Strange Isolation: Road-Tripping Through Northumberland’s Near Wilderness

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

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

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
, 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.

A landrover defender parked in a field with plants in focus
A sunlit steering wheel

Parked up in a pitch, left, and ready for

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
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


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

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

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

A ruined fort above a lake
Three sheep in thick grass

Rothley Low Lake, left, and a trio of sheep

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.

The Lowdown

A three-night, off-grid Northumberland
self-drive experience, including 4×4 Land Rover Defender
camper hire (minimum three days) costs from £575 through Wild With
Consent. To book, visit