Snaking along snow-lined coastal roads, the North Sea glimmering cold and icy beyond him, my husband gently reminds me that though he said he wanted to go away for Christmas this year, he was thinking more of Mauritius than northern England.
With tropical climes out of our budget, however, and a guidebook to research, this winter saw us packing the car, one eye anxiously on the weather forecast as snow caused widespread travel disruption, and heading to the Northumberland coast. For those who love Suffolk and Norfolk but wish that parts of them didn’t have quite such a ‘London-on-Sea’ vibe, Northumberland has a lot going for it – the drive from the south might be a lot longer, but once there you benefit from lower prices, a less cliquey atmosphere (this is more ‘Newcastle-on-Sea’), both child-friendly and wilder beaches with rockpools galore, and more castles than you can shake a stick of rock at.
'We also made a rather half-hearted attempt to get to Holy Island (Lindisfarne) but were so traumatised after crossing the causeway across the moonscape-like bay in a non 4X4, dodging and sometimes even driving over glacier-like mounds of snow and ice, that we beat a hasty retreat.'
Our cottage was surrounded by farms and fields, with views of the sea and of famous Bamburgh Castle – nominated by Janet Street-Porter as a contender for ‘Britain’s Favourite View’ – in the distance, and, at night, of a pulsating lighthouse reminding us of the perilous coast right nearby. With the snow deep and crisp, the days bright and sun and the landscape largely devoid of habitation, it was a real winter wonderland.
To make life easier, we’d pre-ordered a grocery pack together with all we needed for Christmas lunch from a local delivery service, Food Heaven, and despite the snow they managed to have our supplies with us not long after our arrival. The firm uses mainly local supplies, including farms, so by using it you’re supporting the Northumberland economy – an important aspect of ‘local travel’.
It was tempting not to budge from the cottage, but there’s plenty to discover in the area. The Alnwick Garden has restricted openings in winter but was hosting a Santa’s grotto and elf-led activities in yurts in the grounds; we also had a festive lunch in its atmospheric Treehouse restaurant complete with wobbly rope bridges and, inside, a roaring hearth and fairy lights. In summer, Alnwick – one of the UK’s finest contemporary gardens – is fantastic fun for kids, who can collect water in mini-tractors, paddle in the rills, dodge the Grand Cascade’s jets, play hide and seek in the Bamboo Labyrinth, and more besides.
Alnwick is also home to the fabulous Barter Books, a vast secondhand bookshop in an old railway station, with a model train-set chugging along the top of some of the bookshelves and a brilliant kids’ section with a play train and Wheelybugs to ride on, as well a huge choice of children’s classics and other books. There’s also a café serving cookies and coffee with an honesty box.
One of the downsides of taking a ‘staycation’ in winter is that many attractions are closed for the season, although at Christmas some do have special events and extra openings. The weather can get in the way of some plans too – Bamburgh Castle was stunning to see up close, but with small kids, it was impossible for us to get to the beach beyond it for the best views, because the footpath through the dunes was so icy. We also made a rather half-hearted attempt to get to Holy Island (Lindisfarne) but were so traumatised after crossing the causeway across the moonscape-like bay in a non 4X4, dodging and sometimes even driving over glacier-like mounds of snow and ice, that we beat a hasty retreat rather than taking the time to explore the castle and priory sited there. (The RNLI Lifeboat Station at Seahouses has a book in which the local coastguard lists his daily call-outs to save people caught out by the incoming tide.)
Of course, Christmas and related activities swallowed up much of our five days in Northumberland. We swam at the Seafield Ocean Club in Seahouses, which felt rather surreal with the snow falling heavily against the backdrop of a fiercely pink sunset beyond the picture windows, before heading to the town harbour to watch the Christmas Eve fireworks over the ocean then refuel on fish and chips from Pinnacles, recommended by none other than the Hairy Bikers. We also took long walks through a landscape almost otherworldly in its beauty, warming up in child-friendly pubs serving local ale (the Olde Ship Inn at Seahouses is recommended).
It’s lovely to be home at Christmas, of course, but when you work from home as my husband and I do, and have a toddler at home most of the time too, it can make a nice change to have the biggest meal of the year somewhere different, even if you’re still doing the cooking yourself. The only real downside that we found to going away at that time of year, apart from the uncertainty caused by the snow, was having to pack the presents in addition to our usual luggage – taking up a lot of space in the car, they were tricky to keep hidden from three small boys whose main anxiety, for their part, was that Santa might not find us in our temporary abode…
Find out more about Northumberland family holidays and breaks.