Exploring Dod Law

Goodness, what a long time since I last posted!

It’s not that I haven’t thought about it – or been without topics to write about. It’s more that I have questioned the whole raison d’être of personal blogs …. the internet seems so crowded … who am I to add to the general digital busyness ….

I have sort of resolved this in my own mind. I can’t resolve the problem of internet busyness, but I do really love blogging when I get into my topic.  And right now, that seems a good enough reason …

So here I am,  with a wonderful wonderful walk from last week,  in one of our very favourite parts of North Northumberland – the lands about the Cheviot Hills and the Milfield Plain.view over to the CheviotsWe were looking for something, something that we had looked for before and not found.  Would we be successful this time …. ? Hmm, you’ll have to wait and see!

Our walk started from the village of Doddington, parking not far from what appeared to be a Holy Well. I would guess this was an ancient sacred spot, Christianised perhaps  in the 19th century with the addition of the cross …Doddington's holy wellA trickle of fresh water running gently at the foot of the cross … this is a mysterious and elemental place – a good start for a walk into mystery …water trickling out of holy wellNot far up the road we found a worn and shabby signpost, barely legible for the lichen … but it’s definitely pointing the way to Dod Law … just half a mile up the hill!waymarkerSo up we go! You’ll remember that I’m always behind …
Stephen leading the wayInto the gorse …Stephen leading the way through gorseWhere pretty soon it becomes clear that this path isn’t walked often …. the gorse so overgrown even the sheep are finding it tricky to get through … almost impassable gorseBut then it opens out, and really this is the best sort of walking, the ground springy underfoot, the bracken too young and freshly green to give anything but pleasure …Stephen walking up the pathAnd the flowers! Foxgloves looking statuesque amid the gorse …foxgloves at their bestLittle white starry flowers underfoot … I wish I knew what they were!
young bracken around pathEven more delightful when mingled with small blue flowers, some of which are Speedwell (thank you, we will) but I can’t identify the others. Any ideas?
starry white and blue flowers underfootAnd the bell heather is just coming into bloom …bell heather coming into bloomJust when it all seemed to be going so well, we hit a problem … This stile has collapsed.  As I said earlier, this route no longer seems to be much walked.  The path over the stile takes us onto Access Land (private land where permissive walking is granted but no right-of-way footpath exist).  The unrepaired stile is probably  a reflection not of landowner disinterest but austerity.  Footpaths such as these were once the responsibility of local authority councils but their budgets have been so heftily slashed that footpaths must be bottom of their to-repair list.

Never mind – I did get over it, but only just. Lucky there’s no barbed wire on top!
broken styleOnwards and upwards … you can clearly tell which way the prevailing wind blows …no doubting which way the wind blowsExposed they may be, but these trees clearly offer welcome shelter to sheep …
sheep sheltersOnwards and upwards again … track leading invitingly upwardsAnd then up to scrubbier ground – with providentially a bench for respite …
happy benchmanWith what a view!a great place for coffeeThe land stretching down and round over the Milfield Plain …new growth on the hillsideGaps in the bracken show clearly where the farmer has burnt back growth – so much preferable to treating the bracken with herbicidal sprays …evidence of scorching down the brackenJust a little further and we find ourselves at the hill fort – that’s Stephen ahead, just entering it. This hill fort is thought to have been constructed about 300 BC.entering the hill fortSadly it’s very difficult for an amateur photographer such as I am – and on the ground too – to give a real impression of the magnificence of these remaining earthworks. But the farmer’s trackway gives an idea as it runs through the inner and outer ramparts.modern trackway running through hill fortOver on those hills in the distance were many many other hill forts … An almost unimaginable world …walking through the hill fort rampartsJust as we are immersing ourselves in the magic of this place, we look back to see somebody spraying the adjoining golf course! Aagh! is not even a spot as wild and beautiful as this safe from the common use of pesticides?!spraying the golf courseThe hill fort is a magnificent distraction, but it’s not what we’re really here for … We’re looking for rock art!  Some of the most intriguing and fine specimens are to be found on Dod Law.

Well, apparently so.  But last time we visited we couldn’t find them.  On that occasion we approached Dod Law through the golf course (a route almost parallel to the more circuitous one we had taken today), and we walked round and round and round and round – and found nothing.

