Out of the mists
In the North East of England, you will become acutely aware of time and of the inevitability of history. You may also discover a renewed appreciation of the endurance of human civilization.
The North East is a destination in which the mind’s eye sees many layers of human experience. This is also a region of Britain where juxtaposition and contrast — visual, aesthetic, historic, conceptual — play a large role in the travel experience; you are constantly made aware of both the transcendental and ephemeral nature of history.
In this destination you will encounter conflicts, triumphs, and the age-old yearning for a structured and — at the best of times — humane world. These historic themes are writ large on the landscape; and imprinted on the psyche. For visitors to the North East, it is also an encounter with centuries of high drama and a glimpse of momentous cultural collisions.
In the 21st century, however, the North East of England is a model of enlightenment, rich cultural life, marketing vision, and economic prosperity; all of which produces a thoughtful dénouement to the region’s formidable history. And this enhanced sense of meaningfulness is the haphazard consequence of the great events that occurred here.
For many reasons, a visit to the North East of England is a contemplative journey.
A thematic approach to The North East
For destinations as rich and diverse as the North East, I always try to do a little initial mind mapping in order to identify themes inherent in the area. Because my wife and I enjoy independent travel and devising our own itinerary — the North East lends itself very well to this approach — below you will find some of the principal themes that in our experience speak to the distinct travel experience in the North East.
A geographic overview: To get an initial overview of the North East, consult the map on this page.
A crucible for Christianity
Whatever your religious or philosophical persuasion, you will find the North East an engaging destination because of the historic emergence here of an enlightened form of Christianity associated primarily with three great names: Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne; Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne; and The Venerable Bede. These three men are usually associated with a a Golden Age of Saxon scholarship that flourished in the monasteries of the region during Europe’s “Dark Age.”
Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne, referred to lovingly as “the Apostle of the English,” or “the Apostle of Northumbria,” was the founder and first bishop of the famous monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. His story, influence, and legacy are remarkable but require that you allow yourself to look at the broader historical picture and to consider how human civilization, as I have suggested, can be subject to the whims and caprices of empire-building.
Although the Roman Empire had extended its might and “civilizing” effect well into the north of Britain, it like many empires of course declined. (Throughout this part of England, you can be forgiven if you find yourself murmuring occasionally Sic transit gloria.) And when the empire fell apart, there was a resurgence of paganism in the north even though by this time the occupiers had spread some degree of Christianity. King Oswald of Northumbria (a convert himself) committed himself to assuring that Christianity replaced paganism, and thus he launched a renewed Christian movement. The first Bishop Corman didn’t seem up to the job reporting that the pagan Northumbrians were too intractable to be converted. Aidan disagreed and was promptly given the job.
As it turned out, Aidan had the skills of a modern “grassroots” politician who is not hesitant to go among the common folk and win them over one by one; which is in fact what he did. Walking from village to village, he spoke to “his” people in a quiet and respectful tone. (I understand now why Margaret Thatcher was so unpopular in this part of England.) Aidan also had other key public relations skills. The King gave him a horse so that he didn’t have to walk, but Aidan gave it away to a beggar. Aidan and his “team” also knew the importance of long-term versus short-term thinking; for example, Aidan chose 12 boys from the area and trained them as monks thus assuring that the kingdom’s future religious leaders would be purely English. The monastery he founded, and others he encouraged, was also one of the first centres of “advanced learning” in which new concepts of how an enlightened human society should function were envisioned.
Saint Cuthbert — “Cuddy” to the locals — was the Anglo-Saxon monk and later Bishop in what was then the Kingdom of Northumbria (more or less the area of modern-day North East England and southern Scotland) who became one of the most important medieval saints of England. After seeing a vision of Saint Aidan, this simple shepherd boy became a monk and eventually the prior of the monastery. However, even though he travelled extensively preaching, teaching, and performing “miracles,” his preference and real nature were more suited to that of a hermit and an ascetic; evidence of how early life experiences and lifestyles can define us! His is a complex story, but in brief, he became (somewhat against his nature and predilection) the Bishop of Lindisfarne. He did, however, die “in peace” on his beloved island among the Farne Islands. His legacy is important because, as Bishop, he had almost as much power as the King of England himself and was instrumental in identifying and affirming the distinct identity of the people of what was then known as the Palatinate of Durham. Scholars have always known the political role that Church leaders wield in society, but it would appear that Cuddy in his role as advocate for his people was far ahead of his time. And when you visit Lindisfarne, you will see some wonderful sculpted images among the ruins of the monastery that point clearly to his contemporary significance. Also when you interact with the very friendly people of the North East, you may also get a sense of a strong sense of self-determination that just might be trace to some extent back to Cuddy.
