But Steph and I do enjoy exploring many of the fine—awesome even—churches, abbeys, and priories that were constructed centuries ago by Christian communities to reflect ‘the glory of their omnipotent God’.
On the map below I have marked those we have visited over the years. Each icon is accompanied by several photos, and links to websites, my own blog posts and/or photo albums, where you will find much more information.
Ruins have a blue marker; churches that are still open have a purple one. Cathedrals are marked dark red for those we’ve actually been inside, whereas those viewed from a distance are marked yellow. One 16th century religious curiosity, Rushton Triangular Lodge, has a black icon.
There are also three pagan sites on the map that pre-date Christianity by centuries if not millennia, shown with green icons.
Most of the monasteries and priories were founded by the Cistercians, the Benedictines, and Augustinians among others in the immediate centuries following the Norman invasion of England in 1066.
During the Dissolution of the Monasteries enacted by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541 many of these communities were disbanded and their assets claimed by the Crown or handed willy-nilly to allies of the King. We only see their ruins today, some more intact than others, but all leaving an impression of what they must have looked like in their heyday.
Fortunately many of the great cathedrals still stand proudly. It never ceases to amaze me—inspire even—just what it took to build these impressive edifices, up to a thousand years ago. Take late 12th century Wells Cathedral, for example.
Some are more recent. For example, St Paul’s (below) in London was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century after the Great Fire of September 1666 had destroyed the original church. It survived the London Blitz during World War II.
In Liverpool, there are two 20th century cathedrals: Anglican and Catholic. The former took 74 years to complete between 1904 and 1978. The latter, a very modern design, opened in 1967 after six years. Another recent cathedral is Coventry (designed by Sir Basil Spence), which opened in 1962 and stands beside the bombed-out ruins of the original cathedral.
Since we became members of the National Trust and English Heritage in 2011, we have visited many of the ruined abbeys and priories under their care. Here in the northeast of England where we now live, there are many ruined abbeys and priories, as well as several early Anglo-Saxon chapels still in use. After all, the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria was a cradle of Christianity in these islands.
Since there is so much more information in the map links, let me just focus on one ruined abbey and two churches that have particularly caught my attention.
Standing beneath a steep slope in a secluded valley of the River Rye in the North York Moors, Rievaulx Abbey is surely one of the best. It is managed today by English Heritage.
The south face of the Refectory
The Day Room
The South Transept from the southeast
The North and South Transepts either side of the Crossing from the Nave
Tiers of gothic windows
Flying buttresses on the north side
View of the Abbey from Rievaulx Terrace
View of the Abbey from Rievaulx Terrace
It was the first Cistercian abbey founded in this country in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey in northeast France. It was closed during the Dissolution in 1538.
What an impressive building, made even more so by its location. From Rievaulx Terrace above, you can get a bird’s-eye view of the whole site.
In the heart of the Gloucestershire countryside in the village of Kempley, the little Church of St Mary’s is an absolute jewel. Built in the late 12th century, it has some of the most exquisite Romanesque fresco paintings. It really is remarkable that they have survived all these centuries given the vandalism that occured during Henry VIII’s reign and afterwards. We visited in May 2015, and I had intended to return one day, but now that we are based in the northeast, that seems less likely. Nevertheless, this small church has left me a lasting impression. It is certainly worth a detour if you are ever in the vicinity.
The north wall with its paintings of the Wheel of Life, and those of St Anthony of Egypt and St Michael and the Virgin, either side of window.
Completed in 1735, it was originally quite plain inside. However, in 1747, it underwent a remarkable transformation when the owner of Witley Court, the 2nd Baron Foley acquired furnishings, paintings, and stained glass windows from Cannons House that was demolished by the 2nd Duke of Chandos and its contents sold. You can read more about the church’s history here.
Well, those are my three choices. Take a look at the map and see if you agree. They are all special in so many ways. And I always come away with my spirits uplifted, but without religious experience per se.
The weather has been none too kind in recent weeks here in the northeast of England. And there hasn’t been much incentive for getting out and about. On top of that, I’m suffering from a very painful bout of sciatica that is severely restricting my mobility. At least until the pain medication I was prescribed has kicked in.
A couple of days ago, the day dawned bright and sunny, although none too warm. But, for once, my medication did its job quite quickly, which has not been my general experience. So we decided to head up the coast to one of our favorite beaches at Cresswell, and one of the first we explored after we arrived here in the northeast at the back end of 2020.
Cresswell beach in November 2020.
Just 17 miles north from our home in North Tyneside, the drive to Cresswell Beach took just under half an hour.
The beach lies at the southern end of the much larger Druridge Bay, with rocky outcrops at the northern and southern ends, just under a mile apart. Above the tide line there is a stretch of soft sand, and behind the beach a low-lying cliff, perhaps 10m high, with interesting limestone and coal strata exposed.
