London is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, so it makes sense that most trips to England start in this capital city. I’ll admit, that my previous visits to the United Kingdom all started in London or focused solely on London.
I recently spent a week exploring Northern England and loved every minute of it! From metropolises such as Manchester to sleepy villages like Wark on Tyne to the rich history as well as world heritage sites; Northern England offers numerous opportunities to explore much more than London alone can offer.
11 of my favorite experiences during my visit to Northern England:
Durham was my first stop in Northern England and I loved everything about it. It’s a historic city that sits on the River Wear. It’s also a university town with quaint cobblestone streets. There are narrow walkways between buildings that open into quaint courtyards.
The town’s two famous sites are Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral. The castle serves as the dorms for the university and if you happen to arrive in summer, they are available as lodging.
While the castle is a gorgeous Northern England landmark, it’s the cathedral that is the shining star of this town. Originally built as a monastic cathedral for Benedictine monks, Durham Cathedral has some of the most intact surviving monastic buildings in England. Construction began in 1093 it took 40 years to finish.
Durham Cathedral is the only cathedral in England to retain almost all of its Norman craftsmanship. The nave is believed to be the world’s first structural pointed arch. What is very interesting about the cathedral is it is a combination of twelfth-century late Norman style and also has parts built in the Gothic style.
The cathedral has been used as a filming location for many movies and TV shows. Most notably, many parts of the cathedral were used for the first two Harry Potter movies, including the below courtyard.
I visited the section of the wall called Housesteads. This section of Hadrian’s Wall is the best preserved Roman fort in the country. From the ridge, you can see Northumberland National Park and the wall snaking into the distance.
The Roman emperor, Hadrian ordered the construction of his wall in 122 AD, ‘to separate the Romans from the barbarians’. It stretched in its heyday from coast to coast, with a pair of turrets and a castle or small fort every mile. Whether you’re covering a short section of the wall in an afternoon or spending a week walking its entire length, it’s a fascinating piece of history to explore.
Housesteads is one of 16 bases along Hadrian’s Wall and an iconic landmark in Northern England. It is the most complete example of a Roman fort in Britain. It is also the best place to see many of the original features of a Roman fort.
There are barrack blocks, hospital and below are said to be some of the oldest toilets you can find.
Drift Mine Tour in Beamish
Beamish is a 300-acre open-air living, working museum in the Durham countryside. Employees dress up in period clothing and help share what it was like to live in 1820’s, 1900’s and 1940’s in Northern England.
There are pathways throughout the museum grounds or you can jump on a trolley to visit the different sections of the museum.
The main street in town has shops and homes that you can wander into to get a peek at what life might have been like not so long ago. The highlight for many is the confectioner’s shop that actually sells sweets!
The highlight of my visit was a tour of a drift mine. 1913 was the height of coal production in Northern England and there were 304 coal mines in Durham 165,246 men and boys who worked in the mines. Tours are given by previous miners. Hearing what day to day life is like from an actual miner brings a much bigger sense of the experience.
Battlesteads Dark Sky Observatory
The Battlesteads Dark Sky Observatory is a public astronomical observatory located at the Battlesteads Pub, Hotel & Restaurant. The observatory offers a range of weekly events including Aurora Hunting of the Northern Lights, an Astronomy for Absolute Beginners evening that includes the basics in stargazing and Dark Sky Discovery Night. The observatory is located in the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park which is part of the largest area of protected night sky in Europe. In this makes it officially the best place in England for people to go to enjoy the heavens.
Best known for its starring role as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the first two Harry Potter films, Alnwick Castle has made many appearances in film and television over the years. Most recently starring as a location for Downton Abbey. Tours of the castle run spring through autumn. Make sure to check the calendar before your visit!
Poison Garden at the Alnwick Garden
The Alnwick Garden is a complex of formal gardens adjacent to Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. The garden recently went through a £42 million update and features various themed plantings designed around a central water cascade feature.
While the Alnwick Gardens are gorgeous, it’s the Poison Garden that was the highlight of my visit! Beind the locked gates of the Poison Garden, guides share tales of deadly plants. Myths and legends are uncovered, along with facts from science and history.
Lancaster Castle is not your ordinary British castle. It was a working prison with inmates until very recently and is currently a court that tries Lancanshire residents for everything from murder to mayhem.
