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.