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.


 

It’s all NEWS to me. Definitely not fake!

Cornwall

Over the past two weeks, Steph and I have been enjoying a BBC2 TV series about Cornwall by the Padstow-based chef, Rick Stein. For my non-UK readers, Cornwall lies at the southwest extremity of mainland Britain. In fact, the Lizard is the southernmost point.

Stein has made many other TV series, from locations all around the world, and they are primarily concerned with the food and dishes of those places. In his Cornwall series, however, Stein sets out to show what the county means to him, his home for more than five decades. Cheffing is just one aspect of the programs, as he also covers the beautiful landscapes, the people, as well as the excellent produce from land and sea for which Cornwall is renowned.

I’ve been to Cornwall just twice. In the late 1990s, while I was Head of the Genetic Resources Center at International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, and managing the world’s largest genebank for rice, I was contacted by someone from the Eden Project near St Austell, requesting samples of some rice varieties they might display in the tropical biome (in one of the original three geodesic domes).

As a special treat, Steph and I were invited to visit to the Eden Project in the summer of 2001 to have a behind-the scenes look at the project that had only just opened its doors to the public. It’s now a major world visitor attraction.

It took another sixteen years in September 2017 before we returned to Cornwall, to spend a glorious week touring the county, primarily to visit a plethora of National Trust and English Heritage sites. And among the places we visited was Lizard Point. You can’t get more southerly than here (49.9593° N, 5.2065° W). It was a glorious day when we visited, and we took advantage of the weather to walk along the cliffs and enjoy the vistas that opened up before us.

The map below shows where these photos were taken. Just check the partial vista symbols.

As we approached the view over Housel Bay and a collapsed cliff, I saw these black birds suddenly fly up from a nearby pasture. A few minutes later we were watching a pair of choughs (which feature on the Cornish coat of arms) on the rocks below. What a joy, since choughs are no longer common in Cornwall, and have only recently begun to re-establish themselves once cattle grazing practices had reverted to what was common before the chough decline. There are now about 100 breeding pairs of choughs in the county. A success story.

Having reflected on this visit to the southernmost point of mainland Britain, I remembered that, on 30 May 2015 during our 2250 mile tour of Scotland, we had visited the northernmost point of the mainland, at Dunnet Head (58.6719° N, 3.3760° W) in Caithness.

There are splendid views across the Pentland Firth to Orkney, and we were fortunate that during our visit (and John o’ Groats the day before) the views were clear. The day after you could hardly see 50m down the fog-bound road.

So as a keen geographer (I took a degree in environmental botany and geography at the University of Southampton at the end of the 1960s), I’ve always had an interest in the spaces around me; my internal GPS. That’s the N and S covered. How about E and W?

In terms of the British mainland, I’ve not visited either of the two locations with claim to E and W fame: Ness Point (52.4812° N, 1.7628° E) at Lowestoft on the coast of Suffolk in East Anglia, and Ardnamuchan Point in Scotland. I’ve been close to both but never actually visited.

What about my other NEWS around the world? Check out this map:


 

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 . . .

Late summer blues . . . and yellows, oranges, reds – even some vivid greens

I think late summer-early autumn is my favorite time of the year. We’ve enjoyed the dog days of high summer. The heat is slipping away, an unusual feature of any normal British summer; recently we experienced some of the highest temperatures I can remember.

Yet yesterday (21 August) it already felt more like autumn, as Storm Ellen, an area of deep low pressure, was battering Ireland and the western side of the UK with wind gusts in some places in excess of 50 mph, and even reaching more than 40 mph here in northeast Worcestershire.

Even so, the sun tried to shine, a welcome break from the miserable weather earlier in the week when it was wet and overcast all day. Made worse by the rain finding a crack in the flat roof above our kitchen, and seeping through to splash all over a work surface below. Bummer! But hopefully now resolved with the judicious application of a product I’d not come across before: Fiba-Pol.

But enough of my waxing unlyrical about the weather, which everyone knows is favorite British pastime.


