The Northumberland Coast (in summer!)

The UK isn’t known for its beaches, and for good reason – its only warm enough for them 3 months of the year and even less the further north you go!  That’s why the coastline of Northumberland, and in particular Bamburgh Beach and Embleton Bay, comes as a bit of surprise when I put them in a list of the top beaches in the world.  But before you write it off as nostalgic madness, consider a few factors:

  1.  The castle backdrops – Bamburgh Castle is an imposing 11th century Normal castle that looms over Bamburgh Beach from its crag right on the waterfront and with as much history as almost any castle in the world.   England dominates the world for stunning castles by the beach, and Bamburgh is the jewel in the crown.  Dunstanburgh Castle, whilst more battered over the centuries, provides a similar backdrop for Embleton Bay
  2. The quality of the sand – the sand tone in this part of the world is the same as the powdery sand you find in the tropical beaches of the likes of Brazil and the Caribbean, and is so fine it squeaks, which is in stark contrast to some of the pebble beaches you find in the eastern Mediterranean and south of England
  3. The cute villages by the water – the likes of Low Newton-by-the-Sea, with its gorgeous white cottage square green circled by local pubs overlooking the beach are about as quaint and lovely as anywhere in England
  4. Few tourists – “best kept secret” seems to have held well for decades and you simply don’t have the volume of fellow tourists as you would in the south of England.  The beaches are wide and long, and you will likely have big chunks to yourself
  5. The Northumberland Coast Driving Tour – you have some great nearby attractions that share the quiet vibe.  In particular, Hadrian’s Wall (the well preserved northern boundary of the Roman Empire), Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island – a key centre for the spread of Christianity in Britain in the Dark Ages and infamous site of the first Viking invasions), and the various quaint Northumberland villages dotted no distance from the coast


It obviously doesn’t hit the tropical beach vibe, but is nonetheless beautiful.  Just be sure to go in summer!

Durham’s Cathedral, Castle and village

The famous travel writer Bill Bryson, after seeing half the world, was gobsmacked when he saw Durham and wondered why no one had told him about it before.  So much so that he decided to become Chancellor of Durham University and says, “If you have never been to Durham before, go there at once. Take my car, it’s wonderful.”  Easy to see why – the setting with the magnificent Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle perched high on the tight meander of the River Wear is just stunning and is complemented by the small narrow streets that branch off all through the nearby town


An easy day trip from Newcastle (see here for tips on Newcastle – A day in Newcastle), one of the key stops on the main east coast line that runs through the UK, and a must if in this part of the world


Top tip – be sure to walk around the river right by the waterfront.  The best bit is from Framwellgate Bridge to Prebends Bridge, but you can also walk all the Elvet Bridge

A day in Newcastle

Newcastle has a great reputation for its friendly locals (and, let’s face it, the accent everyone loves to imitate) and its world-class partying / lash that comes from both the locals and its giant student population (locals, aka “Geordies” will often like to quote how many top 10 lists Newcastle appears in for a night out).  But it also has a surprisingly elegant city centre with a riverfront that rivals anything else in the UK outside of London, and 4 places to visit nearby that are equally surprising in just how gorgeous they are

If you’ve got only a day (in summer!), I’d recommend the below itinerary for the best of Newcastle and the surrounding area

2 days in London and top 10 things to do

One of the world’s premier cities and with just about everything you could hope for in a 2 day city visit.  World famous sites such as the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London; world class restaurants, shopping areas and entertainment venues; vast parks which give you the opportunity to break away from the mayhem; and, of course, the mania that surround the Royal Family and their residences.  Yes, its busy, but it’s also a must visit city


There’s obviously heaps and heaps of things to do.  I’ve listed out below what I think are the top 10 split between must-sees and great to sees.  Plus, some general tips for how to get the most out of your visit

