Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens

Belsay Hall is one of Northumberland’s top tourist attractions comprising a medieval castle, a stately home and picturesque gardens linking the two.

The Belsay Estate was home to the Middleton family (not related to Kate Middleton) for 700 years from 1270 when Sir Richard Middleton was Lord Chancellor to King Henry II. The hall, castle and gardens were taken into the guardianship of the state in 1980 and are now managed by English Heritage.

The impressive fortified pele tower of Belsay Castle was built in the late 14th century to defend the occupants against frequent raids and unrest in this border region of England. After the conflict between Scotland and England died down the Middletons converted the castle into a more comfortable home by adding the elegant country house extension that we see here (now without a roof) which was built from 1603-1614.

The family abandoned the castle in 1817 and moved into the nearby newly-built Belsay Hall whose Greek Revival architectural style was inspired by the owner’s honeymoon trip to Greece. This owner, Sir Charles Monck, was also a Middleton but changed his name in order to inherit the substantial estates of his wealthy maternal grandfather.

Today the Hall is empty of furniture, which is a shame but it does enable visitors to appreciate the beauty of the Roman/Greek architecture. During our visit one room was being used for a ‘multi-sensory installation’ featuring words and music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

The Castle and Hall sit in 30 acres of grounds. Sir Charles made use of the excavations left behind when the stone for the hall was cut to create a quarry garden. With its sheer-sided canyon walls it has its own micro-climate out of the wind enabling exotic trees and rare plants to survive (although when we visited last October it was freezing)! There is also a Rhododendron Garden, which comes into flower in spring, and more formal gardens around the Hall.

For me, the majestic Yew trees and other conifers and hardwoods were the stars of the gardens.

The former stable block houses the tea room, shop, ticket office, toilets etc.

You can find details of opening hours and prices on their English Heritage’s website (indoor spaces are currently closed due to Covid restrictions).

How To Get to Belsay Hall

The hall is located about 15 miles north-west of Newcastle Upon Tyne.

The exact location is marked on this map:

You can find more Northumberland Attractions here.

The Lowry Trail in Berwick

L S Lowry (1887-1976) is one of Britain’s best loved artists. His instantly recognisable paintings usually feature gritty northern industrial streets filled with ‘matchstick’ people, rows of terraced houses, mills, factories and smoking chimneys against a white or grey sky. His paintings have soared in value since his death but in his early years he struggled to get recognition as a serious artist, particularly from his domineering and demanding mother. (Watch Mrs Lowry & Son starring Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave if you haven’t already). Most of his painting was done near his home in Pendlebury, Salford and in Manchester but he liked to take holidays in Berwick-upon-Tweed from the mid 1930s right up until his death and a number of his works were created there.

The Lowry Trail was set up by The Berwick Preservation Trust and it allows walkers to follow in his footsteps and see 18 sites which inspired his paintings and drawings of the area or are otherwise associated with Lowry. It is a self-guided walk taking about 3 hours and you can find a map and brochure here. There are information boards at each of the 18 sites, mostly displaying Lowry’s painting or sketch of the scene along with explanatory notes.

I completed the trail recently and here is my account of it, following the same order shown on the map.

The trail begins in Dewar’s Lane, a narrow alley off Bridge Street in the heart of Berwick-upon-Tweed. When I first saw Lowry’s 1936 pencil drawing I assumed that the crooked buildings were just for artistic effect but as you can see this former granary really does lean backwards.

The building now houses a YHA hostel and bistro.

In this rapidly sketched pencil drawing of Palace Street he noted the colours of the buildings signalling an intention to paint this scene at a later date.

This photo was taken in roughly the same location.

On Pier Road Lowry sketched this pencil drawing in 1956 of Berwick’s pier and lighthouse which were built in the early 1800s.

The same scene today. The former maltings buildings have been converted into flats.

The view from the end of the pier might have inspired Lowry to work on perfecting his empty seascapes such as The Sea painted in 1942.

The lighthouse at the end of Berwick Pier, freshly painted after a recent renovation.