You see everywhere – all over Dod Law – there are stone slabs lying exposed to the elements … there are stones everywhereYou can ramble around here, through the golf course, over the hills – and find nothing .. wandering through golf course looking for rock artDespite having Ordnance Survey maps, mobile phones, and hand-drawn maps from the master, Stan Beckensall’s Prehistoric Rock Art in NorthumberlandStephen at the trig pointOK, we did find the trig point – and were pretty pleased with that.at least we found the trig pointAnd – just above the Shepherd’s House – we found some very moving modern rock carvings …
the Shepherd's houseBless you, Sadie and Tom Young – what a place to be remembered!  You must have loved it very much up here …
modern rock artAnd then suddenly it clicked!  And the maps made sense, and I found the three clearly exposed pieces of rock art on Dod Law!

This is the first we found, and probably the most indistinctive of them all.  The problem isn’t just that my iPhone wasn’t really up to the task.  A June day – even if cloudy is not a good time to see the markings clearly.  Best days to see the rock art are in the low light of autumn and winter.

However, if you look very carefully you may be able to make out the cup and ring marks near the top.cup and ring marks on the rocksYou can see the engraved spiral much more clearly on this slab.circular rock artAnd it’s not too difficult to make out the patterns on this so called Main Rock. These are the most distinctive and unusual patterns.unusual rock art on Dod LawI can’t quite tell you how mind blowing it is to see these carvings, worked so many thousands of years ago (latest thinking is that they were made by Neolithic people between 6,000 and 5,000 years ago). But to stand on Dod Law with these very ancient rock messages and the Cheviots in view and a lark singing takes you, I reckon, almost as close as it is possible to our very distant ancestors …rock art with the cheviotsNobody knows what our ancestors meant with these rock carvings. There has to be a religious element, surely – some expression of peoples’ relationship with place and nature and life and death?

I’m intrigued to have read recently that a new project, Belief in the North East, has been set up under the aegis of Durham University “to explore the rich archaeology of the belief, religion and ritual of North-East England”. Studying the local rock art will be part of their brief.  I wonder what they will come up with ..

Back down the hill – just as pleasing as coming up, if not more so for mission accomplished – and the views as good as ever!following Stephen down

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Walls

Yes, you may well wonder where I am going with this blogpost ….

I confess to having become fascinated by walls since we moved up to the north-east of England …

It’s all down to building materials, of course.  When we lived in Mid-Devon, there was very little of the local sandstone, and what there was available was used for important and expensive buildings like the little St Lawrence Chapel which we looked after for Crediton parish church.Our own house (round the corner) and Victorian had nice brick garden walls in the garden itself …But once you ventured down the track behind the houses that the coal delivery man would have used, you were back to the older cheaper local stuff – cob. Cob is made up of anything to hand – mostly dung, mud and straw. It’s very vulnerable to the elements.  To protect the wall, it was preferably built on a small stone base, and roofed with slates  – both of which you can see in this picture. What you can also see in the picture is the render – that’s the modern casual way to repair a cob wall …I might once have been inclined to say there is no finer sight than a good cob wall (as you can see here on the shed wall at our B&B in Woolfardisworthy last damp summer) …Until I came to live in Northumberland where there is stone! Beautiful stone! Our own cottage (a converted steading) shows this particularly to perfection in the light of the rising sun a couple of days ago.  This is sandstone, abundantly and gloriously available here …And everywhere there are fine stone walls (sometimes with the odd little whimsical brick) …Which we took for granted until we saw where a local farmer had driven casually through a stone wall so as to deposit the manure from the barn in an inaccessible field …Elsewhere we saw how a collapsed wall had been – well, err, left collapsed …

