Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Northumberland: England's Wyoming

Let's be honest, I had wanted to go to Holy Island for about four years. So when I had the opportunity to stay with friends near Newcastle for a week, it seemed the perfect opportunity to add on a few days exploring northern Northumbria.

I stayed at Chatton Park Bunkhouse, on Chatton Park Farm near Wooler. Having forgotten to pack my sleeping bag meant £3 extra per night, so £18 per night in total (price on the website is not current). However, I had the place to myself, and it is brand new as of conversion in 2007, very clean, and Jane and Duncan are very friendly and caring. Generally the place is booked by groups, so do phone ahead especially if planning to visit at the weekend. I think it would be pretty difficult to visit here if you didn't have your own transport, either two or four wheeled. The setting is lovely, the cat and dogs friendly, and the kitchen has a lovely woodburning stove that would be extremely cosy in winter. (No microwave, though, so it's a good time to go back to making real porridge and real pasta instead of ping! meals. Got delicious Northumberland sausage from the butcher in Wooler...)

For those who prefer the YHA, the hostel at Wooler has an interesting history as a bunkhouse for land girls during World War II. It was chockablock for the dates I wanted, but then I am usually a very last minute planner (read: spontaneous!) and it seemed nice enough, bursting with tourist brochures. Speaking of which, the Cheviot Centre in Wooler contains not just an excellent tourist info centre but is a community centre with endless activities, groups and meetings, as well as being the best place for the visitor to Wooler to use the internet. For £1.50 you can use up to the minute computers for as long as they're open (10-4:30 seven days a week), versus the public library, open erratic hours (closed Tuesdays, and was it Thursdays?) and although very friendly, costing £1 per half hour for non-Northumberland residents, and 20p per sheet to print versus 10p per sheet at the Cheviot Centre.

Enough of the practicalities - what of the place? The landscape has a spacious feeling generally absent in small-scale Wales (except for inland Pembrokeshire), plus the wonderful northern Baltic light that has a more blue quality than the grey-green light of Wales. Don't get me wrong, I love Wales, but I was open to appreciating the differences. I began to think of Northumberland as England's Wyoming, a big sky country but also with a great coast (obviously there are no endless sandy beaches in landlocked Wyoming!)

What I was after was my usual range of apparently doing nothing, in the landscape, interspersed with mooching lazily around the hostel, and lurking in cafes. I found a good one in Wooler...

The surprise discovery was that Northumberland, like other places I enjoy (including areas of Scotland such as the drive through Kilmartin), is rich in prehistoric rock art, in particular the so-called ring and cup marked rocks. These are large boulders, usually exposed level with the earth, glacial probably but I am no geologist, that have been carved with indentations, usually around an inch or two in diameter, that collect the rain ('cups'), and/or Celtic-looking designs of concentric circles. They date (without me checking references) between 1500 to 3000 years ago, and as usual archaeologists can only speculate as to their purpose. It is always a big thrill for me to locate these, as they tend not to be very well signposted. In Kilmartin there is a fairly well, if understatedly, marked chain of these. In Northumberland, there can be no marking whatsoever... an Ordnance Survey map is essential. I found them at two locations... and then there was Holy Island, best left for another article.

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