Life goes on . . . taken too soon

Do you remember the first 45 single or album (LP or CD) that you bought? I bought the single Keep on Running by The Spencer Davis Group in late 1965.

I also remember precisely when and where I bought these albums: Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the White Album by The Beatles. My first CD (in 1991 just before I headed to the Philippines) was Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, and I’ve been a massive Mac fan ever since. And in the intervening years, I went on to expand my CD collection, although with streaming now available I’ve not added to it for at least a decade.

In my CD collection, several artists or groups are represented by multiple discs: The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler, R.E.M., Eric Clapton, Crowded House, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, to name just a few.

For others, I have maybe a couple of CDs or just a single one. Among these is one artist whose work I have come to relish over the decades, but it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago (through Spotify) did I finally appreciate just what an incredible singer/songwriter he was. I have only two of his ten albums. I don’t know why it took me so long to find out.

I’m referring to Gerry Rafferty (1947-2011). So, how and when did I first encounter this brilliant musician?

It was late 1978. I was living in Costa Rica, and had just returned from home leave in the UK. During that leave, my brother-in-law Derek recorded a tape for me, Rafferty’s City to City (his second solo album) released earlier that year. However, I didn’t have a tape deck because we’d had a burglary during our home leave, and my hi-fi had been stolen.

Discovering City to City had to wait until a few weeks later when I was in San José (the capital city) to take delivery of a new car, and have a stereo system installed, including a tape deck.

Ready for the return journey to Turrialba where we lived (about 70 km east of San José, and at least a couple of hours on the road) I eagerly anticipated listening to City to City, and was instantly enthralled by the first track, The Ark, enjoying the blend throughout the album of folk and soft rock. The Ark has remained a favorite of mine all these years.

But ask anyone to name any Gerry Rafferty song, and I’m pretty sure that Baker Street (with its iconic saxophone riff [1] by Raphael Ravenscroft) would be top of their list. It quickly rose in the charts. Rafferty always surrounded himself with so many accomplished musicians.

The title track from the album is pretty damn good as well, inspired by Rafferty’s long-distance commuting apparently.

The fifth track on City to City is particularly poignant. My late elder brother Ed (who lived in Canada) was also a Gerry Rafferty fan. When his wife Linda passed away after a battle with cancer in 2007, Ed chose Stealin’ Time as one of the pieces of music played at her funeral. A poignant tribute to a lovely lady.

A year after City to City, Rafferty released Night Owl in 1979. The title track is my favorite with Already Gone coming a close second.

So, what about all the other wonderful music that I’d not been exposed to? Well, working through that first Spotify playlist of so many great songs, two in particular caught my ear. The first, Don’t Give Up On Me was the seventh track on his seventh studio album, On a Wing & a Prayer released in 1992.

And the other, which I believe is one of Rafferty’s finest (and ‘undiscovered’) songs is Tired of Talking, released as the third track on his sixth studio album, North and South, in 1988.

This track, Don’t Speak of My Heart, is the third track from Rafferty’s tenth and final album, Life Goes On, released in November 2009. An alcoholic for much of his life, Rafferty died of liver failure in January 2011. Taken too soon, at just 63.

For an even greater appreciation of the genius of Gerry Rafferty, watch this hour long documentary broadcast by BBC Scotland in 2011. Maybe even shed a tear . . .


[1] The saxophone break on “Baker Street” has been described as “the most famous saxophone solo of all time”, “the most recognizable sax riff in pop music history”, and “one of the most recognisable saxophone solos of all time”. (Source: Wikipedia)

Getting the message out about genetic resources

For much of my career, I have taken a keen interest in science communication. Such that, a couple of years after I’d become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning & Coordination in 2001, I was asked to take on line management responsibility for several of IRRI’s administrative units, including the Communication and Publications Services (CPS) headed by my good friend Gene Hettel. My job changed to some degree, as did my title: Director for Program Planning & Communications.