One of Lowry’s more cheerful scenes is On The Sands painted in 1959 or earlier. The information board reads ‘”Poverty and gloom. Never a joyous picture of mine you’ll see. Always gloom. I never do a jolly picture.” Lowry’s sorrowful remark is denied by this painting of brightly clothed children playing around a shelter behind Berwick Pier.’

The shelter is looking more gloomy now, fenced off due to unsafe brickwork and bereft of playing children as Berwick tries to emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown.

Lowry was so enamoured with Berwick that he is thought to have seriously considered buying this property in 1947. The house, called The Lions, stands on top of the town’s Elizabethan Walls and looks out to sea but it was found to be rampant with damp and Lowry did not proceed with the purchase. By 1971 it was derelict and vandalised and threatened with demolition but it has since been saved and restored.

Continuing along the town walls the next spot is where Lowry sketched a Football Match taking place on ‘The Stanks’ where the moat around the town used to be. Football of course is still very popular in Berwick. The local team Berwick Rangers is unique for being the only English Club to play in the Scottish football league until their relegation in 2019. They now play in the fifth tier of Scottish football.

This is the spot where the game Lowry sketched was played.

This photo, from December last year, was taken where the town wall crosses Marygate, looking towards the Town Hall which Lowry liked to paint.

This painting of the Town Hall called Old Berwick (Strother’s Yard) 1958 is one of four paintings and drawings of the same scene.

At Bridge End we can find the spot where this scene was painted in 1938. As with many of his works the streets are full of his matchstick characters and pets.

The view has barely changed since his time.

A sign above the door of the grey building reads ‘the Original Berwick Cockle Shop’ which apparently has nothing to do with seafood since these cockles are peppermint-flavoured sweets. A few antique jars of these are displayed in the window of William Cowe and Sons opposite.

Nearby is Sally Port, another narrow alley with steps leading up to the Quay Walls while the archway passes under the town walls to the quayside. Lowry painted this in 1954.

A few buildings have been demolished since Lowry’s time bringing more light to the alley.

Next we cross the river to Tweedmouth via the old bridge, one of three fine bridges over the Tweed at Berwick (two road and one railway).

A collection of cottages seemed to have caught Lowry’s eye and he painted this busy scene called the Old Property in 1943. The solitary observer with hands clasped behind his back is thought by art historians to represent Lowry himself. (The Lowry Trail information board from which this photo was taken is badly stained hence the red blotches.)

The Old Property today. What would Lowry have done with the wheelie bins which appear everywhere these days? He probably would have included them in his paintings.

Moving along to Berwick Harbour, this is where Lowry would have stood to sketch this view of Berwick looking back over the river.

The information board is missing from its easel.

At the Lifeboat Station there is an information board showing a Self Portrait painted in 1925 when he was 38 years old.

The trail continues to the suburb of Spittal. Not the most attractive-sounding name but apparently it derives from hospital rather than anything to do with saliva. The beach here however is very attractive and Lowry liked to walk along the promenade and gather inspiration for his seascapes and paintings of boats. Next to Sandstell Road car park is an information board entitled Boats showing some of his maritime themed works. The main image is of Waiting For The Tide, South Shields, 1967.

Further along Spittal Promenade there is another trail marker featuring his 1964 painting Girl in a Red Hat on a Promenade.

The final stop on the Lowry Trail map is called Back Streets and is made up of two rows of brick built terraced houses called Falloden Terrace and Howick Terrace. These were included in the trail because, although they are not typical in Berwick, these are the sort of houses that Lowry would have seen all the time during his rounds as a rent collector in Manchester and the kind of scene that appeared in many of his paintings.

When Lowry took his holidays in Berwick he would stay at the Castle Hotel, located opposite the railway station. Looking at their website they do not seem to make any mention of the Lowry connection. They might be missing a trick here.

The Lit & Phil – Newcastle’s Best Kept Secret

Last November I was wandering in the heart of Newcastle when I came across this building, the Literary & Philosophical Society or Lit & Phil as it now brands itself.

As you can see, there are a couple of blue plaques outside. The first tells us that Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, chemist, and physicist first demonstrated his invention of the incandescent light bulb here in 1879. Nearby Mosley Street was the first street in the world to be lit by such electric bulbs. When the Lit & Phil first started it was more a place for debate, lectures, discussion and experiments. The library grew later.

