Ouseburn

The other week my husband chucked a copy of “My First 100 Trucks” into the shopping trolley at Sainsburys.  Since then our son has become increasingly fascinated by all things vehicular.  Perhaps his preoccupation with the animal kingdom is on the wane, and engines and wheels have taken over from wings and tails?  Certainly, I have noticed that he is more excited by the sight of the X47 bus out of the window than by passing dogs, and even the highly entertaining frolics of the St Bernard puppy who we look out for every morning are overlooked if a fire engine is passing on the way to the airport (which seems to happen with alarming frequency).  Imagine his excitement therefore, when we went to Ouseburn, a Newcastle valley framed by a series of vertiginous bridges, across which trains thunder their way to and from the city centre.  He could have easily sat in the shadow of the bridges pointing up to the lofty locomotives all afternoon.

But this is not all the valley has to offer.  Continuing the theme of urban options for days out, Ouseburn is one of Newcastle’s quirkiest areas, cradled somewhere in between the glitz of the Quayside and the grit of Byker, where pubs, industrial warehouses and artists’ studios sit side by side.  Named after the tributary of the Tyne which runs through it, Ouseburn is a unique part of town.  Where else would you get a boutique hotel, a horse riding school, a renowned music venue, a village green, a farm and a centre for children’s literature?

Once we had managed to tear our son away from his Metro-spotting fun, we headed towards Seven Stories.  The building, a renovated Victorian Mill, is currently hosting exhibitions about Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson. Now, I am familiar with the former as a writer who has helped many of my younger female students negotiate the rocky path into adolescence through her popular “tweenage” fiction.  The latter however, wasn’t really on my radar until last year, when I had a baby.  Now her books are strewn all over my house, the audio versions congest my ipod, and her characters have taken up permanent residence in my brain.  Even my bibliophobic husband is not immune, and can recite all of What the Ladybird Heard without as much as a glance at the text.  The fourth floor of Seven Stories has been temporarily transformed into a sort of shrine to Donaldson’s imaginative genius and prolific output, with a Squash and a Squeeze house, a Cave Baby cave and, most popular of all, a giant Gruffalo.  It was surreal seeing the characters whose voices I adopt every night blown up to giant proportions all over the walls and floor of the interactive exhibition space, and more fascinating to learn about the inspiration behind them and their brilliant illustrations.

On the top floor, (the seventh storey), young and old alike can listen to story time, explore the dressing up box or curl up on a purple leather sofa with book.  Down at the “Creation Station” in the basement there was a Blue Peter style chance to make an aforementioned eavesdropping ladybird, but given that our one year old’s fine motor skills don’t yet stretch to cutting and sticking, the task fell to us.  I was transported back to Primary school by the smell of the Prittstick and the feel of the crepe paper.  It was really very therapeutic and everyone should try it.  As well as the exhibitions, the building is home to a cafe and a rather wonderful bookshop.

Elsewhere in the valley, just a short walk from Seven Stories, the Ouseburn Farm is also worth a look. Pigs, goats, chickens and quails are all there, whilst cows and horses graze further up the hillside.  After that, you can walk along the riverside.  Our son was enchanted by the ramshackle collection of boats, but less impressed by the ducks.  Animals?  Meh.  Motors are where it’s at now.  A distant rumble, and our little train-spotter’s ears pricked up again…it was back to the railway bridges, after a lovely time in one of our region’s most eccentric little pockets.

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Edinburgh

Another blog post, another trip north of the Border.  We are lucky in the North East that not only do we have so many amazing places to explore in our own region, but we are also within easy reach of one of the world’s most extraordinary capital cities.  Now I’m not going to claim that it’s possible to do all of Edinburgh in a day.  I lived there for four years as a student and have made numerous visits before and since and there are still parts of it that I have yet to discover.  (The Wild West in Morningside, anyone? No, me neither, but it’s on the list).  But you can certainly do some of it in a day. From Newcastle you can get there in around 90 minutes, by a pleasant train journey, part of which has been voted the most scenic in the UK.  Travelling by car takes a little longer.  If you go via the A68 be sure to visit the Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells, or if you choose the A1, the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick is definitely worth the detour, if puffins, gannets and guillemots are your thing.

