Whether we like it or not it looks as if it will be another year where international travel will be difficult, to say the least. Other words that spring to my mind are – risky, stressful, trapped abroad. There is this constantly evolving set of rules and requirements, lock-downs, etc…
So, for us, even though it means not seeing most of my family who live in the USA and Australia, we will do another year of the Staycation.
It’s not so bad, but my flight log together with my passport are not happy about not having an outing. Saying all that I do know how lucky I am to have these choices and Britain is a beautiful place to explore! I thought I would share our Staycation last year in case you are, ready or almost ready, to think about an escape for this year.
This is what we did in Part One of our Northumberland two-week British Staycation:
2. Northumberland – up at the Scottish Border
i. Kielder Observatory
i. Holiday within a holiday
ii. Craster, Dunstanbourgh & Bamburgh Castles
Making the choice of destination
No matter how far or near you go from home you still have the same choices, right?! What to pack? where to go? how to go? where to stay? etc. This is a short account on how we decided on our destination last summer for our British Staycation.
I have travelled around the UK may times, both when I first arrived years ago and off and on in the years I have lived here. My first observation on my first ever journey here was “wow, there is so much here to see outside the main city attractions and so beautiful!”.
Where do you start when planning a holiday? It’s probably always slightly different, this time, after being in a London Lock-down, we craved open spaces, sea air and the night sky, well that was more me, the night sky part. So, there it is, the wonder of the night sky was our starting point and getting away from the big metropolises. Where in Britain is the best place to find space for both the feet and the heavens? Northumberland, it has one of the largest Dark Sky Parks in the world, sea, countryside and just in case a city – Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
Ok, first step done, Northumberland it is!
We decided to take the car so that we could carry our own bikes, although you could rent bikes in Kielder very easily, and to see as much as possible of the countryside.
Northumberland - “Northumberland is the northernmost county of England and stretches over almost 2,000 square miles of breathtaking countryside, award-winning coastlines, rolling hills and charming market towns” says the official tourist information site.
In 2013, the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park was unveiled. It covers 580 square miles which includes within it, the Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park, perfect, we thought!
That is where we started. Everything else about the trip blossomed from there.
Northumberland International Dark Sky Park
So, next step where to stay. Well, actually, to be really honest, I booked tickets to go to the Kielder Observatory before we booked a place to stay…See Accommodation section below.😉
What we did know is that our accommodation had to be close to the observatory as the tickets were for very late-night events, we had to wait till the sun went down, so our ticket was for 23:55 on the 8th of August 2020 and the event was called the Late Night Explorer. It was for about 2 hours and we had the most amazing clear skies.
It was worth every second both inside and outside the observatory with the amazing staff who were even more excited (if possible) then us to see the skies so clear. We looked through all the equipment they had, took a break with hot chocolate for me and coffee for Ben. Growing up in Florida, home of the NASA space shuttle program. I watched the launches as a kid, you could see them going up from where we lived.
The night sky has always held a fascination for me. Just look at the photo I took through the telescope at the Kielder Observatory with my phone, I kid you not!
Our daughters, then 14 and 16 years old had to go on another night as spaces are limited due to COVID restrictions and the size of the observatory. They went to the earlier session at 8:30pm a few days later. Unfortunately, the skies were not as clear but we still stayed for about one and a half hours as the staff had plenty to show and tell us, including space rock samples, telescope equipment and there is always the hot chocolate.
My husband and I also managed to be part of this session, as the sky was not co-operating, we took the slots of those who did not turn up. It is exhilarating to be on a mountain top at night and watch the light fade, with or without clouds.
If this is something for you click on the links in this blog post to go directly to the Kielder Observatory for all their news and bookings.
We were in Northumberland for two weeks and this was only three nights of it so what else did we do you may ask or yes that is interesting but not for me, fair enough! There are plenty of other things to see and do.
Kielder Water & Forest Park
It all sparked off with the Dark Sky Park but it just so happens it also has, in the same area, the Kielder Water and Forest Park, with one of the biggest man-made lakes in northern Europe and the biggest working timber forest in England.
Kielder Water - Cycling (& Hiking)
Kielder Water, the man-made lake has a bike trail the whole way round it, called Lakeside Way, which was an amazing day out for us all.
It is classified as a blue in difficulty and is 26 miles (42kms). So not for the faint-hearted but doable and for us and our two teenage daughters. Almost all of it is off road which makes it easy, safe and it is well marked. You could all go at your own pace, stopping to admire the scenery while waiting for someone to catch up.
If that ride isn’t for you there are also MTB trails in the area and easier rides to do with younger children. Follow my links here to get all the information. I would have to write a book to cover everything to do here.
Most parts of the bike trails can be walked as well and the MTB trails looked amazing, we stayed off these this time. Although, if you have tried mountain biking there is nothing like the rush of those MTB trails!
On these trails you can also find some amazing Art & Architecture from a programme run by the park which has become, you guessed it, the largest open air space in the UK to experience art and architecture.
Bike Hire – Kielder Castle among many other places have bike rental available.
Kielder Forest Park - Hiking & Picnicking
There is a lot in this area to see and do even though we were, and are, in the middle of a pandemic when not everything is operating. We did not have any problem filling our days. Our cottage backed on to the forest where we went hiking and even spotted a Red Squirrel (Kielder is a home to these rare species).
Actually, someone else spotted it we happened to be there and asked what they were looking at. To which he handed over his binoculars and there was the squirrel! We did have the moment of, should we, shouldn’t we touch something a stranger was holding…. Crazy times. I did and he did and that was that.
We were also within walking distance of Kielder Castle (not open) but selling food so we had a picnic in the grounds and went in the maze (who doesn't love a maze).
