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).

 

 

 

 

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.


 

Legacy of an empire

Not the British Empire. The Roman one!

Lasting for over 1000 years, from the time of the first Emperor Augustus (Gaius Julius Octavius, 63 BC – AD 14) in 27 BC, its physical legacy can be seen all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Julius Caesar

Eventually Britain (Britannia) came under the sway of the Romans. In 55 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) led an expeditionary force to this island, returning the following year. But that did not lead to conquest, taking almost another 100 years to complete, under the Emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, 10 BC – AD 54) in AD 43.

What is remarkable in many ways, is that the Roman occupation of Britannia lasted less than 400 years. By AD 410 they had upped sticks and departed.

Less than 60 years after the conquest of Britannia, the Romans built a road network of almost 8000 miles, and in AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus, AD 76-138) ordered the construction of a wall across the narrowest part of northern England, from the Solway Firth in the west to the North Sea coast in the east.

Twenty years later, under the Emperor Antoninus Pius (Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionus Arrius Antoninus, AD 86-161), the Antonine Wall was constructed from turf on a stone foundation, coast to coast, about 40 miles north from Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. It was abandoned less than 10 years later.

Location of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall

Hadrian’s Wall is surely one of the most conspicuous of all Roman remains, anywhere. It still stands proudly, although somewhat diminished, where once it guarded the most northwestern frontier of the empire against barbarians to the north. It was a remarkable achievement, and even today inspires wonder at the effort it took to construct the Wall over the wildest of landscapes.

And we can also wonder about the lives of the men (and women) who were stationed along the Wall and where they came from. It’s not just the physical legacy of the Wall (and other settlements around the country) but also the genetic legacy that the Romans left behind, in their offspring from relationships with local women, legitimate or otherwise. Romans didn’t just come from Rome, but from all corners of the empire even from the easternmost provinces of the Middle East and beyond. The ‘Roman’ genetic signature has obviously been diluted by successive waves of invasion into these islands.

The Romans have left a huge legacy for us all to wonder at. They were road builders par excellence. Roads were needed as the Romans spread out across the country, to maintain communications between towns and military garrisons, to allow troops to travel more effectively and rapidly, and to facilitate commerce. And their roads have endured even today, and some of England’s principal arteries follow the routes of former Roman roads, and are known, in part, by the same names.

I recently came across this stylized map (in the format of the iconic map of the London Underground created by Harry Beck) of the Roman road network that connected towns and cities, and military installations all over.

The author of the map, Sasha Trubetskoy, has also produced a second version with modern place names.

Even today, Roman roads are still being uncovered. There was a report recently in The Guardian of a road in west Wales that indicated the Romans had ventured deeper into Wales than previously appreciated.

As far as I can recall, the only Roman road I have walked was the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors near Goathland. The exposed part is only about a mile long. The first time was in 1968 when I was at university, and then about 20 years later with my wife Steph and daughters Hannah and Philippa.

We now live in North Tyneside, just 3 miles north as the crow flies from Segedunum, the fort at the the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. And with Hadrian’s Wall and other Roman remains so close, we have made quite a number of forays into the Northumberland countryside to explore them.

It’s quite remarkable just how much of Hadrian’s Wall remains, after 2000 years, despite much of the stone having been removed.

Hadrian’s Wall at Sycamore Gap.

The Wall was much higher than remains today, and the Mileposts and Turrets (or observation towers) have been reduced to shells of their former imposing structures.

Milepost 39 near Sycamore Gap.

However, further west beyond Birdoswald, where the Wall was built from turf, the signature of the Wall can still be seen as depressions in the landscape.

Even at forts like Chesters, Housesteads or Birdoswald, Corbridge Roman Town or Vindolanda in Northumberland, extensive as they are, it’s really just the foundations that have survived.

This is a panorama across Corbridge Roman Town.

At Wroxeter, in Shropshire, one part of a basilica wall still stands, and at Portchester the impressive outer curtain wall of the original Roman fort is still intact, 20 feet or more tall. Typical Roman concrete, just like I have seen in Rome itself.

The surviving 7 m high basilica wall (‘Old Work’) at Wroxeter, the largest free-standing wall in England.

The Roman walls of Portschester Castle.

And then there are the civil remains like Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester in West Sussex (that I haven’t visited) and Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire that we have.

And Roman remains are still being uncovered all over England. Not only hoards of coins, but also a beautiful mosaic that was discovered in a farmer’s field in eastern England a couple of years ago, with images of Homer’s Iliad, a unique find. Roman archaeology is thriving.

Then there are all the various artefacts, from jewelry to household items, monuments and statues that were left behind that allow us to paint a detailed picture of life in Roman Britain. Here are some kept in the museums at Corbridge Roman Town and Chesters Roman Fort.

And, in particular, the Vindolanda Tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in this country, have provided a commentary of the lives of soldiers and their families.

The world-famous Vindolanda Tablets

These are some of the most important relics from the period of Roman occupation. And these, and other sites and remains from that time will keep archaeologists busy for years to come.


 

An Englishman’s home is his castle . . .

Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066, there was—for centuries afterwards—an obsession almost for building castles as magnates secured their rule throughout the land, led of course from the top, by the monarch.

Goodrich Castle, Herefordshire

Many of these castles still stand today, mostly as ruins. Some in a more advanced state of dereliction than others. During the Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, many castles were deliberately demolished or ‘slighted‘. But even in their diminished states, these castles still remind us of the power struggles that dominated our landscape for centuries.

As keen English Heritage and National Trust members, Steph and I have visited quite a number of the castles in their care. And since we moved north to Newcastle 21 months ago, we have enjoyed exploring the Northumbrian landscape and the numerous castles (and Roman remains) that can be found there.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to map all the fortifications—ancient hill forts, Roman forts, castles, and fortified manor houses—that we have visited over the past decade. Just click on each of the icons to view an image and links to different websites or posts in this blog.

I have color-coded the icons thus:

  • Black: pre-historic and pre-Roman (pre-AD 43)
  • Green: Roman (43 – 410)
  • Yellow: Norman (1066 – 1154)
  • Red: early and late Plantagenet (1154 – 1399; including one castle in Scotland and another in Northern Ireland)
  • Blue: Lancastrian (1399 – 1461)
  • Purple: Tudor (1485 – 1603)
  • Brown: Stuart (1603 – 1714 – with Interregnum)
  • Grey: Hanoverian (1714 – 1901)

 

No fog on the Tyne . . .

The River Tyne is actually two rivers, North and South, until they converge at Warden Rock, a couple of miles west of Hexham in Northumberland in the northeast of England. From there, the river flows east, eventually meeting the North Sea at Tynemouth, east of Newcastle upon Tyne. The river is tidal upstream as far as Wylam, just under 24 miles (38 km) from Tynemouth.

The river is the southern boundary of Newcastle, and the adjoining authority of North Tyneside. On the south of the river lie Gateshead and South Tyneside. It’s a bit like the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul in Minnesota, where our elder daughter Hannah and her family reside.

Tyneside was, for generations, a site of heavy industry, especially shipbuilding and coal mining. The lower reaches of the river are lined with the remains of once proud shipyards.

Large ships still enter the Port of Tyne. Most conspicuous, and always attracting large crowds of spectators are the cruise ships, even Cunarders like Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth.

And almost all the most coal wharves or staiths that brought coal by rail from mines north and south of the river for export worldwide have disappeared. The mines finally closed in the 1980s or earlier.

