The deserted village of Old Middleton

We were drawn to this walk by the Northumberland National Park Poems in the Air project. Earlier this summer, we’d listened to Simon Armitage recounting his Proposal Stone poem on the Simonside Hills – a quite magical experience, so we were keen to explore more of these walks.

On a extraordinarily perfect autumnal day last week we set out to walk to Old Middleton to find the deserted village, and hear another Simon Armitage poem.We parked the car near Middleton Farm, and walked up the track, past berry-laden trees and the curious cattle …This is a beautiful spot – but I wouldn’t care to live here.  Just look at these pylons dominating the farm (tucked away at its feet)!We are all too familiar with complaints about wind farms in Northumberland, but I’ve never heard anyone moan about the pylons, and when you meet them like this, you do wonder why ever not …But never mind the pylons and the current disputes raging about how we mark the landscape – we were here to find habitations that long pre-dated these arguments.  Stephen found them on his phone first …Just a little way on, and we saw the old enclosures …And got our first glimpse of these deserted buildings …It’s not unusual to find old barns and outhouses that have fallen into disrepair and been abandoned, but what is strange about this place, is the house nearby – hidden by the overgrown trees.We couldn’t resist looking inside … the overgrown trees making the pathway difficult …Look down amid the overgrown nettles at those muddy hoof prints – it’s clearly a home for the local sheep now …Where the nettles haven’t taken over completely …We peered in gingerly …Not sure what we’d find …The old range …And the water pipes connecting to nothing now …But once (presumably) they led to this bath …And the toilet …Look up, and there’s the water tank.  Ooh dear, it does look very dodgy ….As do other things …In fact, it’s probably best not to look up …In many places the plaster has come off, but the mid twentieth century fireplace is still there in what must have been the living room …And another older (and in my opinion prettier)  fireplace in the single bedroom …On sunny days like this, how fine it is to look out of this bedroom …What views from this cottage …And the sheep glimpsed outside …The old electricity meter, all rusted up now …It feels intrusive – especially when you come across objects like this odd shoe …So we left the cottage and walked back to explore the old barns …Overgrown with nettles and small trees …To peer through the little window at the sheep …And admire the quality of the quoins in the stone doorway …Before settling down to listen to Simon Armitage, the curious sheep warily coming to watch us … I can’t remember the poem, nor did we write it down (that would spoil it for others rather), but I can tell you that he spoke of abandonment and renaturing.

“We are tenants only …” Too right, Simon – applicable to so much that we think we control in our everyday lives.Villagers have fled their homes in this Northumbrian/Borderland area for many centuries.  The constant raiding in the sixteenth century (Scots and English marauders pillaging over their borders) took a huge toll on the ordinary farming families trying to eke a living out of this land.

But this cottage was clearly inhabited in the last century so we were curious to know more about Old Middleton.  Very little is written about it, but I did find this interesting little reference in Edward Baker’s “Walking the Cheviots”.

“Only the earthworks of this abandoned village are visible today. Originally it comprised of two rows of cottages north and south of a village green.  In 1580 Thomas Gray of Chillingham had eleven tenants living there.  Today only a ruined shepherd’s cottage marks the site.  These abandoned villages are often the result of farm mechanisation causing a drop in required manpower, resulting in rural depopulation.”

