When I learned to drive in England, roundabouts had two lanes. They were fun then; you could speed while turning corners. Now they're multilaned and have sprouted traffic lights.
As I white-knuckle the steering wheel, navigating out of Newcastle Upon Tyne - "hen" party capital of Britain, yet short-listed for European Capital of Culture 2008 - I regret not taking the 501 bus. It costs buttons, and goes the 96-kilometre stretch of Northumberland's picturesque coast, England's most rural, northernmost county. But no, I'm determined to feel the wind in my hair in my rented Vauxhall Corsa with all the windows down.
This mini road trip is my wander down memory lane. I've not been here since I was a child, and I fondly remember apple-green fields of bouffant oak trees, sheep, unpopulated buttermilk sands and never-ending iron-grey sea.
I've had my fair share of British beaches, synonymous with candy-rock holidays, bingo halls and fairground big dippers, because we could never afford anything as exotic as Spain. Now, finally about to sever my ties with my homeland, I want to see Northumberland one last time: one final imprint of postcard-perfect England that I will carry through my life in Canada.
Relieved to be still alive and turning off the A1, I follow signs to Amble, start of the Designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (DAONB). You know you're in an English village when the entire stone cottage post office looks like a door to someone's living room. When your neighbour is a field of sheep. When the only traffic besides you is a horseback rider.
A deer streaks across the road, stopping momentarily to make eye contact. I'm not intending to stop in Warkworth, but driving past the double-arched Norman bridge across the pretty river Coquet almost makes me off-road into a ditch. (As it is, I have a strange spatial relationship with the left-hand side of my car.)
Could I be in a John Constable painting? Unspoiled by modern development and tourism, this pretty village is home to one of many splendid castles strung along cornsilk Northumberland sands. How do you bypass one for the next? But I've only got two days. I have to be selective with my castles and my stately English gardens: Do I visit the famous Alnwick Garden, pride of the present Duchess of Northumberland? Or the birthplace of Lancelot "Capability" Brown, the 18th-century genius who transformed the English countryside?
Led by my tummy, I make my way to Craster, a working fishing village, home of the eponymous kipper, a small oily herring that has been split from tail to head, gutted, salted and cold-smoked. I have one on a bun and drink a half of cold beer at the Jolly Fisherman pub, sitting outside gazing up the headland at Dunstanburgh Castle, circa 1313, Northumberland's largest; painted three times by William Turner; and the setting for Shakespeare's Henry IV. It looks like a jigsaw puzzle with critical pieces lost. Someone orders a double ginger ice cream; I'll take mine to go.
By the time I reach the small coastal town Seahouses, I dare to be hungry. Long a destination for bus tours, thanks to its knockout harbour view to the Farne Islands, it teems with fish and chips shops. The air smells of sea, and salt and vinegar. I'm tempted to take one of the boat rides to the Farnes -there are 28, and about 15 can be seen at high tide - home to a melody of puffins, seals, terns and eider ducks, but my mind is on food. Some say England is not known for its gastronomy. But when in England, do what the English do, and allow yourself at least one day of pure grease and you'll never regret it.
Bamburgh is just up the road and I can't forget its barren castle fringed with yellowing gorse; how it stands lone and majestic on the shore, so romantically imprinted on my mind. My own personal Wuthering Heights . I remember scaling with small hands its weather-beaten stone walls, then licking my palms and tasting salt. I park the car in the middle of a wilderness, and slide down dune paths to dip a toe in the shockingly cold sea. Holidaymakers valiantly suntan behind windbreakers, pretending it's warm. I prefer it here in autumn, when I might be the only one on the beach, when I can walk and conceive a love affair with some impossibly perfect person who exists only in my mind.
Which charming bed and breakfast to stay the night? Right now, I feel as relaxed as I have in ages. Should I soldier on to Berwick upon Tweed, at the other end of the DAONB? Probably. I get back on the A1, but pass the very appealing Lindisfarne Inn lit up in semi-dusk, looking cozy and inviting, drawing me, like certain British pubs will do. Convenient too, a mere hop from Holy Island, where learning and literature flourished in 700 AD, population a staggering 160, accessible by a road built under water that is navigable only when the tide is out. I reach Berwick but keep thinking of the Lindisfarne Inn. I drive back. Get the last room. Then swallow a hefty plate of cod and chips - the whitest, plumpest, juiciest mini-whale I've ever seen. And real chips. If you've never had them, you don't know. "Gan Canny" says the sign above the door; it's local dialect for "Walk with Awareness." Every chance of that.
