Helicopters and light aeroplanes buzz above a recumbent figure. A scantily clad Cheryl Cole popping back for a cup a tea wi’ her mam or a photo opportunity for a new nightspot at Newcastle’s Bigg Market?
Neither, it is a landscape artwork, designed by internationally renowned artist, Charles Jencks. Northumberlandia or as she is known hereabouts, our lady in the north, is creating quite a stir locally with art lovers keen to see her from the air, although my family and I choose a more earthbound viewing option, walking a short distance along a woodland path, which is part of a 19 hectare parkland regeneration project for neighbouring Shotton Colliery. The artwork takes the form of a series of grassy knolls and lakes forming a naked body. Our daughters are impressed by the scale; 1.5 million tonnes of soil were used in her construction, and her face is an engineering masterpiece.
We are basing ourselves at nearby Alnwick at the family-friendly Hog’s Head Inn. Northumberland’s spellbinding allure and Cumbria’s hidden gems have inspired our latest family adventure, exploring one of the north’s newest attractions and some of its more ancient places. As we check in, the girls lose no time in scoping the room, announcing delightedly, “it’s big enough for cartwheeling.” After a hard day of sightseeing it’s a treat to saunter downstairs to the bar/restaurant and make ourselves at home. With interesting décor, tweed armchairs and unusual objects it’s a comfortable place to spend some time. Our starters arrive quickly which is ideal as we are all famished.
We opt for garlic mushrooms, tempura prawns and beautifully presented portions of sweet potato fries served with garlic mayonnaise and dips. Despite the continental theme, the food is sourced locally wherever possible. We soon scoff our main courses, a chickpea and coriander burger for me, with a tasty chicken Diane served with potatoes and vegetables, and deep fried whole tail scampi with chips and peas for the girls. Graham gorges himself on a vast Angus burger smothered with stilton cheese. I’m not quite sure how the girls managed to leave room for two scoops of ice-cream; luckily it’s not far to stumble to our room.
As our youngest is in the midst of a school project we are headed to Corbridge Roman fort near Hexham. After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we are raring to go, exploring what was the Camp Bastion of its time. Home to several thousand people, it was a place for “R & R”, a few miles behind the frontier at Hadrian’s Wall. The girls raced around clambering over ruins and exploring the site, their favourite bit being the partially intact granaries which housed enough grain for at least the whole town for a year, while Graham and I discovered just how fancy a place this was from the information boards. There were fountains, shops and workshops, as well as accommodation for men, soldiers and beasts. It was a vibrant bustling town.
After a quick photo opportunity with a Roman helmet and sword, it was time to explore the inside of the museum properly. The Corbridge hoard is the highlight, discovered on an archaeological dig in 1964. It consists of the worldly goods of a Roman soldier, buried for safekeeping in an iron-bound, leather-covered chest. Its discovery allowed experts to work out how segmented armour pieces were put together for the first time. There are also beautiful stone carvings, in particular one poignant gravestone for Ertola, a child who “lived most happily four years and sixty days”, who is depicted playing with her ball.
With our brains stuffed with Roman facts, we made for the appropriately named Hadrian’s Hotel in the village of Wall, for lunch. Next on our itinerary was Chester’s Roman Fort where our guided tour gave us an insight into the everyday routine of the Roman cavalry, bringing to life how the fort would have looked and changed over the years. The girls relished trying to locate miniature Roman soldiers around the site, and filling out their activity sheet correctly. We also discover more about the 19th-century antiquarian John Clayton, who became obsessed by Roman ruins on his father’s estate and elsewhere locally.
However, our day is not yet finished, we have one more place to see, Housesteads Roman Fort. With an impressive walk in from the car park its location makes you realise this place was at the edge of the world. A film presentation at the English Heritage visitor centre helps us to visualise what it would have looked like. It also reveals the sophistication of the fort. We have just enough time to check out the onsite state- of-the-art medical facilities and advanced sanitation on offer, before the local sheep reclaim the ruins for the night. We drive back along the minor roads, glimpsing the remains of the wall and ditches, bathed in the golden sunlight.
Sunday starts early with a trip to Birdoswald and onwards deeper into Cumbria, a district that has so much more to offer visitors than just the lakes. We are well versed in the layout of Roman forts by now, and quickly recognise what’s what, but a breathtaking view into the valley and walks beside the wall, make for an excellent photo opportunity, and a warming hot chocolate in the café means we all leave in good cheer.
Lunch at the nearby Lanercost Experience is not to be missed. We took ages to decide what to have from the ample menu, opting for a hearty leek and potato soup, sticky chicken panino and chef’s goats cheese salad and a Cumbrian beef casserole. There is an exhibition space, which briefly explores the area’s history and attractions, although I could quite easily have spent the entire afternoon in retail therapy in the shop. A quick look around the remains of the 12th-century Augustinian Priory amaze. We are treated to a peek inside what is purported to be the oldest village hall in England, the Dacre hall before sampling some mead in the shop.
However, our final stop is an assault on Carlisle castle, a place well used to raids from Scots. My history buff partner Graham is in his element, exploring every inch of the place, but it’s time to head home. We have exhausted ourselves, traversing the country on our travels, but I think it’s safe to say we have now “done Roman”.
Hog’s Head Inn Alnwick, tel: 01665 606 576, email: email@example.com, singles from £60, double/twins from £85, family room (sleeps up to four) from £110. For more information see www.english-heritage.org.uk/hadrianswall; www.northumberlandia.com; www.lanercostexperience.co.uk