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Ford and Etal

Northumberland National Park

Northumberland National Park

Catcleugh from Byrness Hill © NNPA Rob Pettifer

Catcleugh from Byrness Hill © NNPA Rob Pettifer

The curlew is the symbol of Northumberland National Park

Surely there is no more thrilling sound than the haunting cry of the curlew? This elegant but unshowy star is the symbol of Northumberland National Park, 405 square miles of unforgettable countryside.

The park stretches from the rounded, grassy Cheviot Hills, which mark the border with Scotland, via high moors, stone villages and farmsteads south to Hadrian’s Wall.

It upholds the county’s reputation as “the land of far horizons”, with big skies which at night are the darkest in England and prized by stargazers.

Here the couple of thousand human inhabitants are heavily outnumbered by hardy sheep, including the area’s own breed, the Cheviot.

The Cheviot Hills

On the Cheviot slopes are old communities of wild goats and on the moors re-established black grouse, noted for the males’ courtship, or lekking, displays.

Northumberland National Park @ Peter Skelton

Northumberland National Park @ Peter Skelton

At 2,676ft (815m), the Cheviot is Northumberland’s highest point. Once a towering volcano, only the core of pink granite remains. From here in the Ice Age that ended 15,000 years ago, glaciers ground their way to the sea, carving a new landscape.

In more recent times its harsh history and isolation have been the making of this barely tamed countryside.

Relics of early settlements and ancient plant life survive. Clean rivers are home to otters and salmon, and old cattle drove roads now provide fine walking.

Although dwindling rural jobs and rising living costs have forced people to leave, internet advances may enable more to work where they wish to live.

In the hills evocative names, such as Bloody Bush Edge, echo three centuries of cross-border warfare and fortified bastle houses still stand strong.

The Otterburn Ranges

Today, soldiering on a larger scale take place here as almost a quarter of the park is owned by the Ministry of Defence. Some oppose the Army, but it is welcomed in the locality as an important provider of work. Red flags fly when routes across the ranges are closed to the public.

Winter's Gibbet

Winter's Gibbet, Gallows Hill, near Elsdon. Northumberland National Park

South of the Cheviots the geology changes to the sandstone and limestone Coal Measures, from which so much wealth in the North East was hewn a century and more ago.

This dark heathery area is known as the black country, in contrast to the green Cheviot white country.

The greatest landmark in the fell sandstone is Simonside, a crag with charisma overlooking the River Coquet near Rothbury.

South of here is an expanse of moorland cut by the Rivers Rede and North Tyne and including hills at the Wannies and Ottercops. At the latter is the chilling Winter’s Gibbet, where the body of a convicted murderer was hung in chains in 1791.

The southern edge of the park is Roman Wall country.

Vantage points are difficult to list because almost everywhere in Northumberland National Park, founded in 1956, the views are awe-inspiring.

Next door is the epic Border Forest Park, which takes in Kielder Water and Forest.

Where to Explore in Northumberland National Park

  • Alwinton in Upper Coquetdale, which holds the Border Shepherds’ Show in October
  • Bellingham, a local shopping centre and host to Pennine Way walkers
  • Breamish Valley, off the A697 near Powburn, a peaceful spot for children to paddle and a treasure house of Iron Age, Bronze Age and Romano British settlements
  • College Valley, a remote spot where cars are banned beyond Hethpool except by advance permit. It contains the Collingwood Oaks, planted as acorns by the Trafalgar hero, and has a footpath to Hen Hole on the Cheviot, which offers good rock climbs, and the Border Ridge
  • Elsdon, a picturesque village that was once the capital of Redesdale. It has a 14th century church and a restored pele tower, now a private house. Nearby are remains of a motte and bailey castle at Mote Hills
  • Falstone, a tiny village once deeply involved in cross-border lawlessness and bootleg whisky. Remains of the last stills were drowned by Kielder Water
  • Hareshaw Linn is a 30ft waterfall in a 100ft ravine and an easy walk north of Bellingham, from where it is signposted
  • Harthope Valley is popular among walkers and birdwatchers. There are picnic sites with car parking on the valley floor and from Langleeford a steady climb on foot up Cheviot
  • Kirknewton, near Wooler, was where the Anglo Saxon kings of Northumbria had their palace and where at King Edwin’s request, St Paulinus carried out a mass baptism in the River Glen. Victorian social reformer Josephine Butler is buried in St Gregory’s churchyard
  • Lordenshaws, near Rothbury, has important prehistoric remains, being excavated by archaeologists helped by volunteers. It is a site of cup and ring rock markings
  • Rochester, south of Carter Bar, is where the Romans built an outpost called Bremenium. Nearby Lord Redesdale has established Brigantium Archaeological Reconstruction Centre, which includes a roundhouse
  • Rothbury, on the park fringe, has a National Park Visitor centre
  • Wooler, a small market town, is the gateway to the Cheviots.

Hethpool Gorge, College Valley © Northumberland National Park