I look down at a map of the UK in my lap and pinch myself: we’re canoeing with three young children on a river in the borderlands where England bumps up against Scotland. Here, in the far north of Northumberland, we are still in England yet some 50 miles north of the Anglo-Scots border over on the west coast. It’s a remote and devastatingly beautiful patch of England, and proving surprisingly family-friendly.
We’re navigating — with the considerable help of our guide Ollie Jay — the lower reaches of the River Till as it runs past the tiny village of Etal. The Till rises to the east of the Cheviots and drains much of the east and northern flanks of the mountain range. It’s the only English tributary of the Tweed River, meandering and wending its way north to the join the mighty river on its journey to the North Sea.
Even so, the Till is idyllic and looks less like the wilds of the north than a stretch of a chalk river in Hampshire. Broad grassy banks are lined with oaks, alders, horse chestnuts and silver birch. The birdsong is deafening. We can see fish — sturdy, lead-hued trout — through the water. We hear the wheezing puff-puff of a steam engine and soon enough a miniature train emerges alongside, running parallel for a few minutes before veering away into the unseen fields.
We steer — bump, squeeze, clatter — our way through two sets of extremely mild rapids. When one canoe gets stuck Ollie shouts advice on how to work our way free: we end up going downstream backwards.
This is the sort of landscape where you expect to spot Ratty and Toad of Toad Hall. Instead we encounter kingfishers darting from bank to bank and pied flycatchers contorting mid-air to catch some of the thousands of mayflies and stoneflies that burst from the water’s surface.
Ollie directs us to the shore where he points out otter footprints. “I love this, it’s just really peaceful,” says my eight-year-old, Oscar. Thomas, his older brother, gets up to peer over his shoulder, nearly capsizing the canoe. To Thomas’ delight, Ollie shows him and Hannah (at 11 years old, my eldest), how to steer the canoe without an oar. This involves a technique called gunnel pumping where the kids stand on the stern of their canoes and perform a kind of aquatic squat thrust to create a modest tidal surge that gives the craft momentum. Somehow they both stay on the canoe and out of the water.
As they pick up speed Ollie intervenes before they make a break for Scotland.
We return to the weir and to Etal village, which has a delightful village green and a modest but stark ruined castle. North Northumberland and the Etal estate are a long way from anywhere, even from other places in Northumberland (it’s the best part of an hour to the coast at Alnmouth and 90 minutes to Newcastle). Yet it’s worth bringing the children all the way and bearing the long car journey. There’s a sense of isolation to the county that you don’t really get in any other English county; there is countryside to explore where your kids can be kids without being scowled at; and a dramatic castle seems to lurk around every corner of the lonely roads.
Inland at the town of Alnwick we fell in love with Barter Books, just about the best second-hand bookshop I’ve ever visited. Housed in a former railway station, it’s cavernous, stocked with books-in-demand rather than those no one wants and has a fine but not pretentious cafe offering cinnamon toast and mini-pizza-sized biscuits for the kids. Our children settle into large cushions and work their way through piles of old Beanos and relatively fresh copies of Philip Pullman novels. Perhaps a dozen other children are doing the same. It’s as though screens never happened.
At the coast we explore Embleton Bay, playing on the vast sands of a gorgeous crescent-moon beach. Dunstanburgh Castle at its southern edge ticks all the boxes for children: another wild location, handsomely damaged and a sheer cliff where they can put the wind up their parents. On its north side we walk beneath towering, crenulated rock ledges. We learn the castle stands on the remnants of a volcano: Northumberland has certainly lit a fire in them.