The second plaque marks the Robert Stephenson Bi-Centenary in 2003 and tells us that the Literary & Philosophical Society was established in 1793 and that this building, designed by John Green, opened in 1825. Robert Stephenson (railway engineer and son of George Stephenson, the ‘Father of Railways’) was President of the Society from 1855-59.

Since I had a spare half hour I took a look inside. The staircase in the impressive lobby displays some portraits and statues. The gentleman on the right was Earl Grey (1764-1845, a Northumberland man and Prime Minister in the 1830s during which time his government oversaw the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. And yes, the tea is named after him.

The statue in the middle is not of a Roman but of James Losh (1763-1833) a lawyer, reformer, abolitionist and businessman who was vice-president of the Lit & Phil in 1802. I wonder what sort of man would want to have a statue of himself made in a Roman toga but since he was dead when the statue was made we can forgive him.

The other portrait, the one one with the vain looking man revealing a bit of thigh, is of Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) who laid the foundation stone of the building in 1822. He was the favourite uncle of Queen Victoria and quite a colourful character. He married his first wife without telling his dad, King George III who later annulled the marriage. He had a mistress or two and when he married his second wife it was again in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act and she was never recognised with the title Duchess of Sussex.

The interior of the Lit & Phil is lovely. It has the air of a private members London club, like the Reform Club that Phileas Fogg belonged to in Around the World in Eighty Days. It is actually older than the Reform Club but unlike that august organisation it is open to anyone and you can read books on the premises free of charge.

If you want to borrow books you have to become a member for a fee of £133 per year (concessions available). That might seem expensive for what is basically a library especially when you can join Northumberland County Council’s network of libraries free of charge. But the Phil & Lit does have a certain cachet and it has a huge collection of 200,000 books and you are encouraged to browse and stay as long as you like with comfortable seating, tea, coffee and cake and a quiet atmosphere for students and book lovers.

Their music library is the biggest in the North of England and the Lit & Phil is a popular venue for musical events.

I would recommend a visit if you are ever in Newcastle upon Tyne. You can find details of their location and services on their website.

Causey Arch

Causey Arch in County Durham is the oldest surviving single arch railway bridge in the world. It was built in 1725 for a group of coalmine owners to facilitate the transport of coal from Tanfield Colliery to the banks of the River Tyne from where it was loaded onto colliers at Newcastle upon Tyne for shipment to London and other markets.

The Tanfield Waggonway which ran over the bridge was a railway with wooden rails with coal waggons drawn by horses. It was converted to iron rails in 1839. Tanfield Railway is still going . It is said to be the world’s oldest railway.

Causey Arch bridge was built by Ralph Wood, a local master stone mason. Since it was the first stone arch bridge of its kind to be built anywhere in the world since Roman times he had no prior experience of this type of construction and he had little confidence that it would not collapse, in fact he was so worried that he took his own life by jumping from the bridge before it was completed.

In its heyday, the bridge carried 930 waggons per day with an interval of only 20 seconds between waggons but by 1770 the Arch was little used and it fell into neglect for 200 years until it was restored from 1975-81.

A section of the waggonway is currently being recreated with the aim of completion in time for the Tanfield Waggonway’s 300th anniversary in 2025.

Aside from the bridge itself, other attractions here are:

Tanfield Railway. This is a volunteer-run heritage railway with preserved steam trains stopping at four stations. You can find details on their website.

A pleasant 3km circular walk starting at the car park, taking in Causey Arch and through the woods alongside Causey Burn. You can see the route on this map:

Nearby

Beamish, the Living Museum of the North

Tynemouth Priory and Castle

Tynemouth Priory and Castle is a good place to visit. The main highlights here are the ruined priory, the shrine area where a Saxon saint was believed to be buried, a gatehouse, the castle walls, a 20th century restored coastal defence battery and fine views from its cliff-top position.

The priory was founded in the 7th century. St. Oswine (or Oswin), a king of Northumbria and cousin of St.Bede, was killed and buried here in 651. Two other kings were also buried here: Osred II, king of Northumbria, in 792 and Malcolm III, king of Scotland who was killed at the battle of Alnwick in 1093. Malcolm’s body was later reburied in Scotland.