I love this transition from summer to autumn. A time when the colors in the garden are often at their strongest and most vibrant. Here are just a few of the lovely plants in Steph’s garden right now. I call it ‘Steph’s garden’ because it’s her creation, and she does all the hard work. I don’t get involved, and she prefers it that way. My only contribution is to keep the lawns to the front and rear of our home under control.


And nature’s bounty is on full display on many trees and bushes as fruits begin to form. 2020 looks like an exceptional mast year.

While trees have lost that bright green vibrancy of spring (I’ve already even seen leaves changing color on some trees close to home, but I think that’s more to do with the dry weather we have experienced in recent weeks), they are regaining it through the abundance of fruits that are forming right now, such as the acorns on oak trees everywhere. Or the prickly fruits on the sweet and horse chestnuts.

The bright red berries of the rowan trees in the vicinity hold great promise for the many birds that feast upon them, building up their reserves for the winter ahead, or maybe in preparation for a long migration south. And if I made wines, there seems to be an abundance of elderberries this year as well.

Before long, all these fruitful delights will have been consumed by the local wildlife, or rallen from the boughs. Already I’ve seen many acorns crushed underfoot. From little acorns mighty oak trees grow; but not these. Soon the trees will be bare, the abundance of color in the gardens faded away, and autumn and winter will creep inexorably along.

However, there is always the promise of next spring, and that is always something to look forward to.


 

Trusting during Covid-19

While life does seem to be returning to some sort of stability—I dislike the term ‘new normal’—many aspects of our lives that we have formerly taken for granted may not return for many months yet, if ever?

As experts have warned, this particular coronavirus will be with us for many years, decades even, as it becomes a firmly established endemic. Already new societal behaviours are taking hold, such as regular hand washing, appropriate social distancing, and the wearing of face masks, although as someone in the ‘at risk’ demographic, I wish that more individuals would take these simple but effective measures more seriously. Today it is mandatory to wear a face mask when entering shops, banks, and other establishments, unless you have a ‘dispensation’ or are under 11 years old.

Just this morning I walked into town (about ¾ of a mile), through the town center (another ¾), and then home (the same again). Until arriving at the town center, I did not pass a single person, and so did not wear my mask. But at that point, I donned my mask and wore it continuously as I navigated the High Street and beyond. Once I was in the ‘safety zone’ beyond the town center, I took my mask off, and didn’t pass another soul before arriving home. This is my normal pattern of mask use. I was surprised, miffed even, at how few people were wearing a mask continuously in the town center, maybe fewer than 10%. Some were carrying masks, and putting them on and taking them off just to enter shops. It seemed to me that at least 50% of the people I passed had no indication of a mask whatsoever. Unbelievable!

Anyway, enough of my ‘old fart’ grumbling. Let’s look at some recent positives.


Once lockdown came into effect in March, I continued my daily exercise every day, walking for at least 45 minutes, and between 2 and 2½ miles. I reckon I’ve walked around 300 miles since then. My walk rate has fallen off in recent weeks, however. The July weather has been rather variable, cool, and wet; and in preparation for our anticipated house move, Steph and I have spent a considerable amount of time sorting through almost 50 years of accumulated married life ‘stuff’. Fortunately, we’ve been able to upcycle an impressive number of items (which I wrote about in this post), and sending only those items to landfill or recycling (pieces of wood, cardboard, or scrap metal) that no-one was likely to have a use for.


As regular followers of my blog will know, we are enthusiastic members of both the National Trust and English Heritage. During the first three months of the pandemic, both closed their doors to all visitors. However, around the beginning of June, a number of National Trust properties were re-opened to visitors, but only their gardens and parklands. In recent days, several have also opened the houses to a strictly regulated number of admissions. I’m not sure what arrangements English Heritage has put in place.

To visit any of the NT properties that are now open, it is necessary to book tickets online for a timed entry slot. Initially, demand for tickets was high and it took some patience (not one of my virtues) to log into the ticket website. Tickets are released each Friday for the following week. After several attempts, we finally secured tickets for Hanbury Hall on 15 June, being just a hop and a skip (about 7 miles) from our home in Worcestershire. We have visited Hanbury Hall more than any other NT property, often dropping by whenever the fancy took us for a stroll around its splendid parterre (one of the finest in the whole NT portfolio, in my opinion), or a leisurely walk around the park. We missed that during lockdown.

