The Black (and White) Dog

My father died earlier this week.  It is deeply deeply sad, and he is much mourned by his family and friends, but it was also a blessed release.  He had been unable to walk for some years, and towards the end we discovered that he was suffering from Lewy Body disease.

This is a surprisingly little know neurodegenerative dementia considering that at least 5 percent of 85 year olds are thought to suffer from it.   It shares the mental symptoms of confusion and loss of memory with Alzeimer’s, but the really distinguishing feature for many of those suffering from this disease are the visual hallucinations. For many these are visions of animals.  In my father’s case, it was a black dog.

I don’t think the black dog was really surprising because there had been a black dog in the family several years ago.  Brackler was of mixed  Springer and Labrador parentage, and originally came to live with Hugh (my first husband) and me in Devon in 1978. He was a fine dog – almost completely black, apart from a white flash under his chest.  Apart from this, he could easily be mistaken for a pure Labrador.Proud Brackler 1980 Sanctuary LodgeHowever, he had inherited a wild untamed need-to-explore trait from his Springer mother, and when my son was born in 1980, I couldn’t cope with Brackler, so he went to live with my parents in Kent.  Memorably, Hugh and my father met to pass Brackler on to his new owners at Guildford Cathedral – a place forever etched in my father’s mind as completely miserable because Hugh was so extremely upset to have to part with his dog.RHE Brackler 1987 BSBrackler went on to live an extremely happy life with my parents.  When they moved to Budleigh Salterton in 1987, he took to amazing sea swimming.  He would swim the entire length of the bay from the red cliffs at the west of the beach to the River Otter without break.  A very powerful dog.  My father adored him, and grieved terribly when he died in 1992.  (They went on to have another dog, Pellow – featured in the photo below.)9 RHE Pellow 1994 BudleighA couple of days after my father’s death, one early afternoon,  we were visited by a black and white collie dog running round the Seaview properties.  It was racing around, up into our gardens and off into the fields – a sloppy walker I thought, not walking with their dog conscientiously.

But later in the afternoon, by teatime, it was back – in our garden, nosing around the fat balls that we crumble up for the birds to eat on the path. It ran away when I went up to it – clearly shy and anxious. It had a broken leather lead round its neck, looking as though it had been tied up and pulled free.

It kept on running off into the fields and back into our garden – was clearly hungry. So I went to our neighbours’ house to get Jan and Craig to help me catch it.

They are very experienced dog-owners who originally hailed from Gateshead, but have been tempted to Spittal like us because of the beauty of the place.  Jan says she’s half gypsy. She’s a carer, and if I was old, ill or dying, I would like her to care for me – she’s a wonderfully warm woman.

Anyhow, we couldn’t catch the dog. It kept on running off into the fields – miles and miles away, we could just see the small black dot. We were worried because we are quite close to the main eastcoast railway line. Then it would come careering back.

Eventually, Jan got close enough to give it some food. It scoffed everything really quickly. She managed to stroke it – then it bared its teeth, so she left off.

We rang the police – but they won’t help as they no longer have facilities to house lost dogs. I rang the local council dog warden. Somebody else locally had reported the dog. They also wouldn’t help – unless we caught it, and then they would come and take it away.

We just couldn’t catch it, so eventually we tempted it into our greenhouse with food and water, and left a blanket in there for it to sleep in. The idea was that in the morning we hoped to find it asleep, shut the greenhouse door and phone the authorities.

As we hung around in the twilight trying to tempt the collie in, I told Jan that my father had just died. Lightbulb moment! “That’s why the dog is here! It’s come from your dad, he wants you to know he’s alright!”

Stephen and I had a small chuckle about this later in the evening – but it felt curiously comforting.