On the occasions we have visited, there have been just a few people taking a stroll, walking the dog. But I guess in high summer it can get quite busy on a sunny, warm day, as there is a holiday park (with static caravans) just across the road from the beach.
Here’s another view, filmed from the rocks at the southern end (you can see the nearby Lynemouth power station just south of the beach, and in the far distance the five turbine wind farm off Seaton Sluice beach) and panning round to view Druridge Bay to the north.
Behind the rock platform at the southern end, it appears that the cliff was once excavated (behind Steph in the image below) and perhaps accessible at high tide as a small quay.
While there is a lovely stretch of clear, yellow sand along the beach, at both ends of the beach there are patches of what appear to be—at first glance—black sand. On closer inspection, it’s clear that the black grains are not sand but COAL!
This coal, derived from erosion of the coals seems on the beach and out to sea, is actually collected. There are larger pieces the size of small gravel.
In fact, while we were there on an earlier visit, one man had driven on to the north end of the beach on his quad bike, scooping up bucketfuls of the coal.
At the southern end, near the ‘quay’ I asked one ‘coalman’ what he used the coal for. He told me that he heated his shed and greenhouse since it was a free and plentiful source.
Sea coaling at Lynemouth, south of Cresswell.
It seems there is quite a long traditionof collecting sea coal on the Northumberland coast.
Coal is abundant along the coast. Just a mile or two north from Cresswell, the government eventually rejected the development of a large open cast mine behind Druridge Bay, where coal had been mined in the past. In fact several important wildlife reserves have been opened on former open cast sites.
And while doing some background reading for this blog, I came across this other blog.
Just click on the image above to open an interesting post about a feature on Cresswell beach, just north of where we visited. There’s a submerged forest and tree stumps are exposed at low tide.
Now that’s a good enough reason to return to Cresswell before too long.
And while our visit to Cresswell was not primarily for bird-watching, we were very lucky in some of our sightings. Skimming along the cliffs and beach, sand martins were very active, and nesting. Along with five fulmars sitting on a ledge and squabbling. A lone curlew hugged the crest of the waves as it flew down the beach, and out to sea we saw a lone eider duck. Pied wagtails were flitting around the beach.
But the greatest surprise, while we were enjoying a picnic lunch overlooking the beach, was a lone male stonechat that alighted on a bush on the cliff edge just in front of us and in full sunlight. What a magnificent little bird it is.
By November 2019, Steph and I finally decided to up sticks and move to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, to be closer to our younger daughter and her family. Our elder daughter and family live in Minnesota, but a move to the USA was never on the cards.
We didn’t actually make the move until 30 September 2020 – right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic!
Locking up and moving out!
We were living in Bromsgrove, a small market town (population in 2001 of just over 29,000), in northeast Worcestershire, and about 13 miles south of Birmingham in the West Midlands.
We originally settled in Bromsgrove in July 1981 after returning from South America, when I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology. Then, in 1991, I took up a position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a renowned international agricultural research center in Los Baños, about 68 km south of Manila, staying there almost 19 years until retirement beckoned in April 2010.
Do we miss Worcestershire? In some ways. It is a lovely county, and within a 50 mile radius of Bromsgrove there are many attractions, into Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Shropshire.
Since 2011 we have been keen members of the National Trust (NT) and English Heritage (EH). Just check out the list of places (and maps) we have visited over the past decade or more.
There are fewer NT and EH properties here in the northeast, but the region has so much to offer with possibly some of the most spectacular landscapes in the country: coast, river valleys, moorlands, mountains, and a huge dose of history, especially the history and remains of the Roman occupation almost 2000 years ago.
March 2021 saw us move into our new home in Backworth, North Tyneside, and 15 minutes on the Metro from Newcastle city center. We are also just 10 minutes’ drive from the North Sea coast. The Tyne and Wear area (comprising the five metropolitan boroughs of Newcastle, North Tyneside, Gateshead, South Tyneside, and Sunderland) as well as the surrounding counties of Northumberland and Co Durham (even as far south as North Yorkshire) have so much to offer.
And since our move here in 2020, we have been out and about exploring our new home whenever the weather permits.
On this map I’ve marked all the places we have visited over the past 30 months. NT and EH properties have a dark red icon, coast and landscapes are green, other attractions are purple, and other historic sites are marked with a yellow icon. I’ve included photographs, and there are links to my blog posts and other websites where you can find more information about this wonderful corner of England.
So far, Steph and I have managed to avoid COVID-19. We still mask when we shop at the supermarket, when we travel on the Metro here in Newcastle upon Tyne, or anywhere we might be in close proximity with others. Mostly we are the only ones wearing masks.
And while most people feel that the pandemic is over and done with, latest data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics indicate that the virus is, once again, on the increase.