I’ve always felt that scientists have a responsibility to explain their work to the general public in plain language. We’re fortunate here in the UK; there are several leading lights in this respect who have made their mark in the media and now represent, to a considerable extent, ‘the face of science’ nationally. None of them is shy about speaking out on matters of concern to society at large.

Sir David Attenborough (far left, above) is one of the world’s leading advocates for biodiversity conservation who also eloquently explains the threat and challenges of climate change. Professors Alice Roberts (second left, of The University of Birmingham) and Brian Cox (second right, The University of Manchester) have both made their mark in TV broadcasts in recent years, bringing fascinating programs covering a range of topics to the small screen. And then again, there’s Sir Paul Nurse (far right), Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and former President of the Royal Society. I was particularly impressed with his Richard Dimbleby Lecture, The New Enlightenment, on the BBC in 2012 about his passion for science. It’s well worth a watch.


I would never claim to be in the same league as these illustrious scientists. However, over the years I have tried—in my small way—to raise awareness of the science area with which I am most familiar: plant genetic resources and their conservation. And in this blog, I have written extensively about some of my work on potatoes at the International Potato Center in Peru and on rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, as well as training genetic resources scientists at the University of Birmingham.

So, when I was approached a few weeks ago to be interviewed and contribute to a podcast series, Plant Breeding Stories, I jumped at the chance.

The podcasts are hosted by Hannah Senior, Managing Director of PBS International, a world leading company in pollination control. So far, there have been eleven podcasts in two series, with mine broadcast for the first time just a couple of days ago. In this clip, Hannah explains the rationale for the series.

Just click on the image below to listen to our 35 minute conversation about genetic resources, genebanks, and their importance for plant breeding and food security. Oh, and a little about me and how I got into genetic resources work in the first place.

I hope you find the podcast interesting, and even a little bit enlightening. A transcript of the broadcast can be downloaded here. Thanks for listening.


Brinkburn: a medieval priory on the banks of the River Coquet in Northumberland

Brinkburn Priory, an early 12th century Augustinian ‘transitional’ priory (architecturally between Norman and Gothic), nestles in a deep bend of the River Coquet in central Northumberland. All that remains today is the priory church, which was restored in the 19th century with the completion of a new roof, and installation of beautiful stained glass windows.

The site is owned and managed by English Heritage.

The free car park is located about 400 m from the priory itself, but from experience I can say just how enjoyable that stroll was, high above the fast-flowing Coquet, the trees, shrubs and understorey plants coming into flower, and a multitude of birds singing all around, trying to out-compete one another.

Brinkburn was dissolved in 1536. It was considered a ‘Lesser Monastery’ with a value of only £69, so was spared the fate of most monasteries. The church continued to be used until the late 16th century when it fell into disrepair and the roof collapsed. A manor house was built alongside the priory church in the late 16th century, incorporating parts of the other monastery buildings that had been destroyed. This manor house was refurbished by the Cadogan family who also undertook the restoration of the priory church from 1858. It took just a year to replace the roof, and the windows were installed by 1864.

Just click on the image below to open the album of the photos I took during our visit yesterday.

Access to the manor house is limited to just the ground floor and basement, where the ancient stonework from the former priory buildings is exposed, and how the undercroft from the old monastery was used as a foundation for the house.

As we sat on a bench, eating a picnic lunch and facing the west end of the priory church, I couldn’t help reflecting on the other ruined monasteries and the like that we have visited over the years: Fountains Abbey, Rievaulx Abbey, Mount Grace Priory, Lilleshall Abbey, Wenlock Priory, White Ladies Priory, and Hailes Abbey. And they all have one thing in common. The monks knew how to choose just the right location to build their communities. Such peaceful places to think, take pause. The bench we sat on was dedicated to the memory of a couple who had visited Brinkburn frequently, simply because they found it such a peaceful place. I know how they felt, sitting there beside the church and the babbling River Coquet.


