There cannot be more beautiful countryside, more closely packed with history, towering castle battlements and soaring Gothic windows, than is to be found within a 50-miles radius of Newcastle - which is still, despite the ravages of T Dan Smith, almost comparable with Edinburgh or Dublin for monumental classical architecture and Georgian harmony in stone. And with better bridges than either.
Warkworth Castle, some 23 miles north of Newcastle, was built by Henry II of Scotland and stands on a spectacular promontory above the river Coquet. For hundreds of years it was the stronghold of the Earls of Northumberland, the battling Percys and Harry Hotspur - Shakespeare's most charismatic soldier - plotted rebellion here. The Percy lion can be seen, nobly ruined but indisputably a lion and still heroic, on the 14th century Lion Tower.
In an underground vault thought to be the former treasury, mason's marks are incised into the stone blocks from which it was built: evidence of who hewd what, and essential for hard-working labourers paid piece rates. Behind this stands the 15th century castle itself, completed by the dead Hotspur's son when he grew to maturity but abandoned by 1672 when a softer Percy built a more comfortable castle at Alnwick. The complex set of rooms includes the Great Hall with its huge fireplace and upper gallery, a solar or living room, and upper rooms presumably used as bedrooms or by those on guard duty. Despite its age, the castle is astonishingly complete.
A pathway along the river below the castle leads towards a landing point from which an oarsman will row you across to the opposite bank to visit the Hermitage. You walk less than 100 yards and suddenly a tiny chapel appears, a living space below it, both scooped out of the protruding cliff face. Carved over the doorway of a miniature porch are the heavy words Fuerunt mihi lacrimae mea panes die ac nocte - roughly translated as "tears were my food by day and night". Inside, the vaulted chapel, dank and claustrophobic, has transverse arches and roof bosses, a Gothic window leads inwards to a sacristy. In a recess on the opposite side there is a strange, haunting figure of a reclining woman carved, like everything else in this miniature chapel, out of the rock. She is watched by a kneeling man, his hand to his face in a gesture of shocked grief. Worn into little more than a rough outline, it remains a moving image of sorrow and mortality.
After a morning at Warkworth and pious thoughts at the Hermitage, pause to admire the boatman's splendid herb garden before being rowed back across the river. It is time for a lunch of home-made soup, local crab sandwiches and creamy rice pudding. This, for three, costs less than pounds 11.
Farther along the coast is Craster, a fishing village built on the hard seam of rock called the Wynn sill. From here Dunstanburgh Castle can be seen, a looming silhouette on the horizon. It was constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries as part of a line of defence against the Scots. It has never been restored and by now is nothing more than a splendid, belligerent outline; just walls and an empty threat. Beyond Dunstanburgh lies Bamburgh, then Lindisfarne on Holy Island.
THE FOLLOWING day we walk along Hadrian's Wall in the company of Peter Jones, classics don at Newcastle and omniscient about Roman Britain. The wall is flanked to the north, Scottish side by a ditch 8ft deep, and on the south by a larger ditch called the Vallum, some 20ft wide. It was dug to keep the savage locals out of the demilitarised zone beside the wall, and to provide a clear passage for transporting supplies.
The wall is not always visible, having been built over by a "military road", but for some distance it is parallel with the B6318, which at times runs on top of it. The original wall had turrets every half-mile and forts every mile, capable of holding 30 to 40 men. Every so often there is a large fort, like the one at Housesteads, which held a thousand troops. It offered bathing and training facilities and Roman "R & R".
Only the top ranks would have come here from Rome and then in all probability with reluctance. It was cold, barbaric and far from home comforts. The ordinary foot soldiers were nearly all local men. When the whole wall was manned it would have accommodated 11,000 to 12,000 people and provided substantial employment for the locals: not just from the initial building works but also in keeping the legions supplied with food and other necessities.
Agricola subdued Scotland in AD 80. In AD 122, Hadrian took the decision to build a proper wall, in accordance with his vision of a golden age, where civilisation could be spread up to the limits of barbarism in complete safety. It took six years to complete its full length of 75 miles and was abandoned when the Romans left Britain in AD 400. Of this original wall probably no more than 12 miles remain today, standing above the ground in broken stretches.
Walking along it is a marvellous exercise. The great crags plunge sheer at intervals, providing an incomparably dramatic landscape as they plummet towards the mirror surface of Crag Lough far below.
THE last delight that Northumberland offered was the most unexpected. Hexham Abbey was originally Anglo-Saxon, founded by St Wilfrid, Bishop of York, in AD 674. Only the crypt survives of his building, constricted from Roman stones covered with Anglo-Saxon plaster and smelling of earth and corruption. The nave is 12th century Augustinian, but the whole abbey is a jigsaw of devotion from many centuries including our own.
You enter the abbey to find yourself confronted by six slender stained glass windows and, to the left, a flight of stairs leading up to the monks' sleeping quarters. The steps now from a series of curved horizontals, bowed and worn by the tread of millions of devout or tired feet. In the centre of the aisle to the right stands St Wilfrid's Chair, a massive seventh-century stone seat with Kells-type patterns incised in the arms. It is older than the Stone of Scone, and used to be a haven for people seeking sanctuary. You, too, may sit in it.
Behind the choir stalls is a series of mediaeval paintings depicting the Dance of Death - always a strange and harrowing memento mori and evidence of the awful suddenness with which the plague smote the just and unjust: though in a church setting, the lewd and unjust seem to suffer most. A group of schoolchildren is shepherded past by a priest. He says, "It dates from 13th century and though not particularly well painted, it is rare and very valuable." Below his gentle murmurings they giggle and whisper to one another, "Skeletons] Skeletons]" Death, eyeless and gloating, calls to bishop and pope and king, "However important you are you must come with me, sir, for your time is up."
Above it are wonderful wooden choirstalls, shiny and blackened with age and polish. In a side chapel reserved for Prior Leschman's Tomb there are yet more 13th century paintings, this time showing the Roman soldiers dicing for Christ's raiment, the 30 pieces of silver and the great blunt nails for the Cross. It is a scene of horror to frighten the mediaevals, who were as addicted as today's audiences to the sight of torture.
Hexham Abbey contains elements of Northumbrian history from the Romans to the present day; a rich mish-mash recording the hard work, honesty and devotion of ordinary men and women in all their sin and lechery, sorrow and heroism, sickness and health, life and death. The region around Newcastle still has all these and more, set in countryside of incomparable beauty and - most amazing of all to a southerner - emptiness. Where are the crowds, the coaches, the traffic jams and tourists that impede the great sights in the South? Up here, they hardly exist.
Accommodation: The Northumbria Tourist Board, Aykley Heads, Durham DH1 5UX (091-384 6905), produces an excellent guide to hotels, self-catering accommodation and B & Bs.
Historic sites: Warkworth Castle and Hermitage (0665 711423), open daily 10am-6pm. Dunstanburgh Castle (066 576231), near Craster, daily 10am-6pm. Lindisfarne Priory (0289 89230), Holy Island, daily 10am-6pm. Hadrian's Wall, Roman fort at Housesteads (0434 344363), near Hexham, daily 10am-6pm. Hexham Abbey (0434 602031), daily 9am-5pm.
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