Northumberland is England’s most northerly county, right on the border with Scotland (the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed used to be part of Scotland, and even has its own tartan!) Populated by wide sandy beaches overlooked by ancient castles, this is a mysterious and religious land, but Holy Island is more known for stranded motorists, who don’t look at the tide times.
Aside from a few towns (like Hexham), this is a rural paradise of pine forests, which is why there are so many red squirrels (grey squirrels are not to blame). Another reason why wildlife flourishes here is lack of people (the lowest population in England) and hardly any light pollution – Northumberland is best for dark skies!
One journalist was asked to travel across England to find his favourite county. Shropshire won, but only by a sliver. Northumberland got pipped at the post, because the journalist did not like the wind, rain and cold weather! The Farne Islands (the favourite wildlife-watching spot of Sir David Attenborough) offers boat tours to view puffins (‘sea parrots’ whose beaks turn from grey to bright orange when breeding).
This is also a main spot to view seals. But for the most part, leave seals well alone (they give vicous bites and disturbing seals can cause them to spook and abandon pups), Also keep dogs away from them (pups are often hidden in sand dunes). If you find an injured seal pup, never put it back in the sea (it could drown or freeze), as blubber is not thick enough. Call British Divers Marine Life Rescue for help.
To the Island of Tides is a super book by Scottish writer Alistair Moffat who travels back to the island of Lindsfarne, where he used to spend time as a child. This famed ‘Holy Island’ (known for its monastery) is also infamous in that people who don’t look at tide times, often get stranded in their cars and have to be rescued. Walking from his home in the Borders, the author takes us on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of saints and scholars, before arriving for a secular retreat. This walk through history turns into a meditation on the power of place and also a more personal journey.
the Farne Islands of Northumberland
The Farne Islands are just a couple of miles from the town of Seahouses in Northumberland. This is Sir David Attenborough’s favourite wildlife-watching spot, home to basking Atlantic and grey seals and one of the best colonies of puffins (who reunite with the same mates each year). No humans live on the island (apart from National Trust staff to monitor) though there are boat trips.
But of course, with tourism brings its own problems, so live a simple sustainable life, in order to avoid overtourism in this beautiful area. Landing has been temporarily banned, due to fears of avian influenza. When visitors return, they are advised to wear hats, due to Arctic terns dive-bombing unsuspecting spectators, to protect their nests.
the haunting (very cold) North Sea
The North Sea is the coldest in the world, with northern areas (like Northumberland) being on the same latitude as Scandinavia (the North Sea also houses several islands on the Scottish and Danish coast including Sylt, known as The Hamptons of Germany, first made popular in the 60s by playboy Gunter Sachs and his then-wife Brigitte Bardot). It’s still expensive to visit today, known for its 40km of beautiful seaside walks alongside ‘kniepsand’ dunes’. The North Sea is also majorly over-fished, so native seabirds are at risk of starvation (a Bill is presently going through to hopefully ban fishing of sandeels (those silvery fish you see in photos of puffins) so they have food to eat.
Never take pebbles from beaches (illegal in Italy) as it disturbs ecosystems. Keep dogs away from seaweed (they like to play with fronds) as it expands in the stomach as it dries. If exploring rock pools, leave creatures alone (crabs etc) as many are injured, once returned to sea. Wear wellies (not flops) as wet rocks and seaweed are slippery.
Ghost-fishing waste (discarded fishing nets etc) is a major issue in the North Sea, as is pollution from oil, which affects seabirds and marine creatures. In 2023, Anglian Water was fined £2.65 million for letting untreated sewage overflow into the North Sea due to decommissioning equipment, and failed to act on data due to no alarm system (this is the largest ever environmental fine). Report sewage overflow to Surfers Against Sewage. This is usually brown foamy water that laps at the shore. They say ‘if it smells funky – it’s probably shit’.
Recently the government approved a controversial oil and gas field in the North Sea, saying it will lower people’s bills. But climate lawyer Tessa Khan says that the oil field (to be located near the Shetland Isles) will keep us locked into fossil fuels for decades, and do nothing to reduce bills, as oil will be shipped abroad, then sold back at high profit. Greenpeace says that the Prime Minister has proved that he puts profits of oil companies above everyday people.
a complete history of Northerners
Northerners is a highly-reviewed history of the north of England, from the ice age to the present day. This history of place and people lays out dramatic events that created the north (waves of migration, invasions and battles) and shows how the people of the north have shaped our world in unexpected ways.
At least six Roman emperors ruled from York. Northumbria was Europe’s leading cultural and intellectual centre. And northern writers, activists, artists and comedians are celebrated the world over, from Wordsworth to Peter Kay.
Yet the book also looks at how the North was affected by the factory and pit closures in the 1980s and looks at the political north-sout divide and the rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire. But overall, this book explores what it means to be be northern, a landmark and timely book.
A rich and kaleidoscopic history of a region, its landscape, industries, people and culture. Always entertaining and enlightening, as full of good things as the North itself. Stuart Maconie
Brian Groom is a journalist who mostly worked for the Financial Times, and is an expert on regional affairs. He lives in the South Pennines.
botanical sodas from Northumberland
Rather than keep supporting the major cola and other soft drink brands, support homegrown artisans that use natural ingredients and real sugar to sell delicious sodas in zero-waste packaging. Perfect for hot summer days. Fentimans (Northumberland) makes botanically-brewed drinks in glass bottles or cans. Often sold in pubs, most contains a little ginger. The company also sells tonic waters (including a low-calorie version).
Avoid caffeine (and tonic waters due to quinine) for pregnancy/nursing and affected medical conditions.
- Elderflower rose tonic
- Sparkling elderflower
- Victorian & raspberry lemonade
- Ginger beer & pink ginger
- Curiosity & cherry cola
- Dandelion & burdock
- Lemon shandy