Only Dunston Staiths has survived, on the river’s south side, from where coal was exported from the North Durham Coalfield.

Families lived in the rows of crowded, smoky, dirty, and noisy slum terraced houses on both sides of the river, now mostly demolished to make way for new upmarket housing and commercial developments, even a marina.

What a renewal the area has enjoyed in recent decades, and a stroll along the Newcastle and Gateshead Quaysides is now a pleasure. But not one that we had experienced until just a few days ago although we had visited more than ten years ago.


After we moved to Newcastle on 30 September 2020, we spent the first five months in rented accommodation in the Shiremoor district of North Tyneside (towards the coast, east of Newcastle city center), but within a couple of weeks of arriving here had put in an offer on a new house in Backworth, moving in at the beginning of March 2021. Being in our early 70s, we’d made the move north from Worcestershire to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family.

Given the Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns that came into play beginning March 2020, we still wonder we could sell our house that year and make the move north. We’ve now been here for 21 months, but only recently ventured into the city center for the first time. That was last week, when we attended a wine and cheese tasting at the Newcastle Wine School, that I wrote about immediately afterwards.

We have been ultra-cautious about mixing with crowds. Even though the government has signaled (falsely) that the pandemic is over and done with, there are already worrying signs of a new wave of infections. So whenever we are out and about, and likely to encounter crowds, Steph and I always wear masks. And so like sore thumbs we stick out in a crowd. Almost no-one else is masked these days. Having avoided infection so far (although I’m not pushing my luck by saying this, I hope) we don’t intend to expose ourselves to infection.

Last Wednesday dawned bright and sunny, and warm, quite a change from the unseasonable weather we’ve been experiencing recently. Just after 10 am we headed to our nearest Metro station at Northumberland Park (less than 10 minutes walk) for the 20 minute ride into the city center, to Monument station.

For most of the network, except for a short section from Jesmond to the city center at Central Station, the Metro is an overground service. But at Jesmond it dives under the city.

We emerged at Monument, beneath the hugely impressive pillar monument (135 feet or 41 m) to Charles, 2nd Early Grey, Prime Minister and father of the Great Reform Act of 1832, that stands at the head of Grainger Street and Grey Street.

Working our way south towards the river, through Grainger Market and Central Arcade, passing by the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, one of the Tyne’s iconic bridges came into view. Close by the city center there are seven bridges taking road and rail traffic over the river.

The Tyne Bridge, opened in October 1928 by King George V (and remarkably similar to the Sydney Harbour Bridge since it was designed by the same architects), has almost come to symbolize Newcastle.

What is pretty special about this bridge (and other tall buildings in the vicinity) is that it is home to an inland colony of kittiwakes, a bird that normally nests on wind-swept coastal cliffs.

Along the Newcastle Quayside, about a quarter of mile east from the Tyne Bridge, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge is a foot and cycle bridge across the river connecting to (the) Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (a converted flour mill) and the Gateshead Sage (an international home for music and musical discovery, affectionately known as The Slug on the Tyne). We took the lift to Baltic’s 4th floor viewing platform to appreciate the impressive panorama of the river, its bridges, and Newcastle city center.

Opening to the public in 2001, the Millennium Bridge tilts to allow tall river traffic to pass through. It quickly became a must-see feature of the Quaysides.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the Newcastle Quayside across from (the) Baltic, and beside the rather impressive Blacksmith’s Needle, erected in 1997.

Then it was a slow walk back to the Metro at Central Station via the steep climb up Sandhill (a quayside used since Roman times) and Side (a medieval Street) and Dog Leap Stairs to exit beside Newcastle castle (which we must really return to visit soon).

On our return Metro journey, we were again the only passengers wearing masks. I still can’t fathom why so many folks, many elderly and potentially more vulnerable, are oblivious to the continuing Covid threat that could be reduced by the simple measure of wearing a mask.

We arrived home by 4 pm, tired but cheerful, ready for a welcome cuppa, having walked almost 5½ miles around the city (according to the pedometer app on my mobile).


Then from the coast they bore away, and reached the Holy Island’s bay (Sir Walter Scott).

Twice a day—without fail—the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, lying about 1 mile at its closest point off the north coast of Northumberland (map), is separated from the mainland as the tide sweeps in and covers a paved causeway.

The tide takes no prisoners, but safe crossing times are widely publicized. Not everyone heeds those warnings.


Steph and I last visited Holy Island (for the first and only time) in July 1998 when we were on home leave from the Philippines.

Earlier this week, we headed north to visit the two attractions on Holy Island: Lindisfarne Priory (run by English Heritage, which we looked at in 1998), and Lindisfarne Castle (managed by the National Trust). It’s quite unusual to have separate attractions from these two organizations at the same location (although they do co-manage several properties around the country).

My satnav indicated a journey of about 58 miles to the village, just 54 to the start of the causeway, and about an hour’s travel time. So we left home around 09:45 with the aim of arriving at the causeway just as the tide had receded. The causeway was already open when we arrived, ahead of the published safe crossing time of 10:55. There were already many vehicles in the car park.

There is only a small population of around 160 persons on the island. But that number is swelled to at least 650,000 or more visitors a year. Choosing a day for our visit, we were just waiting for the tide times and good weather to coincide. As it transpired, the day was not as bright as originally forecast, but that was no bad thing. Sometimes photography is much easier when the light is even; no harsh shadows. Even so, we only saw the sun as we were preparing to leave late in the afternoon.


The history of Lindisfarne Priory is illustrious and tragic. It was founded in the 7th century, on a promontory at the southwest corner of the island, and is one of the most important early Christian sites in the country. An Irish monk named Aidan became the bishop of Oswald’s Kingdom of Northumbria, and founded the Priory on Holy Island.

12th century wall paining of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral.

One of the North’s greatest saints, Cuthbert (who is buried in Durham Cathedral) joined the community in the 670s as monk-bishop.

However, in AD 793, Lindisfarne was raided for the first time by the Vikings, and over the next century the Priory declined under the threat of further raids, with as few as a couple of monks at one time.

After the Norman Conquest of England in AD 1066, Lindisfarne was re-founded and continued to thrive albeit at a low level. In the 13th century, after Edward I’s invasion of Scotland, border warfare flared, and the monks were obliged to fortify their Priory.

Then along came Henry VIII, and in 1537, the Priory was ordered to close. By the 18th century much of the priory lay in ruins, although the church was reported as more or less intact in 1780. Further collapses followed in the subsequent decades.

Click on the image (right) to open a site plan of the Priory on the English Heritage website.

I think one of the first impressions of the Priory is the rich red color of much of the stonework, of the West Front and what remains of the church. Particularly striking is the so-called ‘rainbow’ arch, the surviving rib of a crossing vault even though the tower above it has collapsed.

Here is a small selection of the many photos I took in the Priory; there are more in this album.

I shouldn’t finish this brief description of Lindisfarne Priory without mentioning the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most spectacular manuscripts to have survived from Anglo-Saxon England, and now residing in the British Library. There is a small exhibit about the gospels in the Church of St Mary the Virgin adjoining the ruins of the Priory.

From the grounds of the Priory there are stunning views towards Lindisfarne Castle that sits on a rocky crag at the southeast corner of the island.

And having seen all there was to see in the Priory, that’s where we were headed, a walk of a little over a mile from the village.