 

Every table tells a tale . . .

After my mother went into a care home in 1990, my eldest brother Martin, my sister Margaret, and I were faced with the task of vacating her rented bungalow, and deciding what furniture to keep and what to dispose of.

I took two pieces of furniture that I can remember from my childhood in Congleton, and I’m 72: one was my father’s Art Deco tallboy; and the other, a half moon table, the end section of a long dining table. I still have both.

The table graced our hall in Bromsgrove for many years. It now proudly sits in the bow window of our new home in Newcastle. It’s a little bit battered perhaps, the veneer and polish has come away in a few places, but still it retains a certain majesty.

I can’t state unequivocally where the table originated. But family tradition has it that the table was once the end section of a dining table on board one of the Cunard-White Star Line ocean liners. But which one?

As ship’s photographer, my father Fred Jackson spent a number of years on board two ships: the four-funneled RMS Aquitania and the RMS Carinthia. In the memoir [1] that Dad completed just a week or so before he passed away in April 1980, he mentioned his affection for the Aquitania:

Of all the ships that I was called to serve on, without doubt the Aquitania was the one that I held dearest in my affections, especially as one event in that first summer of 1934 was to shape the remainder of my life in no uncertain way. The “Aqui”, with the exception of two short breaks, was to be my floating home and the source of my livelihood for the next four years . . . 

Dad made 98 crossings of the North Atlantic between Southampton and New York. The 1930s were the heyday of ocean travel, and countries vied with each other to provide the most comfortable, luxurious, and fastest crossings. The Aquitania was, until the launch of RMS Queen Mary [2] in 1934 and entering into service two years later, the largest of the Cunard-White Star liners on this route.

How exactly my parents took possession of the table in the first place I have no idea. Did it come from the Aquitania after she was scrapped in 1950? Perhaps, given my Dad’s affinity for the ship. But as I was researching this story earlier today, an idea popped up in my mind. The table didn’t come from the Aquitania after all, but the RMS Majestic [3]. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I have an idea that this was the ship that my mother once mentioned to me.

In some respects it really doesn’t matter. The table is a symbol of era gone by, and part of the story of how my parents first met.

So let’s go back to that summer of 1934 and Dad’s early voyages on the Aquitania. On one return crossing from New York to Southampton, three young women asked Dad to take their photograph. One of them, Lily May Healy (on the left; she was always known as ‘Lilian’), just 26, had trained as a nurse in Newark, New Jersey and was returning to England to visit her parents.

Docking in Southampton, Dad took a photo of Lilian with her parents, Martin and Ellen Healy who came on board. Dad also managed to get Lilian’s contact details in the US so that he might look her up the next time he was in New York once she had returned from holiday.

Dad proposed to Lilian in Newark, and they returned together in 1936 on the Aquitania, and were married in Epsom in November that year.

Before leaving New York, Mum and Dad visited the SS Normandie, the pride of France, launched in 1935 and replacing the Aquitania as the largest and fastest ocean liner.

Purchasing her return passage at the Cunard office in New York, Mum’s ticket was upgraded to a single cabin on Deck ‘C’. And from the photos that Dad took during that voyage, it looks as though she thoroughly enjoyed herself.

Here’s a photo of Mum and Dad sitting together, second row, second and third from the right.

I have another photo of Mum alongside my Dad’s parents, Tom and Alice Jackson. Obviously taken on board ship, presumably the Aquitania after docking in Southampton, I wonder if my  grandparents had traveled to Southampton especially to meet and welcome their future daughter-in-law.

It’s remarkable what memories just one piece of furniture can awake. And each day as I see that table, I also think what it could tell us if only it could speak. The 1930s were certainly an opulent time on the high seas.

It was decade when celebrities traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, and Dad had a remarkable set of photos of Hollywood stars that you can see in this post. His favorite was Bette Davis, who signed the photo he took.