The priory was plundered and partly destroyed by the Danes on several occasions during the 800s and Oswin’s grave was forgotten until 1065 when a priest found some bones under the church and claimed them to be the saint’s remains. Local people began to make pilgrimages to the grave in the hope that their prayers would be answered, and their donations brought prosperity to the priory.

A Benedictine monastery was founded here in the 11th century and within its walls were kitchen gardens, farm animals and orchards as well as cloisters and other buildings for the monks.

The ruined church we see today was started in 1090 and renovated around 1210.

The monastery was ordered closed by Henry VIII in 1539 and most of the monastic buildings were dismantled. Then the site was used as a major coastal fort and was occupied by soldiers right up until 1960.

The gatehouse was constructed following a raid by the Scots in 1388. The ground floor consists of a series of passages and guardrooms while the upper floors contain a great hall and a grand chamber which would have accommodated a high ranking official or royal visitors.

The Percy chantry was built in the 15th Century. The Percys were earls of Northumberland and the ornate chapel ceiling shown here is carved with their family emblems.

This concrete gun emplacement is one of two constructed in 1902 when Britain was concerned about Germany’s increasing naval threat. The gun is a 6 inch steel Mark XXIII.

Looking back at the castle from Tynemouth Pier you can see the 13 concrete buttresses built over 100 years ago to strengthen the crumbling cliff edge on which the coastal battery stands.

This cannon is from an earlier era. There have been coastal defences at Tynemouth since the 1640s.

After visiting Tynemouth Priory and Castle you can wander down to the lovely beach at King Edward’s Bay and perhaps sample some fish and chips at the highly rated Riley’s Fish Shack.

The attraction is managed by English Heritage and you can find details of opening hours and prices on their website.

How To Get to Tynemouth Priory and Castle

The location is marked on this map:

A Northumberland Garden In May

While we’re all locked down Mother Nature continues to do her thing.

Spring comes late at this northern latitude but now in early May our garden in Northumberland is bursting into colour.

I dusted off my video camera and put together this video to record the sights and sounds of Spring.

Hadrian’s Wall Path – Gilsland to Sewingshields Crag

The Hadrian’s Wall Path is an 84 mile (135 km) long trail stretching across the narrow neck of Northern England from Wallsend, Newcastle upon Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria on the west coast.

The trail follows the line of Hadrian’s Wall built by the Romans from A.D. 122 onwards to consolidate the northern border of the Roman Empire. The path passes through some of England’s best scenery and there are a number of Roman forts and museums along the way for the history lover.

So far I have walked the most scenic part of the trail from Gilsland to Sewingshields Crag which includes the best preserved sections of wall, many points of interest and excellent views. The total distance walked was about 24 miles (there and back) spread out over several days.

Highlights

National Trail near Gilsland. National Trails are waymarked with the white acorn symbol shown here.

Thirlwall Castle, above, was built in the early 14th century using stone recycled from Hadrian’s Wall. Legend has it that during one of the many Anglo-Scottish skirmishes in the 15th century a servant of the castle hid the owner’s most precious possession, a golden table, down a well where it remains to this day, protected by a magic spell.

Typical Hadrian’s Wall scenery. A lonely farmhouse alongside the wall.

The trail passes through working farms and pet dogs need to be kept on a leash if there are any sheep around.

Watch towers or turrets were usually built about every half mile along the wall. This is English Heritage’s artistic impression of turret 45a at Walton Crags around AD 180. Roman Empire to the right, barbarians to the left.

Only the foundations of turrets remain.

Small forts, called milecastles, were incorporated into the wall every Roman mile (about 1.48km). They had gateways to allow people to pass to and from the Roman province of Britannia. This is an artist’s impression of Cawfields milecastle around AD 130.

An outline of a milecastle’s foundations can be seen here.

The builders of Hadrian’s Wall made use of any natural crags and cliffs along its route to improve its defensive qualities. The central sector of the wall follows a craggy rock formation called Great Whin Sill.

Not exactly the Great Wall of China but impressive all the same. The original wall would have been taller. Many of the stones have been removed and reused over the centuries and found their way into churches, stately homes and farmhouses.

