Around Northumberland in 96 miles . . . and several thousand years

Steph and I have been Friends of the Alnwick Garden since April 2021, and being only 34 miles north of where we live in Newcastle, we try to visit the Garden every couple of months or so. It’s always nice to see how the Garden awakens in the Spring, flourishes during Summer, and closes down in the Autumn and Winter. And we always enjoy a welcome cup of Americano in the Pavilion Cafe.

However a stroll round the Garden usually takes no more than 90 minutes, so we often try to combine a visit there with somewhere else: on one of Northumberland’s glorious beaches, or deep in the county’s fabulous landscape.

And that’s just what we did last week, heading south from Alnwick to Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort, south of Rothbury and beyond.

This is the route we took, and I have marked the various interesting sites along the way that encompass various aspects of Northumberland’s history over the millennia. We only stopped at three of these (having visited the others many times before): Lordenshaws, Mote Hills motte and bailey castle at Elsdon, and Winter’s Gibbet high on the moorland beyond Elsdon.

So without further ado, let’s explore what can be seen along this route.

(1) The Alnwick Garden Planning for the Alnwick Garden began in 1997, with the first phase opening in 2001. It was the inspiration of Jane, Duchess of Northumberland. The land was donated by her husband, Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, and covers 42 acres. The garden is managed by a charitable trust. The garden also includes a display of some of the world’s most poisonous plants, and there is a narrative of how they have been used for various nefarious purposes.

(2) Alnwick Castle Home of the Percy family for over 700 years, and residence of the 12th Duke of Northumberland and his family, the first parts of Alnwick Castle were erected in 1096.

Today, it’s open to the public, although we have never visited. The castle has been the filming location for several movies and television programs such as two of the Harry Potter films, and Downton Abbey.


Leaving the Alnwick Garden, we headed south towards Rothbury on the B6341, with views back towards the coast from the high, heather-covered moors, then descending towards Edlingham and magnificent views over the Upper Coquet valley all the way to the Cheviot Hills and the Scottish border.

(3) Edlingham railway viaduct The viaduct (seen in the image below, beyond Edlingham Castle) on the Alnwick to Coldstream (Cornhill) Railway, was opened in 1897.

The line was closed to passenger traffic in 1930. Freight services continued until 1965.

(4) Edlingham Castle and chapel The castle dates from the 14th century, although there was an earlier manor house on the site dating from about 1300. It was the home of Sir William Felton. The castle was abandoned as a residence in the mid-17th century.

Close by the castle is the 11th century chapel of St John the Baptist. Services are still held in the chapel.

Here is a link to a photo album.

(5) Cragside This must be one of the jewels in the National Trust crown, being the first house in the world powered by hydro-electricity. It was built by Lord William and Lady Margaret Armstrong. What is particularly striking about Cragside, in addition to the magnificent house and its location, is the fact that the Armstrongs transformed an area of high Northumberland heath into a remarkable garden with trees a hundred feet tall or more, something that they would never have seen. We’ve visited there several times, even before we moved to the Northeast in 2020.

(6) Rothbury Proudly proclaimed as the ‘Capital of Coquetdale‘, Rothbury is a small, traditional market town, and a convenient staging post for tourists wishing to explore the surrounding Northumbrian landscape. It was the birthplace, in 1970, of radio and TV celebrity Alexander Armstrong (a distant cousin of the Cragside Armstrongs). In 2010, Rothbury was also the focus of a massive police manhunt.


From Rothbury, the route climbs towards the Simonside Hills. Lordenshaws hill fort is close by. On this section of the route—as from Alnwick to Rothbury—the damage to trees caused by Storm Arwen in November 2021 was very much in evidence.

(7) Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort and rock carvings This was our second visit to Lordenshaws. The Iron Age fort was built around 2000 years ago. There is also a Bronze Age burial mound. Close-by are the cup and ring marks etched in large boulders, and dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, 6000 to 3500 years ago. Also, the views from there over Coquetdale are impressive.

Heading west from Lordenshaws, we traveled below the Simonside ridge before reaching the meandering River Coquet. Then climbing once more before descending into the village of Elsdon, a small hamlet we had visited in 1998 and which, for us, held an interesting story.

(8) Tosson Tower The tower appears in the video above around 5 minutes mark.

It is a Pele tower built in the 14th or 15th century to protect against raiders in this border region with Scotland. It had walls 2 m thick. We didn’t stop as the tower is on private land.

