Traveling back in time in Coquetdale – Nothumberland at its stunning best!

A couple of days ago, as Steph and I were driving—almost 23 years to the day since we first made this particular journey—up the narrow and twisting road to the headwaters of the River Coquet in the Cheviot Hills (that straddle the border between England and Scotland in the heart of the Northumberland National Park) I wondered aloud just how we managed to find this place so many years ago when Steph and I had a week’s holiday touring Northumberland.

We were headed to Chew Green, the site of a first century Roman encampment, alongside Dere Street, a Roman road that stretched from Eboracum (modern-day York) north into Scotland, at least as far as the abandoned Antonine Wall.

Chew Green is certainly off the beaten track. In fact it’s essentially at the end of the road, because just beyond the small parking area (///disco.bandaged.passenger) the road is closed from time to time, crossing the Otterburn Ranges military training area. And that was much in evidence as the guns boomed their presence across the hills, disturbing what otherwise would have been a completely tranquil visit.

Notwithstanding the noisy interruptions, the views along Coquetdale were breathtaking.

The River Coquet is just under 56 miles long, meandering its way east from the Cheviots to meet the North Sea at Amble.

A couple of years ago we visited Warkworth Castle that stands on a hill overlooking the tidal section of the river just short of Amble. At Rothbury, we have visited National Trust’s Cragside a couple of times, most recently last October. And just a few weeks ago, Brinkburn Priory (that stands in a loop of the Coquet, east of Rothbury) was our destination.

Besides the Chew Green encampment, our recent Coquetdale excursion took in a medieval castle with royal connections at Harbottle, the Lady’s Well at Holystone, and Lordenshaw Iron Age hill-fort with its ancient petroglyphs just south of Rothbury under the Simonside Hills. Quite a trip, some 112 miles by the time we arrived home in the late afternoon.


Chew Green
At ground level, the outlines of the Roman encampment appear as rather indistinct ramparts and ditches. Had we realized, we would have walked a short way up the other side of the valley where it’s possible to appreciate an almost aerial view of the site. The satellite image from Google Maps also helps.

There was just one other car parked, and no sign of the occupants. We did see several walkers crossing the landscape, presumably following the Pennine Way.

Below the car park, the Coquet crosses under the road, just a tiny brook in the bottom of the hollow. And, no more than 50 m from the edge of the encampment is the border with Scotland.

We climbed up to the encampment, and had a good wander about. We didn’t come across any signs of the 13th century village that is supposed to have existed here. But standing on the ramparts, it’s not hard to be impressed by a couple of things. First, the stunning beauty of these rolling hills. And second, how remote it all is. In this short video, I made a 360° panorama from the top of the encampment. If you listen carefully, you can hear the guns booming occasionally.

Which leads me to another question. Why on earth did the Romans build an encampment in such a remote location.? Admittedly it sits alongside an important line of communications, Dere Street, but since Hadrian’s Wall effectively became the northern limit of the Roman Empire in Britannia by AD165, for how long was the encampment and small forts occupied?

It’s an intriguing site, and one to which we must return before too long, with a plan to walk around the area.


Harbottle Castle
It’s remarkable how quickly the valley of the Coquet widens in such a short distance from the headwaters near Chew Green. The river itself takes on an entirely different aspect.

Instead of sheep farming, the broad valley is home to fields of cereals ripening in the intense July sunshine. And some 13 miles back down the valley stands Harbottle, with the remains of a late 12th century castle built by one of the Umfraville family (who also built Prudhoe Castle).

The castle sits atop a steep-sided mound that apparently had been used as a fortified site since ancient times. Today, there’s very little of the castle standing, but it is still possible to envisage just how impressive it would have been on its mound and surrounded by a deep ditch. The views of the surrounding countryside from the top of the mound were spectacular, especially towards to Drake Stone, that you can see on the horizon just after the beginning of this video, and in the photo immediately below.