A fort or castle has stood here since Tudor times in the 16th century after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and Lindisfarne Priory was abandoned.

Stone from the Priory was used in the construction of the castle, which stands on a rocky outcrop known as Beblowe Crag. The walls are very thick, since several rooms were used as powder magazines.

Edward Hudson © Country Life Picture Library

In 1901, the castle was purchased by Edward Hudson (owner of Country Life magazine) who commissioned the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (who played a leading role in the design and building of New Delhi as the capital of India) to refurbish the castle in the Arts and Craft style. The castle was given to the National Trust in 1944 and opened to the public in the late 1960s.

Access to the castle is up a winding and quite steep slope, through a sturdy wooden door (with the remains of a portcullis) and up a flight of stairs to the entrance terrace. Just a few rooms are open to the public (the entrance hall, kitchen/parlor, the dining room and a couple of bedrooms. But there is also access to an upper terrace and I guess many visitors to the castle come for the stunning views from there over Holy Island, and north and south on the mainland coast with views of Bamburgh Castle also due south.

Here are a few of the photos I took on that visit. Others can be seen in this album.

To the north of the castle is a small walled garden, designed in 1911 by the influential garden designer and horticulturist, Gertrude Jeckyll (1843-1932).

Further east from the castle crag, there is a set of lime kilns built in the 1860s. Limestone was quarried on the north of the island; coal was brought in by sea.

It was a slow walk back to car park. Having enjoyed an interesting visit to Holy Island, it was time to head south for home. We left just after 15:30, well ahead of the closure of the causeway on the incoming tide.

We really must return, in the winter (weather permitting) when there are fewer visitors (it really was quite hectic throughout), but also when the geese return. Lindisfarne is an important wildlife area.


 

 

Mix and match . . . wine and cheese

I faced an event last night with some trepidation, anxiety even. Steph and I attended a wine and cheese tasting at the Newcastle Wine School (NWS) in the city center. Since moving up to the northeast 21 months ago, we have not traveled into the city center at all. In fact we’ve only been on the Tyne and Wear Metro twice even though we have concessionary travel passes upgraded (for a small fee) to Gold Cards for free travel.

Why? Covid, of course. And despite government protestations to the contrary, the pandemic ain’t over yet. So we remain cautious. We are triple-jabbed, but I’m sure that whatever immunity we acquired more than a year ago has already begun to wane. We do get out and about, mostly to places where we can walk in the fresh air, and have, until now, avoided mixing with crowds. Having said that, we do a weekly shop at the local supermarket, but always masked. Indeed, we wear masks wherever and whenever we expect to meet crowds.

So we were faced somewhat with a dilemma yesterday. How do you go to a wine and cheese tasting event masked up? Simple answer: you don’t.

The NWS is located at Blackfriars (a 13th century friary) on Friars Street, close to Central Station.

The event was a 2021 Christmas gift from our daughters and their families. So, despite any reservations we might have had, we hopped on the Metro close to home (just under 10 minutes) for the 20 minute and eleven stations ride into the city. The train was quite empty for the most part, until we reached Jesmond where the Metro truly becomes an underground operation. We saw only one other masked passenger.

From Central Station, it was less than a 10 minutes to the venue, located in meeting rooms above the Blackfriars restaurant. We didn’t know quite what to expect, and having arrived a little before the 7 pm start time, we whiled away the time in the restaurant bar. Just a glass of water for both of us.

There were just nine couples (full house) attending the wine and cheese, and we found a table over on one side where there was a little more space from the other attendees.

Waiting for everyone to arrive.

Our tutor for the evening was Alex Lomas who briefly explained the rudiments of tasting both wine and cheese, and how to successfully match them. But the bottom line: it all depends on personal preference.

And without further ado, we got down to enjoying what Alex had prepared for us.

We had seven wines to taste (retailing from £10.50 to £15.50), each matched with a different cheese. In front of each participant was a table mat, with six ‘numbered’ glasses. And a plate of cheese each.

There were two white wines (English and Alsace), a Rhône Tavel rosé (French), an Argentinian Malbec, two ports (white and tawny), and a dessert wine (Sauternes). Just click on the image on the right to read descriptions of the wines and the cheeses they had been matched with.

As we tasted the first white, from Cornwall of all places, I remarked to Steph that it tasted like summer in a glass: light and fruity, quite dry, similar to a Sauvignon Blanc. The other white was a ‘heavier’ Gewurztraminer from Alsace. More like autumn in a glass.

In between we’d tried a Tavel rosé, full of strawberries. Unlike many, we really enjoy rosé wines. Apparently all wines with the Tavel appellation are rosé.

The white port was an eye-opener for me, never having tasted this before. It was delicious, and matched with a wine Derby cheese. The other tawny port, a fuller, richer taste (lots of raisins and nuts) was matched with a mature Cheddar, full of crunchy salt crystals.

In between the ports, we enjoyed a soft Malbec from the foothills of the Andes in Mendoza, Argentina. Malbec has certainly taken off in popularity, and I have to say it’s one of my favorites. It was matched with a salty Gouda.

And finally, we all enjoyed a glass of sweet Sauternes or ‘noble’ botrytis wine, which had been matched with a Stilton. Quite unexpected but what a perfect combination.

Now, much as I prefer red wines overall, and the Malbec was delicious, the find for me at this tasting was the Graham’s Fine White Port. It was the Alsatian wine for Steph. And the cheese? Butler’s Handmade semi-hard Lincolnshire goat cheese.


All too soon, the allotted two hours had flown by, and we were making our way back to the Metro, catching a train around 9:30 pm.

Waiting for our train on Platform 2.

We were home by 10 pm. It was a really excellent evening, and by then, all anxiety had disappeared. Let’s hope there were no Covid carriers in the room last night.

Thank you to Hannah and Philippa, Michael and Andi – and the grandchildren. Celebrating Christmas in June.


 

Nine towns and cities, four countries, four continents . . .

Do you remember all the places and houses where you have lived? I do. Such varied and (mostly) happy memories.

I left my parents’ home in Leek (a small market town in North Staffordshire) at the beginning of October 1967, almost 19 years of age, to study at university; I only went back for short visits during vacations. Less than six years later I was headed for new adventures overseas living in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines (with a break in between of 10 years back in the UK) over the next 40 years.

Early days in Congleton
I was not born in Leek however, although to all intents and purposes I consider it my home town. We moved to Leek in April 1956 from Congleton in Cheshire. I’d turned seven the previous November.

In Congleton, we lived at 13 Moody Street just a few minutes walk away from the offices and print shop of the Congleton Chronicle newspaper on the High Street where my father worked as staff photographer. No. 13 was owned by the Head family, then proprietors of the Chronicle.

It is a three-storey property. Back in the day, the attic rooms on the top floor weren’t furnished, and we used them as play rooms on wet days. On the ground floor, it seems to me that we hardly ever used the front parlor. A room, the width of the building at the rear of the house, served as dining and living room, with a kitchen and larder off to one side.

Taken in Congleton in about 1952 or so. L to R: Mike, Martin, Margaret and Edgar

My best friend Alan Brennan, a year younger than me, lived just a few doors further up Moody Street. But we didn’t go to the same school. I was enrolled at Mossley C of E village school, a couple of miles south of the town, like my two brothers and sister before me. Each weekday morning, my elder brother Edgar (just over two years older than me) and I took the bus together from the High Street to Mossley. Sometimes, in the summer, I’d walk home on my own (something that parents wouldn’t even contemplate today).