In the morning the dog was gone

I’m with Hamlet on this one:  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

RIP RHE, born in Melbourne’s Surrey Hills, 9th March 1926; died in England’s Surrey Hills, 31st March 2015.RHE snow 1966

One of my favourite photographs of my father, taken in the garden of No 5 embassy house, Tokyo, during the snowy spring of 1967.  Behind is the Diamond Hotel which featured strongly in our childhood dinner conversations as we could see it very clearly from the dining room, and my father would regularly comment on the seasons with the (to me) immortal phrase:” Soon we won’t be able to see the Diamond Hotel any more.”  It was code for spring approaching.  It is lovely to remember him smiling, happy and having fun!

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Union Chain Bridge

When our first visitors came to our new Northumbrian home, often their first request was to go to Scotland.  Easy peasy – we are just a few miles from the Scottish border so it’s a quick drive up the A1 and there you are, in Scotland.

However, we soon discovered that it was much more fun to take people who wanted a quick trip over the Scottish Border to the Union Chain Bridge. looking over the bridgeFirstly, we go because it is just beautiful.

It sits over the Tweed, a magnificent and beautiful river, and you are particularly well placed to admire the river from the bridge.Looking at river Tweed from bridgeSecondly, we go because it makes us laugh.

On each side of the bridge, the respective Scottish and Northumbrian councils have placed signs to ensure that you fully appreciate this is a border crossing and know which country you are in.

As you cross the bridge into England, there is a modest English sign. (Here James, our very first visitor in January 2011, helpfully points out the sign.)James and Stephen at England signOn the other side of the bridge, however, the Scots want to make sure you really appreciate that you’re in Scotland.  There’s a big, big sign – no two signs, actually,  (as Ellie and Jak point out here on their May 2012 visit).Ellie and Jak at bridgeAnd you’ll notice that the English, true to their proverbial reputation of reticence, make a simple statement of country. (Zacyntha’s first visit here, March 2011).Zacyntha and Stephen at the English signWhile the Scots come over all friendly and effusive and actually welcome you! (Ted and Helen’s visit, September 2011).Helen and Ted visitNot any more, they don’t!  Was it an irate English or Scots man that finally took matters into his own hands with this result?!broken Scottish signWhatever, it is now a rite of passage for first visitors to our Northumbrian home that we take them to the Union Chain Bridge.

Here’s Wenny and Jenny with Stephen on their April 2013 visit.Jenny and Wenny visitLater that year, in May, Katherine brought her mother, Mary to see the bridge.Mary's visitKatie was here in September 2011.Katie's visitAnd James brought Barbara here in March last year.Jam and Barbara's visitMike and Zacyntha also came in March last year.Zacyntha and Mike visitSo many happy visits! (and fun – really exciting to be standing on the bridge when a car drives over, and you are all of a wibble wobble.)

But back to our topic.  The third reason why we visit the Union Chain bridge is because it is a great bridge, a great engineering feat with a great history.

It is the oldest surviving iron suspension bridge in Europe.

It was built by Captain Samuel Brown RN in 1819-20.  During his time in the navy, Brown was working on the development of wrought iron anchor chains.  After he left the navy, he set up a manufactory in Millwall for the production of these chains.  He was still developing his ideas, and in 1817 he filed a patent for the production of flexible chain links for suspension bridges.  The opportunity to try out his new invention came when he was asked to build the Union Chain Bridge by the Berwick and North Durham Turnpike Trustees.  (And, completely incidentally, in the famous photograph of Brunel, the great man is posing in front of chains produced by Brown’s later company, Brown Lenox & Co.).

The flexible chain links are still evident now, but in very poor condition.rusted boltsThe bridge took less than a year to build so cost the Trustees only £7,700 – far far less in cost and far more quickly built than a traditional stone bridge.

