Deck the halls . . .

Steph and I joined the National Trust in February 2011, and have now visited more than 130 of its properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as four in Scotland (where Trust members receive reciprocal benefits from the National Trust for Scotland).

I should add we’re also members of English Heritage, but have visited far fewer of its properties.

We’ve certainly had full value from our National Trust joint senior membership over the past decade. We appreciate how visitor policies have developed and adapted to changing expectations over that period, making its properties—and the stories they have to tell—so much more accessible. Its policy on photography (subject to any copyright restrictions) has been relaxed, so that enthusiasts like me can record our visits (no flash!) and then blog about them afterwards.


Here in the northeast of England (where we moved in October 2020), there are fewer Trust properties than in the Midlands (in north Worcestershire) where we lived for many years, and which was a great base for heading out in all directions to explore the National Trust landscape.

Unsurprisingly, the property we have visited most is Hanbury Hall, on our doorstep, near Bromsgrove.

On our last visit to Hanbury Hall in early September 2020, less than a month before we moved to the northeast.

Hanbury Hall was also the first Trust property we visited in February 2011 just after becoming members. We enjoyed all our visits there, most often to take a walk in the extensive park, see how its magnificent parterre changed through the seasons, and occasionally take a glimpse inside the house. 

I could write a whole blog just about Hanbury Hall’s parterre.


At this time of the year, however, Hanbury Hall like many National Trust properties have introduced their winter opening schedules, or indeed closing over the next couple of months or so, just opening for special occasions. For many of the properties, Christmas is one those.

And from what we have experienced over the past decade of Christmas visits, the staff and volunteers at the houses really make a great effort to embody the spirit of Christmas.

So as we creep inexorably towards Christmas 2022, here are a few reminiscences of the Christmas visits we have enjoyed since 2013. Sometimes there is a theme for the Christmas display, in others, houses are ‘dressed’ as they might have been when under family ownership. And it’s not hard to imagine just how full of the joys of Christmas many of these properties must have been, children running excitedly about (they had the space!), while parents entertained their guests, all the while looked after by a bevy of household staff. How the other half lived!

Whatever the perspective, grand or modest, these Christmas visits (or just after) are indeed something to nurture the spirit of the season.

Hanbury Hall (9 December 2013), Worcestershire


Baddesley Clinton (19 December 2014), Warwickshire


Charlecote Park (16 December 2015), Warwickshire


Greyfriars (14 December 2016), Worcester


Croome (28 December 2017), Worcestershire


Coughton Court (30 November 2018), Warwickshire


Hanbury Hall (9 December 2019), Worcestershire


In 2020, many houses were still closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic although we had been to Cragside in October and toured the house.

On 14 December visited Wallington in Northumberland. The house was closed, but we enjoyed a coffee outside in the courtyard, and an invigorating walk around the garden and park (although parts were closed due to the tree damage caused by Storm Arwen that hit the northeast at the end of November).

Wallington (10 December 2021), Northumberland


Ormesby Hall (28 November 2022), North Yorkshire


 

We saw the Fairies Caves but no lonesome pines

Just over a month ago, Steph and I took the Metro to Cullercoats, a small community between Whitley Bay and Tynemouth on the North Sea coast, just a few miles from home. Our intention was to walk along the beach and coastal path from Cullercoats to Tynemouth, no more than a couple of miles. While we followed much of the coastal path, it’s not possible to show the actual detailed route we took across the beaches on the map below.

Just after we’d climbed out of Cullercoats Bay, and were looking south over Long Sands Beach, I had to pinch myself once again being so lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the country. And with the coast just a few minutes from home.

Looking south towards Tynemouth at Long Sands Beach.

Anyway, back to the beginning of the walk. The Metro ride to Cullercoats took around 10 minutes (just five stops) from our ‘home’ station, Northumberland Park.

To fortify ourselves for the walk ahead, we stopped for a welcome cup of coffee at the Cullercoats Coffee Co., on the corner of Station Road and John St., and only a couple of hundred meters from the Metro station.

It must have been around 10 am, and we were surprised to find the coffee shop heaving with customers, with just one table for two empty on the kerbside. Luckily it was a bright and sunny day, and still quite warm for mid-October.


Cullercoats is a sandy bay enclosed by two piers. It once had a thriving fishing industry, and hosted an artists’ colony in the 19th century, with local fisher-folk often featuring in the paintings.

At low tide (when we visited) there are long stretches of exposed rocks and pools on either side of the bay entrance.

