Knocking on Scotland’s door, Northumberland is a timeless vision of an older, emptier England. Wild, yet accessible, England’s least populated county’s rolling moors, ancient woodland and vertiginous valleys provide proof you don’t need to leave the UK for some splendid isolation.
Its border battlegrounds, now a peaceful mosaic of habitats, are bristling with wildlife, while its near-deserted roads see more sheep than SUVs.
Throw in a few nights at the Dark Sky Park and you have a road trip on a par with – but at the fraction of the cost of – an African adventure.
Natural beauty: Wonderful heather lights up the Coquet Valley
Easily accessed from the A68 and A69, Corbridge makes for a good base camp before you power north on the near-straight Dere Street – a 2,000-year-old Roman road.
Break for a coffee at Kirkharle Courtyard coffee house (in a hamlet where the famous 18th Century landscape gardener Capability Brown was born), then it’s onwards to golden gorse hills until the table-top profile of the Simonside Hills comes into view.
Scattered across a sandstone promontory on these windswept moors (at their most glorious in August when the heather is in bloom) are prehistoric boulders etched with Neolithic cup-and-ring marks (rockartmob.ncl.ac.uk). Steeped in mystery, they could be settlement boundaries, route markers or even shamanistic symbols, according to archaeologists.
Sleep under the stars: George Clarke’s Sky Den in the Kielder Calvert Trust
This brush with our ancestors is a mere ten-minute heave up the ill from Lordenshaws, one of England’s most remote car parks. On a clear day you can drink in dizzying views of the Cheviots – a long-extinct volcanic formation – then explore a 2,000-year-old hill fort and Bronze Age burial cairns with just a few sprinting hares and tiptoeing curlews for company.
The route north loops past National Trust property Cragside, a Victorian house that was the first to be lit by hydroelectricity, on winding country lanes to 360-acre Chillingham Park. Better known for its haunted castle, this medieval landscape is also home to an animal rarer than the mountain gorilla.
Visitors can join warden Ellie Crossley on one of her safari-style Land Rover trips to catch a glimpse of 130 wild cattle, a herd that have lived here for 800 years. With no human intervention for eight centuries, these fantastic beasts have survived against the odds – bouncing back after being whittled down to just 13 in the big freeze of 1947.
Not far from here, on a working farm fringing Northumberland National Park, are Maylies, converted twin shepherd huts (hutsinthehills.co.uk), which sleep five and come with that all-important safari staple: an outdoor soaking tub.
For those up with the larks, some thrilling twitching awaits at Harthope Valley (signposted from Wooler as Langleeford) – also the gateway to bracing Cheviot hikes.
The same wild beauty that charmed celebrated writer Sir Walter Scott has lured Martin Kitching, of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours (northernexperiencewildlifetours.co.uk). The science-teacher-turned-nature-guide runs tailor-made birdwatching tours to see the valley’s parachuting meadow pipits, rare ring ouzels and magnificent merlins, Britain’s smallest bird of prey.
Cattle from Chillingham Park’s ancient wild herd
The slow south-westerly drive is stunning and weaves through the Coquet Valley, where ancient hay meadows meet the lonely uplands of Northumberland National Park, justly called ‘land of the far horizons’. The skies widen, the sheep become hardier and the farms scarcer, until towering conifers around the village of Kielder and the vast reservoir there catapult you into a wilderness.
Africa may have the safari ‘Big Five’ but the ‘Super Six’ (ospreys, otters, salmon, pipistrelle bats, red squirrels and roe deer) belong to Northumberland’s 250-square-mile Kielder Water and Forest Park. Roe have been flashing their white derrieres here since the 1700s, when the Duke of Northumberland built his not-so-humble hunting lodge, aka Kielder Castle.
Strung along the reservoir’s 27-mile shoreline are wildlife hides such as Leaplish – a prime lookout for Kielder’s six breeding pairs of ospreys, which returned in 2009 after a two-century hiatus. And noisily scurrying around in the treetops are about half of England’s native red squirrels. Kielder is one of their last strongholds.
Back at the water’s edge, webbed toe prints are telltale signs of the shyest of the Super Six: otters.
Besides having Northern Europe’s largest man-made lake, Kielder’s other claim to fame is its superlative stargazing. It sits squarely in the world’s third-largest protected dark sky reserve, which blankets 580 square miles of Northumberland. TV architect George Clarke’s Sky Den treehouse at activity park Kielder Calvert Trust includes a wet room, foldaway interior and retractable roof, allowing guests to literally sleep under the stars (canopyandstars.co.uk).
If one night with the stars isn’t enough, a half-hour drive east, in the pretty village of Wark, Battlesteads Hotel (battlesteads.com) hosts astronomy evenings at its cosy on-site observatory. Better still, it comes with its own bar, courtesy of the 18th Century farmstead’s pub. Sundowners are local gins and craft beers.
For the complete cosmic journey, you can stay overnight in one of the hotel’s luxury Velux-windowed eco lodges.
Stay in Hadrian’s Wall Yurt (canopyandstars.co.uk ), just seven miles from Corbridge, pictured
While a churchyard may not be an obvious place to seek out nature, in St Cuthbert’s, Beltingham, you can marvel at not one, but three ancient yew trees that have stood sentinel over the South Tyne River for a millennium. They are what baobab trees are to the African bush – symbols of life, death and regeneration.
Move full circle and stay in Hadrian’s Wall Yurt (canopyandstars.co.uk), just seven miles from Corbridge, where this wild ride began. Nestled in sheep-freckled pastures, a stone’s-throw from the Hadrian’s Wall Trail, it’s packed to the canvas gills with antiques, mahogany furnishings and a wood-burning stove to curl up to on a chilly eve.
With zero light pollution, you may even spot a shooting star to wish upon.