In the early 1950s we made our own entertainment. We didn’t have television. (In fact my parents didn’t own a B&W TV until about 1964). During the summer we’d play outside until dark, even walking the mile south to the Macclesfield Canal where we had fun on the swing bridge (now replaced by a static bridge), or hiding in the old air raid shelter near the cemetery on the way to the canal.

May Day, early 1950s. The kids of Moody Street. That’s me on the extreme left.

In the winter, we tobogganed on Priesty Fields nearby. We also had the Saturday matinee at one of the local cinemas, the Premier on Lawton Street (now demolished and the site of Congleton in Bloom Community Garden) enjoying Laurel and Hardy, or B movie westerns with the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy, to name a few of the movie stars we emulated in our games. Happy days!

Thinking of my early years in Congleton makes me realize we did not have the luxury of central heating either in the house or at school. In fact, at home, we must have sat around a small fire in the living room to keep warm.

At school, we actually had a large coal fire in the classroom. Can you imagine? No Health and Safety Executive to put a stop to that. All that separated us from the inferno was a large fire guard. Even when I was in high school in the late 1960s each pupil was entitled to a small bottle (1/3 pint) of milk daily. I doubt that continues today. Anyway, at Mossley during the winter, we would place our frozen bottles of milk in front of the fire to thaw.

65 St Edward St, Leek

Moving to Leek
My parents decided to set up on their own in Leek, and took over an existing photographic business at 65 St Edward St, on the edge of the town center. Not an ideal location, but as an ongoing concern, I guess it was the most appropriate approach to enter the retail trade.

It was by no means a large property, for a family of six. We three brothers shared a bedroom on the front of the property (the top window in the photo on the right). My parents had their bedroom at the rear. That property didn’t have central heating either.

On the first floor was the bathroom/ toilet, and at the front of the house, an L-shaped living room. My sister Margaret (then 15) had her own private space and bed in the ‘L’ of that room. Not an ideal situation, but there was no other alternative. In July 1957 my eldest brother Martin left  to join the Royal Air Force, and thereafter we saw him at home only on leave.

The kitchen was located on the ground floor, behind the shop and we ate most of our meals there, only moving to the first floor room for special family meals like Christmas. My father converted the cellar into his photographic dark room.

A side entrance led to an enclosed yard, Court No. 3, with three or four cottages, none with toilets or bathrooms, but probably just one tap of running water. These were demolished not long after we moved into No. 65, and we then had a large open space to play in.

With my best friend Geoff Sharratt (who lived at The Quiet Woman pub a few doors away) playing with my Hornby clockwork train set.

Winter fun and games with my brother Ed (center), me (crouching), and one of our friends, behind 65 St Edward St, after the cottages had been demolished.

I remember well-attended Christmas parties at No. 65, Christmas lunches around a table in the first floor living room.

Around 1960 or 1961, the lease came due on No. 65 and my parents decided not to renew the tenancy, opting to try and find a better location in the town. That took a couple more years.

In the interim, they moved the shop across St Edward St to No. 56, that was a fine porcelain retailer at the time. When we visited Leek in 2019 it was once again the premises of a photographer, and we discovered other earlier historical links.

My dad took on that fine china business, moving his photographic business there. For about six months we didn’t actually have a house. We had a room behind the shop, and a small kitchen, and a caravan on a farm a few miles north of the town. Somehow we managed, until an apartment became available at the top of the Market Place, at No. 26, above a building society.

No. 26, the red-brick building on the right at the top of the Market Place. We occupied the two upper floors.

We stayed there about two years, even over the coldest (and longest) winter I can remember, 1962/63. Everything froze and we had no running water for almost 10 weeks. Dad’s business was still operating from No. 56 St Edward St.

Then, a semi-derelict property (formerly a watchmaker’s) came on the market at No. 19 Market Place. Despite considerable trepidation on the part of my mother, Dad sold her on the idea of purchasing the property because of its central location in the town, and renovating the two upper floors into a comfortable apartment.

No. 19, with the yellow and black ‘Jackson’ sign, in between Jackson Optician (no relation) and Victoria Wine in the early 1960s. No. 26 is the building on the extreme right at the top of the Market Place.

The renovation was no easy task. There was only one tap in the property, in the cellar. No bathroom or toilet, and no central heating. These all got added and we must have moved in by late 1963, since my sister Margaret had married David by then and they took over the tenancy of No. 26.

The views over the Market Place from both No. 26 and No. 19 were great, being right in the heart of the town. Each Wednesday there was a busy market (you don’t see many of those any more, and I don’t think Leek market runs in the same way any more).

And both were great vantage points to watch the Club Day (or Walking Round Day) procession each July, which I used to take part in when a small boy.

Assembling in the Market Place on Club Day. This was taken around 1960 or so. The awning over the premises of  J Cosgrove (watchmaker) is clearly seen at the top of the image. That is No. 19 Market Place before it became my father’s premises.

University days
Mum and Dad lived at No. 19 until 1976 when they retired. But I had moved out almost a decade earlier, when I headed south to study at the University of Southampton from 1967 to 1970. For the first two years I lived in South Stoneham House, one of the halls of residence just under 1¼ miles from the campus. I lived in the 16 storey tower block, not the original Queen Anne house to which it was attached. I’ve since learned that the grounds were designed by 18th century landscaper, Capability Brown. The tower was condemned for occupation in 2005, partly because of the asbestos in the building. But also the fabric of the tower (built in the 1960s) had deteriorated, and conditions for students were described as ‘squalid’.

South Stoneham House

It was due to be demolished earlier this year. This is how it looked until then, shrouded in scaffolding and plastic sheeting. Very sad. We had happy days there.

In my final year (1969-70), I moved to digs (half-board accommodation) at 30 University Road, just down from the newly-opened university administration building and bookshop on the southeast side of the campus. Within a year or so of leaving Southampton many of the houses along University Road had been bought up by the university and became annexes to university departments. No. 30 was demolished.

This is No. 28. No. 30 to its right has been demolished and stood where the trees now stand.

In September 1970, I moved to Birmingham to begin a 1-year MSc course in genetic conservation. I rented a room in a house on Portland Road in the B16 Edgbaston area of the city, and a 2 mile walk to the campus. I think it was the one on the extreme left. But it was more than 50 years ago, and many properties along Portland Road look different today.

After one year, as I started my PhD research, I joined two engineers in an apartment south of the campus on Abdon Avenue. It was certainly one of the apartments on the left of the entrance, but I don’t remember if it was the first or top floor.

I stayed there until December 1972 when I prepared to leave the UK and head to warmer climes, in Lima, Peru to join the International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist.

Off to South America
Arriving in Lima at the beginning of January 1973, I lodged for about three weeks in the Pensión Beech (now demolished it seems) on Calle Los Libertadores in the San Isidro district of the city. Then I had to start looking for an apartment to rent.

I found a furnished one-bedroom apartment on the 12th floor of a tower block on Los Pinos in the Miraflores district, close to the Pacific Ocean coast. I don’t have any clear images of the building. I’m not sure it’s even still standing after 50 years. In 1973 it stood apart beside a vacant lot, and next to a Todos supermarket (long since disappeared).

