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
Advertisements

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!)

 

Yeavering Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Our brick collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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