A New Town in Tyne and Wear, Washington is an assortment of built-up villages, equidistant to the cities of Sunderland, Newcastle and Durham.
You can reach all three cities in 20 minutes or so by road, but there’s plenty to keep you occupied in the immediate area.
For one thing, Washington is where George Washington’s family lived until the 16th century.
Their ancestral seat is a National Trust property, with 17th century architecture and interiors going back hundreds of years before.
Two instantly recognisable landmarks in the North East, the Penshaw Monument and the Angel of the North, are in Washington’s backyard, as is the incomparable Beamish Museum and the Riverside Ground, for first class and international cricket.
1. Washington Old Hall
This manor house with roots going back to the 12th century was the ancestral home of the first president of the United States, George Washington.
His family resided here until the 16th century when they moved to Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire and the Old Hall was sold to the Bishop of Durham.
In the late 19th century the house became tenement flats and was uninhabitable by the 1930s.
Following a restoration after the Second World War the Old Hall was reopened by the American ambassador and placed in the care of the National Trust.
Most of the manor house’s architecture is from the early-1600s, with stone mullioned windows and elements of the earlier Medieval building inside.
The garden is geometric 17th-century parterre and a tranquil nuttery where children can learn how to build an insect habitat.
2. Penshaw Monument
Commanding the landscape for miles, the Penshaw Monument is a Neoclassical gritstone folly at the top of a 136-metre hill.
Designed like a Doric tetrastyle temple, the monument was raised in the 1840s in honour of John George Lambton (1792-1840), the first governor of the Province of Canada.
Lambton contributed to the Durham Report of 1838, which studied how the UK could better manage its colonies, and the monument was a tribute to this work.
It stands 20 metres tall and 30 metres long, and there’s a hidden stairway to the top of the entablature.
This was reopened in 2011 after a long closure, but can only be climbed on a guided tour by contacting the National Trust.
Whether you go to the top or not, there are awesome views from the monument, over Tyne and Wear and out to the North Sea.
3. North East Land, Sea and Air Museums
The largest collection of aircraft in the region is on show at the site of the former airbase, RAF Usworth.
Most of the exhibits are from the UK’s post-war aviation boom, and include a Gloster Meteor, an English Electric Lightning, a Hawker Hunter, and maybe most important of all, an Avro Vulcan.
This became the first Vulcan to go into a private collection when it was flown to the museum in the 1980s.
There are more than 30 aircraft on show, and lots of accompanying hardware like Rolls-Royce, Bristol and De Havilland engines, a WE.177 nuclear weapon, the wreckage of a German Heinkel He 111 bomber from WWII, a Bristol Bloodhound surface-to-air missile launcher and a WWI Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft gun.
4. WWT Washington Wetland Centre
At this Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust attraction you can observe a wealth of visiting birds, as well as a collection of exotic species kept in habitats.
Among the permanent residents are Asian short-clawed otters, Chilean flamingos, Hawaiian geese and white-faced whistling ducks.
The park sells bird-feed by the bag, so little ones can get a good look at these species while feeding them.
The Washington Wetland Centre is in more than 100 acres on the banks of the Wear, and features groves of ancient woodland, two reed beds and a large lake.
The reeds are a haven for sedge warblers, reed buntings and reed warblers, while the lake, known as Wader Lake, welcomes oystercatchers, tufted ducks, curlews, little-ringed plovers, redshanks, lapwings and pied avocets.
5. Angel of the North
An icon for the North East, the Angel of the North is a large-scale contemporary sculpture by Anthony Gormley.
Sitting on a hill next to the East Coast Main Line and the A1 and A167 roads, the sculpture is 20 metres tall, with wings that have a span of 54 metres.
An intriguing detail about these wings is that they’re angled inwards at 3.5°, to give “a sense of embrace”. The angel is made of steel with a rusty patina, as a nod to Tyneside’s industry and the hulks that used to litter the Tyne.
To keep it in place during high winds, the sculpture is anchored to the hilltop on 600 tons of concrete, descending 21 metres into the hill.
While Gormley was working on the piece in the mid-90s the project aroused controversy, but was quickly embraced after completion and is now a beloved landmark, used as an establishing shot for Tyneside in TV and film.
6. Beamish Museum
This outstanding museum is a massive time capsule for industry in the North of England around the Edwardian period at the start of the 20th century and the Georgian period at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
There are historic buildings in situ or transported piece-by-piece to this site, as well as many thousands of industrial artefacts, vehicles, livestock and a small army of interpreters in period costume.
At the 1900s town you can see how traditional sweets and remedies were made at the sweetshop and pharmacy, find out what a visit to the dentist was like more than 100 years ago, order a pint at an Edwardian pub or sip tea at an authentic period tearoom.
There’s also a working 1.5-mile tramway and a narrow-gauge colliery railway.
At the Pit Village you can descend into a genuine drift mine from the 1900s and, on a guided tour, get to know the tough realities of working underground.
7. Arts Centre Washington
In a converted stone farm complex, the Arts Centre Washington is a multi-disciplinary cultural centre with a vibrant programme that will appeal to all-comers.
