The Best of Non Golf
The North East of England
Northumberland and Durham are two of our loveliest counties although they are almost an island. Their east coast is around 100 miles long, beautiful in many places and treacherous to shipping, too. The River Tweed and the Cheviot Hills cut the counties off from Scotland, with few roads crossing the boundaries. And there are few roads crossing the Pennines from Cumbria in the west. Only in the south is there a simple transition from North Yorkshire to Durham.
There will be a preponderance of churches, because there are so many interesting ones, as well as many of great age. During the 19th and 20th centuries Northumberland and Durham were heavily involved in industry. Most of that has now departed. Its effect on the landscape has been, and still is, felt. Industrial archaeology is now a burgeoning industry and there are sites throughout the region. Even little museums in small towns often have gems of their own to share with interested visitors. The tourism people do a good job. And there will be a great many castles.
Let us begin at the start of what we might call modern civilisation and, once again, we are drawn to our Roman legacy by Hadrian’s Wall, that remarkable northern boundary of the Roman occupation of Britain. It is as impressive in Northumberland as it is in Cumbria:
In fact it is almost 60 miles from Hadrian’s Wall to the northern tip of Northumberland at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Hardly surprisingly, once the Romans had departed, this was uncivilised country. An exception was one of the birthplaces of Christianity in Britain, Holy Island or Lindisfarne:
You have to consult the tide tables in order to find out when it is safe to drive across the causeway from the mainland, but it is well worth making the short journey. There is still a feeling of pioneering Christianity to be experienced and the birdlife is stunning to behold. But beware! Some of the terns can be quite vicious defending their territory in the nesting season.
And it was from Lindisfarne that early saints and scholars ventured south to Durham, ruling as Prince Bishops after the Norman Conquest.
We will return to Durham in due course, because it is a fine city. But the outcome of Northumbria’s being effectively ruled from Durham led to a noticeable difference of appearance in the countryside in the two counties. With greater stability and peace, those living in County Durham were able to pursue their agriculture with fewer difficulties and farms and small estates were established. Those living in Northumberland needed the greater security of castles and soldiers. Consequently, for the most part Northumberland’s landscape is one of castles and large estates, relatively fewer trees, and hamlets frequently to be found near park gates, made up of estate cottages.
Northumberland is rich in its castles. It is claimed that there are more castles than in any other English county, a relic of its lawless past. The list of castles about to follow is lengthy. You have been warned!
Although little remains of Berwick-upon-Tweed’s former castle, the town ramparts are remarkably intact:
The town itself is well worthy of a visit, technically an English town, although situated on the north bank of the (Scottish) River Tweed and having been Scottish at times in the past. As a Free Burgh it had to be mentioned specifically in treaties, and, having been omitted from the peace treaty signed at the end of the Crimean War, it was said to be still at war with Russia for some years after!
Built in the 1750s, the Town Hall, is handsome. It has been restored, allowing visitors access to the gaol.
The Town Hall bells are rung also to call worshippers to Holy Trinity Parish Church, because it has no belfry.
It is a unique church, the only one built during Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and most appealing.
The Royal Border Bridge is one of the highlights of the East Coast main railway line from London to Edinburgh.
Another of Northumberland’s ruined castles is Dunstanburgh, perched above the beach in a splendid setting near Craster.
One of the loveliest of the Northumbrian Castles is Bamburgh, founded originally in 547 but developed over many years, even as recently as the late 19th century. Its setting on a cliff towering over the sea and golf course is spectacular.
In the village is the parish church of St Aidan, mostly dating from the 13th century.
Opposite the church is the Grace Darling Museum, commemorating the life and heroism of this remarkable young lady.
Bamburgh Castle looks out to sea where the Farne Islands are home to huge numbers of seabirds and seals. Access is by local boats:
Inland stands Alnwick Castle the second largest inhabited castle in the country (after Windsor Castle).
