Look at a map of England and you may be surprised to find out that Newcastle and the North East, are actually further west than Southampton, the gateway to the West Country.
All this puts glorious Northumberland within easy striking distance of long weekenders from Northern Ireland.
Historic towns and villages pepper unspoilt wide open countryside, replete with wild and windswept moors and lush wooded valleys – and there are plenty of welcoming accommodations to match, from farmhouse B&B’s and quaint old coaching inns to immaculately restored manor houses and budget motels.
Set 30 miles west of the bustling metropolis of Newcastle upon Tyne, yet turning the clock back to the romantically mysterious days of knights of old, Langley Castle (www.langleycastle.com) has been transformed into a wonderfully welcoming country house style hotel that was voted as ‘Britain’s Best Small Hotel’ in 2007 and 2011.
An imposing Norman fortress, with soaring towers and seven-feet thick walls, this imposing bastion stands above the Upper Tyne, just five miles south of the even older Hadrian’s Wall. It made a superb base for a delightful Northumbrian short break.
Cross the Irish Sea and head first for the historic city of Carlisle, hard against the Scottish Borders, and worth spending an afternoon exploring its museums and sights, then take the A69 east towards Hexham.
Magical well-tended grounds
It was already dark when we arrived at the castle, which stood tall and proud above its 10 acres of snow-flecked woodland – an estate that was 13,000 acres in size back in the 14 Century when the castle was built for Sir Thomas de Lucy, one of Edward III’s favourites. The estate might be smaller now but how magical these well-tended grounds proved to be as we roamed them at leisure.
Thanks to lavish use of period furnishings and décor, four poster beds, wood panelled and bare stone walls, tapestries, paintings and exquisite stained glass, the castle’s ambience is romantically mediaeval but, don't worry, it has all the modern amenities you’d expect to find in an award-winning country house hotel.
Alright, our Tower Suite bedroom was located at the top of a massive 100-plus step staircase but while there’s no guest lift we were able to hitch rides aboard the service elevator whenever the climb seemed too much of a challenge – as it certainly was after a sumptuous feast in the atmospheric AA two-rosette winning Josephine Room, a truly baronial great hall.
Fine dining here focuses on beautifully presented game and other local produce – showcasing French, Italian, modern British and Oriental influences. It's not ‘picture on a plate’ Michelin-style fussiness but a cuisine that lets the aromas and flavours do the talking.
The light and airy conservatory style Pavilion Restaurant provides a more informal brasserie experience and has built a strong reputation for its steaks and grills. Full-on afternoon teas – finger sandwiches, cakes, scones, cream and all that – are another enticing option.
With its blazing log fire and exquisite stained glass, the drawing room is the perfect place to relax with a pre or post-dinner drink or two or you might choose to be more energetic and climb that staircase to take a guided tour of the lofty battlements and private chapel.
Dramatically wild countryside
The North Pennines, the Lake District and the Scottish Borders are all within easy reach for days out but you may well opt to stay closer to base and explore in some of England’s most dramatically wild and beautiful countryside.
Certainly, you should allot some time to visiting the intriguing museums to be found dotted along Hadrian’s Wall as it wends its torturous way from coast to country.
Our choice this time around was not to roll the years back nearly two millennia to the zenith of the Roman era but to discover the more recent heritage of the Edwardian age by visiting the evocative and award-winning Beamish “Living museum of the North” (www.beamish.org.uk), which stands in 300 acres of peaceful rolling County Durham countryside – attracting nearly half-a-million visitors a year.
Here you’ll meet friendly period costumed characters – shopkeepers, tram drivers, farm workers and pitmens’ wives – as you wander through a time warp of village and small town life as it was a century ago.
There’s a magnificent Masonic hall to visit, along with a fully-stocked Co-operative store, a newspaper office, a dental surgery, a bank, a solicitor’s office and a working bakery shop, while the motor works has a superb collection of vintage cars, motorcycles and bicycles.
Working home farm
You can even get to go down into a drift mine to discover the tough conditions in which coal – ‘black gold’ – was once hacked out of these hillsides while the working home farm keeps traditional breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry and reveals how agriculture worked in less industrialised days.
Northumberland also has a dramatic coastline, dotted with such attractions as Bamburgh and Alnwick castles, Holy Island – capped by the ancient fortified abbey of Lindisfarne – and the mystical offshore Farne Islands, where visitors can wander among basking seals and admire the vast flocks of seabirds.