It attracted great interest, not least among fellow engineers.  Robert Stevenson and John Rennie were here at its opening,  and both Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel also came to see the bridge.  A plaque on the English side, records Captain Brown’s name for posterity.plaque with Captain Brown's nameIt also records that additional strengthening work was done in 1902-3 with the addition of steel cables.  You can see the newer grey cables strung over the original green bars here.newer grey cables and old green bars belowWhat the plaque does not record, is that the bridge was thoroughly overhauled and renovated again between 1974 and 1981 – defective chain links were replaced with spheroidal graphite cast iron links.spheroidal graphite cast iron linksSadly, the bridge is once again urgently in need of repair.  ironwork rustingEverywhere you see the signs of decay, wear and tear.wooden joints perishingIndeed, the local councils are so concerned about safety that stringent warning signs lead up to the bridge. On the Scottish approach…Scottish approach to the bridgeAnd on the English approach … English approach to the bridgeOver the last few years, there has been worrying talk of bridge closure.   A horrifying thought for the locality!  The bridge isn’t only essential for drivers and walkers crossing the Tweed, it also carries cables transporting electronic data.

There were rumours of council bridge repair funds having been re-allocated into other budgets.  A friends’ pressure group was formed to push for repairs and proper appreciation of this fine bridge.  Their sign has joined the others on the bridge approaches.  (The friends have an excellent website with historic pictures and lots more information: http://www.unionbridgefriends.com )Become a friend signThe really good news – and extremely hot off the local press (just published in the February 19th edition of the Berwick Advertiser) – is that the Scottish Borders Council has now agreed to contribute £550,000 towards the restoration work, matching the funding already on offer from Northumberland County Council.  Now they can approach external funding sources, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, to secure the required balance of some £3 million (some say nearer £5 million).  The bridge needs a new suspension hanger system and upgraded parapets.

So – hopefully, it may indeed be fully repaired and in fine fettle to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its opening on 26th July 2020!looking up at the bridgeThere is yet another reason why we admire this bridge so much.  It is not called the Union Chain Bridge for nothing.  On each of the parapets, there is a motto:  Vis Unita Fortior.   Clumsily translated from the Latin, that reads: United strength is stronger.

I now have to come over all political.  Yes, I do believe united is stronger.  The United Kingdom is the better for its unity.  Europe too is stronger and better for the European Union. Many countries all over the world are better for the Commonwealth.  We are all the better for the United Nations.

Time to echo John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself.  Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.  As well as if a promontory were.  As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend’s were.  Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.  Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.Vis unita fortiorThank you Ellie, for prompting this post on the lovely Union Chain Bridge!Ellie looking down from the bridge

Searching for Sanderlings

Yesterday we walked from Beadnell to Low Newton (some 3 miles as the crow flies).  Beadnell mapThis is a beautiful walk any time of the year.  Yesterday the conditions were just perfect –  no wind, temperature about 5 degrees, tide probably at its lowest.  So we had the huge expanse of Beadnell Bay to ourselves for our walk to the pub at Low Newton. It’s one of the beaches that Northumberland justifiably is so proud of.  Huge expanses of sand and sea and sky.
Best foot forward and looking south to our destination with a glimpse of Dunstanburgh Castle beyond……..best foot forward to DunstanburghLooking back to Beadnell and its limekilns ……..Looking back to BeadnellOthers had been there before us, but we felt it was ours ……Stephen following tracksDifferent sand patterns all along the beach.  These are at the Beadnell end – is the black sand coal (coal fields run along the edge of Northumberland’s coastline) or broken mussel shells?black sand patternsFurther along small pebbles and shells make a pointy pattern – it’s as though the beach is wearing a crown …..crown of sandAnd a wavy pattern in the sands as you look along the beach to the dunes …wavy patterns in sandIn some spots there was evidence of a recent parliament of fowls…evidence of parliament of fowlsNot really a shelly beach (my favourites) but just enough Banded venus shells to keep me happy.shells and sandTime for a coffee break.  The retirement thermos comes out (these have to be counted back in carefully since we left one behind on one expedition.  A Hanrahan – as one might say – “I counted them all out and I counted them all back.”  You may have to search recent Falkland Island history to pick up the allusion!)  thermos flask of coffeeAt the end of the bay, we climbed up the dunes for the walk around Football Hole (such a great name!). Looking inland you can just see the snowy Cheviots in the distance, and a reviled wind farm interrupting the view. (There is much ill feeling in Northumberland about wind farms – barely surprising since many have been sited in iconic situations).windfarms in distanceWe clambered up a bony protrusion of Whin Sill.  (Whin Sill is the local name for the ignaeous rock dolerite that is so important a feature of the Northumbrian landscape.  The Castles of Bamburgh and Lindisfarne are built on Whin Sill protrusions, and the Romans incorporated it into some of the most dramatic parts of Hadrian’s wall).sheep watching warilyFrom the top we could now see Dunstanburgh Castle more clearly.sheep and Bamburgh CastleBut more importantly, we could also see our destination!  This is the tiny village of Low Newton.  The old fishermen’s cottages are clustered round a green straight up from the beach.arriving at Low NewtonAnd here is the Ship Inn!  It’s a very popular haunt nowadays – understandably as they have good food and the beer is very fine (they have their own brewery).  As for location – well, it’s to die for, centrally located right on the Northumbrian seashore between Dunstanburgh Castle and Beadnell Bay. Ship InnInside, there’s a fire, and food – and drink!  Perhaps best of all, we’ve timed it just right and the pub is almost empty – we can get seats right next to the fire!  That’s a rarity – it’s a very busy pub.Pub - pint and fireStephen enjoying the Ship Inn Brewery’s 4.2 % Squid Ink.  Apparently it’s “A classic stout with hints of espresso coffee, dark chocolate, figs and dates.”Stephen with pintBut the sanderlings, I hear you say – what about the sanderlings?!!!