Harbottle Castle has one particular royal claim to fame. Margaret, the mother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots (his cousin), and father to James VI and I of Scotland and England, was born at Harbottle in 1515. She was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and daughter of Henry VII.

The Northumberland National Park service has built an excellent small car park and picnic area (///whips.baths.luckier) on the west side of the village.


Lady’s Well, Holystone
A further 3 miles down the valley, and off a side road, lies the village of Holystone. We visited there once before in 1998 to see the Lady’s Well. On that occasion it was pouring with rain, and we got thoroughly soaked. Not so last Tuesday. It’s a short walk from the center of the village to the Well (///lung.spearhead.entire)

Lady’s Well has its origins in the Dark Ages, a place where early Christians were baptized; it is rumored to be associated with St Ninian. The village became the site of a priory of Augustinian abbesses, but no longer standing since the Reformation in the 1530s. A Roman road also passes close to the well.


Lordenshaw Iron Age hill-fort
Just a couple of miles south of Rothbury, there a car park (///daring.hazelnuts.finds) on a side road off the B6342, for access to the magnificent Simonside Hills (that are clearly seen from Cragside) and Lordenshaw Iron Age hill-fort (///woodstove.objective.flats). The site is probably around 2500 years old .

The fort is a short distance north from the car park up a gentle slope, maybe 400 m at most. At the hill-fort itself, there’s not a great deal to see, apart from a series of concentric but not very distinct ditches (rather like the situation at Chew Green).

At the main stone, the cup and ring carvings are thought to date from the Bronze Age and therefore older than the hill-fort. They can be seen quite clearly on one face of the stone (///hires.shadows.edgy).

But from that vantage point, and the hill-fort itself, the views are just stunning over the Northumberland countryside.

This really was Northumberland at its best. A full album of photos and videos can be viewed here.


 

No vampires . . . not even a Goth!

Hardly surprising, really. It was the middle of the day, and the sun was beating down the whole time we were there. The hottest day of the year to date, just earlier this week.

So where were we? In Whitby, on the North Yorkshire coast, about 75 miles south from our home in Newcastle (map). But we weren’t in search of Count Dracula and his cohorts. No, we were there to visit the impressive ruins of 13th century Whitby Abbey on the headland jutting out into the North Sea, and overlooking Whitby town and harbor.

The view over Whitby from St Mary’s churchyard next to the abbey.

But what’s all this about vampires and Goths? Well, Irish author Bram Stoker used the ruins of Whitby Abbey as a backdrop to part of his narrative in Dracula (published in 1897). And the Dracula (and Goth) connection has been keenly adopted and celebrated in Whitby to this very day.


Humans have occupied the Whitby headland for millennia, with good archaeological evidence from pre-history, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon times.

It was in the mid-seventh century that a nun, St Hild, founded a monastery at Whitby, and it quickly became a seat of learning.

Nothing remains of the Anglo-Saxon monastery, nor of the stone building that replaced it from the 11th century. Just looking at the silhouette of the 13th century ruins against a deep blue sky it’s not hard to imagine how magnificent Whitby Abbey must have been in its Benedictine heyday. Until, that is, Henry VIII got his grubby regal hands on it in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Thereafter, the abbey and its lands became the property of the Chomley family, who built a grand house beside the abbey ruins, presumably using stone scavenged from the ruins. The house standing today (built in the late 17th century) now houses a small museum and the English Heritage shop.


But let’s get back to the ruins.

Similar in design to other monasteries in the region, such as Rievaulx and Fountains, Whitby Abbey was rebuilt in the 13th century in the Gothic style. There’s a brief description of the various architectural stages on the English Heritage website.

Because it stands proudly on a headland, and not surrounded by woodland or hills, it looks in some ways much more impressive than its larger counterparts. From a distance of several miles, as the road into Whitby from the west (the A171, Guisborough Rd) drops quite dramatically from the edge of the North York Moors to the coast, the monastery is a clearly visible landmark standing proudly above Whitby along the River Esk.