This section of the trail provides good exercise with lots of steps and slopes.

Sycamore Gap is probably the most photographed spot on Hadrian’s Wall. The tree grows in a natural gap in the Whin Sill. The tree has appeared in numerous TV shows and in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner.

Housesteads Roman Fort was a strong defensive position and contained barrack blocks and a hospital.

You can wander around the ruins of Housesteads Roman Fort and there is a museum to provide explanations of what you are seeing.

Time to walk back to my car.

Far from light pollution, the Dark Skies sites at places such as Walltown Quarry provide a great opportunity to enjoy the star-filled night sky.

If you are interested in walking the Hadrian’s Wall Path you can obtain lots of practical information from this website.

Holy Island Circular Walk

My Holy Island Circular Walk is a 6 mile hike around scenic Holy Island, home to the famous Lindisfarne Castle.

Historic Holy Island is one of Northumberland’s most visited tourist sites. It is a tidal island, meaning that it can only be reached by car at low tide. The causeway linking it to the mainland is underwater during high tide. You can check for safe crossing times on the Northumberland County Council website.

Highlights of the Holy Island Circular Walk

For my hike I parked at The Snook car park which is located at the skinny western side of the island. This area is part of the 4,000 hectare Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve which, in the words of Natural England, is ‘an ever-changing landscape of sand-dunes, mudflats and coastline constantly re-shaped by sea, wind and time’. Alternatively you could park at the main Holy Island Car Park. These are the only places on the island where non-residents are allowed to park.

From The Snook there is a short path through some sand dunes before emerging onto one of the widest beaches you will ever see (at low tide) which appears to go for miles.

As you can see the beach is not too crowded.

The sand-dunes have been plagued by an invasive plant originally from New Zealand called the pirri-pirri bur with sticky spines which like to hook on to clothing and the fur of your dog and can easily be spread to other sites and harm our native wildlife. If you visit during the months of July-October you may have to spend hours de-burring your dog but when I went in March there was no sign of it.

Another plague was this pile of rubbish dumped amid the dunes and spoiling the normally pristine beaches of Northumberland. I was a bit mystified by this dump. How did it get to this difficult-to-access spot and who could have dumped it? It included household items like Cillit Bang limescale cleaner, not something you would take on a picnic. There were crab pots used by fishermen and cans of strong and cheap white cider of the sort favoured by alcoholics. I think the culprit might be a drunken, house-proud fisherman.

The walk continues to a lovely sandy bay with cliffs which are home to numerous seabirds. The island is frequented by wintering waterfowl who feed on sea grasses and marine creatures. Pale bellied brent goose, widgeon and bar-tailed godwits are among the species found here.

Evidence of former mining activity, probably lime, can be seen nearby.

Another calm beach. In summer the salt marshes burst into flower with ten species of orchid recorded on Holy Island.

On the headland is a white brick pyramid, about 25 feet high, called Emmanuel Head built around 1810 to aid navigation in these waters where shipwrecks were common.

From Emmanuel Head, the trail turns south along the rocky east coast of the island, shown here with Lindisfarne Castle in the background.

Farming, tourism and fishing are the main activities on the island today. There are a number of tourist attractions on Holy Island including Lindisfarne Castle, Lindisfarne Priory, the Heritage Centre and St. Aidan’s Winery. I’ll write about these on another day.

These wooden posts mark the walking route over the sands and mud from Holy Island back to the mainland. This is the Pilgrim’s route and for those interested in following in the footsteps of medieval saints and pilgrims this is supposed to be a great experience. Since it would almost certainly mean getting wet feet I think I will save this adventure until the weather gets warmer, if ever.

With light fading and the end of the safe crossing time approaching I walked back to my start point alongside the causeway road. There is no real footpath here and quite a few cars on the road but it is safe enough, though not for this poor deer which presumably was hit by an inattentive motorist.

Nearby Attractions

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Priory
Lindisfarne Heritage Centre
St. Aidan’s Winery

See more Northumberland Coastal Walks

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Northumberland Coastal Walks

Cheswick Beach on the Northumberland Coast
This photo was taken before Coronavirus. It’s probably even emptier now!

