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The Heart of Northumberland....

A journey into the vast open spaces and big skies of this beautiful county....

I was driving on the A69 towards Hexham when I spotted the sign for Wylam. I decided to break ranks with the satnav, and turned off, as I remembered a visit a few years ago to The Boathouse, situated down at the bottom of the hill, across the river Tyne, beside the railway station with its elevated signal box. The pub had always stuck in my mind because of the friendly atmosphere and range and quality of its beers. This time I walked in to be greeted by friendly staff and a bank of 12 hand pumps of mainly local beers. I ordered a Foxy Blonde from Jedburgh's Born in the Borders brewery, and very nice it was too. So little had changed from that visit 10 or more years ago. A group of people walked in, having just come in on the train from Newcastle, no doubt lured to the Boathouse as it is one of those timeless, destination pubs which everyone should visit. I made a mental note that next time I go I must take the train!

I picked up the A69, much to the satnav's relief, and it wasn't long before I was taking the Hexham turn off. I was staying there for the night, at an old coaching inn called The Coach and Horses on the delightfully-named Priestpopple. I managed to park up opposite, and wandered across the road to check in. Now despite the presence of a pair of hand pumps, on the bar it looked like it was a long time since they had been used, and the pub itself, whilst pleasant, was very much geared towards the Carling, Smooth, and Dark Fruits crowd. Despite all that, the room I had booked was clean and comfortable, situated in a next door building.

Hexham is a market town of around 12,000 people 25 miles west down the Tyne Valley from Newcastle. It does feel bigger though, with plenty of shops, banks, and industry, plus new housing developments around the town, encouraged no doubt by good road and rail links to Newcastle. It has a beautiful Abbey in the heart of the town, plenty of pubs and restaurants, and even its own National Hunt racecourse, the most northerly in England, situated in the hills a mile or two to the south-west of the town. Hexham, like the whole of the area, has a rich history, and dotted around the narrow, cobbled streets of the attractive town centre are many interesting old buildings, including the 15th century Moot Hall, across the main square from the Abbey.

The town has two pubs listed in the 2018 Good Beer Guide. The first one I called in was The Heart Of Northumberland, whose one room is very tastefully done out with painted woodwork and exposed stone. There are 5 handpumps, which on the evening were selling mainly local ales including the award-winning Stella Spark from Blaydon's Firebrick Brewery and Westoe IPA from the Great North Eastern Brewing Company, both of which were in excellent condition. The place was busy, with several people visiting not just to try the beers but also the food. I dined on handmade Beef Burger and proper Chips, which was excellent, served with a piquant Bloody Mary Ketchup which added an extra dimension to what was already several levels up from standard pub fare. The Heart is a superb pub, with polite, pleasant, and attentive staff - if you are ever in Hexham, make sure you drop in.

The second pub in the Good Beer Guide is the Tannery. Around 5 minutes walk from the Heart Of Northumberland, it is situated on a corner. This is a bigger place, livelier, and with two rooms serving around 6 beers. They have a connection with a pub in Gosforth, and one of the beers on, Frank and Stein was brewed at the Frank & Bird Brewery there. It was a pleasant IPA. This was another friendly pub with a slightly younger crowd and good staff. I concluded my evening at the local Spoons, an art deco former cinema called the Forum, and had a good pint of Jennings Sneck Lifter before wandering back to the hotel where the karaoke was in full swing. Resisting the temptation to join in - it wasn't difficult - I went up to my room, where the noise wasn't too bad. Well, after it had finished....

The following morning, the sun was out and after an OK breakfast at Spoons and a wander around the town centre, I left Hexham and headed west along the A69 towards Haltwhistle. I parked up just north of the town at Cawfields Quarry and went for a walk along the path beside Hadrian's Wall. This was built by the Romans to mark the limit of their settlement in England to keep out any marauding Picts and other unwelcome visitors. It runs for over 70 miles from the Solway Firth towards the North Sea beyond Newcastle, and much of it is still there, making this World Heritage site the largest Roman artefact anywhere. I had a pleasant few miles walking, in sunny, warm, but windy conditions, with views over miles of open countryside, with just the odd farm popping up here and there.

After a pleasant walk, I went to the pub just by the turn off to the quarry. This was the Good Beer Guide-listed Milecastle Inn. I walked in out of the wind, there was a fire on in the middle room where the bar is situated, and it was that warm, I had to retreat to one of the other rooms! The beer was from the Big Lamp Brewery, and it was years since I had drunk any of their stuff. I ordered a pint of the bitter, which I had not had since it used to be on permanently at the Royal Oak in Halifax in its Tap and Spile days, which is some time ago. Mind you, Big Lamp started out in 1982, and with attractive and distinctive pump clips, it gives the impression of being a well-established brewery. Whether it was the walking, I don't know, but the beer hit the spot, a well-balanced, clean bitter, one of the best I have had in ages. The Milecastle is a friendly pub on a crossroads just outside Haltwhistle, and highly recommended if you are in the area.