And on one last note, here is a remarkable, perhaps unique photo. From the caption that my Dad has written, here are passengers on the RMS Aquitania listening to a radio broadcast while at sea of the launch of the RMS Queen Mary on 26 September 1934.


[1] Fred Jackson, 1980. Gathering No Moss.

[2] I wrote about the last voyage of the Queen Mary from Southampton in this post.

[3] RMS Majestic had been built and launched (in 1914) in Germany as the SS Bismarck. After World War I, she was handed over to the allies as war reparations and renamed Majestic. She sailed just once under the German flag during sea trials in 1922.

Nothing comes for free . . .

Ask almost any scientist, and the one thing they (mostly) have in common is their dislike (I could put it stronger) of having to write reports or to be held to deadlines.

Many would prefer never to be reminded they have reporting commitments, and just bury their heads in the academic sand. Just yesterday, I came across a twitter thread started by an academic deploring the lack of support from her institute in terms of reporting and, for her, making the whole process unacceptably complicated.

Reports come in many guises: progress reports to supervisors or project leaders, to their institutions, and perhaps most importantly, to the body that provided funds for their research project.

So having labored for hours, days, weeks or longer to prepare a proposal for submission to a funding body, and having that agonizing wait until the project is actually approved for funding, research scientists then have to prepare reports periodically on progress, and how the funding has actually been spent. Nevertheless, it’s important that scientists appreciate that they do have a responsibility, commitment even, to account for their projects and funding, even though many see this as an unacceptable chore taking them away from valuable research time and writing scientific papers, rather than just another component of the project implementation.

Now, if you work for one of the international agricultural research institute sponsored by the CGIAR [1], like I did for about 27 years in South and Central America (on potatoes at the International Potato Center or CIP) and in the Philippines (on rice at the International Rice Research Institute or IRRI), report writing came with the territory, so to speak. But the demands for reports have changed over the decades since I first became involved in 1973.

Back in the day, there were no electronic communications to permit instantaneous delivery of research reports. For example, when I worked for CIP in Costa Rica from 1976 to 1980, I had to submit quarterly reports to headquarters in Lima. These were sent in the mail, taking two to three weeks to reach their destination. That was accepted practice.

Not today, however. Some donors have become increasingly dysfunctional, with constant demands for information. Now! Because reports can be submitted as email attachments, requests are often posted at the last minute, without ever appreciating that to provide the necessary information might take hours, even days, to compile.

That’s not to say that responding to such requests with some urgency is unnecessary. But to compile and analyse information into a coherent report takes time. And for many scientists, time is of the essence.


When it comes to international agricultural research, the ultimate donors are tax payers, and governments have to satisfy that their investment is used appropriately and, more importantly, delivers the expected outcomes. I’ve written about those aspects in another blog post a few years back.

And, in the case of the CGIAR centers, that means having a positive impact of the welfare and livelihoods of farming families around the world, and those who depend on their agricultural productivity to survive, especially urban populations in cities and mega-cities who do not produce their own food. Take the case of rice, for example. Half the world’s population—several billion people—eats rice at least once a day, over a million tons a day worldwide, maybe more. That’s . And rice farmers must maintain their productivity, increase it even, if the demand for this staple crop is met. So it’s important to use the diversity in genebank collections to breed new varieties, or to fight pests and diseases. Then again, supply constraints must be understood if farmers are to be empowered to sell their rice, or what prevents women farmers in particular from improving their livelihoods.


In 2001, I gave up day-to-day science to join IRRI’s senior management team, as Director for Program Planning and Communications with the brief (and mandate) to beef up the institute’s management of its many research projects, to liaise with its donor community, and increase donor support for IRRI’s overall research agenda. It would be no exaggeration to state that when we set up the Program Planning and Communications office, IRRI’s relations with its donor had almost hit rock bottom.