Northumberland has some of the best coastal scenery in England and there are dozens of Northumberland Coastal Walks to enjoy.

The Northumberland Coast Path stretches for 100 kilometres or 62 miles from the golden sands at Cresswell in the south to the historic border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north. Designated as an area of natural beauty, the route passes spectacular coastal scenery, cliff-top viewpoints and some of the country’s top beaches which are usually clean and uncrowded. Highlights along the way include the fishing harbour and marina at Amble, never-ending sandy beaches near Alnmouth, quaint cottages at Craster, the rugged cliffs at Dustanburgh Castle, various coastal golf courses and holiday resorts, Beadnell Bay Bird Sanctuary, Seahouses Harbour from where you can catch boat trips to the Farne islands, spectacular Bamburgh Castle, deserted Rock Sands Beach, historic Holy Island and Lindisfarne Castle and Priory, stunning Cocklawburn Beach and popular Spittal Beach.

Apart from the official Northumberland Coast Path there are other stretches of beach and scenic coastline at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Seaton Sluice, Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and Tynemouth in Tyne and Wear and continuing south as far as Sunderland and on towards the Durham Heritage Coast.

You are likely to see plenty of bird life and maybe an occasional seal while enjoying the fresh sea air. The weather is frequently blustery and cold but quite often sunny. Hardy swimmers and surfers take to the chilly waters of the North Sea during the summer months when the more easily accessible beaches are popular with paddling families and sunbathers.

My intention is to walk the entire coast from the Scottish border down as far as South Shields and beyond, dividing the coast up into short day hikes where I park the car and walk ‘there and back’ or in a circular route. Here are some of the stages I completed before the coronavirus lockdown began. I will write about each stage in future blog posts and provide links to nearby attractions.

Northernmost Point in England Walk

Berwick Beach Walk
Spittal to Cocklawburn Beach Walk
Cocklawburn Beach to Cheswick Beach Walk
Cheswick Beach to Goswick Walk
Holy Island Circular Walk
Ross Back Sands Beach Walk
Bamburgh Beach Walk
Beadnell Short Walk

I’ll add new sections as I complete the remaining stages once life returns to normal. I can’t promise I’ll cover every single inch of the Northeast coastline but I’ll try to include the most scenic parts.

Wylam to Newburn Walk – River Tyne Trail

This Wylam to Newburn Walk is a 2.9 mile (one-way) section of the Daft As A Brush trail.

This is a pleasant, easy walk with various points of historical interest, especially for those interested in railways.

Please note I am not providing detailed maps or instructions of the route. You will find all that in Daft As A Brush’s book. You can buy a copy here with proceeds going to support the charity’s good works.

Start Point

Wylam Car Park

End Point

Tyne Riverside Country Park. There is plenty of free parking here.

Highlights

It is well worth popping into the Wylam Railway Museum. It is small but packed with interesting exhibits relating to the development of railways in the region and in particular the role of famous railway pioneer George Stephenson who was born here in 1781.

The first part of the walk from Wylam follows the route of the old Wylam Waggonway, a horse-drawn method of transport built in 1748 for transporting coal, originally along wooden rails and later on iron rails. The waggonway was replaced by a railway line in 1876 linking Wylam to Newburn and Scotswood. After the railway closed in 1968 the track was removed and the Waggonway became a public bridleway.

This charming whitewashed cottage was George Stephenson’s birthplace, now owned by the National Trust. He and his family lived here until he was eight, sharing with three other families. Seeing the horse-drawn coal wagons passing in front of his window may well have triggered his interest in developing steam powered locomotives.

From here the River Tyne Trail runs close to the riverbank passing through Calaminarian grassland, a habitat where rare wild plants have adapted to survive on soils rich in toxic heavy metals left over from mining activities.

There used to be many ferry crossings on the Tyne and this Ferryman’s Cottage on the opposite bank marks the spot of the Ryton Ferry.

A blob of outdoor art on the riverbank at Newburn.

You might want to end your walk with refreshment at the Keelman Pub and Big Lamp Brewery which is housed in the former Newburn Water Pumping Station, built in 1854.

Nearby Attractions

Wylam Railway Museum
Wylam Station

You can read more of my Daft As A Brush Trail walks here.