Holly Cave explains why the North East of England is a fantastic part of the country to explore, with lively towns and plenty of heritage.
The North East is a living exhibition of England’s tumultuous history and the foundation of the country’s industrial heritage. Once the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, the rugged beauty of the region’s rolling hills are interspersed with castles, lively market towns and modern cities which cluster along the edges of three rivers; the Tyne, the Wear and the Tees.
You might find some surprises there too; expansive sandy beaches, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and wildlife reserves of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Teesside, and County Durham draw visitors from around the world.
Towns and Cities
The North East is home to lively market towns such as Berwick-upon-Tweed, Morpeth, Hexham, Rothbury and Alnwick, all of which are worth a wander around, especially on market days.
Backing onto the River Tweed, Berwick is surrounded by Elizabethan walls – a reminder of its war-ridden past. Art lovers can trace the Lowry Trail and history buffs can explore Britain’s oldest purpose-built barracks. Yet the region’s cities also have a lot to offer to visitors.
The pretty enclave of Durham is only a city thanks to its Norman cathedral – its small size does not justify the title. The cathedral and the 11th century castle of this popular university city were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.
Durham Cathedral – widely regarded as a Romanesque architectural masterpiece – overlooks the River Wear and is surrounded by a canopy of trees. Its magnificent pointed arches were the first of their kind in the world. It remains a working church and is open to the public outside of services.
Pre-booked groups of 12 or more receive a discounted rate on self-guided or guided tours, with optional refreshment packages served in the medieval Prior’s Hall. Coach drivers receive free parking in the city centre coach park.
Bearing down over the cathedral is the ancient Norman castle, built under the orders of William the Conqueror and now home to one of Durham University’s colleges. As a working building, it is harder to gain access, but tours can be booked in advance on most days at certain times.
12 miles northwest of the city lies the unique attraction, Beamish Museum. You can take the term ‘museum’ loosely here, as it is more a living, working showcase of how life once was in the region during the Industrial Revolution. The site was England’s first regional open-air museum and now covers 300 acres, where guests will find reconstructed buildings from the era as the stage, with costumed actors playing out their roles. With discounted rates for groups of 15 or more, free coach parking and driver hospitality, this is a top choice for group travel.
A memorable way to see more of Durham in just one hour is to take a cruise along the river. Lovely old vessels, such as the Prince Bishop, take passengers on day and evening tours, showcasing unparalleled views and providing commentary on the city’s landmarks. Coming from the south, those approaching Newcastle will pass by the imposing, once controversial, Angel of the North statue. A tour of the city is a must- do for visitors to the North East. You will discover both classical architecture and the modern Quayside.
Pay a visit to Mosley Street – the first in the world to be lit by electric lamp – and get a sense of Newcastle’s changing fortunes. Recent cultural regeneration has once more transformed this city, with new museums, art galleries and an excellent refurbishment of historic buildings. The old flour mill, for example, has been reborn as the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.
The central district is surprisingly compact. There is a coach park on Ord Street, with pick-up and drop-off points near the Laing Art Gallery, John Dobson Street and behind the outstanding Centre for Life. Situated halfway between the towns of Berwick upon Tweed and Alnwick, the Blue Bell Hotel is an ideal base from which to explore the area.
Castles and Ancient History
Northumberland has more castles and fortified buildings than any other county in England. Besides the aforementioned Durham Castle, there are many more to explore.
Once home to the powerful Percy family, the ruins of Warkworth Castle and Hermitage lie in a dramatic coastal setting on the Coquet Estuary. There is a free audio tour, leading visitors through the great hall, gatehouse and elegant towered walls. Coaches can drop off outside and English Heritage offers 15% discount for groups of 11 or more.
Even less of Dunstanburgh Castle is still standing, yet it remains iconic, casting its gaze along a gorgeous stretch of coastline. Now a National Trust property, it was once one of the largest fortifications in Northern England.
Dating from the 12th century, Barnard Castle sits on rocks high above the River Tees in the North Pennines. There are beautiful views across the Tees Gorge, pretty gardens, and the nearby town of Barney is a pleasant place to stop and recharge. It’s a 10 minute drive from here to Raby Castle, where you will also find a huge deer park, woodland walks and stunning waterfall.
If you’re only going to visit one castle, make it Bamburgh, south of Berwick-upon- Tweed, for the most complete experience. You can enjoy a tour of the numerous buildings, learn about the Armstrong family legacy and enjoy freshly made cake in the Clock Tower Tea Rooms.
Of course, many travel to the Scottish border solely to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hadrian’s Wall, still tracking its territory across the spectacular countryside. Roman Corbridge is a good place to stop for refreshments before the nearby fort, built prior to the wall. There are some lovely walks along the wall from here, offering spectacular views.