The abbey’s sandstone has weathered to a delicious light brown in some places. There’s certainly sufficient ruins remaining to appreciate how it must have appeared centuries ago. Although it has suffered the ravages of time. Even as recently as 1914, when it was shelled by the German Navy that was attacking a coastguard emplacement on the headland.

Here are just a few photos of the Abbey. I have posted a complete set of photos in this album.

We couldn’t have wished for better weather to see Whitby Abbey ruins in all their majesty. We visited Whitby just once before, in 1988, but not the Abbey. So, it had been a long-held aspiration to return one day. I have a feeling that it won’t be the last. But not in when the Whitby Goth Weekend is in full swing.


 

 

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

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

The site is owned and managed by English Heritage.

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

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

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

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

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


 

Riding the Metro to the sixteenth century and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

Train to Tynemouth approaching Northumberland Park station.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Walking with my mobile – northeast (1)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy days!


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

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

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

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


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

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


 

Step inside the world’s most dangerous garden . . .

Northumberland, England’s northernmost and sixth largest county, is majestic, with its rolling hills to the north, the wild moorlands in the west, and its east-facing, awe-inspiring beaches along the North Sea coast.

And, in the heart of the county about 35 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne (where Steph and I have been living since October last year) there is a jewel of a garden, in the small market town of Alnwick (pronounced ‘Annick’), just now waking from its winter slumber.

This is The Alnwick Garden, the inspiration since 1996 of Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland (wife of the 12th Duke). Located on the estate of Alnwick Castle, home to the Dukes of Northumberland, there has been a garden here since 1750, created by the 1st Duke of Northumberland with the help of renowned landscaper, Capability Brown (who himself hailed from this county).

Today, the garden attracts visitors in their droves, and last Thursday, Steph and I made our second visit there, having first visited with our younger daughter Philippa in July 2005 when we were back in the UK on home leave from the Philippines.

But this time we returned as Friends of the Garden, with a dual membership given to us by family as a Christmas gift last December.

It’s not a large garden. Just 12 acres (4.9 ha), but is attractively sub-divided into a series of small gardens, garden rooms.

However, the central feature, without doubt, is the fabulous Grand Cascade with 120 water jets. There’s something magical about the sound of running water in a garden, and at Alnwick, you’re almost never out of hearing of running water, from the Cascade, from brightly shining steel sculptures, or runnels trickling down the slopes.

At the top of the Cascade is the entrance to the Ornamental Garden, formally laid out with miniature box hedges, taller yew hedges, as well as pleached trees. During this recent visit, there were plenty of tulips in flower in the borders, but most other plants were only just beginning to emerge. And among these were the delphiniums that will be a feature attraction later in the summer, just as they were when we visited in 2005.

So why did I say this was the world’s most dangerous garden? Just to one side of the Cascade is the entrance to the Poison Garden, a collection of 100 toxic, intoxicating, and narcotic plants . . . Visitors are strictly prohibited from smelling, touching, or tasting any plants, although some people still occasionally faint from inhaling toxic fumes while walking in the garden.

On the opposite side of the Cascade is the Serpent Garden with a number of steel and water sculptures. Very tactile.

And beyond that a bamboo grove, as well as the Rose Garden. The latter had not been planted in 2005 as far as I recall. In a bower on the edge of the Rose Garden is an impressive sculpture, made of lead that originally graced Syon House, the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland. It was apparently given to the then Duke in the late 18th century. Apparently the fox atop the sculpture (or urn?) indicates that the owner came from the landed gentry and had land on which they could hunt. The four faces represent the seasons, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. And the monkeys? Well, it seems these indicate that the family was wealthy enough to travel extensively and had seen monkeys in the wild.

As Friends of the Garden we can return at any time, subject to confirmed tickets through the current online booking system. And we must return soon, to view the Japanese cherry orchard of 329 trees, the largest collection of Taihaku in the world. The flower buds were about to break last week.

