photo(1)The winter months (which were a bit of a blogging hiatus!) saw our toddler turn two and reach a number of important new milestones, some fun (first ever fancy dress party), and some not so fun  (first ever vomiting bug).  Sadly neither of these are available to tick off in his little yellow book, which I have been looking through in preparation for our “two year check” with the health visitor later this week.   It does seem, though, like his language skills are on track – he can, for example, get his daddy in trouble by giving a fairly detailed account of the time he fell off the bottom step and bumped his head while mammy was out, and this week we have seen a new linguistic development, of which my poor husband became victim again: the lie.

“Daddy watch the big bad wolf on the telly. Daddy was scared” he announced the other day.

“Really?”  I said.  “Weren’t you scared of the big bad wolf?”

“No. Daddy cry. Henry cuddle Daddy and make it better”.

photoLuckily our son’s bravery in the face of scary animals was rewarded when we arrived at the exhibition room at Cherryburn, a National Trust property near Mickley which opened its door this weekend after the winter break.  Here a range of taxidermy creatures were on display and the fox and the owl proved particularly fascinating. The room houses artifacts that once belonged to one of the region’s most famous artists and naturalists, Thomas Bewick.  From the exhibition room we moved on to the picnic area, which has gorgeous views over the Tyne Valley, and where our sandwiches and crisps proved to be very tempting to Cherryburn’s three resident chickens, perhaps some of the friendliest poultry you are ever likely to meet.  They tried to survey the contents of my handbag, pecked at our son’s shoelaces, and greeted each new visitor to the gardens with frantic clucking and wing-flapping.  No sooner had we finished our lunch when they were jumping on the picnic table hoovering up the crumbs we had left.  After that we looked around Bewick’s house, played with a hoola hoop on the sunny lawn, checked in the “poultiggery” for eggs and, in a rather rudimentary homage to Bewick’s artistic legacy, had a go at potato printing on the courtyard.

photo(3)In the print room, local artist and photographer Shona Branigan was demonstrating  wood block printing, a messy, slow and ardous process – seeing the cumbersome apparatus in action will make me pause for thought next time I’m about to hit the printer at work for not producing a 100 page document quick enough.

Although one of the smaller of the North East’s NT properties, Cherryburn was at once hive of activity and an incredibly tranquil place to escape.    Back at home, we discussed our first proper day out of the new year – the views, the printing, the lovely weather and the slightest hint that perhaps, spring is on the way.  But all Henry could talk about was those chickens.  “Chickens come and eat ALL of Henry’s food”, he told his toys.  “And drink ALL of Henry’s drink”, he continued, as my husband and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.  And with a doe-eyed glance, a bow of the head and a mournful, heartbreaking pout, he concluded his tall tale: “And Henry had NOTHING to eat or drink!.  Poor Henry!”.  Oh dear.   Let’s hope this latest milestone is a fleeting one, and he has grown out of it by the time the health visitor comes…photo(4)

The Quayside

When I returned to work after maternity leave nine months ago, weekends were declared sacrosanct.  Two days out of seven were ring fenced for doing lovely, fun, wholesome, hearty family – oriented activities.  Sadly, this idealistic aspiration soon started to fray around the edges and I realised to my dismay, that Saturday and Sunday’s sacred status was becoming untenable.   It turns out that when you work full time and declare weekends a fun only zone, your house quickly becomes a hovel.  So, last Saturday, we thought we would dedicate a morning to, to adopt a particularly mumsy turn of phrase, “getting on top of things”.  We thought, for example, we would pack away the clothes our son had grown out of.  This turned into a complex and protracted procedure which involved familiarising oneself with the annoyingly diverse sizing nuances of different baby clothing brands and then hunting out the tag on each tiny item before assigning it to the correct “vac bag”.  We decided we would tidy up the toy room.  It turned out that this involved picking tiny bits of dried out playdoh from the matted, pastel pelts of forty five cuddly animals.  We thought we would de-clutter the kitchen surfaces.  This turned into a meltdown on my part when I couldn’t find anywhere to put a dish especially for camembert, a cast iron teapot and a meat thermometre.  It was almost three o’clock before my husband suggested that we go out and do something nice.  But all this domestic drudgery had a negative impact on my mood and his chirpy suggestions were systematically rebuffed.  The beach?  “Too blustery”, I replied. The park?  “Too screechy”.  The farm?  “Too smelly, too far away and anyway I haven’t got the right shoes on”.

