With moody moors, seafront castles and dramatic waterfalls, the country roads of Northumbria were ideal for teenage drives with the girlfriend of the moment. Years later, they're every bit as great
I hadn’t been back to the moors of Northumbria for years. As a teenager, blessed with a new driving license and tolerant parents, it was just the place to take the girlfriend of the moment for a drive into the countryside. From the waterfalls of Teesdale, over the hills towards Derwent Reservoir and Hadrian’s Wall, or up the coast to Warkworth and Dunstanburgh. As much as anything, it was independence, a chance to get away from home for an afternoon. Now, as a less reckless driver, though still borrowing my Dad’s car, I was back to explore some of the first places I visited on my own. And it was great - a real reminder of the treasures on our own doorsteps.
Heading further up the coast was a logical extension of passing the driving test and no longer being tied to the North Tyneside beaches served by the Metro. Tynemouth, Cullercoats and Whitley Bay served their purpose for a few summers, but the end of the amusement park at Spanish City was the end of our interest. We headed north, to the massive seafront castle at Dunstanburgh, looming out of the gloom one moment then bathed in sunshine the next on a typically unpredictable Northumbrian afternoon. Or to Warkworth, where a still-lively market town surrounded another castle in the loop of the river, with the nearby beach almost an afterthought.
Hadrian’s Wall was less of a draw: the legacy of too many school history lessons. But while we skipped the likes of Hexham, we found greater joy in Blanchland, in the depths of winter, living up to its name with a sheet of ice across the car park and snow on the hills; or in summer, busy with walkers telling each other the legend of the ghost that stalks the Lord Crewe Arms, perhaps hoping to swipe the leftovers from a hearty lunchtime stottie. Blanchland itself, a tiny village around an old monastery, is an ideal starting point to explore the moors of the Durham/Northumberland border.
For me, regardless of season, the moors have always been a bit special. Some might find their emptiness, save for the hardy sheep, bleak or even intimidating. But take time to adjust to the quiet - a tranquillity almost unimaginable for our crowded islands - and steadily, whatever the weather, the landscape is transformed from blank canvas to masterpiece of simplicity. And it’s subtly different every day, whether snow-dappled or dusted with a crisp frost, bathed in glorious sunshine over bright purple heather, or at its most mysterious when the path climbs out of mist-filled hollows into unexpected sunlight before dropping back into low cloud.
If that all sounds like the emotionally overwrought world of Victorian literature, there are more active distractions as well. Derwent reservoir is a good spot for sailing and fishing, while nearby Slaley Hall boasts the region’s leading championship golf course and, further north, Kielder Forest has long been a mecca for outdoors activity.
For a slower, more charming pace of life, the river valleys have much to recommend them. The swirling waters of High Force, just beyond Middleton-in-Teesdale, mark the southern boundaries of the region with England’s most powerful single waterfall. The next valley up, Weardale, long-time home of a battily benevolent great-aunt, mixes pastoral scenery with charming villages - and great lunches in Frosterley’s Black Bull, a place that would shudder at the term ‘gastropub’ while offering good, solid, locally sourced food and supporting the region’s microbreweries.
Tynedale, dominated by the Roman Wall, has larger towns - Hexham, Corbridge - and a more vibrant cultural scene spilling over from Newcastle-Gateshead. Encouragingly, these high streets are resisting the call of the chains. Instead, established local firms deliver something a little different from the mainstream, while having time to get to know their customers rather than simply send out a pimply youth in ill-fitting nylon to accost them at the door of the trading estate.
Hexham is one option as a base for a holiday in the region, as is the historic cathedral city of Durham, a city of rare charm and with good transport links to the rest of the UK. As well as access to the countryside, the grandeur of the cathedral and castle rising above thickly wooded riverbanks is another special attraction, while the town offers a good range of traditional pubs (try The Victoria or The Shakespeare) in addition to Friday night drinking halls along North Road.
Where to stay
Durham’s newest boutique hotel, Fallen Angel, has already earned rave reviews for its Art Deco-themed rooms. Alternatively Hexham’s County Hotel is a more traditional old coaching inn, right in the heart of town. For a real retreat, try the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland.
Where to eat
The Black Bull in Frosterley provides hearty fare and great beers, while Durham’s Bistro 21 has built up a good reputation.