About 1 in 40 of England’s population (2.66%) tested positive at the end of March. COVID-19 has certainly not gone away, and given some of the horror stories circulating about the effects of long-COVID, it’s better to avoid infection if at all possible. Or at least reduce the risk of infection. That’s why we continue to mask.
And while we have been COVID-free, it has affected our nearest and dearest. Both our daughters and their families were struck down on a couple of occasions, even though everyone had been vaccinated.
As for Steph and me, we received our initial vaccinations in February and April 2021, with boosters in October that year, and in September a year later.
At New Year 2020, who would have envisioned that we were on the verge of a global pandemic. It was only on 31 December that the World Health Organization (WHO) was informed of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. A novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) was subsequently identified from patient samples.
Less than a month later, two Chinese nationals staying at a hotel in York tested positive for coronavirus. It was downhill thereafter, with the first lockdown coming into force on 26 March 2020. Other lockdowns followed. The Institute for Government has published an interesting timeline of the various government measures taken over the subsequent year here in the UK.
Daily life for everyone changed overnight. Although with hindsight, we now know that not all the rules that governed the lives of millions throughout the country were followed by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and 10 Downing Street staff!
Boris Johnson partying with Downing Street staff.
So, in retrospect, how has the COVID pandemic affected us?
Surprisingly little, if I’m honest. Despite all the inconveniences to daily life, the past three years have flown by. We’ve been rather busy. We kept to ourselves.
Another type of Corona . . .
Fortunately, we prefer the quiet life and since we don’t go pubbing, clubbing, or eating out regularly, we didn’t miss those during the lockdowns. And since the rules permitted exercise outdoors with one person in the same family bubble, we continued to enjoy the outdoors, with Steph joining me on my daily walks around Bromsgrove in Worcestershire where we were living at the time, weather permitting.
And once the National Trust started to open up once again, we seized the opportunity and headed off, on a glorious afternoon, to Dudmaston Hall in Shropshire, and several other properties close by before the end of September.
At Dudmaston Hall on 24 June 2020.
The first impacts of lockdown back in 2020 seem almost a lifetime ago. Deserted streets, and long queues at the supermarkets and shortages (caused primarily by panic buying in the first instance) of some food items and other basics like hand sanitizer and toilet rolls, until the inevitable rationing that was brought in.
Our nearest supermarket, Morrisons, was just 5 minutes or 1.6 miles away by car. Being the driver, the weekly shop fell to me since the supermarkets were only permitting entry to one person per household. I also took on the weekly shop for a widower friend and former University of Birmingham colleague, Jim Croft (a few years older than me) who lived close by. In fact I continued to shop for Jim right up till the day we moved north to Newcastle.
And talking of moving, by November 2019 (during a visit to our younger daughter Philippa and her family in Newcastle upon Tyne) we had bitten the bullet and decided we’d put our Bromsgrove house on the market, and make the move north.
Having appointed an estate agency (realtor) to handle the sale of our house, we waited until the New Year for the first adverts to be placed in the local press. Come mid-January 2020, a For Sale board had been firmly planted in our front garden, and we sat back waiting for a surge of prospective buyers. To our surprise—and disappointment, given the location of our house (proximity to excellent First and Middle schools, close to Bromsgrove town center, nearby dental and medical practices, and an upgraded commuter rail service into the center of Birmingham) we expected there would be more interest than we actually experienced.
By the end of March when the first lockdown came into effect, we’d received fewer than ten viewings. Even under lockdown, the government rules permitted house viewings to continue, as long as they were managed safely (social distancing, hand sanitation, and the like; we were always away from the house in any case during the viewings that were managed by the estate agent).
However, we decided not to accept any more viewings until the rules had been relaxed. Except for one, that had been pencilled in for a week hence. After that, we sat back, wondering when we would finally be able to make the move to Newcastle. We had already decided to rent a house there in the first instance, and use it as a base to look for a new home. But until we had sold our house, it was impossible to make any progress on finding a suitable rental property.
Come the lifting of the lockdown at the end of May, almost immediately we received a request for a second viewing from that last couple. And after a little negotiation, they made an offer which was acceptable. Less than the house had been advertised for (which I never expected to get) but considerably higher than a couple of offers we did receive earlier on, or how other estate agents had valued the house. Happy times! Or at least I thought so.
But anyone who has struggled through a house sale (and purchase) will know and understand the considerable angst that the whole conveyancing process can bring. We were at the top of a chain, since we had no purchase waiting to be completed. There was one solicitor two links below in the chain of four who made life miserable for everyone. By the end of September, however, we had all exchanged contracts and completed the sale on the 30th. And moved out that same day. We had used the intervening months to pack many of our belongings and upcycled many items that we no longer wanted to hold on to.