We looked around at this beautiful place – green fertile lands, trees, water – and wondered about the people who had to leave.Casually – as though dropped in a rush – somebody had left this curious cast-iron object on the ground near where we were sitting.We had no idea what it is, but it was clearly marked: R.A.Lister, Dursley, according to Wikipedia makers of agricultural equipment. Somehow the rejection of this object made even more poignant the ending of the agricultural enterprise that was Old Middleton.We left Old Middleton and walked on – our route highlighted in red on the map below.As we looked back at these deserted buildings, we could see strip farming marks highlighted in the fields, showing where in the middle ages this land would have been farmed under the open-field systemOur route took us along the hill slope, through a large field of very noisy cattle …Who – most disturbingly – were walking parallel to us, lowing furiously as though gathering for a meet …The track was extremely boggy in places …So we were glad when we escaped the noisy cattle and the marshy ground, and soon found ourselves on better terrrain … and heading down to the treeline …A brief glimpse of the beautiful Coldgate Water in the valley below …Our path took us past a little lake (map consultation taking place here) …No Swimming!And down down down ….To the Coldgate Water …The trouble was – it was much deeper than we had expected!Or had the map-reader brought us to the wrong crossing … hmmm. Either way, we had to cross, and what else to do, but strip off our sox and walking boots and paddle over barefoot ….It was very beautiful ….But very very cold! I guess it isn’t named the Coldgate Water for nothing …Ah, but the pleasure of sunning your wet feet when you’ve crossed the stream!Especially when Stephen realises he has some kitchen roll to dry our feet with. Softies aren’t we!The other side of the bank the path was tricky – muddy (trampled by the cattle) and seriously overgrown …So – imagine our pleasure when we came out into the plain of the Happy Valley!Much easier walking here … (even if the defaced waymarker was no help) …Through dappled woods …At times, it did appear that we were being watched … Or is that face in the tree just my imagination?Then we crossed back over the Coldgate Water – thank goodness a proper bridge here …Past the thoughtfully placed bench …And back to Middleton Farm and our little white car!It was a glorious walk, but I cannot help feeling sad that people had to leave their homes in a place called the Happy Valley.

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Summer views

I am constantly drawn to the view here. It is like a drug, a fix, a yearning, a longing.  Wherever I’m at home, I find myself coming back to the windows and looking out.This summer – perhaps because of the less-than-perfect weather we’ve had? – I have been particularly fascinated by the interplays of light and shade on land and sea …The colour changes, sometimes in the sky …But also over the land …And of course  over the sea …Almost all of these photographs were taken from our bedroom window, looking south-east over the fields of north Northumberland to the North Sea.  You may be able to make out the gantreys of the main eastcoast railway line and beyond them the castles of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh in the very distance …. oh, and that’s our always-wonky washing line, keen to be part of the view too …Let me a bit more orderly, and look back through the months to the green fields of June.  Here’s a classic early June day and it’s all green and white and blue …Some days are cloudy, but they have a different sort of fascination …Nights too have colour shifts and amazing tones  ….This photograph was taken about the summer solstice, when the nights are long and light and full of promise.  9.30 in the evening – the one above of the moon taken at 10.42 pm.But then we’re in July – the summer galloping away;  a classic British summer day with the clouds scudding about …July 3rd I was up very early indeed for me – 5.35 am. It was worth it to see this beauty of a day starting – and oh, those long shadows on the green! Sunrise (to the far left of the picture) was almost exactly an hour earlier. A couple of days later (July 6th) illustrates so well the quick changes in this place …This photo was taken 3 minutes later than the one above, at 9.26 pm. I found this so extraordinary that I had to check it out – but it’s true, the camera and the very helpful EXIF data recorded with each image don’t lie.The next day (July 7th), at roughly the same time of the evening, the light from the setting sun is far more intense. It creeps through holes in the fence to highlight the odd old coping stone. My July 8th photograph captures an almost full moon a couple of minutes after sunset.  The colours are muted, but magical in their own way – especially that faint pink hovering over the horizon …You can see in this day time pic of July 11 that the field colours are still green, but I think they’re just edging to that acid-green that heralds the change to harvest gold …July 15th – and a run of fascinating evening photos, starting at 7.33 pm. It looks interesting in the sky, but not particularly dramatic …Followed by some sharper light at 9.04 pm …9.17 pm … it definitely dramatic! – and yes, that’s a rainbow creeping in on the right!9.32 pm … calming down a bit …Lastly – 10.18 pm …. things are beginning to settle down for the night …The next day – a sparkling day at 10.27 am …And something very unusual happening amid these intense evening colours at 8.02 pm.  There’s a rookery in the group of trees on the horizon – and something has set the crows off –  I wonder what on earth it is?The evening of the 17th of July – cloudless, but oh that gentle pink haze on the horizon …By complete contrast, July 22nd is misty and mysterious!July 24th is in many ways unremarkable – but it’s still misty (you can’t make out Holy Island) and look at those angry white waves crashing on the coast!We’re drawing on to the end of July with this picture of the 27th. It was actually taken at 9.26 in the morning, but is so dark that it could well be later in the day – until you look at those extraordinary light patches on the sea and on the horizon … Now we’re into August – and if you’re still with me, you’ve certainly got staying power!  I have to warn you that there are more pictures of August views than any of the other months put together.  Why?  Well, I think it has to do with the colour change.  The growing gold of the fields, and the interplay of the light on and around them is just irresistible …

