A walk on the Simonside hills

It’s a very damp overcast day as I write this,¬† so it’s hard to remember what glorious weather it was when we were out on the Simonside Hills last week. It brings most sharply to mind how lucky we are to have photographs to preserve our memories.

It’s a particular pleasure for me to do these walks (which I think is well-conveyed by our Simonside photos) because as a child I was never encouraged to embark on “proper” walks.¬† These were seen as my father’s preserve. Here he is on Dartmoor in the early 1970s, and, my goodness, did he equip himself thoroughly for his walk!!¬† I now have¬†the binoculars which he¬†was wearing round his neck in their fine leather case, and even without the leather case they are very heavy to walk with indeed.While my father marched over the moors, we children were left with my mother and grandmother for (usually) damp picnics under the rocks of Hound Tor.So I grew up believing I could¬†never be a hill walker.¬† What a joy it has been to discover in Northumberland that this is not the case!

Our walk last Tuesday took us up the Simonside Hills. They¬†are near Rothbury, about an hour’s drive away from where we live.¬† We started our walk at the Lordenshaws carpark, with a helpful noticeboard and the path stretching on and up into the hills.It was a day of brilliant sun, barely any breeze at the start¬†– and¬†hardly any other walkers either.¬† The flora was abundant and beautiful.But what struck me most forcefully right at the beginning of the walk and further as we walked along the summit of the Simonside ridge was how managed the path was. Just look at these carefully constructed stepping stones!I guess this shows how inexperienced I am with hill walking.¬† The Simonside Hills, not far from Rothbury and the more populated south of Northumberland, are heavily walked – and quite rightly so, because they are a magnificent walk.¬† But walkers (and this, of course, included us) wear away the paths they love to walk.¬† Where the path hasn’t been laid with slabs and steps, it was heavily eroded and very uncomfortable walking – the elements must bear some responsibility here!Further on the path was slabbed – much more comfortable walking.We laughed to see that some of these flagstones bore evidence of a former life – can you see the metal marks on this flagstone?¬† In some places there were metal protuberances still well-proud of the stone …. hmm, what happened to Health & Safety we wondered … ?¬† They did look a bit like re-used gravestones, and I half-expected that if you turned one over you would find names and dates.Touchingly, a flag stone remembers Dr Alan Reece. So many greats to attach to his name.¬† A fine place to be remembered.On the path went … With fine views already back to the carpark and our little white car …Past the empty bags that must have delivered the stone for the recent path repairs …(Later on we met this helpful sign explaining all.)Before long we’d reached the first marker, the Beacon Cairn.With magnificent views stretching down and around to the wind farms of the south …And back to Rothbury.The route stretched out from here pleasingly along the ridge … (you can see here most clearly how people have made new paths in the heathery peat to avoid walking on the uncomfortable old pebbly path) …And the start of the climb to¬†Dove Crag¬†…Glorious walking through the heather¬†– not quite at its best yet but heavy with bees ….And whortleberry sustenance! (actually known as bilberries in this part of the world.¬† Whortleberry is¬†its Devonian name).Stephen following me (quite a way behind!) at this point, so I’m feeling a bit smug …Bit off a show-off really …To Dove Crag and more sustenance ….And, oh the views!Accompanied by a glorious sense of well-being!Further on and further up (as the children exclaimed at the end of C.S.Lewis’s Last Battle) …At one point you are redirected onto a completely different path – you can see the old path veering away to the right behind the fencing, and the blue notice explaining that this is because of erosion control.A colour change as we passed through red grasses …With the odd curious conifer standing in striking contrast.¬† We met several of these conifers on our way – presumably seeded by the birds from the large conifer plantations at the foot of the Simonside ridge.On and up again to the highest point …The colours are amazing! #nofilterThen just¬†a little way¬†ahead to the final cairn – which seems curiously suburban garden to me … Isn’t this the effect rock-gardeners strive to create?And the path curves round to the final crag …Where people cannot resist leaving their marks …But we just climbed up to enjoy the view …What caught me unawares was this huge leonine stone monster of a crag – yes, that’s what I was standing on above!¬† Seems almost an imposition for such a fine beast.¬† Curiously nowhere have I read about this wonderful stone shape. One can imagine the stories of the Simonside beast loose and roaming the hills ….And with that our route took us back, retracing our steps … Well, not quite – there was a small diversion. Stephen had found the proposal stone …To our surprise no path led the way to the Proposal Stone over the heather – do so few people visit it now?¬† You have to break all the National Park rules and climb through the heather to get to it.We had a bit of banter because I too am a K …”So who was this J?” my Stephen demanded, and then …. magically we connected to the app and Simon Armitage’s poem about this place.¬†The poem isn’t written down, so the only way to hear it is to climb the Simonside hills with a smart phone.¬† Disappointingly neither of us can remember much of the poem – just odd words and phrases stand out: the Taj Mahal of this empty space, the heather, the bilberries and the cotton grass – all as bridal accompaniments.¬†Despite¬†our failing memories, it was¬†a rare and remarkable experience to hear the poem spoken in this place like that.¬†Thank you so very much Mr Armitage and technicians of the Northumbrian National Park.

What a place for a proposal!  Did she say yes?  Nobody knows.  In fact, nobody knows who put the proposal either Рor when.

