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.

 

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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?

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.

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!

Corbridge

It may seem hard to believe at the present time but, about a year ago, there was a spell of really good weather. I remember it because it coincided with Easter and the April and May bank holiday fest and we went on a lot of picnics. Our son was a few months old, the shock of the newborn days had, thankfully, dissipated and I was beginning to really enjoy motherhood. The oxytocin must have still been hanging around, as my memory of this time is of total blissed out loveliness. We loaded up our wicker picnic basket with freshly baked sourdough and smelly cheese (I’m not usually a fan but was still revelling in not being pregnant any more) and rolled up our beautiful pure wool Atlantic picnic blanket. We sat in parks, on riversides, on beaches, enjoying the sunshine. Our son was still mainly asleep, or shoved under my jumper feeding, while other people handed me sandwiches and tea from a flask. The whole thing was really rather civilised; we were really rather smug.

Fast forward a year and picnics can no longer be described as civilised. Oh no. The weather is dreadful, for a start. And our once-mainly-asleep baby is now uproariously awake and riotously mobile. Unrestrained by the shackles of the highchair (which he will now only sit in if bribed with a range of previously forbidden foodstuffs), our toddler’s eyes light up as he tries to take in the mindboggling new concept he is faced with. Food? Outside? On the floor? He then does the only logical thing, which is to dive in and crawl all over it. Our wicker picnic basket is now simultaneously a box to be climbed in and out of and a receptacle for the huge amounts of detritus (crumpled wet wipes, half eaten bananas, dribble bibs soggy with drool and snot etc) that a fifteen month old manages to produce. Our beautiful pure wool Atlantic picnic blanket now seems like the most foolish purchase ever, an embarrassing relic from our child free days, and is smeared with hard boiled egg and seeds from cherry tomatoes which he has popped with his teeth. The rest of the family think this is hilarious. I sit sighing into my plastic tumbler.

The scene of this carnage was the riverside in Corbridge. The jewel in the crown of the Tyne Valley, Corbridge has a Roman fort, a handful of posh pubs and cosy tea rooms, and, if you can cope with the affluence oozing from every corner, is a great place for a day out. What Corbridge also has, and what I needed after the apocalyptic picnic, is shops. Really great shops, and shopkeepers. One year, bored rigid by the claustropobic monotony of the Metrocentre, I decided to do my Christmas shopping in Corbridge and I think it was one of my best present giving years to date. This time, I went into four shops and had actual proper conversations with the shopkeepers in every single one of them. The lady in the menswear shop Shorts helped my husband pick out a quirky shirt for a wedding. The lady in the cool old school sweetshop Skrumshus told me about the revival of the Caramac. The owner of The Forum bookshop chatted to me about the Love Your Indie reward scheme and why books set on remote Scottish islands are so popular this year. And the lovely ladies in Katie Kerr ferried dresses to and from the changing room until I finally decided which one to buy. This is personal shopping, not being manhandled by a sycophant in an extra large changing room in Debenhams. There is also delicious food to be bought in the Corbridge Larder, pretty gifts to be had in Acanthus and a whole glut of oddities to be rifled through in one of the most fabulously weird shops I have ever been in, RE, which sells, in its own words “found objects for the home”. These include vintage jelly moulds, bone china biblical plates, and multicoloured plastic Guatemalan baskets (I have one, it’s ace).

One of the things I love most about the English countryside on Bank Holidays is the possibility of encountering a random local tradition or two. We found one in the form of a fancy dress wheelbarrow race through the village, in which the participants had to stop at each pub and down a pint. One took a swig of the ale proffered by a generous landlord, declared it “rank” and vomited all over the pavement. There were gasps and snorts of disgust from the crowd, but not from me. I’m not usually one to condone antisocial behaviour, but I suddenly felt less bad about the picnic antics now that we were no longer alone in lowering Corbridge’s genteel tone.

A short drive away is Vallum Farm, where we stopped on the way back home. An ice cream parlour and tea room, the farm is a hive of activity and also offers a play area, walks and a gift shop. There may have been hailstones outside, but that made our brownie and ice cream sandwich seem even more delicious. We will definitely be back again. Hopefully by then it will be sunny, and I will have figured out how to get egg and tomato stains out of a pure wool picnic blanket.

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.

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.