Go north for the wildest of weeks

From castles and curlews to Harry Potter, for a family adventure Northumberland is perfect, says Mike Unwin
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''This could be you." Four sobering words on a road sign beside the Lindisfarne causeway – and below them the alarming image of a car roof slipping beneath a grey sea. The warning is clear: if you want to make it to Holy Island, better check the tides first.

We've done our homework: today the crossing is navigable from 9.45am to 4.45pm. But it is still with some trepidation that we roll forward onto the causeway. It doesn't help that a dense fog has appeared, shrinking our view to a few meagre metres of mudflat.

Yet, while this turn in the weather rules out any scenic views, it produces a satisfying lost-in-the-mists-of-time frisson. After all, with its legacy of St Aidan, St Cuthbert and the Vikings, few places around the English coast are more steeped in history than Holy Island. And at this moment there is nothing except the tarmac beneath our wheels to suggest that this is not AD635, when the priory was founded.

To complete the illusion, a dark figure with a wooden cross looms out of the roadside mist. Startled for a moment, we watch other similar figures appear. It turns out these are the Northern Cross pilgrims, who have hiked from all over northern Britain on their annual pilgrimage.

Mist or no mist, Holy Island is a delight. We tramp over the dunes, investigate the ruins and explore the bijou Lindisfarne Castle, converted by British architect Edwin Lutyens into a holiday home in 1903.

Conditions had been balmy a few days earlier as we boarded the Glad Tidings for a cruise to the Farne Islands. Dapper eider ducks preened on the glassy water as we chugged out of Seahouses Harbour, and soon our boat was nosing up to the islands and into a veritable seabird city.

Guillemots festooned the guano-splattered rock like mini penguins as elegant kittiwakes mewled from their ledges and bottle-green shags heaved seaweed back to crude nests. And it wasn't only birds. Grey seals sprawled over the rocks, heaving into the water as we approached, then bobbing up to stare with dolorous black eyes.

On Inner Farne we disembarked and wandered the island for an hour, eyeballing the birds at close quarters.

Most popular were the puffins, which nest on the centre of the island. They constantly whirred past us and popped up their comedy bills from grassy burrows beside the path.

While the Farnes is a spectacle that appeals to all-comers, Northumberland also offers many more esoteric wildlife attractions. Martin Kitching of Northern Experience, who runs tailor-made wildlife tours around the county, knows exactly where to find its most sought-after residents, from ospreys at Kielder Water to white-beaked dolphins off the coast.

We had an afternoon with Martin to seek out a few local highlights. First he drove us inland to the north Pennines, where lapwings swooped and tumbled over drystone walls, hares lolloped over the rough pasture and red grouse cackled from the heathery slopes. Then at dusk we returned to the coast, where from a viewing hide overlooking a small lake we watched the unmistakable form of an otter duck beneath the limpid water as sand martins dashed overhead.

The next day, still in sunshine, we made our way to Housesteads, where Britain's most complete Roman fort stands alongside the most impressive stretch of Hadrian's Wall. As adults took requisite snaps of the wall, children wielding plastic swords clambered over ancient barrack-room walls.

This was history made fun – and it became a theme. At Bamburgh Castle, we marvelled at the grandeur of the King's Hall – then built our own castles on the equally perfect beach below.

At Alnwick Castle we roamed the ramparts and braved a scary hall of mirrors in the knight's quest arena and – this being a key location for the Harry Potter movies – made sure not to miss the "magic and mayhem" event, orchestrated by a convincing, if slightly camp, Dumbledore and Hagrid.

This is where Northumberland turned out to be a real winner. UK family holidays, in my experience, often founder on agreeing a plan for the day that will keep everybody happy. Wildlife or culture? Beach or walk? By the time the argument is won (or lost) and the picnic packed (or unpacked), the day is often half-gone. But Northumberland, it seems, can tick every box in a single day.

Getting there

0Newcastle, Alnmouth and Berwick-upon-Tweed are all served by the East Coast Main Line (08457 484950; eastcoast.co.uk).

staying there

0The writer and his family stayed at Foxbury Lodge in Lesbury, near Alnmouth, courtesy of Northumbria Coast and Country Cottages (01665 830783; northumbria-cottages.co.uk).

visiting there

0Farne Islands cruises on the Glad Tidings (01665 720 308; farne-islands.com). Prices start at £13 (£9 for children).

0Northern Experience Wildlife Tours (01670 827465; northern experiencewildlifetours.co.uk).

more info

0Visitnorthumb erland.com0Lindisfarne. org.uk