Wheelbirks

Colostrum and mastitis are things I thought I had stopped worrying about well over a year ago now, but somehow this weekend I found myself reacquainted with these terms, in, of all unlikely places, an ice cream parlour near Stocksfield.  We first visited Wheelbirks Parlour a few months ago and it earned a place in our hearts as it was where our son mastered his first ever animal noise, a confident and emphatic “Moooooo” inspired by the Sue Moffitt cow portraits which adorn its walls.  Since then his repertoire has expanded to include the snake, the walrus and the lobster, but Wheelbirks remains a favourite destination for a Sunday drive out and ice cream treat.  When we heard that the farm was opening its doors to urbanites like us for Open Farm Sunday, which also happened to be Father’s Day, my husband was more than a little excited, envisaging a rural utopia of sunny fields, milkmaids, and very big tractors.

Sadly for him, there wasn’t much sun and any milkmaids have been replaced by sophisticated, high tech milking apparatus which can cleverly pick up on signs of aforementioned mastitis in the cows.  There was however, a very big tractor. Bedecked with bunting and towing a trailer with seats made out of straw bales, the tractor took us on a bumpy tour of the farm’s extremities.  A walking tour of the farm buildings allowed us to meet Buster the Bull and super cute calves, the youngest members of the oldest pedigree Jersey herd in Northumberland.  Back in the parlour we ate delicious beef stew while our son played in the dedicated pre school area, browsed the pretty things in the gift shop, and made our very own cow-shaped wall hanging in the craft corner.  Outside in the beautiful Victorian orchard, we played on the basket swing, the slide and the old tractor, ran through the handcrafted willow tunnels, chatted to the chickens and admired the views across the Northumberland countryside, spotting the occasional hare.  And best of all, we sampled the delicious ice cream, made on site.

So, good times were had at Wheelbirks. But it wasn’t all fun and games.  The tours of the farm, by its owners, brothers Hugh and Tom Richardson, were enlightening and educational, but also a little depressing.  It’s a hard life being a dairy cow, and even harder being a dairy farmer. Certainly it’s much less jolly than those Yeo Valley adverts, or my husband’s imagination, would have you believe.  Farmer Tom painted a bleak picture of life in agriculture at a time when the supermarkets make more money from milk than the farmers, when increasingly prohibitive restrictions and red tape make life harder and harder for small producers and when the unethical tactics of the dairy industry have led to the increasing popularity of (he practically spits the word) skimmed milk.  Diversification, it seems, is key to survival for small farms, and at Wheelbirks this has come in the form of the parlour which opened in 2010.  But when the parlour can offer as much fun as it did on Sunday, it will, hopefully, allow the farm not only to survive, but to flourish.  We left, spattered in mud and carrying a few pints of that morning’s milk (unpasteurised and certainly not skimmed), and headed back to the city, having been refreshed and revived by a day on the farm.    

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Newbiggin Maritime Centre

Of all the places the Northumberland Coast has to offer, Newbiggin by the Sea is an unlikely choice as a day out destination.  It doesn’t have the grandeur of Bamburgh, for example, or the quaint charm of Alnmouth.  This downtrodden seaside town has received a number of blows to its self esteem over the years.  Like many of the towns and villages in the Wansbeck area it had to overcome the legacy of coal mining decline, and then, in a cruel twist of geographical fate, lost its beach to coastal erosion.  Certainly, the atmosphere when we pulled up in the car park seemed hauntingly melancholy.  The sky and the sand were various shades of grey, and the strip of sea in between them choppy and charcoal coloured.  Union Jack bunting from the previous weekend’s patriotic excesses was draped mournfully along railings, doleful, soggy and redundant.  Even the swoops and squawks of the seagulls above our heads seemed sad.

But rather than getting back in the car and heading off to a more upbeat destination, I decided to give Newbiggin a chance.  Why?  Well, readers of my last blog about Whitburn will recall my affection for the seaside.  Also, my husband was born in nearby Ashington, where his grandparents still live.  Trips to the Newbiggin promenade were a staple part of his childhood. So this is a place I think my son should know about too, bound up as it is in his family history.  With that in mind, we made our way from the bleak car park to the new Newbiggin Maritime Centre.  Here, I was disabused of my first impression of Newbiggin as a grey and glum location.  Newbiggin, I learned, is an extraordinary place. 