This picture of August 2nd is my earliest picture of the day.  It was taken at 4.25 am. Sunrise followed in nearly an hour (at 5.17), but the light is already twitching over the sea …I was up a little later on August 5th.  You can see so clearly the way the sunlight is streaming in from the left of the picture. This was taken at 6.37 am (sunrise at 5.23, nearly an hour earlier).  And you can see what I mean about those golden fields, can’t you?This photo below – one of the most dramatic in the whole set, I think – was taken in late afternoon – 5.09 pm … it’s raining heavily over the sea …. and it looks as though the pot of gold at the foot of that rainbow is on the beach just below us …But by 8.50 pm, everything’s calmed down, and there is just this intense pink glow behind the farm on the horizon ….9.05 pm – and the pink has moved over the sea …9.21 pm …cloudy ….21.43 pm … a clear moonlit night …Angry skies on the night of August 6th – the first photo taken just before 9pm and the second a few minutes after …By contrast the evening of August 8th (at almost the same time of day) was magical.  Sunset is to the right of this picture, but here the sun’s rays are catching the light clouds in such soft pinky golden tones …August 9th was a special day here because it’s the day the combine harvester arrived to start work on the fields around us.We both get excited when this happens … vying with each other to get the better picture ….Clouding over a bit as the tractor arrives ….This is dawn on August 11th – 4.58 am.  Well, it’s actually pre-dawn (often the time for the best sunrises) at 5.34 am …Sunrises (this at 5.22 am) speak for themselves.  As the earth tilts on its journey from the summer solstice to the autumn equinox, sunrise appears at more and more southerly points of the horizon.  So this is a view we would never see in May or June – but it is full of promise for us as we progress into winter, because then the sunrise will appear clearly on our southern horizons.  Check it out here in my very first ever blogpost!August 20th is overcast and dramatic (but it’s 5.34 pm) and the combine harvester is in our field! It arrives in a great dust cloud of chaff and the greedy young house martens swirling around.  The bugs stirred up by this great monster provide the most fantastic feast for the birds.  They are about to set out on their migration travels and need to bank up their bodily food stores.So dark the tractor’s actually got its lights on!It’s a very exciting moment as the combine harvester powers past right in front of the house …As they come to the end of their work for the day, a golden cast falls over the field from the setting sun, but the lowering grey clouds are deeper and darker …The next day it’s an odd feeling to wake up to the partially shorn field … and in sympathy (as it were) there is this curious light over the sea …Unusually the harvester left the field unfinished for several days. However the balers moved in and dealt with the part of the field that had been cropped.  One bale, right outside our house, split. It remains – a strange marker under this misty sky …But the next day (the 23rd) they started ploughing the lower field – look how red that soil is! a whole new colour added to the palette …He’s back finishing off the ploughing the next day.  This is one of my favourite pictures of this summer – I both love the silhouette of the tractor against the sea, and the scudding blue/grey skies.  And I also love the astonishing gleam on that freshly-ploughed earth!Time to feature the clouds alone.  Everything else is low key – the light is elsewhere, but the clouds know this is their turn to shine …A slight variant of our view here because this photograph, taken earlyish in the morning (at 8.22 am) shows the flowers in our garden, standing proud with the sea behind.And that’s it folks. The last day of August, and the farmer and his men are sorting out the broken drains in the field before they plough (which, as I write on September 4th, they still haven’t done).   That’s a little strange, but not unpleasant as this lingering gold with that fast-changing sky is very beautiful indeed.If I were to meet that wish-granting Genie of the bottle, I would wish to be a painter …

