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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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.

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.