Britain’s least populated national park offers blissful opportunities for outdoor sports and adventure
When bureaucrats established the borders of Northumberland National Park they focused on rugged, upland areas and excluded any significant settlements. The result is 1,049 square kilometres (405sq miles) of park where the biggest village has barely 50 homes. With only two residents per sq km, there are abundant opportunities to get away from it all in these rough, remote hills, and the absence of light pollution makes the night sky one of the most dazzling in Britain. There’s fabulous walking, climbing and mountain biking, as well as spectacular road cycling through the Cheviot Hills down to Hadrian’s Wall.
Mountain bike here
The new kid on the block is the Sandstone Way, a 120-mile mountain bike trail from Berwick upon Tweed to Hexham that follows a sandstone ridge southwards through the national park, past crags and rocky outcrops. The route makes for a brilliant long weekend, a challenging two days, or an epic feat for the super fit on one of the longest days of summer (sandstoneway.co.uk). For one-day rides, Alwinton, Ingram and Wooler make good launchpads for biking the bridleways of the national park.
Road cycle here
Part of the peace of the park is due to the lack of roads and traffic, which makes plotting a route difficult without the distance mounting up. It’s worth the effort though, because the sense of wilderness is intoxicating, even when viewed from the safety of Tarmac. For an organised event, the Wiggle Northern Angel offers routes of 68, 81 and 94 miles that start close to Newcastle and cross the national park (September, ukcyclingevents.co.uk), as does the Virgin Cyclone Festival of Cycling (June, cyclonecycling.com).
Hadrian’s Wall Path rightly dominates Northumberland National Park’s walks, and it’s hard to think of a more dramatic path anywhere in the country than the rollercoaster stretch between Chollerford and Birdoswald. But there are other classic trails, particularly where the Pennine Way traverses the Cheviot Hills. The path from Barrowburn up over Windy Gyle with a diversion onto the Cheviot makes for an unforgettable long-day walk. With kids in tow, it’s hard to beat a saunter up the Ingram Valley for outstanding beauty without much effort.
The same coarse, moorland terrain that thrills walkers also delivers exhilarating runs. Northumberland Fell Runners organise a busy race calendar with distances ranging from 5 miles to ultra (northumberlandfellrunners.co.uk). Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the Chevy Chase, a 20-mile race with cult status, that passes through some of the finest upland scenery in the county and includes ascents of both the 815m Cheviot and 714m Hedgehope (woolerrunningclub.co.uk).
The sandstone crags and cliffs of the Simonside Hills just to the west of Rothbury offer rich pickings for climbers, and there are good bouldering spots too.