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!

Another London visit

Just over a week ago I was in London – busy, bustling, exciting, varied – so much to see, so much to do. I love visiting London, love the excitement, the endless small details of interest, the big statements of serious important world-changing matters in one of the largest cities in the world.

A visit away is always unsettling – even the kits feel it. Eggy seems to think that if I can take Northumbrian heather to London, I could take her too.eggy-in-my-suitcaseIt was nominally a visit to see family and friends.  To visit my nonagenarian mother (92!) in her Surrey nursing home …selfie-with-my-motherAnd sit in the autumn sun on the bench marking my father’s life …rhes-benchThis London trip was different because both my children have moved to areas of London that I don’t know at all, and for one who hates using the Underground like me travel round London is always a challenge!

My daughter’s bedsit was the easier visit because it’s at Mornington Crescent, within walking distance of King’s Cross station where I’d arrived. These tall houses remind me strongly of those at Earls Court where I used to live in the 1970s. helens-flatThe building on the right in the photograph above is the back of the amazing Carreras Cigarette Factory (now the London headquarters of Asos).front-of-asos-headquartersThis is just the sort of the thing I love about London – the serendipity of discovering fascinating buildings, and architectural detailing everywhere.  Black cats were part of the Carreras branding, and if you look carefully, you will see them right high up over the windows. I would love to see what it’s like inside.cats-all-over-the-asos-buildingHer little flatlet allows for window sill picnics …candlelit-window-picnicAnd there’s just space for Mum to tog up before gadding about London.togged-up-for-london-selfieThe highlight of my visit with Helen was a trip to the Victoria and Albert museum.  I used to visit regularly, but for one reason and another haven’t been for many years.  We are watching ITV’s Victoria which is a lot of fun even if I doubt some of the nineteenth century veracity.  A major theme is Albert’s struggle for some sort of role, and with this in mind, I was amused to see on the entrance façade that Victoria is very much in the senior position.  She – with orb and crown and sceptre – stands high over the entrance; Albert – a mere mortal – is far below over the main door.v-a-museumThe great delight again with a museum such as the Victoria and Albert museum is the serendipitous treats all around. Look at the marvels of the design of the original building here – that stucco, those arches, a rotunda above – coupled with a magnificent mediaeval altarpiece – and to crown it all a striking piece of modern glass.  v-a-at-its-bestSo much good to see that you don’t really know where to start.  I had it in mind to visit the glass gallery after reading LittleLollyTravels blogpost London Baby! some while ago. On the way to the glass we were seduced first by the tins …fancy-tinsWhat a particularly desirable biscuit tin this one is!literature-tinAnd then the metalwork … metalwork-from-castel-henrietteThis fantastically snakey green wrought iron piece is a window grille from Castel Henriette, designed by Hector Guimard.  Sadly, Castel Henriette has been demolished, but if you travel on the Paris Metro, you can see more of Guimard’s metal designs at some of the entrances.  What chance that this lovely piece ended up in the V & A?!!
castel-henrietteThe glass gallery – when found – was indeed a treat.  From the 1969 sculpture “Lollipop Isle”, designed by Oiva Toikka for Nuutajärvi glassworks …lollipop-glassTo the dawn of the twentieth century  with these exquisite German drinking glasses (I posted this picture on Instagram and everybody declared the crocus glass on the left to be their favourite – I wonder which is yours?) …german-wineglassesTo the nine earlyish Egyptian or perhaps Iraqi fragments of glass, dated to sometime in the 7th – 12th centuries (this case contains lots of fascinating treasures, generally Middle Eastern glass, of the same period) I am blown away by the pattern on these glass fragments …glass-fragmentsOnly a snapshot of what we saw, but there is really no way to justice to this remarkable museum.