A couple of dozen of suggestions later, and we found ourselves on the Quayside, on the basis that it was nearby and didn’t require specialist footwear.  And, after a few minutes, much to my husband’s relief, my mood began to lift again.

If you type “Newcastle Quayside” into Google Images, the pictures which come up are mostly all dark and moody, the greyish navy of the river shining under the glitzy lights of the many riverside party venues.  Such a gallery might suggest to someone unfamiliar with Newcastle that this is a part of town best visited only after dark, but of course, that isn’t the case.  The quayside is a great daytime location for families, and as well as the obvious points of toddler interest (seagulls, boats, people on bikes) there were some unexpected attractions too.  Fishermen, buskers and teenage boys sculpting their physiques on the newly installed gym equipment in front of the law courts all proved fascinating sights for our little boy.  From the Baltic we walked across the Millennium Bridge and then east towards Ouseburn, with a pitstop at the Cycle Hub cafe.   This venue aims to provide local bike lovers with a caffeine and sugar kick as well as local cycling information.  You can cycle right into the cafe, and then enjoy the great views of the quayside from their tiered deck.  Thankfully, we pedestrians were made just as welcome as the lycra clad customers, but I imagine that their mocha would taste even better knowing that you have earned such a calorific credit by being almost at the end of the C2C.

From there we continued up into Ouseburn, which has already been blogged about here.  It’s worth mentioning though, that the walk from the Baltic to Seven Stories is bookended by two of my favourite shops in the region.  The Baltic shop always provides a quirky range of gorgeously weird books, home ware and kids’ stuff.  Some of my favourite recent purchases have included a set of matryoshka dolls which double up as measuring cups, and a very cool set of ‘pairs’ cards which has extended my son’s much lauded animal noise repertoire tenfold, but I also covet one of their collapsing Angel of the North toys and beautiful Miho deers.  Across the river in Ouseburn, Seven Stories houses one of the best independent bookshops in the North East.  The fact that it sells only children’s literature soon becomes an irrelevance given the scale and scope of their collection and it is easy to lose yourself for an hour or so amongst its colourful shelves.

People watching, coffee and cake, a walk and a bookshop: what the quayside provided in a few hours that afternoon was just what I needed to help me snap out of my clutter induced fog.  It was enough to transform what was threatening to be a very dull weekend indeed into a sort of special one.  And maybe “sort of special” (as opposed to “sacrosanct”) is how weekends should be.


The mining legacy of the North East has followed an unlikely, and surprisingly glamorous, trajectory in recent years.  The story of Billy Elliot has gone from its humble Easington origins to the glitz of the West End stage, whilst the Pitmen Painters and their Ashington accents met with rave reviews on Broadway.  And now, the restoration of the Shotton Surface Coal Mine near Cramlington has resulted in a new, voluptuous addition to our landscape and the region’s latest tourist attraction: Northumberlandia, otherwise known as the Lady of the North.

Set amid 46 acres of land donated by the Blagdon estate, Northumberlandia is constructed from  1.5 million tonnes of clay, rock and soil unearthed from the mine that lies behind it.  From the Blagdon Lane car park we walked through a woodland plantation and then emerged into the park itself.  The contrast between the shady copse and the boldness and brightness of the park makes for a spectacular unveiling.  Blue sky, green mounds, glassy lakes and striking spiral pathways combine to make a minature version of the rolling Cheviot landscape that inspired the architect Charles Jencks

At times, the fact that you are walking on the body of an especially curvaceous woman is made absurdly explicit.  Signs implore visitors to “Keep off the face”, whilst it cannot be ignored that at one point the path takes you directly through the crevasse of her cleavage.  But at other times, the bodily features seem to melt away, and instead the park becomes a succession of smooth cambers and peculiar curves, each bend and coil in the path offering new and exciting angles and perspectives reminiscent of the best of Gaudi’s outlandish architectural contours.

The paths are smooth, and although steep at times, fairly pushchair friendly.  The hike to the top of the face, the park’s highest point, is definitely worthwhile.  It is only from here that the mine which gave rise to the park’s existence can be seen.  The apex of the park offers panoramic views of a mesmerizing industrial landscape.  From here, ant sized diggers, dumper trucks, and excavators trundle about on the mine below, wind turbines rotate serenely out towards Blyth and the sea beyond, and planes of all sizes glide their way down across the scene to the airport to the south west.  This is not a typically beautiful or picturesque vista, but accompanied as we were by a twenty month old boy, it proved to be an endless source of fascination.