In its own right it is splendid, but in recent years visitor numbers have risen because the castle has featured in Harry Potter films and Downton Abbey on television. The Duchess of Northumberland has also done much for the castle’s popularity in crafting the Alnwick Garden:
In the park are the ruins of what was probably the earliest Carmelite establishment in Britain, Hulne Priory:
Warkworth Castle has dominated the village overlooking the River Coquet since the 14th and 15th centuries, although it was probably begun in the mid 12th century.
The so-called hermitage, on an island in the river, is probably the remains of a private chapel rather than a hermitage as such.
Warkworth village is handsome and the Church of St Lawrence is the only fairly complete Norman church in Northumberland.
Nearby Coquet Island is maintained as a seabird sanctuary by the RSPB:
Chillingham Castle dates back to the 12th century.
It is reputed to have the finest ghost tour in the country!
The grounds, and especially the Italian Gardens, are highly regarded:
The wild cattle of Chillingham are the only survivors in the world of prehistoric oxen, quite remarkable!
Chillingham Church is small but charming:
Langley Castle, in the South Tyne valley, was built in 1350. It is now a luxurious hotel and restaurant, its 7-foot thick walls ensuring a peaceful night’s sleep.
Callaly Castle is a classical mansion near Whittingham, used as private apartments, but the remains of its predecessor, can be explored some 650 yards away in Thrunton Wood:
Similarly, Bywell Castle is not usually open to the public.
However, St Andrew’s Church has a very fine Anglo-Saxon tower, one of the best in the north-east of England:
For such a small village, with a population in 2011 of 451, Bywell can boast two fine churches, only a hundred yards apart. The other one is St Peter’s, larger than St Andrew’s, but not quite so old:
Visitors to the extensive Corstopitum Roman remains at Corbridge are recommended also to visit Aydon Castle, not only for its handsome fortified manor house but also for its delightful setting.
Barmoor Castle is not old – 19th century – but it was built on a much older site. To the best of my knowledge the castle is no longer occupied and is at risk. There is a neighbouring caravan park.
You will only get distant glimpses of Beaufront Castle as it is a private residence.
Belford Castle is now a working farm:
Bellister Castle was run by the National Trust and let to a tenant, but press reports suggest that it may have come onto the market again:
Belsay Castle is more than just a castle for there is also a fine neo-Grecian hall and charming gardens:
Nearby is the Harnham Buddhist monastery of Aruna Ratanagiri:
Nothing much remains of Birtley Castle, beyond speculation:
Blenkinsopp Castle, like Bellister Castle, has also recently been put up for sale, for what would seem a bargain price:
Bolam Castle is another of those former castles of which only a few earthworks survive:
Bothal Castle is in good repair, and private ownership, so you will need to know the family….
Cartington Castle is, sadly, in ruins:
In contrast, Chipchase Castle is in rude health and very much geared up to events, weddings, shooting, fishing and so on:
It seems that Coupland Castle isn’t actually a castle but a tower house. But it is listed as a castle in Northumberland, so I mention it:
You’ll have a hard job restoring Dally Castle as it is mostly a heap of stones. But its site is handsome:
The remains of Dilston Castle are sufficient to give a good idea of what it looked like originally:
In 2004 restoration work was carried out to secure its future:
Little remains of Edlingham Castle, but what there is is under the care of English Heritage, which may ensure its survival:
Edlingham Church is predominantly Norman.
The village was the home of Margaret Stothard, in the 17th century, the ‘Witch of Edlingham.’
The impressive remains of a Motte and Bailey castle survive at Elsdon, a fine Pele Tower and a gibbet south-east of the village:
Not much remains of Etal Castle, although it is in the care of English Heritage.
Etal itself is an uncommonly pretty village surrounded by the Ford and Etal estates:
Nearby, close to the village of Branxton, was the scene of the Battle of Flodden Field, where, in 1513, King James IV of Scotland became the last king to die in battle in the British Isles.
Featherstone Castle has had a number of uses over the years:
This year it hosted the Edward Carpenter Gay Men’s Event, for instance.