The PPC Team on my last day at IRRI on 30 April 2010. L-R: Eric Clutario, Zeny Federico, Corinta Guerta, me, Vel Hernandez-Ilao, Yeyet Enriquez.

For one thing, senior management had no clear picture of how many research projects were currently being funded, nor what commitments had been made to the respective donors. Indeed, things were so bad that some donors had threatened to pause existing funding support and not even consider new initiatives until the institute got its house in order.

Ron Cantrell

The Director General, Ron Cantrell, asked me to sort this deplorable situation and do whatever necessary to retrieve our standing with the donors. I can’t say that my efforts were universally welcomed by my colleagues at the outset. They had grown accustomed to not being held to account. But eventually they came to appreciate the value of having a support office like PPC.

First things first. It took a week to come up with a first but incomplete list of all donor-funded projects. The next step was to make sure we could identify each one uniquely. And like assigning an accession number to a sample of germplasm in a genebank, each project was given its own identity (DPPC-year-number), notwithstanding that each donor might also have assigned an ID according to their own project management. Even at the project concept stage, we assigned a DPPC number that remained with the project funded or not. We never re-assigned a DPPC number to another project. Eventually, as we built our project management system, we linked all the projects with the institute’s finance systems. Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet.

Whereas IRRI was probably behind in its reporting on more than 75% of its projects when I set up the Program Planning & Communications Office in May 2001, we had recovered to less than 10% six months later. And, having worked with the donors by explaining what we were doing, they were very supportive. However, having made good progress in terms of improvement our relationship with donors, there were always a couple of prima donnas at IRRI who wouldn’t play ball, didn’t feel that any project management regime was their concern, and despite our best efforts rarely complied on time with requests for information and reporting. To the overall detriment of the institute, it has to be said. Having these scientists write a report was akin to getting blood from a stone.

Once we had a handle on the scope of IRRI’s projects, we set about establishing some standard operating procedures (SOP) to develop project ideas, to submit projects to donors, and to provide IRRI’s scientists with the appropriate support to meet donor expectations. We set up reporting schedules for each project, so that no scientist could claim they hadn’t realized a report was due, assisted scientists to finalize their reports in terms of donor formats, and editing, submitting reports on behalf of the institute and taking care of any follow up. One of the complexities we had to face were the different reporting formats and requirements that each donor adopted. But with support from my colleague Gene Hettel and his team (especially science editor Bill Hardy) in Communication and Publications Services (CPS) we always submitted quality reports easily recognizable as coming from IRRI.

The CPS Team in 2008. Gene Hettel (head of CPS) is second from the left, front row. Bill Hardy (scientific editor) is kneeling (right behind Gene), to my right.

Reporting became just another component of any successfully-managed project, not an undesirable add-on seen by scientists as an imposition on their freedom and time. But the type of reports needed by donors were not the same as writing a scientific paper for example, and we had to unlearn many scientists from their usual publication habits. Donors are interested in progress and need sufficient technical information to establish scientific credibility. They don’t want to be swamped by technical jargon that too many scientists rely on. The information needed to be accessible to a non-technical readership, and that’s how the PPC team helped out, supported by our CPS colleagues.

Donors do not like surprises, so I ensured that my office maintained good communications with the many donor offices around the world, by email, by telephone, and making personal visits at least once a year. Establishing that personal relationship with my donor counterparts was an important aspect of my job as Director for Program Planning & Communications. If a project encountered a problem, or we expected a report to be delayed, or anticipated a project overrun, we talked with our donors from the outset, not leaving things until after the fact, so to speak.

Project implementation and management is a two way affair. Once made, donors should honor their commitments. And one donor, the UK government, has palpably failed in this respect regarding overseas aid (from which the CGIAR centers are funded), reducing its statutory commitment of 0.7% of gross national income (or GNI) to 0.5% for the foreseeable future, in response to the financial crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. The UK gave its support through the Department for International Development (DFID) that has now merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to form the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Overseas aid no longer has its own profile, much to the detriment of the program, and because of the reduction in aid commitment, a significant number of projects worldwide (not just CGIAR) that relied on British aid have been cut and even staff made redundant. This is an appalling situation, and although I don’t have to hand how this aid commitment has affected the CGIAR centers, I’m sure there will be a negative budgetary consequence.