My London travels then took me (very bravely by Underground – buses would have involved hours of travel) to Walthamstow where my son now lives.  His cottagey terraced house couldn’t be more of a contrast to the mansions of Mornington Crescent.walthamstow-terraced-house But nice detailing still mostly unspoilt (despite the conversions to modern windows), and I think William Morris would have approved.  Walthamstow is very much William Morris’s place. What a way to improve a car park!william-morris-wall-paintingHe grew up in Water House, and this fine building is now the William Morris museum.water-house-william-morris-museumMorris is intriguing because he defies fashion with an enduring appeal.  He was enormously popular in his lifetime, of course.  In my youth in the 1970s, he had a comeback, fitting in with the hippy vibe rather well.  And now, he seems to be all the rage again – check out this article on New York Fashion week!

So, all the patterns are very familiar – either I’ve had furnishings made of them sometime in my life, or known someone who did.  Part of the fun then in the museum was looking for old friends.

It was also intriguing to see how the designs were created. Here’s the Trellis design, both in its raw design state, and as a completed wallpaper print.  We know this 1862 print as Morris’ first design for wallpaper, but, in fact, it was Philip Webb who drew the birds.  Without them, Morris’ rose trellis would be somewhat lacking. I hadn’t realised how collaborative these designs were.trellis-wallpaperPleasing details in the museum included these oak drawers – beautiful smooth action, and look at those leather handles.  I’m sure William Morris would have liked these.drawers-in-morris-museumAnd I was glad to see the museum had fully exploited the fine patterns at its disposal with Morris prints decorating their very superior toilet facilities.william-morris-patterns-on-toilet-doorsmorris-in-the-toiletThe gardens of Water House are now a public park under the care of that rare species (nowadays) a park keeper.back-of-water-houseWe decided that it was the work experience student who was helping with the planting earlier this year and that is why some beds are surrounded with silvery grey foliage and others are not.something-wrong-with-the-plantingLike the visitor from Peru, I cannot praise this museum too highly – if you are in London, check it out!william-morris-galleryIn complete contrast to the sumptuousness of the V & A and the William Morris Gallery, I paid a visit to the Wellcome Institute to see their Bedlam exhibition.  I’ve been there several times before – it’s a most convenient gallery to visit if you have time spare while waiting for a train to leave King’s Cross railway station (just a little further up the Euston Road).  There is a fascinating permanent collection of medical curiosities from the past, and some most interesting modelling of modern problems like obesity.

But I was there to see an exhibition on Bedlam, the infamous London mental asylum founded in the 1700s.  Well – that was the starting point of the exhibition, but it continued to examine attitudes to mental health in the years up to the present, as well as focussing on art associated with mental health.

The exhibition was very crowded – lots of students making notes busily.  By chance I became separated from my friend. People swirling round me as I looked and looked for a familiar face in the crowd.  Suddenly, I realised how cleverly the exhibition was structured to give an impression of the helplessness of the inmates of an asylum. A deeply thought-provoking exhibition.bedlam-exhibitionSuch a brief visit – lots of interest, company, catching up with family and dear friends. I have now returned to the big skies of a very autumnal Northumberland …autumn-colours-in-the-gardenStill plenty to do in the garden …homely-choresThe farmer and seagulls are busy too …big-skies-and-harrowingWorking long and late into the night …farmers-working-late-into-the-nightHow incongruously different Northumberland seems from London!