Dating back to the late 13th century, Ford Castle is these days a residential centre for young persons:
Another fine Motte and Bailey castle – or, at least, the remains – are to be found at Gunnerton Castle:
Most bizarre of the fates befalling Northumbrian castles is what happened to Haggerston Castle:
Halton Castle is a domestic residence of some elegance (and very tall chimneys), attached to a surviving Pele Tower:
Little remains of Haltwhistle Castle, but the Parish Church is quite pleasing:
And, if the children are bored, give them a ride on the steam-hauled South Tynedale Railway:
It has ambitious plans to restore the old link to Alston:
Back to the castles! Little of Harbottle Castle survives, although its few fragments make for dramatic pictures:
Haughton Castle is handsome, overlooking the waters of the North Tyne. It is a private residence but there are attractive holiday cottages and fishing is available:
What is left of Castle Heaton is now part of a range of farm buildings. One can only imagine that if this were in Burgundy it would be filled with the finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But it is in Northumberland and grapes do not grow well so far north!
In Hexham the Moot Hall and Old Jail are survivors from a former castle:
But there is much more to Hexham than these two relics. Pride of place goes to wonderfully historic Hexham Abbey:
Architecturally, it is stunning. Its arcading stands out as do the wonderful misericords, screens and painted panels. The former monks’ night stair, enabling them to maintain the holy offices during the night, survives from the monastic age. The crypt is a very early reminder that Christianity brought visitors (pilgrims) to such buildings, the crypt being constructed with a separate entrance and exit to enable pilgrims to visit without overcrowding. Look carefully and you may notice that some of the stones bear inscriptions in latin. The masons who built Hexham Abbey had no qualms about using stones from Hadrian’s Wall or other convenient roman sources. There are three Roman altars in the church, and there is a Roman monument to Flavinus. The Anglo-Saxon Acca Cross was set up in 740. The Frith Stool is Anglo-Saxon and gave sanctuary to any who sat in it. It is thought to have been used for Northumbrian coronations. Also Anglo-Saxon is the font bowl, although its stone dates from Roman times.
I must also mention the magnificent organ built by Lawrence Phelps from the United States. It is an exemplary instrument using the minimum of stops and pipework to create something with the performance of an organ twice as big. I was lucky enough to record a number of marvellous performances on this in the days when the BBC still made ‘proper’ programmes.
After all this culture maybe we should have a flutter on the horses at Hexham Racecourse, 600 feet up on the hills outside the town:
It’s now time to reconnect with our Northumbrian castles!
I have omitted a few minor castle remains, and so we pass to Mitford, now a ruin. There is, however, public access:
If you want to live in a castle, try Morpeth Castle – sleeps seven!
I am going to put in a word for Northumbrian smallpipes. They are similar in style and purpose to the better-known bagpipes of Scotland and Galicia, but they are far less aggressive! In fact they are remarkably sweet toned and rather beautiful to some ears (mine included).
If you are in Morpeth take a look at the Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum where you can sample recordings:
Restoration work has enabled Newcastle Castle to be re-opened to the public:
The Castle is situated overlooking a massive railway junction which in days of steam was a Mecca for railway photographers.
We’ll return to Newcastle later. Castles still call, and Norham is next:
Ogle Castle is now a private residence offering bed and breakfast to visitors:
Otterburn Castle is condemned to the list of castles of which there is little or no trace:
The village of Otterburn, however, survives, on the edge of vast military ranges.
In 1388 there was a major battle at Otterburn between the Scots and English with over 1000 English troops slain or captured. The dead were taken to Elsdon Church, a rare church boasting a hearse house:
I referred to Elsdon Castle earlier in this survey.
Ponteland Castle thrives today as the Blackbird Inn:
The small town of Ponteland has its own website:
And from this website I gather that there is an annual wheelbarrow race on New Year’s morning!
