Northumberland rolls and undulates as you speak the word, mirroring the landscape it names. To drive the arrow-straight Roman roads up here, the wildest, emptiest and remotest county of England, is to feel like you are sailing above some terrestrial ocean of expanse. Ochre and umber fields roll away either side, rising and falling, until some reminder of land ruins the illusion; an isolated farmstead, a trimmed tuft of pine, a marching column of pylons.
There’s a seam of independence here, high up in the northeast. In this, it is akin to its opposite, Cornwall. The history here is one of resistance, a land of wilds, battle and fortress. Its flag, bold golden-yellow and crimson stripes, flies outside of houses and is seen stuck on the backs of cars. Its accent subtle and friendly but sincere and old. Its lore, not quite English, not quite Scots.
I have finished my time in the North, Master’s done. Now in the milder climes of Kernow, I reflect on the land I lived for a while as I sit by the log burner on a damp, murky September eve. Aside from gently chastising myself for only scratching the surface, for not taking all opportunities to roll over the hills that I could have, I am grateful for seeing the places I did, walking the places I walked.
Emptiness is Northumberland’s principal charm, its vast skies, night and day are its secondary grace. Walking the Cheviots on a bright April day, the type of day in which the clouds race each other, I saw no souls beyond the grazing sheep. The Cheviots, rounded and abrupt, rearing up dramatically outside of Wooler, leading up to the bluntly rounded mass of The Cheviot itself. Buff and green. Up the River Glen, past Yeavering Bell, the towering hillfort where the old ones lived, aloof and powerful. These people thought nothing of steep climbs, I thought as I tottered up past a haunted trio of dead Oaks.
Whilst not the same clean, clear sea of the Atlantic, the coast is lush and evocative, the same expansive sky and clear air. Ancient proud Sea-castles sit on great spurs, then the peculiar Lindisfarne, the cradle of British Christianity, where the seed of it was carried zealously from Iona. Whipped and hemmed by the rising raw grey north sea, the sense of ascetic piety still runs through it. From here the church grew inland like ivy, ascending to inordinate power over the following millennia. Here too is an affinity with Cornwall, Christianity started, it seems, from the coasts and worked inwards.
Northumberland is strewn with Roman legacy. Long straight roads cut through countryside with immense efficiency, Forts (from which the stone is seen still in Church walls), Mithrain Temples, villas and the greatest of all monuments left on our soils, the wandering spinal wall of Hadrian.
This is a land I will return to, expanse is addictive. Space is limited, they tell us, I don’t buy that narrative these days, but it feels relevant in Northumberland.