Housesteads Roman Fort

As a teacher, a lot of things in my working life are neatly compartmentalised.  The school day runs to a strict timetable.  An amorphous mass of students is painstakingly organised into year groups, houses and classes.  And subjects are tidily delineated.  History and biology, for example, are taught in different buildings, have different coloured exercise books, and have staff who occupy different corners of the staffroom.  In the real world however, things are a bit messier.  Recently I have become aware of how history and biology seem to merge.  I look at my son’s face and see a flash of my mother’s smile, a flicker of my dad across his eyes, a hint of his great grandfather’s jowls.  My history, and my husband’s are, through the everyday miracle of biology, written in his features.

But it isn’t just this small and familial history that resonates.  It is happening on a grander scale too.  It can’t be a coincidence that I have rediscovered an interest in the past soon after having a child.  Suddenly I am more aware of my role on a longer continuum, of questions of lineage and legacy. I get that same feeling, an awareness of the confluence of my biology and my history, when I take my son out for the day.  I watch him playing in the park and flashback to the first time I went too high on a swing and my stomach flipped over. And, a couple of weeks ago, when I took him to Hadrian’s Wall, I wondered if I had ever traced these same piles of stone, or had ever toddled along the same crumbling foundations with the same jubilant smile on my face, whilst exploring a place which is so central to our region’s heritage.

Hadrian’s Wall is one of two UNESCO World Heritage site in the North East (Durham Cathedral is the other).  Housesteads is just one of many locations along the wall overseen by English Heritage and is possibly the most spectacular.  Reached by a steep and bracing walk from the car park off the military road, the site’s contours are unforgiving, but the bleats of grazing sheep chivvied us on up the hillside.  The newly redeveloped museum is worth the climb alone, elucidating the Emperor Hadrian and his imperial strategies in a glossy and concise exhibition.  From there it is a further short hike to the site itself.  Situated on an elevated ridge which formed the most northerly frontier of the Roman territory, the views from the top edge of the fort are awesome in the original sense of the word.  Breathless from the walk to the top, we stood with the wind lacerating our cheeks, looking at the fields and forests to the north, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that we were in fact at the edge of an empire.

If you are so inclined, you can figure out which bit of the site was the granary, which the barracks and which the latrines, and admire the clever and careful design of the fortress.  Or you can, as our toddler did, see it as a sort of unusually geometric and merciless adventure play ground and obstacle course, full of potential hiding places and thrilling stony summits and walkways.  I am hoping the historical appreciation will come later.

Not far from the roundabout joining the A69 and the A1, just as the scenery becomes drearily suburban, there is a sudden hunk of the wall which seems to erupt up out of the ground, a Roman interruption in amongst the modern backdrop of crash barriers, streetlights and bus lanes.  As we passed it on the way back home, I reflected on how layer upon layer of history permeates our landscape.  Soft play centres will come and go, and the paltry attractions of theme pubs and garden centres will fade, but sites like this one will, under the custodianship of organisations like English Heritage, hopefully still be around for my grandchildren to explore.  We are lucky to have them on our doorstep.

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Tynemouth Food Festival

About 6 years ago my husband and I, together with a group of similarly foolish people from church, completed a 250 mile bike ride around Northumberland over the course of five days.  The route took us from our starting point in Whitburn, along the Tyne valley to Once Brewed, north east to Berwick (Berwick! That is actually Scotland, in footballing terms!), then joined the Coasts and Castles route back south.  Day three took us from Alwinton to Berwick (Berwick! I still can’t believe I cycled to Berwick) via Ingram, Ford and Etal, Norham and other Northumbrian gems.  For the most part, it was hard, gruelling work.  But the highlights, when they came, were wonderful, and often unexpected.  One of these was when we happened upon Doddington Farm near Wooler.  On the lane outside the farm was a chest freezer filled with cartons of Doddinton Dairy Ice Cream.  Next to it was an honesty box.  Now any ice cream tastes good at the best of times.  But when you have spent two and a half days on a bike, cursing every incline of every hill and getting blisters in unmentionable places, then this ice cream was beyond delicious, an elixir of the Gods, a miraculous nectar from heaven itself.

Since then Doddington Dairy, which also makes award winning cheese, has established itself as luminary on the North East food scene, and so it was fitting that its stall was one of the first ones we came across this weekend at the Tynemouth Food Festival.  Tynemouth is a good place for a food festival, for a number of reasons.  Every day the North Sea’s fish and seafood are landed just a short way away in North Shields.  The village itself sustains a number of delis, cafes, restaurants and speciality food shops, and there are a couple of beaches nearby to power walk along afterwards and burn off the all the excesses that a food festival entails.  And although this was the inaugural festival, it did not have the feeling of tentativeness or hesitancy that you might expect from a new event.  It was bold and confident, with big names from the region’s restaurants headlining in the demo tent, and a packed programme of other events across the two days.

And what about the food? Cup cakes, chocolates, spicy condiments and exotic meats were all on offer (crocodile, anyone?) but when it came to putting our money where our mouths were, we opted for succulent lamb and beef burgers from the Northumbrian Farmhouse stall.  At the Doddington stall our tastebuds were challenged by the prospect of thyme ice cream.  Now I like my thyme with rosemary on a nice piece of roast lamb, but in ice cream?  I was sceptical, but it worked.  In the interests of balance, and because a savoury ice cream must surely require a sweet course to follow, I also had to sample the blackberry and gin sorbet, which was as amazingly zingy as it sounds. We also saw a cooking demonstration from Troy Terrington, head chef at the inimitable Blackfriars restaurant in Newcastle, home of the UK’s oldest dining room.  Lamb belly and artisan sourdough were handed around the audience, whose ‘mmmms’ and ‘oooooohs’ were entirely justified.