(Although you can’t hear the poem, you can listen to Simon Armitage speak beautifully about this project here.)What a walk!

Yeavering Bell

I have long wanted to walk more in the Cheviots, but one way and another it always seems to get put on hold.  Which is silly, because the Cheviot Hills are only some 30 minutes or so away from us.

Last week, an opportunity¬†for such a walk¬†presented itself – and we headed off¬† to Yeavering Bell.¬† It wasn’t that nice a day – and the photos weren’t that brilliant because the day was so overcast, so I’ve dithered about writing a blog or not.

But I’ve decided finally to write the blog after all, if only as a record of the wonderful sensation of being at the top of Yeavering Bell.¬† Bear with the photos, please. I¬†hope an account of the magnificent Bell will compensate.

We set off with this nicely-produced leaflet from the Northumberland National Park¬†in hand.¬† The pictures are nice, but the map – and the text – is a bit fanciful, and gave us some grief.We parked at the foot of Yeavering Bell, and set out past the few cottages there¬†to find¬†the track this leaflet recommended.You can climb straight up the very steep face of Yeavering Bell as this walker in front of us had chosen to do …But we had decided to follow the map inside our leaflet, and that¬†instructed us to ignore the steep permissive path straight up the hill and take the slower and more gentle approach round the side where we would join St Cuthbert’s Way.So we set off up the gentle track – very pleasant walking …… a gurgling brook in the dip beside us …But very soon we began to hit problems because we needed to find St Cuthbert’s Way for our turn to the left – and we just weren’t sure which turn that was!!We¬†had several opportunities to turn off the track, but there were¬†no way markers.¬† So we continued.¬† Eventually,¬†we arrived at this confusing sign ….. looks like we could go any which way …. but none of them were St Cuthbert’s Way! We puzzled, and puzzled …. and then happened to walk round this very tiresome waymarker, and lo and behold ….…¬†the direction to the Hillfort Trail was also the St Cuthbert’s Way by another name!¬† Relieved to have made sense of our route, we set off more confidently.And luckily, after our initial problems, our route was well-marked.Leading up and up … the path getting markedly steeper …But good waymarkers now.¬† We were clearly on track …Worryingly Yeavering Bell was still looming up very much on the left of our path with an increasingly deep gorge of bracken (and a stream…..?) opening up between us.At this point we stopped for a break. No pictures, I’m afraid, because this is where I had what can only be called a paddy.¬†I had¬†realised – actually we had both realised, but Stephen had accepted it in a phlegmatic fashion – that, having already climbed quite a steep incline, we were now going to have to go right down into the valleyand then start the climb proper to Yeavering Bell. Aagh!!

Stephen – in command of the situation as ever – found the next waymarker …And I had to laugh …And I laughed and I laughed and I laughed …And I laughed hysterically!As I worked out the route going down … and down … and¬†watched Stephen disappear into that forest of bracken …Eventually we came out at the small stream at the bottom of this valley …Then it was only onwards and upwards to the top!Our spirits (well, mine especially) soared as we passed another waymarker …A harsh reminder placed by a fellow walker perhaps …?But the sheep had left more friendly marks – a bit of fleece and softly-worn wood where they had scratched their backsides …We were beginning to approach the summit … the sheep warily watching us …Through the¬†gates of the Yeavering Bell hillfort …It is perhaps easier to take in the massive scale of this Iron Age hillfort (constructed about 500BC) and its remaining defences, if you look back on the stone wall surrounding the summit and the gate through which we had just passed.¬† This wall – once over three metres thick and two-and-a-half metres high – still surrounds the iron age hillfort which was at one time peopled with over¬†130 stone hut circles.¬† The imagined illustration inside our leaflet (image on right below) gives an idea of what life was like in the fort. The aerial shot on the¬†left¬† shows the wall as it is now.So many questions about this hill fort and the people who lived there. Despite excavations of the site we still know very little. But what we do know is that it is jaw-droppingly extraordinarily amazing there.

Back to our climb. We were nearly at the top.Wow! did it feel good to¬†finally get there! Top of the world¬†is the only thing to say here!It wasn’t Sunday and we weren’t on Bredon Hill but otherwise Housman had it just about right:

Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.

Because you are looking down on all that patchwork of little coloured fields¬†stretching on and on as far as the eye can see … serenaded by birdsong …That’s Scotland glimpsed on the northern side …And there are more of the¬†Cheviot Hills¬†looming darkly behind us …Craning our necks just a little bit further to the east, we can see our car ( a tiny white blob) far far down at the bottom of the hill …More importantly we can see¬†– right in the very centre of this photograph above¬†–¬†the honey-coloured field of Ad Gefrin from where Yeavering Bell acquired its name. It is Old Welsh and means the Hill of the Goats.In the 7th century there was a township in this very field, and it would have been busy, busy, busy. Just as – in a still earlier age¬†– the¬†Iron Age¬†hillfort on the top of Yeavering Bell would have been a populated and active village.¬†¬†It is truly the hugest stretch of the imagination to think of these wild empty places like this, but the Ad Gefrin trust have put up useful information boards and have a website to help tell the story.¬† Perhaps most effectively of all, they tried to show by mowing¬†shapes on this field the size of the buildings that were once here.Back to July 2017, and we were struggling to find the steep path down the face of Yeavering Bell.Eventually Stephen found the track, and we headed down to the stone wall enclosure.The path going down wasn’t easy – rutted …and very steep …But on the way down¬†we saw the wild goats after whom the hill is named! Not a brilliant photograph as they beat a hasty retreat when they saw us, but we were thrilled to see them.¬† They are completely wild, have been here for centuries and are hefted to their life on this hill.Time to say goodbye to these remarkable places, but I don’t think it’ll be long before we’ll be walking here again.