Mining, and the art and literature inspired by it, have long proven interesting from a gender politics point of view, so it is fitting perhaps, that that other sculptural testament to our region’s industrial past, the very masculine Angel of the North, now has a female counterpart less than twenty miles  away.  With a cafe and visitor centre due to open in Spring 2013, I predict that the Lady of the North will soon become just as treasured a North East landmark as the Angel is now. 


Amidst all of the flag waving, street partying and river pageanting that has accompanied the Queen’s jubilee, it seems that the anniversary of another historically significant female figure has been overlooked.  This year the National Trust is marking 100 years since the death of Octavia Hill, visionary, social reformer and one of the Trust’s founding members, who made it her life’s work to preserve places of natural beauty and historical significance for the enjoyment of the general public.  In 1883 she wrote of the importance of space to the urban poor.   “I think we want four things,“ she said. “Places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend a day in”.

Over a century later and, to me, these words still ring true.  During the week I lunge maladroitly from lessons to meetings to nursery, and from swimming classes to birthday parties at weekends.  Space where me and my family can sit, play and stroll isn’t something happens serendipitously, but instead is something that we have to prioritise, to actively seek out.  And when we find it, like we did at Gibside this week, it is really very special.

Unlike Cragside or Wallington, Gibside is amongst the more accessible of the National Trust’s North East properties, located just five minutes from the Metro Centre, but a world away from the air conditioned sterility of Gateshead’s retail monolith.  Instead Gibside offers lush green panoramas perfect for admiring during a picnic, beautiful historical buildings perfect for playing hide and seek in, and a new adventure play area perfect for sitting and drinking tea in while your offspring burn off some energy.  When she spoke of a place to play in I’m not sure even Octavia Hill could have conjured up as perfect a play area as Strawberry Castle, located a short walk from the chapel, all tasteful wooden turreted climbing frames, plentiful slides and swings, and pristine bark chippings to cushion our toddler during his kamikaze approach to play apparatus. 

Hill’s criterion ‘places to stroll in’ is met many times over at Gibside.  Maps are provided at the entrance for the Skyline Walk and the Parkland Walk, but we plumped for something a little less ambitious. Our son learned to walk about 4 months ago and I naively I believed this mean we would now be able to go “on walks”.  However, I am learning that being able to walk and being able to actually walk to places, are not the same thing.  Our family walks are more like repetitious, random meanderings full of pauses, detours and distractions.  Therefore the tree lined expanse between the Palladian Chapel and the Column of Liberty suited our purpose brilliantly.  With some cajoling with chocolate buttons, motivational football kicking and only occasional physical coercion, we were able to zig zag our way along from one end to the other of this wide, flat and spacious grassy avenue.   It may not have been a challenging hike, but it had an enervating effect on our 18 month old, and soon after we reached the Renwick’s Coffee and Bookshop at the Stables a short walk up from the Column, he was dozing in the pushchair.

We found ourselves a picnic bench and bought a cool drink and an ice cream, grasping the opportunity to eat without having our food snaffled away by small, sticky hands.  To top off this rare moment of peace and quiet, a red kite, majestic and effortless, soared above our heads.   It wasn’t long before nap time was over, and we were back on our feet, watching our son as he danced on the picnic table, ‘milked’ the model cow, and tried to take all the books off the bookshop shelves.  But in that precious moment of reprieve from the uproarious demands of toddlerhood, I couldn’t help but wonder if Gibside would meet the criteria of Octavia Hill’s simple but spot-on checklist.  I decided that it would.

Wild Northumbrian Tipis and Yurts

Regular readers will know that the aim of this blog was to document days, as opposed to nights, out in the North East. There are a few reasons for this. One is that as a mother to an 18 month old my nocturnal outings have been somewhat curtailed. The other reason though is that nights out in the North East, and in Newcastle in particular, are not very blog worthy. The rituals and conventions of a Geordie night out are fairly well known, even more so since the arrival of that TV programme, and although there might be a few variations (Quayside or Bigg Market, straight hair or curly) most Newcastle nights out pass by in a homogenous blur of cocktails, false eyelashes and the faint yet unmistakable whiff of fake tan. At the apex of the Newcastle night out hierarchy is the Hen Night, a bigger and brasher version of the above, with the added bonus of pink, phallic shaped plastic accessories. So when my London-dwelling sister’s bridesmaids started planning her hen do in the north, I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong.