I’d been trying to locate some of the villages we had visited in Northumberland in 1998. And as we entered Elsdon I realized this was one of them. On that holiday we never had a set route, just ending up each day finding bed and breakfast accommodation when and where we could. In Elsdon, we had an evening meal in the local Bird in Bush pub, before retiring for an early night. You can imagine our surprise the following morning when we came down to breakfast to discover that the landlady’s husband, who we’d met the evening before, had suffered a heart attack during the night. A doctor and ambulance had been called and he was in hospital, probably in Morpeth. We slept through the whole commotion!

(9) Mote Hills motte and bailey castle, Elsdon Parking close by the village hall (where the toilets are open to the public!), we walked the short distance up a lane to Mote Hills, the earthwork remains of a late 11th/early 12th century motte and bailey castle, and one of the finest in the country. It’s very impressive, from a distance and close up.

Click on the image below to enlarge.

We had come across the Umfraville family on one of our earlier trips, in Upper Coquetdale, at Harbottle castle. And like the castle at Elsdon, Harbottle was built on a steep mound, the motte. At Elsdon the slopes must be 60° at least, and after struggling up the sides (before we found a much easier exit) I could imagine just how easy the site would have been to defend against unwanted visitors.


Having spent around 30 minutes exploring the remains of this interesting castle, we left Elsdon, and headed southeast to the last stop on that day’s tour of Northumberland: Winter’s Gibbet.

(10) Winter’s Gibbet High on the moors southeast from Elsdon, and with a magnificent 360° panorama, stands a sinister reminder of a late 18th century crime.

Winter’s Gibbet stands out clearly against the skyline. It a replica of the one first erected in 1792.

It was here that the body of one William Winter was hung in chains and left to rot following his execution (in August 1792 in Newcastle, along with two women accomplices) for the murder a year earlier of an old woman, Margaret Crozier who lived in a nearby Pele tower. It was the custom back in the day to leave the body of a murderer in a place overlooking the scene of their horrific crime. Click on the image below to enlarge.

William Winter was the only criminal to be ‘displayed’ at this gibbet.

From Winter’s Gibbet we headed home, passing on the way Wallington Hall, the village of Kirkharle, and Belsay Hall.

(11) Wallington This is a late 18th century mansion in the Palladian style, that replaced a medieval Pele tower on the estate (the cellars of which are still visible in the basement). It passed to the Trevelyan family in 1777.

We have visited Wallington on several occasions, and enjoyed not only walks in the garden and parkland, but also understanding the links of the Trevelyan family with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the late 19th century. I have written about our visits in three blog posts.

Capability Brown

(12) Kirkharle Just west of the A696 and about two miles south of Wallington, lies the village of Kirkharle. Birthplace in 1715/16 of the famous landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who I wrote about after a visit to the National Trust’s Croome in Worcestershire. Brown received one of his earliest commissions from Earl Coventry to redesign the landscape at Croome and dig a large lake, the ‘Croome river’.

(13) Belsay Hall and castle This was one of the first English Heritage properties we visited even before we moved to the Northeast. It lies about 14 miles northwest of Newcastle.

Besides the Regency style house built in the early 19th century, the Belsay estate includes an impressive garden within the quarry from which stone for the house (and castle?) was taken, and the ruins of a 14th century castle, original home of the Middleton family.

There is access to the roof of the tower with good views over the estate and the Northumbrian hills to the north.


Northumberland has something for everyone. I think we’ve hardly scratched the surface in terms of its history. And although we have traveled quite extensively already throughout the county, there is still plenty more to explore. After all, it is 1820 square miles (or 4716 km²).

 

 

 

 

Are you a picky eater?

I guess many of us have, at one time or another, taken one of the many quizzes (like the one below) that appear from time to time on social media platforms, testing whether we are picky or fussy eaters.

When you consider this list, it’s pretty anodyne. ‘Western’ even.

As for me, there’s just one item on this particular list—snails—that I would balk at completely. And it would have to be cooked oysters. I have no real issues with any of the others. There are a couple of others items. namely liver and raw fish, that I’m not overly fond of but would eat.

Yesterday evening, as Steph and I were enjoying a barbecue with chicken, sausage, burgers, salad, and grilled vegetables, I asked her whether there were foods she had refused to eat when growing up in the 1950s. I’m not sure how this came up in conversation. Maybe my memory was stirred by a piece of avocado that I was about to eat. More of that later.

