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.

Northumberlandia

The mining legacy of the North East has followed an unlikely, and surprisingly glamorous, trajectory in recent years.  The story of Billy Elliot has gone from its humble Easington origins to the glitz of the West End stage, whilst the Pitmen Painters and their Ashington accents met with rave reviews on Broadway.  And now, the restoration of the Shotton Surface Coal Mine near Cramlington has resulted in a new, voluptuous addition to our landscape and the region’s latest tourist attraction: Northumberlandia, otherwise known as the Lady of the North.

Set amid 46 acres of land donated by the Blagdon estate, Northumberlandia is constructed from  1.5 million tonnes of clay, rock and soil unearthed from the mine that lies behind it.  From the Blagdon Lane car park we walked through a woodland plantation and then emerged into the park itself.  The contrast between the shady copse and the boldness and brightness of the park makes for a spectacular unveiling.  Blue sky, green mounds, glassy lakes and striking spiral pathways combine to make a minature version of the rolling Cheviot landscape that inspired the architect Charles Jencks

At times, the fact that you are walking on the body of an especially curvaceous woman is made absurdly explicit.  Signs implore visitors to “Keep off the face”, whilst it cannot be ignored that at one point the path takes you directly through the crevasse of her cleavage.  But at other times, the bodily features seem to melt away, and instead the park becomes a succession of smooth cambers and peculiar curves, each bend and coil in the path offering new and exciting angles and perspectives reminiscent of the best of Gaudi’s outlandish architectural contours.

The paths are smooth, and although steep at times, fairly pushchair friendly.  The hike to the top of the face, the park’s highest point, is definitely worthwhile.  It is only from here that the mine which gave rise to the park’s existence can be seen.  The apex of the park offers panoramic views of a mesmerizing industrial landscape.  From here, ant sized diggers, dumper trucks, and excavators trundle about on the mine below, wind turbines rotate serenely out towards Blyth and the sea beyond, and planes of all sizes glide their way down across the scene to the airport to the south west.  This is not a typically beautiful or picturesque vista, but accompanied as we were by a twenty month old boy, it proved to be an endless source of fascination.

Mining, and the art and literature inspired by it, have long proven interesting from a gender politics point of view, so it is fitting perhaps, that that other sculptural testament to our region’s industrial past, the very masculine Angel of the North, now has a female counterpart less than twenty miles  away.  With a cafe and visitor centre due to open in Spring 2013, I predict that the Lady of the North will soon become just as treasured a North East landmark as the Angel is now. 

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.

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.

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.