The location was the Tarset Valley near Kielder. In this breathtakingly wild landscape Rob and Vicky Hersey have set up Wild Northumbrian, one of the region’s first ‘glamping’ destinations. ‘Glamping’ is an example of a newly coined blend, along with ‘vajazzling’ and ‘chillaxing’, that I have come across in magazines, but do not entirely understand. At Wild Northumbrian, I was enlightened. Here, glamping entails beautifully decorated North American Tipis and Mongolian Yurts carpeted with reindeer skins, complementary sparkling wine on arrival, and underfloor heating in the shower block. It turns out that glamping is a sort of camping that I can get on board with. I didn’t even have to sacrifice my daily blow dry.

After lighting our tipi’s open fire and offering a brief tutorial on how to open and close its smoke flaps, Rob left us to explore the fells, meadows and brooks of the Wild Northumbrian site. Hens (real ones) pecked happily outside and occasionally inside our tipi, while red squirrels flitted amongst the branches over our heads. As the sun set on our first night, we toasted marshmallows over the fire and snuggled down in our sleeping bags, well before midnight. Already this hen do was defying convention.

Wild Northumbrian offers a range of activities and workshops led by local experts, including pottery, badger watching, star gazing nights and art lessons, but my sister’s chief hen do organiser had plumped for bush craft, on the basis that every new wife should know how to skin a rabbit. Linus and Louise, bush craft experts of Northern Wilds, guided us through a range of survival activities. We lit our own campfires, foraged for meadowsweet and elderflower and made tea with what we found, and baked our own bread, stripping the bark from fallen branches and winding dough around them. My sister, resplendent in wellies and a wedding dress, chopped wood to feed the fire and then in the climax of our bush craft seminar, my mum skinned the rabbit, under the careful tutelage of Linus who calmly talked her through the process until the final, gruesome stage when he gleefully ordered her to “decapitate that bunny!”. ‘That bunny’ was then transformed into a tasty stew. The squeamish amongst us quickly forgot about its fluffy cuteness and instead enjoyed its unctuous, gamey flavour.

My sister’s lifelong affection for all things Gallic meant that a French theme night was inevitable. As we went into the Holly Bush, a 300 year old drovers inn in nearby Greenhaugh, we might have expected the locals to baulk at the sight of a group of women bedecked in berets, Breton tops and mustaches entering their pub, but instead they welcomed us with open arms, and were even more receptive when a couple of Moulin Rouge girls and an Absinthe fairy arrived. So friendly were the other punters that after our delicious meal they even managed to organise us a lift back up the hill to our tipi.

The following morning we woke up to the sight of blue sky through the top of the tipi, providing an instant hangover cure. Rob reappeared on his quadbike to help us pack up, and we headed out of the Tarset Valley. A few days later I am still smiling about highlights from a weekend so weirdly wonderful that it is hard to believe it really happened, until I catch a whiff of my clothes, still infused with the heady scent of woodsmoke, or find a pink plastic penis straw lurking in my handbag. It seems some hen night traditions will never die.

North East Chilli Fest at Seaton Delaval Hall

This post begins, predictably, with a rant about the weather.  The bright warm fresh sunny days that I had envisaged for June and July have been replaced by a sort of apocalyptic monsoon season, characterised by incessant rainfall and that supercell thunderstorm.  But paradoxically, although I seem to spend a lot of time complaining about how rubbish the weather is, I seem to spend almost as much time complaining that I am too hot.  I lurch from daytimes in a stifling, sweaty classroom to night times spent waging a never ending war against the duvet.  Mornings are consumed by trying to find an appropriate outfit to withstand this end of days humidity, and every evening I despair at the aura of frizz that my hair has formed around my shiny red face.  So, when I looked at the calendar for last weekend and remembered that we were going to, of all places, a chilli festival that I had, on a whim, bought tickets for weeks ago, I was a little underwhelmed.  I do not need extra heat in my life at the minute, and anyway, it was probably going to rain.

Nevertheless, we made our way to Seaton Deleval Hall on Saturday for “this year’s hottest event”.  The hall has recently been acquired by the National Trust, who acknowledge, somewhat apologetically, on their billboards near the entrance that it is a “work in progress”.  Such caution proved to be misplaced, as the venue did a sterling job at hosting the North East Chilli Fest, a two day celebration of all things spicy.  The chilli market in the courtyard included traders from around the North East and beyond selling chilli sauces, chilli chutneys, chilli jams, chilli oils, chilli cheeses, chilli cupcakes and chilli themed kitchen accessories.  Food stalls were located in a muddy paddock to the rear of the hall, where the atmosphere was part music festival and part farmers’ market.  Doddington Dairy, stalwarts of the North East food scene, were there with a variety of new chilli themed ice creams.  After taking advantage of the generous samples on offer, I plumped, inevitably, for a tub of the chocolate chilli flavour.  It was delicious, though much to my annoyance, our one year old thought so too, using the opportunity to demonstrate his understanding of the semantics of one of his recently acquired words, “more”.