Our most recent visit was the first since our son was born.  Visiting the city with a child alerted me to the things I took for granted when I lived there, like the fact that I did my shopping in the shadow of a 3000 year old castle perched on top of an extinct volcano.  This seemed all the more extraordinary when I pointed it out to my one year old.  He does, however, have a similarly enthusiastic reaction to buses. And balloons.  And pigeons.  But seriously, showing him my old stomping ground made me see the city afresh, with new, albeit still sleep deprived, eyes.  Arthur’s Seat looked even more imposing, the Meadows were even greener and vaster and Greyfriar’s churchyard was even more tranquil than I remembered.          

The city’s two most famous streets, Princes Street and the Royal Mile, are, ironically, the ones I would advise visitors to steer most clear of.  The former is still caught up in a nightmarish tramline inertia whilst the latter has more tartan tat and tam o shanters for sale than you would get if the Broons opened a Loch Ness theme park.  So where to go instead?  Well, if it is cold, or raining, or windy (which it probably will be) then the recently redeveloped Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street is a must. The building, a striking juxtaposition of modern and traditional architecture, has almost as many nooks and crannies as that other great Edinburgh institution, Jenners, for which the phrase “nooks and crannies” was probably invented.  We were there for at least three hours and still didn’t see all the exhibitions on offer.  Most of that time was spent holding our son aloft as he pointed, awestruck, to the various occupants of the amazing menagerie in the Animal Room, The rest of the time was spent on the roof terrace on the seventh floor, nostalgically gazing across towards Portobello to the east, New Town to the north and George Square to the south.

Given my son’s (already documented) animal obsession, a trip to the zoo was inevitable.  From George Street we caught the number 26 bus to call in on two of the city’s newest arrivals, a couple whose efforts to conceive an heir have been subject to more media scrutiny recently than those of Will and Kate.   Luckily for us, giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang were in fine form, as were the sea eagles, chimpanzees, penguins, meerkats, sea lions and flamingos.  Our son toddled up and down the Costorphine hillside, ducking in and out of patchy hailstorms and giddily gesticulating at each new animal that he saw.

That night, exhausted by the day’s activities, our inconsistent sleeper and consistent early waker managed twelve uninterrupted hours.  Unprecedented!  This, combined with the many, many, other things this city has to offer, means that it probably won’t be too long until we are back again.          

Jesmond Dene

In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the brilliantly terrifying headmistress the Trunchbull is so disgusted by small children that she denies ever having been a child herself. This week I found myself at West Jesmond Metro station, and so irritated was I by the people around me that I felt like denying an episode of my own life. No, not my childhood, but my time as a student. Had I really belonged to this odd demographic, with their artfully messy buns, sluggish posture and peculiar mix of lethargy and arrogance? I have the degree, the debt and the encyclopaedic knowledge of Neighbours characters to prove that I was in fact a student less than a decade ago, but surely I was never as annoying as these people? My voice was never that loud and braying, my walk never that lackadaisical and I’m sure I never went to Tesco wearing my pyjamas. Or did I? Such is my impatience with the residents of studentville that I give Osborne Road a wide berth these days. However, not too far away there is a leafy utopia where everyone, runners, dog walkers, pram pushers and yes, even students, can coexist harmoniously. I am talking, of course, about Jesmond Dene.

There has been a distinctly rural flavour to my first three blog posts, so in an attempt to redress the balance, I have decided to feature some day out options within the towns and cities of the North East. Not every day out has to involve using gallons of petrol to drive along distant single track roads, especially when our more urban areas have so much to offer. There is something energising and invigorating about a green spaces within a city, and Jesmond Dene is an example of such a space. A long, narrow and steep sided gorge, the Dene follows the route cleaved by the Ouseburn through the east of Newcastle towards the Tyne. Paths wind their way up, down and along the valley, and there are a number of points of interest along the way. These include the Old Mill, the waterfall and our favourite section, the recently redeveloped Pets’ Corner. Pigs, goats and alpacas all graze happily under the shadow of the elegant Armstrong Bridge, to the odd soundtrack of squawks and chirps from the huge new aviary combined with the distant thrum of traffic from the Cradlewell bypass above, which serves as a reminder that the buzz of the city is not too far away. The area around Pets’ Corner has received huge investment recently and chunky new picnic benches and a new play park are testament to that fact. Tea, coffee and cake can be had at the cafe in the nearby Millfield House Conference Centre and the visitor centre next door explains the Dene’s history and wildlife.

