Edoardo Albert is a writer. His latest book is Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, due out in October and published by The History Press. Edoardo says that Northumberland was for him just the last part of England the train travelled through before getting to Edinburgh, until he made a fateful trip to the county to visit his brother-in-law Paul Gething’s archaeological dig. Paul is one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project, an ongoing archaeological excavation in and around Bamburgh Castle, and Edoardo came up for a week’s holiday in 2002. He still remembers the literally jaw-dropping surprise of turning out of Seahouses and seeing the castle dark against the skyline, the sea glittering endless blue to the east – it was a sunny day – and the hills rolling green into the west. At the time, Edoardo confesses, he didn’t know they were the Cheviots. It was, and is, the most perfect prospect he knows.
Briefly outline what your business/organisation is: Before I came to Northumberland and talked to Paul, I knew nothing about the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. I’d heard of the Venerable Bede, but he floated, geographically unattached, in that vague interregnum between the Romans leaving Britain and the Normans arriving. I had no idea that Northumbria had been, successively, the pre-eminent power in Britain and then the foremost intellectual centre of Europe. It was indeed a lost kingdom.
The work of the Bamburgh Research Project and many other archaeologists and scholars throughout the country has produced a fundamental revision of how we think about the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England in general, and the Kingdom of Northumbria in particular. It was time that story was told, so when The History Press approached us to write a book about the history and archaeology of Northumbria, we jumped at the chance. Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom is due out in October and tells the story of the kingdom and, through the latest archaeological finds, uncovers the everyday lives of people who are both separated by a gulf of centuries and yet intimately connected to the people and country we are today.
How long have you lived/worked/visited in Northumberland or The Scottish Borders?: We first visited in 2002, when our one-year-old son made a determined effort to eat the beach at Bamburgh, and have been coming most years since. The Bamburgh Research Project digs in and around the castle each summer and is open to visitors. What’s more, anyone interested in gaining a more in-depth and hands-on knowledge of archaeology can enlist as a volunteer, and take part in the ongoing excavations. The trenches in the castle have gone back to the early medieval period and will continue, downwards in space and backwards in time, since there is evidence of human activity on the castle rock from pretty well when people first arrived in Northumberland.
What is it about the county that appeals to you?: It’s the way the natural beauty and human history reinforce and reflect upon each other. Standing on the beach in front of Bamburgh Castle – as wide and pristine a stretch of beach as can be found anywhere in the world – there is of course the castle, once capital of Northumbria, while out to sea the Farne Islands sit low in the water, where St Cuthbert, the most extraordinary of the many extraordinary saints of Northumbria, lived out his final years in solitude from man but in communion with God. To the north, you can see Lindisfarne, the holy and part-time island, where St Aidan arrived with monks from Iona and set about converting the pagan Northumbrians with the king, Oswald, as his first interpreter. To the south lie the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, a medieval castle which in its ruins astonishes by its scale and ambition as much as the pyramids of Egypt or the coliseums of Rome, the stronghold of Thomas, the Earl of Lancaster, in his struggle against the Edward II’s succession of jumped-up (and probably jumped-upon) favourites, Piers Gaveston (which struggle Thomas won) and Hugh Despenser (which Thomas lost).
Northumberland is a land steeped in history and legend, a fighting land, a marcher land, and the present hush that suffuses the longest vistas you’ll see anywhere in England breathes of that past and brings it, for the appreciative visitor, into the present. There is nowhere like it.
What’s your favourite Northumberland/Borders beauty spot?: Well, I’ve waxed lyrical about the coast already, so somewhere else I’d like to mention is Yeavering Bell, a cone-shaped hill flanking the Cheviots and a fine morning’s walk. The summit is enclosed by the stone ramparts of an ancient hillfort, nearly 900m long, and archaeologists have discovered the remains of a substantial settlement within the walls. The master of the hill really would have been lord of all he surveyed, with views stretching across the coastal plain to the North Sea and deep into the Cheviots. Further deepening the interplay of nature and history, at the foot of the hill, beneath a now grass covered field, lie the remains of Ad Gefrin, the palace of the Kings of Northumbria and the place where St Paulinus first preached the Gospel to King Edwin and then baptised the people for 36 days. And then, of course, there is the history of the rocks themselves, which were first formed 350 million years ago by the volcanoes whose bones make up today’s Cheviots. How many places can provide so many layers to a single view?
Tell us about your favourite view/walk/cycle route/town/nightspot?: I’ve said a lot about my favourite views and walks – and you really can’t beat a beach ramble pretty well anywhere on the coast – but for a sense of isolation hard to find anywhere else in England stand on the top of Hedgehope Hill. The Cheviot’s whale-backed ridge lies to the east and, on a clear day, the views stretch to the Lake District. But, unlike in the Lake District, the only creature you’ll share the summit with is a meadow pipit.
The list of places to visit is endless. But some are more special than others. A trip to Northumberland/the Borders wouldn’t be complete without: A coast walk, a castle visit, a hill scramble and a ramble along Hadrian’s Wall.
Why is locally produced Northumbrian/Borders food the best?: Taste, quality and supporting local producers – what more could you want?
Do you have a preferred place to eat out in the county and why?: Not really. Everywhere I’ve eaten in Northumberland has served good, wholesome food – I’ve particularly enjoyed pub meals eaten against a backdrop of sea or hill.
Northumbrians and people from The Scottish Borders are renowned for the warm welcome they offer holidaymakers and day trippers alike. What do you think is the secret ingredient for this friendliness?: I think it’s genuine pride in the extraordinary country that is their home.
Coast or country, and specifically which part?: Both! If I had to pick only one, I’d go for the coast, but I don’t think Northumberland can be appreciated just from the beach. Head inland and upland if at all possible, and see the raw ribs of Britain.
Your favourite market town and why?: Alnwick. It’s taken the town a long time to live down the unwanted attention of being voted the best place to live in the country, but a castle, the wonderful Alnwick Garden, and Barter Books, the best second-hand bookshop in the country, make it unmissable for somebody of my tastes.
Your favourite historical site?: All I’ve done is go on about wonderful historic sites, so I can just say all of them, but even with all the places I’ve mentioned I’ve barely scraped the surface. There’s enough here to occupy a lifetime, let alone a holiday.
And the best road to take a leisurely and scenic drive along?: There are so many, but – the drive from Seahouses to Bamburgh. It takes my breath away every time.
What would be your perfect day out in Northumberland and The Scottish Borders?:
A morning ramble on the beach and an afternoon in the Cheviots.
Find out more about Edoardo Albert:
My website: www.edoardoalbert.com
Bamburgh Research Project http://www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk
The Amazon page for Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Northumbria-Lost-Kingdom-Hidden-History/dp/0752459708/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1342369641&sr=8-2
Category: Northumberland Best Kept Secrets