The heat of the chilli flavoured fare was made bearable with the help of a refreshingly cool sea fret which crept its way up from Seaton Sluice, casting an eerie mist over the whole setting, and when the chilli hysteria of the market place became too much, the extensive grounds and gardens provided a cool and tranquil respite.  We discovered a paddock with horses, an ancient weeping ash tree, a rose garden, a laburnum arch and a peacock enclosure.

The baroque interior of the hall itself, all crumbling statues, imposing arches and spooky cellars, also provided an enchantingly old fashioned contrast with the peppery festivities going on outside.  A jazz duo and the inclusion of a second hand book stall in a side room off the hall’s main atrium contributed further to my impression of the hall as a sort of sanctum of calm civilisation, while chilli chaos reigned outside in the form of a chilli eating competition.

So, there was a lot of fun had at the very first North East Chilli Fest.   Credit must go to the organisers, including mmm newcastle, a deli tucked away in the Grainger Market, with knowledgeable and passionate staff, who through their role in events like this, and a strong twitter presence, seem to be contributing to the quiet revolution currently underway amongst North East tastebuds.  As this weekend’s event demonstrates, things seem to be getting bigger, bolder and hotter.  The inaugural Chilli Fest was a huge success, and I am looking forward to next year’s fiery festivities.


Colostrum and mastitis are things I thought I had stopped worrying about well over a year ago now, but somehow this weekend I found myself reacquainted with these terms, in, of all unlikely places, an ice cream parlour near Stocksfield.  We first visited Wheelbirks Parlour a few months ago and it earned a place in our hearts as it was where our son mastered his first ever animal noise, a confident and emphatic “Moooooo” inspired by the Sue Moffitt cow portraits which adorn its walls.  Since then his repertoire has expanded to include the snake, the walrus and the lobster, but Wheelbirks remains a favourite destination for a Sunday drive out and ice cream treat.  When we heard that the farm was opening its doors to urbanites like us for Open Farm Sunday, which also happened to be Father’s Day, my husband was more than a little excited, envisaging a rural utopia of sunny fields, milkmaids, and very big tractors.

Sadly for him, there wasn’t much sun and any milkmaids have been replaced by sophisticated, high tech milking apparatus which can cleverly pick up on signs of aforementioned mastitis in the cows.  There was however, a very big tractor. Bedecked with bunting and towing a trailer with seats made out of straw bales, the tractor took us on a bumpy tour of the farm’s extremities.  A walking tour of the farm buildings allowed us to meet Buster the Bull and super cute calves, the youngest members of the oldest pedigree Jersey herd in Northumberland.  Back in the parlour we ate delicious beef stew while our son played in the dedicated pre school area, browsed the pretty things in the gift shop, and made our very own cow-shaped wall hanging in the craft corner.  Outside in the beautiful Victorian orchard, we played on the basket swing, the slide and the old tractor, ran through the handcrafted willow tunnels, chatted to the chickens and admired the views across the Northumberland countryside, spotting the occasional hare.  And best of all, we sampled the delicious ice cream, made on site.

So, good times were had at Wheelbirks. But it wasn’t all fun and games.  The tours of the farm, by its owners, brothers Hugh and Tom Richardson, were enlightening and educational, but also a little depressing.  It’s a hard life being a dairy cow, and even harder being a dairy farmer. Certainly it’s much less jolly than those Yeo Valley adverts, or my husband’s imagination, would have you believe.  Farmer Tom painted a bleak picture of life in agriculture at a time when the supermarkets make more money from milk than the farmers, when increasingly prohibitive restrictions and red tape make life harder and harder for small producers and when the unethical tactics of the dairy industry have led to the increasing popularity of (he practically spits the word) skimmed milk.  Diversification, it seems, is key to survival for small farms, and at Wheelbirks this has come in the form of the parlour which opened in 2010.  But when the parlour can offer as much fun as it did on Sunday, it will, hopefully, allow the farm not only to survive, but to flourish.  We left, spattered in mud and carrying a few pints of that morning’s milk (unpasteurised and certainly not skimmed), and headed back to the city, having been refreshed and revived by a day on the farm.