England might not be the first place you think of when you plan a trip to Scotland. However, Edinburgh is, in fact, a much better and closer starting point for your adventure into northern England than London! And so, I joined Timberbush Tours for a day trip to Holy Island, Alnwick Castle and the Kingdom of Northumbria to see some castles, gardens and beaches. Northumberland, here I come!
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Timberbush Tours offers guided tours all over Scotland and some into England starting from Edinburgh and Glasgow. I previously joined their tour to Oban, Glencoe and the West Highland Castles from Glasgow, so I was excited to try one of their other tours from Edinburgh. This year they celebrated their 20th anniversary – which means I’m not the only one who thinks they’re doing a great job at showcasing Scotland!
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My decision fell on the day trip to Holy Island, Alnwick Castle and the Kingdom of Northumbria – not only because I had fallen in love with Northumberland on a previous trip there, but also because I had a particular interest in the Holy Island itself. The island is home to the historic Lindisfarne Priory, a monastery that was founded in the 7th century. It was built by an Irish monk who came here from the Scottish Isle of Iona, which at the time was the religious centre of Gaelic monasticism.
Where does the tour take you?
I had first heard about Lindisfarne and the Holy Island in a history class at University. I was studying Nordic medieval history, which is just a fancy way of saying – I learned about Vikings. You might know that some Vikings were merchants, other were explorers, but some were more interested in immediate wealth – they sailed out and raided every village, castle and monastery they could get their hands on. Lindisfarne Priory was the first British settlement raided by Vikings in 793, a gruesome event that would ring in the Viking Age in Britain. Ever since I learned about this, I wanted to visit the island and see for myself, what might have attracted the Vikings here.
In fact, the entire tour is a trip back in history. We drive through the Scottish Borders as well as Northumberland in England, but both together used to make up the Kingdom of Northumbria. This Anglican kingdom spanned across the south-east of Scotland and the north of England and lasted from the early 7th to the mid-10th century. British and Scandinavian leaders took turns on the throne, overthrowing each other as often as being overthrown by the people. Today, you can still find some Scandinavian place names in the regions of former Northumbria.
The name of the market town Alnwick, however, derives from Old English, meaning “hamlet by the River Aln”. The small town is a popular tourist destination and makes for a great home base if you’d like to explore more of Northumberland. It is close to the sea, is surrounded by rivers to kayak on and is just a stone’s throw away Northumberland National Park. The town itself is also worth a visit and boasts a castle, beautiful gardens and the UK’s largest second-hand bookshop!
Quick facts about the tour
- Leaves Edinburgh (Royal Mile) at 8.45 am; Returns to Edinburgh around 6.15 / 6.30 pm
- Stops in Coldstream (Flodden Battlefield), Alnwick Castle, Holy Island / Lindisfarne
- Departs Tue, Wed, Fri & Sun; April to October
- Includes a knowledgeable driver-guide and luxury coach with AC
- Does not include food/drink or entrance to attractions
- From £45
Usually, the tour runs clockwise, with a visit to the Holy Island in the morning, Alnwick Castle over lunch and Coldstream and Flodden Battlefield in the afternoon. Due to tidal times, we had to do the tour in reverse, but really that doesn’t change much about your experience. I even thought that finishing with the Holy Island, kept the most beautiful stop until the end.
Stop 1: Coldstream & Hirsel Estate
About 1.5 hours south of Edinburgh, we stopped for a little comfort break at a tea room near the border town of Coldstream. The Hirsel is the official seat of the Earls of Home, and their stately home is surrounded by a beautiful garden estate including parkland, woodland and an artificial lake. There is a craft centre, a museum of country life and a tea room which are open to the public – and that’s exactly where we had our first stop.
The tea room is famous for its freshly baked scones, but since these are not vegan, I decided to go for a little wander instead. We had 25 minutes which was just enough time to take a look at the beautiful crafts on display in the different workshops and a quick nosy up one of the woodland trails. I didn’t get very far, but I certainly found a new place to add to my bucket list!
Back on the bus, we drove through Coldstream and crossed over the River Tweed, which marks the English-Scottish border. Since we were in a slightly bigger bus (around 30 seats) we could not stop at Flodden Battlefield – but I didn’t mind, because that meant more time at our next stop!
Stop 2: Alnwick Castle & Garden
The next part of the journey continues along a road which leads past green rolling hills and idyllic farmland. At one point I even saw a farmer herd his sheep with a couple of sheepdogs – it was like Babe, without the piglet.
After about an hour, we reached Alnwick, a small, but busy market town near the Northumberland Coast AONB. Our driver-guide Adrian drops us off at Alnwick Garden, where he makes sure we get the special discount for tickets to the garden and Alnwick Castle (£19 for both). We had about 2.5 hours here, which is plenty of time to visit both attractions and grab a quick bite at one of the cafes or a picnic lunch. Alternatively, you could walk into Alnwick town (approx. 15 minutes one way on foot) to wander around the lanes and find a cafe for lunch. If you do that, you must not miss Barter Books – the UK’s largest second-hand bookstore. It is located in an old train station, has a cafe in the old waiting room and the most eclectic collection of books you can imagine!
Since I had visited Alnwick and Barter Books in the past, I decided to stick with Alnwick Castle and Garden instead – but not before I’d fill my belly!
Being vegan, I like to prepare for lunch breaks on day trips. On recommendation by Timberbush Tours, I had booked a table at the Treehouse Restaurant, which sits at the edge of Alnwick Garden. With its unique setting inside a large treehouse structure above the ground, it was the perfect place to get me in the fairy-tale mood needed for the castle and garden to follow.
