Motorhome travel: Northumberland National Park and Coast
We are chasing the sun. It is mid-January and we are deep in Kielder Forest, as close as we can get to the Scottish border, riding our mountain bikes on a fast and free-flowing single track through the pine trees.
It is cold and my ears are stinging. But they are also ringing with the last words of my editor – "Get sunny pictures!" – before I set off on this fantastic slow road adventure to England’s most northerly and least populated county.
It hasn’t been easy, finding those golden patches of light. While we are snug in our motorhome at night and wrapped up warm in thermals and Merino wool during the day, we have seen some weather on this trip.
It’s been cool and windless, yet cloudy, with occasional moments of blue sky brilliance offering tantalising glimpses of sun. But the sun’s not why you come on a camping trip to England’s extremes, is it? You come to Northumberland for space and peace and a little adventure: walking, cycling and stargazing... when the sky clears.
I am here, in mid-winter, to explore the northern national parks for a book about taking slow journeys through England. Northumberland is our first destination. It’s a good time to come. There are few people about, few places open and the countryside is quiet and lonely. Snow is forecast and the sky is heavy but fast moving, offering those all-important patches of blue we’ve been craving.
Northumberland National Park covers almost a quarter of Northumberland, an area of some 400 square miles. It contains the largest man-made forest in Europe and the largest area of protected dark sky in Europe. It was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2003 because of the lack of light pollution so, if you’re going to see celestial happenings, you’ll see them best from here. It’s also far enough north to witness, on the right night, the aurora borealis.
A brilliant place for a motorhoming trip
If you don’t mind driving north then I recommend it as a brilliant place for a motorhoming trip, even in winter. The countryside is open, roads are good and there is space for all.
The B6318, which runs along the southern edge of the park and alongside Hadrian’s Wall is a pleasure to drive because the views are so fantastic. It’s straight too, in many places, which means you go up and over the hills rather than around them, and this also means you get to see the countryside.
There are lots of places to stop and marvel at the effort it took to build a wall across a country but one of the best places is Steel Rigg. The climb up Cat Stairs rewards with 360-degree views of some of the finest sections of ‘wall country’.
It’s beautiful, and we clamber up the crag as the light disappears on our way to overnight before hitting the trail at Kielder.
After our forest cycle at Kielder we head northwest on the A68 north to continue our journey northeast. We stop at Rochester, at a Brit Stop at the Redesdale Arms, where we have a big dinner by the fire while snow swirls all around outside.
In the morning we wake to find a couple of inches of crunchy, squeaking snow so we take a walk through the nature reserve that’s behind the pub. In the blue before dawn it is eerily silent, glowing faintly with reflected light. A few birds flit about in the trees while livestock stand still, as if waiting for the sun to warm them. We feel privileged to have seen this as a touch of orange colours the clouds to the southeast.
With caution, we think, there is no need to fear snow, especially in a motorhome. We have heating, water, food and we have good cold-weather kit. We’ll be fine, proving winter is no reason not to camp. We chuck snowballs in the pub car park, wondering if we’ll get out, and if we couldn’t, would it matter?
A bag of grit later we set off towards Bamburgh, cross country on the B6341. The snow thins the lower we get, which is a relief from a practical point of view, but we still miss it.
Bamburgh is Northumberland’s crowning glory, the beautifully situated castle sitting atop a rocky promontory overlooking the North Sea. There is evidence that the site has been occupied for over 10,000 years.
We park in the car park below the castle only to find that it’s only open at weekends in winter. But no bother. We pull on our boots and walk through the dunes to the beach, eager to seek out the view of the castle we all know.
The wind is blowing hard and it’s cold but sunny (such a refreshing change from the weather at home in Cornwall in January, which tends to be wet and miserable) and the top layer of sand is blowing across the beach in wispy waves around our ankles. The light is perfect, warm and deep, casting long shadows due to the time of day and year. I am in raptures and clicking away. The castle, reflected in the thin film of water left by the receding waves, looks perfect.
We continue south to explore more castles and the coast. The road (the B1340) skirts the coast through Beadnell on its way to Craster, passing beautiful stretches of beach at Beadnell Bay and Howick. In Craster we buy freshly smoked kippers for our breakfast, although I’m not sure it’s the best choice for a motorhome. We sit on the sea wall and take pictures of the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle that’s framed beautifully by pillars on the pierhead.
The following night we stay at a Brit Stop in Amble, a café called Artique @ the Marina (they really are lifesavers at this time of the year when few campsites are open). In the morning we wake up to another bitterly cold but beautiful dawn, so pull on our cold weather gear (again) and take a walk down to the harbour. It’s a lovely little village with cafés, beach huts and a cluster of small businesses near the dock, a sign that tourism is making headway.
If we were wandering around at a more sensible time we’d be able to buy Geordie Bangers, seafood and handmade cards after sipping an espresso. It feels very cosmopolitan, but is in total contrast to the man we meet on the beach a few minutes later: he’s looking for sea coal to put on the fire.
We fall into conversation and he tells us how he’s been doing it for over 50 years. He’s the last one who still bothers – even though he has central heating – because the sea coal is getting scarce. But, as he says, the point is about getting out, making an effort and refusing to buckle under the weather or winter. He looks like he’s in his seventies, but he tells us he’s 80 years young. We can believe him. We can only hope that motorhoming in winter will have the same effect on us.
One of our final stops is St Mary’s Island, a tidal outcrop topped by a quintessential lighthouse-style lighthouse. It’s just lovely and I am so glad we made the effort to come here now, at this time of the year. The sky is an incredible blue and the sun lights up the lighthouse at a perfect angle. I snap away, thinking of my editor’s last words.