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.

The Mainstreet Trading Company, St Boswells

There are a couple of problems with this post.  The place I’m writing about today doesn’t really fulfill the brief I set myself when I started this blog which was to share good days out in the North East of England.  For a start, it’s a bookshop.  Which, even if you love books as much as I do, probably isn’t going to occupy a whole day.  Secondly, it’s in Scotland.   But if you bear with me, I hope you will come to appreciate why it is worthy of inclusion.

The A68, which winds and climbs its way through Northumberland National Park and then crosses the Scottish border, is a stunningly scenic drive, its every curve and camber familiar to me from my many journeys to and from Edinburgh where I was a student.  At that time, the only place en route you could get a coffee and lunch was the cafe in the Edinburgh Woollen Mill in Jedburgh, a rather stuffy and oppressive homage to all things cable knitted.  Had The Mainstreet Trading Company been around when I was making that journey regularly, I think I would have graduated with an even bigger student debt.

Six years have lapsed since my graduation, and now, the Borders aren’t just a place to be passed through on the way to the bright lights of the Scottish capital (more of which later this month), but are a destination in their own right. The picture postcard village of St Boswells has been a regular haunt of mine in recent years.  This is because it happens to be not only the home of a very dear friend, but also of Mainstreet Trading, a bookshop which the author Maggie O’Farrell has described as “so perfect you might have dreamt it”.

In these days of Amazon and e-readers, where books can arrive at our fingertips without any of the inconvenience and hassle of actually leaving the house, some might argue that the bookshop is soon to become another casualty of the digital age, heading in the same direction as teletext, pay phones and those little black and grey plastic cylinders that you kept your Kodak films in.  As a recent Kindle convert, I can attest to the fact that if I am going to spend money in a bookshop, it has to offer more than tables turgidly stacked with identikit paperbacks on 3 for 2 and endorsed by some grinning hosts of daytime television.  And The Main Street Trading Company does offer more.

It has a bustling yet serene cafe, all minty greens and duck egg blues, which serves a simple menu of soups, salads and delicious sandwiches made from soft hunks of brown bread.  There is an idiosyncratic selection of antiques to rifle through and a gorgeous range of gifts, cards and stationery (do not underestimate a teacher’s passion for stationery).  The window displays are striking, imaginative and timely, and the staff are passionate and helpful.  And then there are the books.

Big, glorious, glossy books, rich with all colours and textures, adorn the tables and shelves and are displayed in a way that manages to convey both a sense of reverence and of tactile accessibility.  Once you have spent a few peaceful moments within its walls, it will become clear why this place won the Scottish Independent Bookshop of the Year 2011 and 2012 and, earlier this year, came first in the Bookshop category of the Telegraphs’ Best Small Shops Awards.  One of the best things about having a child has been rediscovering children’s literature, and the children’s section here is particularly delightful.  Perusing it feels as if you have exclusive access to a personally handpicked and curated selection of the best the children’s publishing world has to offer.  My purse has taken a hit here on more than one occasion, but Mainstreet’s participation in the Guardian’s Love Your Indie reward scheme means you are not penalised for eschewing high street book retailers.

Of course, if you wanted to make more of your trip to the Borders you could combine a visit here with a trip to Jedforest Deer Park, a look around Mary Queen of Scots Visitor Centre in Jedburgh, or a stroll through the well heeled towns of Melrose or Kelso.  But as a stand alone destination, The Mainstreet Trading Company is good enough for me. Browsing in bookshops is always a pleasure, but here, it is a gorgeous, blissful indulgence.