The southwest facade of Hanbury Hall and the parterre in mid-June 2020.

I wrote about our recent June visit here. It was such a joy to be able to explore this delightful landscape once again. Here is a link to a more extensive album of photos from that visit.

Nine days later, we revisited Dudmaston Hall in Shropshire, just south of Bridgnorth. Dudmaston has been in the same family for more than 800 years.

This was our third visit to Dudmaston, having made our first in August 2013. On this latest visit, it was a beautiful, and rather hot day. Since I wear my hair very short, and my hairline has been receding for many years, my NT-purchased straw hat came into its own! We enjoyed a 2½ mile walk around the lake and gardens. Opposite the house, there are some splendid views across the lake towards the house.

Here is the link to more photos that I took on that day.

Then, on 10 July, we headed to the Brockhampton Estate near Bromyard in Herefordshire, just under 30 miles southwest from home. This was our third (maybe fourth?) visit to Brockhampton, having first been there in September 2012. We had actually planned to visit Brockhampton on the 9th, but as the weather deteriorated I was able to cancel our tickets, and rebook for the next day, which turned out fine.

The estate encompasses a working farm, at the heart of which is a medieval manor house surrounded by a moat. This was, of course, closed to all visitors. When we visited for a second time a couple of years back or so, more rooms in the manor house had been opened since our first visit.

After enjoying a picnic lunch, and walking around the moat, we headed back to the main car park (about 1½ miles from the manor house) and began a 3 mile walk through the ancient woods that cover a significant portion of the estate.

Then, just a couple of days ago, we secured tickets to Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, the home of the Lucy family since the 13th century, although the present house dates from the 16th century.

We had a timed slot for 10:30-11:00, and we arrived just after 10:45, the 28 mile trip southeast from home taking just over 30 minutes down the M40 motorway.

We immediately set off on our walk, taking in Hill Park and Front Park first, and then crossing over into West Park, for a total of about four miles. Place’s Meadow where we had walked on an earlier visit was closed to visitors on this occasion.

Charlecote is home to ancient herds of Jacob’s sheep and fallow deer. There were signs warning visitors to keep to paths, and not approach the deer. After lockdown, the deer were taking time to become accustomed to humans again. In Hill Park we had a great view of a small herd of fallow deer bucks, and hinds in West Park.

This was the first time we had explored West Park, eventually reaching what must have once been the ‘West Gate’, and then returning to the house (which stands on the banks of the River Avon—yes, Shakespeare’s Avon) along one of the most magnificent lime tree walks I’ve seen. Very impressive! It must be nearly half a mile long.

Back at the car, we enjoyed a leisurely picnic lunch, while watching the light aircraft coming into land at Wellesbourne Mountford Airfield just outside Charlecote Park (map). This is where I had a flying lesson in about 2006.

Here’s the link to a photo album of last Wednesday’s visit to Charlecote.


Hopefully our house sale will go through quite soon. We know the prospective purchasers want to be here before 1 September because their daughter is already enrolled in one of the local schools. But everyone in the chain is waiting for mortgages to be confirmed and contracts exchanged. Once that happens, it will be all hands to the pump and I expect we won’t have too many more opportunities for NT visits locally. Those will have to wait until we move north. So many more properties to explore.


 

 

 

 

Taking a last look at Hanbury Hall

As regular readers of my blog will know, my wife Steph and I are enthusiastic members of the National Trust (and English Heritage). At every opportunity, weather and other commitments permitting, we take off for an outing to one property or another. We are fortunate that there are so many within 50 miles of our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire (just south of the UK’s second city, Birmingham). In recent years we have also taken short breaks to explore properties much further afield in Northern Ireland (in 2017), Cornwall (in 2018), and East Sussex and Kent and Lincolnshire (in 2019).