After a sound sea-air sleep I check tide times and drive the curious causeway to Holy Island. One of the founding seats of Christianity, it pulls more than half a million visitors a year. And this should matter greatly, but I am lost in the fresh morning air, the vista of Caribbean-like sands and swelling sea, an upturned fishing boat, the bleat of sheep and the strange music of the wind wrapping around the Cheviot Hills, like ghostly voices in a choir. A little boy asks his dad, "What's that creepy noise?" I walk up to the spectacular castle, originally an Elizabethan fort built to defend England from Scottish dominance, then converted into the fabulous country retreat of Edward Hudson, owner of Country Life magazine. After, a pot of tea at Pilgrim's Coffee House, where I try and fail, despite the lip-smacking bacon and egg breakfast I ingested just two hours before, to resist a slice of homemade lemon cake. Close-textured and heavy. Tangy and sweet. A citrus drizzle down the sides of white icing.
Then Alnwick's ancient market town. Not to be missed on Saturdays. Country Life said it's the best place to live in Britain. Harry Potter and Robin Hood were filmed here. Its castle (aka Hogwarts), the second largest after Windsor, is home to the Duke of Northumberland. Have I said already that there are more castles in this county than any other in England?
I finally adapt to single-lane traffic under Hotspur Tower, once part of the city's walls, and commonly mistaken for the castle by tourists. To bagpipes I stroll the bustling market, sampling rare-breed organic pork and leek sausages, damson and apricot wine, smiling at pub names like The Hairy Lemon and The Oddfellow's Arms. Then I reluctantly head back to Newcastle.
My mini road trip can't be over. It was supposed to be goodbye. … I've decided I want to move here.
Carol Mason is author of Send Me a Lover and The Secrets of Married Women, published by McArthur.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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If you go GETTING THERE Air Canada flies daily into Heathrow from most major cities. Canadian Affair flies to Gatwick and direct from Toronto to Newcastle. From Gatwick, take Flybe's 11/2- hour flight to Newcastle - three or four flights daily from $80 one-way including taxes. Or take the train from London King's Cross Station to Newcastle (about 31/2 hours; www.nationalexpresseastcoast.com).
WHERE TO STAY Malmaison Newcastle Quayside, Newcastle; 44 (0191) 245 5000; www.malmaison-newcastle.com. Don't miss this hotel in the trendy Quayside area. Summer promotion rate of $176 through September for a double room, two-course dinner and half bottle of wine. Old Manse Guest House Chatton; 44 (1668) 215 343; www.oldmansechatton.co.uk. From $71, minimum two-night stay until the end of September. Won the 2009 B&B of the Year award for Northeast England. Lindisfarne Inn Berwickshire; 44 (01289) 381 223; www.lindisfarneinn.co.uk. Comfy doubles from $133 including hearty English breakfast. Langley Castle Langley-on-Tyne; 44 (1434) 688 888; www.langleycastle.com . Castle-view rooms from$123; rooms in the castle itself from $240. Built in 1350 and set in 10 acres of Northumberland woodland. Seaham Hall Hotel Seaham; 44 (1915) 161 400; www.seaham-hall.com. From $472 including breakfast. A special treat: Just a half-hour by train down the coast is the former seaside mining colliery of Seaham, you'll find Seaham Hall Hotel - where the poet Byron lived and worked and wed Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1815. Its tranquil grounds and stately-home feel will have you believing you've been born into a piece of 19th-century English literature. The Serenity Spa is decadently "footballers wives." And the Michelin-starred restaurant serves up the best of British: Isle of Skye scallops, Shetland Salmon, Scarborough crab, Northumberland pork.
WHAT TO DO IN NEWCASTLE While in town, saunter up majestic Grey Street, oded to by Sir John Betjeman, the late poet laureate, and the Castle Keep on St. Nicholas Street, built in 1168 AD, from which Newcastle took its name. Then enjoy a beer at the Pitcher and Piano, overlooking the cool Winking Eye bridge.
WHAT TO DO IN GATESHEAD Gateshead MetroCentre 57 Cameron Walk; www.metrocentre.uk.com. Europe's largest indoor shopping and leisure centre. Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art Gateshead Quays; 44 (0191) 478 1810; www.balticmill.com. With only temporary exhibits, it's the biggest gallery of its kind in the world.
MORE INFORMATION Visit Northumberland: www.visitnorthumberland.com.