When we wrote this article in early 2019 the spring programme included a one-man play based on Twelfth Night, a freestyle rapper comedian communicating social issues, a verse adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, and lots of other plays, art exhibitions and shows for kids.
The Arts Centre is a key live music venue for the area, and engages with the community through workshops, fairs and courses in dance, arts and crafts and more.
On top of this the centre also provides studio space for artists, photographers and local businesses connected to the arts.
8. Bowes Railway
Built by the steam locomotive pioneer, George Stephenson in 1826, the Bowes Railway is the only preserved standard gauge cable railway system still in working order.
The line was developed to shift coal from the colliery at Springfield down to the River Tyne, harnessing both steam power and incline planes using ropes.
Trains still run on the 1.5-mile length of track on the first weekend of the month between February and December, while the workshops and yard open as a static museum on Tuesdays and Thursdays, loaded with information about the railway and mining in Tyne and Wear.
The railway survives by donations and has a programme of events like 1940s-themed days, fireworks and Santa’s grotto at Christmas.
9. Washington ‘F’ Pit
An imposing reminder of Washington’s 250-year-old coalmining heritage, the Washington ‘F’ Pit is a former colliery at what is now Albany Park.
The shaft was sunk as long ago as 1777, making it one of the oldest mines in the area, and some 1,500 men were employed here at the pit’s peak in the middle of the 20th century.
Your eye will be drawn to the giant headframe and winding gear, and the engine house (1903) below, which houses a horizontal simplex steam engine dating to 1888. If you’re into industrial architecture, the ensemble warrants a detour for a look from the outside.
The pit is also occasionally open to visitors, although you may need to contact Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens as the hours are irregular.
10. Princess Anne Park
There’s a long tract of rambling grassland and woods, starting just south of the Galleries Shopping Centre and continuing as far as Fatfield in the south.
Princess Anne Park is on the banks of the little stream, Oxclose Burn and has mostly been left to nature.
There are open meadows for picnics in summer and walking paths bending off into woods.
Given its free-flowing layout, there aren’t many facilities at the park, but the Washington Leisure Centre can be found at the north end, and there’s also a skate park close by.
11. Herrington Country Park
The Penshaw Monument is just across the road from this country park, which has a clear view to that famous landmark.
The park is on top of what used to be a colliery and is scattered with works of public art, some marking the local mining heritage, like an old pit wheel cut in half.
The park’s lake is a magnet for geese, ducks and swans, and there’s a picnic area with tables on the north bank.
For a break, the park’s cafe is close to the main entrance, just off the Washington Highway and there are a few pubs in Penshaw and Herrington around the park’s boundaries.
12. Riverside Ground
On the Wear barely ten minutes from Washington is the home ground of Durham County Cricket Club at Chester-le-Street.
The Riverside Ground is also an international venue, staging occasional test matches (five-day affairs), and more frequently One-Day Internationals and shorter T20 internationals.
Work started on the Riverside Ground as soon as Durham was accepted into first-class cricket in 1991. The stadium can seat 19,000 spectators for international matches and has a marvellous view across the Wear to the 14th-century Lumley Castle, now a luxury hotel.
If you’re new to cricket you couldn’t picker a finer place to get acquainted with the game.
All through the summer, Durham competes in Division Two of the County Championship.
After its star Paul Collingwood retired in 2018 the players to look out for are England’s Ben Stokes and Australia’s Cameron Bancroft.
13. Birkheads Secret Gardens
Close to Beamish is a self-sustaining garden growing rare and unusual hardy plants on difficult clay-rich soils.
It might be hard to believe, but this land used to be an opencast coalmine.
The soil retains a lot of moisture and the water table is so high that the garden never needs to be watered.
To keep the trees and plants safe from the raking wind, this patch of land is divided into lots of cosy little spaces, like a well garden, gravel garden, willow dome, goose meadow, tunnel borders, wildlife pond, herb garden, topiary garden, and many more.
Birkheads sells many of the plants growing in these gardens, and also has a cafe with outdoor seating.
Wearside has a high reputation for golf, claiming some of the best parkland courses in the North East.
Chester-le-Street is the most prestigious nearby, on the banks of the Wear in the countryside around Lumley Castle.
Before he took the throne in 1936 King George VI was a regular at this course.
Ravensworth meanwhile dates back to 1906 and has an 18-hole course, with narrow fairways and quicksilver greens.
Prices are affordable here, with a full round costing £14 on weekday and £16 on weekends.
Wearside Golf Club is on the south bank of the river, with a friendly clubhouse and operating a relaxed “ball in chute” policy at busy times, in which you place your ball in a tube and join the queue until it comes out.
15. The Galleries Shopping Centre
Washington has a big covered shopping centre, which opened in the 1970s and hosts well over 100 retailers, both inside and in the neighbouring retail park.
UK high street mainstays like Halfords, JD Sports, Sports Direct, Marks & Spencer, Argos and H&M are all here, accompanied by Iceland, Asda and Sainsbury’s supermarkets and a few fast food chains like McDonalds, KFC, Subway and Greggs.
There’s lots of fun to be had at the 26-lane AMF Bowling, complemented by pool tables, arcade machines and big-screen TVs.