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown put paid to these lovely outings. Until yesterday! Our last outing before lockdown was in the middle of January when, on a very misty, moisty morning, we had an excellent walk around our ‘local’ property, Hanbury Hall, an elegant ‘William and Mary’ house in the Worcestershire countryside, just over six miles from home.

We have visited more than twenty times since we joined the National Trust in 2011. In fact, Hanbury Hall was the first property we visited after we became members.

We just enjoy walking around the park and the magnificent parterre that is, in my opinion, one of the best among all the Trust’s properties. We’ve been inside the hall itself only three times, and two of those occasions were to see the Christmas decorations.

Here are some images of the parterre taken over the years and in different seasons. While not as colorful as some of the parterres we’ve seen, like those at Waddesdon Manor, Charlecote Park, or Witley Court (an English Heritage property), I really do appreciate the elegant simplicity of the Hanbury version, with beautiful clipped box hedges and cones, holly shrubs, and sparse planting.

During lockdown, I have been able to get out locally almost every day for a 2-3 mile walk. But the same routes have become rather stale after all these weeks. So, after three months of lockdown, it was great to be able to get timed entry tickets to Hanbury Hall yesterday. This is only the second week that Hanbury (and many other National Trust properties) have re-opened, but not fully. Visitors are being limited currently to allow for sufficient social distancing. On arrival we were made welcome in a safe manner.

What a joy! We’ve been ‘starved’ of the opportunity of just deciding, on a whim, to put on our walking shoes and head off for a stroll of just under three miles around Hanbury’s park and garden.

Here is a link to the album of photos from yesterday’s visit.

I mentioned that Hanbury will no longer be our local National Trust property. That’s because we have sold our house (subject to contract) and expect to move to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England by the beginning of September. Well, that’s the plan and we hope there are no glitches and hitches along the house selling pathway.

We already know several of the National Trust and English Heritage sites across the north east, and a little further south. We look forward to exploring those once again, and seeking out many that are still on our bucket list. Exciting times!

Reliving some of our best USA visits

2020 was meant to be a positive year of change. In early January we placed our house in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire on the market, with the hope (expectation?) of a quick sale. Instead, it’s a year on hold.

By the end of 2019 we had already decided (after pondering this decision for a couple of years or more) to leave the Midlands and move north to the Newcastle upon Tyne area, to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family: husband Andi, and sons Elvis (8) and Felix (6).

Steph and I are not getting any younger (70 and 71, respectively) and we decided that if we were going to make a move, we’d better get on with it while we had the enthusiasm, and continuing good health. Newcastle is almost 250 miles from where we currently live.

Back in January we thought we might be in Newcastle by mid-year, early autumn at the latest. That was before Covid-19 reared its ugly head. We are now in lockdown, and will be for the foreseeable future. Heaven knows when we might eventually push through with a sale.

So, with the expectation of this house move, we had already decided not to make our ‘annual’ visit to the USA (and road trip as in past years) to stay with our elder daughter Hannah and her family in Minnesota: husband Michael, Callum (9) and Zoë (7). Instead, they had decided to join us all in the Newcastle area for a two week vacation from early August. That’s also on hold until conditions improve and is unlikely now until 2021.

Since retirement in 2010, Steph and I have been making these US visits, and taking another holiday here in the UK, such as to Scotland in 2015, Northern Ireland in 2017, Cornwall in 2018, and East Sussex and Kent last year. As followers of this blog will know, Steph and I are avid members of both the National Trust and English Heritage. Alas, those day trips are also on hold.

Anyway, to cheer myself in the absence of any holiday breaks this year, I decided to look through the various blog posts I have published about many of the places we have visited in the USA—shown on the map below—and then give you my top five choices. As you can see from the map, there are several regions of the USA that we’ve not yet explored: Colorado, Utah and Idaho, southern Midwest, and southern states.

The dark red symbols indicate various national parks or other landscapes we have visited. Each has a link to the relevant blog post. The green symbols show cities where I have spent some days over the years.

