FOR WALKS GALORE, A SPOT OF STARGAZING, AND A TEMPTING TEAROOM OR TWO, BEAUTIFUL NORTHUMBERLAND BECKONS
Northumberland is best known for its castles and coastline, but what about inland? There has to be more to it than Harry Potter locations, we reasoned, and packed up the family for an exploration of the county’s Dark Sky Reserve, staying near Kielder Water. We’re in ‘savage country’, between Hadrian’s Wall and the Scottish border, surrounded by National Park. Our destination is country estate Hesleyside, just outside Bellingham and home to a handful of purpose-built glamping huts as well as Hesleyside Hall. It’s the children’s first trip to Northumberland, first time to Hadrian’s Wall for my husband and I, and a new experience for all of us, staying in an American-style wilderness cabin.
Where we stayed
Rowan Hut ( left) is one of two cabins at Hesleyside able to host families (there are three further shepherd’s huts that each sleep two). Perched at the edge of the woods, it looks out onto fields that tumble down to the big house. During our stay, the field was full of sheep, watchful of our comings and goings. Rowan is a double-height hut, with a cosy kitchen-dining area at its heart. Off of this space, there is a neat little bathroom, plus a children’s bunkroom, with wooden ‘hatches’ opening onto each bunk. A staircase takes you up to a mezzanine double in the roof. A gorgeous deck – which comes with an outdoor bath and pair of rocking chairs ( below) – makes up for the compact living area. The firepit and cast-iron pots extend your options for cooking.
What we ate
Inspired by our wilderness cabin, we went all cowboy and cooked sausages and beans on Rowan’s outdoor firepit. (Hosts Anna and William took delivery of our initial cooking supplies, ordered online, ahead of our arrival, or you could stock up at the Co-op, butcher’s and bakery in Bellingham, two miles away.) We also ordered a Hesleyside breakfast basket which, sure enough, appeared on the deck bright and early one morning: in it were local bacon and sausages, eggs from the estate, cereal, milk, croissants and preserves. Carriages Tea Room in Bellingham offers lunch or afternoon tea with a difference. We enjoyed salad, toasted sandwiches and paninis on board a restored train carriage. The cakes looked incredible, moist and towering, and there were few tables that weren’t reserved for afternoon tea (carriagestearoom.co.uk).
What we did
This is countryside made for walking, exploring history – recent or ancient – along the way. From the National Trust’s Steel Rigg car park (which has a very welcome coffee van), we took a hilly hike, following Hadrian’s Wall to Sycamore Gap (above right) and back. Visitors seemed largely divided between those with an interest in Roman history, and those who wanted to see ‘that tree out of Robin Hood’. A three-mile circuit at Hareshaw Linn proved less strenuous, passing through ancient woodland and zigzagging bridges over the river. The Linn is a former Victorian ironworks, but also home to rare ferns and mosses, and twittering with birds. At the end of the trail, you reach an impressive waterfall – a picturesque resting point before turning back towards Bellingham.
We also liked
A lot of thought had gone into our accommodation. Small though Rowan Hut may be, it was kitted out with everything we could need, from matches to blankets. The kids loved their ‘wheelbarrow trips’ up to the hut ( below). It was colourful, too, with Penguin book mugs, Mexican-style bowls and plates, and tinted glasses. Generous extras included tea and decent coffee, plus marshmallows for toasting. The hut itself is built from reclaimed local timber and features a couple of stained-glass windows. As well as thoughtfulness, there is pragmatism, too, with a boiler in situ to counter Northumbrian temperatures, and a much-appreciated radiator, meaning we never had cause to light the mini woodburner.
The best thing
What is a Dark Sky Reserve good for, if not stargazing? Binoculars and sky guide are provided, for starspotting – either from the outdoor bath, beneath a blanket on your rocker, or secreted from the elements at your bedroom window. The peace was as much of a perk as the darkness: my heart quickened with delight at the sound of first barn owl, then tawny, answering each other across the woods, as I lay snuggled beneath my duvet and Rowan’s beautiful beams. We stayed in Rowan Hut (sleeps up to 2 + 2 children). A (minimum) two-night stay in July costs £300; from £250 in low season; hesleysidehuts.co.uk.