Further west, Roman Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum is the guardian of 2,000 year old writing tablets and other treasures from the era. This attraction is the perfect place to learn about the history of Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman Empire through exhibitions, 3D films and guided tours of the ancient remains. Coach groups are well catered for.
The Region’s Heritage
A lot has happened in the North East since the Roman era. In more modern times, it became the powerhouse of Europe, before collapsing into disrepair, and is now a shining example of successful regeneration in the post-industrial era. The region was famed for heavy industry, with its coal and iron reserves driving Britain’s economy from the 1700s onwards.
There were once hundreds of shipyards on the Tyne and even in the 1920s, a fifth of the world’s ships were born here. Many of the yards are still in action. The railway was developed here, ship building became a huge industry and other engineering trades developed too. Visitors to the area have a huge choice of attractions at which to re-live the recent past.
One fantastic venue is the Head of Steam Darlington Railway Centre and Museum in the Tees Valley, where guests can learn about the first steam-powered passenger carrying railway.
Bowes Railway – the world’s only surviving standard gauge rope-worked railway – is also open to the public. Visitors can discover how coal was moved from local collieries and take a close-up look at steam engines, diesel locomotives, old colliery wagons and historic workshops. Groups will need to arrange a visit in advance, as the site is fairly small.
Derwentcote Steel Furnace, built in the 1730s, is now in the care of English Heritage and is free to visit. At Woodhorne Museum near Ashington, visitors can get an accurate sense of what life would have been like for the coal miners working here. Production stopped in 1981 and it became a museum several years later, but at its peak, 2,000 men worked here to churn out 600,000 tons of coal each year. The stories of the miners are told through displays and art works. Entry is free and groups receive a discount on paying exhibitions. Free coach parking is available.
Open only by arrangement, Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum is also a brilliant attraction where groups can travel underground to experience the world of an ironstone miner. Killhope is said to be the best preserved lead mining site in the country. Visitors can experience a section of the Victorian-era mine, see the huge working waterwheel that drove lead processing technology and learn about the lives of miners and their families. For the underground exploration part of the experience, large groups will be divided into smaller parties of 12.
For something a little different, stay above ground and head to The National Glass Centre on the banks of the River Wear in Sunderland, just south of Newcastle. There are lots of interactive exhibitions about glassmaking history and guests can peek in on glass artists working in their studios. Those fearless of heights might like to walk across the glass roof of this majestic building and there are loads of different events held throughout the year.
For organised groups, the centre offers half and full day packages from £6 per person which include a guided tour behind the scenes, live glass flame working, lathe and glass blowing demonstrations, and a hot drink and scone in the riverside Brasserie.
For a glimpse into the life of a leading industrial, pay a visit to Cragside House and Gardens near Rothbury, Northumberland. This was the home of Victorian inventor extraordinaire, Lord Armstrong. Innovative to its core, the house was the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity and visitors will find all manner of gadgets and gizmos sprinkled around the 30 rooms. Outside, the stunning estate will offer a chance for a breath of fresh air.
North-eastern England boasts a beautiful landscape. If it is the great outdoors you are keen to explore, then come rain or shine, this is the place to do it. The Durham Dales and the countryside across the rest of the region is a breathtaking landscape rich with heather-covered moors, rugged beaches and cliffs, waterfalls, and meadows which have inspired great British artists such as Turner and Sir Walter Scott.
Castle Eden Dene Nature Reserve in County Durham is open all year during daylight hours. The site has over 12 miles of woodland walks filled with rare birds and wildflowers. Much of the reserve has been untouched by humans since the Ice Age. Groups are accepted with a month’s notice.
In Northumberland, the Kielder Water and Forest Park covers a whopping 250 square miles. It is the largest working forest in England and is home to the biggest man-made lake in Northern Europe. There is enough going on here to keep visitors busy for weeks.
Groups should start their exploration of the area from one of the visitor centres at Tower Knowe, Leaplish or Kielder Castle. Groups and coaches are welcome here, and many activities – such as stargazing, horse-riding and art trails – can be organised upon request.
Wildlife lovers won’t want to miss out on a visit to the award-winning RSPB Saltholme Nature Reserve. The state-of-the-art visitor centre offers panoramic views over the reserve and architect-designed hides are perfect for twitching. There’s also a lovely walled wildlife garden designed by celebrity gardener Chris Beardshaw. Coach parking is free and pre-booked groups benefit from a welcome talk and guided tour. Admission prices can include lunch and various other tours.
The North East of England has been a breeding ground for innovation, and a pivotal place for change in Britain’s history. Yet the region remains underrated. All the more reason to go there.