Cherryburn

photo(1)The winter months (which were a bit of a blogging hiatus!) saw our toddler turn two and reach a number of important new milestones, some fun (first ever fancy dress party), and some not so fun  (first ever vomiting bug).  Sadly neither of these are available to tick off in his little yellow book, which I have been looking through in preparation for our “two year check” with the health visitor later this week.   It does seem, though, like his language skills are on track – he can, for example, get his daddy in trouble by giving a fairly detailed account of the time he fell off the bottom step and bumped his head while mammy was out, and this week we have seen a new linguistic development, of which my poor husband became victim again: the lie.

“Daddy watch the big bad wolf on the telly. Daddy was scared” he announced the other day.

“Really?”  I said.  “Weren’t you scared of the big bad wolf?”

“No. Daddy cry. Henry cuddle Daddy and make it better”.

photoLuckily our son’s bravery in the face of scary animals was rewarded when we arrived at the exhibition room at Cherryburn, a National Trust property near Mickley which opened its door this weekend after the winter break.  Here a range of taxidermy creatures were on display and the fox and the owl proved particularly fascinating. The room houses artifacts that once belonged to one of the region’s most famous artists and naturalists, Thomas Bewick.  From the exhibition room we moved on to the picnic area, which has gorgeous views over the Tyne Valley, and where our sandwiches and crisps proved to be very tempting to Cherryburn’s three resident chickens, perhaps some of the friendliest poultry you are ever likely to meet.  They tried to survey the contents of my handbag, pecked at our son’s shoelaces, and greeted each new visitor to the gardens with frantic clucking and wing-flapping.  No sooner had we finished our lunch when they were jumping on the picnic table hoovering up the crumbs we had left.  After that we looked around Bewick’s house, played with a hoola hoop on the sunny lawn, checked in the “poultiggery” for eggs and, in a rather rudimentary homage to Bewick’s artistic legacy, had a go at potato printing on the courtyard.

photo(3)In the print room, local artist and photographer Shona Branigan was demonstrating  wood block printing, a messy, slow and ardous process – seeing the cumbersome apparatus in action will make me pause for thought next time I’m about to hit the printer at work for not producing a 100 page document quick enough.

Although one of the smaller of the North East’s NT properties, Cherryburn was at once hive of activity and an incredibly tranquil place to escape.    Back at home, we discussed our first proper day out of the new year – the views, the printing, the lovely weather and the slightest hint that perhaps, spring is on the way.  But all Henry could talk about was those chickens.  “Chickens come and eat ALL of Henry’s food”, he told his toys.  “And drink ALL of Henry’s drink”, he continued, as my husband and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.  And with a doe-eyed glance, a bow of the head and a mournful, heartbreaking pout, he concluded his tall tale: “And Henry had NOTHING to eat or drink!.  Poor Henry!”.  Oh dear.   Let’s hope this latest milestone is a fleeting one, and he has grown out of it by the time the health visitor comes…photo(4)

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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.

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.

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?