I am fortunate that I have never faced hunger. Even when I was very young and my parents were raising four children, there was always food on the table.

One food item we both agreed that we ate quite frequently when young was liver, usually fried. I quite like fried liver but I haven’t tasted it for years. Chicken livers on a stick (anticuchos) were a particular favorite at a restaurant near Lima where we used to dine we lived in Peru. Delicious!

But how picky would you be if the list was rather more wide-ranging, not western diet biased? Very, I’m sure. Given that so many food preferences are cultural, I have to say there are many foods I could bring myself to try. Here are a few examples.

However hard my colleagues in the Philippines ‘encouraged’ me to try balut (a fertilized developing duck egg embryo), for me that was a step too far. Likewise on my first visit to China around 2005, I declined the ‘exotic’ dishes typical of Cantonese cuisine, becoming vegetarian for the duration of my visit to Guangzhou.

Let’s not even think about insects, especially large juicy grubs. Shivers.

As for very spicy food, I have my limits. So, much as I enjoy Mexican and Indian dishes, I much prefer a delicate blend of spices to the searing heat of chillies.

I’ve always enjoyed trying new fruits, although my favorites are apples and bananas, both of which I eat daily. Until I lived in the Philippines I’d never enjoyed mangoes. But the varieties widely available there are succulent and sweet. Fruits to die for!

But there is one fruit that I have tasted just the once. And once was almost one time too many. The durian! If you can get past the smell the flesh doesn’t actually taste too bad, but is rather rich. However, it was the after-effects. It certainly was the fruit that kept on giving, as I wrote in 2014.

So, provided with a different picky food list, I’m certain my score would be very high indeed.

I mentioned avocado earlier in this narrative. Until I moved to Lima, Peru in January 1973, I’d never tasted this particular food item. And my initial experience put me off it for decades to come. It wasn’t the avocado itself, but the chicken salad (or similar) stuffing of palta rellena that made me violently sick. Steph suffered exactly the same experience when she arrived in Lima some months later on, and for many, many years afterwards, neither of us could face tackling an avocado. However both of us are now enthusiastic avocado aficionados.

I can’t say I was particularly impressed when faced with ceviche for the first time, raw fish marinated in lime juice. It’s a very typical Peruvian dish. However, washed down with a pisco sour or two, what a delight it is.

So, if you ever come across one of those quizzes, try and put it in context, and think about all the cultural differences we experience with regard to what foods we consume – and enjoy.


 

Beach-combing along the Durham coast

When we lived in Bromsgrove (in north Worcestershire), we were about as far from the coast as it’s possible to be in England (if you discount stretches of the Severn Estuary).

In fact, the small community of Meriden (yellow icon on the map) near Coventry (just 19 miles north east of Bromsgrove) claimed for hundreds of years, to be the geographical center of England. However, when I did a search online, I came across this Ordnance Survey website. The center of England and Wales is, apparently, on a farm just outside Sutton Coldfield (green icon), about the same distance away from Bromsgrove as Meriden. Almost two years ago, Steph and I left Bromsgrove and moved to the eastern outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, and just over 5 miles (or 10 minutes) from the North Sea coast.

We love it up here in the northeast, and take every opportunity of exploring Northumberland and its glorious coastline. Northumberland boasts some of the best beaches in the country, although the sea is much too cold for the likes of me to even dip my toes.

We’ve spent less time south of the River Tyne, but have enjoyed the various visits we have made to the Magnesian limestone cliffs at Whitburn, Marsden Beach, and Souter lighthouse.

However, earlier in the week we headed a little further south, beyond Sunderland, to explore one of the beaches near Seaham on the Durham Heritage Coast (DHC).

The DHC  is a 20 mile stretch of coast from Sunderland south to Hartlepool having emerged from its industrial past to an area worthy of Heritage Coast status with one of the finest coastlines in England. Click on the map to enlarge. Here is a pamphlet.

Viewing the coast today it’s hard to believe that for decades it was heavily polluted, and almost all wildlife was wiped out. All along the coast there were coal mines, and the waste from the collieries was simply dumped over the cliffs (a continuation of the Magnesian limestone found north of the River Wear).

We headed for Nose’s Point and Blast Beach less than a mile south of Seaham harbor. This was the site of the former Dawdon Colliery. It was one of the most efficient and productive pits in the Durham coalfield. Indeed one of the most productive in the country. It finally closed in 1991.

