Exploring Northumberland: A Journey Through England's Enchanting Border County in 4 minutes

Added about 3 months ago by Stephen Platten

Northumberland is a stunning county of great contrasts. Stephen Platten gives us a whistle-stop tour as a foretaste of his stunning hardback guide to England’s most magical county.

Making one’s way northwards on the old Great North Road, or even travelling by the motorway through County Durham is exciting as one is greeted by signs telling you that you are now in the “Land of the Prince Bishops”, but even this doesn’t prepare you for the challenging landscapes that follow. Entering Northumberland through Newcastle across the Tyne Bridge—Britain’s answer to its contemporary over Sydney’s famous harbour—is breathtaking! The bridges themselves provide their own excitement but the waterside with the Sage concert halls to the south and Newcastle’s crown-spired cathedral alongside the castle and all the bustle of Tyneside is a wonderful curtain raiser for the excitement which follows.

Landscape has, of course, set the scene for communication in this frontier county. The courses of the old drovers’ roads can still be traced clearly in the Cheviots and Simonside Hills in upper Alndale and Coquetdale. Predictably, these fairly challenging arteries were used both positively and negatively. Salters’ Road speaks for its own utility, but all were also used for the passage of sheep, cattle and other commodities. However, their comparative isolation made for dangerous journeys on account of the violent outlaw behaviour of the Border Reivers. These roads often followed earlier trackways whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Then, although the Roman conquest powerfully marked out the edge of the Empire with Hadrian’s Wall, still the conquerors built a more northerly network of roads. 

In the debatable land between the Tyne-Solway fortifications and the less developed barrier of the Antonine Wall from Forth to Clyde, a road network was established across what was often an uninviting landscape. Dere Street carried the legionaries over the present-day border through Jedburgh. On its way, at Bremenium, next to present-day Rochester, another highway branched due east, across the Cheviot divide, to join up with another north–south artery, known now as Devil’s Causeway, at Alavna, that is, Low Learchild. Devil’s Causeway carried people and materials from Corbridge to modern day Tweedmouth, almost certainly terminating at a Tweedside port there where military supplies could be transferred from small ships to continue its journey using land transport and making its way to the fort at Trimontium next to modern-day Melrose. These ships would have been coasters bringing materials from the main port/fort of Arbeia (South Shields).

Much more recently, geology posed a challenge to Field Marshal Wade, when building his “Military Road” from 1751–8, parallel with Hadrian’s Wall. This had been occasioned by the shock received by the government in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. Just a little later, at the turn of the nineteenth century, Telford rose to the challenge of the same landscape as he built his road from Hexham across to Alnmouth, and, at the same time, improved other highways. He had, for example, seen the Morpeth-Wooler-Coldstream Road as the obvious link between Newcastle and Edinburgh. In pursuit of this aim, he constructed some of the earliest diversions around villages, softening the impact of the vast forest to some degree. Wade’s highway is a splendid way to follow the line of Hadrian’s Wall albeit having been built on top of the Wall in what we we would now consider a more than Philistine manner. 

In the 1970s, you could still follow the course of the former Borders Railway all the way through to Deadwater and Riccarton Junction; now much of the course is submerged, with the only clear survival being that of the substantial Kielder Viaduct. Alongside water supply and electricity generation, the reservoir has also offered new habitats and plentiful leisure possibilities for the Northeast. Moorland and forest extend west—well beyond Kielder and across to the moorland and forest of east Cumbria at Eskdalemuir and Spadeadam Forest, the location of the former rocket-launching site, just north of the village of Gilsland, a village shared by Cumbria and Northumberland—what we would now call bypasses.

Only a few years later, Northumberland became the birthplace of railways. Again, land and landscape played a significant part. First, the need to transport both coal and lime necessitated wagonways and then later railways to move ore and associated products. Then commerce, in the form of “the great railway race” to build new, and often competing lines, had also to face the challenge of the land. The High Level Bridge in Newcastle and the Royal Border Bridge over the Tweed are outstanding examples of engineering meeting these challenges. Numerous other engineering feats (some now no longer used)—cuttings, tunnels, and viaducts—were a product of this extraordinary revolution. The little station at Wylam is one of the oldest in Britain still in continuous use, having been opened in the 1840s as part of this great enterprise.

In this new guide to the county of Northumberland, you will encounter not only landscape, then, but history stretching back to the very earliest civilisation in our islands. You’ll have the chance to follow the “pilgrim stakes” pictured on the front cover which have led pilgrims over the tidal sands to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne for over 1,300 years. In doing this, you will, of course, meet Geordies, Border folk, and all in between. You may hear something of the songs from “Blaydon Races” to “When the boat comes in”. You’ll see two of the best preserved castles in England alongside some daunting ruins—pele towers, bastles and other defensive dwellings abound. Almost every village and town you pass through features in the guide’s gazetteer introducing you to the sheer breadth of the county. 200 black and white photographs and an album of colour photographs set the scene, along with former Emma Bridgewater artist Matthew Rice’s beautiful end-pages. Enjoy your visit to Northumberland with this beautiful and inspiring introduction to England’s most exciting and dazzling border county.

Stephen Platten’s Northumberland: A Guide is available now from Sacristy Press in hardback and e-book. With a gazetteer, hundreds of high-quality photographs and maps, plus chapters on the people, places and history, this is the perfect book whether you’re a first-time visitor or a resident of this captivating county. It also makes a great gift.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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