 

Our brick collection

It has been busy, busy, busy at Seaview what with elections, visitors, – and a film crew! A certain film company read my blogs on our beach treasure collections¬†and our local seaside walk and thought we might fit into¬†the storyline they were working on. So one blissfully hot Sunday in May, we had an invasion …They snapped up our view ….photographer capturing the viewWhile we laid out our curious beachy¬†collections ….In preparation for this visit, I had tidied up our brick collection (as you do) ….Bricks outside our conservatoryAnd since I¬†mentioned our brick-collecting in Sanquhar in my last blogpost, I thought I would continue here with more of our brick story.

We started collecting ¬†bricks the first winter we were here. Over that icy first winter of 2010/11, our walks regularly took us to the spit (the sand mound between the river and the sea at Spittal Point). At this time the spit was a long protruding neck of sand running along the Tweed opposite Berwick.looking over to Berwick from the SpitThere were all sorts of treasures washed up on these shifting sands, midway between the river Tweed and the open North Sea.washed up treasures on the SpitAmong them were bricks …Finding bricks on the seashoreAccording to one local we spoke to, workmen demolishing buildings in Berwick’s Marygate to make way for the bus station (now in its turn demolished) threw the old bricks into the river Tweed. Gradually these bricks are being washed up onto the local beaches.

I say gradually because that first winter we found a lot of bricks. Then the sands of the spit shifted, moulded by storms and floods and wind and weather, and our brick-collecting almost stopped. For a long while we found very few bricks on the beach. Now I’m delighted to report the bricks are back again!

Back to that first winter: we would regularly carry a brick back each from the beach – if not two. What has really defined our brick-collecting is the writing on the bricks. They all tell a story.

Let’s take Niddrie as an example.The Niddrie brick works was on the south-east of Edinburgh. Founded in the 1920s to accommodate the expansion in house building, the brickworks were demolished in 1991. If you’ve ever visited the Fort Kinnaird retail park, you’ve visited the site of the Niddrie brickworks! I love Niddrie bricks – this one is warmly golden and we know they were solidly made because we often find them undamaged.Other bricks from other places. Glenboig, Castlecary and Boghead Glasgow all hail from areas round Glasgow. Backworth is a Durham brick, and like many brickworks adjoined the local colliery. A ready supply of fuel and waste from the mining often supplied the perfect materials for the brick making.

A couple of Castlecary bricks in this collection below indicate the variety of brick that might have been produced from a single brickworks.The Sandysike brick below comes from an area north of Carlisle. This is an area that has a history of brick making dating back to Roman times.Our interest in these local bricks has inspired enthusiasm in other family members. It’s not unusual for us to send a car back to the Westcountry laden with Dougall bricks. You betray your age here: the young fondly remember Father Ted, and I hark back to The Magic Roundabout. Either way, this has nothing to with the real history of the Dougall brickworks. They were made at Bonnybridge, north-east of Glasgow, from 1896 to 1967.In turn our Westcountry family has supplied us with some nice bricks. St Day hails from a Redruth brickworks. And I particularly like these old tiles designed to protect electricity cables which were also a gift from the Westcountry.Of particular¬†relevance to Berwick with its history as a long-time grain exporter are these granary bricks. The holes in the bricks¬†were designed to aerate the grain. I believe they were made at a Nuneaton brickworks, north of Coventry.Some are superior to others. Compare the glazed brick here (reminding me so much of Victorian jelly moulds!) with the rough-cast granary brick below. The added patina of green mound is from sitting in damp parts of our garden.I am deeply indebted to several knowledgeable and brick-loving websites for all the historic information which I have linked to, and I have listed my sources at the end of this blog. I guess those writers and researchers, like me, are fascinated by industrial archaeology and the ordinary stories of human labour and habitation tied up with brick manufacture.

For me the pleasure in bricks also lies in the tones, shapes and colours of all the different bricks and how they marry up with the flowers in our garden. Poppies and forget-me-nots self seed in the gaps.A collection of bricks sits around Gary, our classy garden gnome, and the planter, here full of spring flowers …And here, later in the season, featuring poppies ….The bricks come in handy about the house for all sorts of purposes.Actually, our present abundance of bricks makes me chuckle – when I lived in Devon I was always short of bricks! Some twenty years or so ago, I had a spell of making doorstops from half-bricks and would guard those few bricks I found jealously. You’ll recognise my language obsession here too. This doorstop is a¬†pleasing play on Francis Thompson’s poem, The Kingdom of God: “Turn but a stone and start a wing.”And here, from the same poem: ‘Tis your estrang√®d faces, That miss the many-splendored thing.”I don’t think these compressed lines from Dylan Thomas’s poem Fern Hill perhaps work so well here (I’ve used too many colours): “Now as I was young and easy […] Prince of the apple towns […] Time let me play and be golden […] in his mercy.”There are an odd few doorstops that are a bit wonky and without words.Nowadays I find myself more drawn to bricks than ever. They stand out on an ordinary walk round the countryside¬†… or a nearby village ….We were delighted to find this wonderful brick sculpture by Julia Hilton in the beautiful and mysterious boggy gardens at Paxton House. Her sculpture, aptly called Entrances,¬†is made of¬†old bricks from the Armadale brickworks.And a visit to the local builders’ merchant offers new unexpected delights!!As to that film crew – well, we’re still waiting to hear too ….