The Maritime Centre sits on the sea front, and from the car park its spiky geometrical architecture echoes that of St Bartholomew’s Church set a little way back from the beach, both buildings in their own way recording the history of the town’s residents.  The centre houses a cafe, gift shop, community cinema, research archive and two main exhibitions, one charting the town’s history and the second focusing on the role played by lifeboat in forming the town’s identity.  In the latter, the Mary Joicey Lifeboat dominates the double height exhibition space, and in a vault below it a film charts the relationship between the town, its lifeboats and the dangerous but plentiful sea, which has both given wealth and taken lives throughout the centuries.  The inclusion of traditional songs, and of verse by local poet Stan Green, made this exhibition authentic, poignant and moving.  Newbiggin residents should be proud to have their history documented so skilfully.  But though much of the museum focuses on the serious side of the town’s maritime heritage and the enormous bravery and sacrifice of its lifeboat volunteers, there was fun to be had too, in the form of a pirate ship-shaped reading area and lifesaving themed game of hoopla, both of which helped to keep our son entertained.

The centre’s bright and cheery Breakwater Cafe overlooks the bay and the rockpools and is the perfect place for watching the world go by whilst enjoying a crab stottie, plateful of delicious fish and chips or tub of Doddington’s ice cream.  We sat and watched the lifeboat being towed back up the beach by the tractor, whilst the distant ghostly towers and chimneys of Blyth appeared through the sea fret as we looked further down the coast.  After lunch we took our son for a go on the swings in the nearby play park, and walked along Northumberland’s longest stretch of promenade, which forms a huge semi circle around the bay.  The town’s beach has been restored thanks to the Bay’s Sea Defence Scheme and another crucial component of this restoration is Sean Henry’s sculpture Couple.  Out in the bay two distant, giant figures stand on a platform with their backs to the shore, captivated by the timeless appeal of the sea and echoing the stance of those who look out towards them.  Simple but powerful, this artwork deserves as iconic a status as that other monument to our region’s industrial past, the Angel of the North.

When you think of the history of the Northumberland coast, the images that first spring to mind are the crenellations of its medieval castles or the prized, ancient manuscripts of Cuthbert and Aidan, its saints. The Newbiggin Maritime Centre however charts a quieter and less glamourous fragment of the coast’s past, that of the daily toil and trials of its residents against a harsh backdrop of industrial decline.  But the centre also looks to the future.  Alongside the town’s new artwork and restored beach, it was recently announced that Newbiggin is to become one of twelve “Portas Pilots”.  Brainchild of cool retail guru and TV personality Mary Portas, the scheme aims to revive the town’s dilapidated high street.  Food, history, art and now shops?  Things are looking up for Newbiggin, and it’s about time.

 

Whitburn

In the last 16 months, funny things have started to happen to time.  I was never any good at science, but I know there probably are universal laws of physics that govern how time operates.  But there is definitely something funny going on. For example, a walk round the block which would previously have taken fifteen minutes is now an hour long escapade which involves approximately one hundred pauses to look at passing cats and insects, and a number of small detours to investigate nearby shrubs and drain covers.  In this respect I have got used to taking things at a slower pace.  Paradoxically, looking at photos of a squashed, shrivelled and barely sentient newborn and comparing them to the hilarious bundle of energy and personality who stands in front of me now makes me feel as if time is slipping by at a pace faster than I can keep up with.

I felt a similar sense of the unstoppable passage of time, of change being afoot, when my parents put my childhood home in Whitburn Village on the market.   Whitburn, on the coast between Sunderland and South Shields, is where I grew up.  I lived there between the ages of 8 and 22 and still return very frequently to visit my parents.  I know the village’s every quirk and peculiarity, and am on first name terms with many of its eccentric characters.  I had my 18th birthday party in the cricket club, got married in the Parish Church and held afternoon tea to celebrate my son’s christening in the church hall.  So when it was suggested that I blog about Whitburn, it seemed like an opportunity not only to get my feelings about the place down on paper before my parents move on, but also to prepare for a time when my trips to Whitburn in the future might be as a day tripper rather than as an honorary resident.