I’m sure I will be updating this post, or writing new ones during the year of our membership of this wonderful garden.


Here’s a link to an album of photos from both visits.

Gibside: home of ‘the Unhappy Countess’

20210225 002 GibsideGibside (///lime.clap.joke) is a large (600 acre) estate, now a National Trust property, that lies on the south side of the River Derwent in County Durham (the Land of the Prince Bishops), and nine miles southwest of Newcastle upon Tyne. There is plenty of good walking at Gibside, and it’s very dog-friendly. There are several ruined buildings.

There are impressive views from different parts of the estate over the surrounding Durham and Northumberland landscapes.

20210225 072 Gibside

Gibside was acquired by the Blakiston family in the mid-16th century. It moved into the Bowes family in 1713 when Elizabeth Blakiston married Sir William Bowes.

It was once the home of Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800), who later came to be known as ‘The Unhappy Countess‘. Mary Eleanor was the granddaughter of Sir William.

Born in London, she was the daughter of Sir George Bowes, a wealthy coal merchant. On his death, eleven year old Mary Eleanor was left one of the wealthiest heiresses in the country, attracting the attention of several suitors. She had a passion for botany. And men, if the rumours are to be believed, leading to a very unsatisfactory and unhappy second marriage.

At 16, she was betrothed to John Lyon, 9th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and married him two years later. One of the conditions of her father’s will was that Lyon should change his family name to Bowes, which he duly did to avail of Mary’s substantial fortune. Some of their children however used a hyphenated version of both family names. Thus the Bowes-Lyon dynasty was born. Mary’s great-great-great granddaughter was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, wife of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II.

But let’s get back to poor Mary. After nine years of marriage, and five children, the earl died of tuberculosis, leaving Mary an eligible widow heiress. A situation exploited by her second husband, an Anglo-Irish rogue Andrew Robinson Stoney.


2021-03-22_121017Gibside Hall is an early 17th century Jacobean manor house, that has seen better days. It was finally abandoned in the 1950s, although the family had long since decamped to their other property, Glamis Castle in Scotland.

Scattered around the estate besides the ruined house are an orangery, a large walled garden (now being renovated), a stable block some distance from the house (and now housing a small cafe and toilets, Covid-closed during our recent visit on 25 February) and, high above the estate, an 18th century Banqueting House which was used for entertainment. It is owned by the Landmark Trust.

Near the entrance to Gibside, on the southwest corner, is a fine Greek Palladian chapel, designed by renowned Palladian architect James Paine, and begun in 1760. The exterior was completed by 1767, but the interior was not finished until the early 19th century.

The chapel stands at the southwest end of the half-mile-long Avenue (or ‘Long walk’), with views towards the Column to  Liberty.

20210225 006 Gibside

And the Column (originally known as the Column of British Liberty) certainly dominates the landscape and can be seen for miles around. It was built in the 1750s, and stands 150 feet tall, with the gilded statue adding another fourteen feet or so.


We’ve now visited Gibside three or four times. Having recently moved to the northeast, it is now one of our ‘local’ NT properties (just as Hanbury Hall was in Worcestershire). Given the number of visitors on the day of our recent visit (all Covid-booked and timed tickets), Gibside is a popular destination for recreation. We look forward to many more visits and exploring some of those paths that invitingly wander off into the undergrowth. I’m sure Gibside will keep us occupied for many visits to come.


 

Of mythical beasts and Pre-Raphaelites

In July 2013, during one of our regular trips to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast England to visit our younger daughter Philippa and her family, we headed out into the Northumberland countryside to the National Trust’s Wallington, a late 17th century house west of Morpeth (map).

Since we moved to Newcastle a couple of months ago, we have taken advantage of many fine days to get out and about. And last Monday (14 December) we headed to Wallington once again. After a welcome cup of Americano, we enjoyed a walk of just under four miles around the grounds. The house was closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, like most if not all National Trust properties nationwide.


