Bordering Scotland to the north, the North Sea to the east, Cumbria to the west and Durham to the south, Northumberland has historically been shaped by its location, with the result being a historical and geographical county of contrasts. To the east, Northumberland boasts sweeping agricultural plains, while the rugged hills and moors of the west are famed for their isolated beauty. In stark contrast are the urban, industrial areas of Tyne and Blyth river valleys to the south.
Dotted amongst Northumberland’s wide-ranging landscapes are a number of historic sites which reflect its remarkable past. UNESCO World Heritage listed Hadrian’s Wall is among the most famous, while sites such as the Bronze Age Duddo Five Stones are only reached by the hardiest of walkers, but are equally rewarding. For those with an interest in stunning interiors, Cragside and Bamburgh Castle are unmissable destinations.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the best historic sites in Northumberland.
1. Duddo Five Stones
The Duddo Five Stones is a stone circle north of Duddo in Northumberland, around 4 miles south of the Scottish Border. Until 1903, the stones were known as the Four Stones, but the fifth stone was re-erected to improve the skyline. Originally, there were seven stones on the site, with the empty sockets of two stones being found during an excavation in the 1890s.
The stones, which are formed of a soft sandstone, became deeply fissured by natural weathering since they were first erected in the Early Bronze Age, some 4000 years ago. The site is stunning, offering views of the Cheviot Hills and the Lammermuir Hills.
2. Alnwick Castle
Alnwick Castle in Northumberland is one of the largest castle complexes in England and has been the historic home of the famous Percy family for over 700 years. Known to some as the ‘Windsor of the North’, Alnwick provides a magnificent glimpse into England’s medieval past through the footsteps of some of its most notable players. Alnwick Castle was first founded in 1096 by Norman nobleman Ivo de Vesci, and in its early life faced frequent bombardment by the Scots, including its capture in 1136 by David I of Scotland.
In the 14th century it was sold to the Percy family who undertook substantial building projects, transforming Alnwick into a major fortress along the Scottish border. Today Alnwick Castle remains the seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, with its current owner too a member of the Percy family. Visitors are invited to explore the castle’s impressive picture collection, chapel, and series of museums weaved throughout that celebrate the history of both Alnwick Castle and the wider Northumberland area.
3. Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall is a magnificent remnant of Roman Britain and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Built under the rule of Roman Emperor Hadrian between 122 and 130 AD, it took six legions to complete this once 73 mile wall – 80 miles by Roman measurements. At the time of its completion, Hadrian’s Wall would have been between 13 and 15 feet high, made of stone and turf and would have stretched east to west from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth. The purpose of Hadrian’s Wall was once thought to have been as a fortification to keep out the Scots, but today historians believe it was a way of monitoring movement between the north and south in an attempt to consolidate the Empire.
Large sections of Hadrian’s Wall remain intact in northern England and these are surrounded by various Roman monuments, forts and other ruins. There are several ways to visit all of these sections and sites, notably as part of the National Trail, which is a signposted walk, by bus, by bicycle and via tour groups. The 15 metre section pictured above is known as Planetrees and is quite central along the trail. Other key sites along the Hadrian’s Wall trail include Corbridge Roman Town, Chesters Roman Fort, Arbeia Roman Fort, Birdoswald Roman Fort, Vindolanda, Segedunum Roman Fort and Housesteads Roman Fort.
Vindolanda was one of the main Ancient Roman wall forts of Hadrian’s Wall, the 73-mile barrier built by the Emperor Hadrian from 122 AD. However, Vindolanda is thought to have been inhabited by the Romans from 85 AD, following the victory of the Roman Governor Agricola at the Battle of Mons Graupius, well before this iconic wall was built. Prior to functioning as a wall fort, the initial role played by Vindolanda was to guard the supply route known as Stanegate, which ran from east to west.
Today, Vindolanda remains very well preserved and there is much to see. The structures at Vindolanda range from a pre-Hadriatic baths complex to a post-Roman mausoleum and church. There are military offices and barracks dating to the Severan period and numerous sites from the 3rd and 4th centuries including houses, workshops, a Praetorium, a temple and more baths.
Cragside is an historic house in Northumberland that was once the country retreat of the first Lord Armstrong, a successful Victorian industrialist in the 19th century. The first building on the site of Cragside was constructed in the 1860s as a two-storey shooting lodge, after its founder William Armstrong fell in love with the area whilst out walking there with friends. From 1869 to 1884, the house saw a transformation when it was expanded with designs by leading Victorian architect Robert Norman Shaw, becoming the ‘fairy palace’ that had been envisioned.