Well – we did see sanderlings!  Oh – yes – we did see sanderlings! Sanderling sightingNow I want to explain why these little birds are so very special to us.  We knew nothing of them until we came to live in Northumberland.  When we first saw them on Spittal beach, we were enchanted with their racing and running in and out of the waves.

Derwent May, writing in the Times of January 2011 tells us more about them.  “On long sandy beaches right now you may see small, white wading birds chasing the withdrawing waves.  They pick up tiny creatures that are floating in the water, then run back very fast to avoid the next incoming breaker that threatens to crash over them.  To and fro they sprint, their legs like clockwork.  These sanderlings, little birds of the sand, have a special adaptation for their way of life: they have no hind toe that drags in the sand, so that they can run more quickly.” They are the only bird that has this adaptation.

(Disappointingly, WordPress won’t let me upload my little video which demonstrates this quirky seashore action without ungrading to Premium for £70 – so I’ll just add in some pics from previous Beadnell visits.)sanderlings on beadnell beach 2Derwent continues: “They nest in Siberia, very near the North Pole, and some fly as far as South Africa in the autumn.  But a few get no farther than Britain and Ireland, spending the winter here.  They like the sandy beaches … in northeast England …”

Sensible little birds – so do we!  We often see them over winter on our local Spittal beaches, but this year I haven’t seen any yet.   You have to catch them at the right time on the tide – food is most plentiful when the tide is very low.

(Here they are at the mouth of the Tweed with the Berwick lifeboat station in the background, photographed in January 2013).Sanderlings at the mouth of the Tweed Mark Cocker describes them more succinctly in his magisterial Birds Britannica: “Sanderlings are the Keystone cops of the British seaside…The manner in which they first scurry away from an incoming surge, then instantly reverse to follow it back out, also has something of the quality of those speeded-up cop chases popular in the silent-movie era…Yet the comic note belies their heroic migration…There is evidence to suggest …a round trip of 17,700 miles.”

Wow! little sanderlings – that is truly amazing!sanderlings on beadnell beach 1As we retraced our steps back to the Beadnell car park, we saw many more fascinating birds – turnstones, dunlins, curlews, gulls, oystercatchers – even a rare and beautiful great white heron having a fine time, feasting on local delicacies in the Brunton Burn.

But nothing made our day quite as much as the Keystone Cops of the British seaside: the sanderlings!

