Published on March 6, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Take some time out in the heart of Northumberland, advises Alastair Gilmour
Rothbury, set in the heart of Northumberland, is blessed with a range of shops and services glowing with individuality. The choice includes delicatessens, cafés, bakeries, a butchers and some fine, welcoming pubs and hotels. Put those together with a couple of banks, a toyshop, outdoor centre, shoe shop, ironmongers, fish and chip shop, library, arts centre, convenience store, a Tardis-like Co-op and branch of Boots, there’s just about everything a person would ever need.
Spectacular views, fine walking and cycling countryside lying around the town that The Guardian Weekend magazine called “pretty near perfect” are the icing on the cake. The “sprinkles” on the Capital of Coquetdale cake are All Saints Church, riverside picnic area with children’s play facilities, a golf course and a regular bus (Arriva service X14) to Morpeth and Newcastle.
Regular events punctuate Rothbury’s year with the hugely popular Food And Craft Festival (Monday May 7), the Traditional Music Festival (July 13-15) celebrating the sounds of Northumberland and the Borders, and Rothbury Rocks (September 7-9), live music in various genres and styles in various pubs and hotels.
Visitors are struck by Rothbury’s handsome Victorian villas – architectural gems exhaling curling smoke that glow in the sunshine and sparkle in the wet. The Simonside Hills dominate the southern aspect while Lord Armstrong’s Cragside Hall, gardens and woodland sit to the north – the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity and now in the care of The National Trust.
The River Coquet flows east through Rothbury from its source in the Cheviots towards the North Sea, ending its journey at Amble after winding its way under a 600-year-old bridge, the Thrum Mill and past the 12th Century Brinkburn Priory towards Warkworth Castle as it goes.
This part of Northumberland was once a bloody and violent place, roamed and raided for centuries by lawless Border Reivers – clansmen from both sides of the Scotland-England divide. It’s not difficult to imagine that history, even in the midst of this “pretty near perfect” setting. So, let’s settle down in the pub and do our imagining…
THE QUEEN’S HEAD
Hosts: Billy Brown and Teresa Wilson
The 1792-vintage Queens Head family-run pub and hotel has been in the same safe hands for the last 17 years. Originally known as the Golden Fleece, the name was changed to commemorate the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837.
A large upholstered leather settee and matching armchairs in the pub’s traditionally decorated and beamed lounge bar are an invitation to linger before and after lunch. On the bar are Cask Marque-accredited Deuchar’s IPA, Marstons Pedigree, Sharps’ Doombar and Leeds Midnight Bell on handpull which sit alongside a line-up of ten keg beers, cider and lager that include Marston’s Shipyard IPA and Pravha Lager from Staropramen in Prague, so there’s more than enough choice here. And not forgetting man’s best friend, a couple of beers called Bottom Sniffer and Pawsecco should keep canines happy too.
A games room with pool table and juke-box are just out of earshot if clicking cues and tapping blues isn’t your thing – and credit where credit is due – the toilets are immaculate.
This family friendly pub’s lunch menu features all the traditional pub favourites – burgers, homemade pie of the day, fish and chips, hot and cold sandwiches (bacon and haggis is a hot tip) to follow starters such as black pudding fritter with poached egg – while the evening menu and specials board includes fresh fish, local beef and lamb and Queens Head own-recipe sausage. Everything is priced the same whether you choose the bar or the opulent timber-hued dining room to eat. Sunday Lunch is also a firm local favourite.
Live music features heavily at The Queen’s Head, with the regular Rothbury Roots monthly event featuring the best in acoustic and British roots music with local, national and international performers, such as the Roots and Songwriters’ Circle featuring sometime Lindisfarne member Steve Daggett in an intimate setting. There’s also a popular monthly open mic night and they host the Rothbury Accordian and fiddle club on the first Thursday of every month. Nowadays, The Queen’s Head is classed as a four-star inn (rooms from a very reasonable £60 for a double en-suite) and the ideal venue for family functions and business lunches.
The Queen’s Head is a crowning glory.
Tel: 01669 620470 www.queensheadrothbury
To be or knot
THE TURK’S HEAD
Host: Debbie Noble
First impressions count. There’s a lovely fire blazing away in the public bar and on our way to absorb some of the heat following a bracing riverside walk we get a cheery “hello” from a regular perched at the bar.
The grade II-listed Turk’s Head was built in the 16th Century as a coaching inn and restored in 1874. The original stables have been renovated into charming cottages while the en-suite pub rooms offer impressive views (from £60 per night). The Garden Cottage sleeps three and Patio Cottage accommodates four, both en-suite with a separate lounge.
A lounge/dining room sits across the entrance hall from the bar which also features a pool table at the rear. The whole impression is one of pride in its family-orientation and little wonder it’s a favourite haunt of booted visitors and Lycra-ed cyclists.
The cask ale list is fairly short but this will no doubt double in the popular summer months – however, classic Black Sheep Bitter and Black Sheep Square 1 are redoubtable companions with something like home-made haddock and salmon fishcakes. A well-ranged menu also features traditional Sunday lunch, homemade pie, Rothbury bangers and mash, home-made lasagna, Cheddar cheese or tuna and mayo baguettes, or slow-roasted hot beef ciabatta rolls.