Fortunately I had identified a nice three-bedroom house east of Newcastle in the Shiremoor district of North Tyneside, and just 10 minutes from the North Sea coast. Offering to pay six months rent up front, I had secured a ‘reservation’ on the property at the beginning of September, not knowing exactly when we would be able to move. We moved in on 1 October.
The removal van arrived at 1 pm and was on its way south once again by 4 pm.
Within a fortnight of landing in Newcastle, we had already made an offer on a four bedroom, and two-year-old house, about a mile from where we were living at the time. It should have been the simplest sale/purchase but once again the solicitors made a meal of the process. However, the purchase was completed on 13 February 2021 and we moved on 6 March.
Moving out of Cloverfield
Moving into our new home
But because of repeated lockdowns, and the rules around meeting other family members and the like, we saw very little of our younger daughter and her family for the next 12 months. Christmas morning 2020 was enjoyed outside in a socially-distanced garden, followed by a solitary lunch for Steph and me.
Unfortunately COVID also put paid to family Christmases in 2021 and 2022.
There hasn’t been a day since that we have regretted the move north. Northumberland is an awe-inspiring county. Our home is only 10 minutes from the North Sea coast. There are miles and miles of paths and bridleways (known locally as ‘waggonways’) on the sites of old mine workings and rail lines. So even just after we moved here, and given the right weather, we have headed out into the countryside, enjoying what we like best: visiting National Trust and English Heritage properties (of which there are quite a few up here with magnificent gardens and walks), and enjoying the fresh air, socially-distanced of course. Just type Northumberland in the search box or open my National Trust and English Heritage page (organized by regions) and you’ll discover for yourselves some of the magical places we have visited over the past two and a half years. Here is just a soupçon of some of those around the northeast.
Seaton Sluice harbor
The beach at Seaton Sluice
National Trust Seaton Delaval Hall
National Trust Dunstanburgh Castle
English Heritage Warkworth Castle in April
National Trust Cragside
The garden at Cragside
Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall
The Whin Sill along Hadrian’s Wall
Underfloor heating at Chester’s Roman Fort (English Heritage)
The River North Tyne at Chester’s Roman Fort
Crossing the River Tyne at Ovingham
National Trust Thomas Bewick’s home at Cherryburn
National Trust Allen Banks
Whitburn close south of the River Tyne
Marsden Cliffs south of the River Tyne
National Trust Souter Lighthouse
The Millennium Bridge in Newcastle
The Tyne Bridge, Newcastle
Grey’s Monument, Newcastle city center
Grain stores at Corbridge Roman Town, National Trust
Corbridge Roman town,
Elsdon castle – 11th century motte and bailey
St Mary’s Lighthouse
Bolam Lake Country Park
English Heritage Belsay Hall
Quarry garden at Belsay Hall
Christmas at Wallington National Trust
National Trust Wallington central atrium
Prudhoe castle from the pele yard, English Heritage
Chew Green, Upper Coquetdale
The cascade at the Alnwick Garden
Cherry blossom at the Alnwick Garden
Looking over Coquetdale
The River Tyne at Ovingham
At this time last year, we spent a week in the south of England—staying at a cottage in the New Forest—and visiting more than a dozen National Trust and English Heritage properties, our first proper holiday since the beginning of the pandemic.
We haven’t traveled to the USA since September 2019, but we are gearing up for a visit come the end of May this year.
COVID restrictions for international travel were lifted sufficiently by July/August 2022 for Hannah and family to fly over from Minnesota, and at last (and for the first time since 2016) we had a family get-together with our two daughters, Hannah and Philippa, husbands Michael and Andi, and grandchildren Callum, Zoë, Elvis, and Felix.
Yesterday, Steph and I took full advantage of our concessionary travel cards to make a round trip by bus to the ferry terminal at North Shields, crossing the River Tyne by ferry to South Shields, and returning home by the metro to our closest station at Northumberland Park.
Our travel concession permits unlimited bus travel after 09:30 each day (nationwide in fact), and with an additional Gold Card payment each of £12, unlimited travel on the local ferry and Metro as well.
The Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive, branded as NEXUS, manages an integrated transport system in the northeast of the UK around Newcastle upon Tyne.
NEXUS brings together the bus, ferry, and Metro services across the five metropolitan boroughs of North Tyneside (where we live) and Newcastle upon Tyne north of the River Tyne, and Gateshead, South Tyneside, and Sunderland south of the river, that together once constituted the metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear.
So, with that in mind, we planned our excursion that would use all three of these services to get around.
Our journey started at 10:25 from a bus stop less than a couple of hundred meters from home. The No 19 service was supposed to operate every hour, although there was some confusion yesterday since a new operator had just taken over the route, and some services did not show up. Ours was about five minutes late, and the journey to the ferry took about 35 minutes.
