Strange Isolation: Road-Tripping Through Northumberland’s Near Wilderness
Taking to the open road in a modified-for-camping Land Rover Defender, one writer charts a course between Northumberland’s hauntingly beautiful sacred sites and heather-swathed hills, with only the sheep for company
13 October, 2022
We're asleep in a pop-up tent attached to the top of a car - a Land Rover Defender, to be precise - when our bed begins to shake. It's a gentle, sporadic movement, accompanied by a soft rumble, like distant hooves on dry soil. As I fumble for my glasses, my boyfriend gropes blindly for the door zip in the darkness of the blacked-out canvas. We stick our heads into the grey 5:30am gloom. A metre or two below, a flock of 20-odd sheep are grazing. As one of them stretches to secure a tuft of particularly alluring grass beneath the chassis, the car lurches again. The bed-rocker belches appreciatively.
For the past two days, we've been travelling through Northumberland's broad landscapes, road-tripping our way from the rugged, sea-sprayed coastline to craggy, heather-blanketed hills. It's peak holiday season in the UK, but the roads up here are near-empty. In a summer of staycations, the UK seems to have forgotten about the North East.
Our evening pitches are also secluded, though, in this case, by design: we've found places to camp through Wild With Consent, a platform that matches up ambitious campers seeking total seclusion with landowners happy for them to stay a night or two on an off-grid patch of countryside. It's a compromise, in light of Britain's difficult wild-camping laws, allowing you to legally park up (or pitch up) and bed down on some of the UK's emptiest edges. Only, it turns out that tonight's pitch is in use - by this flock of woolly ruminants.
Parked up in a pitch, left, and ready for road-tripping
We arrived in Northumberland by train, picking up our shiny, black, pimped-out Land Rover Defender from Newcastle station. Adventure holidays are undergoing something of a rebrand right now: I don't know any friends who weren't following the Instagram exploits of Charlie Wild and Jess Last as they attempted 52 achievable adventures in a year, post-pandemic. And if the success of adventure festivals - from the clifftop Átjan Wild Islands event to the peak-pounding Arc'teryx Alpine Academy group (think hedonistic partying on the Alps, followed by morning ski runs) - is anything to go by, yoga retreats and Wim Hof weekends are now old news. We were seeking fewer adrenaline rushes and a smaller-scale adventure; less Alex Rider, more Swallows and Amazons.
Up in Northumberland's emptiness, we trundle over hills lazily propped up by granite boulders and chase the haar (sea fog) along the coast as it threatens to roll inland, wisps of translucent vapour tugging at the land like some half-formed ghostly presence. Winding north, we pass towns with names (and castles) borrowed from fantasy shows: Alnwick, Morpeth, Matfen, Warkworth, Longhorsley. At the bend in England's neck, 24km from the Scottish border, we find our first camp. It's a field tucked between the working Elwick Farm and a marshy nature reserve that fringes the coast. We have just enough time to stretch our legs on a walk along the field, spotting a hare stretching its own between sun-bleached hay bales, before the fog starts to seep across the grass, cocooning us in a soft, grey haze.
Unhappy locals keep watch
The Defender holds everything we need: two camping chairs, a table, stove and small charcoal fire grill, cooking utensils, crockery, a 40-litre water reserve, solar-heated shower, bottle opener (of course) and even a portable toilet (though we opt for wild wees and using facilities where we find them along our trip). There's even a road-tripping map, provided by Northumberland 250, packed with suggestions on places to visit on a 400km drive around the county. We pull our dinner out of the YETI cool box, stocked up on the ride over. The enveloping fog quiets the birds of the nature reserve we're parked above. Having climbed up into the pop-up tent via a collapsible ladder, we fall asleep in a thick, blanketing silence.
The haar hasn't moved the next morning. It decorates the Defender in a Yayoi Kusama-style saturation of dew drops. We hop around, barefoot, on the damp grass, spritzing ourselves with a solar-heated hand-held shower that hasn't seen any substantial lumens since noon the day before. Somewhere, high above the haze, a pale sun peers down. By the time we're back on the road (pack-up takes 20 minutes and, in true wild-camping style, we don't leave anything behind), the fog is dissipating. Crossing the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, rags of it shimmer over the retreating tide.