Steph joined me at the beginning of July that year, and very soon we decided that the apartment was too small. We married in Miraflores in October that same year.

At our Los Pinos apartment, just after Steph arrived in Lima in July 1973.

We quickly found a furnished two-bedroom apartment on Avenida Larco just around the corner. Parking was on the first floor, accessed by a lift from the street. At street level, there was an ice cream parlor, Veinte Sabores (20 Flavors), now replaced by a commercial outlet named Mardigras.

The apartment was on the top (12th) floor, on the rear of the building with a view to the coast.

A view to the Pacific Ocean over the Miraflores rooftops.

In October 1974, the coast of Peru was hit by a major earthquake, more than 8 on the Richter Scale. Living on the 12th floor was not so comfortable then, and for many weeks there were countless aftershocks which didn’t do much for our nerves.

So by Christmas that year, we’d moved out to house-sit for several colleagues while they were on home-leave, until the following May when we were returned to the UK for six months. I had to complete the PhD residency requirements at the university and defend my thesis.

We landed in Birmingham at the end of May 1975 having returned to the UK via Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico. We found a one-bedroom apartment in a large house on Farquhar Road close to the campus, which had been converted to about five apartments, with the owner occupying the ground floor.

The ‘bridge’ connecting the house to the garage was our bathroom.

We stayed there until the end of the year before returning to Lima, spending a few months in the CIP Guesthouse. But we didn’t remain in Peru for much longer. CIP asked me to move to Costa Rica in April 1976 to set up a potato breeding program focusing on Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Moving to North America (actually Central America)
CIP signed an agreement with CATIE, a regional research and training center in Turrialba, some 70 km east of the capital, San José. It was a campus institute, nestling below the Turrialba Volcano, and was the headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) from 1942 until 1976 (when it moved to San José).

The Turrialba volcano from the town below.

Initially, we stayed in CATIE’s guesthouse, then moved into a rather run-down house in the #109 sub-division just outside the campus before eventually moving on campus. We rented a two-bedroom detached house with a lovely garden, full of fruit trees, and the most wonderful wildlife: birds, mammals, and reptiles (some very venomous). Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978, so these were very special years we spent in Turrialba.

I don’t have any decent images of the house that we occupied until November 1980 which, after we left, became additional space for the international school nearby.

Hannah visited Costa Rica in 2002, and took these two photos of the house. The upper image shows the car port and rear door to the house (which we used as our main entrance). The lower image shows the front door and living room to the right and Hannah’s bedroom left of the door.

By the end of 1980 I was looking for a new challenge and asked CIP’s director general for a new posting. We returned to Lima and several more months in the guesthouse. In the meantime, however, I had successfully applied for a teaching and research post at the University of Birmingham. I resigned my post at CIP, and we returned to the UK in March 1981 in time for my 1 April start date at Birmingham.

We then set about finding somewhere to live. Within a week of so we had put in an offer on a house in Bromsgrove, a market town in north Worcestershire, about 13 miles south of the campus.

Back in the UK – Bromsgrove
Located just under a mile east of the town center, our three bedroom house was built in 1975. In 1982, just before our second daughter Philippa was born, we extended the kitchen on the front of the house. In 2015 we installed an electric garage door and had the front drive re-paved.

The garden was Steph’s pride and joy, that she carefully nurtured over almost 40 years.

Growing up, Hannah and Phil attended the local schools, and had a wide circle of friends living close by. The house always seemed filled with a small group of girls. And each year there were two birthday parties to organize.

Philippa’s 6th birthday party in May 1988. She is sitting facing the camera on the left, and Hannah is standing.

But that’s not the whole story. Yes, we owned No. 4 for 39 years, but for 19 of those, we lived in the Philippines, only returning to the UK in May 2010. In fact, our stay in the Philippines has been, to date, the longest continual period I have lived anywhere.

In July 1991, I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, some 70 km south of Manila. From the outset we decided to keep No. 4 empty but fully furnished, which we could occupy when we returned to the UK on our annual home-leave. We thought having tenants and the like just wasn’t worth the hassle. In any case, we had a ‘bolt hole’ should our assignment in the Philippines not live up to expectations or the civil/political situation deteriorated to an extent that we might have to leave.


Asia calls
IRRI provided houses for its senior, mainly non-Filipino staff in a gated community about 10 minutes drive from the research center, across the campus of the University of the Philippines – Los Baños (UPLB).  IRRI Staff Housing or ISH as it became known, was developed on the lower slopes of a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling that dominated the skyline over the town.

Mt Makiling from the IRRI Research Center.

Founded in 1959/60, the construction of the IRRI research center and housing began in 1961.

ISH takes shape in July 1961, with Laguna de Bay in the distance.

On the lower slopes of Mt Makiling, ISH takes shape in December 1961, and almost ready for occupation. Our house, No. 15, is the fourth from the bottom, middle column.

Los Baños has grown along the shore of shallow Laguna de Bay (911 km²) that stretches all the way north to Manila, a little over 65 km by road. (Click map to enlarge).

The video below (from my good friend and former IRRI colleague Gene Hettel who has retired in the Philippines near Los Baños) shows the panoramic view over the volcano and lake.

By 1991, ISH was unrecognizable from the site thirty years earlier. Mature trees covered the compound, and everywhere was lush with vegetation. The houses however, were beginning to show their age, and some of the facilities, like the kitchens had never been updated, and that remained the case for House #15 that we occupied until we left the Philippines almost 19 years later.

We had the use of a swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, and the ISH compound was a safe place for all the children to play, often inventing their own games that were passed down from year to year over the decades. I guess an important downside of living in Los Baños was schooling for the children, most of whom attended the International School in Manila, entailing for many years a two hour journey each way, and an ungodly start time (by the end of the 1990s) of 4:30 am!

While Peru was a country of earthquakes, Costa Rica had its volcanoes, the Philippines had both of these AND typhoons. Several would sweep in from the Pacific Ocean each year and cross the country leaving a trail of destruction in their path. These images show some of the damage around ISH and the UPLB campus in the aftermath of Typhoon Milenyo in September 2006, which passed almost directly overhead, with winds approaching 150 mph.

As often as we could we’d get away to the beach, at Arthur’s Place south of Los Baños where Steph would snorkel and I would scuba dive.

8 Dec 2002: in front of Arthur’s Place

All things come to an end, and by 2009 I’d already decided not to seek another full contract, just extending my current one by a year and then retiring. We returned to the UK and our Bromsgrove home in May 2010.


However, by the end of 2019 we had eventually decided to leave Bromsgrove and move north to Newcastle upon Tyne where our younger daughter Philippa and her family live. (Our elder daughter lives in Minnesota).

So, in January 2020, we put No. 4 on the market, just before the first Covid-19 lockdown. By the beginning of June we’d received an offer that we accepted and began making plans for the move.

We completed the sale on 30 September and moved out that same day.

The removers on their way north!

Goodbye to No. 4.

The following day we moved into a 3-bedroom detached house that we rented for the next six months in the West Allotment area of North Tyneside (east of the city center) while we looked for a new home to buy.

Move-in complete at Cloverfield by 15:55 on 1 October 2020.

We took a week to get ourselves settled and find our local bearings. But then began the search in earnest for a new home. And found just the house almost immediately, viewing it one morning and putting in an offer that same evening. The conveyancing to purchase the property was not as straightforward as we and the vendors expected, but the sale/purchase was finally completed on 15 February last year. We moved in on 6 March.