A good deal of Prudhoe Castle survives and is open to the public:
Prudhoe Hall and the Roman Catholic Church, both late 19th century, have some architectural interest:
There was once a castle at Seaton Delaval but there is little trace of it today. The village remains:
However, it is Seaton Delaval Hall that steals the show. At least today the Hall is in the sober hands of the National Trust. In its day the Hall was the scene of outrageous parties:
As with Seaton Delaval Castle you will have to search diligently to find any trace of Sewingshields Castle – a depression in a field.
Shawdon Castle no longer exists. Shawdon Hall was later built on the site:
Of Simonburn Castle only a few stones remain:
Aycliffe village is old, with a church partially dating back to saxon times. There are a number of pubs in the village. Do not confuse it with Newton Aycliffe, a new town close by which should be avoided at all costs!
Barnard Castle is a handsome little town sitting on a hillside running down a hill to the castle and the River Tees.
The town itself is generally rather handsome, notably the Butter Market. I haven’t been for some years but the area is renowned for its cheese. Whether it is available locally I cannot say.
But THE building of Barnard Castle is the Bowes Museum, an extraordinary 19th century French chateau opened in 1892. It has 10,000 beautiful things housed in 22 exhibition rooms, with paintings by El Greco, Goya, Boucher, Courbet, Sassetta and Tiepolo, French 18th century furniture, tapestries, period rooms and dolls and doll’s houses. Stupendous!
Billingham is a vast industrial area of factories, more factories and even more factories. Yet hidden away is a tiny fragment of antiquity, St Cuthbert’s Church, founded in 860 and with an Anglo-Saxon tower and Anglo-Saxon nave. Remarkable!
Bishop Auckland was an industrial town, but much survives from earlier, not least the Bishop’s Palace (home of the Bishop of Durham) and its attendant Bishop’s Park (open to the public). The Palace is well served artistically.
The Chapel of St Peter is renowned.
There are two fine parish churches in Bishop Auckland. St Andrew’s and St Anne’s run jointly under one vicar.
Bishop Auckland Golf Course is unusual in having a front nine with four par fives (including three consecutively), three par threes (including two consecutively) and only two par 4s, one very short of its kind.
The church of St Helen’s, Auckland can also boast a long history.
St Helen’s Hall is a handsome building of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Bishop Middleham once held a favourite seat of the bishops of Durham, but the house no longer stands. However the church of St Michael is nearly all 13th Century.
The historian Robert Surtees worshipped at St Michael’s. He is buried in the churchyard.
For most of us Brancepeth Castle is the name of a fine golf course, notable for its many hazardous crossings of deep chasms, many qualifying for lavish, military style bridges. One of the most imposing sections comes around the turn when back-to-back par threes, each over 200 yards, play too and from the walls of Brancepeth Castle. Heroic stuff!
Also abutting the golf course is St Brandon’s church with its fine Cosin style woodwork as well as much history.
Chester-le-Street is old. It was an important Roman garrison. Nothing really remains of the old, although the present church of St Mary and St Cuthbert was begun in the 11th century.
County and international cricket is played at Chester-le-Street.
From the cricket ground there are good views of Lumley Castle.
Also nearby is the fanciful Lambton Castle.
I shall mention Consett as the third highest market town in England. It was a place of huge steel making industry. It is now largely a ghost town. It was the first town in the world to have a Salvation Army band.
Darlington is synonymous with the Stockton and Darlington Railway from which most of the railways of this land developed.
The first engine to carry passengers was Locomotion No 1.
It is now preserved at the Head of Steam Museum along with three other locomotives.
The spire of St Cuthbert’s church is described as ‘sharp as a needle’. This is an old church dating back in part to the end of the 12th century.
The attractively named Edmonbyers is a centre for outdoor pursuits in isolated country near the Derwent reservoir.
Egglescliffe is a small village, facing Yarm, across the river in Yorkshire. I have never been, but various guide books single out a church which is given a separate name in each. St Mary’s, St John the Evangelist, and St John the Baptist. Whatever it is called it appears to be an interesting church.
