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 . . .

Warkworth Castle: a 12th century fortress above the River Coquet in Northumberland

Warkworth Castle, built in the 12th century, stands on a narrow neck of land in a loop of the River Coquet in Northumberland, close to where the river flows into the North Sea at Amble.

View from the Keep along the River Coquet towards Amble and the North Sea.

The view north overlooking part of Warkworth.

Steph and I were visiting family in Newcastle in April 2018, and on a bright sunny day, enjoyed an excursion to Warkworth beach with our younger daughter Philippa and her husband Andi, and grandsons Elvis and Felix (then 6 and 4, respectively).

Phil and Andi went straight home after the walk and a picnic, but we decided to take the boys to Warkworth Castle close-by, which is owned by English Heritage. And we were in luck.

On the day of our visit (21 April) English Heritage was celebrating St George’s Day (actually 23 April) with displays of ‘armed combat between knights in shining armour’, and many other attractions.

Visitors enjoying combat between ‘knights in shining armour’.

Felix and Elvis (with Grandma behind) enjoying the armed combat.

View from the Keep towards the Gatehouse. The Lion Tower is on the right.

Carvings on the face of the Lion Tower.

The castle came into the Percy family (later the Dukes of Northumberland) in the mid-fourteenth century. It saw action in the Wars of the Roses in the late fifteenth century, and parts of the castle were demolished (or ‘slighted’) then. It suffered further damage in the late sixteenth century.

Today, many of the internal structures have disappeared, but the outer curtain wall stands more or less intact. The Keep can be explored. The Lion Tower (on the right in the image immediately above) has some impressive stone carvings above the archway.

It’s an excellent destination for adventurous grandchildren who have some excess energy to burn off. From their reaction at being allowed to explore the different buildings it was clear that Elvis and Felix enjoyed their visit – just as much as Grandma and Grandad.

The image of Warkworth Tower on its mound that’s covered in daffodils has become iconic, and often use in tourism brochures and the like for Northumberland. Here’s my take.


 

Cragside: a magnificent creation in the heart of Northumberland

Cragside, the house built by William, 1st Baron Armstrong between 1869 and 1882, is remarkable. It was the first house in the world to be lit (and powered throughout) by hydroelectricity. Armstrong was a wealthy engineer and industrialist, eminent scientist, inventor and philanthropist.

Surrounded by moorland and farmland, Cragside stands in the heart of Northumberland near the village of Rothbury (map). It has been owned by the National Trust since 1977. It was one of the first National Trust properties that Steph and I visited after becoming members in 2011.

Cragside was a joint creation between William Armstrong, his wife Margaret (née Ramshaw), and architect Richard Norman Shaw.

Armstrong constructed a dam and lake high on the moorland above Cragside to provide the water to generate electricity. The original turbine house still stands in the grounds.

There are many magnificent treasures to view inside the house. However, I don’t have any images of Cragside’s interior. I guess in 2011 the National Trust’s policy on photography was not as liberal as it is today (as my readers will have realised from the many images I have posted about our National Trust visits). Or perhaps, there were copyright issues that did not permit photography inside the house.

What is also remarkable about Cragside is the garden that the Armstrongs carved out of the hillside, planting many trees and exotic plants obtained from all over the world. In particular there are outstanding stands of tall Wellingtonias. Of course they never lived to see their garden in its mature magnificence. Below the house, is a large and impressive rockery, and a bridge takes you across the valley bottom, and a path towards the formal garden, some distance from the house. This garden was designed on an open south-facing slope overlooking Rothbury and the farmland beyond.

Once the Covid-19 crisis has passed, and we have finally made the move north to Newcastle upon Tyne (assuming we can sell our house in Worcestershire), Steph and I look forward to re-visiting Cragside. And then, with any luck, I can add to my collection of photos with some interior images.

Dunstanburgh Castle: a 14th-century fortification on the coast of Northumberland

Dominating the horizon on the coast of Northumberland, and overlooking the cold North Sea, Dunstanburgh Castle was built during the fourteenth century reign of infamous King Edward II by the king’s cousin, Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322.

Approaching Dunstanburgh Castle along the coastal path from Craster.

The castle can only be reached on foot, about 1.5 miles north from Craster. The castle is owned by the National Trust, but the site is operated by English Heritage.

View of the great gatehouse over the southern mere.

Overlooking cliffs on one side, the castle had excellent natural defences, and occupied the site of an Iron Age fort.

Thomas of Lancaster was executed in 1322, and it passed eventually passed into the hands of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It changed hands between Lancastrian and Yorkist forces during the Wars of the Roses, and suffered damage from which it never fully recovered. By the sixteenth century it was in an advanced state of decay.

Today, just a few of the towers are standing, particularly the entrance Great Gate with its twin towers. Also the curtain wall that surrounds the castle connecting with the cliffs.

It’s possible to climb some of the towers from which there are magnificent views over the surrounding Northumberland countryside.

Steph and I have visited the castle on a couple of occasions, the last being in May 2012. Parking in Craster, we enjoyed the coastal walk on a fine, bright but blustery day. The kittiwakes were nesting on the cliffs below the castle, and we spotted a weasel darting along a stone wall just above the tide line.

Then it was back to Craster for a pub lunch, and purchasing some of the renowned Craster kippers (smoked North Sea herrings).