Sir William Blackett (c.1657-1705), by Enoch Seeman the younger; National Trust, Wallington

The Wallington estate was purchased in 1688 by Sir William Blackett (1657-1705) who came from a prosperous Newcastle mining and shipping family. He demolished the existing Fenwick family tower on the site (parts of which can still be seen apparently, in the basement), and Wallington became a country retreat. It underwent further developments, gaining its Palladian facade in the 18th century.

In 1777, Wallington passed to the Trevelyan family who continued to reside there until 1941. Then the 3rd Baronet (of the second, Wallington creation of 1874), Sir Charles Trevelyan, gave Wallington to the National Trust and, in the process, disinheriting his eldest son George (the 4th Baronet). [1]


Approaching Wallington, there are two features which stand out. In the valley below the house the River Wansbeck flows eastwards towards the North Sea. There is a beautifully constructed hump-back bridge over the Wansbeck, which from its architecture must date from around the time that Wallington was redeveloped in the 18th century.

The second feature, and close to the house on a lawn overlooking the approaching road B6342, is a group of four stone dragon heads (or some other mythical creature, perhaps griffins), lined up and glaring (or grinning—take your pick) over the Northumberland countryside.

They were brought to Wallington in the 1730s as ballast in one of Sir Walter Calverley-Blackett‘s ships. Presumably he was shipping coal to the capital. Anyway, from what I have been able to discover, these dragon heads came from Bishopsgate in London after it was demolished to make way for the increase in London traffic. They have been in their current location since 1928.


Like many country houses, Wallington has its fair share of treasures displayed by the National Trust in the many rooms, which we enjoyed during our 2013 visit.

But, for me, the pièce de résistance is the central hall, once an open courtyard that was enclosed (at the insistence of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founding member John Ruskin) by Pauline, Lady Trevelyan, wife of the 6th Baron Trevelyan of Nettlecombe, Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan (a renowned naturalist and geologist) who bequeathed Wallington to his cousin, Sir Charles Trevelyan (created the 1st Baron Trevelyan of Wallington in 1874).

From this satellite image from Google maps you can see the original layout of the house, and the enclosed central courtyard.

Wallington became a retreat for the Pre-Raphaelites, one of whom, William Bell Scott, a Newcastle painter and poet, was commissioned to decorate the central hall with a series of exquisite murals depicting scenes from Northumbrian history and folklore (and often incorporating local personalities into these). I recently wrote a separate piece about Scott.

I shall enjoy returning to Wallington as soon as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and it’s once again safe to make such visits inside (and after receiving one of the vaccines).


But there’s so much more to see and appreciate at Wallington, since the woods, garden, and park are quite extensive. Last week we re-explored the East Wood and ponds, and the walled garden, before heading down to the Wansbeck which could not be crossed at the stepping stones due to the high water level.

We didn’t complete the full river walk, heading back up the B6342 from the bridge back to the house, and then into the woods on the west side of the house.

The south front of the house is protected by a rather impressive ha-ha – somewhat more formidable than others we have seen at the likes of Hanbury Hall (in Worcestershire close to our former home in Bromsgrove) and Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, for example.

The walled garden, some minutes walk from the house was splendid during our July visit, but had bedded down for its winter sleep a few days ago. Surrounded by red brick walls, mirroring an even more impressive wall just outside the garden and overlooking the garden pond, it never ceases to amaze me just how much these landowners and would-be aristocrats spent on improving their properties.

Because Steph and I are retired, we can take advantage of good weather (and sometimes not so good) to drop everything and head off to glorious properties like Wallington. And although there are perhaps fewer owned by the National Trust here in the northeast, we shall just have to travel a little further afield and visit those parts of northern England that we have not yet had chance to explore more fully yet. Added to the properties of English Heritage, we will have more than enough to fill our retirement for several years to come.