Escomb is one of the most complete Anglo-Saxon churches in England and is VERY IMPORTANT!
St Godric is reputed to have lived at Finchale Priory until he was 105. After his time the Priory was considerably enlarged for the use of the monks of Durham. It is now in ruins, but they are handsome ruins and well worthy of visit.
Frosterley is a village in Weardale which for centuries produced marble, used in cathedrals and churches throughout the world, notably in Durham Cathedral. Sadly, the quarry closed in 2016.
Gainford is a rather pretty village, mostly Georgian in style.
It is recorded by Sir Timothy Eden that in St Mary’s Church, on three successive days, the vicar married a Pigg, christened a Lamb, and buried a Hogg.
Dr Johnson referred to Gateshead as ‘a dirty lane leading to Newcastle.’ Even by the start of the 19th century it was little more than a village, oak trees and 11 windmills. The Wikipedia entry lists most important things and people in Gateshead’s history.
Room should be found for a bigger entry about the Angel of the North, which divides opinion.
I have sung at the Sage theatre in Gateshead and I can vouch for the lovely quality of sound to be found there. And it is home to the Royal Northern Sinfonia, one of the friendliest groups of professional musicians around.
Gibside Chapel near Gateshead is the remains of a larger house now in disrepair, but lovingly restored and the fine gardens of Capability Brown.
Greatham has been known for its salt for centuries.
More recently it has been famed for the Hospital of God.
Until 1962 Greatham Hall was the largest house in the village.
The church of St John the Baptist dates from the 12th century but has been largely rebuilt through the years. It has a Frosterley marble altar.
Hamsterley Forest is a vast acreage of some of the finest forest in the country, with tourism promoted.
Hart, close to Hartlepool, is the town’s mother church. It is reputed to be part Anglo-Saxon although it has had much modernisation in the millennium and a half since it was first built.
Hartlepool is a strange place, partly industrial, partly maritime, partly shabby housing and a golf course that is hidden away under a huge viaduct with a single, exceedingly narrow, tunnel entrance. The first entry may seem a bit arbitrary, starting with restaurants and hotels (of which Hartlepool has few – and none of interest) but it gradually gets into the history and gives you a fair view of what Hartlepool is really like!
Haughton le Skerne is a suburb of Darlington but has a fine parish church.
Heighington is a village with a particularly large village green.
St Michaels Church is fine, ancient and has a rare oak pulpit.
High Force is England’s highest waterfall.
Cow Green Reservoir is partly in Durham and partly in Cumbria. From it flows Caldron Snout tumbling 200 ft down the hillside.
Houghton-le-Spring was a mining town, but its older associations were particularly with St Michael and All Angels church and with Bernard Gilpin, the famous evangelist, in particular.
Hurworth was the birthplace of the mathematician William Emerson.
Hurworth Place, nearby, boasts the old Croft Bridge.
Hylton Castle is a historic gatehouse, castle or keep.
Jarrow was a shipbuilding town, famous for being the ‘the town that was murdered’ following the desperate hunger march after the shipyards were closed.
Of greater spiritual interest, however, is the double monastery of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, a great centre of early religious learning, spearheaded by the Venerable Bede.
The Roman fort of Longovicium was located where, later, the town of Lanchester was founded close to Consett. There are some Roman remains in the parish church.
Marsden Rock is a mass of weathered limestone on the Durham coast, frequented by kittiwakes, fulmars and cormorants. An iconic lift takes visitors down the cliff to the beach bar of Marsden Grotto which specialises in seafood.
Middleton-in-Teesdale was founded in the early 19th century when the London Lead Company moved its headquarters there from Blanchland. The Lead Company has gone, but the town retains most of its old buildings.
Monkwearmouth’s connection with monks at Jarrow is famous, as also is the Stadium of Light where Sunderland football club now ply their trade.