Saint Bede (c. 672-735) of course is also known as the “Father of English history,” to a great extent because of the 40 books he published. His historical writings represent the first time that the recording of history was devoted to a purely English subject, and they are a literary cornerstone of Western Christendom. At the time, the Church was of course the only institution of learning, and his works cover many disciplines including music, classical (Roman) literature, science, politics, theology, and of course history. He is also one of the first writers to trace human history in allegorical terms; his poetic interpretations thus stimulate the imagination of Christian and non-Christian alike. As an early scientific writer (On the Nature of Things), Bede showed a remarkable ability to apply reasoning and logic to the “temporal” world; it is not surprising that some have referred to the eighth century as “the Age of Bede.”
The tomb of the Venerable Bede is at one end of Durham Cathedral, which many consider the best example of Norman ecclesiastical architecture, and at the other end is that of Saint Cuthbert. For religious scholars, historical travellers, and Christians, visiting the Cathedral is — this is an understatement — a very special moment.
Hadrian’s enduring legacy
I realize I am out of sequence time-wise, but one of the travel skills reinforced by my visit to the North East of England, was to think laterally and in a multi-layered fashion. This “blended” form of consciousness is very much a part of the travel experience here — and it is exhilarating.
So that brings me to Hadrian’s Wall.
Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Roman Empire and Frontiers World Heritage Site (a separate and equally important designation), and one of those “must visit before I leave this planet” destinations.
But it is not just a single destination; it is above all a destination in which you get up close and personal with history and destiny. By visiting even part of the Wall, you will be able to see and feel the astounding legacy that this northern frontier of the Roman Empire left behind. You will also get a deep sense of the importance of world heritage sites and the dedication to the preservation, study, and interpretive work by so many highly-trained and dedicated people. This is especially true at Hadrian’s Wall because, as I have suggested, it is really multiple destinations in one.
Hadrian’s Wall is a passionate destination; it is not just some structure left behind by an invading people. Instead, it is the kind of tangible historical and archaeological experience that engages all your senses, especially the imagination. We may perhaps presume that imagination is the realm of what is to be or what might be; however, there is an historical imaginative sense that links the past, the present, and the future. And Hadrian’s Wall, a physically complex and intricate historic route in itself, is also a lesson for all time. As Beth Green points out in her brilliant audio commentary, this is not a “wall” in an entirely prohibitive sense; Hadrian’s Wall is all about the comings and goings of social, political, and economic forces. And this is why you will have such a strong sense of wonder when you too are on this northern frontier.
In some ways I was not prepared for the stunning beauty of Hadrian’s Wall. In part it is of course the context; the wide expansive landscape and the green rolling hills and valleys. But there is also a very unique and distinct beauty to the Wall and the way it flows across this open landscape. As an engineering feat, it is of course without parallel, and has that kind of beauty and integrity that architects and engineers especially appreciate. Its structural complexity and startling presence make it a highly “integrated” travel experience in itself. On the Hadrian’s Wall Country Heritage website, there is an advisory to travellers: “Every footstep counts.” This is certainly true. Like many world heritage sites, the sense of awe that one gets here is in part due to the human-landscape connection. You get a very real sense of how and why this Wall came to be. And while the Wall (like perhaps the Pyramids or other such monumental sites) initially may seem daunting in its sheer size, as you interact with it, you are not intimidated nor do you feel diminished by its magnitude. It is in fact the human element literally built into the Wall that is so inspiring. For many people, it is also one of those “Deep Peace” experiences for which North East England is renowned.