I have drawn on these excellent internet sources for historic information on brick making:

To Cumbrae and back through the Scottish borderlands

Last Monday we left our home near Berwick and drove over the country to the Scottish west coast, roughly on exactly the same longitude as our home in England. It has always fascinated me that we are so close, have so much in common … and yet are so different.To our delight, whilst English Berwick on the east coast was bitterly cold, Cumbrae, in Scotland on the west of the UK, was sky-blue – shorts and sandals weather! We waited for the ferry to take us from Largs to the Isle of Cumbrae.Our visit to the Isle of Cumbrae was prompted by my wish to visit West Kilbride and some very talented Scottish craftswomen there.¬† Stephen was tasked with finding us somewhere to stay in the locality … and he came up with the College of the Holy Spirit, which adjoins the Cathedral of the Isles on Cumbrae.These establishments were designed by¬†William Butterfield in 1851, at the request of the 6th Earl of Glasgow,¬†George Frederick Boyle. Boyle was an enthusiast of the Oxford Movement, believing in the reinstatement of older Christian traditions.¬† He wanted the College to train priests for the Episcopal Church – perhaps like the men enjoying the College grounds in this old print below.Alas, Boyle, an enormously generous and devout man (he was also pouring money into the building of Perth Cathedral at this time) depended too much perhaps on divine providence – Dominus Providebit (God will provide) is the Boyle family motto – and went bankrupt in 1885.Luckily the College Chapel had been consecrated as Cathedral for the Scottish Episcopal Church United Diocese of Argyll & The Isles in 1876, so the Diocese was already responsible for these buildings.

The Cathedral Spire towers over the island, even when glimpsed from the hills above.We first glimpsed it through the trees. You get an idea of Butterfield’s original concept¬†from this drawing that appeared on the front of “Butterfield Revisited”, edited by Peter Howell and Andrew Saint, and published by the Victorian Society. The Cathedral stands proud, surrounded by manicured lawns, with a young avenue of lime trees.That’s not how it is now!¬† The Diocese may have funded the Cathedral buildings, but there was no money to pay for garden upkeep.