There was a separate vegan menu and I could choose from a couple of options. I ended up ordering a heritage tomato salad and mushroom and asparagus linguine, as well as a brown ale from a local brewery. Full and satisfied I explored the rope bridges around the restaurant for a little bit before heading off towards the castle.
Next up was Alnwick Castle. Built in the 11th century, it is the official seat of the Duke of Northumberland. It has been remodelled a couple of times, but still has a medieval feel to it. You can walk the grounds inside, climb the castle wall and visit the State Rooms in the central building of the structure. Those were actually an absolute highlight for me, since they’re filled with paintings, antique furniture and beautiful tapestries. Dotted between are family photographs and memorabilia from the Duke’s family. It’s crazy to think that this is pretty much someone’s house. Even today, the Duke and his family live in the castle, but the majority of it is open to the public year-round.
The castle has been used as the setting for many films and TV shows, for example, several Robin Hood films, Downtown Abbey or the latest Transformer movie – but also, you guessed it right, in the Harry Potter films!
The Outer Bailey of the castle is where Harry Potter and his mates first learnt to fly broomsticks and the courtyards of the castle were used to film interior shots of Hogwarts. Today, when you visit Alnwick Castle you even can join a Broomstick training session!
I had about an hour left before our bus would leave Alnwick for our next location, and while that is not enough time to see everything Alnwick Garden has to offer, I managed to get a pretty good idea of how beautiful and wide-spread it really is!
The Duchess of Northumberland played a key role in initiating the establishment of Alnwick Garden, which is a large formal garden right next to the castle. A huge water cascade lies at its centre and around it are several themed areas. There is a garden filled with poisonous plants and a cherry orchard with swings between the trees. Green tunnels lead the way to the top of the cascade and into a beautiful walled flower garden.
At the bottom of the garden is a cafe as well as an event space, if you ever fancy hosting an event in a lush green environment. There are benches and lounge chairs dotted throughout the garden, which makes it a perfect place to relax or sunbathe.
Stop 3: Holy Island & Lindisfarne
The last stop of our tour was about 40 minutes along the coast north of Alnwick. I could see it long before we reached it. The prominent fortress in the south of the island stands out for everyone to see from miles away. The Holy Island.
The island can only be reached during low tide via a causeway and the tidal times determine when and for how long the bus can stop on the island. We had about an hour, which was just enough to walk to the castle and go for a wander around Lindisfarne village. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to enter the Priory, but I managed to walk around it and re-imagine what the Vikings must have seen back in 793.
The walk towards Lindisfarne Castle is lovely – you come past a small harbour and there are several inviting benches with views over the sea. The castle is currently undergoing renovations, so it was partly clad in scaffolding – but that did not make it any less impressive. One would think that the castle was built right after that first harrowing blow by the Vikings in the 8th century, but in fact, it took over 800 for someone to decide it might be useful to protect this island a bit better. By that time though, the priory had gone out of use and stones from the monastery were actually used as building material for the castle.
Back in Lindisfarne village, there is a lot to do. First, just go for a wander and marvel at the beautiful flower displays outside people’s houses. Meanwhile, I can’t even keep one potted plant alive… Next, head to St Mary’s Church which stands right next to the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. If you have time and opening times allow, you should visit the monastery, but I also enjoyed just walking around the cemetery and looking at the ruins from the outside. Finally, swing by the Lindisfarne Mead shop. Mead is a honey wine, but for a vegan’s delight, they also have similar sweet-tasting wines on the basis of different berries. The guys at the shop are happy to give you a taster (or two), so don’t be shy to ask!
I was sad we had to leave the Holy Island so soon, but if we wanted to get off the island safely, we had to beat the tide – and it was coming in quickly!
It took us about 1.5 hours to get back to Edinburgh. Like a whirlwind, we had gone to Northumberland and back, visited castles, gardens, priories and beaches. Day tours like this are great ways to see a lot in a short amount of time, even if they are always a bit too fast. But all that really means, is that I can now plan return trips to every one of our stops along the way!
Why should you go with Timberbush Tours?
There are many reasons why one should go on a day tour with Timberbush Tours!
- They are a well-established Scottish tour operator – they are very passionate about showing off the best of Scotland and northern England and are specialists when it comes to working out engaging itineraries full of highlights.
- Their driver-guides are knowledgeable but don’t overload you with information. Our driver-guide Adrian walked us through the key history of the area and shared his insider tips for places to go and see around our stops. I’m a bit deaf, so I found it a little hard to hear him sometimes over the noise of the bus, so I recommend you find a seat in the front if you’re worried about missing out on any details or stories.
- They are environmentally conscious and offset their carbon footprint. With a big fleet of buses like Timberbush Tours, it is important to show awareness for the impact cars have on the environment. Timberbush regularly upgrades their engines and vehicles to make sure that they are safe and fuel efficient. They work with local businesses and encourage their guests to shops, dine or stay with them. Timberbush Tours also donates to the charity Trees for Life, a Scottish conservation charity dedicated to the regeneration and restoration of the Caledonian Forest in the Highlands of Scotland.
Find out more about their environmental policy here.
- You get special discounts at attractions. No matter which Timberbush tour you choose and where you go, you can be sure that they have negotiated the best discounts at local attractions, like castles, gardens, museums or other sites of interest.
- The itineraries are thoughtful. We never spent more than 1.5 hours on the bus and got plenty of time at each stop to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery around us. The itinerary of my day trip to Holy Island was well thought through, and it really featured a little bit for everybody – whether you’re into culture or nature, it’s a tour that suits all!
When you plan your next trip to Scotland, don’t be afraid to also look across the border and see what the north of England has to offer. As you can see from my day tour to Holy Island and Alnwick with Timberbush Tours, there is a lot to explore!
Have I inspired you to book a tour to the Kingdom of Northumbria as well? Not convinced yet?
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.