Newcastle University’s Dove Marine Laboratory and the Cullercoats Lifeboat Station (established in 1848, with the red doors) are based here.

At the base of the yellow sandstone cliffs behind the beach are several caves, known locally as the Fairies Caves. We didn’t venture inside but having now read a little more about them, that’s something we will do next time we visit.

And as we climbed over the headland at the south side of the bay we got our first view of Long Sands Beach, and St. George’s Anglican church on Grand Parade.


At the south end of the beach is Tynemouth Outdoor Pool, just below Sharpness Point. It has been abandoned since the 1990s. But in its heyday, it was a popular attraction for families enjoying their summer holidays on this beautiful northeast coast.

In Tynemouth, the Grand Hotel stands on Grand Parade above the Pool, overlooking Long Sands Beach.

Built in 1872, there have been numerous famous visitors, among them comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Stan Laurel lived in North Shields between 1897 and 1902 and attended the King’s School in Tynemouth.

In 1854, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi is believed to have stayed in a house that is now part of the King’s School. At least there’s a blue plaque to that effect. The school opened its doors in 1860.

The next bay south, below Tynemouth Priory and Castle (owned by English Heritage) is King Edward’s Bay, just a short walk from the town’s main street, Front Street.

King Edward’s Bay – with the breakwaters at the entrance to the River Tyne visible just beyond the headland.

We headed along Front Street towards Tynemouth Metro station. Since we moved up here two years ago, I’ve seen ‘Front Street’ in many towns and villages. I guess this must be the northeast equivalent of ‘High Street’ further south.

Front Street in Tynemouth is a wonderfully broad street, and although it’s now overburdened (in my opinion) with eating and drinking establishments, it’s not hard to imagine it during its Georgian or Victorian heydays.

There’s even a Back Front Street!

Tynemouth’s Metro station is an iron and glass architectural masterpiece, which opened on 7 July 1882 as part of the North East Railway. It’s now a Grade II listed building.

On weekdays, Metro trains run every 12 minutes, so we were home before too long.

And that’s what so nice about living where we do. So many attractions and walks within short distances, and which we can (being retired) drop everything and take time out to enjoy.


You may be wondering about the title reference to ‘lonesome pines’. It’s all to do with Laurel and Hardy.


 

Glass is performance art (Thomas Phifer, architect)

I couldn’t agree more. Take a piece of distinct Bristol blue glass, or an 18th century air twist glass, for example. Glass is such a beautiful medium—organic even—that when cold and solid seems to retain a fluidity only achieved at high temperature.

I enjoy a wee dram of whisky from time to time. There’s nothing quite like drinking whisky from a finely-cut crystal glass. Taste and touch combining to enhance the overall sensory experience.

If I ever tune into Antiques Roadshow on BBC1, it’s with the hope that glassware expert Andy McConnell (right) might be on the show, and has found an interesting piece of glassware. His enthusiasm for all glass is infectious.

I lived in the West Midlands until two years ago, and knew that Stourbridge was one of the country’s most important glass making centers for centuries. It wasn’t until we moved to the northeast that I discovered just how important the glass industry was in this region since Anglo-Saxon times.

Last Friday, we decided to find out a lot more about glass making and visited the National Glass Centre (NGC), that was opened in October 1998 on the University of Sunderland’s Sir Tom Cowie campus at St Peter’s, on the banks of the River Wear opposite the Port of Sunderland.

So why did Sunderland become such an important center for glass making?

Well, you have to go back to AD 674 when Bishop Benedict Biscop sought help from craftsmen in Gaul to make windows for his newly-founded monastery, the remains of which are still seen in St Peter’s Church (with its original Anglo-Saxon tower) near the NGC. This was where one of Britain’s most famous scholars, the Venerable Bede, grew up.

Between AD 800 or so and 1615, glass making had all but ceased in the northeast. Then King James I banned the use of wood as a fuel for glass production. Given the plentiful supply of coal in the northeast, and that sailing ships coming from the Continent carried ballast in the form of quality sand, glass making was revived here, companies founded, and they prospered well into the 20th century. Sunderland became famous for Pyrex.

Most of the bottle and glassworks have disappeared, closed down, demolished.

But the remants of the industry continue to be washed up along the shore. At the end of August, Steph and I traveled to Seaham, south of Sunderland, to find sea glass on one of the beaches south of the town’s harbor.

