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.

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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.

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.