Cherryburn

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)

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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.

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.

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.