Where we road trip Northumbria, go to an island that isn’t an island to visit a castle that’s closed, see where one of my heroes risked her life to save people from a sinking ship, survive three days without internet in a shepherd’s hut in the country and discuss the problems of post-Covid travel.
This trip had been on my to-do list for summer even before The Virus arrived and shrunk down my travel options considerably.
Northumbria is England’s least densely populated county. People in Northumbria get a square mile for each 163 people. For comparison, London fits 14,090 people on each square mile. Yes, England is a very overcrowded country.
I got the train to Newcastle and collected my hire car from there. If you live in the UK and own a car you could save a lot of money by just driving from wherever you are; the car hire was the most expensive part of the trip by a long way.
I divided up my eight days and spent half in the country and half on the coast.
Great expanse of lake and forest, plus the odd castle (Kielder castle, still closed when I visited). If you want to park near the best walks you need to get there earlier in the day.
Sarah’s tip: don’t expect to find any petrol nearby; the petrol station Google directed me to look as if it had been closed for decades, and I ended up having to drive into Scotland to get petrol.
Built by the Romans to keep the Scottish out, the wall stretches for 73 miles (117 kms) across the North of England, coast to coast. No, I didn’t see the whole 73 miles, but I walked a few short sections.
Staying in a Shepherd’s Hut near Rothbury
These shepherd huts are becoming very popular now; they call this glamping. This was certainly at the more luxury end of the hut market, with its own little bathroom and a lot of private space around the hut. Many shepherd huts are not this luxurious; some are (as the name implies) simply a hut.
There was no internet and no phone reception. Did the world end in the three days I was offline? No it didn’t. Plus I noticed how many times I pick up my phone to fill in a gap, eg waiting for the kettle to boil and I automatically reach out for my phone. It was a good break from it, but three days was enough.
Berwick Upon Tweed
Berwick is the Northernmost town in England; the Scottish border is just four kilometres away. It’s a historical market town.
Unfortunately it rained heavily the whole day I was there. I enjoyed following the Lowry route, seeing the real places behind the famous paintings.
The town itself looked a little sad and depressed, as if it had seen better days. There is a huge retail park a little out of the centre and the high street is left with discount stores and a Costa, along with a few independents.
It was impossible to find anywhere to get a coffee/snack, due to a combination of the weather and social distancing leaving everything full up.
Without the rain I may have felt differently. The area around the town is very pretty.
Holy Island/ Lindesfarne Island
This was my real reason for wanting to come here. It’s an island that isn’t actually an island (there’s a road that leads on to it, but the road is tidal and gets swallowed up by the North Sea for large chunks of the day; you need to check the tides).
There is a castle, but the castle remains closed. The Priory recently reopened but tickets were like gold dust.
Getting a table at the pubs and cafes was virtually impossible, but there was a food truck doing good business.
Lindesfarne was busier than I expected; I was glad I got there early before the hordes of people arrived.
Nice little seaside town with its own castle (recently reopened but you needed to book a few days in advance and I didn’t want to hold myself to a schedule).
It was very pretty; I found a deli and got some food and drink for the beach.
The town includes a museum to Grace Darling but it was (quelle surprise) closed. If you don’t know who Grace Darling is then you didn’t own the 1970 June and Schoolfriend book of Heroines.
Grace Darling was the daughter of the lighthouse keeper on the nearby Farne Islands. She rowed out to rescue people from a shipwreck, when it was too rough for the lifeboat.
She received money and accolades during her life before dying aged 26 from Tuberculosis. A lot of the heroines in my book died young; they were shot by the Gestapo or burned at the stake.
This is a where you get boats out to the nearby (about three miles) Farne Islands. The trips are very popular and they were packing people in. David Attenborough is apparently a big fan of the Farne Islands (well he said it was his favourite place in England to watch wildlife).
There are various bird species to see; I was hoping to spot Puffins but wasn’t lucky. Numbers are apparently diminishing. By the time we reached the island there was an annoying drizzle, which didn’t help.
This was probably my favourite spot on the coast. It is a small fishing village with a little harbour, famous for its Kippers (can’t pass judgement; I’m not a big fan of kippers). Dunstanburgh castle is a short walk away and stands imposingly in the distance. It was – wait for it – closed.
Conveniently situated on the Newcastle metro, this is a nice place to visit from the city.
There are the ruins of a castle to visit, great for photographers (you need to book in advance, of course, but they had some same-day tickets available).
There was a mammoth queue for the supermarket and for the fish and chip shop, but the ruins proved not so popular; possibly a lot of the people there had already been to the castle.
What I have learnt about travelling in post-Covid times.
There were a lot of queues. You need a drink so you queue for 20 mins, then you need the bathroom so there’s a huge queue for that (less so for men obviously). It was impossible to get a table in a restaurant, pub or cafe without booking in advance, sometimes days in advance. It does rather change the whole nature of travel, although maybe it suits some people who prefer a more fixed itinerary.
I spent a good deal of time feeling very thirsty. I didn’t notice in London, where there’s a minimart on every corner, but the constant queues to get just a bottle of water or a snack wore me down.
If I were planning this trip again I would spend the whole time self catering. That way you can load up on food and drink at a supermarket and then take a picnic out with you, which is much easier. This is what I did in the shepherd hut.
When I switched from the shepherd hut to the hotel I struggled to find enough to drink in particular. Cafes and pubs were fully booked, supermarkets few and far between and little kiosks had long, long lines.
And don’t get me started on the toilet queues for women. If you are a woman who uses a loo whenever you see one ‘just in case’ you should be ashamed of yourself, because you are the cause of these queues. Men don’t do that.
Rebirth of domestic travel
I’ve never travelled much in the UK. In part that is due to the unreliable weather, which limits the season for travel. This also makes most places so damn crowded. I picked Northumbria simply because I thought it would be less crowded than other options such as the lake district.
This year many places are extra busy, because people are less likely to go into Europe. Northumbria was certainly less crowded than more popular options, but the coast was still very busy.
Also, the UK is expensive. You need a car if you want to visit anywhere outside of the main cities and car hire is expensive (actually it is the insurance that is expensive, but if your driving is anything like mine you need all the insurance you can get).
Hotels and other accommodation providers have also taken advantage of the increased demand for UK based holidays by raising their prices. Yes, I get that they’ve had a bad season and are looking to recoup their losses, but it feels exploitative.
In general the people of Northumbria did seem glad to see tourists, although I saw a couple of places with signs saying “Go Home”. I’m glad I didn’t choose to go to Cornwall at least. The Cornish hate visitors, even though the county relies on tourism for their economy.
There is a saying: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. When going somewhere in the UK (but particularly Cornwall), and being made to feel like an unwelcome intrusion, I have often felt like saying ‘ok fine, we’ll go home and you can all go back to living on the proceeds of tin, or whatever you had before tourism arrived’.
Ok that’s my rant for today.