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.

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.

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.

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.          

Jesmond Dene

In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the brilliantly terrifying headmistress the Trunchbull is so disgusted by small children that she denies ever having been a child herself. This week I found myself at West Jesmond Metro station, and so irritated was I by the people around me that I felt like denying an episode of my own life. No, not my childhood, but my time as a student. Had I really belonged to this odd demographic, with their artfully messy buns, sluggish posture and peculiar mix of lethargy and arrogance? I have the degree, the debt and the encyclopaedic knowledge of Neighbours characters to prove that I was in fact a student less than a decade ago, but surely I was never as annoying as these people? My voice was never that loud and braying, my walk never that lackadaisical and I’m sure I never went to Tesco wearing my pyjamas. Or did I? Such is my impatience with the residents of studentville that I give Osborne Road a wide berth these days. However, not too far away there is a leafy utopia where everyone, runners, dog walkers, pram pushers and yes, even students, can coexist harmoniously. I am talking, of course, about Jesmond Dene.

There has been a distinctly rural flavour to my first three blog posts, so in an attempt to redress the balance, I have decided to feature some day out options within the towns and cities of the North East. Not every day out has to involve using gallons of petrol to drive along distant single track roads, especially when our more urban areas have so much to offer. There is something energising and invigorating about a green spaces within a city, and Jesmond Dene is an example of such a space. A long, narrow and steep sided gorge, the Dene follows the route cleaved by the Ouseburn through the east of Newcastle towards the Tyne. Paths wind their way up, down and along the valley, and there are a number of points of interest along the way. These include the Old Mill, the waterfall and our favourite section, the recently redeveloped Pets’ Corner. Pigs, goats and alpacas all graze happily under the shadow of the elegant Armstrong Bridge, to the odd soundtrack of squawks and chirps from the huge new aviary combined with the distant thrum of traffic from the Cradlewell bypass above, which serves as a reminder that the buzz of the city is not too far away. The area around Pets’ Corner has received huge investment recently and chunky new picnic benches and a new play park are testament to that fact. Tea, coffee and cake can be had at the cafe in the nearby Millfield House Conference Centre and the visitor centre next door explains the Dene’s history and wildlife.

Talking of history, the person we have to thank for this wooded oasis is a certain William George Armstrong, who designed the Dene and gifted it to the people of Newcastle in 1883, in order that the Victorian city dwellers might experience some of the fresh air and outdoor life that Armstrong enjoyed at his other residence, Cragside. Armstrong is an interesting and multifaceted character; he was at once an early advocate of the use of renewable energy, an arms manufacturer and, would you believe it, founder of Newcastle University. Would he share my exasperation at his institution’s current crop of undergraduates and their uniform of Jack Wills’ hoodies? We will never know, but he would probably endorse my recommendation of Jesmond Dene as a first class destination for a walk and a picnic. Proof, I hope, that a good day out doesn’t have to mean being out in the sticks.

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.