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.

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.

North East Chilli Fest at Seaton Delaval Hall

This post begins, predictably, with a rant about the weather.  The bright warm fresh sunny days that I had envisaged for June and July have been replaced by a sort of apocalyptic monsoon season, characterised by incessant rainfall and that supercell thunderstorm.  But paradoxically, although I seem to spend a lot of time complaining about how rubbish the weather is, I seem to spend almost as much time complaining that I am too hot.  I lurch from daytimes in a stifling, sweaty classroom to night times spent waging a never ending war against the duvet.  Mornings are consumed by trying to find an appropriate outfit to withstand this end of days humidity, and every evening I despair at the aura of frizz that my hair has formed around my shiny red face.  So, when I looked at the calendar for last weekend and remembered that we were going to, of all places, a chilli festival that I had, on a whim, bought tickets for weeks ago, I was a little underwhelmed.  I do not need extra heat in my life at the minute, and anyway, it was probably going to rain.

Nevertheless, we made our way to Seaton Deleval Hall on Saturday for “this year’s hottest event”.  The hall has recently been acquired by the National Trust, who acknowledge, somewhat apologetically, on their billboards near the entrance that it is a “work in progress”.  Such caution proved to be misplaced, as the venue did a sterling job at hosting the North East Chilli Fest, a two day celebration of all things spicy.  The chilli market in the courtyard included traders from around the North East and beyond selling chilli sauces, chilli chutneys, chilli jams, chilli oils, chilli cheeses, chilli cupcakes and chilli themed kitchen accessories.  Food stalls were located in a muddy paddock to the rear of the hall, where the atmosphere was part music festival and part farmers’ market.  Doddington Dairy, stalwarts of the North East food scene, were there with a variety of new chilli themed ice creams.  After taking advantage of the generous samples on offer, I plumped, inevitably, for a tub of the chocolate chilli flavour.  It was delicious, though much to my annoyance, our one year old thought so too, using the opportunity to demonstrate his understanding of the semantics of one of his recently acquired words, “more”.

The heat of the chilli flavoured fare was made bearable with the help of a refreshingly cool sea fret which crept its way up from Seaton Sluice, casting an eerie mist over the whole setting, and when the chilli hysteria of the market place became too much, the extensive grounds and gardens provided a cool and tranquil respite.  We discovered a paddock with horses, an ancient weeping ash tree, a rose garden, a laburnum arch and a peacock enclosure.

The baroque interior of the hall itself, all crumbling statues, imposing arches and spooky cellars, also provided an enchantingly old fashioned contrast with the peppery festivities going on outside.  A jazz duo and the inclusion of a second hand book stall in a side room off the hall’s main atrium contributed further to my impression of the hall as a sort of sanctum of calm civilisation, while chilli chaos reigned outside in the form of a chilli eating competition.

So, there was a lot of fun had at the very first North East Chilli Fest.   Credit must go to the organisers, including mmm newcastle, a deli tucked away in the Grainger Market, with knowledgeable and passionate staff, who through their role in events like this, and a strong twitter presence, seem to be contributing to the quiet revolution currently underway amongst North East tastebuds.  As this weekend’s event demonstrates, things seem to be getting bigger, bolder and hotter.  The inaugural Chilli Fest was a huge success, and I am looking forward to next year’s fiery festivities.

Corbridge

It may seem hard to believe at the present time but, about a year ago, there was a spell of really good weather. I remember it because it coincided with Easter and the April and May bank holiday fest and we went on a lot of picnics. Our son was a few months old, the shock of the newborn days had, thankfully, dissipated and I was beginning to really enjoy motherhood. The oxytocin must have still been hanging around, as my memory of this time is of total blissed out loveliness. We loaded up our wicker picnic basket with freshly baked sourdough and smelly cheese (I’m not usually a fan but was still revelling in not being pregnant any more) and rolled up our beautiful pure wool Atlantic picnic blanket. We sat in parks, on riversides, on beaches, enjoying the sunshine. Our son was still mainly asleep, or shoved under my jumper feeding, while other people handed me sandwiches and tea from a flask. The whole thing was really rather civilised; we were really rather smug.

Fast forward a year and picnics can no longer be described as civilised. Oh no. The weather is dreadful, for a start. And our once-mainly-asleep baby is now uproariously awake and riotously mobile. Unrestrained by the shackles of the highchair (which he will now only sit in if bribed with a range of previously forbidden foodstuffs), our toddler’s eyes light up as he tries to take in the mindboggling new concept he is faced with. Food? Outside? On the floor? He then does the only logical thing, which is to dive in and crawl all over it. Our wicker picnic basket is now simultaneously a box to be climbed in and out of and a receptacle for the huge amounts of detritus (crumpled wet wipes, half eaten bananas, dribble bibs soggy with drool and snot etc) that a fifteen month old manages to produce. Our beautiful pure wool Atlantic picnic blanket now seems like the most foolish purchase ever, an embarrassing relic from our child free days, and is smeared with hard boiled egg and seeds from cherry tomatoes which he has popped with his teeth. The rest of the family think this is hilarious. I sit sighing into my plastic tumbler.