It’s very hard to make a choice of my top five. But here they are, in no particular order (the links below open photo albums):

Having said that, Canyon de Chelly really is my No. 1, and I would return there tomorrow given half a chance. So why not include the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone in my top five? They would certainly be in the top 10.

We have been so fortunate to have had such great opportunities to travel around the USA. And we look forward to many more, filling in some of the gaps as we go.

I hope you enjoy looking at these road trip sites as much as we did visiting them over the past decade.


 

Two delightful country houses in deepest Warwickshire

Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton are impressive houses in Warwickshire, a few miles east of Junction 16 on the M40 motorway (map) near the village of Lapworth. The former started life as a Tudor farmhouse in the 1550s, whereas Baddesley Clinton is a moated manor house dating from the 13th century. They are just 2½ miles apart. Both are owned and managed by the National Trust.

The entrance to Packwood House.

Baddesley Clinton from the north.

We consider them among our ‘local’ properties, being only 17 miles away (and usually just over 20 minutes) from Bromsgrove down the M42 and M40 motorways. We have visited both several times over the years since we joined the National Trust.

There are interesting walks around both. I don’t have photos of the three mile Packwood walk (map), but I have written about a delightful walk we made at Baddesley Clinton in mid-October 2018.


Let’s first turn to Packwood House.

It’s not what it seems. I’ve even seen it described as a pastiche. There’s no doubt that the house does date from the sixteenth century, originally built for William Featherston. It remained in the Featherston family for generations. There are few original features in the house, but the garden is a reflection of former generations. The Yew Garden in particular, which is reputed to have been planted in the 1670s by John Featherston, grandson of William.

Graham Baron Ash

But the house we see today, and its interiors, are the creation of Graham Baron Ash (Baron being his second name, not a title), who inherited Packwood House on the death of his Birmingham industrialist father, Alfred James Ash, in 1925.

This article, on the Landed Families of Britain and Ireland website (published in December 2015), not only describes the genealogy of the Ash family, but also details how Baron Ash set about restoring Packwood House, installing new features like the staircase, and building a link (The Long Gallery) between the house and a converted barn. He then set about acquiring architectural salvage from houses that were being demolished (detailed in the web article I referred to above). Unless you were aware of this story before visiting Packwood House, you’d probably have no idea that the interiors were a ‘fantasy’. But an elegant fantasy.

To one side of the house is a sunken garden, and beyond that the Yew Garden.

This link will take you to an album with all the photos taken during our various visits to Packwood House.

Satisfied with his creation, Baron Ash donated Packwood House, its contents, and gardens to the National Trust in 1941, although he continued to live there until 1947 when he moved to Wingfield Castle in Suffolk.


Baddesley Clinton retains much of its medieval ancestry. Entrance to the house is across the moat that surrounds the house.

The estate was acquired by John Brome in 1438, and passed to his son Nicholas, who built the nearby Church of St Michael. On Nicholas’s death in 1517, Baddesley Clinton passed to his daughter Constance who had married Sir Edward Ferrers, Sheriff of Warwickshire. It was Edward Ferrers who reconstructed the house much as we see today. He is buried in the church, as is Nicholas and many generations of the family. The Ferrers were a recusant Catholic family, and there is a priest hole in the gate tower.

The house remained in the Ferrers family for five centuries until 1940, when it was sold to a distant cousin who changed his name to Ferrers. The National Trust acquired the estate from his son in 1980.

I have included many photos of the interior of the house in this album.

The gardens are not extensive, but the National Trust gardeners keep the borders looking spick and span. At the time of our 2018 visit, there were dahlias of all colors in bloom. On the side of one building a glorious wisteria blooms in the early summer.


Even though Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton are such a short distance apart, there is too much to see if you would try to include both in a single visit. About four years ago, a new shop and restaurant were constructed at Packwood House serving great meals. Baddesley Clinton has a sheltered courtyard next to converted outbuildings (not inside the moat) where one can enjoy an excellent cup of coffee and a National Trust flapjack sitting in the sun, weather (and Steph) permitting.

