Northumberland: A perfect playground in the north

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From castles to curlews, Northumberland is ideal for a family adventure, says Mike Unwin

"This could be you." Four sobering words displayed 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 overnight, shrinking our view to a few meagre metres of mudflat. The mournful bubbling of curlews wells up from the gloom like some bleak radio drama soundtrack.

Yet, while this turn in the weather rules out any scenic views, it does produce 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 clutching a large wooden cross looms out of the roadside mist. Momentarily startled – then reassured by the sight of jeans and fleeces – we watch more, similar, figures appear. It turns out that these are the Northern Cross pilgrims, who have hiked from all over northern Britain – some from as far as Iona – on their annual pilgrimage. "Today is Good Friday," explains the car park attendant, patiently, when we pull over on the other side and I ask what is going on. "This is Holy Island." Ah. Of course.

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. Here the challenge of spotting an Easter bunny in each room, with the reward of a chocolate egg at the end, proves perhaps a more contemporary lure for my eight-year-old daughter and other younger "pilgrims".

Conditions had been balmy a few days earlier as we boarded the Glad Tidings for a cruise to the Farne Islands. Dapper eider ducks – a favourite of St Cuthbert himself – 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, bickering over their postage-stamp plots, while elegant kittiwakes mewled from their ledges and bottle-green shags heaved seaweed back to crude nests. The fishy stench and raucous din was overwhelming.

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. Our skipper pointed out Longstone lighthouse, from where, in 1838, the 23-year-old Grace Darling rowed out with her father to rescue 13 people from the wreck of the SS Forfarshire. That the young Victorian heroine had died just four years later from TB was a poignant footnote that had somehow escaped my recollection of this stirring tale.

On Inner Farne we disembarked and wandered the island for an hour, eyeballing the birds at close quarters. Most popular, inevitably, were the puffins, which nest on the centre of the island. They constantly whirred past us at face height, and popped up their comedy bills from grassy burrows beside the path.

This island also houses a smattering of humans, though by early May even the small quadrangle between chapel, visitor centre and reserve HQ is taken over by nesting Arctic terns – more than 100 pairs – which habitually dive-bomb intruders. "This is a good place to save money," joked warden David Steel, as he described the isolated life of the few dedicated staff who spend nine months of the year monitoring the wildlife and showing visitors around.

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 dry-stone walls, hares lolloped over the rough pasture and red grouse cackled from the heathery slopes. Here we found a small group of rare black grouse feeding right beside the road, their glossy plumage shining electric blue in the afternoon sun. 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. It was a brief glimpse, but a thrilling one. Otters are now doing so well in Northumberland, Martin explained, that they are even seen along the banks of the Tyne.

My daughter likes her wildlife. But there's only so long you can keep an eight-year-old quiet and still. Luckily, there was another – rather larger – stone wall not far from the north Pennines. 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 – which snakes away to east and west along a high ridge – and tried to imagine the barbarian hordes advancing from the north, children wielding plastic swords clambered over ancient bath houses and barrack-room walls. This was history made fun – and it soon became a theme. At Bamburgh Castle, almost fictitiously perfect in both its site and contours, we marvelled at the grandeur of the King's Hall and thick walls of the keep – then, afterwards built our own, slightly less robust, castles on the equally perfect beach below. At Alnwick Castle we roamed the ramparts and admired the Titians in the staterooms, but also 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.

And this is where Northumberland turned out to be a real winner. UK family holidays, in my experience, often flounder 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.

There was no better example than our outing to Dunstanburgh Castle. This came complete with a scenic meander along the coastal path from Craster; a fabulous 14th-century ruin to explore; seabird cliffs to scrutinise for fulmars and razorbills; perfect sand dunes for a picnic; a beach tailor-made for frisbees and sandcastles; and – by way of local culture – Craster's famous kippers, to take home for tomorrow's breakfast.

And how better to round off the day than in the picture-perfect seaside village of Alnmouth – just down the road from our cottage – with an evening stroll on another glorious beach, followed by an excellent meal in the child-friendly Red Lion?

"This could be you," warned the sign. Well, I can think of worse places to be stranded than Northumberland.

Travel essentials: Northumberland

Getting there

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

Staying there

* The 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). Rental of the four-bedroom property starts at £725 per week.

Visiting there

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

* A variety of wildlife tours is available through Northern Experience Wildlife Tours (01670 827465; northernexperiencewildlifetours.co.uk

More information

* Holy Island of Lindisfarne: lindisfarne.org.uk

* Visit Northumberland: visitnorthumberland.com

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