Northumberlandia

The mining legacy of the North East has followed an unlikely, and surprisingly glamorous, trajectory in recent years.  The story of Billy Elliot has gone from its humble Easington origins to the glitz of the West End stage, whilst the Pitmen Painters and their Ashington accents met with rave reviews on Broadway.  And now, the restoration of the Shotton Surface Coal Mine near Cramlington has resulted in a new, voluptuous addition to our landscape and the region’s latest tourist attraction: Northumberlandia, otherwise known as the Lady of the North.

Set amid 46 acres of land donated by the Blagdon estate, Northumberlandia is constructed from  1.5 million tonnes of clay, rock and soil unearthed from the mine that lies behind it.  From the Blagdon Lane car park we walked through a woodland plantation and then emerged into the park itself.  The contrast between the shady copse and the boldness and brightness of the park makes for a spectacular unveiling.  Blue sky, green mounds, glassy lakes and striking spiral pathways combine to make a minature version of the rolling Cheviot landscape that inspired the architect Charles Jencks

At times, the fact that you are walking on the body of an especially curvaceous woman is made absurdly explicit.  Signs implore visitors to “Keep off the face”, whilst it cannot be ignored that at one point the path takes you directly through the crevasse of her cleavage.  But at other times, the bodily features seem to melt away, and instead the park becomes a succession of smooth cambers and peculiar curves, each bend and coil in the path offering new and exciting angles and perspectives reminiscent of the best of Gaudi’s outlandish architectural contours.

The paths are smooth, and although steep at times, fairly pushchair friendly.  The hike to the top of the face, the park’s highest point, is definitely worthwhile.  It is only from here that the mine which gave rise to the park’s existence can be seen.  The apex of the park offers panoramic views of a mesmerizing industrial landscape.  From here, ant sized diggers, dumper trucks, and excavators trundle about on the mine below, wind turbines rotate serenely out towards Blyth and the sea beyond, and planes of all sizes glide their way down across the scene to the airport to the south west.  This is not a typically beautiful or picturesque vista, but accompanied as we were by a twenty month old boy, it proved to be an endless source of fascination.

Mining, and the art and literature inspired by it, have long proven interesting from a gender politics point of view, so it is fitting perhaps, that that other sculptural testament to our region’s industrial past, the very masculine Angel of the North, now has a female counterpart less than twenty miles  away.  With a cafe and visitor centre due to open in Spring 2013, I predict that the Lady of the North will soon become just as treasured a North East landmark as the Angel is now. 

Gibside

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.

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.

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.          

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.