The journey was quite interesting since it took us through areas of North Tyneside (south of where we live) that we have never explored. It was a little bit longer than we anticipated, since we did not recognise the ferry bus stop, and so stayed on board while the bus completed its route around North Shields before returning to the ferry stop.
We just missed the 11 am ferry to South Shields. But that didn’t matter. Although quite cold (just 2-3°C), it was a bright and sunny day, so we enjoyed exploring the ferry quay and reading about its history before our ferry, Spirit of the Tyne docked around 11:20.
The trip across the Tyne takes about seven minutes, with interesting views along each bank where heavy industries like ship building once thrived. Nowadays some of the land has been converted to choice waterside apartment buildings, although further up river there is an active Port of Tyne, and quays for the ferry service to Amsterdam and where cruise ships also dock. In port yesterday was the Fred Olsen Bolette, preparing for a cruise to Iceland later that same evening.
The ferry quay on the South Shields side is just a stone’s throw from the town center.
We didn’t actually have any plan at all yesterday, apart from making the round trip. But as soon as we had landed in South Shields we discovered that the remains of an important Roman fort (which I had read about but totally forgotten) were less than a mile away. So we headed through the town center to reach Arbeia, on a plot of land known as The Lawes high above the town.
And we were in luck as yesterday was the first day of opening this year. Entrance was free.
Founded around AD 160, Arbeia was a key garrison and military supply base to support the troops who constructed and afterwards manned Hadrian’s Wall further west. The remains of numerous granaries (there were, at one time, up to 24 of these store houses) can be clearly seen from the ramparts of the reconstructed West Gatehouse.
In addition to the gatehouse, there is a reconstructed barracks showing what life might have been like for Roman and auxiliary soldiers all those centuries ago.
The first archaeological investigation of Arbeia began in 1870. More photos of the site and inside the reconstructed buildings (with explanations) can be viewed here.
After a quick picnic lunch, we had a look round the museum, before heading to view the mouth of the River Tyne and across the river to Tynemouth and its priory.
By about 14:00 we had arrived back at South Shields’ new Metro station at the Interchange Square, where we took the metro back home.
South Shields is the end of the line, and just as we stepped on to the platform, the next train was pulling into the station.
Trains from South Shields (yellow line) head into Newcastle city center, before turning east to Whitley Bay and Tynemouth on the North Sea coast and looping back to the St James terminus.
Our stop, Northumberland Park, was 24 stops, and almost 50 minutes. Sitting in a stuffy Metro carriage, surrounded (for part of the journey from South Shields to Jarrow) by a class of high spirited and noisy schoolchildren who we’d seen at Arbeia) was a bit trying, but crossing the River Tyne between Gateshead and Central Station (where the line goes underground for a few stops) and seeing all the bridges downriver always lifts one’s spirits.
About 15 minutes later we pulled into Northumberland Park, and the train headed off on its continuing journey to the coast.
Then it was a short 10 minute walk home, relief at being able to put my feet up (we’d walked about 4½ miles), and enjoy a welcome afternoon cup of tea. All in all, a good day’s excursion.
I always said I’d never buy a house near running water. But that is precisely what we did in February 2021.
The Brierdene Burn is a small stream in North Tyneside, just over 4 miles long (and a catchment of around 3¾ square miles) that flows in a deep ditch close by my house. Fortunately, the ditch is full of plants, and these slow the flow of water considerably. Even during periods of very heavy rain that we experienced recently, the flow didn’t increase appreciably.
That’s because the length of the Burn from its source west of the A19 trunk road (in a field at the top of a slope) to here is less than half a mile, if that.
As near as I can be certain, its actual source is close by the tree in the top image below. In the lower image, the housing development where I live can be seen on the east side of the A19, perhaps only a quarter of a mile away.
From here it meanders eastwards under the A19, through the lower section of Backworth and onwards until it meets the North Sea at Whitley Bay.
The Brierdene Burn meets the North Sea at Whitley Bay.
Just beyond our housing there is an overflow pool, where the Brierdene Burn is joined by a southern, shorter tributary.
Now I’m not sure if this pool was constructed when the houses were built to reduce the risk of flooding, or whether it’s a natural, ‘ancient’ feature in the landscape. The whole area was once covered in coal mines, and maybe the pool was dug when the mines were opened to reduce flooding. I just don’t know.
I often follow the Brierdene Burn and past the pool on many of my daily walks. They are havens for biodiversity, a changing flora throughout the year, and so many different birds. I haven’t seen any mammals in the pool, although I’ve heard reports of otters. I have seen roe deer a little further east.
The Burn flows under Station Road, where common reeds (Phragmites spp.) flourish.
The Brierdene Burn as it emerges from the overflow pool and just before it disappears under Station Road.
Common reed bed.
And in the Spring, the Burn is an excellent habitat for marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris L.) and yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus L.).