Hiking along Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall runs 117km/73miles all the way across the narrow neck of England from the Irish Sea to the North Sea and was an immense engineering statement representing the furthest northern boundary of the Roman Empire.  Today, a walk along the still well preserved sections of the wall, seeing the old forts and milecastles, staying in Bed & Breakfasts and eating in local pubs along the way is the best way to get a feel for the wall and to see the beautiful Northumbrian countryside.  It also brings about that wonderful moment of trying to briefly imagine what it must have been like all those years ago as a cold, guarding, far from home Roman soldier to be looking out northwards from the wall into the dark forests and far off hills of a distant, unknown and unconquered barbarian land.  Great experience



Top tip – don’t walk the whole length of the wall, which takes 6/7 days.  The sections west of Lanercost / Walton are flat and with relatively little Roman pieces to see, and west of Chollerford / Heddon-on-the-Wall are basically walking along a road / west end Newcastle.  The sections between are the highlights with the best preserved Roman sites and the beautiful Northumberland countryside, and you need only 2 or 3 days to walk them.  Our route was to start in Lanercost, walk the first day to Once Brewed and then walk the second day to Collerford.  You could extend this by a day by starting in Walton and walking to Heddon-on-the-Wall.  Either options let you see the highlights



Interesting fact – whilst many people imagine the wall as being a defensive structure to keep the dangerous, marauding, barbaric Scots out of the Roman Empire (and indeed it was built to repel defensively if needed), it was actually more of an administrative boundary.  When Hadrian started to build the wall in 122AD, the age of the Roman expansion had largely ended and instead the empire was consolidating its vast land area that spread from the Atlantic to Syria, and from the Rhine and Danube rivers to the Sahara.  North of the wall were still farms and Roman towns built by people who felt safe enough to do so just by proximity to the northern point of this vast empire.  The Romans, who at the time were the European superpower with simply no rivals, had little interest in the land to the north, which had little minerals compared to the tin in Wales and Cornwall, and were certainly not fearful of the Scottish tribes.  The Wall was really to slow down any raiding parties stealing from farms in what is now Northern England and as a symbol from Hadrian that the growth should stop (sorry, proud Scottish folk)

Driving down the West Coast of Scotland – Glencoe, Oban, Skye and the Harry Potter Bridge

The west coast of Scotland is stunning – right up there with the likes of the fjords of Patagonian, Alaska, New Zealand and Norway . . . and with the added advantage of castles and whiskey.  As an Englishman, I’d travelled far and wide to see great sites around the world and didn’t realise that one of the most impressive was, comparatively, on my doorstep.  Stunning and one of the highlights of the UK


There are various routes to take, but I suggest the driving route from Oban and up to the Isle of Skye.  Plenty of highlights to keep you busy for 3-4 days


Top tip #1 – you must drive.  Whilst you could I suppose make your way by public transport, you would miss out on the real highlight which is being able to stop for 5mins in the various stops along the coast to gorp at the magnificent views, and it would take you overall just a lot longer as public transport in these parts is quite limited.  The driving is very much part of this experience

Top tip #2 – even if you don’t like whiskey, the learning about how it is made, the history and the different tastes to look out for in each dram is a very Scottish, and very much fun experience.  The distilleries of Talisker and Oban are some of the most famous is Scotland and give you that great taste of the art that is whiskey making

Top tip #3 – you can do this trip all year round.  I’ve visited 3 times in winter and found the atmosphere at this time or year, with the far fewer tourists, magical.  Of course, summer is also great as the hikes are more enjoyable

A day in Greenwich, London

Greenwich is one of the gems on a visit to London that has the added benefit of being less crowded than some of the more popular attractions in the centre.  You have the wonderful history of the Royal Observatory, the prime meridian of the world and source of the universal measurement of standard time, the National Maritime Museum, which in addition to its magnificent architecture also tells the story of when Britain used to rule the seas, and the Cutty Sark, the last of the greater clipper ships that sailed between Britain and China bringing back the riches of the East.  But its also about the cute village feel of Greenwich village, the wide open parks that surround Greenwich and the views across the River Thames, nearby skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and of central London


Maybe won’t make everyones’ list when trying to hit all of the famous sights of London for a weekend (see here for the top 10 and must sees for a 2 day visit to London – 2 days in London and top 10 things to do), but certainly a highlight for day 3