 

 

 

 

Veni, vidi . . . conquest came later

Julius Caesar’s first British forays in 55 and 54 BC were not altogether successful. It took almost 100 years (and several Roman emperors later) before the Roman occupation of Britain took hold.

It wasn’t until AD 43 that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest and was, to all intents and purposes, completed over the next 50 years. However, Roman rule lasted only 400 years or so. Then the Romans just upped and left.

But what a profound impact Roman occupation had on the British landscape during those four centuries.

Take the road system, for instance. The Romans built 8000 miles of roads that enabled them to move armies and commerce across the country more easily. Roman roads are still exposed in many places, like the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors that we visited in the summer of 1988 when Hannah and Philippa were ten and six, respectively.

However, take a look at today’s road system in the UK, and many of the most important trunk roads still follow the routes of Roman roads built 2000 years ago, such as the Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Ermine Street.

And at the same time that the conquest of Britain was underway on the far-flung northwest frontier of the Roman empire, just over 1000 miles southeast in Rome itself, the Colosseum was being built (by the Emperor Vespasian).

Aerial view of the Colosseum, with the Forum on the top right, and the Palatine Hill beyond on the top left.

The Romans founded cities all over England. There are so many fine examples of Roman settlements and architecture to be explored. Just take four examples that we have visited: the city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, the villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, the lighthouse in Dover, standing high above the chalk cliffs on the south coast, or the landing stage at The Weir along the River Wye in Herefordshire.

It’s also remarkable just how far north the Romans expanded their control. In order to protect their domain, a 73 mile long wall was constructed across the north of England, just south of what is today the border with Scotland, from the west coast on the Solway Firth to Newcastle (Wallsend) on the east. This is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction began around 122 AD under the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s Wall facing east towards Crag Lough. The rocky outcrop is the Whin Sill, of volcanic origin.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings.

This fortification remained the Romans’ principal fortification against hostile tribes to the north. Here’s a short video from the Smithsonian Channel.

What I believe is less well known is that the Romans built another wall, the Antonine Wall some 100 miles further north, spanning a length of about 40 miles between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its counterpart to the south, the Antonine Wall was abandoned just a few years after it completion, and the Romans retreated south behind Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1998, when Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, we took the opportunity of exploring different sections of the Wall, near Cawfield Quarry, and at Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium; map) one of the largest settlements along the Wall. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but if I did take many more photos, I can’t lay my hands on them. That will be a project in progress once we move north.

Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads appear to be managed jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Just two miles southwest from Housesteads Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the north of England, perhaps in the whole country: Vindolanda. It is owned and managed by The Vindolanda Trust.

Vindolanda is known for the huge quantity of Roman artefacts that have been recovered during archaeological excavations, many of which are on display in the excellent museum there. Of particular renown are the Vindolanda tablets, handwritten documents on wood detailing life on this lonely frontier of the Empire, and beautifully preserved for almost 2000 years.

Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews.

The tablet that is perhaps most cited, No. 291 from around 100 AD, was an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the commander of a nearby fort.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, we also explored the site of a Roman encampment at Chew Green, overlooking the border with Scotland.

There’s not to much to see, just some raised mounds marking various buildings and the like. It’s a bleak spot, to say the least.

But there is (or at least should be) another legacy of the Roman occupation here and elsewhere. It’s not a legacy that you can observe as such. It needs the techniques of molecular genetics to reveal it. DNA!

We know, from writings left behind, that Roman soldiers from all corners of the Empire served on this northwest frontier. From as far east as Iran and Afghanistan, North Africa, and other regions of Europe. Unquestionably many will have had relationships (consenting or otherwise) with local women, and had children.

Britain is a nation built on immigration over millennia. The Roman conquest was the first major invasion of many that followed—the Germanic invasions, the Vikings, and the Normans. All left their DNA behind in the genetic melting pot. It’s just that the ‘Romans’ were the first, so to speak.

And we’re so hung up over immigration today. Ironic.