Dawdon Colliery above Nose’s Point and Blast Beach, in 1934.

Blast Beach was once so polluted that it was used as a location for the opening sequences of the 1992 movie Alien 3. It looks very different today.

Blast Beach from Nose’s Point.

Nose’s Point from Blast Beach.

So what is its history? These sign boards tell something of the industrial story of the coast. Click on the image to enlarge.

The wildlife has returned, the sea water is clean, and this has been repeated all along the DHC.

And as much as we just enjoy being out and about, our visit to Blast Beach had a purpose. We came looking for ‘treasure’ – sea treasure. Sea glass, in fact. The beaches north and south of Seaham are world famous for the quantity and variety of sea glass that is washed up with almost every tide.

The northeast is famous for its glass-making industry, and has a long and illustrious history. Today the National Glass Centre is located in Sunderland.

The Londonderry Bottleworks were opened in 1853 on a site close to Seaham harbor, and remained in production until 1921. Vast quantities of waste glass were dumped in the sea close to the beach, and later on in deeper water. Over the decades this glass tumbled with the tides, becoming smooth pieces, almost jewel-like.

Let Paula Newman from Peblsrock in Seaham explain more about sea glass and its origin.

As it turned out, Blast Beach was not the best location to find sea glass, but wherever you are beach-combing for sea glass, it’s not so easy to spot the small fragments of glass among the shingle.

Here’s our small haul for about 90 minutes of combing as we strolled along the beach.

Eventually we reached Frenchman’s Cove towards the southern end of the beach, and made our way up the steep steps to the coastal path that encompasses the whole of the DHC.

Back at the car park, we had a picnic lunch overlooking the North Sea, and then marveled at the Dawdon fossil.

Hunting for sea glass is very compelling; it could almost become obsessive. So I’m sure that it won’t be too long before we find ourselves once again strolling along one of Seaham’s beaches, backs bent, peering at the shingle and hoping that the one piece of glass we hoped for was there at our feet.


 

One of the most beautiful places I have visited . . .

Recently, I was asked to choose one of the most beautiful places I have visited. Well beauty lies, as the saying goes, in the eyes of the beholder. What one person finds appealing leaves another cold.

However, to choose just one place, that really is a challenge. But I’m up for it!

I have visited more than 60 countries, and whenever possible, took a day or so from my busy schedules (mainly at weekends) for some sightseeing. So there are many candidates to choose from.

I lived abroad for almost 28 years, in Peru and Costa Rica between 1973 and 1981, and in the Philippines from 1991 to 2010. Our elder daughter lives in the USA (in Minnesota) and Steph and I have visited each year since 2010 and traveled extensively across that vast country. Until Covid put paid to our plans, that is.

In the Americas, I could choose Crater Lake in Oregon, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley in Arizona, or the giant redwoods of northern California. Not to mention the many spectacular rivers we have crossed or the mountains like the Tetons and Appalachians we have traveled along.

In Central America, we visited the Aztec temples north of Mexico City, the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, and the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. In Peru, there’s the awe-inspiring Machu Pichu, and well as the beauty of the Andes mountains.

In Europe, I fulfilled a life-long ambition to see the Matterhorn, and almost anywhere you travel in Switzerland is chocolate box beauty.

My travels in Africa have taken me to Ethiopia and Kenya in the east, and the magnificent Rift Valley, and to regularly to Nigeria and Ivory Coast in the west.

Water buffalo in the Nairobi National Park, Kenya

Traveling around Asia, I spent many happy times in Laos, and on one occasion Steph and I managed to snatch a weekend away in the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, and take a trip up the Mekong River. In Cambodia, we’ll never forget our visit to Angkor Wat, while the beauty of the Bali landscape and beaches is firmly embedded in my mind. In the Philippines, we visited the coast at Anilao as frequently as possible, about nine visits a year, where Steph would snorkel and I would scuba dive over some of the most diverse coral reefs in the world. And again, there’s the wonder of the rice terraces in the mountains.

Heading further south, our travels have taken us on several occasions to Australia and one memorable road trip of 1000 miles from Sydney to Melbourne taking in the spectacular coastline.

Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria, Australia

And not to miss out on locations closer to home such as the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, or the landscapes and beaches along the Northumberland coast where we now live.