Finally settled.

Yes, finally settled. A warm, well-appointed home. Only the garden to sort out, and almost from Day 1 Steph has been busy designing, planning, and developing her new garden.

April 2021 and beyond.

And although we enjoyed living in Worcestershire, the prospect of many more treats to come in beautiful Northumberland is something we look forward to.


 

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside . . .

. . . Oh, I do like to be beside the sea.

So sang Florrie Forde in her November 1909 recording of the popular 1907 British music hall song of the same title.

A few days back, the weather being the warmest and sunniest of the year so far, Steph and I took a walk along the coast south of the River Tyne here in the northeast of England, and about 11 miles from home. And as we sat down on Marsden Beach to enjoy our picnic lunch, I told Steph that I still had to pinch myself that we now lived so close to the coast.

The magnesian limestone cliffs at Marsden Bay.

We moved to North Tyneside (just east of Newcastle upon Tyne city center) 18 months ago, and whenever we get chance, we head off to the coast to enjoy a bracing walk along the beach, the dunes, or cliffs. At its closest, the coast is less than 4 miles as the crow flies.


I hail originally from Staffordshire in the north Midlands, which is almost equidistant from the west and east coasts. So, when I was growing up, a trip to the seaside was always a treat, and holidays with parents were almost always spent camping at or near the coast.

Steph, on the other hand, comes from Southend-on-Sea and the closest beach to her family home was just 5 minutes walk.

Moving away to university in 1967, I chose Southampton on the south coast in Hampshire. However, apart from the odd day trip or field excursion connected with my botany and geography degree, I didn’t see much of the coast at all. Not so a decade earlier. Southampton is a major seaport, from where my father sailed when he worked for the Cunard company in the 1930s. And he took us visit the docks in the late 1950s/early 1960s just when both of Cunard’s Queens were in port.


When Steph and I moved to Peru in 1973, we lived just a few hundred meters inland from the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the Lima suburb of Miraflores. During the ‘summer’ months between January and March, we’d spend at least one day each weekend on the beach at one of the resorts about 50 km south of Lima.

Moving to Costa Rica in 1976, we made only two trips to the beach in the northwest of the country to Playa Tamarindo on the Pacific coast of the Guanacaste peninsula (map). It was about 350 km (almost 7 hours) by road, but new routes have probably made the journey quicker since then. And just one trip to the Caribbean coast at Limón.


In the Philippines, we made about eight or nine weekend visits each year (over almost 19 years) to Arthur’s Place, a dive resort at Anilao on the Mabini Peninsula (map), a drive of just under 100 km south from Los Baños that, in 1992 (until about 2005), used to take about 3 hours. I’d go diving and Steph would snorkel.

In December 2003 we traveled to Australia and drove down the east coast from Sydney to Melbourne, around 1000 miles, enjoying each stretch of coastline every day. At Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria we stopped off at Tidal River, the furthest south (at almost 39°S) I’ve ever traveled. Antarctica next stop! And that same evening, New Year’s Eve, we sat on the beach near Wonthaggi and watched the sunset over the Indian Ocean (map).


Since retiring, we’ve visited the west and east coasts of the USA in Oregon and California, and Massachusetts and Maine, the coast roads right round Scotland, the coast of Northern Ireland, as well as Cornwall, and the southeast of England in East Sussex and Kent.


While here in England’s northeast (North Yorkshire, County Durham, and Northumberland) we don’t enjoy tropical temperatures, the region does boast some of the finest stretches of coastline and beaches in the country.

Dunstanburgh Castle and Craster
This is a rocky coast and the castle itself was built in the early 14th century on the Whin Sill, an outcrop of igneous dolerite that cuts across Northumberland. The castle is a walk of about 1¼ miles from the fishing village of Craster; there’s no road into the castle.

Craster itself has ample parking away from the harbor. The village is also famous for its smoked fish, especially kippers.

At Dunstanburgh a healthy population of kittiwakes nest on the cliffs.

To the north there are excellent views of Embleton Bay that we have yet to visit.

View north from the Great Gatehouse

Alnmouth
A tricky pronunciation. Some say ‘Aln-muth’, others ‘Allen-mouth’. I have no idea which is correct. It’s a pretty village at the mouth of the river of the same name. There’s good paid parking behind the beach for a couple of hundred cars.

Warkworth
We’ve only visited the beach once, back in April 2018. It’s a nice long stretch of beach accessed from the north side of the town, which is more famous for its 12th century castle.

Looking north along Warkworth beach towards Alnmouth.

Warkworth Castle

Amble
Standing at the mouth of the River Coquet, we’ve found the beaches very pleasant on the south side of the town (where there is free parking), and facing Coquet Island which is now a bird reserve with an internationally important colony of roseate terns in the breeding season.

The view south along the Amble beach with the Lynemouth power station in the far distance.

Coquet Island.

Druridge Bay and Hauxley Nature Reserve
This must be one of the longest beaches in Northumberland, with massive dunes at the rear of the beach in its southern portion.

At the northern end, and just inland is Hauxley Nature Reserve, owned by Northumberland Wildlife Trust. When we visited last week, we observed 37 different bird species in the space of two hours. It really is a wonderful site, and we must go back there on a regular basis. There’s no entrance fee, but parking costs £2 all day. There’s also footpath access on to the dunes and beach, which lie just beyond the reserve’s perimeter fence.

The Tern Hide from the West Hide at Hauxley Nature Reserve.

The North Sea can be seen in the middle distance beyond the dunes and reserve perimeter fence.

Cresswell Bay
This was one of the first ‘northern’ beaches that we viisted in 2021, just 17 miles from home. It’s both sandy and rocky, and we saw somone collecting sea coal that had been washed up on the shore. All along the Northumberland and Durham coast there were once extensive coal mines. Waste from the pits was dumped in the sea. In places the beaches look quite black.

Blyth and Seaton Sluice Beaches
These are the closest to home, but are in effect a singe beach. Both are very popular with dog walkers, and we enjoy often heading there on a Sunday morning, weather permitting, for a late morning stroll.

At the Seaton Sluice southern end of the beach, there is a small harbor, that had originally been constructed in the 17th and refurbished in the 18th century to handle coal shipments from local mines.

Seaton Sluice harbor, showing ‘The Cut’ in the middle distance.

St Mary’s Lighthouse and Whitley Bay
The lighthouse was built in 1898, but there had been lighthouses on the island for centuries. This lighthouse was decommissioned in 1984. The island lies at the north end of Whitley Bay, a popular resort.

The island is approached across a causeway that is submerged at high tide. On the visits we have made we’ve often seen the grey seals that bask on the rocks.

King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth
This is a small bay that lies beneath the headland on which Tynemouth castle and priory (now owned by English Heritage) were built.

From the headland there are magnificent views north along the Northumberland coast.

To the immediate south is the mouth of the River Tyne, and beyond the shore at South Shields and the coast south into County Durham.

Souter Lighthouse and the Whitburn coast
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1988. It stands on the edge of magnesian limestone cliffs, that stretch both north and south.

To the south of the lighthouse, there was a colliery and this area has been reclaimed and opened (under the National Trust) as a recreational area.

Immediately outside the walls of the lighthouse to the north is the site of a former mining village, Marsden, that was demolished soon after Whitburn Colliery closed in 1968.