 

 

 

 

Benign decay in the Northumberland countryside

Belsay Hall, some 14 miles northwest from Newcastle upon Tyne, is a country mansion, constructed between 1810 and 1817 in the so-called Greek Revival style. It is believed to be the first house in the country to be built along these lines.

Steph and I visited Belsay Hall in late July 2009, along with our younger daughter Philippa and Andi (who she married in 2010).

The east front and main entrance

Its owner was Sir Charles Monck who, until taking up residence in his new house, occupied the 14th century castle on the Belsay estate nearby, and which is also open to the public.

Belsay Hall is a square building, and today is completely empty inside, being left in what has been described as ‘benign decay’. The only maintenance prevents the building from deteriorating further. The house is decorated throughout in the ‘Greek style’, pillars everywhere.

The stables and coach house, which are sited just to the northeast of the main entrance, are also open to the public.

On the south side of the house, there is a terrace and formal gardens.

After exploring the house, we made our way to the castle, a half mile walk through the Quarry Garden, a cool, dark, and damp environment favored by luxuriant ferns. The house was built from stone quarried here.

There is access to the roof of the tower and, on a nice day, I’m sure there must be fine views over the surrounding landscape. It was rather grey and misty on the day we visited.

In July 2009, there was a very special art installation mounted in the Great Hall.

Lucky Spot, as it is known, is a three dimensional chandelier in the shape of a leaping Appaloosa horse, hanging from the rafters of the Great Hall. Made from 8000 large crystals beads, it was a collaboration between Stella McCartney (daughter of former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney) and the Austrian glass maker Swarovski. I’ve read that Stella McCartney was inspired to create Lucky Spot after a visit to Belsay.

Catching the light from all directions, this is one of the more impressive pieces of art that I have come across.

Once we move up to the northeast, a return visit to Belsay is definitely on the cards. This time I’ll make sure to use my camera rather more liberally than I did in 2009.


 

 

 

Crossing the North Sea by boat and car . . . or so it seemed

In the summer of 1998, when Steph and I were back in the UK on our annual home leave (I was working in the Philippines at the time), we had a week’s holiday in Northumberland. We spent almost the whole week within the boundaries of the county, the fifth largest in England, crossing into southern Scotland for just one night. It was the first time we had visited the county. But it wouldn’t be the last, not by a long chalk.

Our younger daughter Philippa enrolled at Durham University (under 20 miles south of Newcastle upon Tyne) in 2000, and after graduation in 2003, remained in the northeast, marrying Andi in 2010 and now raising two boys, Elvis and Felix. So, we’ve been traveling up to Newcastle at least a couple of times a year, and taking more opportunities to explore the fabulous Northumbrian countryside.

Northumberland has so much to offer, from moorlands to coast. There are so many Roman ruins to explore like Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall as well as magnificent castles like Bamburgh, Warkworth, and Dunstanburgh. The coast has some of the best beaches in the whole of the country, but not so good for bathing, at least in my opinion. Why? Because the North Sea is too damned cold!

On two days we headed to the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island.


The Farne Islands
The Farnes (owned by the National Trust) are an archipelago of some 15-20 islands (depending on the tides) up to 4 miles off the northern coast of Northumberland, just south of the border with Scotland. They are one of the country’s most important sites for breeding seabirds, with significant colonies of puffins, terns, guillemots, and kittiwakes, among others. After a short (maybe 30 minutes) boat ride from Seahouses, we arrived at Inner Farne, the only island with access. It was a smooth crossing to Inner Farne in bright sunshine, but by the time of our arrival there, it had clouded over.

Puffins on the cliff edge, with guillemots on the far right.

As we approached Inner Farne, it was hard not to wonder at the sheer number of seabirds flying to and from the islands, as well as the rising cacophony of calls from the different species.

After landing, and as we made our way on the short walk to St Cuthbert’s Chapel, and afterwards as we explored other open paths, we were dive-bombed by protective Arctic terns that were nesting in the grass on all sides. And I can assure you that a passing peck from the tern’s dagger-like beak hurts! In fact, the National Trust encourages all visitors to bring suitable headgear for protection.

