In the last 16 months, funny things have started to happen to time. I was never any good at science, but I know there probably are universal laws of physics that govern how time operates. But there is definitely something funny going on. For example, a walk round the block which would previously have taken fifteen minutes is now an hour long escapade which involves approximately one hundred pauses to look at passing cats and insects, and a number of small detours to investigate nearby shrubs and drain covers. In this respect I have got used to taking things at a slower pace. Paradoxically, looking at photos of a squashed, shrivelled and barely sentient newborn and comparing them to the hilarious bundle of energy and personality who stands in front of me now makes me feel as if time is slipping by at a pace faster than I can keep up with.
I felt a similar sense of the unstoppable passage of time, of change being afoot, when my parents put my childhood home in Whitburn Village on the market. Whitburn, on the coast between Sunderland and South Shields, is where I grew up. I lived there between the ages of 8 and 22 and still return very frequently to visit my parents. I know the village’s every quirk and peculiarity, and am on first name terms with many of its eccentric characters. I had my 18th birthday party in the cricket club, got married in the Parish Church and held afternoon tea to celebrate my son’s christening in the church hall. So when it was suggested that I blog about Whitburn, it seemed like an opportunity not only to get my feelings about the place down on paper before my parents move on, but also to prepare for a time when my trips to Whitburn in the future might be as a day tripper rather than as an honorary resident.
Strangely though, this has been my most challenging blog post yet. Somehow writing about a place I have visited once is easier than writing about a place I have known for most of my life. For me you see, a trip to Whitburn isn’t a day out, it is going home. But it is also a place that people should visit. Many of its features were things I took for granted in my childhood, and it is only now that I do not live two minutes away from the beach, do not have a park which inspired Lewis Carroll on my doorstep, and do not have an award winning seafood deli a short and scenic walk away, that I realise what I have left behind.
One of the things that I love about Whitburn is that it is a proper village. “Village” is a term that is bandied about so casually in contemporary vernacular that it has become almost meaningless. “Global Village”, “Holiday Village” and the seventh circle of pizza hell that is the Metro Centre’s “Mediterranean Village” are some examples. But come to Whitburn and you will have your understanding of the term restored. It has a village cafe, a village pond and a village green, which, during the recent Jubilee celebrations, we sat on, under bunting and Union Jacks, and felt jolly and patriotic.
Another thing I love about Whitburn is Minchella’s ice cream. I do not think my husband and I had been together for very long when we took a drive to the coast. The weather was, um, inclement. With a half an hour to kill, I suggested that we got an ice cream. My husband, looking pointedly at the driving wind outside the car, raised his eyebrows in incredulity. But then he is from Ponteland. Maybe inland they save ice cream for the heights of summer. But when you grow up in a coastal village no such rules apply. During my childhood and adolescence, a trip to the Minchella’s ice cream hut in the car park overlooking the cliff tops in Whitburn was an almost weekly occurrence, come rain or shine. Nowadays, Minchella’s have gone up in the world, with a tasteful taupe new parlour in the grounds of South Shields Marine Park. But to me, ninety nines will always taste much better from a weather beaten shack by the beach than when cosily ensconced in a cafe.
With that in mind, Whitburn’s biggest draw has to be its proximity to the sea. Walk from the village centre through Cornthwaite Park and you emerge at the sea front. Here, you can build sandcastles, go paddling, explore the rockpools, or opt for an alternative and much less energetic pastime, people watching. At the merest smidgen of sunshine, the stretch of promenade between Whitburn and Roker becomes a sort of catwalk for dog walkers, windsurfers, horse riders, topless men and old couples holding hands, which provides more weird sights and wonderful entertainment for my son and me than any episode of In the Night Garden ever could. All this means that a brisk and bracing walk is impossible given the distractions that abound. But with a toddler in tow, we’re not in any hurry. Or are we?