Time takes me in mouthfuls; the teeth of the frost bit into my body here; here my mortar crumbles; the wind rubs salt into every wound  (says the poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland.) Yes, that’s just exactly what happens to the walls near the sea round here …Eventually the stones were cleared away leaving the bank alarmingly vulnerable …Walking up to Edin’s Hall Broch in the nearby Scottish Borders, we noted the irony of collapsed walls left to deteriorate and be replaced by barbed wire fencing … While the much more ancient stone walls of Edin’s Hall Broch itself were still standing well …Once we started looking at walls with these eyes, we saw a great deal that was both impressive and beautiful – and quite a lot that was sad. You cannot but be struck by the beauty of the wallflowers growing in the walls on Lindisfarne …Nor the mossy walls we found when on holiday near Lochgoilhead.  I am overgrown with insidious ivy …And – oh my goodness – how I love to see the willowherb growing in the walls along the East-Coast railway line …But these are the beginnings of damage. A young shoot breaking through the wall …Puts down strong roots …Without doubt a broken wall is an evocative sight, adding strongly to this picture of desolation and damp and mist in Scotland.  I am a desolate wall, accumulator of lichen …But a broken wall isn’t just picturesque – it can be downright dangerous. This is the wall separating the East-Coast Railway line from our local footpath – now, just think of the speed those trains travel! Why a hop, skip and a jump and I’d be over. I am unrepaired; men neglect me at their own risk …I was intrigued to see the anatomy of a good wall laid so clearly bare when walking on Lindisfarne recently …You can be sure that this hole (also on Holy Island) will be repaired properly. (I have to admit to being fascinated by this hole – what on earth caused it?  It’s very rare for a well-built wall to collapse like this.  I can only think a car drove into it.)Once – just once – we happened upon somebody repairing a wall (up near St Abbs).  This man deserves every accolade because it was a miserable day to be out working … After all, there is so much in a good wall to admire – and intrigue.  Can you see the faint line of stones in the centre of the wall sloping down to the left?  I can’t explain this …Sometimes falling render reveals old secrets, little unsuspected doorways …And even unconcealed doors in walls have a special lure …This door is set in the wall which surrounds the local Paxton estate …And walls of that size are in themselves a source of wonder – all that labour! We had to stop and admire the colour of the worn sandstone …At one point there must have been a rather fine entrance here. Just look at that worked stone at the top of the wall on the left!Repairs vary – the best are surprisingly successful (aesthetically as well practically). Just like this large brick patch   …Even painted walls have their beauty too. Every lump and bump is enhanced …And what a wall can do for a garden! This is Priorwood, in Melrose. These gardens nestle under the more famous Abbey, and my photo on a dull day doesn’t really do justice to them. But they are wonderful – and this large backdrop of a wall frames them perfectly  …Then I found myself in London, walking round Walthamstow, with walls on my mind. Oh, the variety of these little walls! All the houses have similar mouldings, porticos and bay windows – but the front walls!Just look at the creativity here!And here!So much personality expressed in just a little suburban wall!You’d think I’d have had my fill by now, but an unexpected birthday present last year opened my eyes to yet another aspect of walls – political walls … This is a fascinating book – I had no idea that so many countries had built – and were building – walls.  My business is to divide things, my duty to protect. It’s shocking – but I’m not going to dwell on it right now …I’m coming back to where I started – our home, and the walls around us. Because right there – on the boundary between our gardens and the next door farm – are some fascinating remnants of when this farm was a grander affair – coping stones.  There are only a few odd ones left now, and when these buildings were converted, they were shoved higgledy-piggledy amid whatever stone the builders could find.  Not very elegant, but a powerful reminder of what labour used to be.  These coping stones are rounded and would have been worked with the simplest of tools. Makes you think …My business is to divide things: the green ribbons Of grass from the streams of macadam …

All quotes from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s poem, The Wall.

The old railway track walk

I find one of the greatest ordinary pleasures in life is to be doing the same walk through the months, and over the years.  Many might find this boring, but the opportunity to see small changes in places you know very well is – to me – a great delight.

Last year I wrote about our local beach walk in just such a manner, and in this blog I’m going to explore another favourite local walk of ours that takes us in a circle from our home at Seaview up the hill, along the ridge, and down the old railway track, coming back along the sea and the modern eastcoast railway line.The most challenging part of the walk is the very first part as you walk up the long hill behind Seaview. But there’s always something of interest.  Some wet winters the old duckpond reappears behind the farm buildings  …Then there is nothing for it but you must turn your attention to the hill … up and up it goes, – a gentle incline, but a long one. It’s always me struggling just this distance behind Stephen …Even on lush summer days it is an effort …So before long you can allow yourself to look back to enjoy the view (and catch your breath) …The view is always different, depending on the time of the year …Finally – oh glorious moment – you reach the top, and can pass through the gate and out on to the ridge. There’s a better track here because it is used by all the farm traffic …Looking down from this height on Seaview with the sea behind is uplifting. The field is full of stubble here, glowing in the half-light of a late December afternoon … In February the winter-sown crops are small (and you can just make out that puddle) …By June the green is lush and has intensified …And by August it’s golden …Earlier this year, the walk along the ridgeway was quite different from how we have ever known it before.  The evil Beast from the East had blown straight off from the sea, creating the most curious drifting snow shapes.  Conditions were so unpleasant that we didn’t get out for several weeks, but when we finally did in mid-March, the remaining snow was sculpted and very dirty. Meringue-like, I thought …Thank goodness, it is more often like it was yesterday – blue and green …This part of the walk takes us past the old radar station . And yesterday we stopped off to investigate …This is one of a series of radar stations operating up the entire east coast during WW2 (known as Chain Home Radar). And what a fine view of the North Sea this position commanded!There are two buildings here …A smaller one at the back which Stephen thought might have been an old engine room …And the larger one at the front which consists of several rooms – clearly now a good place for the local young to party …Such a change in mindset over the generations!  How differently the men working here in the 1940s must have felt to the people who visit nowadays – and that includes us …