Granite-flagged footpaths around the Simonside Hills
The island is accessible only by boat or via the causeway, which reveals itself for a few scant hours of low tide. We park in a half-full car park and join a trickling line of day-trippers wandering towards the only village. Two stalls along the road sell homemade preserves and fresh produce. Both have signs claiming to be the only seller actually from the island.
An information board informs us that this was one of the most important centres of early Christianity, founded by Irish monks in 635 AD. We stop off at the surprisingly urban Pilgrims Coffee House, an ethically run island roastery serving flat whites to visitors, with bags of their Daily Bread and Holy Grail beans available to buy. Clocks run to the tides on Lindisfarne: the café, the local meadery and the island's shops open when the tides are low.
The haar still threatens. As we circumnavigate the island's duo of ruins on foot - a medieval priory and a Tudor castle - the fog shifts and glimmers. You can see it skimming across the land, swirling around the strange fisherman's huts, made from half a ship's hull, and under tree boughs. We clamber over some bladderwrack-draped rocks towards an old wooden cross, from where, looking out across the grey of the North Sea, we spot a few seal heads bobbing in the water.
Pitching up for an evening in a deserted field
By the time we return to the car and hit the causeway, phone maps set for the Simonside Hills, the sun has won out. A warm light fills the Defender. My boyfriend cranks up the driving playlist he's made and we leave the haar behind.
Our second evening is with the sheep. We're tired, after a day spent traipsing paths of granite flagstone over the heather-covered hills of inland Northumberland. The gradients aren't steep around here, but the roads still loop dramatically, sweeping past fir plantations and hills seemingly blanketed in a royal purple bouclé fabric. We're short on time, but the low peaks of Northumberland National Park brood in the distance. Longer trippers could head up into their heights in search of the county's wild Cheviot goats. We stick with domesticated wildlife.
Each Wild with Consent campsite comes with the contact details of the landowner, written directions on how to get to it and a what3words phrase, allowing you to use the app (of the same name) to pinpoint its exact location. There's little room to get lost. Still, as I open the gate to our next pitch and a flock of furious sheep glare, bleating, as we drive through, I can't help feeling like we're trespassing on their turf.
Three rams and their harem of ewes hover in the near-distance as we set up camp, extending the car's rolled-up awning and popping our tent open. Our pitch is on a tufted hill above Rothley Low Lake, a water feature expertly crafted by Capability Brown in the 1770s. We're looking at perfectly crafted wilderness; a chimera of total seclusion. I can't work out if the ruined fort, framed by the low sun on the opposite side of the lake, is real or just part of the landscape designer's bold ambitions. Somewhere, a few fields away, a cow is sending moaning grunts into the hazy afternoon air.
Rothley Low Lake, left, and a trio of sheep encountered
We can see one house, a field away - dark, empty - and an unused yurt. Insects flicker over the lake's surface and the occasional trout flicks water, breaking the glassy silence. We take a walk along a nearby footpath, meeting sheep, a few interested horses and a far-too-interested bull. Back at camp, as we settle in for a dinner of burgers cooked on the Primus stove, the night sky explodes. Much of Northumberland is free from light pollution, so stargazing is easy. We watch a satellite tracking between constellations. Back on earth, the three rams tentatively munch a few feet from us.
In a way, Capability Brown's illusion reflects our adventure. We're not expeditionists, and this is a gentle kind of wilderness. There's something comforting in the manageable isolation, and in the ease of having life packed up in the Defender. You could head out further and find this country's rugged extremes, but when we were strolling its sparsely populated tidal island, there was satisfying otherness to be found.
The next morning, the sheep wake us to a haar-filled dawn. Even here, some 30km inland, the tendrils of salty fog clamber up the hillsides. We cook kippers bought from the Lindisfarne meadery over the stove and eat them with poached eggs. As we pack up the Defender and trundle back down the track towards Newcastle, the fog slips away.
A three-night, off-grid Northumberland 250 self-drive experience, including 4x4 Land Rover Defender camper hire (minimum three days) costs from £575 through Wild With Consent. To book, visit wildwithconsent.com