This was my first up-close experience of large colonies of seabirds. And what a feast for the eyes as you can see from the images above.

Besides the various bird (and grey seal) colonies, Inner Farne also has a long history of human occupation dating back to the late seventh century AD, becoming first the solitary home of St Aidan, and then St Cuthbert (who is buried in Durham Cathedral). Apart from National Trust reserve wardens stationed on the islands during the seabird summer breeding season, the islands are now uninhabited.

But they do have a particular claim to fame for the brave exploits of Grace Darling, daughter of the Longstone lighthouse keeper on another of the islands who, with her father, saved nine persons on board the paddle steamer Forfarshire that was wrecked in a tremendous storm on the Farnes in 1838. She was only 22. She died of tuberculosis in 1842, a national heroine.

Grace Darling (1815-1842) and the SS Forfarshire that foundered on the Farne Islands in 1838.


Holy Island and Lindisfarne Priory
A little further up the coast is Holy Island, the site of Lindisfarne Priory (owned by English Heritage).

Access to the island is across a one mile tidal causeway that is submerged twice a day at high tide, so careful planning is required to safely cross on to the island, and avoid being stranded before the tide covers the causeway. I don’t remember exactly when we crossed, but we had no issues, and had plenty of time on the island itself before returning to the mainland. We did see a couple of cars that hadn’t made it in time, caught in a rising tide and abandoned by their owners.

We did not visit the castle on Holy Island. That is owned by the National Trust. I’m not sure if it was open to the public back in the day.

Monks first settled on Holy Island in AD 635, but after a violent Viking raid in AD 793 they fled from the island. The ruins that comprise Lindisfarne Priory date from the 12th century. The most spectacular is the Rainbow Arch.

I must have taken more photos, but these are the few that I’ve been able to lay my hands on.

We’ve only scratched the surface of Holy Island. Once we have moved north, then we hope to have many opportunities of exploring this magical place again, including the castle next time.


 

 

 

 

Following in the footsteps of Izaak Walton

Izaak Walton

The River Dove is a 45 mile long tributary of the River Trent (the third longest river in the UK), and for much of its length is the county boundary between Staffordshire to the west, and Derbyshire to the east (map).

It’s a sparkling trout stream, and was partly the inspiration for The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton first published in 1653.

The river cuts through the Peak District’s limestone dome to form a series of deep valleys covered in ash woodland, known as dales, of which perhaps the most well known is Dovedale.

Dovedale is a National Nature Reserve; the land is owned by the National Trust, and apparently receives a million visitors a year, so you can imagine just how crowded it might become at the height of the summer tourist season. But not in these Covid-19 days, regrettably.

The entrance to Dovedale from the south, with Thorpe Cloud on the right.

I grew up in Leek in North Staffordshire, just 14 miles to the west of Dovedale (about 25 minutes by car). My paternal grandparents, Tom and Alice Jackson, lived in the Derbyshire village of Hollington, just 10 miles south of Dovedale, between Ashbourne and Derby.

Dovedale was the destination for many family outings when I was growing up in the early 1950s. I was born in November 1948, so these two photos below must have been taken around 1952 or 1953.

Crossing Dovedale’s famous Stepping Stones, with L-R: my eldest brother Martin, my elder brother Edgar, my cousin Marion, ??, my sister Margaret, my cousin Alec, me, and my mother Lilian Jackson

With my father, Fred Jackson, my brothers Edgar and Martin, and sister Margaret. I remember sailing those yachts.

The famous Stepping Stones connect the Staffordshire bank with its counterpart on the Derbyshire side. On the Derbyshire side there are trails up to the summit of Thorpe Cloud, or along the valley beside the river. Several spectacular limestone outcrops are exposed in the valley sides.

Looking south along the River Dove at the Stepping Stones.

My wife Steph is from Essex (to the east of London) and had never visited Dovedale until she moved to Birmingham in 1971. After we returned from South America in 1981 and set up home in Worcestershire, we took our daughters Hannah and Philippa on several occasions to enjoy the beauty that is Dovedale, the last visit being in July 2006.