But how can I distill all these experiences down to just a single choice? It’s very hard indeed. But in doing so, and I will reveal my choice shortly, I have also taken into consideration not only its intrinsic beauty, but the location, history, and emotions it stirred. And when I combine all these elements, I have chosen the one place (not yet mentioned) I would return to tomorrow, given half the chance.

And where is this particular jewel? Canyon de Chelly National Monument (pronounced Canyon de Shay), in northeast Arizona. Just zoom out on the map below to reveal its location.

It’s certainly not on the same scale as its ‘near’ neighbor the Grand Canyon. But there’s something about Canyon de Chelly that really caught my imagination. And Steph and I have the good fortune to visit there in May 2011.

So how did I come to learn about Canyon de Chelly? It’s not a name that rolls off the tongue.

Well, in early 2011 I came across a book in the public library in Bromsgrove (in Worcestershire where I used to live) about US army officer, Indian fighter, explorer and adventurer, Colonel Christopher Houston ‘Kit’ Carson (1809-1868). Kit Carson was a western ‘hero’ of my boyhood, a figure in popular western culture and myth.

In 1863, he led an expedition into Canyon de Chelly to vanquish the resident Navajo tribe, killing more than 20 persons, stealing 200 or more sheep, destroying their homes (known as hogans) and their precious peach orchards. Not something to be proud of or remembered for as a hero. Anyway, this biography of Carson had me intrigued, and as I began to plan our road trip to the American Southwest for May, I decided to see if it would be possible to include Canyon de Chelly in the itinerary. It fitted in just right.

Landing in Phoenix, we headed north through Sedona Valley to Flagstaff, and on to the Grand Canyon the next day via Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. After a couple of nights at the Grand Canyon, we headed east to Chinle (the nearest town to Canyon de Chelly) via Monument Valley.


The Canyon de Chelly National Monument actually comprises three interconnected canyons: Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument. It was designated a national monument in 1931. It’s the ancestral home of the Navajo, but throughout there are the relics of Ancestral Pueblans or Anasazi built into the cliff faces.

Access to the floor of the canyon is limited, with just one trail—to the White House—open to the public (although currently closed due to safety and ‘law enforcement’ issues). Otherwise, visitors must take one of the guided tours to travel along the canyons.

However, there are rim drives on the north and south sides of the canyon, with several overlooks providing spectacular (awe-inspiring even) views. Steph and I set out early from our motel, before the day became too hot, to explore as much as possible along both rim drives.

The approach to Canyon de Chelly from Chinle is not particularly impressive. In the canyon bottom there are groves are cottonwoods springing up beside the creeks that run through.

But it’s not until you begin to climb further along the rim drives that the true nature of Canyon de Chelly reveals itself, with sheer sandstone cliffs rising from the canyon floor.

In places these cliffs are 700 feet or more high.

Among the impressive Ancient Pueblan ruins are Mummy Cave and Antelope House (seen from the north rim drive), and the White House from the south.

Mummy Cave

Antelope House

White House

There is also a cave, fairly close to the rim on the north side known as Massacre Cave where, in 1825, the Navajo were slaughtered by invading Spanish troops.

Massacre Cave

The drive along the south rim eventually brings you to the Spider Rock overlook. Spider Rock is a free-standing sandstone pillar, over 700 feet tall, named after Spider Woman, a prominent character in Navajo lore.

Spider Rock, with the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona-New Mexico border on the horizon.

There were few people visiting at the same time as us, and it felt as though we had the whole canyon to ourselves. While we didn’t descend to the canyon floor, the overlook points along both the north and south rim drives provide excellent visual access to the canyon from above.

Spider Rock overlook

Now I’d like to return, taking several days to really explore, understand better the Navajo relationship with Canyon de Chelly, how they came to occupy it, and how their agriculture has evolved over the centuries. In fact, I’d like to understand more about the evolution of human societies in the American southwest.

The grave of Col. ‘Kit’ Carson in Taos cemetery, New Mexico.

Canyon de Chelly has featured in at least 26 movies or TV specials, among the most notable being The Lone Ranger (2013) with Johnny Depp, Wild Wild West (1999) with Will Smith, Kenneth Branagh, and Kevin Kline, Mackenna’s Gold (1969) with Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif, How The West Was Won (1962) with a host of ‘Western’ stars, and The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Charlton Heston.

Heading east from Arizona, we found ourselves in Taos in northern New Mexico where I visited the grave of Kit Carson.

If you ever find yourself on the border of Arizona and New Mexico, make a beeline for Canyon de Chelly. You won’t regret it.