So, while the donors require (demand even) accountability for the funds they allocate, I believe it is equally important that donors like the British government maintain their financial commitments, and behave responsibly.


[1] CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food secure future dedicated to reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security, and improving natural resources.

Riding the Metro to the sixteenth century and beyond

I love train journeys. Long or short. It makes no difference. I’d travel everywhere by train if it were possible, convenient, and affordable.

And a couple of days ago, after seven months here in the northeast of England (on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne in North Tyneside), Steph and I took our first ride on the region’s Metro. Destination: Tynemouth, just six stations and 12 minutes from our nearest station, Northumberland Park.

We had delayed taking the Metro until Covid-19 travel restrictions had been eased, infection rates had started to decline steeply, and both of us had been vaccinated. It’s now been almost three weeks since we both received our second vaccine doses: Pfizer for me, AstraZeneca for Steph.

Earlier last week we upgraded our concessionary travel passes (CTP) to Gold Cards. With our CTP, we have unlimited free travel on buses nationwide, one of the benefits of being a senior citizen. For an extra £12 fee, we purchased unlimited travel on the Metro that we can use everyday, but only after 09:30 on weekdays. Here’s my CTP. Somehow my image was squashed; the original I submitted with my online application was fine.

The Tyne & Wear Metro (a publicly-owned transport system) serves five metropolitan boroughs: Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside on the north bank of the River Tyne, and Gateshead, South Tyneside, and Sunderland, on the south side, which together make up the former Tyne & Wear metropolitan county. The first stretches of the network opened in 1980, and today comprises the Green and Yellow Lines. In all there are 60 stations along almost 50 miles of track.

Parts of the network utilize former 19th century railway lines, one of the oldest parts being the former Newcastle and North Shields Railway. In recent decades, new Metro lines have been added or extended, taking the network as far west as Newcastle Airport. The system has overhead electrification throughout. The rolling stock is, however, showing its age, and breakdowns are not infrequent. The Metro is currently undergoing a major upgrade and new rolling stock are expected to be introduced over the next couple of years.

Train to Tynemouth approaching Northumberland Park station.

Train departing Northumberland Park towards Shiremoor, the next station down the line, and on to Tynemouth, eventually leading back into Newcastle city center.

Several of the stations are the original ones built for the former rail companies. Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, and Tynemouth are particularly outstanding: beautiful red brick buildings, with glass roofs to the platform edges. Tynemouth is a striking example, and has lost none of its Victorian charm.

Northumberland Park is one of the newest stations, opened in 2005 to serve the recent housing developments nearby on reclaimed mining land, and the Cobalt Business Park just a mile or so to the south (largely vacant at the moment due to office closures during the pandemic).In this video, we are approaching Tynemouth station.


So, why did we head to Tynemouth as our first Metro destination? We’ve been there several times before when visiting Philippa and family over the years.

This time, however, we had a particular Tynemouth destination in sight: Tynemouth Priory and Castle, owned and operated by English Heritage.

This was a Benedictine priory, which the same fate as countless others under the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII between 1539.

The priory (and its fortifications) were built on the headland of Pen Bal Crag, that juts out into the North Sea opposite the end of Tynemouth Front Street.

From the grounds of the priory and castle there are excellent views of St Edward’s Bay to Sharpness Point to the north, and overlooking Short Sands beach.

To the south, the coast stretches past South Shields, overlooking the north and south piers of the entrance to the River Tyne.