Drama, passion, and the new North East
From ancient times to the 20th and 21st centuries, the North East is theatre in the most comprehensive sense of the word. All the grand theatre that has been played out here has left its mark on the people and the places. I am not surprised therefore that the (quite accurate in my opinion) promotional slogan for the area is “Passionate people. Passionate places.” You will also become aware that the central drama is, as usual, that of survival.
As part of the heritage of the North East, there is a very strong identification with a land in which life could be harsh; whether it is in the coal mines, the shipyards, or the extensive open spaces in which the elements play a key role. And I think this is why you will find very special character traits and coping skills that are inspiring. Adversity, as we know, is the fertile ground on which the Promethean free spirit grows.
And in the North East, which is experiencing a strong economic revival and a reaffirmation of its passionate people and places, you will also experience a kind of renaissance engendered by business acumen, innovation and technology — and smart growth. For anyone looking for a thesis study for a post-graduate degree in Business I recommend a visit to the North East of England to see how the region’s social history is also a manifestation of a distinct cultural expression and in many ways the economic base of the region.
Social history and how geography and landscape shape culture
There is a new breed of traveller abroad these days. They are represented by two demographic groups that I personally am aware of: the 50+ people who in some senses have “been there, done that” but not in an ennui-producing sense. On the contrary, this group of independent, active, and “educated” travellers are now demanding more “bang for their buck” (or Pound … or Euro as the case may be). Because they have extensive travel experience and the skill “accessories” to go with it, they are looking for meaningful travel experiences in which they (as life-long learners) can become fully engaged.
The other group I am now noticing on the travel scene is the professional thirtysomes who have just had enough of a taste for the life in the fast lane (or on the economic wild side) to know that their immediate realities are not the only ones on the planet. They too are looking for new perspectives, and I think (because I often engage them in conversation when I travel) they are looking for that crucial historical perspective.
So if you belong to either of these groups, I assure you that you will not be disappointed in the North East of England.
The historical perspective that the North East embodies so well is to a great extent due to geography and landscape. And you will see this interconnectedness in so many of the region’s sites. I immediately think of the Beamish Museum, the excellent Coal Mining and Shipyard exhibits at Sunderland’s Museum and Winter Garden, the urban renewal in Newcastle-on-Tyne, The Baltic Museum of Contemporary Art in Gateshead, to mention just a few.
But hang on please, farther below you will find brief commentaries and hyperlinks to a selection of highly recommended sites like these.
Scale and perspective
Great destinations, in my view, are highly contextual. By that I mean that all the elements — history, geography, topography, the arts, “indigenous” culture, the people, timelessness, and lots of surprises — combine to form a kind of mosaic.
The mosaic is one in which a meaningful pattern can be discerned. The mosaic is the essential but obvious mystery of the destination, as well as the sum total of the parts. The more you explore such a destination, the more you learn — and the more emerges from its physical and cultural landscape. But such destinations also leave you wanting more, wanting to take the mosaic apart, delve into the individual pieces, and then of course put them all back together again — all in good time.
This is the North East of England.
More images and imagery
Great travel experiences in the North East of England
Where to begin? The destinations-within-the-destination below are only highlights — just a few samples of travel experiences we especially enjoyed — but by no stretch of the imagination all there is to discover in North East England. For other examples of what there is to discover, we recommend the North East England Pocket Guide.
Because, in part, we chose a self-catering holiday in the North East, Durham was the “hub” for our explorations. It has been the focal point for the region for a long time; the present city traces its roots back to 995 AD. At that time a group of monks from Lindisfarne chose the city’s strategic location as a settlement and a place for the tomb of Saint Cuthbert. The cathedral is the centre of the city of course and is considered by some to be the finest in the world!
(b) Durham Cathedral
This iconic cathedral, judged the finest Norman cathedral in the world, was voted the nation’s best-loved building in a BBC poll.
This “living museum” is one of the best we have seen of its kind. As a working archive of social history, it is a very interactive travel experience that deserves at least a full day.
(d) Bamburgh Castle
The lead photograph in this multimedia narrative is of Bamburgh Castle. It is perhaps its stunning location high on a basalt outcrop overlooking the North Sea and a wonderful hiking beach that gives the castle its very impressive perspective.