The same generational change applies to the stone wall along this part of the route. It’s crumbling badly. Sadly it seems modern farmers often don’t rebuild walls, they just chuck away – or if pushed replace with fencing …Back to the next part of our route, walking along the road. Here it is several weeks ago when it was wet and watery as well as snowy …What a miserable grey day for a walk! But fascinating too.  We never know what we will find as we turn into the old railway track.  Sometimes there are huge muddy puddles here …On other occasions, we’ve been amazed and delighted by the ice patterns …Apparently this lovely phenomenon is known as cat ice …But when the Beast from the East visited, it left muddy puddles and deep snowdrifts in its wake …Looked almost impassable …No! He’s made it – so can I!This old railway track (known as the Scremerston Incline) was laid down about 1815, and ran from the Scremerston colliery, carrying coal across the land down to the coast, where it met the public carriage way (as you can see in this 1844 plan by engineering surveyors, Martin Johnsons and Fox). From there coal was transported to the nearby river Tweed and could be shipped off to purchasers in Europe and the south. What exactly is the magic of walking down old railway tracks?The history of the place, I wonder?  Here you can still see – just! –  the old stone sleeper blocks where the rails rested …Or is it the pleasure of walking  old level paths that remain even when tractors have churned up the mud … This photograph taken on our warm walk yesterday shows just how inviting it can be, with that blue blue sea calling you down …There is so often something special to see here, from a small clump of determined snowdrops on a cold winter’s day …To vibrant gorse in the early spring …And fragile harebells in late summer …I think I love it best in the autumn …When we walk down here to pick blackberries …And enjoy other fruits abundant in the old hedgerows …The track ends abruptly with our way blocked by a pile of stones …At this point we turn to the left and walk along the edge of the field with the old trackway running parallel to us (clearly marked in March this year by the snow drifts) …But at other times, you find yourself looking down into deep wild secret places …Not far on from here, the old railway track was subsumed into the main eastcoast railway line, as you can see in this 1922 Ordinance Survey map (actually surveyed 1856-60 not that long after the opening of the Newcastle and Berwick Railway in 1847).Now our walk us takes along the main eastcoast railway line with the North Sea just beyond …And if you’re lucky, you’ll get a modern train blasting its way past you!Our walk passes very close indeed to the main eastcoast railway line …Nothing sparks up a cold January walk like a speeding train!But there are other pleasures to this part of the route: playing silly games in the wintry light of a November’s day …And at the end of summer, there’s the willowherb looking amazing …And there’s scrumpying too …This solitary apple tree sits so close to the railway line!  We think it must be the result of casual flick of a discarded apple core as perhaps the Flying Scotsman sped past …We always inspect with interest the area round this drain.  It passes under the main eastcoast line, and was installed the spring after we arrived …The field drainage here can be very bad in winter (even now), with the water funnelling down the hill and reviving ancient waterways …In the spring of 2011, after heavy snows, so much water collected here with the snow melt that it threatened to wash away the eastcoast mainline train track. So Network Rail arrived in force to construct a new drainage pipe under the railway line.So muddy was it, they constructed a roadway – with of course road traffic signs!All long gone now, of course, and on an ordinary wintry day, it looks like this as Berwick appears in the distance … We’re coming to the end of our walk now …At the end of this field, we’ll turn up the hill and are on our way home …This muddy patch was the site of the old rubbish tip, and sometimes we find interesting bits and pieces in the mud here. So on  good day we’ll come home with treasure …But it’s a good walk, even without treasure!

With grateful thanks to:

  • Northern Northumberland’s Minor Railways: Volume Two.  Colliery and Associated Lines by Roger Jermy
  • Relics of War. A Guide to the 20th Century Military Remains in the Northumberlan Landscape by Ian Hall

Making a Northumbrian piper’s plaid

When we moved to Northumberland in 2010, one of the things on Stephen’s list was to learn to play the Northumbrian pipes.  I won’t go into the Northumbrian pipes in detail (you can find more about them here), – just suffice it to say that unlike the Highland pipes which are blown, the air in the Northumbrian pipes is produced by elbow action. And they aren’t easy to learn to play!