While we were having our picnic lunch overlooking the Tyne, a large transporter ship entered the river, making its way west upriver to dock of the port of Newcastle. This was once a very busy port, exporting coal worldwide. And it was a major ship-building location, sadly now disappeared. Although it was a bright sunny day with little breeze, I was surprised at how rough the sea was outside the north pier. As we approached the cliff edge we could hear the booming of the waves as they crashed against the pier. On the other hand, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. For the past few days we’ve had brisk northeasterly winds, with a long fetch down the North Sea from the Arctic.

Just inland from the mouth of the River Tyne, is a huge statue (facing south) of Vice Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood (a Newcastle native) who was second-in-command to Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.


Humans have occupied Pen Bal Crag for at least two millennia, with remains of Iron Age roundhouses discovered on the site. The earliest priory itself dates from the 7th century, but the ruins standing today date from the 13th century. There is a nice summary of Tynemouth Priory’s history on the English Heritage website.

Today the ruins are a stark reminder of how majestic Tyneside Priory must have been in its heyday. Standing on this peninsula, looking out to sea, the priory reminds me of Whitby Abbey (another site carefully managed by English Heritage on the North Yorkshire coast).

The entrance to the priory passes through the gatehouse of the castle, and opens up on to a broad grassy area, overlooking the coast, and encompassing the ruins, a cemetery of mainly 18th and 19th century graves, many incredibly weathered sandstone, and an abandoned coastguard station. There are also World War One and Two naval gun fortifications facing out to sea.

A couple of things struck me as we walked around the ruins. Again, how the monks chose such inspiring locations to build their monasteries. And second, what a beautiful sandstone they used for Tynemouth Priory and its castle fortifications. It glowed a deep golden brown in the strong May sunshine.

After the Dissolution, the site was occupied for centuries by the military and, as I mentioned earlier, artillery installations from two world wars dominate the cliffs overlooking the entrance to the River Tyne.

There has also been one further addition—a bit of a blot on the landscape—especially as it has been abandoned for 20 years. In 1980, a new coastguard station was constructed alongside the priory ruins. Following a restructuring of the coastguard service in 2001, the station was closed and stands there today, a white elephant staring out to sea. Rather incongruous, given the serenity of the priory ruins close by.

Our visit to Tynemouth Priory was certainly one of our most convenient English Heritage or National Trust visits. Having enjoyed our picnic, we made our way back to the station for the short journey home. We’d walked almost four miles, and enjoyed the sea breezes. No wonder I felt tired after we arrived home. It didn’t take long before I dozed off in my armchair.


 

Walking with my mobile – northeast (1)

During 2019, I started a series of posts, Walking with my mobile, in which I described some of the walks that I used to take around my hometown of Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire, just south of Birmingham.

At the end of September last year we moved from Bromsgrove to the northeast of England, a few miles east of Newcastle upon Tyne city center. And over the past seven months I have been exploring many different walks close to where we live in North Tyneside, and a little further east on the awesome coast, just over 10 minutes drive away at Seaton Sluice, over the county line in Northumberland. Close by also stands Seaton Delaval Hall, the closest National Trust property to home.

I already described some of the places we’ve been to in a post last November. But now I want to document in some more detail the walks that have become part of my (almost) daily routine.


Having never lived near the coast (Steph grew up in Southend on Sea in Essex and the beach was just a five minute walk from the family home), it’s a never-ending delight for me to jump in the car and know that within a short space of time, I’ll be walking along the wide open spaces of a Northumberland beach, and breathing in all that wonderful clean sea air. Even though it can be quite challenging when there’s a stiff northeast breeze coming down from the Arctic.

Last Sunday morning, being a bright sunny day (but with gales and heavy rain in the forecast over the next couple of days or so), we headed to Seaton Sluice. For walks along the beach here, there are three parking options. Close to the harbor in Seaton Sluice itself there’s a car park (and toilet block) that probably takes around 80 vehicles at most. Given its location, you have to be an early bird to secure a parking space here. We didn’t leave home until after 11 am.