[1] In summer 1966 (or maybe late Spring 1967) I met Sir George Trevelyan at Attingham Park near Shrewsbury, when I attended a weekend course on the reclamation and botanical rehabilitation of industrial waste sites. Sir George was, for many years, the warden of the Adult Education College at Attingham Park, which is now owned and managed by the National Trust, and has been considerably restored internally and externally since the late 1960s.


 

There were three persons in his marriage – William Bell Scott’s ménage à trois

I’ve just finished reading Tyneside Portraits, a 1971 book written by Lyall Wilkes (1914-1991), former MP (1945-1951) for Newcastle Central and a county court judge for Northumberland.

It’s a collection of essays about eight men (!) who had a profound on the cultural and artistic life of Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as its physical makeup. They were painters, silversmiths, engravers, architects, and an author.

Among the eight was Edinburgh-born William Bell Scott (1811-1890)—painter, poet, and Pre-Raphaelite—who became principal of the School of Art in Newcastle for two decades from 1843. When I was half way through this particular chapter I realised that I knew about William Bell Scott, at least had personally seen some of his work, although from the outset had not drawn the connection.

Pauline, Lady Trevelyan

Anyone who has visited Wallington Hall that lies 12 miles west of Morpeth in Northumberland will know exactly what I’m referring to. Between 1856 and 1861 Scott painted a series of murals on the walls of what had been the central courtyard at Wallington. Victorian art critic and founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Ruskin had persuaded Pauline, Lady Trevelyan, first wife of the 6th Baronet to enclose this space with a roof.

What’s particularly interesting about these murals is that local personalities, including Lady Trevelyan, are depicted in some. Indeed, painter Alice Boyd, Scott’s former pupil who became his longtime ‘companion’ figures in the scene of Northumberland heroine Grace Darling.

Alice Boyd (L) and Christina Rossetti (R)

Now I say ‘companion’; the relationship was undoubtedly more intimate. Scott had, apparently, a natural attraction for women. At a relatively young age he married Letitia Norquoy, whom he treated shabbily for the rest of their married life. In 1847, Scott became acquainted with the Rossetti family in London, after receiving a letter from a young Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poet and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His sister Christina, also a renowned poet, fell in love with Scott. It was more than two years after they became acquainted that the Rossetti family discovered that Scott was already married. It seems Christina pined all her adult life for a relationship that could never be, although she did visit on occasion with Scott and his wife, and the significant other, Alice Boyd. As Princess Diana once famously said: “There were three persons in this marriage“. Scott lived openly with Alice Boyd for more than 30 years, and she and Letitia became friends.


 

No longer carrying coals to Newcastle*

Steph and I moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne at the beginning of October, leaving Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, and the West Midlands far behind. Just under 230 miles behind, in fact.

We have a six month rental on a nice house in the Shiremoor district of the city (North Tyneside Council) while we wait for the purchase of our new home to go through. We were fortunate to find somewhere to buy very soon after we made the move. Let’s hope the whole transaction goes more smoothly than did the sale of our Bromsgrove house.


And already we are enjoying getting to know the immediate surrounding area, and a little further afield, although the current Covid-19 lockdown restrictions don’t permit us to travel very far. We are fortunate that one of the closest beaches, at Seaton Sluice, is just 10 minutes away by car, and we have already enjoyed several walks between there and Blyth (a couple of miles or so north along the beach), to Cresswell and Druridge Bay somewhat further north, part way along a wooded valley known as Holywell Dene, to Plessey Woods with the grandchildren and, a few weeks back (before the latest lockdown came into force), we revisited the National Trust’s Cragside, a magnificent Victorian mansion that was built on the open moors near Rothbury in Northumberland.