By a magical transformation, those uncared gardens have become wild and more beautiful than one could imagine. Trees have grown up everywhere – the lime avenue is enormous. Underneath the trees, are masses and masses of flowering ramsons (wild garlic).The fine lawn banks host bluebells as well as the ramsons.I do¬†so hope George Boyle¬†is not turning in his grave as he contemplates the changed garden!¬† He is indeed buried here – in the large flat tomb in the foreground of this picture. He must have loved this place very much. It is extraordinary to find such¬†buildings on such a tiny island. Butterfield’s vision of this small group of buildings is harmonious and elegant.¬† Here you have the windows of the Lady Chapel, the Cathedral and the Refectory – all varied in pattern and size, but united in stone and form. And look how very deftly Butterfield has highlighted the Cathedral window with the¬†descending dove of the Holy Spirit¬†above it.We stayed in the North College which had once housed the choristers. Our room was the upper left hand window, set amidst the tiles.¬† We had the place to ourselves¬†for the first couple of nights, and after that only another couple came and stayed at the other end of the building.¬†It was extraordinary!The rooms are called after Christian virtues.¬† Ours was Fortitude ……hmmm.Inside was all dark wood and heavy carving. The corridor …The fireplace in our bedroom …..¬†huge and cumbersome!The common room …What I didn’t like was the inside of the Cathedral.¬† It looks OK from here …But once you go up into the Chancel, you get tile madness!¬† I don’t care for the Victorian tones of green and brown anyhow, but, that to the side, it looks to me as though some student was told to see what variety of patterns they could come up to fill the space available. It’s truly tile pattern madness!Sometimes we joined Warden Amanda and Lay Chaplain Alastair for morning and evening prayers – quiet and peaceful, though the Scottish rite (just slightly different from the Anglican one we know) caught us out a bit¬†…Outside the calm inner sanctuary¬†lurked danger … In the evenings we explored Millport.¬† I don’t think the authorities¬†meant us to take this image away with us ….And we chuckled at this …..There are¬†lots of boarded up properties round Millport, looking just a little¬†bit sad and unloved … Masses of rabbits everywhere … (not an easy place to be a gardener, I guess) …Including several black ones (or was it the same one and¬†it just got¬†round a lot?) ¬†…After our evening walks,¬†we went¬†back to the College and lowered the ecclesiastical tone, sitting in the warm, evening sunshine with a bottle of wine …The road round Cumbrae is perfect for cyclists of all ages.¬† This looks like a 1960s group setting out to enjoy a bicycle ride en famille.You can hire all sorts of cycles …We hired two quite ordinary bikes to get round the island.¬† This was extremely brave of me since I haven’t been on a bike for well over 15 years.¬† It was a glorious ride, and despite much moaning on my part (the seat was horribly uncomfortable), it was a wonderful experience.Picnic lunch and an opportunity to enjoy the view of the islands of Bute and Arran (grey and lowering in the far distance).I don’t think I¬†have ever seen a war memorial as powerful as this. It is dedicated to the men and women of the British and Allied forces who have no known grave.After our bicycle tour of the island, we¬†spent a couple of days on the mainland about West Kilbride. I got to do the workshop that I have longed to do for so long with lovely Lorna of Chookiebirdie.¬† We spent an entire day sewing together …. Oh, just look at this sewing heaven!Lorna¬†was teaching me to make paisley botehs like these ones of hers.And I was so thrilled with what I made that I have only just stopped carrying it round with me!Another day I finally got to visit Old Maiden Aunt’s¬†yarn shop in West Kilbride –¬†somewhere else¬†I’ve longed to go to for ages! So many gorgeous colours.¬† And we got to peak into her dye studio too. As an amateur dyer, it’s fascinating for me¬†to see her professional systems – though perhaps the multi-coloured spatters behind the pots is the give away that Lilith herself might not call it that …I have to confess that I find yarn buying overwhelming.¬† I may have decided that I am going to make a green scarf, and need green wool, but when I see the yarns available, all my carefully thought out plans go awry.¬† This is what we came away with – all lovely stuff, but not a lot of green, and certainly not the grassy-greens I had in mind …At the Barony in West Kilbride we found an amazing exhibition of¬†Radical Craft.¬†Doesn’t this Landfill Tantrum by Pinkie MacLure just say all you really long to say about waste and rubbish and pollution?!!Who¬†could not love Rosemary McLeish’s What I Do When I Don’t Do The Ironing ?! Dedicated I think to all those who hate¬†this chore¬†…But the pi√®ces de r√©sistance for me were these two works paying homage (as it were) to Angus McPhee.¬† They were both made by Joanne B Kaar – the boots are copies of Angus McPhee’s orginal boots (those too fragile to be exhibited now) and she made the hats in the spirit of his work. I came upon¬†the story of Angus McPhee from Donnie Monro’s song, Weaver of Grass.¬†¬†As far as I can see the pop song world is dominated by mostly saccharine love songs, so ¬†it amazes and delights me to hear such a glorious song about a mentally ill man. Perhaps it is really¬†a love song in another guise …..

Time then to say goodbye to the little Isle of Cumbrae. The weather was changing as we headed back to Largs …On to sunny Sanquhar – another place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time because of their famous¬†knitting designs.¬† The little Tolbooth Museum there is a gem …Holding information¬†about and examples of¬†lots of historic¬†Sanquhar knitting patterns …..We were also interested in the displays there about the local brickworks.As it happens, we have a small collection of¬†lettered bricks.¬† This started with us finding them on our local beach at Spittal.¬† There is an¬†entire history of northern English and Scottish collieries and brickworks to be revealed from those names.¬† Luckily the lovely museum attendant at the Tolbooth Musuem knew just where to send us!And so we found ourselves quite unexpectedly rooting around the old Sanquhar brickworks.There were the sad remnants of the buildings ….And we found a brick or two …..Most poignantly, Clarks Little Ark, an animal rescue shelter at this site, have constructed a memorial wall of the old bricks for those dear ones they have lost.Finally our last stop in Sanquhar, the Euchanfoot B & B – and, yes – would you believe it! –¬†more bricks!¬† (along with a very comfortable room and delicious breakfast).Norma, our lovely hostess, explained that the collapsed old mill buildings which stood at the end of her garden were now just a pile of¬†local bricks.¬†¬†So there we were, brick-foraging again ….Time to go home – perhaps crawl would be a better description for¬†our heavily-brick-laden car. The weather got nastier and nastier as we travelled up through the Lowther hills …Still extraordinarily beautiful ….We had decided to travel back via the source of the River Tweed, high up in the Lowther Hills. There, masked in the mist and murk, we found this sign. From this point, a tiny stream and all the little tributaries that run into it flow eastwards to where it meets the sea on Spittal beach.This is an iconic spot to many (including us) because it is a great river. Appropriately there is a finely ornamented stone, incorporating words that speak off the Tweed: “it is one of Britain’s cleanest rivers …”Sadly, it was not a clean site.¬† The rubbish was disgusting and a terrible reflection on lazy, casual visitors. I have an uncomfortable idea that people feel they have license to behave so because Dumfries and Galloway council have not provided a litter bin ….Oh dear, what a negative way to end a great holiday!¬† So I won’t.¬† As we travelled through the Borders, the sun shone through the damp leaves, and we slowed down to enjoy the wonderful countryside …. and an antique Rolls Royce … Festina Lente!