Strangely though, this has been my most challenging blog post yet.  Somehow writing about a place I have visited once is easier than writing about a place I have known for most of my life.    For me you see, a trip to Whitburn isn’t a day out, it is going home.  But it is also a place that people should visit.  Many of its features were things I took for granted in my childhood, and it is only now that I do not live two minutes away from the beach, do not have a park which inspired Lewis Carroll on my doorstep, and do not have an award winning seafood deli a short and scenic walk away, that I realise what I have left behind.

One of the things that I love about Whitburn is that it is a proper village.  “Village” is a term that is bandied about so casually in contemporary vernacular that it has become almost meaningless.  “Global Village”, “Holiday Village” and the seventh circle of pizza hell that is the Metro Centre’s “Mediterranean Village” are some examples. But come to Whitburn and you will have your understanding of the term restored.  It has a village cafe, a village pond and a village green, which, during the recent Jubilee celebrations, we sat on, under bunting and Union Jacks, and felt jolly and patriotic.

Another thing I love about Whitburn is Minchella’s ice cream.  I do not think my husband and I had been together for very long when we took a drive to the coast.  The weather was, um, inclement.  With a half an hour to kill, I suggested that we got an ice cream.  My husband, looking pointedly at the driving wind outside the car, raised his eyebrows in incredulity.  But then he is from Ponteland.  Maybe inland they save ice cream for the heights of summer. But when you grow up in a coastal village no such rules apply.  During my childhood and adolescence, a trip to the Minchella’s ice cream hut in the car park overlooking the cliff tops in Whitburn was an almost weekly occurrence, come rain or shine.  Nowadays, Minchella’s have gone up in the world, with a tasteful taupe new parlour in the grounds of South Shields Marine Park.  But to me, ninety nines will always taste much better from a weather beaten shack by the beach than when cosily ensconced in a cafe.

With that in mind, Whitburn’s biggest draw has to be its proximity to the sea.  Walk from the village centre through Cornthwaite Park and you emerge at the sea front.   Here, you can build sandcastles, go paddling, explore the rockpools, or opt for an alternative and much less energetic pastime, people watching.  At the merest smidgen of sunshine, the stretch of promenade between Whitburn and Roker becomes a sort of catwalk for dog walkers, windsurfers, horse riders, topless men and old couples holding hands, which provides more weird sights and wonderful entertainment for my son and me than any episode of In the Night Garden ever could.  All this means that a brisk and bracing walk is impossible given the distractions that abound.  But with a toddler in tow, we’re not in any hurry.  Or are we?

Tynemouth Food Festival

About 6 years ago my husband and I, together with a group of similarly foolish people from church, completed a 250 mile bike ride around Northumberland over the course of five days.  The route took us from our starting point in Whitburn, along the Tyne valley to Once Brewed, north east to Berwick (Berwick! That is actually Scotland, in footballing terms!), then joined the Coasts and Castles route back south.  Day three took us from Alwinton to Berwick (Berwick! I still can’t believe I cycled to Berwick) via Ingram, Ford and Etal, Norham and other Northumbrian gems.  For the most part, it was hard, gruelling work.  But the highlights, when they came, were wonderful, and often unexpected.  One of these was when we happened upon Doddington Farm near Wooler.  On the lane outside the farm was a chest freezer filled with cartons of Doddinton Dairy Ice Cream.  Next to it was an honesty box.  Now any ice cream tastes good at the best of times.  But when you have spent two and a half days on a bike, cursing every incline of every hill and getting blisters in unmentionable places, then this ice cream was beyond delicious, an elixir of the Gods, a miraculous nectar from heaven itself.

Since then Doddington Dairy, which also makes award winning cheese, has established itself as luminary on the North East food scene, and so it was fitting that its stall was one of the first ones we came across this weekend at the Tynemouth Food Festival.  Tynemouth is a good place for a food festival, for a number of reasons.  Every day the North Sea’s fish and seafood are landed just a short way away in North Shields.  The village itself sustains a number of delis, cafes, restaurants and speciality food shops, and there are a couple of beaches nearby to power walk along afterwards and burn off the all the excesses that a food festival entails.  And although this was the inaugural festival, it did not have the feeling of tentativeness or hesitancy that you might expect from a new event.  It was bold and confident, with big names from the region’s restaurants headlining in the demo tent, and a packed programme of other events across the two days.