Marsh marigolds in Spring, and emerging yellow flag.
And just yesterday, there were the first signs of Spring, with these hazel catkins shaking in the breeze.
A year ago I decided to take photos of the overflow pool every week from two different locations, and make them into these two timelapse videos.
From the dark dismal days of January to the height of midsummer, there is a succession of different species, with a ring of bulrushes (Typha spp., right below) around the perimeter of the pool developing throughout the year and flowering around August, a flush of bedstraws (Galium spp., left below) in June/July, followed by the purple common knapweed (Centaurea nigra L., middle below).
These are some of the birds¹ which I regularly see around the pool all year round.
In summer there are some delightful visitors to the pool, and the occasional species that pass through like the little egret and Canada goose.
And on the fields along the Burn on the west side, several other species including winter visitors like the redwing, fieldfare, and golden plover, as well as many of those I see beside the pool.
Just the other day, I stopped to take this photo, looking east from Hotspur North towards the pool. And disappointed that folks had decided to drop litter instead of taking it home (an issue I commented on not long after we moved to North Tyneside).
Anyway, just as I took the photo, a small bird flew into a gorse bush beside me. My first reaction was a wren. But to my surprise and delight it was a goldcrest (below), Britain’s smallest bird. I’ve only seen a goldcrest once before and then not very clearly. This one stayed there for almost five minutes, hopping through the branches, and giving me a spectacular view.
There’s always some new delight to inspire me around here. I certainly look forward to exploring more of this fascinating landscape that has come to life 40 years after the coal mines were closed.
Steph and I joined the National Trust in February 2011, and have now visited more than 130 of its properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as four in Scotland (where Trust members receive reciprocal benefits from the National Trust for Scotland).
I should add we’re also members of English Heritage, but have visited far fewer of its properties.
We’ve certainly had full value from our National Trust joint senior membership over the past decade. We appreciate how visitor policies have developed and adapted to changing expectations over that period, making its properties—and the stories they have to tell—so much more accessible. Its policy on photography (subject to any copyright restrictions) has been relaxed, so that enthusiasts like me can record our visits (no flash!) and then blog about them afterwards.
Here in the northeast of England (where we moved in October 2020), there are fewer Trust properties than in the Midlands (in north Worcestershire) where we lived for many years, and which was a great base for heading out in all directions to explore the National Trust landscape.
Unsurprisingly, the property we have visited most is Hanbury Hall, on our doorstep, near Bromsgrove.
On our last visit to Hanbury Hall in early September 2020, less than a month before we moved to the northeast.
Hanbury Hall was also the first Trust property we visited in February 2011 just after becoming members. We enjoyed all our visits there, most often to take a walk in the extensive park, see how its magnificent parterre changed through the seasons, and occasionally take a glimpse inside the house.
I could write a whole blog just about Hanbury Hall’s parterre.
At this time of the year, however, Hanbury Hall like many National Trust properties have introduced their winter opening schedules, or indeed closing over the next couple of months or so, just opening for special occasions. For many of the properties, Christmas is one those.
And from what we have experienced over the past decade of Christmas visits, the staff and volunteers at the houses really make a great effort to embody the spirit of Christmas.
So as we creep inexorably towards Christmas 2022, here are a few reminiscences of the Christmas visits we have enjoyed since 2013. Sometimes there is a theme for the Christmas display, in others, houses are ‘dressed’ as they might have been when under family ownership. And it’s not hard to imagine just how full of the joys of Christmas many of these properties must have been, children running excitedly about (they had the space!), while parents entertained their guests, all the while looked after by a bevy of household staff. How the other half lived!
Whatever the perspective, grand or modest, these Christmas visits (or just after) are indeed something to nurture the spirit of the season.
In 2020, many houses were still closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic although we had been to Cragside in October and toured the house.
On 14 December visited Wallington in Northumberland. The house was closed, but we enjoyed a coffee outside in the courtyard, and an invigorating walk around the garden and park (although parts were closed due to the tree damage caused by Storm Arwen that hit the northeast at the end of November).
Just over a month ago, Steph and I took the Metro to Cullercoats, a small community between Whitley Bay and Tynemouth on the North Sea coast, just a few miles from home. Our intention was to walk along the beach and coastal path from Cullercoats to Tynemouth, no more than a couple of miles. While we followed much of the coastal path, it’s not possible to show the actual detailed route we took across the beaches on the map below.
Just after we’d climbed out of Cullercoats Bay, and were looking south over Long Sands Beach, I had to pinch myself once again being so lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country. And with the coast just a few minutes from home.
Looking south towards Tynemouth at Long Sands Beach.
Anyway, back to the beginning of the walk. The Metro ride to Cullercoats took around 10 minutes (just five stops) from our ‘home’ station, Northumberland Park.
