Northern Treasures

There are many reasons why I love England. It’s a beautiful country and I’m extremely blessed to have been born in to such a prosperous and stable country. I love its history and storied corners, how just about every wood and village tells a story worth hearing. I love the epic landscapes and wide empty territories of North America, indeed, I revel in the grandeur and solitude of its great deserts and mountain ranges, but they lack the character and rich interest of the Sceptred Isle. Since joining the National Trust I’ve discovered just how rich this island is in places of interest and beauty. Britain is absolutely crammed full of treasures, with each county boasting more historic spots than whole countries elsewhere in the world. Every nook and cranny is steeped in history – there’s so much to discover.


I think of William Blake’s poem, famous for being set to the anthem Jerusalem, but in particular for its quintessential description of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’, and consider both how apt and how inadequate this description is. Yes, it captures the bucolic loveliness of rural England, but it also makes it sound rather dull, a little sleepy and somewhat one-dimensional. Yes there are places like that, but really England is very multi-dimensional, both culturally and geographically. Not only is its history rich but its terrain is wild and varied. As well as the verdant fields and rolling pastures there are soaring crags and velveteen waterfalls, deep-notched gorges and windswept moors, wave-crashed coasts and diverse woodlands.


All these things and more I discovered on a recent road-trip to the north of England. Book-ended by visiting family in both Yorkshire and Edinburgh, my wife and son and I explored the treasures of County Durham and Northumberland. I have vivid memories from childhood visits that I was keen to recreate and extend, especially because these distant parts of my country are ones that I all too rarely get to visit. Here I’d like to tell you a bit about them, along with a few photos. For more photos of the trip, do check out my photo-blog: MJH Photography.


We started with Brimham Rocks, a little-known natural playground in North Yorkshire. Part of the equally well-kept secret of Nidderdale, and bordering the Yorkshire Dales, Brimham Rocks is a fascinating collection of huge rocky outcrops. Upon leaving the car-park you suddenly find yourself among sandstone monoliths, gnarled and weathered and arrayed in fantastic shapes. It was once a fairly uniform expanse of Millstone Grit, of the kind commonly found in the Peak District and Pennines, but eons of glaciation, wind and water have carved and corroded it into a labyrinth of incredible formations. It’s a wonderland of overhangs, balanced rocks, narrow slot canyons and rain-carved hollows.


Despite being owned by the National Trust it is wonderfully open and accessible. It has miraculously escaped from the British culture of health and safety so that the only limits are those you impose yourself. Caution can take a much-needed back seat and a spirit of adventure and exploration can come to the fore. So many places in England are roped-off and reduced to distant spectator-sports, but here you can get up close and personal, scrambling, squeezing and scurrying. It reminded me wonderfully of Goblin Valley in Utah, just colder and greener.


I’m an occasional climber and boulderer, and I had great fun following the passageways through the rock and climbing as high as I possibly could. My fingers took advantage of every handhold available but in place I had no option but to chimney-climb, my back to one side of a tiny ravine and my legs gradually walking up the opposite wall. Once up top you get a great view of the whole place, as well as truly sumptuous views over Nidderdale, which is rightly designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Looking out over Nidderdale from Brimham Rocks
Looking out over Nidderdale from Brimham Rocks


From Nidderdale we traversed into the neighbouring Skell Valley to Fountains Abbey, another National Trust treasure. It too is a beautiful place in its own right, though here the natural beauty is enhanced by the spectacular ruins of the abbey. Fountains is a medieval monastery, one of the largest and best-preserved in England. It was built by the Cistercian Order of monks in the 12th-century and by the time Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s it was one of the richest institutions in the country, owning wide lands and commanding even wider influence.


It’s an UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Grade I Listed Building, a place with a brooding atmosphere, nowhere more so than down in the long vaulted cellars. The abbey church and the great tower are exceptionally well-preserved, but the huge site also includes cloisters, a refectory, chapter-house, Abbot’s House, Great Hall, kitchens, butteries, store-houses and a whole host of out-buildings. There must have been a huge community of monks here once, virtually self-contained and doing their best to shut themselves off from the world.


I have mixed feelings about the virtues of monasticism and about the rights and wrongs of their dissolution, but one thing I am sure about is how wonderful a place it is to admire now as twenty-first century visitor. A photographer and historian like me could spend whole days here, exploring every nook and cranny, but it’s equally good for a family on a day-trip, wanting only a lush picnic-spot with a dramatic backdrop.

