Northumberland named as UK's best national park - but visitor numbers remain low

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Northumberland has the country’s best national park according to visitor satisfaction scores – so why doesn’t it have more tourists?

The park scored 90% in a Which? survey of customers, beating out competition from the Pembrokeshire Coast (88%) and the nearby Lake District (86%).

However, in 2021 Northumberland National Park was visited by 1.27 million people, while in the same year the Lake District welcomed 15.73 million.

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The park’s own website states that Northumberland is the “most northerly, most remote from large urban areas, least visited and least populated” of 13 national parks in England and Wales.

Barrowburn in the Cheviot Hills. Picture: NCJ Media.Barrowburn in the Cheviot Hills. Picture: NCJ Media.
Barrowburn in the Cheviot Hills. Picture: NCJ Media.

However, it also boasts attractions such as Hadrian’s Wall, the Cheviot Hills and Cragside.

Cllr Mark Mather, who represents the Wooler ward on Northumberland County Council, said: “I think we need to get all our facilities right and we’re heading in the right direction. We’re investing in the boring things like public toilets and car parks.

“If we get all the basic stuff right, when people come it is easier for them. Public transport is important too – we’re working on a number of schemes including a bus from the coast to Wooler and one from Newcastle, so people don’t have to drive.

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“The important thing is we take the residents along with us so we’re not forcing tourism upon people. Visitors are important but we need families, schools, little shops – they’re part of the communities that people come to see.

“When you look around my ward, every town and village has its own crown jewel. I think the direction the national park is taking is to focus on the gateway towns like Wooler and Rothbury, which I think is really good. They’re the starting point of the national park and we need a big welcome.”

Cllr Mather, who lost a leg in a farming incident, also discussed the need for accessibility in the park.

He added: “How does somebody with a different ability to what we think of as normal get around the park? I think about it a lot with my disability.

“We need to make sure it is accessible for everyone.”

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The Which? ranking scored national parks on a number of categories, including scenery, well maintained walks and wildlife.

But it was peace and quiet that Northumberland scored top marks in – highlighting that, perhaps, the lower number of visitors is actually one of the park’s key strengths.

With this in mind, Rothbury councillor Steven Bridgett said: “Don’t visit! Because you’ll quickly realise how stunning the national park is and how lucky we all are.

“You’ll then want to move up here, and that will further increase the house prices in Northumberland for young people.”

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On the other hand, council leader Glen Sanderson said: “I think it is about the quality of the experience and not simply number of visitors that is important. Word is spreading, and visitor numbers in the county are impressive.

“The latest figures from our last tourism report underline the huge importance of the tourism. It is worth £1.169billion to our economy and supports some 12,000 jobs.

“As a council we continue to work with partners on developing top-quality attractions that bring people into the county such as the fantastic Ad Gefrin Distillery and Lilidorei at Alnwick.”