The longer grass indicates where the two lines of terraced cottages once stood.

Marsden beach was very popular holiday or day-out destination in the early 20th century.

The cliffs are home to colonies of cormorants (one of the largest in the UK), herring gulls, kittiwakes, and fulmar petrels.

Whitby Abbey
The abbey, built in the 13th century, occupies a headland that juts out into the North Sea above the town of Whitby. It’s the furthest south we have ventured over the past 18 months.

The approach from the north along the A174 high above the coast affords the most spectacular views over the town and right along the North Yorkshire coast. Most impressive.


I don’t think I’ll ever tire of visiting the seaside. There’s something magical, inspirational about the interface between land and sea. Solid and liquid.

Birding in the northeast . . .

We couldn’t have asked for better weather yesterday. Even though a little on the cool side, accompanied by a blustery wind, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. A perfect early Spring day.

So we headed for the National Trust’s Gibside estate, about 11½ miles southwest from where we live in North Tyneside, as the crow flies (or just over 15 miles by road).

Covering 600 acres (just over 240 hectares), Gibside provides excellent walking. While the old house lies in ruins, and the chapel is not open every day, there’s plenty to explore on foot. We covered almost five miles.

Taking my trusty binoculars along (a pair of Swift Saratoga 8×40 that I’ve had for about 60 years) we hoped there might be some interesting wildlife to observe. On one of our previous visits, we’d come across a pair of roe deer among the pine trees. I was hopeful there might be some interesting birds along the River Derwent, the northern boundary of the Gibside estate.

And we weren’t disappointed. As we were leaving the Trust cafe after enjoying a refreshing regular Americano, a solitary grey heron flew low overhead, buffeted by the gusting winds, and crabbing to make headway. It’s one of the largest birds in this country, and doesn’t look designed for flying in high winds.

Grey heron

Then, as we walked down to the banks of the Derwent, we came across a pair of dippers on a shallow cascade; and further on, a pair of goosanders in full breeding plumage. What a magnificent sight!

Dipper

Goosanders

We’d seen a dipper a few weeks back alongside Seaton Burn in Holywell Dene close to home, the first I’d encountered in more than 20 years. And I’d seen my first ever goosander just a couple of months back on a local pond, so seeing a breeding pair yesterday was a real delight.

At the bird hide we watched great, blue, coal, and long-tailed tits, and as we sat having a picnic in the early afternoon sun (quite warm out of the breeze), beside the fish pond below the 18th century Banqueting Hall (not National Trust), we enjoyed the antics of a trio of little grebes, another species I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.

Little grebe

Then, as Steph was finishing her lunch, and I was taking a photo of the view, a red kite swooped overhead; we saw another one later in the walk.

Red kite

Then, just before we continued on our walk, I happened to look up at the Banqueting Hall and spotted a single roe deer grazing in front of the building. What luck!


Since moving to North Tyneside from the West Midlands around 18 months ago, I have revived my interest in and enjoyment of bird watching.

Compared with our garden and surrounding countryside in north Worcestershire (some 230 miles south of where we now live)—and which I wrote about in one of my early blog posts in May 2012—there seem to be more birding opportunities here in the northeast: in the garden, on the coast (which is less than five miles as the crow flies), and the river valleys, moors, and hills of Northumberland.

Close to where we now live, the land has slowly recovered over the last four decades since the coal mines were closed. A mosaic of streams, hedgerows, scrub land, reed beds, ponds, arable and grassland, not to mention woodlands in various stages of development, has now replaced what had been a desolate industrial landscape, supporting an abundance of bird life and even some large mammals like roe deer. The routes of the former mine railways—the waggonways—have been left as footpaths and bridleways, serving as excellent wildlife corridors across North Tyneside and connecting urban sites with the surrounding countryside.

To date, my northeast bird list comprises about 80 species observed and one, a grasshopper warbler, heard but not seen (according to a more experienced birder than me).

Some species, like goldfinches (left below) or bullfinches (right) which I saw only occasionally down south, are quite common here, often in flocks of 20-30 birds.

Herring and black-headed gulls are ‘as common as sparrows’ (which we don’t actually see very often, although I did come across the more scarce tree sparrow just a week ago while on one of my walks).

House sparrow (L) and tree sparrow

Rather than describe all the birds on my current list, do go back to that earlier post to see many of the birds that we see regularly here. I’ll just highlight some of those that have particularly caught my attention.


When we moved into our new house just over a year ago, the rear and front gardens were just patches of grass. Calling them ‘lawns’ would be an exaggeration. Steph worked hard from the end of April 2021 to design and build a new garden, hopefully attracting more insect and bird life.

Certainly the insects increased in number and type, with many different types of bees visiting the range of flowering plants that we introduced.

Throughout the summer and into autumn, there was a family of five or six pied wagtails (right) that we saw in the garden almost everyday. They disappeared during the coldest weeks of the winter, but have once again started to show up in the garden.

And when we took a trip in July to the headwaters of the River Coquet and the Cheviot Hills, we saw many pied wagtails flitting back and forth along the banks of the river.

Upper Coquetdale

Another surprising visitor to the garden, just once, was an uncommon mistle thrush (right), a much larger cousin of the song thrush.

Song thrush numbers have declined dramatically, but they were a common presence in my younger days, over 60 years ago. However, over the past week, I’ve seen three song thrushes and heard them belting out their glorious songs.

Close to home is an overflow pond for the local stream or burn that has its source less than half a mile away to the west.

Surrounded by lush vegetation, particularly knapweed and bulrushes closer to the water’s edge, this pond hosts several species like mallards and moorhens. Throughout most of last year, and until quite recently, there was a semi-resident grey heron. I hope he will return as the frog population grows in the Spring. Recently, however, a little egret has made an appearance over a couple of days.

Little egret

And in the summer months, the site hosts a thriving population of reed warblers, reed buntings, and whitethroats.

The goldfinches have an autumn feast when the knapweed seed heads ripen.

On the coast we see the usual range of waders such as oystercatchers, ringed plovers, sanderling, dunlin, and turnstones. One of my favorites however is the redshank (right), easily spotted because of its bright orange-red bill and legs. And, of course, several species of gull.

Another new species is the golden plover that I’ve seen on local farmland during the winter as well as at the coast foraging among the rocks. In summer it can be found inland on the hills and moors.

Golden plover

On the cliffs just south of the River Tyne (south of our home) and further north at Dunstanburgh Castle near Craster on the Northumberland coast are colonies of kittiwakes (below) and cormorants.

Cormorants on the coast south of the River Tyne at Whitburn.

We’ve also seen other cliff-dwelling species like guillemots and razorbills surfing on the waves, but we’re waiting on a trip out to the Farne Islands later in May to really get a look at these up-close.

But perhaps the most impressive sight, to date, have been flocks of pink-footed geese. We saw them first in a field (together with a small flock of about 30 curlews) near Seaton Sluice back in the Autumn. Then, on a walk close to home I could hear them honking in the distance and, gaining some height on the spoil heap at the former Fenwick Colliery, we could see a flock of several hundred grazing in a nearby field.

Pink-footed goose

But it wasn’t until about a month ago, when we were sat enjoying a picnic lunch just south of Amble, that I saw a ‘murmuration‘ of large birds which I’m pretty certain were pink-footed geese even though I didn’t have a clear sight as they were too far away to the west and I was looking into the sun. There must have been 1000 birds or more (based on my rough and ready count), flying this way then that, and finally spiraling down one after the other to land close to Hauxley Reserve. Until I have experienced a starling murmuration, this one will have to suffice, even though it was less frenetic than the starling version.