The relaxed attitude extends to open mic music sessions (first Tuesday of every month), while The Turk’s Head is also dog-friendly, child friendly, local and visitor-friendly – and televised Premier League football friendly.
Out the back is a tastefully paved patio and childrens’ play area – then glory-be, more picnic benches sit on a magnificent terraced beer garden that appears to rise forever.
But whither the Turk’s Head? A Turk’s head knot forms a closed loop often used by seafarers and has a notional resemblance to a turban. On the other hand, Turk’s Head pubs are said to derive their name from the Crusaders. The carved stone Turk’s head surveying all from the rooftops would suggest the latter here. Suitably fed and watered, if the pleasant “hello” weren’t enough, the cheery “thank you, come again soon” is as good a reason to return as any.
Tel: 01669 620434 www.turksheadrothbury
The Newcastle house
Host: Sarah Bertram
The Newcastle House sits in the centre of Rothbury, overlooking the old Market Place and the 1902 cross monument dedicated to Lord and Lady Armstrong and public garden.
The public bar off the main road is contemporary-traditional in style and impressively functional. The rear lounge – popular with visitors and ever-conversational locals – is characterised by stonework along one wall which blends rather charmingly with the architecture viewed from the large picture window.
Beer-wise, Sharp’s Doombar and Old Rosie cider take up the handpulls with Bellhaven Best and Stella Artois on keg, though like most country pubs, the choice invariably extends in the spring and summer months.
A separate dining area is pale in decoration, possibly for more of a tearoom effect. One corner wall lists local suppliers – an impressive collection that includes Frank Round Fish, Northumberland Cheese Co, Callaly Estate game, Hepple Gin and the Mad Jam Woman.
Equally impressive is the hand drier in the toilets which has the blasting power of the Space X Falcon 9 rocket launched last month towards Mars (with a car attached).
The Newcastle House offers a range of comfortable rooms – super kingsize, double and twin, while bunk rooms also provide simple accommodation for groups or those on a budget. Traditional bar meals are highlighted by a Sunday carvery – local lamb, Northumbrian beef, honey-glazed gammon and turkey crown – while a random selection from the menu includes North Sea cod and chips, Northumbrian beef chasseur and rarebreed pork loin.
The Newcastle House is renowned for its regular events where music features heavily (for example, St Patricks’s Day meal and live music evening). There are also dedicated “nights” – Tuesday is curry night, Wednesday sizzler, Thursday tapas and Friday is a fish special with unusual twists which must keep the hotel’s two chefs well on their toes.
For the more energetic, staff will happily advise on local walks, forest tracks and bridleways and with the Sand Stone Way running past the door, the back yard has CCTV to oversee bikes.
The Newcastle House might remind one of the city, but it’s definitely a country home from home.
Tel: 01669 620 334 www.rothburynewcastlehouse.co.uk
The Nick knack
THE NARROW NICK
Hosts: Paul Johnson and Sarah McWilliams
The Narrow Nick micropub took a step back in January to freshen itself up and install a new back bar, in preparation for spring and the undoubted influx of visitors. Not that it particularly needed it, but it’s an indication of the partnership’s attention to detail.
The Narrow Nick, opened in October 2016 in a former dress shop, is named after the cramped passageway to the side of the pub that leads from Rothbury’s High Street to a residential part of town – so, by definition, most locals have been “in the nick”.
Paul Johnson had previously established Gun Dog Brewery, then Acton Brewery, and founded a clutch of micropubs around Northumberland which he no longer owns. Anybody who ever tasted Gun Dog Golden Cocker would know that here is someone who can present another brewery’s beer perfectly.
The Narrow Nick specialises in traditional, good-for-something ales from the likes of Wylam and Big Lamp breweries. Gold Tankard, Galatia (both Wylam), Prince Bishop, Sunny Daze and Summerhill Stout from Big Lamp are perfect for towns like Rothbury which don’t have enough of an audience for the hop-heavy and sour beers that city-centre drinkers enjoy hopping from bar to bar.
“It’s going really well,” says Sarah. “Gold Tankard just flies out – having said that, Wylam Hickey The Rake is also very popular. We’ll soon be back to having six handpulls on as the weather improves – and we’ve just reached 40 different gins.
“Everybody in Rothbury knows the nick. There’s a part in the middle that narrows so that’s called Fat Man’s Squeeze. We’ve named the gents toilets after that and called the ladies Narrow Knickers.”
The Narrow Nick has impressively high windows punctuated by stained glass (most passers-by wave and nod in a code that says “see you later”) with generous sills ideal for parking backsides. It’s a tastefully-decorated one-room pub featuring tables fashioned from wooden barrels, a counter top salvaged from the Percy Arms at Otterburn, and light fittings that once illuminated the Railway pub at Bedlington Station.
There’s certainly nothing narrow when it comes to this pub’s attitude.
Tel: 07707 703 182 facebook.com/the-narrow-nick-rothbury