In defence of the humble seagull

The local press is full of shock horror stories about the modern devils of the high street: the seagull.Apparently some one in Berwick has taken to shooting them, and our local MP is warning against such vigilante action.¬† I have to agree with those who write about the disgusting mess the seagulls leave in our towns and cities. A brief walk around sunny Berwick a week or so ago, left that in no doubt. Would you want to sit here?Other councils are talking of handing out hefty fines (¬£80!!) for those who feed these high street pests.¬† There is no doubt that the seagull does have a sharp eye for rubbish!A recent walk around Berwick revealed another world high up above all the human busyness¬†… a world of watchers and waiters … waiting to swoop presumably for that tasty morsel …However, we are lucky because we see another side of the gull story. And just at the moment I’m missing them.

One of the pleasures of the slower wintry days has been field-watching. These fields, looking south towards Scremerston and over the coast towards Holy Island, are very familiar to us now. Here, after heavy rain last November, you can see the old parish boundary marking the borders of the Municipal Borough of Berwick-upon-Tweed. It reappears in the form of the curved waterway running over the field between the two larger ponds.The ponds lingered – and came and went.¬† As did the gulls. Sometimes there’s just a solitary gull …More often there’s a host of gulls arriving …and¬†working the field¬†…There are visitors too on the far pond …They come and go …Now the fields have dried up and the winter crops are growing so these visitors have gone …Not entirely. A¬†solitary gull has been known to come and eat at our table …Leaving in haste, when sighted! They are funny birds to watch close up because their descent and take-off can be so very clumsy.We don’t have to go far to see the gulls on the beach. Just how glorious can they be when sighted in feeding frenzy as on¬†this cold winter’s day several years ago.An everyday walk down to the Tweed shows them speckled over the river …Sometimes you see a little more besides …They have a talent for striking the stylish pose – always good at finding a fine vantage point.And they can be hilariously funny too.¬† One summer we watched this young greedy gull pester its parent for food …The parent gave way, fed the baby bird (aren’t they the ugliest babies you have ever seen?!!) …And then tried to leg it as the youngster begged for more …We’ve also seen¬†harsh reminders on the beach that life for the gull can be all too nasty, brutish and short …Part of our beach treasure collection at home is this seagull “crown” …We think it belonged to a seagull chick or fledgling that was unfortunate enough to meet a raptor very early in its life. The underside is soft downy feathers and fragile bone.The cats love playing with it … just check out this natural born killer … those claws!Perhaps the best time to enjoy gulls is when they plough the fields – more often in the autumn round us than the spring.Aaaah – the light on those wings as they scramble to follow the plough!If you’re of a certain age (as I most definitely am), you’ll recall Richard Bach’s book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. In very very brief, it’s the story of one particular gull’s striving for perfection in flight.It’s about soaring, swooping gloriously above …Catching those perfect thermals …About exhilaration …About freedom …I love Jonathan Tulloch’s description of seagulls as “raggedy angels”. Writing of his stay in a Birmingham hotel in a recent edition of the Tablet, he says: “[…] all I could hear were seagulls. I opened the window and their kookaburra-like laughter filled the room. There they were, soaring over the skyline on slightly tattered wings like raggedy angels.” How very much more vivid is this evening view of Tweedmouth for the gull soaring in the sky above?¬† It hints at that raggedy angel’s view – worlds and aspirations and hopes of which we mere mortals can only dream. (Apologies both because I am being slapdash in using the common term Seagull for what I know are several different breeds of birds.¬† And secondly, because my iPhone5S is woefully inadequate to the challenge of photographing these fantastic birds.)

An absence of birds and rain

It has been a slow and boring March for us here, with painting, painting – and it seemed – yet more painting …We had a new porch built outside our front door last December.¬† It’s on the colder, north side of the building, so gives us extra protection with a double entrance as well as accommodating all our muddy, messy outdoor wear.All sorts of things had to be done to make it a useful part of the building …And it is finally just about there …But the painting – the oh, so very¬†boring painting – dragged on and on.¬† Little bits all over the house and garden also appeared in need of a paint in the fresh clean light of spring days …We are now making up for lost time, and outside as much as possible, catching up on the garden.Stephen’s potting up of seeds and young plants includes making these nifty little newspaper pots – so ingenious!Sometimes he has a not-so-helpful helper with him …The salad greens in the greenhouse are feeding us comfortably …But it looks like we will have a while to wait for any crops from our raised beds.¬† The problem isn’t just the very cold nights we are still getting (although our days are blessed with sun a plenty).¬† No, it’s the absence of rain …Our water butts are empty.¬† We have light rain showers occasionally, but they are so very light as to make little or no difference.¬† I can’t remember when we last had a decent downpour. ¬†The water butts remain almost empty. So most reluctantly, we have got out the hose …It’s easy for us – but not so easy for the local farmers.¬† At the beginning of April, there were still ponds on the local fields.¬† We watched these with great¬†interest as they provide home and sustenance to the local gulls.This is what they look like now … parched …Walking around the local farms, there is evidence aplenty of parched fields.¬† This is an interesting spot because it is at the bottom of fields that run down to the sea on the right.¬† In other years – in wetter winters – there has not been the same marked run off as we are seeing this year. You can’t really tell from these pictures, but this winter wheat crop has barely grown at all.It’s easy for us to water our slow-growing raspberries plants, but quite a different matter for a farmer with huge grain fields …Elsewhere, the monopoly of bright yellow early spring flowers is over.¬† Those daffodil heads are in the compost heap, contributions to another year …There are flash-coloured tulips about now and lots of forget-me-nots … oh dear, I see something else that¬†needs a fresh coat of paint! The forget-me-nots really come into their own on the other side of our garden fence … this year they are tiny plants … usually double the height …I always think the very best thing about gardening is the surprises, the things you have forgotten you planted.¬† These entirely white narcissi are exactly such a case in point.¬† I have absolutely no recollection of planting them, but I think they are just exquisite, fragile and elegant … Ghost flowers …Another delight this year is the japonica flowering for the first time.¬† Usually in the autumn I collect japonica fruit from my friend in Devon to make quince jelly.¬† Perhaps this year, I’ll have a couple of my own fruit to add to this year’s jelly …There are disappointments too.¬† The rosemary bush has died – and just look at the scorch marks from salty easterly blasts on the snapdragon plant in the foreground …The other big disappointment for us is the absence of birds.¬†It’s true that there are pigeons¬†… hours of entertainment for Eggy (hunched in the foreground)¬†…But there have been no ordinary birds like sparrows and blackbirds for weeks. In February, Ilsa brought a song thrush in to Stephen.¬† He was able to rescue it, and as it seemed fine, we hoped it¬†would survive. However,¬†we later¬†found it dead in the field.¬† RIP beautiful bird.So now the cats wear collars …They don’t seem to be very perturbed by the collars, and are out and about enjoying themselves as usual …But have they frightened the birds away for good? We take heart from a new young blackbird who¬†has been seen around,¬†and a sparrow was sighted on the bird feeders today.

