close for all or part of the winter.

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