Since my retirement in 2010, I took to walking almost everyday, weather permitting, as a replacement for the badminton I used to play regularly in the previous decade in Los Baños in the Philippines. As I have written in many blog posts, Walking with my mobile, I explored Bromsgrove and the surrounding district. I tried to walk at least a couple of miles each time (sometimes further), but for a minimum of 45 minutes as recommended. Not that I always achieved that.

Anyway, I did wonder what the walking would be like here in the northeast, close to home. And I haven’t been disappointed. What a delight! There’s a rich legacy of an important industrial past, a heritage in fact.

Heavy industry, and the economic wellbeing of this area north and south of the River Tyne were, for centuries, dependent on the mining of coal (‘black gold’), and the various quays along the river became among the most important in the world for the export of coal, much of it going south to warm the houses of the metropolis, London. But also further afield.

The Northumberland and Durham Coalfields (north and south of the Tyne) are one and the same larger coalfield, often referred to as the Great Northern Coalfield. And the area northeast of Newcastle city center, where we are currently living, is dotted with former coal mines and spoil heaps. But they have, to all intents and purpose, disappeared from the landscape. Mines were closed up to 40 years ago, and the pithead infrastructure was mostly demolished. Only in a few places do any building survive. Spoil heaps were flattened, the landscape rehabilitated, and these open spaces allocated for building, or parks like the Silverlink Biodiversity Park that is just a mile from our home.

But what is more remarkable—and I’m going to have to do more research and blog more extensively in the future—is the network of paths, 150 miles of them in North Tyneside alone that have become not only an important recreation and leisure amenity for everyone to enjoy (walking, cycling, and horse riding) but they are important biodiversity corridors into the city with many bird species, and mammals such as deer, rabbits, and hares. I’ve not seen any deer or hares yet, but rabbits and many bird species are quite common.

So why all these paths? Well, they are the disused trackbeds of railways built to haul the coal from the collieries north of the River Tyne down to the coal wharfs (or staithes), where it was loaded on to waiting ships. These paths are called waggonways.

Each mine or colliery built its own. Originally coal trucks ran on wooden rails. With the development of steam power, engine houses were built to lower and raise sets of wagons to the river, attached to cables. At the beginning of the 20th century these were replaced by steam locomotives that ran up and down the waggonways with their full load to the staithes, and empty on the return journey back to the mines. These photos were taken along the Cramlington Waggonway, which is the closest to home, less than a quarter of a mile.

I need to find so much more about the waggonways and the history of coal mining in this area. That should keep me busy for quite some time. In the meantime, we shall enjoy exploring these unique routes through the city, and the biodiversity that they harbor.


Much as we are enjoying walking along the waggonways, I have to mention the wanton and I guess mostly lazy littering that we have noticed along the paths. But some quite deliberate as I saw a bag of household waste tossed into the bushes. Much of the litter comprises used beer cans or plastic water bottles, some plastic bags. But, in these Covid times, also an increasing number of disposable face masks.

Now whether littering on this scale is endemic in the ‘local culture’ so to speak or, because of the pandemic, North Tyneside Council is unable to deploy workers to clear up the litter, I have no idea. But it is a sad reflection on a certain section of the local community that they feel they can pollute these environments in the way they do.


* The saying ‘to carry coals to Newcastle’ means to do or bring something superfluous or unnecessary, and has been in use since at least the 1500s. So what is its basis? As a major coal-exporting town, it would have been a worthless endeavor to try and sell coal from outside the local coalfields in Newcastle itself. And so, the saying gained a wider currency signifying something unnecessary.


 

Our Northumbrian adventure begins . . .

I first visited the northeast of England in the summer of 1967. I was 18. And then, a couple of years later, I joined a group of Northumbrian pipers and dancers from Newcastle upon Tyne to perform at a bagpipe festival in the Czech town of Strakonice. Before heading for Czechoslovakia (as it was in those days) we met up in Newcastle to get to know one another, and form Morris and rapper sword dance teams. And get some practice!