On our way back through the village we stopped at the Gareth James chocolate shop.  On entering you forget that you are in North Tyneside and instead feel as if you have been transported to a Parisian chocolatiers, where intricately crafted truffles and other chocolaty treats are precisely arranged on cool glossy marble slabs.  The cinder toffee cobbles we bought tasted like…well I think I used up all my superlatives describing the bike ride ice cream, but let’s just say they were similarly divine.

After our visit, I tried to think of better ways to spend a Sunday morning than mooching about in a windswept seaside village, chatting to stall holders, seeing their pride in their fantastic local produce and sampling their many gastronomic delights.  I struggled.  The Tynemouth Food Festival was great. Will it be back again next year?  Lets hope so!

Corbridge

It may seem hard to believe at the present time but, about a year ago, there was a spell of really good weather. I remember it because it coincided with Easter and the April and May bank holiday fest and we went on a lot of picnics. Our son was a few months old, the shock of the newborn days had, thankfully, dissipated and I was beginning to really enjoy motherhood. The oxytocin must have still been hanging around, as my memory of this time is of total blissed out loveliness. We loaded up our wicker picnic basket with freshly baked sourdough and smelly cheese (I’m not usually a fan but was still revelling in not being pregnant any more) and rolled up our beautiful pure wool Atlantic picnic blanket. We sat in parks, on riversides, on beaches, enjoying the sunshine. Our son was still mainly asleep, or shoved under my jumper feeding, while other people handed me sandwiches and tea from a flask. The whole thing was really rather civilised; we were really rather smug.

Fast forward a year and picnics can no longer be described as civilised. Oh no. The weather is dreadful, for a start. And our once-mainly-asleep baby is now uproariously awake and riotously mobile. Unrestrained by the shackles of the highchair (which he will now only sit in if bribed with a range of previously forbidden foodstuffs), our toddler’s eyes light up as he tries to take in the mindboggling new concept he is faced with. Food? Outside? On the floor? He then does the only logical thing, which is to dive in and crawl all over it. Our wicker picnic basket is now simultaneously a box to be climbed in and out of and a receptacle for the huge amounts of detritus (crumpled wet wipes, half eaten bananas, dribble bibs soggy with drool and snot etc) that a fifteen month old manages to produce. Our beautiful pure wool Atlantic picnic blanket now seems like the most foolish purchase ever, an embarrassing relic from our child free days, and is smeared with hard boiled egg and seeds from cherry tomatoes which he has popped with his teeth. The rest of the family think this is hilarious. I sit sighing into my plastic tumbler.

The scene of this carnage was the riverside in Corbridge. The jewel in the crown of the Tyne Valley, Corbridge has a Roman fort, a handful of posh pubs and cosy tea rooms, and, if you can cope with the affluence oozing from every corner, is a great place for a day out. What Corbridge also has, and what I needed after the apocalyptic picnic, is shops. Really great shops, and shopkeepers. One year, bored rigid by the claustropobic monotony of the Metrocentre, I decided to do my Christmas shopping in Corbridge and I think it was one of my best present giving years to date. This time, I went into four shops and had actual proper conversations with the shopkeepers in every single one of them. The lady in the menswear shop Shorts helped my husband pick out a quirky shirt for a wedding. The lady in the cool old school sweetshop Skrumshus told me about the revival of the Caramac. The owner of The Forum bookshop chatted to me about the Love Your Indie reward scheme and why books set on remote Scottish islands are so popular this year. And the lovely ladies in Katie Kerr ferried dresses to and from the changing room until I finally decided which one to buy. This is personal shopping, not being manhandled by a sycophant in an extra large changing room in Debenhams. There is also delicious food to be bought in the Corbridge Larder, pretty gifts to be had in Acanthus and a whole glut of oddities to be rifled through in one of the most fabulously weird shops I have ever been in, RE, which sells, in its own words “found objects for the home”. These include vintage jelly moulds, bone china biblical plates, and multicoloured plastic Guatemalan baskets (I have one, it’s ace).

One of the things I love most about the English countryside on Bank Holidays is the possibility of encountering a random local tradition or two. We found one in the form of a fancy dress wheelbarrow race through the village, in which the participants had to stop at each pub and down a pint. One took a swig of the ale proffered by a generous landlord, declared it “rank” and vomited all over the pavement. There were gasps and snorts of disgust from the crowd, but not from me. I’m not usually one to condone antisocial behaviour, but I suddenly felt less bad about the picnic antics now that we were no longer alone in lowering Corbridge’s genteel tone.

A short drive away is Vallum Farm, where we stopped on the way back home. An ice cream parlour and tea room, the farm is a hive of activity and also offers a play area, walks and a gift shop. There may have been hailstones outside, but that made our brownie and ice cream sandwich seem even more delicious. We will definitely be back again. Hopefully by then it will be sunny, and I will have figured out how to get egg and tomato stains out of a pure wool picnic blanket.