There are still larks. On my knees, as I weeded the flowerbeds, with the sea on the horizon, the sun on my back, my head was full of the sound of the song of the larks – singing their hearts out in this glorious place. Rain and birds …. please come back!

Our local beach walk

I found myself reflecting the other day how long it is since I wrote on this blog about our walks.¬† It is not that we have not been out and about, but with the windier and wintrier weather¬†our walks have been concentrated in the locality. I guess I’ve felt a bit dismissive about these, but I’ve now¬†realised how silly this is.¬† After all, the walks that you do regularly and repetitively right through the seasons, in all weather – those are in fact probably the more fascinating. You see a place through all its changes.

So, let me take you with me on our local Spittal beach walk which we did the other day Рand I will show you why we love it so much!

The walk starts with a rough track from our cottage down to the railway line¬†… and the sea …If you are lucky, you will get to see a train …I still find the passing trains¬†enormously exciting … for extra drama you can, of course, stand under the bridge as the train passes …Today I didn’t manage that, which is perhaps just as well because passing under the bridge with the bright blue of the sea calling you is a pleasure in itself …We turn to the left when through the bridge. You can see the old concrete bases¬†of the beach huts ahead.¬† The beach huts were scrapped long ago, and recently¬†planning permission has been lodged to build modern luxury homes on this land.¬† It will change the atmosphere of the place but I guess they will be lovely homes for some. For now the gorse is just out, it’s a beautiful day – and the beach is calling …Our route takes us over a small green park.¬† There are football posts here now but in the old days, there were all sorts of¬†high jinks here … funfairs,¬†paddling pools , together with an elaborate layout of seating and benches … all gone now …In the summer, this area is used for the Spittal Seaside Festival and on a fine summer’s evening it is pleasant indeed to walk down to the pavilions they put up …And partake of a beer or two while listening to the local talent …There’s nothing going on here today … not many people walking along the promenade either.Peering¬†¬†over the railings (and with tide permitting), you can see some of the interesting rock formations that are to be found on this coastline …But today, we’re going to walk along the promenade for a while and descend to the beach later. This railing was repainted last summer and still looks nice and shiny and blue, in keeping with the blueness of today’s sky and sea …The promenade stretches on right up to the end of the houses (just before that old factory chimney you can see in the centre distance), and then the walk continues on a rougher track right to Spittal point where you face Berwick on the other side of the Tweed river.¬†This beach¬†is much loved by dog walkers …The painter, L.S. Lowry, loved it too, and several of his paintings have been reproduced at relevant points to make connections between¬†the pictures and the landscape.¬† I so love this little red-capped lady standing in front of the blue railings!In mid-summer the promenade is full of folk having fun at the Spittal Seaside festival … Not a lot of people on the beach though …But then this is the very most northern part of Northumberland and it is not a beach for softies … Here are the stoical good people of Spittal rushing into the sea on Boxing Day!¬† This is the North Sea remember, and we are almost in Scotland …I have only ever known Stephen paddle here the once (and this was taken mid-summer) …I’m much more confident!Our first winter here we had serious snow. It was stunningly beautiful and we have longed for its return ever since …And oh, how these little dogs are enjoying themselves!Seriously angry wind and waves like this storm in January last year are – thank goodness – a rarity…A white beach – but it’s not snow …But back to the present: half way along the promenade, we walk down to the beach, and on to the sand …It’s just heavenly walking along this large sandy expanse … the weather is perfect today … just a light wind … shingle and shells and seaweed …Up on the promenade, there’s the play park and the amusement arcade (wouldn’t be a proper beach without fun and games and icecream, would it?) ….Down on the sand, there’s lots of interest. If you like collecting things and the weird and the wonderful like me, you’d love it.¬† There are always interesting things to find … bits of sea-glass, shells, pebbles …Parts of old bottles …Bicycle tyres reconfigured by Mother Nature into interesting beach sculptures …A rattan bench, so conveniently placed for beach viewing …Sometimes interesting graffiti …Sea-foam monsters …And did I tell you that we collect lettered bricks …?Sometimes you find things you would rather not find … (this was in January last year after the very heavy storms washed livestock ….err, dead stock …. down the Tweed on to Spittal beach) …Today Stephen’s found me some treasures …Three golf balls!And a lovely bit of china … (with writing on, always the best) …We’ve had stormy weather recently, and that’s reflected in the state of the beach today.