(But they produce an enchanting light sound. According to organologist Anthony Baines, they are “perhaps the most civilized of the bagpipes …”)

Most impressively Stephen did learn to play them, and joined the Alnwick Pipers group, later setting up a local group, the Spittal Pipers.  These groups play for pleasure, and also at shows and exhibitions. In 2016, for BBC Music Day, the Spittal Pipers were asked to play on the Union Chain Bridge. They assembled early on an exceptionally cold June morning …All wearing their fine Northumbrian plaids – bar Stephen, who didn’t have his own, so was lent one … err, a lady’s one.  The difference is that the lady’s plaid is a short shawl, while the gents wear a magnificently long piece which sweeps right round the body.This year I decided it was time to give him his own plaid, and approached a fellow member of the Tweed Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, Janis Embleton of Flight Weaving for help because I knew she’d woven a shepherd’s plaid before.

However, Stephen didn’t need a thick plaid designed to keep you warm and dry in all-weather shepherding work.  He need a formal  Northumbrian plaid to match in with the other plaids in the Spittal Pipers’ group. So we turned to Stephen’s fellow piper, Lyndon, for advice – and the loan of his plaid.  Here he is being fitted in Lyndon’s plaid as a guide for length …When we knew exactly what we wanted (more or less a copy of Lyndon’s) and had a set of measurements for Stephen’s height, I went back to Janis to ask her to make the plaid.  She came up with a most generous plan.  She would weave the plaid, and I would finish it off – tassel, wash and pleat …

Janis works on a vintage Ulla Cyrus Loom, passed on to her by a fellow weaver some years ago.  To my ignorant eyes, it is a most beautiful – and very complicated – piece of woodwork. Parts are worn smooth and darkened from repeated handling, but it carries a story of the love and care it received from one weaver – and now another.

She sent me these fascinating photos of the loom when it was first set up to weave the black and white Northumbrian plaid. My goodness, what meticulous hard work is involved in setting up the loom for a large piece of woven cloth!Later, she welcomed us to her studio to see how the weaving was progressing. By this time there was a substantial piece of cloth already woven …She invited me to have go with the shuttle, and I can assure you it’s not as easy as it looks!I was struck by the complexity of the loom – all those interconnections …And in many ways, it felt as though there was an organic integrity between loom and weaver …When the plaid was completed, I visited again for a lesson in tassel-making. First Janis showed me how to remove the cotton bands which edge her weaving …Then the fringing was trimmed to the length we wanted …Starting to make the tassels with her dinky little tassel-maker …I finished the tassels off at home, and then came the terrifying moment when I had to wash the plaid …Despite testing for colour run before she started work, Janis had discovered the black wool was leaching colour onto her hands, so I was advised to handwash the plaid first in cold water – it did indeed come out quite black …Then it went in the washing machine for a 30 degree wash. Scary! How relieved I was to have it out blowing on the washing line, soft, clean and slightly shrunken!Now for pleating. Lyndon’s plaid was pleated with narrow folds over the shoulders, fanning out to wider folds at the hem of the plaid. Hard to find a clean floor long enough to lay out such a huge piece of fabric …Tricky – especially when I got help …Now for some very careful pinning and tacking all the way down the pleats.  I copied Lyndon’s plaid and machined the pleats in place at judicious intervals (over the shoulders) …Finally the whole process was finished off with some very damp ironing using a white vinegar/water solution.  I discovered this pleating trick from a very helpful website on historical sewing .  Apparently this was the old-fashioned method to secure pleats in place.  (My solution was 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water.) And yes – the room did smell like a fish and chip shop, but the smell has now vanished!Time for a fitting. Here’s my Northumbrian piper in proper piper’s plaid! Just magnificent! And here he is playing the pipes!This has been such a happy project.  The plaid isn’t just a beautiful piece of work by a very skilled weaver, it’s a record of history – and in particular, for Stephen and me, the lovely folk who helped bring it together.  Thank you so much Janis for so generously allowing me to work on this project with you – it truly made it memorable.  And we can’t thank Lyndon and his wife Heather enough for their patient advice every time we needed to consult on some technical aspect of pipers’ plaids.

Glasgow weekend

Last weekend we had a very kind offer of cat-sitting so leapt at the opportunity to head off to unexplored places.  As it was snowy and icy, we decided the best thing was to travel by train, and settled on Glasgow, a city that we’d only visited briefly on a day visit last summer.