However, we did come home with treasure…treasures from the beach

Let me introduce you to Poe

Poe in Crediton garden, hiding behind nasturtium plantPoe and her sister Monet came to live with us in our Crediton home in 1999.    Monet and Poe as kittens, sitting on old knitting machineThey were sweet little kittens, and we loved them ……Young Monet and Poe cuddled up to each other while Poe washes Monetand they loved each other too.Monet and Poe cuddled up to each otherBut that love did not last.  Before long, they preferred to keep an unfriendly distance from each other.Poe and Monet on benchMonet was an anxious cat, and had some very difficult problems so eventually she had to leave us for the great cat home in the sky.  RIP Monet.Monet lying in the sunCuriously, with Monet’s departure Poe found her voice.Poe making her voice heardWe weren’t at all sure how Poe would take to our move from balmy Devon to the windy open spaces of Northumberland.Poe on garden fence looking out to the seaShe loved it! – and took to mousing with such enthusiasm that even when the snows came she was out there, catching mice.Poe outside with mouseShe liked to bring the mice in to play with – but often lost them so they ran off to make new homes inside.Poe inside with mouseRecently high blood pressure caused her retinas to detach and she went completely blind over night.  Luckily medication (very expensive!) means that she can now see again.Poe's damaged eyes after collapsed retinasThese are a few of her favourite things …
hogging the best spot in front of the fire…Poe in front of firedrinking Jammy’s cereal milk ….Poe watching Jammy eat cereallying in the sun…….Poe in woolly room sunlightdoing the fence walk with you know who ….Poe doing fence walkrolling around in a smelly man’s shirt……..Poe smelling Jam's smelly shirtwatching bird tv (broadcast live from our woodshed)!……Poe watching Bird tvand her Christmas mouse! Poe and her Christmas mouseOh Poe – we love you!

The Museum of Scotland

I spent yesterday morning at Edinburgh’s Museum of Scotland –  very definitely my very favourite museum!

You walk into this huge light-filled space, and are drawn to look upwards.  You just have to gasp at the inventiveness and glory of it all.glass roof of museum of scotlandClimb up to the top floor, look down – and – it’s still amazing!looking down on ground floor of museum of scotlandOn the way up and down you will pass all manner of extraordinary things.looking over to upper galleries in museum of scotlandThe original museum was  designed by Francis Fowke ( who also designed parts of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum).  It opened in 1866.

There was a major redevelopment here between 2006 and 2011.  The curators took the opportunity to impress their 21st century take on the building and its collections.  This is what gives the fine old building its remarkable character.

Looking down into the well space,  you will see the light chamber of a lighthouse.light chamber from lighthouseGlance over at the far wall and there’s the jaw of a whale, pottery, metalwork.extraordinary collection of things in the museum of scotlandIt’s the serendipity, the juxtaposition of such extraordinarily unrelated objects that works so well here.  It reminds me of another favourite museum of mine, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

There are extraordinary bicycles,bicycle for fourSigns from old railway stations,old railway station signsCurious sea-creatures in glass jars,sea-creatures in glass jarsFantastic tea-pots – and lots lots more!teapots in museum of ScotlandOf course, these are only meant as tasters for what’s in the rest of the collections, in the rooms behind.  I saw far too many fascinating things to list them all here, so I will just mention two exhibits that I regularly visit.

These are some of the 17 miniature pine coffins, each containing a small dressed doll, found on Arthur’s Seat in 1836.  Nobody knows who made them or for what reason – lots of speculation.  They have obviously been made with great care.  I find them sad, and slightly disturbing – but so intriguing!Arthur's seat coffinsMy other choice couldn’t be more different – for a start it’s one of the largest items in the museum whereas the miniature dolls must be some of the tiniest exhibits. Newcomen engineThis is a rare surviving example of an atmospheric or Newcomen engine.  It was used to pump water from the coal mines at Caprington colliery until 1901 – and it still works!  It moves slowly and regularly and reassuringly – just as it must have been for those 19th century miners.  It is a magnificent beast, and I am drawn to it by its size and power and efficacy.

So, thank you very much, Museum of Scotland, for a wonderful morning’s entertainment and exploration.  I’ll be back for more before too long!

