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)

The Quayside

When I returned to work after maternity leave nine months ago, weekends were declared sacrosanct.  Two days out of seven were ring fenced for doing lovely, fun, wholesome, hearty family – oriented activities.  Sadly, this idealistic aspiration soon started to fray around the edges and I realised to my dismay, that Saturday and Sunday’s sacred status was becoming untenable.   It turns out that when you work full time and declare weekends a fun only zone, your house quickly becomes a hovel.  So, last Saturday, we thought we would dedicate a morning to, to adopt a particularly mumsy turn of phrase, “getting on top of things”.  We thought, for example, we would pack away the clothes our son had grown out of.  This turned into a complex and protracted procedure which involved familiarising oneself with the annoyingly diverse sizing nuances of different baby clothing brands and then hunting out the tag on each tiny item before assigning it to the correct “vac bag”.  We decided we would tidy up the toy room.  It turned out that this involved picking tiny bits of dried out playdoh from the matted, pastel pelts of forty five cuddly animals.  We thought we would de-clutter the kitchen surfaces.  This turned into a meltdown on my part when I couldn’t find anywhere to put a dish especially for camembert, a cast iron teapot and a meat thermometre.  It was almost three o’clock before my husband suggested that we go out and do something nice.  But all this domestic drudgery had a negative impact on my mood and his chirpy suggestions were systematically rebuffed.  The beach?  “Too blustery”, I replied. The park?  “Too screechy”.  The farm?  “Too smelly, too far away and anyway I haven’t got the right shoes on”.

A couple of dozen of suggestions later, and we found ourselves on the Quayside, on the basis that it was nearby and didn’t require specialist footwear.  And, after a few minutes, much to my husband’s relief, my mood began to lift again.

If you type “Newcastle Quayside” into Google Images, the pictures which come up are mostly all dark and moody, the greyish navy of the river shining under the glitzy lights of the many riverside party venues.  Such a gallery might suggest to someone unfamiliar with Newcastle that this is a part of town best visited only after dark, but of course, that isn’t the case.  The quayside is a great daytime location for families, and as well as the obvious points of toddler interest (seagulls, boats, people on bikes) there were some unexpected attractions too.  Fishermen, buskers and teenage boys sculpting their physiques on the newly installed gym equipment in front of the law courts all proved fascinating sights for our little boy.  From the Baltic we walked across the Millennium Bridge and then east towards Ouseburn, with a pitstop at the Cycle Hub cafe.   This venue aims to provide local bike lovers with a caffeine and sugar kick as well as local cycling information.  You can cycle right into the cafe, and then enjoy the great views of the quayside from their tiered deck.  Thankfully, we pedestrians were made just as welcome as the lycra clad customers, but I imagine that their mocha would taste even better knowing that you have earned such a calorific credit by being almost at the end of the C2C.

From there we continued up into Ouseburn, which has already been blogged about here.  It’s worth mentioning though, that the walk from the Baltic to Seven Stories is bookended by two of my favourite shops in the region.  The Baltic shop always provides a quirky range of gorgeously weird books, home ware and kids’ stuff.  Some of my favourite recent purchases have included a set of matryoshka dolls which double up as measuring cups, and a very cool set of ‘pairs’ cards which has extended my son’s much lauded animal noise repertoire tenfold, but I also covet one of their collapsing Angel of the North toys and beautiful Miho deers.  Across the river in Ouseburn, Seven Stories houses one of the best independent bookshops in the North East.  The fact that it sells only children’s literature soon becomes an irrelevance given the scale and scope of their collection and it is easy to lose yourself for an hour or so amongst its colourful shelves.

People watching, coffee and cake, a walk and a bookshop: what the quayside provided in a few hours that afternoon was just what I needed to help me snap out of my clutter induced fog.  It was enough to transform what was threatening to be a very dull weekend indeed into a sort of special one.  And maybe “sort of special” (as opposed to “sacrosanct”) is how weekends should be.

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. 

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.