The streets in Glasgow had been gritted and cleared of snow, but not so the pavements which were icy and treacherous …But walking up to the glorious Kelvingrove Museum in bright sunshine, that didn’t seem to matter …How the sunshine transformed the great hall …Opened in 1901, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is such an extraordinary statement of ostentatious Glasgow prosperity – with an organ, no less, in that Great Hall! It was comfortably busy and bustling when we visited – lots of children, visitors of all nationalities, people waiting for the organ recital (which was splendid, and I wish I could play it for you here) …I love the detailed craftsmanship on show in the museum itself – aren’t these brass door handles very fine?Just as much as I love the modern jostling with the old. The hanging heads are part of an installation by Sophy Cave of Event Communications …I wish all museums were as upfront about their display policies …There was lots and lots of tempting things to see, but what I most wanted to look at was:This is a very big year for Charles Rennie Mackintosh admirers because it is the 150th anniversary of his birth – and lots of big events are being planned, including a major exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum itself opening in March, and the re-opening of his refurbished Willow Tearooms.

Another exhibition planned – much smaller but of considerable interest to me and my friends – is the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers National Exhibition in July at Strathclyde University. This will celebrate its presence in Glasgow on this particular centenary with an exhibition of Guild members handmade jewellery in the style of Mackintosh. “Jewellery can be of any textile nature, for example, they could be spun, dyed, felted, knitted, crocheted, tatted, woven, braided – whatever shows the creativity of the entrant.”

What an exciting challenge!

So here I was to look at the exhibits in a particular way: to see how I could re-interpret Mackintosh’s work in a piece of jewellery.

I had to be careful first of all not to be led astray by some of the gorgeous exhibits by other Glaswegians. We were both immediately struck by this very beautiful wall panel from the Argyle Street tearooms, dated 1898-99. But this was in fact made by George Walton & Co. A pity – this is truly inspirational!And this fine washstand with those characteristic Mackintosh long lines (look at the side panels) is in fact by John Ednie c.1900.  We spent ages looking at it because according to the information tab it was made of oak, glass, metal, marble, ceramic and leather.  Blowed if we could see any leather!  Must be inside the drawers, we decided …So where was the Mackintosh in all this gorgeousness?  There was a chair, of course – and very intriguingly displayed next to others of the period.  It’s the centrepiece here – designed for the Ingram tea rooms …And it was in the Chinese Room from the Ingram Street tearooms, designed by Mackintosh in 1911 that I found my best inspiration …Two things particularly struck me – first the little pagoda light … And secondly this Chinese key panel which was carved over the doorway of Mackintosh tearoom … those square curls … Lots to think about – I’ll keep you posted …Intriguingly we found upstairs among the historic Scottish exhibits pattern work very similar to that of Mackintosh and his Glasgow style compatriots. Look at these curved axe-heads and the long lines of this bronze dagger.  They are part of the Gavel Moss hoard found at Lochwinnoch and dated 2000-1400 BC …This Thistle brooch is 10th century Viking work, but could happily sit downstairs with Mackintosh and his fellow Glasgow artists of the 19th/20th century …The snow plough was out gritting the streets of Glasgow on Saturday night – which made us chuckle – no sign of snow on the streets anywhere! But we laughed a little less on the Sunday as we set out on an icy grey snowy walk up to St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. It was cold – and there was more snow …We were well wrapped up …I was wearing all my handmade, homespun, woolly knits (even sporting my handknitted felted handbag), so I was toasty! But Stephen disdains my lovingly-knit creations, saying they’re too scratchy.  Well, who looks most cosy here?!Lots of fascinating items covering the breadth of religious faith and worship in the St Mungo museum, but I was struck by two pictures – and intrigued by my reason for liking these two very different pictures.

This 1992 Aboriginal painting titled Kangaroo Wild Cabbage, Ceremonial Spear, Possum and Bush Carrot Dreaming is by Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Bessie Nakamarri Sims and Pansy Nakamarra Stewart, Warlpirri People, Yuendumu. It tells the story of the Dreamtime travels of some of their many spiritual ancestors. I struggle a bit to understand this picture as such – this is all so different to my culture, I guess.  But what I really love are the colours and the patterns …And it is pattern which draws me to this picture too. It’s called The Sabbath Candles and is by Dora Holzhandler. What a pattern fest – pattern everywhere!By now the snow was coming down hard – a beautiful snow globe view of Glasgow Cathedral and over to the Necropolis …But we had a colourful treat for the end of our Glasgow trip – just time to drop into my favourite shop here: Paperchase!  Now if this colourfest isn’t sustaining in the snowy grey, I don’t know what it is.  And – on that note – time to go home …

 

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.

