Empty beaches, epic castles and deadly gardens in England's most overlooked county

Fans of Harry Potter will recognise parts of Alnwick Castle as Hogwarts - © Darren Turner
Fans of Harry Potter will recognise parts of Alnwick Castle as Hogwarts - © Darren Turner

Northumberland can be unfairly dismissed as people whizz through to Scotland (or south to England). But, gosh, they’re missing out... on near-empty beaches, epic castles, lush gardens and a flurry of festivals.

Alnwick Food Festival (alnwickfoodfestival.co.uk; Sept 22-23) is one of the oldest of its kind in the North East. Now in its 14th year, it celebrates the best of the region’s food and drink with tasting sessions, demonstrations, interactive events and plenty of family street entertainment.

The town itself, with its striking (inhabited) castle, boldly contemporary garden, medieval street pattern and fiercely independent shops is less than 10 minutes from wild beaches. And, on this stretch of coast, deliciously fresh crabs and lobsters...

River Aln - Credit: istock
Wild beaches are just five miles away Credit: istock

Who lives in a castle?

The Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, that’s who. And despite being the second-largest inhabited castle in the UK, weirdly, as you walk through the town, you’re unaware of Alnwick Castle (alnwickcastle.com; adults £16, children £8.50) until you’re almost at the entrance.

It has a requisite moat (why wouldn’t it?), ramparts, towers, dungeon and state rooms dazzling with marble fireplaces, silk wallpapers, gilded ceilings and Italian renaissance art. Children are kept happy with dressing-up, medieval soap-making workshops and, as the castle stood-in for Hogwarts, broomstick-flying lessons.

There’s a sense of magic, too, at next-door Alnwick Garden (alnwickgarden.com; adults £13.20, children £4.95). A 21st-century affair inspired by the Duchess, even non-gardeners will be charmed by the water sculptures, bamboo labyrinth, towering delphiniums and the heady scent of 3,000 roses in the ornamental garden. It’s as much playground as garden – dip your toes in the cascade or snooze in the cherry orchard – apart from the poison garden.

Poison garden - Credit: Getty
Beware the Poison Garden Credit: Getty

Ah yes, the poison garden...

That’s right. Who knew laurel was a source of cyanide? A soothing cuppa is needed. Tucked away on well-named Narrowgate, Bari (Northumbrian for “lovely”) is a “tea brewery” (baritea.co.uk) offering more than 30 loose-leaf teas.

Around the corner from here, at the volunteer-led Bailiffgate Museum (bailiffgatemuseum.co.uk; adults £4, children £1), displays show how little the town has changed. Thankfully, they no longer rely on the wooden fire engine on display, which had to be carried like a sedan chair and seems like a fire risk in itself. 

The town also retains a collection of stoutly independent shops. At Jobson’s (jobsonsofalnwick.co.uk) you can get your saddle repaired; Bell & Sons menswear (bellsofalnwick.co.uk) will kit you out with hip flasks, brogues, cufflinks and even Highland dress; House and Home is an ironmongers and then some; while The Wool Shop is haberdashery heaven.

Looking for a first edition of Marriage Ceremonies in Morocco by Westermarck or a signed copy of Ian McEwan’s Atonement? Reserve several hours for Barter Books (barterbooks.co.uk) a second-hand bookshop whose stacks sprawl through the town’s former Victorian station in a mesmerising but orderly fashion. Sofas and a good station buffet sustain you. Now, put down that book and head to the coast.

... and there’s the seaside too

Yes, within 10 minutes you can be striding the pancake-flat sands at Alnmouth, a smart little village of desirable cottages, Victorian villas, pretty tea rooms and a very posh deli that once, rather astonishingly, was a busy grain port until a storm messed up the river Aln’s channel in 1806.

Alnwick castle - Credit: Getty
Kids will love Alnwick Castle's broomstick-flying lessons Credit: Getty

Pop into what might be England’s smallest museum, The Ferry Hut, (free; donations welcome) where photographs and eclectic bits and bobs explain how ferrymen once rowed holidaymakers across the river. Northumberland’s holidaying coal-miners, it seems, were not averse to a bit of salmon-poaching, too.

Does that mean fresh fish?

Absolutely. Or, more specifically, seafood, as you head up towards Craster, a little fishing village that was once Herring King. Now there are no herring boats but L Robson and Sons’ Victorian smokehouses still do the business so you can pick up some kippers to take home (kipper.co.uk).

Craster - Credit: istock
Head up towards Craster for a bite of fresh fish Credit: istock

Then it’s a brisk scamper to nearby Dunstanburgh Castle (english-heritage.org.uk; adults £6; children £3.60) – whose majestic ruins yawn into the sky from its isolated headland – and back in time for crab sandwiches at The Jolly Fisherman (thejollyfishermancraster.co.uk).

Eating at The Treehouse in Alnwick Garden is as much about the setting as the food. A fairy tale of wooden floors, open beams and twisty branches, you sit in oversized rough-wood chairs and try punchy modern and classic British dishes such as sea bream with shellfish fricassee or slow-cooked beef rump (alnwickgarden.com; two-courses £28.50).

For local seafood – think Craster lobster and Northumbrian crab cakes – served in a homely atmosphere, try Hooked (hookedrestaurant.co.uk; from £15).

I need to walk it all off

Call in at Howick Hall (howickhallgardens.com; adults £7.70; children free) whose gardens are the opposite of the clever conceits of the Duchess’s. Romantic and rambling, its 65-acre arboretum is perfect for stretching the legs. Here you can lose yourself down a path that leads to a little gate, a magical glade and a secret bench for an afternoon snooze.

Howick Hall - Credit: GETTY
Howick Hall Credit: GETTY

And then have a proper snooze

Tucked away from the town centre, The Cookie Jar (telegraph.co.uk/tt-the-cookie-jar-hotel; doubles from £160) is as stylishly quirky as it sounds. A former convent, it’s been converted into 11 chic rooms. For a smart B&B, St Valery (telegraph.co.uk/tt-st-valery; doubles from £140) is five minutes’ walk from the beach. The atmosphere is laid-back and there’s a decked garden for drinks.