(Oh – and we had a delicious lunch in the basement Museum Brasserie too.)

Windy, windy, windy-blow! *

We’ve just embarked on a period of real winter storms.

They started yesterday, gathering  full momentum over the evening and night.  By the time we went to bed just before midnight, they were into full rampaging mode.  I lay awake and marvelled at the sound.  Yet, curiously, when I woke in the early hours, the storms had completely abated – no sound at all.

But they are back now.

Our house sits on an east-west axis; to the north lie the old steading courtyard and more buildings; to the south are the open fields, sea and the view down the coast to Lindisfarne.View from our garden to the castles and seaWe are protected from the brunt of the nasty cold Northerlies, North-easterlies and North-westerlies by the rest of the steading buildings.  Westerlies stream along the length of our house and are funnelled by the shape of the buildings out to sea.

It is the dirt-laden, shifty Southerlies that we hate most.  They blast over the flat coastal lands before the house, and slam into our buildings.  You might think they would be balmy, warm and good-natured (and of course some are), but most are edgy and difficult.  Our windows are grimy from the Saharan dust they carry.  And if they are really boisterous and bad-tempered, the gusts will slam down our chimney and can put out a blazing fire with one casual puff.

Right now the winds are all over the place.  The only common factor is that they are powerful.  They find out every little nook and cranny and we are cold, cold, cold.  I sit typing looking just like a comfy old rotund teddy-bear because I have so many layers of clothing on.

Our bedroom is right under the eaves so bedtime when the winds blow does not mean peace and quiet!  In fact it can be blowing a gale and we are hardly aware of it. At other times the slates rattle persistently. It all depends on the wind direction. It seems to be when the wind strikes the roof obliquely rather than sideways on or straight at it.

Last night we went to bed with 40mph winds and it was hard to get to sleep with all the rattling. By morning the wind had not abated but had swung round further to the north and we were hardly aware of it.Sloping bedroom roof right under the eavesWhen we first arrived here, – indeed our first night here! – a storm blew up, and the winds lashed against the roof.  I lay in bed and thought how mad we had been to come to this dreadful, frightening place.  Now I lie in bed and marvel at the sound.  Often the winds just grumble round the roof.  Nights when they complain like last are extraordinary – and to be wondered at.

Not that I always think that.  I have discovered that I can take about 3 days of windy noise, and then I have had enough.  Please please oh go away oh noisy wind.

For the moment the thing is to keep warm and busy.

*technical term of Stephen’s

Busy old fool, unruly Sun

Sun right behind Bamburgh castleIt’s now 18 days since the winter solstice, and although each day that passes lifts my spirits as the minutes of daylight increase, there’s an accompanying sadness.

We are losing our sunrise.

Our house looks south,  out over the North Sea coast,  so on a good day we clearly see the castles of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh.View of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh castlesNo view of sunrise, you would think.  But that’s where you’re wrong.  Until I came to live here some 4 years ago, I hadn’t realised that because of the tilt of the earth, during the winter months sunrise moves over across the eastern horizon towards the south.

Imagine our excitement the first winter we were here in 2010 to see this magnificent sunrise exploding over the snowy fields.  At this point  sunrise has moved to half way between the two castles.Sunrise over snow between Lindisfarne and Bamburgh castlesA more furious sunrise here; now the sunrise has moved right up to Bamburgh Castle and you can just make out the silhouette of the castle with the sun rising behind.more furious sunrise behind Bamburgh castleChristmas Eve last year, just a few days after the solstice, and the sunrise is far past Bamburgh Castle.  But it’s started out on its journey back.sun starting return journey to Bamburgh castleOh, busy old fool – teasing us with all that promise  ….sunrise - teasing us with all that promiseto when you make your cosy little egg yolk first appearance ……sun making first little egg yolk appearanceto playing mean and moody………mean and moody sunrise over snowto coquettish, mysterious ………Sun looking coquettish beyond Bamburghto simply gorgeous ……simply gorgeous sunriseI don’t want you to go –  I shall miss you!