Garden History

I was in London for a very brief visit at the beginning of the week, planning to meet up with my Instagram friend, the artist Louise Cattrell. We have a shared love and interest in gardens, so when I read that there was a exhibition at the Garden Museum called Tradescant’s Orchard: A Celebration of Botanical Art, it sounded just perfect for us.

We’d both visited the Museum before in the days when it was the Museum of Garden History.  I can’t quite remember when I visited – perhaps in the 1980s? – but I have very strong memories of a small dark and damp church completely dominated by the noise of the traffic swirling round the neighbouring Lambeth Bridge junction.

The Garden Museum is right next door to Lambeth Palace, on the southern embankment of the river Thames.In a former life this was the Church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. There were all sorts of ups and downs from the foundation of a church here in the days before the Norman Conquest, but by the 1970s the building was damp and damaged, no longer with a viable congregation thanks to London population shifts, and on the table for redundancy, and possible demolition.

However, this little church had a particular distinction which drew visitors, and among them its saviour, Rosemary Nicholson: it housed some very distinguished graves. There was the fine tomb of Admiral William Bligh, now a feature of the Sackler Garden.And more pertinent to our story, there was the even finer Tradescant family tomb, also in the central Sackler Garden.The Tradescants were a remarkable family of gardeners, travellers and plant-hunters. John Tradescant the elder (c.1570 – 1683) came from humble Suffolk beginnings to be head gardener to Charles I – and on the way did some remarkable plant-hunting which took him to the Netherlands, Russia and Algeria.His son, also John Tradescant (1608-1662), travelled to North America for his plant-hunting.They grew the plants they brought back with them in the gardens of their Lambeth house (here shown it as it was in 1798, much later than when they were living there).This wonderful tomb (Grade II listed!) was commissioned by the wife of the younger John Tradescant after his death to show the wonders of their travels.  Now where, I wonder, did he see a multi-headed Hydra!!  Methinks, the younger Mr Tradescant may have come home and over-exaggerated his travels a wee bit! Nevermind, it is truly a wonderful tomb (though not the original – it’s a nineteenth century copy, presumably because the original was so worn and damaged).Rosemary Nicholson visited in the 1970s to see the Tradescant tomb and was shocked at the state of the church. This prompted her to set up the Tradescant Trust, dedicated to care for this little church.  As indeed it has very well – culminating with a major lottery-funded restoration which was only completed earlier this summer. Now the church that I remember as dark and dank is light and airy and inviting.That which is left of the old church (like the small piece of tracery, below right) sits so well in the new space.Stairs lead to an upper story where most of the museum collection is displayed.All sorts of treasures here – lawn mowers, garden tools, curiosities like this Ancient Order of Free Gardeners regalia …But my eye was caught particularly by the cat-scarer, lurking behind the glass plant-protectors. Why it’s not unlike our very effective little Eggy!Pictures too. This painting, In the greenhouse, c 1930, by David Thomas Rose, took me straight back to my grandparents’ greenhouse with the vine and the geraniums and dappled light.  In my mind’s eye, there were tomatoes too, and I was so strongly reminded of the smell and the watery warmth (those huge pipes!). And the pottering …I particularly liked the Finnis Scott Gallery which is located in a separate room at the far end of the gallery. This couple – Sir David Scott and his second wife, Valerie Finnis, (shown in the painting below by Derek Hill) were expert horticulturalists – and also picture collectors. And it is their pictures that feature in this gallery. (My sincere apologies to the artists because I have had to use a degree of digital manipulation to make the pictures taken only on an iPhone 5S look decent for the blog).Such a variety of pictures, capturing so effectively the rich interests that are to be found in gardens and gardening. Look at the lush greens in Patrick George’s 1993 painting, The Vegetable Garden.And this gem of a photograph, taken by Peter Fryer in the early 1990s, of a man with his geese in his Newcastle allotment. Such joyous love.Downstairs then for the exhibition we’d actually come to see: Tradescant’s Orchard: A Celebration of Botanical Art.Where the scope of the pictures upstairs in the Finnis Scott gallery was almost unlimited, this gallery hosted illustrations of a very particular artistic discipline.  The exhibition was inspired by this leather volume, The Tradescants’ Orchard, dating from the early seventeenth century, and on loan from the Bodleian Library.So there were remarkable pieces like this Pomegranate (Punica granatum) by Heidi Venamore. She grew this actual fruit in her Jordanian garden. How rich is the inside of the fruit!And the medlar (Mespilus germanica) by Dick Smit – in all stages of its life.The detail of the damaged leaf and the damaging insects reminded me so much of the Maria Sibylla Merian exhibition I saw in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Gallery a couple of months ago. This is her 1702 watercolour of a Cotton-Leaf Physicnut with Giant Sphinx Moth – similarly greedy creatures eating the plant.  And similar exquisite detailing.Of course at the Garden Museum there would have to be gardens! Let me show you the new plantings in the Sackler Garden designed by Dan Pearson. I don’t think my photos really do justice to them, but Louise and I thought them wonderful – interesting and varied in colour and height – and marrying well with the coppery buildings about.Lastly, the Sackler Garden has a moving modern memorial to its benefactor, Rosemary Nicholson, and her husband John.So – that was London.