You can also hike up to the observatory in the day time and take in the view. There are also hiking trails into Scotland from here. Like I said plenty of options.
Don’t forget your binoculars if you have them!!
Castles, Towns and Sea
Alnwick - Our Holiday within a Holiday
We decided to have one of our holidays within a holiday and spend a night just outside of Alnwick as a special treat. We stayed at the Doxford Hall Hotel and Spa, we just booked it last minute. Not a great deal of spa going on due to COVID restrictions but got a nice deal and it is in a stunning location. We all enjoyed the experience and it gave us more time on the coast to explore.
Alnwick itself is a lovely market town with an amazing second-hand bookshop – Barter Books – located in the Victorian Alnwick railway station, designed by William Bell and opened in 1887 operating until 1968. It is one of the largest second-hand bookstores in Europe. It is often described as "the British Library of second-hand bookshops." Well worth a visit to enjoy the toy train set roaming the tops of the bookshelves.
Now, if you are a fan of castles and Harry Potter a must-see castle in this area is Alnwick Castle.
Various parts of the movies were filmed here. One of my favourite scenes, the one where they are learning to ride on broom sticks, takes place in the beautiful grounds. But if that is not of interest, the castle, the views, the garden and the parading ducks are all something to give you joy.
But book it before you go – you have to book the Caste and the Gardens.
After the excitement of the day, we decided to head to the town of Seahouses, a town full of fish and chip shops, all claiming to be the best! Make a choice or two and see who gets to the front of the line first! We went for an early dinner and sat in an area of terraced wooden benches beside the sea.
We had just enough time to catch the sunset by Banburgh Castle before heading back to back to the hotel.
Again, we didn’t get the chance to go in but it is stunning. 1,400 years of history where saint kings ruled the Kingdom of Northumbria and now still owned by the Armstrong family descendants of the Victorian inventor William George Armstrong, you can go inside and visit the halls.
Craster – Dunstanburgh Castle
The next day, before heading back, and after a lovely cooked breakfast at the hotel, we headed to Craster to hike to Dunstanburgh Castle. We combined this family friendly walk with a swim in the sea at the beach just passed the castle. This coast line is stunning and on a sunny day, the water was very inviting. My husband went in and I paddled but the teenagers decided to sit back and, well, catch up on social media/friends, etc.
The next day, before heading back and after a lovely cooked breakfast at the hotel, we headed to
Unfortunately, we couldn’t go in to Dunstanburgh castle grounds due to limited spaces as a result of COVID and not enough forward planning on our part. But it sits right on the sea cliff and you can walk up and touch it. The views are incredible. It is run by The National Trust and it is free to enter for English Heritage and National Trust member.
Once back in Craster, we had a lovely seaside picnic buying lunch from the local smokehouse along with kippers to take back with us to our Kielder cottage.
Down Time Days
Of course, we also did a few less active things like spent a whole day in the garden, reading, BBQing, napping and anything else we wanted to do. It was peaceful and a beautiful sunny day.
As an avid photographer I also had a chance to try my hand at photographing Star Trails on yet another night of star filled clear dark skies.
Accommodation - Kielder
Another where do you start question… but this one was a little easier to answer. As I said the bookings at the Kielder Observatory were key to where we were to stay. If you have to be somewhere at 23:00 (11pm) you need to be close by.
Also, we had two weeks of holiday so we decided that one week was probably enough in such a remote location, especially as there was plenty more to see in Northumberland. So, we decided to do one week right in the Kielder Forest Park and the other nearer the next part of our adventure – Hadrian’s Wall, Roman ruins, medieval castles and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
In Kielder, we stayed in what was once a Forestry Commission’s former workers cottage. We were advised to get a grocery delivery as we were miles away from any shops. Which was a great piece of advice.
You will find many types of accommodation to suit your tastes in and around the Kielder Water & Forest Park. Cabins, camping, caravans, hotels, B&B as well as private self-catering accommodation (that we used). Here is a good place to start your hunt www.visitkielder.com.
This is an amazing part of Northern England right up by the Scottish Border. It has the advantage of less crowds than say the Lake District or Cornwall, of course both of these are equally wonderful. But if you want a little space around you, a few less people, you can’t go wrong with Northumberland and we only scratched the surface. Part two of this staycation coming next week. But first, my top ten tips!
Top Ten Tips
1. Book everything – due to COVID restrictions we found without booking places in advance we could not get in. Saying that, don’t be put off going to have a look from the outside. Both Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh castles were very dramatic, on their beach cliff perches, and the surrounding area was stunning!
2. Food delivery – we hadn’t done this before and it was great. We did a shop before we left, planned the menu, treats, picnic food and then it was delivered the next day, after our arrival. We only took enough for breakfast and that saved us all the food packing and a few hours shopping.
3. Holiday within a holiday – we often do this with a night away somewhere else during our stay. This is a special treat and we have only ever done it by booking it on the fly, after we get to know the area a bit and what we might like to do.
4. Plan the route/know the other things around the area – obvious one, but the more pre-planning you do, especially during COVID restrictions, the smoother the holiday will go.
5. Down time – we find traveling together as a family having down time has always been important. You just can’t keep up the pace of harmonious exploration without it and options for opting in and out of activities.
6. Binoculars – if you have them bring them
7. Bathing suit & towel – pack them in beside your water bottle, just in case you fancy an impromptu dip
8. Books, DVDs and Games – again something we always make sure we pack to do together or separately.
9. Eco travel pack – don't forget your reusable water bottle, hot drinks cup, cutlery and nowadays, your face mask & hand sanitizer.
10. Maps – as sometimes the car navigation system doesn’t know what’s going on and I do love a map!
Back soon with Part Two - The Romans, Cities & Abbeys