The ruined nave of Fountains Abbey
The ruined nave of Fountains Abbey


Leaving Yorkshire we drove north in search of a spectacular waterfall. Leaving the A1 we dove into the northern Pennines, ending up at Middleton-in-Teesdale. Here we found one of England’s great waterfalls. High Force is not the tallest or even the prettiest waterfall in England, but it is certainly one of the most impressive – simply because of its sheer power. I remember learning about it in geography lessons at school and being desperate to visit, an ambition thwarted until now.


Time for a geography lesson of our own. The River Tees tumbles down out of the range of hills forming England’s spine and forms a large waterfall where it finds a layer of hard rock surrounded by softer rocks. The hard is known as Whin Sill. It came from deep within the earth as molten rock before cooling in between layers of softer shale and sandstone. Eons later that hard rock was exposed by erosion. The river doesn’t make much impression on the Whin Sill but it quickly erodes the softer rock beneath and on either side. In this way it cuts a deep gorge that keeps getting longer as the river continues to wear down the landscape. Today the waterfall bursts through the narrow neck of the gorge with tremendous force and plunges in frothing torrents into the pool below before continuing on its way. Even once the water has calmed it is still discoloured by the sheer amount of sediment in it, scraped out of the hills above and borne downstream. It’s because the river is chock full of grit and little stones that it’s able to gouge out its gorge so effectively, acting like a continual sandpaper swipe as it goes past. Ok, even if you find the geography boring, the place itself is not. Just check out this picture.

High Force Waterfall: living power in motion
High Force Waterfall: living power in motion

From High Force we had to drive over high bleak moors to re-enter civilisation near Newcastle. Overnighting at Tynemouth, which has a beautiful beach and plenty of history of its own, we pressed on north, following Northumberland’s coast-road. This is an especially beautiful part of Britain. Green rolling hills and golden sandy bays punctuated by dramatic rocky outcrops. Bamburgh surely offers the best such outcrop and the finest beach. When you think of British beaches you probably think first of Cornwall, Wales or the south coast, but Northumberland is right up there. Bamburgh boasts a magnificent golden strand, with the added bonus of an imposing castle overlooking it.


The outcrop on which the huge and very well-preserved castle stands is another slab of Whin Sill – the same hard rock that helped form High Force waterfall. Commanding the surrounding coastline, it’s been a strongly fortified place since Anglo-Saxon times and probably before. As fellow fans of Bernard Cornwell will know, this is where Uhtred of Bebbanburgh comes from – the mighty seat of power that once ruled much of Northumbria. The place has changed massively since then, with a bigger Norman castle replacing the original one plus many later adjustments, but it remained one of England’s greatest strongholds throughout the Middle Ages.

The gorgeous golden strand of Bamburgh Beach, with the Farne Isles just out to sea
The gorgeous golden strand of Bamburgh Beach, with the Farne Isles just out to sea


It’s a fantastic place to explore, whether you like history and cannons, aristocratic furnishings or just gaze out at the fabulous views. From the ramparts you can overlook the tangled dunes and the beach, see the seabird-colonies of the Farne Islands and glimpse Lindisfarne Holy Isle up the coast.


Lindisfarne was our next stop, continuing the Anglo-Saxon theme of the day. It too is a place steeped in history, but as well as having a castle its main claim to fame was as the site of Anglo-Saxon England’s greatest monastery. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels were produced here, along with countless other religious treasures. It’s a wild, windswept and atmospheric place, full of interest and rugged beauty. Added excitement comes from the fact that to reach it you have to drive over a cause-way only accessible at low tide and the tide-grounded boats strewn across the harbour, with the castle in the background, offer up the quintessential Northumbrian scene.

Lindisfarne Castle and harbour
Lindisfarne Castle and harbour


So in the space of two short days we explored rocky outcrops, a ruined abbey, a thundering waterfall, golden beaches, formidable castles and wild moors. In the time we had we only scratched the surface, passing by a whole trove of treasures, including Raby Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle, countless beautiful beaches and Hadrian’s Wall. Plus many, many more. This island of ours is varied and fascinating, and full of amazing things. We should all take the time to explore it and appreciate more fully how blessed we are to live here.


PS. There’ll be lots more photos from these adventures coming soon to my photo-blog: so be sure to visit.

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