Talking of history, the person we have to thank for this wooded oasis is a certain William George Armstrong, who designed the Dene and gifted it to the people of Newcastle in 1883, in order that the Victorian city dwellers might experience some of the fresh air and outdoor life that Armstrong enjoyed at his other residence, Cragside. Armstrong is an interesting and multifaceted character; he was at once an early advocate of the use of renewable energy, an arms manufacturer and, would you believe it, founder of Newcastle University. Would he share my exasperation at his institution’s current crop of undergraduates and their uniform of Jack Wills’ hoodies? We will never know, but he would probably endorse my recommendation of Jesmond Dene as a first class destination for a walk and a picnic. Proof, I hope, that a good day out doesn’t have to mean being out in the sticks.

The Mainstreet Trading Company, St Boswells

There are a couple of problems with this post.  The place I’m writing about today doesn’t really fulfill the brief I set myself when I started this blog which was to share good days out in the North East of England.  For a start, it’s a bookshop.  Which, even if you love books as much as I do, probably isn’t going to occupy a whole day.  Secondly, it’s in Scotland.   But if you bear with me, I hope you will come to appreciate why it is worthy of inclusion.

The A68, which winds and climbs its way through Northumberland National Park and then crosses the Scottish border, is a stunningly scenic drive, its every curve and camber familiar to me from my many journeys to and from Edinburgh where I was a student.  At that time, the only place en route you could get a coffee and lunch was the cafe in the Edinburgh Woollen Mill in Jedburgh, a rather stuffy and oppressive homage to all things cable knitted.  Had The Mainstreet Trading Company been around when I was making that journey regularly, I think I would have graduated with an even bigger student debt.

Six years have lapsed since my graduation, and now, the Borders aren’t just a place to be passed through on the way to the bright lights of the Scottish capital (more of which later this month), but are a destination in their own right. The picture postcard village of St Boswells has been a regular haunt of mine in recent years.  This is because it happens to be not only the home of a very dear friend, but also of Mainstreet Trading, a bookshop which the author Maggie O’Farrell has described as “so perfect you might have dreamt it”.

In these days of Amazon and e-readers, where books can arrive at our fingertips without any of the inconvenience and hassle of actually leaving the house, some might argue that the bookshop is soon to become another casualty of the digital age, heading in the same direction as teletext, pay phones and those little black and grey plastic cylinders that you kept your Kodak films in.  As a recent Kindle convert, I can attest to the fact that if I am going to spend money in a bookshop, it has to offer more than tables turgidly stacked with identikit paperbacks on 3 for 2 and endorsed by some grinning hosts of daytime television.  And The Main Street Trading Company does offer more.

It has a bustling yet serene cafe, all minty greens and duck egg blues, which serves a simple menu of soups, salads and delicious sandwiches made from soft hunks of brown bread.  There is an idiosyncratic selection of antiques to rifle through and a gorgeous range of gifts, cards and stationery (do not underestimate a teacher’s passion for stationery).  The window displays are striking, imaginative and timely, and the staff are passionate and helpful.  And then there are the books.

Big, glorious, glossy books, rich with all colours and textures, adorn the tables and shelves and are displayed in a way that manages to convey both a sense of reverence and of tactile accessibility.  Once you have spent a few peaceful moments within its walls, it will become clear why this place won the Scottish Independent Bookshop of the Year 2011 and 2012 and, earlier this year, came first in the Bookshop category of the Telegraphs’ Best Small Shops Awards.  One of the best things about having a child has been rediscovering children’s literature, and the children’s section here is particularly delightful.  Perusing it feels as if you have exclusive access to a personally handpicked and curated selection of the best the children’s publishing world has to offer.  My purse has taken a hit here on more than one occasion, but Mainstreet’s participation in the Guardian’s Love Your Indie reward scheme means you are not penalised for eschewing high street book retailers.

Of course, if you wanted to make more of your trip to the Borders you could combine a visit here with a trip to Jedforest Deer Park, a look around Mary Queen of Scots Visitor Centre in Jedburgh, or a stroll through the well heeled towns of Melrose or Kelso.  But as a stand alone destination, The Mainstreet Trading Company is good enough for me. Browsing in bookshops is always a pleasure, but here, it is a gorgeous, blissful indulgence.

Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens

2011 was the year I became a proper grown up. No, I am not referring to becoming a parent. This is not going to be a smug account of how parenthood has made me finally understand the world and what life is about. Quite frankly, life has never been more bewildering. And given that a sizable chunk of my first blog post was devoted to describing how I spend my time making animal noises, I have never felt so infantile since I was, well, an infant! No, my passage into adulthood was confirmed, when, last October, I joined English Heritage.

