Some of my favourite North Eastern places are densely urban, others are deeply rural. This month we’re back in the countryside. It’s about as remote and beautiful as England gets.
You don’t detour into Alwinton off some nearby main road. You have to want to go there. It’s situated near the top of the Coquet Valley where the river emerges from the high country of the Cheviot Hills. It’s not quite a cul-de-sac but almost. Beyond the village there is nothing but the still silent fells (silent, that is, if they are not firing on the military ranges and if there is no shoot going on). It is also very dark up here at night. Alwinton car park is a destination in its own right because it is one of England’s Dark Sky Discovery Sites (like Kielder on the North Tyne) where you have an unrivalled opportunity to see the aurora or the brighter planets, or simply gaze in wonder at the Milky Way.
But once a year, Alwinton shakes off its sleepiness and plays host to thousands of people who come every October to the Border Shepherds’ Show. If you are only politely interested in sheep but curious about country life, come anyway. The famous border walking sticks are a sight to behold. I once went to a service in the village church where the churchwardens (there seemed a lot of them for such a tiny place) proudly carried carved sticks in place of the traditional staves, giving the service a delightful and authentic Northumbrian rustic village charm.
Talking of the church, it is worth a visit. It stands apart from the centre of the village, prominently sited on a bluff on the hillside as if to defend the place from raiders. Maybe it was built there deliberately – in this frontier landscape not many centuries ago, you always had to be on the lookout for invading Scots and for reivers rushing down the valleys on both sides of the border.
The church is dedicated to St Michael. As befits an archangel, you often find him as the patron of churches in elevated positions. As you get near it, you realise how it’s as if the church has been dug right out of the hill. If you walk up the steep churchyard to get above the church roofline, you’ll appreciate this unique setting, and you’ll enjoy a beautiful view of the Upper Coquet and the Cheviot Hills. Inside the church, you will find the highest chancel steps you ever saw. Clambering up them to take communion at the (literally) high altar must be no joke for the elderly or infirm. But it is undeniably splendid, like a medieval stairway pilgrims would once have ascended on their knees as an act of contrition.
The Cheviots are the most remote and least disturbed hills in England. (I thought about awarding that compliment to the North Pennines as well, but although they are just as tranquil and beautiful, they have known far more industry – lead mining mainly – during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and this shows everywhere in the landscape.) From Alwinton you can walk along the border ridge with Scotland on one side and England on the other. The summits of Windy Gyle, and Hedgehope supply amazing views across Northumberland to the coast, and north to the Eildon Hills in Scotland – but this kind of expedition is only to be undertaken in fine weather and dry conditions unless you are a serious fell walker. Even on a fine day in summer, you’ll rarely meet anyone else. The only sounds to be heard will be the breeze rustling the long grasses, and the curlews that are the symbol of the Northumberland National Park.
Coquetdale is one of Northumberland’s most beautiful valleys. When you drive back down from Alwinton, stop off at Holystone and take the short walk to Lady’s Well. There was a small Augustinian priory of canonesses here, and they looked after this exquisite site until the Dissolution in the sixteenth century. It was associated with missionary preachers who were said to have baptised their converts in the pool, among them St Ninian and St Paulinus (the latter is depicted in an eighteenth century statue there). In the pool you’ll find a white stone cross that photographers love because of the reflections it casts in the dark waters.
And when it’s time for tea, you can stop off in Rothbury, a charming village (which feels more like a small market town) that is a pleasure to wander around. You may want to visit the church with its wondrous Saxon font, or the house and gardens at Cragside (National Trust), or the shoe shop where I once bought an excellent pair of black shoes that were extraordinarily reluctant to wear out. The proprietor of the antique shop has good conversation, and you may find an art or craft display in the village hall. And the National Park has a visitor centre there too.
At Rothbury you are on the Corn Road (see my article about Wallington a couple of months ago) which will take you either to Alnwick and the seaside, or back home to Tynedale.