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.

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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?