Further north along the A193 towards Blyth is a second car park, the Seaton Sluice Beach car park. It’s enormous, stretching probably more than a quarter of a mile north and south of the entrance, where there’s also a disused toilet block. This is where we parked to begin our short walk of just over two miles.

And on the southern edge of Blyth itself, behind Blyth beach, the beach huts, and the remains of the Blyth Battery (see more below), is another car park that we have yet to use.

The car parks lie behind sand dunes that stretch from Seaton Sluice to Blyth beach. Criss-crossed by many paths there are some main ones for easy access to the beach itself, and for equestrians who we see galloping along the beach from time to time.

And what a glorious view opens up as you emerge from the dunes: Seaton Sluice harbor and headland to the south, and Blyth beach and port to the north.

Immediately offshore, and about half a mile from the beach, is a small five-turbine demonstrator wind farm, operated by the French multinational EDF.

Heading along the beach, we always find it easier to make our way closer to the breaking waves, where the sand is usually firmer. Walking on the soft sand through the dunes and at the top of the beach is such hard work.

Further north along the beach and turning to look south, St Mary’s Lighthouse close to Whitley Bay comes into view, and beyond that, the entrance to the River Tyne at Tynemouth. That’s not actually visible from Seaton Sluice beach, but often there are large ships anchored just offshore waiting for the tide to enable them to enter the river and head upstream. As you can see from the image below, Seaton Sluice beach is also very popular with dog walkers.

About half way between Seaton Sluice car park and Blyth beach a stream flows on to the beach from under the dunes, necessitating a change of direction to join the paved path, known as the Eve Black Way [1] which connects Seaton Sluice and Blyth. It’s either get your feet wet, or find another route.

Joining the Eve Black Way we continued north until we reached the south end of Blyth beach, and stopped for a few minutes to examine the replica battery guns [2] that were unveiled in April 2019, as well as enjoy the view south.

Along the path, about halfway between Blyth and our car park, there’s an interesting sculpture, in wood, dedicated to cycling (the Eve Black Way carries part of the National Cycle Network route 1—Coast and Castles route—that is also part of the European Cycle Network North Sea route.

Then, another ten minutes and we were back at the car park.

Happy days!


Along the beach itself, we haven’t seen too much bird life, just the normal herring and black-headed gulls, the occasional sanderling running along the water’s edge. Around Seaton Sluice itself we have seen turnstones, oystercatchers, and redshanks as well, and small flocks of common eiders (or cuddy ducks, named after St Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northumberland) bobbing on the waves just offshore. At this time of the year, the dunes are busy with birds: meadow pipits, linnets, and warblers of various species (I’m not very good at identifying small olive brown birds). We’ve seen the odd kestrel hovering above the dunes, hunting its prey of small mammals.

But one of the most spectacular wildlife displays came a few months back in the depths of winter. We’d taken much the same walk, but when we arrived back at the car park, there was a flock of perhaps 150 pink-footed geese grazing in a field across the A193, interspersed with perhaps as many as 50 curlew. What a sight!

However, we enjoyed one of the most memorable sights on our first walk at Seaton Sluice last October, about a week after we had moved north. A couple walking along the beach drew our attention to it: a lone grey seal, constantly diving and returning to the surface over a period of about 15 minutes, hunting for its breakfast.

Given the proximity of Seaton Sluice beach to home (as well as the cliff walk to St Mary’s Lighthouse, as well as Whitley Bay beach itself), I’m sure that this walk will continue to be one of the most frequent we make. After all, within about two minutes from home we can see the sea.


[1] Evelyn Ann Black was a much-loved Labour Councillor and Mayor of Blyth Valley in 1980-81. She died in 2006. In 2007, the path between Blyth and Seaton Sluice was renamed the Eve Black Coastal Walkway.

[2] The guns are replica Mark VII 6″naval guns virtually the same as would have been there during World War Two. They were 23′ long and had a range of 7 miles.