Not only was Cragside a marvellous palatial home, it was also first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectric power, enabled by Lord Armstrong’s love of efficiency and engineering. Cragside is today managed by the National Trust and is open to the public. Its many eminent rooms may be explored, including the Drawing Room with its ornate Italian marble chimney piece, while throughout a stunning collection of art and furniture may be admired. Among these are portraits of Cragside’s founders, and many other intriguing paintings and antique objects.
6. Hexham Abbey
Completed in AD678, Hexham Abbey is one of the earliest seats of Christianity in England and still sits at the heart of the town today. The Grade I listed place of Christian worship is dedicated to St Andrew, and was built up during the 12th century to its current form, with additions in the 20th century. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey became the parish church of Hexham.
In 2014, the Abbey regained ownership of its former monastic buildings which had until then been used as Hexham magistrates’ court. Today, they are used for a permanent exhibition and visitor centre. Notable features of the church include the Anglo-Saxon Crypt, the centuries-old Night Stair and the Phelps organ, which was the first of its kind to be built in a European church.
7. Woodhorn Museum
Forming part of Museums Northumberland, Woodhorn depicts the lives of coal miners and features original equipment from the former colliery, including two headframes, a winding house, other engine houses, a steam winding engine, a building with ventilation equipment, stables, a joiners and blacksmith shop and an office.
Several buildings contain original equipment and mining exhibits, with a particular highlight being a permanent collection of history, art and science exhibits created by the Ashington Group.
8. Dunstanburgh Castle
Originally built as a symbol of baronial power and status, Dunstanburgh Castle is now a striking ruin on the coast of Northumberland. Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster began construction of Dunstanburgh Castle in 1313 and by 1322 it was completed. The demise of Dunstanburgh Castle occurred after the Wars of the Roses however, when the castle was twice besieged by the Yorkists, eventually falling to them in 1464. Following this the castle largely fell to ruin, with its location not deemed strategic enough to warrant further development.
Today, Dunstanburgh Castle is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public. The huge twin-towered keep may be viewed, originally built by the Earl of Lancaster in the 14th century, alongside some of the castle’s sprawling curtain wall. Dotted along it are a number of imposing towers, including the Constable’s Tower, Lilburne Tower, and Egyncleugh, that give an insight into the scale of the vast fortification.
9. Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle is an imposing castle overlooking the Northumberland coast, that once served as the seat for the Kings of Northumbria. Restored to its former glory in the 19th century, today Bamburgh provides a glimpse into the area’s thousands of years of fascinating history. The site upon which Bamburgh Castle sits was once occupied by the ancient Votadini tribe in around 800 BC, with the first mention of the castle itself dating back to 547 AD.
During the Wars of the Roses, Bamburgh Castle was attacked by the Yorkist Edward IV, becoming the first castle in England to fall to gunpowder. In the years following the war Bamburgh fell into disrepair, and by the time it was put up for sale in 1894 it was half-derelict. Its second lease of life came when it was purchased by William Armstrong, an industrialist entrepreneur often nicknamed the ‘Magician of the North’ for his innovative scientific discoveries. Armstrong restored Bamburgh Castle to the glorious state in which it is found today, and his family have lived there ever since. Today Bamburgh Castle is open for the public to explore its fascinating story and incredible coastal views. 14 state rooms are filled with artefacts and heirlooms from the site’s hundreds of years of history, while the magnificent King’s Hall is a masterpiece of Victorian design and features a host of artwork and stunning oak interiors.
10. Lindisfarne Priory
An important Christian site, Lindisfarne Priory was a Benedictine monastery built in the 7th century which even today remains a place of pilgrimage. Its location on what is known as the Holy Island adds to the mysticism and sheer serenity of Lindisfarne Priory, particularly as this picturesque island is only accessible from the mainland twice daily during low tide. The first monastery to be built at Lindisfarne was founded by St Aidan in 635 AD. It was a thriving Benedictine monastery and became the burial place of Saint Cuthbert, who had lived there for a time.
It was also at Lindisfarne Priory that the Lindisfarne Gospels were created, however this incarnation of Lindisfarne Priory was subjected to numerous Viking attacks, including in 793 and 875 AD, leading the monks to abandon the site in the 10th century and found Durham Cathedral. The monks returned to the Holy Island in the 11th century however, and for a time Lindisfarne Priory once again flourished. Yet in 1536, the priory was disbanded by Henry VIII in the dissolution of the monasteries, after which it was used as a naval storehouse. Today, the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory form a hauntingly beautiful site on the isolated Holy Island. Ornately decorated and magnificently engineered, the dramatic remains of the priory are well preserved, offering a good insight into how this vast building looked in its heyday.