We were on holiday in Pickering. Inspired by Kate Atkinson’s latest brilliant novel, Started Early, Took my Dog, in which the monastic ruins of North Yorkshire feature heavily, we decided to visit Rievaulx Abbey, near Helmsley. (Well, that was the official highbrow reason. The real reason was that we had heard it had a nice tea room). Something about mooching around in the mist and the drizzle amongst the piles of desecrated Cistercian stone really got to me. Was it a sense of connection with the past? A moment of spiritual awakening? Or the stirring up of memories of my eccentric A-Level History teacher waxing lyrical about the Reformation? I wasn’t sure, but before I knew it I was back at the entrance hurriedly filling in membership forms and getting excited about the delivery of my first quarterly membership magazine.

Since then, our membership cards have taken a battering much closer to home, and our favourite local English Heritage site to visit is Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens, just off the A696 beyond Ponteland. The Hall itself is an unnervingly eerie building. Its combination of Grecian pillars and austere architecture has provided the perfect backdrop for some fantastic exhibitions in recent years, most notably Extraordinary Measures in 2010, when Ron Mueck’s astonishingly lifelike sculptures proved so mesmerising we went back to see them three times. The 14th century castle has also housed its fair share of unusual installations, including Stella McCartney’s crystal horse, Lucky Spot, which was suspended from the ceiling of the Pele Tower and illuminated by the light seeping through the castle’s crumbling windows. It was one of the few times that art has left me speechless.

However, the highlight of Belsay for me isn’t the Hall or the Castle, but the walk that connects the two. A path winds its way through Belsay’s Quarry Gardens, where the stone was cut for the Hall. The sheer rock faces and deep ravines create strange Narnia like gateways and portals, made even more atmospheric when viewed through the gnarly branches and opening buds of the vivid magnolias and rhododendrons.

Back at the entrance, there is a tea room, picnic area and gift shop, in which we were faced with a new parenting dilemma – is an English Heritage foam sword an appropriate toy for a one year old, or would such a purchase be condoning violence, even if it is of the medieval sort? What a predicament! We were jolted back to reality, but Belsay had provided a welcome otherworldly escape.

Kirkley Hall Zoological Gardens

Animals.  A year ago I could take them or leave them.  But since my one year old son has started to show an interest in the world beyond breast milk and banging blocks together, animals have taken over my world.  Every bedtime story features one; every cuddly toy is an approximation of another.  I beam with pride when my son adds another animal gesture to his repertoire (he has perfected the monkey armpit motion but the butterfly flutter still defeats him).  My husband and I guffaw inanely at each other’s animal noises.  He does a good lion’s roar but admits my boa constrictor hiss is better than his. An authentic elephant trumpet eludes us both.  With this in mind, imagine our glee when we discovered that the nearby agricultural college, Kirkley Hall, has opened a Zoological Gardens within its grounds.

We have been meaning to visit for a while, but this week spring seems to have sprung and we heard that KHZG were running a lambing weekend, where entrance to the gardens also included an opportunity to see new lambs being born.  Enough time has passed since my own experience of childbirth that this was not an entirely horrifying prospect, so we headed off early on Sunday morning.

What a treat!  The “zoo” is accessible and clearly laid out.  Our son was fascinated by the range of animals on show.  Our friendly and knowledgeable guide took us round the gardens which featured pygmy goats, lemurs, Cameroon sheep and meerkats (at which point every dad in the vicinity adopted a bad Russian accent).  Free range birds, including flighty guinea fowls and animated chickens, roam the paths between the enclosures.  A reptile house accommodates smaller, scalier creatures and an enormous aviary provides lodgings for a huge variety of birds.  Animals aren’t my thing, remember, but I couldn’t help be fascinated as our tour guide explained the creatures on show.  Who knew that a newborn wallaby was only an inch long?  Or that eagle owls eat 35 chicks a day?  The highlight for me however was the marmosets.  Only something within the upper echelons of cuteness could make my voice go that high and squeaky.

At the end of the tour we were deposited at the lambing shed. The poor old ewes, heavy with twins or triplets, paced and groaned and twitched in fatigue, contributing to my impression that this place wasn’t too different from a human labour ward.  The new born lambs, skittish, slippery and unsteady, were unspeakably sweet and certainly helped us get in the mood for Easter, just a week away.

We were satisfied afterwards by the basic but tasty fare in the Orangery cafe. So, KHZG was a big hit, and we will certainly be back in the future to enjoy some more of the guided walks and exhibits.  We returned home buoyed by the challenge of more animal noises to master.  Anyone know how to squawk like a guinea fowl?