Border Union Show

The Border Union Show is traditionally held on the last weekend of July, at Springwood park, just south of the river Tweed and the Scottish Border town of Kelso.  If you look carefully at the banner picture above this post, you will see Kelso’s historic Abbey looming dramatically over the glitzy showground site.

It’s primarily an agricultural show – a chance for the farmers of the locality to meet, greet and compare. But lots of other bodies join in the fun – and I was there as a member of the Tweed Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers to demonstrate with my little Innerleithen spinning wheel.

I’ve been going to the show as a demonstrator for several years.  We’ve had scorchingly hot years, and a thoroughly miserable wet year (last year – see my 2015 blog post for the Tweed Guild for how we survived the rain), but this year was proper traditional Scottish weather with sunshine and showers.  The plastic covers went on, and the plastic covers went off.  We ran inside with spinning wheels and our knitted displays – and then they all came out again!  It was hard work, and a long, tiring day, – but great fun too.  Not just for me – everybody everywhere seemed to be having a blast.Kelso Abbey watching over fieldThis year we found ourselves in the best of company.  We were sharing a tent with the Dunse flock of rare breed sheep!Rare Breed flockThey are lovely – but at close quarters, in a tent all day – yes, they do pong a bit (especially when their fruity fleeces come inside to avoid the rain).Rare Breed fleeces I did not envy those members of the guild who spent the day based inside the tent. But they put up magnificent displays of felting and basketry, and demonstrated their skills with energy and enthusiasm right through the day.demonstrators inside Tweed Guild tentThere was lots of interest.inside Tweed Guild tentThe Tweed Guild also had an interesting display of some of the different breeds of sheep and their fleeces.different fleece displaysAnd next to it, a beautiful display of natural-dyed materials.  (I’ve been really naughty here and snuck my acid-dyed royal blue Fika shawl into the display 😦 )Tweed Guild displayOutside there was a group of spinners.  This worked very well, as we attracted a lot of interest from passers by.Tweed guild spinners outside tentAnd there were spinning lessons!  Lots of youngsters were fascinated by the spinning wheels. Such a great pleasure to show them exactly what spinning entailed.giving spinning lessonsBut we were only a teeny tiny part of an enormous enterprise occupying 46 acres of parkland. I cannot do justice to it all because I only took short walks around, but let’s make a start with the animals as they were after all the raison d’etre for the show.

As we walked around, an enormous bull lumbered out of the showground.  It looked docile enough, but we were stopped well away to allow it to pass a safe distance from the public.getting the bull over the public pathThe other bulls were waiting inside looking remarkably peaceful and calm.bull waiting area - CopyFurther on, we came to the sheep. I love to see farming folk studying the sheep, leaning into the caging – as they have done since time immemorial (check out this fine Ravilious picture in the Beaford archive).sheep in pensThere were even some Blue-face Leicester sheep – highly prized by spinners!blue-faced leicesterCanny sheep were taking advantage of all the food on offer.sheep feedingIn a nearby tent, there were goats – interesting to see what a lot of young people seemed to be involved with them.goatsNot all animals were flesh and blood.fanciful creaturesI was particularly intrigued by the egg judging in the poultry tent.  For some reason, I had not thought that eggs would be judged – only the birds. Clearly the quality of the yolk is an important part of the judging criteria.  Not Stephen’s favourite spot (he doesn’t like eggs).judging eggsI’ll finish the livestock pics with some of rabbits because Stephen took an enormously large amount of photos of them.  Aren’t these little cuties?!rabbitsIn the main ring, meanwhile, young motorcyclists were entertaining the crowds with terrifying daredevil feats.Daredevil motorcyclistsOh my goodness!oh my goodnessThere’s definitely a macho feel to this place. There are big boys’ toys (photograph kindly contributed by Stephen).boys' toysWe are never allowed to forget that there is serious money behind all of this.  There were more spanking new four-wheel drives on this showground than I have ever seen before in my life.  The big landowners are in evidence – not just in their tweeds and their cavalry twills, but at the stalls.