Extra tip 1 – be sure to also have a venture down to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel which is a tunnel only for pedestrians that connects Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs on the other side of the Thames.  You can easily find it right by the water and the Cutty Sark and is one of those fun quirky London things to check out


Extra tip 2 – Greenwich makes a cracking series of beers, called Meantime.  You can find the beers in many of the pubs in Greenwich, but its also worth a visit to the Meantime Brewing Company which is around a 15in walk along the river

The East Lancashire Railway Real Ale Trail

For train pub crawls across the North of England, most people will naturally turn to the Trans Pennine Real Ale Trail (and see further details here –The Trans Pennine Railway Real Ale Trail), but also consider the East Lancashire Real Ale Trail which is far quieter (less stag dos / bachelor parties), shorter with only 7 stations and includes some of the trip being on an old steam train.  Its a much more chilled out experience

Sampling whiskies and hiking around Speyside

Speyside sits in the northern part of the Cairngorm Mountains.  The wildest, highest part of the UK and, with its mountain landscapes, crisp fresh air and sub-Arctic climate, quickly detaches you from any feeling of being in the rest of the UK.  Firmly in the highlands of Scotland, you can enjoy the surrounding hikes to the lochs and sample the most famous single malt whiskies in the world.  The old cliché is so true – the taste and enjoyment of the alcohol completely depends on the location and context that you’re experiencing it in – sipping Champagne in the rural vineyards of the Champagne region, drinking the menu of wheat beers in an abbey in Belgium, learning about Rum on an island in the Caribbean –  being in a Speyside lodge sampling whiskies with the mountains in the background and a fire nearby is right up there and about as good an alcohol experience as you can get


Top tip #1 – Stay in a lodge ideally just outside of Aviemore and one that offers whisky tasting.  The town of Aviemore itself is nice, but a little touristy.  If you stay outside, you will avoid the (small) crowds and be able to enjoy that mountain view around you that little bit more.  In particular, find one that offers a whisky tasting session (most do) – doing so will allow you to really learn about the different types rather than only those shared by the individual distilleries.  Plus, it allows you to ask a heap of increasingly slurry questions into the evening

Top tip #2 – visit either the Glenfiddich or Macallan distilleries.  They’re much larger than the others, but they run the experience very well and  have a great sample at the end to try.  Glenfiddich you can just rock up without a booking, Macallan you need to book ahead

Top tip #3 – you can visit all year round, but need summer for the hiking.  I’ve visited in winter and, although it is bloody freezing and very very dark, its quite atmospheric to be there.  Summer is busier with fellow tourists, but the long days and warmer weather allows you to head off for a day hike up to one of the many lochs that surround Aviemore

The Trans Pennine Railway Real Ale Trail

Trains, local villages, real ales, lashed locals – a proper Northern experience!


Most people when they visit the North of England go to the usual sights of The Lake District, Durham, York etc, which are great, but for something more unusual for a tourist, consider the Trans Pennine Real Ale Trail, also known as the Trans Pennine Pub Crawl.  The idea is to take the Trans Pennine train route that passes through 9 local villages and towns scattered across the Lancashire and Yorkshire countryside and stop in each one to visit one of the local pubs for a beer.  The pubs themselves are cute and with a focus on real ales, but the overall trip itself has turned into something bigger than just the ales and you’ll find a real mix of people up for lash (partying) itorrelevant of what they’re drinking.  More than anything, its a great way to meet some of the locals outside of the standard tourist settings


To get started, you realistically want to start in Leeds or Manchester Train Stations.  The route itself technically starts in Staleybridge and ends in Batley, or visa-versa, but in reality you’ll be getting to the main city train stations to start and finish.  From there, just head off and keep an eye on the timetable.  You’ve typically got between 40mins and an hour between trains so plenty of time for a drink and maybe stay a bit longer for lunch.  Enjoy!


For something in the same theme, but a little quieter, shorter and involving an old steam engine, try The East Lancashire Railway Real Ale Trail