As in that earlier post, most of the bird images here were taken (with his permission) from the wonderful website of amateur photographer Barry Boswell (below), where you can find these and many more. Just click on the image below.

Barry has accumulated an impressive portfolio of bird photos. It’s remarkable how digital photography has revolutionized this particular hobby. When I see images of this quality I do wonder where he (and others with the same passion) get their patience, and indeed bird-spotting luck. Patience has never been one of my virtues.

Unlike the 500 mm lens (and Canon bodies) that Barry is sporting in the image above, I only have an 18-200 mm telephoto lens on a Nikon D5000 DSLR body.


 

 

Christmas at Wallington

After Storms Arwen and Barra that battered us recently, a dusting of snow and icy pavements, and the endless rain, it was a delight yesterday to wake up to clear skies, and the promise of a fine day. Although rather cold. In fact the temperature didn’t climb much past 6°C all day, although it did feel warmer out of the breeze and in direct sunlight.

We’d already planned to get out and about should the weather hold. And that’s what we did, heading back to the National Trust’s Wallington in central Northumberland, just under 25 miles west from home.

The south front of Wallington

Ever since we joined the National Trust in 2011, we have tried to visit one of its properties around Christmas time, since many receive a delightful Christmas makeover. And we were not disappointed at the Christmas offerings Wallington had in store.

This was our third visit to Wallington, having first been there in July 2013, and again almost to the day a year ago. Last year the house was closed because of Covid restrictions. However, it was open yesterday, but most of the extensive grounds and woodland were closed to the public. Storm Arwen had torn through the estate, and brought down a large number of majestic old trees. In fact, some of the strongest winds of the storm (around 100 mph) were recorded just a few miles to the east of Wallington. National Trust staff were busy clearing paths of fallen timber and generally making access safe for the public. It will be some weeks, I fear, before everything is ship-shape and Bristol fashion once again.

We couldn’t have asked for a nicer day yesterday, and on our arrival just before 11 am, the clocktower at the entrance to the courtyard was bathed in bright winter sunshine.

After fortifying ourselves with a welcome of coffee in the excellent Clocktower Cafe, we headed to the Walled Garden, about a 15 minute walk from the house. We were surprised to find the conservatory open, and the lovely display of flowering plants was a feast for the eyes. My glasses and camera lens steamed up and it was some minutes before I could fully appreciate the displays in front of me.


Only the ground floor of the house was open but Christmas was on display from the entrance hall onwards.

Each room thereafter from the dining room, the drawing room, library, study, to the parlour, had festive trimmings to raise the spirit. Quite beautifully—and tastefully—decorated by the staff.

Along the North Corridor, one room is full of Dolls’ Houses. I don’t remember seeing these before. It was fun looking inside at the miniature worlds.


But the jewel in Wallington’s Christmas crown must be the Central Hall, with its tall and magnificently decorated tree. Once open to the sky, the Hall was roofed in the 1850s at the behest of Pre-Raphaelite John Ruskin. Now it’s a haven of tranquility. I’m sure it wasn’t always like that at Christmases past.

Although inspired by others, the Hall was very much the creation of Pauline, Lady Trevelyan whose bust can be seen on the left hand pillar above. I have written elsewhere about the artist William Bell Scott who painted many of the murals. In between the large paintings the pillars are decorated with paintings of flowers. Quite stunning. The only unfinished one (bottom row, left) was by Ruskin himself.

Walking around Wallington, I could imagine the Trevelyan family gathered round the dining table on Christmas Day, beside the piano in the drawing room, children rushing excitedly about in the hall. I wonder if they sang carols around the piano. They must have. But did they sing In the Bleak Midwinter (a favorite of mine), originally a poem composed by Wallington visitor Christina Rossetti (and sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) and set to music by Gustav Holst and also by Harold Darke? I prefer the Holst version.


Here is a link to a complete album of photos taken yesterday.

We called them the ‘Cobridge Alps’ . . .

Not any more. Just take a look at Google Maps Streetview either side of the A53 Leek New Road from around Norton Lane west into Hanley in The Potteries of North Staffordshire. I wrote about that transformation in a blog post in September 2013.

A typical North Staffordshire coalfield landscape, at Longton in The Potteries.

Where once there were towering slag heaps from the adjacent collieries, now there is an undulating landscape that has been converted to parks and nature reserves, like the Whitfield Valley Nature Reserve and, of course, reclaimed for housing. Once where there was a huge slag heap that had spontaneously combusted surrounded by black—very black—desolation, now there is greenery and wildlife. Incidentally, that particular slag heap was on fire when I traveled daily in the 1960s past it on my way to school in The Potteries from my home in Leek 14 miles to the northeast. It took decades to bring that fire under control.

The railway lines that fed the collieries have been ripped up and to some extent part of our industrial heritage has been lost as well. Nevertheless, it is good to see the reclamation of these disused landscapes that are now providing innumerable benefits for local communities.


I left the grime of The Potteries behind almost 55 years ago when I moved away to university. And having retired in 2010, it took another decade to finally make the decision to move from our home in northeast Worcestershire to the northeast of England, another area that has a fine industrial past, also based on coal.

We moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, and have settled near the village of Backworth to the northeast of the city center, and just a handful of miles from the North Sea coast, and mile upon mile of the most fantastic beaches you could ever want to walk along. No swimming for me, though. The North Sea is far too cold. And, in any case, I have been spoiled by too many years in the Tropics, and almost two decades of scuba diving in the warm waters surrounding the Philippines in the Far East.

There’s a housing boom in Newcastle, that has been going on for forty years or more. Once the last of the coal mines was closed in the 1980s (and before), parts of mining villages were bulldozed to make way for better housing. And land reclaimed from the collieries has been developed for new housing. Everywhere you look there are new housing developments, and where Steph and I chose to settle is no different.

The Backworth collieries were part of the Northumberland coalfield, and among the deepest. The Maude Pit, sunk in 1872 had coal seams reached by shafts almost 1400 feet (more than 400 m) deep. In looking into the history of the area, I’ve not yet been able to find a map of the present day landscape with all the abandoned pits marked thereon. And another confusing aspect is that the names of the pits changed over the years.

What I can say is that within a mile or so of where I’m now living there must have been almost a couple dozen pits. By the 1980s all had been closed (some much earlier) and the process to erase them from the landscape begun.

The Maude Pit at Backworth Colliery (looking south), with the colliery workshops along the road, and about half a mile (as the crow flies) from where I now live.

The colliery site today, looking northwest towards the old colliery workshops, and the capped mine shafts.

But not entirely, however. It’s quite a feat to landscape the thousands and thousands (millions probably) of tons of waste that accompanied coal mining.

The remains of the Seghill slag heap, north of Backworth.

And, in contrast to the situation in The Potteries, the coal mining legacy of North Tyneside can be seen in the miles of waggonways that criss-cross the area: the routes of the railways that carried coal from the mines down to special wharfs (known as staithes) on the River Tyne from where it was exported worldwide. The photos below (courtesy of Debbie Twiddy on Facebook) show coal trains crossing the area close to home, a landscape that has long been lost.