(e) The Bowes Museum
The Bowes is one of the best examples of the hidden treasures of the North East. For a more complete “view” of this artistic treasure, listen to my conversation with curator Howard Coutts in the Travelosophy Talks segment A French Château in North East England, with Howard Coutts
Check the schedule of tides (see the website) so that you can cross to the island. Reserve a full day for this excursion. Note especially how contemporary art is integrated among the very evocative ruins at the Lindisfarne Priory and Museum (founded in 635AD by Saint Aidan).
This may be one of the best examples of how the North East is re-introducing to the world its very significant history, especially as it reflects the post-Industrial Revolution era. There are many poignant moments in the museum’s interactive exhibits, especially of the shipyards and coal mines.
Remember the amazing success of the film Billy Elliot; a funny, poignant, and coherent portrait of one of the worst times in Britain during Margaret Thatcher’s reign? Well it’s back. This time as as a smashing new musical production . Lee Hall, author of the screenplay, has written the book and the music is by Sir Elton John! This production which is still playing in London (see the brief video on the website), also tells the story of the North East.
Pronounced ENNICK, this is one of those destinations that challenges travel writers to describe and to categorize. Is it a horticultural destination, an arts destination, or an historic destination? Well, it’s all of the above of course, and more. We especially enjoyed the contemporary water garden sculptures at the Garden and imagining Harry Potter flying around the castle courtyard. See also The Alnwick Castle
Like so much of Britain, the North East is an nature lover’s destination, especially for those who like to ramble (or amble) throughout romantic natural settings. High Force Waterfall is typical of the area.
“The Baltic” is contemporary North East England at its best. As a focal point for visiting Gateshead and Newcastle-on-Tyne (urban redevelopment at its most inspiring), this enormous arts space is also a heritage and landmark building. When we were there, one exhibit was especially contemporary in a wild and wonderful sense, and it was very interesting to see the reaction of three university lads to the contemporary art. Nearby is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the world’s first and only tilting bridge; an engineer’s dream destination.
(k) Hadrian’s Wall
See my comments above.
As the name suggests, this association promotes and protects very special places in Britain. See the website for more information on The North Pennines and Northumberland Coast. We also found the Tees Valley an especially beautiful day-trip destination.
The Main Resources
The North East England website has links to following mini-guides and others: “Cycle North East England”; “It’s amazing where our walks can lead you”; “Discover our secret gardens”.
The North East of England as a self-catering destination
We chose this mode of travel because it gave us a lot of flexibility and the opportunity to experience the local culture of the area.
My wife and I enjoy reading novels set in the destinations we visit, especially if they are written by authors who actually live there. Pat Barker is a well-known British author (especially for her Regeneration trilogy) who lives in Durham. I recommend her novel Double Vision which is set in the North East of England.
How to research a self-catering holiday
Here are a few tips that we have found useful.
(a) Choose your target destination according to your personal interests. If for example wildlife and birding interest you, choose a region in which you can create a day-trip itinerary to indulge those passions. En route you will discover much more.
(b) If you are renting a car, research how driveable the destination is. In general, identify an area or region that has a lot of attractions and amenities within easy driving distance or by public transport. Be sure to investigate local public transportation if you are going that route.
(c) The local or regional official tourism website (in the business we call them CVBs, Convention and Visitor Bureaus) is a prime resource for researching your chosen destination. In our experience, these people really know what they are doing. Self-catering properties have been checked out carefully and in most destinations they must meet certain criteria. Although the CVB websites are there to market their destinations, they are in general not commercial websites.
(d) Always dialogue with the company representatives or the owners themselves. They are in the business to serve your needs and answer your questions before you arrive.
(e) Is there an urban centre nearby that serves as a hub for your regional itinerary or is a destination within a destination itself?
(f) Research local markets and shopping facilities via the self-catering company’s website. Never hesitate to ask specific questions.
(g) Research special discounts available in the area. For example larger urban centres may have discounted transportation passes or museum passes such as CityPass.
(h) The best entry point for the region you have chosen may not be the major national airport. If you are considering North East England, check out airlines and airfares to some of the northern cities or even cities like Glasgow.
Photos copyright of Bob Fisher