And what about the food? Cup cakes, chocolates, spicy condiments and exotic meats were all on offer (crocodile, anyone?) but when it came to putting our money where our mouths were, we opted for succulent lamb and beef burgers from the Northumbrian Farmhouse stall.  At the Doddington stall our tastebuds were challenged by the prospect of thyme ice cream.  Now I like my thyme with rosemary on a nice piece of roast lamb, but in ice cream?  I was sceptical, but it worked.  In the interests of balance, and because a savoury ice cream must surely require a sweet course to follow, I also had to sample the blackberry and gin sorbet, which was as amazingly zingy as it sounds. We also saw a cooking demonstration from Troy Terrington, head chef at the inimitable Blackfriars restaurant in Newcastle, home of the UK’s oldest dining room.  Lamb belly and artisan sourdough were handed around the audience, whose ‘mmmms’ and ‘oooooohs’ were entirely justified.

On our way back through the village we stopped at the Gareth James chocolate shop.  On entering you forget that you are in North Tyneside and instead feel as if you have been transported to a Parisian chocolatiers, where intricately crafted truffles and other chocolaty treats are precisely arranged on cool glossy marble slabs.  The cinder toffee cobbles we bought tasted like…well I think I used up all my superlatives describing the bike ride ice cream, but let’s just say they were similarly divine.

After our visit, I tried to think of better ways to spend a Sunday morning than mooching about in a windswept seaside village, chatting to stall holders, seeing their pride in their fantastic local produce and sampling their many gastronomic delights.  I struggled.  The Tynemouth Food Festival was great. Will it be back again next year?  Lets hope so!

Kirkley Hall Zoological Gardens

Animals.  A year ago I could take them or leave them.  But since my one year old son has started to show an interest in the world beyond breast milk and banging blocks together, animals have taken over my world.  Every bedtime story features one; every cuddly toy is an approximation of another.  I beam with pride when my son adds another animal gesture to his repertoire (he has perfected the monkey armpit motion but the butterfly flutter still defeats him).  My husband and I guffaw inanely at each other’s animal noises.  He does a good lion’s roar but admits my boa constrictor hiss is better than his. An authentic elephant trumpet eludes us both.  With this in mind, imagine our glee when we discovered that the nearby agricultural college, Kirkley Hall, has opened a Zoological Gardens within its grounds.

We have been meaning to visit for a while, but this week spring seems to have sprung and we heard that KHZG were running a lambing weekend, where entrance to the gardens also included an opportunity to see new lambs being born.  Enough time has passed since my own experience of childbirth that this was not an entirely horrifying prospect, so we headed off early on Sunday morning.

What a treat!  The “zoo” is accessible and clearly laid out.  Our son was fascinated by the range of animals on show.  Our friendly and knowledgeable guide took us round the gardens which featured pygmy goats, lemurs, Cameroon sheep and meerkats (at which point every dad in the vicinity adopted a bad Russian accent).  Free range birds, including flighty guinea fowls and animated chickens, roam the paths between the enclosures.  A reptile house accommodates smaller, scalier creatures and an enormous aviary provides lodgings for a huge variety of birds.  Animals aren’t my thing, remember, but I couldn’t help be fascinated as our tour guide explained the creatures on show.  Who knew that a newborn wallaby was only an inch long?  Or that eagle owls eat 35 chicks a day?  The highlight for me however was the marmosets.  Only something within the upper echelons of cuteness could make my voice go that high and squeaky.

At the end of the tour we were deposited at the lambing shed. The poor old ewes, heavy with twins or triplets, paced and groaned and twitched in fatigue, contributing to my impression that this place wasn’t too different from a human labour ward.  The new born lambs, skittish, slippery and unsteady, were unspeakably sweet and certainly helped us get in the mood for Easter, just a week away.

We were satisfied afterwards by the basic but tasty fare in the Orangery cafe. So, KHZG was a big hit, and we will certainly be back in the future to enjoy some more of the guided walks and exhibits.  We returned home buoyed by the challenge of more animal noises to master.  Anyone know how to squawk like a guinea fowl?