From there, I headed over several miles of wide, open moorland with hardly a car on the road towards Allendale, After driving through a couple of attractive wooded valleys, I went up a hill and came to the large village of the same name - although it is often given the suffix 'Town'. It has an attractive centre with a large, straggling square around which are a few pubs, a Co-op, tearooms, and a few local shops. It is real farming country in these parts, and when I popped in for a half at the Golden Lion - the local Good Beer Guide entry - there were a few people in that I guessed were farmers. The Allendale Brewery is situated in an old mill near here, and I enjoyed their Golden Plover at the pub. The town is also home to an unusual New Year celebration where lighted barrels of tar are carried on the heads of revellers, the subject of a song by the Unthanks!

I left Allendale, heading back towards Hexham, and after several miles of attractive countryside - passing the racecourse en route - I came to the Dipton Mill Inn. This is situated at the bottom of a steep dip beside an old bridge a couple of miles south of Hexham. It is a solid stone building, its old sign helping convey a timeless look. Inside, there is a small bar situated opposite the door in a wood-panelled room. Around the back is the Hexhamshire Brewery, and three of their beers were on the bar. I ordered a half of Shire Bitter, sat down and noticed that at the opposite side of the room there were a few blokes with a musical instrument or two and a camera set up on a tripod. It turned out they were a folk band called Devil's Water, which is also the name of the small river that runs beside the pub, and they were recording a video for their song of that name. After a couple of run throughs they were happy with their performance. One of them came over and presented me with a copy of their album, called 'Treading the Marches' as I had sat patiently while they were recording. I had really enjoyed listening to them! It turns out they album was produced by Rick Kemp, formerly of Steeleye Span, who also plays bass on the album, and is based in Carlisle. I gave it a listen on the way to Newcastle and very enjoyable it was too!

My plan once I had got checked into the Premier Inn was go to the Cluny, get some food , check out the music for a while, then a quick one at the Cumberland Arms, then the Free Trade Tavern, then possibly one at the Broad Chare, concluding at the Crown Posada, before the short walk back to the hotel. That was the plan. It didn't work out like that.

I went to the Cluny, taking the path by the Ouseburn Beck, enjoyed a plateful of spicy Pork and Chicken Jambalaya, and a couple of excellent pints of Wylam Galatia. There was some good blues from The Hat Band. So far so good. I even managed a quick half of Anarchy Blonde Star at the pub opposite, The Ship, where the lady behind the bar was in the middle of chucking someone out who was trying to argue that in his opinion he didn't think that he'd had too much.

It was when I got to the Cumberland Arms, a few minutes walk up a path through some trees that the plans went out of the window. I ordered a pint of Styrian Bobek from the Northern Alchemy brewery, based in an old container at the back of the pub. This was an excellent beer, made using Cascade hops with delicate floral and lemongrass notes. The main bar was quite busy, so I went to check out the back bar. There were a few people sat down, I noticed a few guitars, and when a guy started to play 'Take it Easy' I spotted the sign on the piano saying 'Reserved for Musicians after 8pm'. Nobody seemed to mind the fact I wasn't playing an instrument, and I spotted a few more non-musicians in the room. I sat down as another bloke started to play. An unassuming guy (with a guitar) came and sat at the side of me. When he joined in the proceedings with a belting version of 'Fields of Athenry' I decided I would get another pint. A lady in an orange jumper and glasses sang a great version of Jeanie C. Riley's 'Harper Valley PTA'. The atmosphere was great, everyone was so friendly. Gradually I knocked one pub, then another off my itinerary, and then it got to the point that I didn't really have time to go anywhere else. The songs and beer flowed as more people turned up - we had versions of 'Purple Rain' and 'Tainted Love' interspersed with traditional folk songs and the obligatory 'Wagon Wheel'. A young guy with long hair opened up the piano and played a great 'Don't let the Sun go down on me'. By this time, musician and non-musician alike were singing along to whatever was thrown at them until it was time to go. What a cracking evening!

I wandered back down beside the Ouseburn Beck to the road back to the hotel, my head still full of the night's music. In the distance, the lights from the bridges and nearby buildings reflected in the Tyne. It had been a excellent but busy trip so far, from a journey into the heart of Northumberland to unexpected musical delights cropping up here and there, with a great walk, and some wonderful beers and pubs along the way. I got back to my room, and, not surprisingly, I didn't need any rocking to sleep....

The Heart of Northumberland, Hexham

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