Take a step further back and you’ll find it has a truly fascinating and somewhat horrific history. Guided tours are offered daily that share the famous story of the Pendle Witch Trial and it’s ties to the Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.
During my tour I learned that many convicted felons were shackled together and forced to walk miles to board a boat and be sent to America and later to Australia. And yes, they do have a room of shackles and other torture devices.
I visited hanging corner where public hangings that took place. During the time hangings took place, the bodies were buried in the ground next to the corner. Today that ground serves as a parking lot. A bit creepy to know you are walking over the dead as you are staring at the corner where they died.
Coming from America, it’s amazing to me how far back history of a building can go. Visiting a castle that is over 750 years old is truly a treat.
Drive through the Forest of Bowland
The Forest of Bowland has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) since 1964. This 312 miles of countryside is home to the geographic center of Great Britain at Dunsop bridge. It’s a beautiful drive through miles of farmland, green pastures, barren gritstone fells, deep valleys and peat moorland. When I visited, I drove from Lancaster to Downham, which is just over 50 miles. You’ll want to rent a car to make this drive and plan for extra time for plenty of photo stops.
Walk in the footsteps of author J.R.R. Tolkien who regularly stayed at Stonyhurst College in the Ribble Valley. This walk explores the richly beautiful surrounding that inspired him and a number of names occur in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. One of the largest buildings in the North West. This magnificent 16thC manor house is home to a famous Catholic co-educational independent boarding and day school. Tours include dormitories, library, chapels and school rooms.
Pendle Hill (Home of the famous witch trials of 1612)
From Lancaster to Pendle Hill you can find monuments for the Pendle witches. Pendle Hill is located in Downham and one of the most visited Lancashire walks. During my visit, I had very limited time in the area and arrived late and left at dawn. Although my hotel provided a wonderful view of Pendle Hill I didn’t get a chance to experience the 6.5-mile hike. It is on my travel ‘to do list’ for my next trip to Northern England and based on several conversations, I’d recommend the hike for anyone who enjoys a good walk and a bit of witch history!
Afternoon Tea at Opus One at the Radisson Blu
It’s just not right to visit England and not enjoy afternoon tea at least once. I enjoyed a scrumptious afternoon tea at Opus One at the Radisson Blu which is located in the historic Free Trade Hall and the original home to the Hallé Orchestra. The beautiful Opus One Bar and Restaurant offers indoor dining and enclosed patio with views of Albert Square.
As well as serving a traditional Afternoon Tea, Opus One at the Radisson Blu offers a gluten-free and vegan option. They also offer a Gentleman’s Afternoon tea, with mini Yorkshire puddings, warm pork pie with mini fish & chips, rustic sandwiches and scones. Along with your tea, you can also add a glass of champagne or pint of beer.
While the sweet treats were delicious, my favorites were the finger sandwiches and the scones with clotted cream and preserves. The scones were moist and delicious (which is not easy with gluten free) and not like anything I have tried in the States. I think I’ve been spoiled forever for a proper scone and will be on the lookout for one that compares for a long time.
John Rylands Library
John Rylands library is a late-Victorian neo-Gothic building that opened to the public in 1900. It was founded by Enriqueta Augustina Rylands in memory of her husband, John Rylands. Don’t let the title “library” fool you. This is a must visit spot for architecture and history aficionados.
The library is part of the University of Manchester and houses collections of rare books and manuscripts including includes the oldest known piece of the New Testament, the St John Fragment. It feels more like a castle than a library as you wander the dark rooms and halls. The library offers tours, events and special exhibitions.
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Thank you to Visit Britain for hosting my travels through beautiful Northern England and making this article possible. As always, all opinions are my own.
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Alexa Meisler is the editorial director of 52 Perfect Days. Born in Paris, France she has since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. She currently resides in San Diego with her husband and son where they enjoy exploring California and Mexico.
Travel has always been a part of her life; traveling to such places as Morocco, Tangiers and Spain as a young child as well as taking many road trips to Mexico with her grandparents as a young girl. Since then, she has traveled abroad to locations such as Russia, Taiwan and throughout Europe.
Prior to working at 52 Perfect Days she was a freelance travel writer; focusing on family and women’s adventure experiences.