In 1998, Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, the county immediately south of the border with Scotland, and one of England’s largest counties. Until 1974, Newcastle was part of Northumberland, but then the metropolitan county of Tyne & Wear was created.

Northumberland is a magnificent county. There are awe-inspiring landscapes, beaches that stretch to the horizon, and millennia of history, including remarkable Roman remains dotted across the county, the world famous Hadrian’s Wall in particular.

Most of the county is rural. Settlements grew up on the coast, exploiting the once-abundant fishing in the North Sea, or mining ‘black gold’—coal seams that stretch for miles under the sea. Fishing stocks declined, coal pits closed. The once prosperous coastal towns and mining villages are now looking beyond tourism for a brighter future.

In 2000, our younger daughter Philippa enrolled at the University of Durham (16 miles south of Newcastle) so we would visit her there over the next three years when back in the UK on home leave from the Philippines where I had been working since 1991 in rice research.

In 2005, Philippa returned to the northeast and took a research post in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne. Between then and when we retired back to the UK in 2010, we visited her in Newcastle on several occasions, and have traveled there a couple of times a year once we had resettled in Bromsgrove.

Steph and Philippa on the banks of the River Tyne in the center of Newcastle in July 2007. That’s the Gateshead Millennium Bridge in the distance, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to the right, and the shiny building (top right) is the culture hall, Sage Gateshead.

In 2010, Philippa married Andi and they settled in the Heaton district of Newcastle. Elvis and Felix were born in September 2011 and September 2013. She completed her PhD in 2010 and joined the faculty of Northumbria University.

Family get-together in Bromsgrove in mid-August 2019.

Our elder daughter Hannah and her family—husband Michael, and Callum (10) and Zoë (8)—live in St Paul, Minnesota, and since 2010, we have traveled to visit them each year (as well as having a video call every week). But not this year, unfortunately.

For several years, both Philippa and Hannah have been encouraging us to sell our home of 39 years in Bromsgrove and move north to Newcastle. Well, as you might imagine, we were comfortably settled, it was hard to even think about such a move. But the more we did, weighing up all the advantages of being closer to family since we’re not getting any younger, and while we are still in good health, moving to Newcastle didn’t seem such a crazy idea after all.

In November 2019 we decided to take a look at the housing market in Newcastle, and again when we visited over Christmas. We made the decision. We would move in 2020, so put our house on the market in January this year. The Covid-19 pandemic almost scuppered our plans, and although we didn’t make our original deadline of mid-year to be in Newcastle, we have now arrived. Just two weeks ago, and have taken a small rental property for the next six months.

What’s even more remarkable is that we have already found a house to buy, made an offer that was accepted, and have begun the conveyancing to purchase. It’s actually not too far from where we are currently living in the northeast of the city, towards the coast.

Last week (the day before Steph’s birthday), and it being a bright sunny day, we headed to Seaton Sluice just five miles away on the coast to enjoy the sea air. I’ve never lived by the sea (if you discount the time I was a student in Southampton, which is a major seaport, and not close to any beaches). Steph hails from Southend on Sea in Essex, and grew up just stone’s throw from stretches of beach where the Thames estuary meets the North Sea.

Now we have the opportunity of walking along the beach any time the fancy takes us. And that’s just what we did on the 7th, and yesterday. We have walked the beach at Seaton Sluice in the past with Philippa and the family. But these were our first walks as residents, so to speak.

I still have to pinch myself that we can hop in the car, and in just over ten minutes can be walking on the beach. On the 7th we couldn’t park at the usual carpark; it was occupied by maintenance workers who were doing some engineering work on the beach. So we parked further south on Rocky Island, and walked along the beach. On our second visit, we headed further north.

What an exhilarating feeling, watching the waves roll in and crash on the beach. The strong breeze blowing the cobwebs away. We even saw an Atlantic grey seal enjoying an early lunch during our first walk.

These are just the first two of many more walks to come and enjoy. Thus begins our Northumbrian adventure. Watch this space . . .