Today, the National Glass Centre celebrates the history of glass making in Sunderland and along the Durham coast. When some of the glass makers closed down a couple of decades ago, craftsmen from those companies were hired at the NGC and today offer daily demonstrations of glass-blowing and the like in its workshops, one of which we enjoyed watching after lunch.

Exhibitions are mounted in the main gallery on the upper entrance level. And at the time of our visit, there was a display of many of the pieces that have emanated from the studios of Neil Wilkin and Rachael Woodman. Such remarkable artistry, use of color. I was blown away, if you’ll pardon the pun. Pieces are also offered for sale, with the smallest and cheapest being merely expensive (£1800) to other larger pieces beyond my pay grade, several times over. They are remarkably beautiful. Here is just a small selection of the pieces on display.


We opted to take the Tyne and Wear Metro to Sunderland, changing lines (from yellow to green) at Monument on the outward journey, and Heworth on the return.

Our closest station, Northumberland Park is just a few minutes’ walk from home. St Peter’s at the other end is just over half a mile (and 10 minutes) from the NGC.

Nothing could have been more convenient, and much less hassle than driving there.

It was about 45 minutes or so each way, and on the return journey I managed to snap the Tyne bridges in the afternoon sunlight.


 

 

On Kielder side . . .

Nestling beneath the England-Scotland border in the far west of Northumberland in the northeast of England, Kielder Water (owned by Northumbrian Water) is the largest man-made reservoir in England by capacity (Rutland Water has a greater surface area), holding 200 billion liters, and with a maximum depth of 52 meters.

It took six years (1975-1981) to construct the reservoir, which was first flooded in 1982. The River North Tyne is the primary inflow.

The Kielder Water dam.

The view east down the valley of the River North Tyne from the Kielder Water dam.

View from the dam across Kielder Water towards the England-Scotland border on the hills in the distance.

Kielder Water is surrounded by Kielder Forest, the largest woodland of its kind in northern Europe, managed by Forestry England (an executive agency sponsored by the Forestry Commission).

We have been waiting for a break in the weather to make a return visit. We first visited this area in 1998 during a touring holiday in Northumberland. And then again in December 2017 when we spent a couple of nights in one of the cabins (with our daughter Philippa, husband Andi, and grandsons Elvis and Felix) at the Leaplish Waterside Park along the western shore of the reservoir.

There are paths for walking and cycling right around Kielder Water.

Kielder Water on a cold and calm December morning, looking east towards the dam.


From our home in North Tyneside, it’s just under 60 miles by road to Kielder Water, taking in much of the awe-inspiring Northumberland landscape along the way. Talk about big skies!

We stopped at the Kielder dam to enjoy a welcome cup of coffee; our journey had taken a little over an hour. Then we crossed the dam to a viewpoint on the far side before heading back and continuing our trip north on the western shore.

Less than a mile from the dam we made a slight detour to view the reservoir from Elf Kirk Viewpoint (it’s marked on the map above). What a delight to see the Autumn colors beginning to shine through, particularly all the golden bracken.

The view northeast from Elf Kirk Viewpoint, looking over the small marina at Merlin Brae.

This was the view southeast from the northern end of Kielder Water, with the dam in the distance.


However, the main focus of our trip was the Kielder Forest Drive, a 12 mile toll road (£3) from Kielder village northeast to the A68 road (Newcastle-Jedburgh) just south of Byrness village.

About a mile in, we stopped to take a stroll up the hillside, which ended up being a three mile walk, and climbing maybe a couple of hundred feet. But the weather was glorious, and it was most enjoyable.

Here is a short video taken along the Forest Drive. It’s really remote, and on the day we visited virtually no other travelers apart from some Forestry England employees.

The rough gravel roads reminded me of traveling around Peru all those decades ago, fifty years come January. The Forest Drive certainly passes through some wild landscapes, made even more ethereal in those parts of the forest that have been felled but not yet replanted. A torn landscape. No cellphone signal.

And there was one object we saw on the hills marking the border between England and Scotland. A container with fire retardant fluid to combat any forest fires, perhaps? Or maybe a defence installation, and early warning system the Scots have installed to repel English encroachments once they gain independence. What do you think?

Fire prevention or defence?

Having reached the A68, it was a smooth and direct drive back down to the coast. Here are a couple of videos (below) traveling through glorious landscapes near Otterburn and Elsdon. Why not listen to Kathryn Tickell, an acclaimed exponent of the Northumbrian pipes (and fiddle); the first tune is Kielder Jock.

Northumberland never fails to inspire!


 

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!