Shining lights: an eco-break in Northumberland's dark-sky country

Posted by on May 11, 2017

It was hard to see Battlesteads hotel’s green credentials in the dark, so first impressions meant I had to trust it was the beacon of sustainability it promised to be. It was a dreary, drizzly Friday evening and I’d taken the bus from Hexham to the hotel in the Northumberland riverside village of Wark – the bus stops right outside.

In checking bus times in Hexham for the 35-minute ride, I’d already said the village’s name wrong and had my pronunciation corrected. It’s Wark, rhyming with dark, rather than walk.

Battlesteads hotel

My room (number 20) was one of Battlesteads’ five eco-lodges: timber-framed structures made from sustainable wood. The lodges are adjacent to the main hotel-restaurant (which dates from the 18th century), and two are wheelchair-accessible. The cavernous room has a super-kingsize bed and neutral decor but the delight is in the details. The hotel’s hot water and (underfloor) heating system is carbon-neutral thanks to a biomass boiler fed by woodchip from just half a mile away. Hot tub/bath or rainfall shower? The spacious bathroom has both, along with toiletries from natural skincare company Pure Lakes, from Kendal.

At the door is a small terrace, and a skylight (for stargazing) is a clever touch, with a button to open and close its blind. As well as having Hadrian’s Wall heritage, this part of Northumberland is dark-sky country. The lack of light pollution means watching the night sky is high on the things-to-do list.

The county’s protected dark-sky area is the largest in Europe, covering nearly 580 sq miles, and Battlesteads adds its own neat twist with an on-site public observatory, whose ticketed events are hosted by Astro Ventures.

Battlestead’s eco-lodges, opened in December 2014, two of which are wheelchair accessible. Photograph: Allan Scott Photography

There is a pretty walled garden outside the hotel’s conservatory, and behind those walls two polytunnels that provide some of the fruit and vegetables served on a restaurant menu rich with invention and local produce. Next to the tunnels is a shipping container, installed last year, which is used to grow mushrooms year-round. Some of that fungi appeared soon, as breakfast came calling. One of the waitresses told me all the food waste goes into a kitchen wormery. I decided against verifying – and focused on the fat sausages of my fry-up.

I had attempted to mirror Battlesteads’ green approach by travelling car-free. I’d taken a train to Newcastle, changed to a local train for Hexham and befriended the Tynedale Links 680 bus (day ticket £5.30) for Saturday sightseeing transport. Frequency is limited (often a two-hour gap between buses) but I used this to focus on what to see and how long to stay.

Roman bath house ruins at Chesters Roman Fort. Photograph: Robert Hull

The 10.16am bus took me to Chollerford, from where it’s a 10-minute walk to Chesters Roman Fort (adult £7.20, 5-17s £4.30, family 2+3 £18.70). There, Roman ruins – including one of the best-preserved bath houses in the UK, and vestiges of Hadrian’s Wall – fascinated me in a way that would have been alien to my schoolboy self. In the tearoom, Yvonne brought my coffee over and we chatted about sustainability. Yvonne is renovating a place “on the fells” and talked of repairing her generator, harvesting rainwater and recycling plastic bottles to help bed-in tomato plants. The pay off for the effort? “It’s so beautiful around here. I take pictures of the sunrise and people ask, ‘Where did you take that?’ I say, ‘I just opened my front door’.”

From Chollerford I walked to Humshaugh in search of coffee and my next bus. The weather had changed from drizzle to deluge. With no cafe in sight and the village shop shut by midday, there was nowhere to wait near the bus stop, save for the village’s red telephone box. The 680 arrived and I leapt out – sort-of Superman in reverse – and jumped aboard. Bellingham brought a late lunch at the Carriages Tea Room, which is in two repurposed railway carriages, before a three-mile circular walk to Hareshaw Linn waterfall. This site of special scientific interest (SSSI) is so designated for its rare ferns and lichen, as well as being a haven for red squirrels.

Carriages Tea Room, Bellingham. Photograph: Robert Hull

Saturday’s starless night was disappointing for me and around 20 others in the Battlesteads’ Observatory (Dark Sky Discovery night, two hours, adult £22.50, family £55.50; minimum age 14). Still, lead astronomer and director of learning Roy Alexander and his young apprentice, Jacob, did a fine job educating us about the night sky, as well as providing info on apps and websites, and tips on stargazing even if you’ve only got binoculars. It was encouraging to learn, too, that, from this year, admission fees enable schoolchildren to visit for free.

To some extent, I remained content, though, for as Roy explained the difference between a meteor and a meteorite I was still remembering the superb five-course tasting menu (£35) I’d had prior to the observatory visit. Beetroot, carrots, peas, oyster and shitake mushrooms, all grown just feet away, featured on a menu that was as full of flavour as it was long on dish description: such as pan-fried duck breast with carrot puree, cassis jelly, savoury granola, mash and minted peas.

Waterfalls along the stream at Hareshaw Linn, Bellingham. Photograph: Alamy

Sunday morning dawned crisp and bright, with clear skies promising a successful Sunday night stargazing – just not for me, as I was leaving that day. I walked off my annoyance with a muddy trudge along the River North Tyne, on one of several walking routes the hotel offers guides to. I had another thing to ponder when I realised there were no buses to Hexham on a Sunday. Taxi! Even good intentions sometimes cave in the face of the UK’s public transport system.

Accommodation was provided by Battlesteads Hotel and Restaurant (doubles from £105 B&B, £175 B&B in an eco-lodge). Rail travel was provided by LNER, (London to Newcastle upon Tyne one-way from £21.50, Edinburgh to Newcastle from £10.70)

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