But, a couple of days later, back in Northumberland, I looked again at our garden.  With the stories of the Tradescants travelling the globe to bring plants back to please their English patrons ringing in my ears, I looked again at the plants I grow.  And I was amazed.

Our garden sits on the Northumbrian coast, with the view stretching over golden grainfields to the North Sea and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.  It is windy, mostly sunny and very salty – but has the View.We inherited a field of a garden with no plants, no beds, and our planting decisions were entirely guided by the place.  Large plants in these little beds would restrict the view and struggle in severe windy conditions, so they are a no-no. Our little plant guide was to grow plants that merge into the lane and the wild field edges and the view beyond.

So I just love it when plants escape out of the garden, and seed and root themselves beyond.And I thought – in my naïveté – that we were growing plants that belonged in this landscape. But how wrong I was! That valerian in the picture was recorded in use by ancient Roman doctors, so it is believed to have been brought here by the Romans.

All along the little fence are crocosmia plants (what I used to call montbretia).  I’ve always loved this plant, particularly when found on old railway lines and other country tracks. I know it’s considered invasive, but I love those elegant fiery fronds so much that I’d forgive it anything.We grow both the common variety and scarlet Lucifer plants – roughly interspersed. To my mind it is just the perfect plant for this garden when the winter wheat is golden and heavy in the fields around. It sits so well just above our little garden fence, and even when the flowers have gone over, as it is dried and shrivelling up, it looks very fine.

Well, crocosmia hails from the grasslands of Southern and Eastern Africa.Mixed in with the crocosmia are poppies – mostly scarlet, but there are black, white, pink as well.  Now poppies are indeed native plants, hailing from the little field poppy so familiar from the pictures of the 1st World War. The poppies that we grow are extremely sophisticated carefully bred plants, but they remember their proper heritage and flourish in these country field borders.Just over the fence, there are a group of yellow hawkweed plants flowering on the field edge (far left of picture) – they are native plants.  But, alas, no native poppies accompanying them. I must remedy that next year.At the end of the small flower beds and standing tall against the fence are several golden-headed fennel plants.  They’ve been natives of our shores for a very long time.Against our little Northumbrian cottage wall, swaying in the breeze, there are hollyhocks, sunflowers (not yet in flower) and verbena bonariensis. The hollyhocks are natives of Asia and Europe, sunflowers are North American and the verbena bonariensis hails from Buenos Aires. Thank you Louise for the information about the verbena bonariensis – and, of course, the clue is in the name!  Further along the wall, there are all colours of dahlias. They are – most appropriately given their brilliant range of colours – originally from Mexico but were imported to Spain in 1789, only finally making a successful move to the UK in 1802.They must be comfortable with the cosmos plants we’re growing beside them because that also originated in Mexico. Aren’t these startling – though wonderful – colours against the very Northumbrian sandstone wall?And in pots at the foot of the taller dahlia plants, there are calendula plants.  They were introduced from the Mediterranean countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.In the conservatory there are scarlet geraniums (actually pelargoniums), originally from South Africa.What an incongruous mix, you might say, with the fields of wheat running beyond the garden down to the sea!  But the growing of wheat as an arable crop is believed to have originated in the Middle East.And, of course, there’s another plant I should definitely list when speaking of the Tradescants. Why – the tradescantia! John Tradescant the younger brought the type species back to England in 1629. Here, in a gloriously overgrown muddle, are our variegated and purple tradescantia! What a joyously rich mix of plants from so many parts of the world!

(Incidentally, the cafe at the Garden Museum was lovely. But disappointingly, the Wolfson Ark Gallery containing 30 objects that once belonged to John Tradescant wasn’t open to the public the day we visited.  We will have to return, Louise!)