This is the Roxburghe Estates tent.  Roxburghe Estates are based at the magnificent nearby Floors Castle (home of the Duke of Roxburghe) and from there they run a large and diverse local business empire.Serious land ownersThere are plenty of expensive shops around.expensive shopsThank goodness for cheaper treats that we can all enjoy on a sunny day out.hot enough for ice creamsWhat fascinated me most was the Industrial Section.  Inside were competition entries for jam-making, flower-arranging, children’s pictures, knitted garments, cake baking etc etc.  I’ve never heard it referred to as Industrial before – it’s more what I would have expected to be the province of the local Women’s Institute.jams and jellies behind wireWhat really shocked me about the displays was the wire fence caging them in. To stop passers-by handling the goods, or worse, perhaps to prevent theft?!  Either way it looks dreadful.  Particularly in the case of the children’s competitions.children's art workI’ll be the first to admit that my taste is never the same as the judges.  Here’s a prize-winning floral arrangement.First prize flower arrangingAnd here’s the one I would have chosen – the honeysuckle arrangement on the left.My preferred flower arrangementPerhaps there is a bit of an old-fashioned look to some of the competitions?  Hard to say really because nothing is shown to best effect behind chicken wire…baby wear in the industrial sectionLastly, just time to show you one of my favourite parts of the showground.  Small demonstration beds where they were growing sample plants for fallow ground – linseed, red clover, marigolds and cornflowers etc.  How wonderful it would be to see more of these grown over our landscape!test plantsAll in all: a grand day out 🙂

Hard lives

Beached up on the north Northumbrian cliffs, we are exposed to all that the weather can throw at us.  Over this winter so far we have endured violently squally and bad-tempered Southerlies bringing rain, rain and more rain. Recently the winds have changed to sea-salty and much colder Easterlies.

But whatever the weather throws at us, we sit tight in our small sandstone cottage, and are good at keeping busy and toasty.seaview cottageMy eye is always drawn out – when the grey allows ( and we’ve had a lot of grey this winter)  – to Holy Island on the horizon, and to wonder how the monks there coped with the wind and the cold and the rain.Sunrising behind cloudsWe know about these monks because some of them were so exceptional, so saintly, that Bede (himself an exceptional early historian) recorded their history. In the early 7th century,  King Oswald of nearby Bamburgh had summoned the monks from Iona to bring Christianity to his kingdom.  It was St Aidan who stablished the monastery, and St Cuthbert was to follow there as bishop.LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMatt

We don’t have Bede’s histories alone to tell us about these early monks.  We have inherited from this place and these early years one of the most remarkable and beautiful illustrated books of all time, the book of the Lindisfarne Gospels, apparently made by the later Bishop of Lindisfarne, Eadfrith, in honour of God and St Cuthbert.

First page of St Matthew’s gospel.  Image made available to the public domain by Wikipedia.

These are the ruins of the monastery church on Holy Island today.  Life in these buildings would have been hard and rough enough, but, in fact, these aren’t the buildings Cuthbert, Aidan and others knew. These are 11th century buildings. The early monks would have had oak buildings thatched with reeds.Holy Island ruins of prioryFrom the security and warmth of our windows, I often look out on Holy Island and wonder about the monks’ lives.  And that manuscript – how on earth could the scribes do this skilled, delicate work in such bitterly cold conditions – no windows, remember?

Hard lives. Hard and dangerous lives.

