The Umbria of the North

Umbria is a region of Italy, capital Perugia, which gives its name to the pigment, which is a kind of reddy brown. Disappointingly, this colour does not feature in the flag of Umbria, which features a graphical representation of three candles. Not even four. Tch.

Northumberland was named by the Romans as the Northern version of Umbria because a similar pigment was found in the hills, which the natives used to paint their faces with before battle.

Not really.

Northumberland is so-called because it is the land Norther of the river Humber. Its flag is based on a – fictional! – coat of arms mentioned by Bede. It looks like a red television aerial against a Pantone yellow background.

We went to Northumberland for a short break, paid for by Tesco vouchers, and chosen because I trusted it would be less crowded than the more popular resorts of the South coast. Browsing through the available hotels, I was determined to find somewhere modern, anonymous and clean rather than a place with ‘character’. It’s hard to judge these things. I mostly wanted to avoid doilies and dingy rooms, too-small car parks. and snobbery. I know a lot of people hate them, but I’m fond of the anonymous chain hotel.

The place I picked in the end was risky. Not a chain, but a modern ‘lodge’ right next to the A1, the kind of place you’re expected to stop for one night only, because your eyes are drooping and you’d rather reach Edinburgh, or Perth, or Inverness, alive. This was a huge risk. It might have been horrible, noisy, ugly, and I was fretting about it a lot, but it turned out to be all right. It was clean (check), and modern (check), and proved to be fairly quiet, even with the window open in the room.

Although it fronted onto the A1, the road itself had narrowed down to two lanes by that point, just a normal A road, and the rooms were all at the back, looking out over a stretch of green fields populated by crows and seagulls. It was misty by the coast, but by the end of the third day, when the mist cleared, you could see Bamburg castle, one of many such relics in the region.

(You’ll find more photos over at my photo blog.)

It turned out to be a good base for a few days in the area. The coast was a short drive away, an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and a slightly longer short drive in the other direction brought us to the edge of the Northumberland National Park and the small town of Wooler, where you could park and go for a walk in the hills. We were a bit too far North for Hadrian’s Wall (dammit), but while we were there, we did a coastal walk, enjoyed the dunes and the windy beaches, walked around Holy Island, and a short stretch of St Cuthbert’s Way in the National Park. We also drove the 16 miles to Berwick-on-Tweed, where we were briefly even further North than our daughter in Copenhagen.

There were people on the beaches, but nowhere near as many as you see pictured at Bournemouth or down in Cornwall. We didn’t bother to book any restaurants and eat out. It still feels too much of a faff to me, and I’m happy to wait for normal times to come again before I consider eating out. We had a big breakfast at the hotel every morning, and then got by with sandwiches, fish and chips, and one quite traumatic kebab. What happened to kebabs? Is the name of my new podcast, coming soon. 

My favourite part of the trip was Holy Island. We weren’t brave enough to walk across the old causeway up to our knees in mud, but drove across to park in the pay-and-display outside the village. To compensate for my cowardice, we drove across a full hour before the safe crossing time, having seen a local blast across in a Golf. There was just one puddle on the road, the tide already being fairly low. The advantage was, we were able to walk around the island and be heading off again just as the hordes were arriving.

I love islands, and there’s something they all seem to have in common. I’ve stayed on Noirmoutier and Île d’Yeu, and they both had a similar atmosphere to Holy Island: somehow you know you’re cut off from the land. Holy Island should take a leaf from Île d’Yeu’s book and ban motor vehicles. If there’s a universal truth of these places it’s that cars foul up the street and ruin the view. Wherever possible, we parked outside towns and villages and walked in. I’d have happily walked or cycled across the roadway to Holy Island as opposed to the muddy St Cuthbert’s route, but when it was built, it was built without thinking of foot traffic. 

Don’t expect to roast in the sun in the Umbria of the North. Even when the sea fret had cleared, there was a powerful wind blowing constantly on the coast. But if you’re the outdoors type it’s a beautiful part of the country, largely unspoilt, with lots of local businesses holding out against the Costafication of the high street. It’s also a great place for seeing birds, with the soundtrack of Holy Island especially being the song of the skylark.

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