The scene of this carnage was the riverside in Corbridge. The jewel in the crown of the Tyne Valley, Corbridge has a Roman fort, a handful of posh pubs and cosy tea rooms, and, if you can cope with the affluence oozing from every corner, is a great place for a day out. What Corbridge also has, and what I needed after the apocalyptic picnic, is shops. Really great shops, and shopkeepers. One year, bored rigid by the claustropobic monotony of the Metrocentre, I decided to do my Christmas shopping in Corbridge and I think it was one of my best present giving years to date. This time, I went into four shops and had actual proper conversations with the shopkeepers in every single one of them. The lady in the menswear shop Shorts helped my husband pick out a quirky shirt for a wedding. The lady in the cool old school sweetshop Skrumshus told me about the revival of the Caramac. The owner of The Forum bookshop chatted to me about the Love Your Indie reward scheme and why books set on remote Scottish islands are so popular this year. And the lovely ladies in Katie Kerr ferried dresses to and from the changing room until I finally decided which one to buy. This is personal shopping, not being manhandled by a sycophant in an extra large changing room in Debenhams. There is also delicious food to be bought in the Corbridge Larder, pretty gifts to be had in Acanthus and a whole glut of oddities to be rifled through in one of the most fabulously weird shops I have ever been in, RE, which sells, in its own words “found objects for the home”. These include vintage jelly moulds, bone china biblical plates, and multicoloured plastic Guatemalan baskets (I have one, it’s ace).

One of the things I love most about the English countryside on Bank Holidays is the possibility of encountering a random local tradition or two. We found one in the form of a fancy dress wheelbarrow race through the village, in which the participants had to stop at each pub and down a pint. One took a swig of the ale proffered by a generous landlord, declared it “rank” and vomited all over the pavement. There were gasps and snorts of disgust from the crowd, but not from me. I’m not usually one to condone antisocial behaviour, but I suddenly felt less bad about the picnic antics now that we were no longer alone in lowering Corbridge’s genteel tone.

A short drive away is Vallum Farm, where we stopped on the way back home. An ice cream parlour and tea room, the farm is a hive of activity and also offers a play area, walks and a gift shop. There may have been hailstones outside, but that made our brownie and ice cream sandwich seem even more delicious. We will definitely be back again. Hopefully by then it will be sunny, and I will have figured out how to get egg and tomato stains out of a pure wool picnic blanket.

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.

The Mainstreet Trading Company, St Boswells

There are a couple of problems with this post.  The place I’m writing about today doesn’t really fulfill the brief I set myself when I started this blog which was to share good days out in the North East of England.  For a start, it’s a bookshop.  Which, even if you love books as much as I do, probably isn’t going to occupy a whole day.  Secondly, it’s in Scotland.   But if you bear with me, I hope you will come to appreciate why it is worthy of inclusion.

The A68, which winds and climbs its way through Northumberland National Park and then crosses the Scottish border, is a stunningly scenic drive, its every curve and camber familiar to me from my many journeys to and from Edinburgh where I was a student.  At that time, the only place en route you could get a coffee and lunch was the cafe in the Edinburgh Woollen Mill in Jedburgh, a rather stuffy and oppressive homage to all things cable knitted.  Had The Mainstreet Trading Company been around when I was making that journey regularly, I think I would have graduated with an even bigger student debt.

Six years have lapsed since my graduation, and now, the Borders aren’t just a place to be passed through on the way to the bright lights of the Scottish capital (more of which later this month), but are a destination in their own right. The picture postcard village of St Boswells has been a regular haunt of mine in recent years.  This is because it happens to be not only the home of a very dear friend, but also of Mainstreet Trading, a bookshop which the author Maggie O’Farrell has described as “so perfect you might have dreamt it”.

In these days of Amazon and e-readers, where books can arrive at our fingertips without any of the inconvenience and hassle of actually leaving the house, some might argue that the bookshop is soon to become another casualty of the digital age, heading in the same direction as teletext, pay phones and those little black and grey plastic cylinders that you kept your Kodak films in.  As a recent Kindle convert, I can attest to the fact that if I am going to spend money in a bookshop, it has to offer more than tables turgidly stacked with identikit paperbacks on 3 for 2 and endorsed by some grinning hosts of daytime television.  And The Main Street Trading Company does offer more.

It has a bustling yet serene cafe, all minty greens and duck egg blues, which serves a simple menu of soups, salads and delicious sandwiches made from soft hunks of brown bread.  There is an idiosyncratic selection of antiques to rifle through and a gorgeous range of gifts, cards and stationery (do not underestimate a teacher’s passion for stationery).  The window displays are striking, imaginative and timely, and the staff are passionate and helpful.  And then there are the books.

Big, glorious, glossy books, rich with all colours and textures, adorn the tables and shelves and are displayed in a way that manages to convey both a sense of reverence and of tactile accessibility.  Once you have spent a few peaceful moments within its walls, it will become clear why this place won the Scottish Independent Bookshop of the Year 2011 and 2012 and, earlier this year, came first in the Bookshop category of the Telegraphs’ Best Small Shops Awards.  One of the best things about having a child has been rediscovering children’s literature, and the children’s section here is particularly delightful.  Perusing it feels as if you have exclusive access to a personally handpicked and curated selection of the best the children’s publishing world has to offer.  My purse has taken a hit here on more than one occasion, but Mainstreet’s participation in the Guardian’s Love Your Indie reward scheme means you are not penalised for eschewing high street book retailers.

Of course, if you wanted to make more of your trip to the Borders you could combine a visit here with a trip to Jedforest Deer Park, a look around Mary Queen of Scots Visitor Centre in Jedburgh, or a stroll through the well heeled towns of Melrose or Kelso.  But as a stand alone destination, The Mainstreet Trading Company is good enough for me. Browsing in bookshops is always a pleasure, but here, it is a gorgeous, blissful indulgence.