To fortify ourselves for the walk ahead, we stopped for a welcome cup of coffee at the Cullercoats Coffee Co., on the corner of Station Road and John St., and only a couple of hundred meters from the Metro station.
It must have been around 10 am, and we were surprised to find the coffee shop heaving with customers, with just one table for two empty on the kerbside. Luckily it was a bright and sunny day, and still quite warm for mid-October.
Cullercoats is a sandy bay enclosed by two piers. It once had a thriving fishing industry, and hosted an artists’ colony in the 19th century, with local fisher-folk often featuring in the paintings.
At low tide (when we visited) there are long stretches of exposed rocks and pools on either side of the bay entrance.
At the base of the yellow sandstone cliffs behind the beach are several caves, known locally as the Fairies Caves. We didn’t venture inside but having now read a little more about them, that’s something we will do next time we visit.
And as we climbed over the headland at the south side of the bay we got our first view of Long Sands Beach, and St. George’s Anglican church on Grand Parade.
At the south end of the beach is Tynemouth Outdoor Pool, just below Sharpness Point. It has been abandoned since the 1990s. But in its heyday, it was a popular attraction for families enjoying their summer holidays on this beautiful northeast coast.
Source: Newcastle Chronicle
In Tynemouth, the Grand Hotel stands on Grand Parade above the Pool, overlooking Long Sands Beach.
Built in 1872, there have been numerous famous visitors, among them comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Stan Laurel lived in North Shields between 1897 and 1902 and attended the King’s School in Tynemouth.
In 1854, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi is believed to have stayed in a house that is now part of the King’s School. At least there’s a blue plaque to that effect. The school opened its doors in 1860.
The next bay south, below Tynemouth Priory and Castle (owned by English Heritage) is King Edward’s Bay, just a short walk from the town’s main street, Front Street.
King Edward’s Bay – with the breakwaters at the entrance to the River Tyne visible just beyond the headland.
We headed along Front Street towards Tynemouth Metro station. Since we moved up here two years ago, I’ve seen ‘Front Street’ in many towns and villages. I guess this must be the northeast equivalent of ‘High Street’ further south.
Front Street in Tynemouth is a wonderfully broad street, and although it’s now overburdened (in my opinion) with eating and drinking establishments, it’s not hard to imagine it during its Georgian or Victorian heydays.
Front St from Tynemouth Castle
There’s even a Back Front Street!
Tynemouth’s Metro station is an iron and glass architectural masterpiece, which opened on 7 July 1882 as part of the North East Railway. It’s now a Grade II listed building.
On weekdays, Metro trains run every 12 minutes, so we were home before too long.
And that’s what so nice about living where we do. So many attractions and walks within short distances, and which we can (being retired) drop everything and take time out to enjoy.
You may be wondering about the title reference to ‘lonesome pines’. It’s all to do with Laurel and Hardy.
I couldn’t agree more. Take a piece of distinct Bristol blue glass, or an 18th century air twist glass, for example. Glass is such a beautiful medium—organic even—that when cold and solid seems to retain a fluidity only achieved at high temperature.
I enjoy a wee dram of whisky from time to time. There’s nothing quite like drinking whisky from a finely-cut crystal glass. Taste and touch combining to enhance the overall sensory experience.
If I ever tune into Antiques Roadshow on BBC1, it’s with the hope that glassware expert Andy McConnell (right) might be on the show, and has found an interesting piece of glassware. His enthusiasm for all glass is infectious.
I lived in the West Midlands until two years ago, and knew that Stourbridge was one of the country’s most important glass making centers for centuries. It wasn’t until we moved to the northeast that I discovered just how important the glass industry was in this region since Anglo-Saxon times.
Last Friday, we decided to find out a lot more about glass making and visited the National Glass Centre (NGC), that was opened in October 1998 on the University of Sunderland’s Sir Tom Cowie campus at St Peter’s, on the banks of the River Wear opposite the Port of Sunderland.
So why did Sunderland become such an important center for glass making?
Well, you have to go back to AD 674 when Bishop Benedict Biscop sought help from craftsmen in Gaul to make windows for his newly-founded monastery, the remains of which are still seen in St Peter’s Church (with its original Anglo-Saxon tower) near the NGC. This was where one of Britain’s most famous scholars, the Venerable Bede, grew up.
Between AD 800 or so and 1615, glass making had all but ceased in the northeast. Then King James I banned the use of wood as a fuel for glass production. Given the plentiful supply of coal in the northeast, and that sailing ships coming from the Continent carried ballast in the form of quality sand, glass making was revived here, companies founded, and they prospered well into the 20th century. Sunderland became famous for Pyrex.
Most of the bottle and glassworks have disappeared, closed down, demolished.