The village of Norton is a part of Stockton-on-Tees. There are some nice old buildings in it. St Mary’s church is the only Anglo-Saxon cruciform church in the north of England.
The Penshaw Monument is a folly erected to honour the Earl of Durham, who was also the first High Commissioner for Canada. The views from it are very fine.
Peterlee is a ‘new’ town of some awfulness. You can read about it here:
Castle Eden Dene nearby, however, is a grand walk in good weather.
There was once a Roman fort at Piercebridge, the largest in Durham. The remains of the foudations are impressive as are the stones of the former Roman bridge.
On the Yorkshire side of Piercebridge stands the George Hotel, in which can be found the Grandfather’s clock celebrated in the song by Henry Clay Work, the words of which we all know even though we probably cannot name the author.
Pittington Church is very old, Anglo-Saxon, and very rewarding to visit. The north arcade is quite spectacular.
Roker is an affluent suburb of Sunderland which enjoys a promenade and sandy beaches. The early 20th century church of St Andrew in the arts and crafts style is well regarded.
Ryton was once a colliery village but is now a pleasant suburb of Gateshead. The church of the Holy Cross has a fine spire.
Seaham was designed as a port to ship coal, which it no longer does.
Seaham Hall was the scene of the unfortunate marriage of Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke. Byrob loathed Seaham, writing to a friend, ‘Upon this dreary coast we have nothing but county meetings and shipwrecks; abd I have this day dined upon fish, which probably dined upon the crews of several colliers lost in the gales.’ The Hall is now a luxury hotel.
Sedgefield is an agreeable place with a number of fine buildings. For many years Tony Blair was its MP. It is a great hunting centre.
Hardwick Hall near Sedgefield had descended to being a workers’ training centre and maternity hospital, but rescue work by Durham County Council has led to a fine restoration of James Paine’s buildings and gardens which include an octagonal temple, a banqueting house and a sham gatehouse.
Shildon possibly had Roman origins and was certainly mentioned in Anglo-Saxon times. However it was rarely more than a few cottages until the coming of the railway. This transformed Shildon.
Recently (2004) a branch of the National Railway Museum was opened in Shildon. It contains permanent exhibits and, often, visiting locomotives.
South Shields was established in the first century AD. Indeed, the Roman fort of Arbeia is the first port of call for most visitors.
Staindrop has two calling cards, St Mary’s church and nearby Raby Castle.
Raby Castle is magnificent.
Stanhope is known as the capital of Weardale and famous for its lime trees.
Stanhope Castle is from the 18th century.
St Thomas’s Church is interesting.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Stanhope was the discovery in 1843 of a remarkable collection of Bronze Age tools found by workmen building a tramway for a limestone quarry.
Stockton-on-Tees has a number of interesting facts but its chief claim to historical fame is its open air market on Wednesdays and Saturdays which has been in operation since 1310. It has more than 100 stalls.
History was made at Stockton when the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened in 1825.
John Walker in 1827 made the first friction matches in Stockton.
Other interesting facts about Stockton can be found at:
Sunderland is Durham’s largest town. It has been a ship-building and glass-making town, but its fortunes have changed immensely, as reflected in the far from happy downward spiral of its football team.
Ushaw is a former catholic seminary founded in 1808. Its status changed in 2011, allowing greater public access and events.
Washington has connections with George Washington, first president of the United States, but most of it today is a drab new town, much occupied by the Nissan factory.
Whitburn is a little seaside village with a part 13th century church. Apparently it was the custom to offer newly married couples a hot-pot of mulled ale and spirits.
The church of St Andrew at Winston is worthy of investigation, particularly its remaining 13th century features.
At Witton-le-Wear Witton Castle stands, having suffered dismantling and fire. It remains in the form of a grand leisure park with attendant facilities.
Wolsingham is an old village with number of charming old houses. Peace was interrupted from 1864 to 2008 with the opening of a big steelworks. But it has now been flattened
We end with one of ‘loathly worm’ tales from County Durham.