Extreme danger, in fact, with the earliest known Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793.  Eventually (in 875) the monks fled, taking with them what they valued most: the body of their beloved St Cuthbert.  A life-size wood carving in the church on Holy Island commemorates their journey.  It gives a sense of the struggle to carry the coffin and body, but what of the panic, the fear, the gut-wrenching terror.wood carving of monks carrying Cuthbert's bodyFrom our small cottage we can see the sea and down the coast to Lindisfarne, and when there are large bonfires on Holy Island, we can often see their smoke too.  Farmers here might have seen the approach of those terrifying Viking longships, or the smoke from their destructive fires.view out of garden to seaSkip through the generations to the 13th century, and people here endured a new menace: the Reivers.  The Border lands, the ungovernable country between the separate kingdoms of Scotland and England, experienced years of lawlessness (right up to the Union of the Crowns in 1603) because of the depredations of the Reivers.

Novels have been written and ballads sung of the Reivers, the wild lawless men who grabbed and took whatever they wanted – especially if it belonged to another family that they were at odds with.  It was Sir Walter Scott who really put the Reivers on the map.  His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border established the tales of the Reivers as romantic, glamorous, and exciting.  Actually, they were nasty, cruel and vicious.Minstrelsy of the Scottish BorderThese Border lands were divided into six Marches, and Berwick lay in the English Eastern March.  It was better governed than most.

But it was bad enough.  It’s not hard to find examples of defensive architecture.  In our adjoining parish of Ancroft, the church itself had a secure tower to offer safety when the Reivers swept in. The walls are 1.35 metres in thickness, the upper windows are tiny.  You can climb to the top of the tower, and there are fine views around.  It might have been used as a look-out, and it’s possible warning beacons may have been lit from here.  This tower is certainly no ecclesiastical adornment.Ancroft churchEven in more recent times, life was miserably hard in these parts.  Coal was mined under the neighbouring fields, and the tramway bearing coals to transport ships runs across our view ( it’s the uneven shrubby line of trees running from the top right of the landscape across to where it meets the modern Eastcoast Mainline running along the coast).old railway trackIn the local churchyard, there are several sad gravestones which tell of deaths at the colliery.  One of them is for John Harbottle who was accidentally killed on the 21st November 1865, aged 45 years.  We don’t know how he died, but you can read more on these accidents at Scremerston Colliery at the Durham Mining Museum webpage.  No Health and Safety Inspectorate in those times.  John Harbottle's grave stoneBut of all the troubles in this part of the world, it was surely the sea that caused most grief.Spittal beach promenadeJust up the coast at St Abbs, these small statues stand as a reminder of the terrible cost of fishing disasters.  These are the wives and children of Charles Purves and James and William Thorburn who lost their lives in the great storm of 1881.  189 fishermen from the east coast of Scotland perished in that storm.St Abbs statuesAnother extremely dangerous (but potentially very lucrative) sea-faring enterprise was whaling.  Berwick’s last whaling ship, the Norfolk, left on its last voyage in 1836.  She sailed over to the North American coast in the spring, but come winter, found herself trapped by ice in Pond Inlet (of Baffin Bay) with several other ships.  The Captain of the Norfolk recorded on 15th January 1837: “…The frost is very severe and the ice has been pressing to a great height all around us.”  They did not escape the ice until mid-March.  Many, many men died of scurvy as well as frostbite.

One Berwick whaling-ship owner proudly announced his trade on his front door.No 1 Wellington TerraceThose are harpoon heads on the front door panels.Detail of door of no 1 Wellington TerraceThese balustrades on the roofs of local Spittal houses are sometimes know as widows’ walks.  From them pacing wives and ship-owners might scan the sea, looking for sight of ships.widows' walksThe whale oil was processed in the manufactories where the last Spittal chimney now stands.  It was a foul-smelling and obnoxious process. Spittal chimneyIs it surprising that people fled, leaving this beautiful area for places where they hoped they might have a better life?emigration noticeI am left to reflect on my twenty-first century luck to be living here, safe and warm and healthy – so as to be able to enjoy it in comfort.

Oh, alas for all those poor souls who lived in these parts for whom life was such a miserable and dangerous struggle.Poe in front of fire