But the remants of the industry continue to be washed up along the shore. At the end of August, Steph and I traveled to Seaham, south of Sunderland, to find sea glass on one of the beaches south of the town’s harbor.
Today, the National Glass Centre celebrates the history of glass making in Sunderland and along the Durham coast. When some of the glass makers closed down a couple of decades ago, craftsmen from those companies were hired at the NGC and today offer daily demonstrations of glass-blowing and the like in its workshops, one of which we enjoyed watching after lunch.
Exhibitions are mounted in the main gallery on the upper entrance level. And at the time of our visit, there was a display of many of the pieces that have emanated from the studios of Neil Wilkin and Rachael Woodman. Such remarkable artistry, use of color. I was blown away, if you’ll pardon the pun. Pieces are also offered for sale, with the smallest and cheapest being merely expensive (£1800) to other larger pieces beyond my pay grade, several times over. They are remarkably beautiful. Here is just a small selection of the pieces on display.
We opted to take the Tyne and Wear Metro to Sunderland, changing lines (from yellow to green) at Monument on the outward journey, and Heworth on the return.
Our closest station, Northumberland Park is just a few minutes’ walk from home. St Peter’s at the other end is just over half a mile (and 10 minutes) from the NGC.
Nothing could have been more convenient, and much less hassle than driving there.
It was about 45 minutes or so each way, and on the return journey I managed to snap the Tyne bridges in the afternoon sunlight.
Nestling beneath the England-Scotland border in the far west of Northumberland in the northeast of England, Kielder Water (owned by Northumbrian Water) is the largest man-made reservoir in England by capacity (Rutland Water has a greater surface area), holding 200 billion liters, and with a maximum depth of 52 meters.
It took six years (1975-1981) to construct the reservoir, which was first flooded in 1982. The River North Tyne is the primary inflow.
The Kielder Water dam.
The view east down the valley of the River North Tyne from the Kielder Water dam.
View from the dam across Kielder Water towards the England-Scotland border on the hills in the distance.
Kielder Water is surrounded by Kielder Forest, the largest woodland of its kind in northern Europe, managed by Forestry England (an executive agency sponsored by the Forestry Commission).
We have been waiting for a break in the weather to make a return visit. We first visited this area in 1998 during a touring holiday in Northumberland. And then again in December 2017 when we spent a couple of nights in one of the cabins (with our daughter Philippa, husband Andi, and grandsons Elvis and Felix) at the Leaplish Waterside Park along the western shore of the reservoir.
There are paths for walking and cycling right around Kielder Water.
Kielder Water on a cold and calm December morning, looking east towards the dam.
From our home in North Tyneside, it’s just under 60 miles by road to Kielder Water, taking in much of the awe-inspiring Northumberland landscape along the way. Talk about big skies!
We stopped at the Kielder dam to enjoy a welcome cup of coffee; our journey had taken a little over an hour. Then we crossed the dam to a viewpoint on the far side before heading back and continuing our trip north on the western shore.
Less than a mile from the dam we made a slight detour to view the reservoir from Elf Kirk Viewpoint (it’s marked on the map above). What a delight to see the Autumn colors beginning to shine through, particularly all the golden bracken.
The view northeast from Elf Kirk Viewpoint, looking over the small marina at Merlin Brae.
This was the view southeast from the northern end of Kielder Water, with the dam in the distance.
However, the main focus of our trip was the Kielder Forest Drive, a 12 mile toll road (£3) from Kielder village northeast to the A68 road (Newcastle-Jedburgh) just south of Byrness village.
About a mile in, we stopped to take a stroll up the hillside, which ended up being a three mile walk, and climbing maybe a couple of hundred feet. But the weather was glorious, and it was most enjoyable.
Here is a short video taken along the Forest Drive. It’s really remote, and on the day we visited virtually no other travelers apart from some Forestry England employees.
The rough gravel roads reminded me of traveling around Peru all those decades ago, fifty years come January. The Forest Drive certainly passes through some wild landscapes, made even more ethereal in those parts of the forest that have been felled but not yet replanted. A torn landscape. No cellphone signal.
And there was one object we saw on the hills marking the border between England and Scotland. A container with fire retardant fluid to combat any forest fires, perhaps? Or maybe a defence installation, and early warning system the Scots have installed to repel English encroachments once they gain independence. What do you think?
Fire prevention or defence?
Having reached the A68, it was a smooth and direct drive back down to the coast. Here are a couple of videos (below) traveling through glorious landscapes near Otterburn and Elsdon. Why not listen to Kathryn Tickell, an acclaimed exponent of the Northumbrian pipes (and fiddle); the first tune is Kielder Jock.
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 GardenPlanning 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 CastleHome 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.
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.
(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.
National Trust Cragside
(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 carvingsThis 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.
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 GibbetHigh 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.
(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 castleThis 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).
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).