¬† There’s lots of seaweed and leaves that have been swept down the river Tweed …As we approach the Point, we pass the old groins,¬†half buried¬†in this leafy seaweed mess.¬† There on the bank you can see the last of the old Spittal factory chimneys.¬† This area was once full of factories making chemicals and fertiliser.¬† It is reputed to have smelt very bad, greatly to the displeasure of the boarding-house ladies in the posher parts of Spittal …From a distance these piles appear to be all organic matter – leaves and seaweed and branches – but sadly that’s not the case.¬† There is disgusting very human rubbish amid the natural waste …And there is a horribly large amount of plastic bottles.¬† Sometimes I’m organised enough to bring bags for rubbish but I hadn’t expected it to be so bad today.Actually, it isn’t the worst that we’ve ever seen the beach.¬† One December, after serious storms, the piles on the beach were so large they almost came up to Stephen’s shoulder.Of course, these sea-gifts have their advantages …¬† this is fodder from the sea for our compost heap …The birds too love these leafy treasures which bring fine¬†dining …Spittal Point at the end of the beach is where the sea meets the river Tweed …On the other side of the Tweed river is the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed with its fine Elizabethan fortifications … (here caught in a magically wintry sun-setting moment) …And there are the¬†pier and the lighthouse. At times it can appear to be a tiny waterway over to the pier, but it is not …Very large boats like the Marinda here go up the Tweed to Tweedmouth harbour …Just as in Lowry’s day … (sadly this other sign in the Lowry trail on Spittal beach has been horribly defaced by the elements) …The channel is so tricky to navigate that large boats must use the local pilot.¬† Here is the pilot boat edgily leading the way …There is¬†the Marinda turning and straightening into port. It’s always dramatic when a big boat arrives, but these fishermen don’t look that bothered …The Spit – as we call this land where the sea meets the river – is endlessly fascinating.¬† It is a land of shape-shifting, of soft sands and the intriguing patterns of nature. Sometimes there are islands …Sometimes there are ridges and mounds¬†and small pools …Patterns and new colours …An ethereal world when caught in the mist …You never know what colours you may find here …Occasionally we walk down here at night … it is truly magical to watch the sun set behind Berwick¬† and the Tweed …Today we turn back from the Tweed to the Spittal chimney and a mirrored sun …It is here that we see our favourite beach birds, the sanderlings. They are winter visitors from the high Arctic.¬†You can read more about these so-called Keystone Cops of the British seaside in an earlier blogpost of mine Time now to turn back.¬† Sometimes the beach is so perfect that we cannot resist retracing our steps along the beach and up¬†to home on the hill¬†… On other occasions we’ll walk back along the promenade. It has been known to be as sandy as this after the winter storms …They have to call out the diggers before the season starts to clean it all up …Today we’re walking back through Spittal. This is Spittal’s industrial quarter and has a fascination of its own. First we go through the scruffy lands where you can see the last remaining¬†Spittal chimney in its native habitat …On the other side of the road are the¬†old fish-gutting sheds, now part of Berwick Sailing Club.¬† In the old days, these large wooden shutters were drawn back to the walls on either side, and buckets of freshly caught fish delivered for processing …Not far away is the old salmon fishing shiel.¬† Here fishermen would pass the time, eating and sleeping, while waiting for the right tides for their salmon nets …We turn down into Spittal’s Main Street.¬† It is handsome and well-cared for – and unusually wide for a village street. This is because once an old railway track ran through the middle of the street, bringing building stone and coal to the river from where it could be transported down¬†the coast¬†…There is a handsome Victorian school …And church …The houses at this end of Spittal are solidly-built of the local stone. Many of these were boarding houses where visitors from the nearby Scottish Borders stayed for seaside holidays … But the old signs hint at an older history¬†to this place.¬† Surely with a name such as Cow Road¬†at some time people drove their cattle down this¬†lane …?We are now climbing the hill … and we are looking down on the lighthouse and pier … and Spittal chimney … and the funfair … and Spittal’s Main street … and all those nicely roofed houses …Where earlier in our walk we walked under the railway line, here we cross it …The railway crossing manager is to be found in a little hut to the side, and should you wish to drive over the line, you must seek permission …If you’re just walking over, you can just go – but, of course, you take your life in your hands …This pic really doesn’t convey how scarily fast these trains can move¬†… !Now we’re walking parallel to the railway line … still on the lookout for trains … and looking back at the lighthouse and beach …With just our muddy rutted track ahead … This is our private lane, shared with our neighbours, and lovingly repaired by us ….Over the brow of the hill …And a pause to enjoy it all … before we head home for tea.