A double trip – to friends Julia and Alan in Northumberland and our family in Edinburgh. First, the delights of staying at Julia and Alan’s house, near Morpeth. A lovely house in the middle of beautiful countryside with gardens which are a sheer pleasure to be in. And weren’t we lucky with the weather….allowing a memorable breakfast outside on one occasion….Mind you one windy day showed what it can be like………
Lots of interest for us on returning to Northumberland where we lived for a few years. Our first outing was to the coast – equally as spectacular as here in Cornwall. Craster was not that far away and we did indeed call at the famous Robson’s kipper smokehouse...and, after a couple of purchases, explored the small harbour and then did the walk to Dunstanburgh Castle which is just under two miles away along the shore…and what a magnificent ruin it is with a location and history to match. It was built originally by Thomas of Lancaster who led two rebellions against Edward II and was executed for his pains. It was then owned by Thomas of Lancaster and later played an eventful role in the Wars of The Roses. After a lovely lunch in The Jolly Fisherman we moved on to one of my favourite small towns Warkworth on the pretty River Coquet. Warkworth has its own equally spectacular castle crowning a hilltop rising steeply above the river and it was owned most famously by the Percies the great landowners of Northern England. We didn’t have time to visit, but enjoyed a walk along its forbidding perimeter.On our way back to the car we paused to look at the hugely interesting church of St Lawrence…best to read the incomparable Simon Jenkins on its history. It is the largest and most complete Norman church to have survived in Northumberland. Its bell tower noticeably leans several degrees from the perpendicular (not entirely clear from my pic).
Last stop Amble, still a fishing port but on the up from its previous decline.It was great to see some imaginative modern housing on the quayside, flats with views of the harbour, the Coquet, and up the coast to Warkworth. Why can’t more modern housing show just a little imagination?Next day we had a trip out to nearby Brinkburn Priory which we had never visited in all our time in Northumberland (what were we doing?). A path leads from the EH car park steeply down to the Priory which is set picturesquely in a bend of the Coquet. It looks as if some of the stone was quarried locally which is possibly one reason for its location. Our first glimpse shows another reason..it is really hidden away and a less likely target therefore for marauding Scots and all the rest….It was founded by William Bertram, Baron of Mitford, in the reign of Henry I as an Augustinian priory. The exact date is not known but cannot have been later than 1135, as Henry died that year. About 1180 or so, Brinkburn became an independent house, and the building of the monastic church was commenced. The architectural style has been described as “transitional” (i.e. between Norman and Gothic). Although the Priory acquired lands in Northumberland and Durham over the years it was never particularly wealthy. Little is known of the early history of the priory, although it is known that it survived some difficult times. In fact, as late as 1419 it was raided and robbed. Brinkburn Priory was dissolved in 1536 after Parliament enacted the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act. The “lesser monasteries” were those with an income of less than £200 per annum, and Brinkburn fell into this category as in 1535 the priory’s value had been recorded as £69 in the Valor Ecclesiasticus. After the dissolution the estate was mainly owned by the Fenwick family and in the late 16th century they built a manor house on the ruins of the Priory buildings and adjacent to the Priory Church. Services continued to be held at Brinkburn and the church was retained in a fair state of repair till the end of the 16th century. In 1602 it was reported to be in a state of decay, and at some point before 1700 the roof had collapsed and regular services were abandoned. In the 1750s Thomas Sharp, Archdeacon of Northumberland, tried to effect repairs to the ruin. Although there was considerable support for the project, work was called off after a dispute between the owner William Fenwick and the Vicar of Felton. In the 19th century the Cadogan family, owners of Brinkburn, revived the plans for the restoration of the church and work began in 1858. The roof was completed in the space of a year, and the stained glass windows had been inserted by 1864. The church, however, was not furnished until 1868. Brinkburn Priory today is a sympathetic 19th-century restoration of the mediæval original. The tombstone of Prior William, Bishop of Durham (died 1484) was found during the reconstruction, as was the original altar stone with five crosses. The latter is still preserved along with an ancient font. As you approach, the Norman doorway is impressive…..it comprises a roundheaded arch displaying typical late-Norman ornament, such as zig-zags and dog-tooth mouldings, underneath a gable decorated with an Early English blind arcade of three pointed and trefoiled arches. the interior is impressive too…..and outside there remain traces of the vaulted vestibule leading to the chapter house. On the south and west walls of the nave, blind arcading indicates that these were the back walls of other structures, most likely of the covered walk that would have extended round the edges of the cloister garth. Almost adjacent to the priory is the now deserted manor house. It is the C13 south range of the Priory conventual buildings converted into a house for the Fenwick family in the later C16. Remodelled in 1810 for Richard Hodgson there were also alterations and major extensions 1830-37 by John Dobson the most famous architect in Northern England for William Hodgson Cadogan. What a lovely house it must have been to live in and there are throughout traces of its more ancient heritage, as here.Brinkburn is an English Heritage property, and Julia and Alan belong to EH. The very nice and ultra-enthusiastic guide in the entrance hut has made us consider whether to replace our NT membership next year with EH. We shall see.
Our next trip out was along the Tyne Valley to Corbridge where I used to live for a period. What a lovely town it has become, much improved and not over-the-top touristy. We parked by the river, a beautiful spot as you can see, and then wandered up to look at the houses and shops and have lunch at the well-named Corbridge Larder.As always we looked in estate agents windows and decided it would be an exceptionally nice place to live (if we could afford it!), and we had a good chat with the bookshop owners who had just moved premises to a very characterful building near the church. They had been in touch with the new owners of both Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books which was nice to know. Great shop, do visit it if in the area. Need to jazz up their website though…Forum Books. Next stop somewhere where I have always wanted to visit Vindolanda. What an exceptional place this is and what a treat to visit. Where to start? First of all it is in a lovely setting set down in a bowl amongst the hills and surprisingly sheltered. And then its sheer scale is immense.As we walked through the site we were astonished at what has been revealed. Here is the main road going through the vicus, the village which supported the fort with workshops, pubs, baths and so on…..and a Junior class having a practical lesson in Roman history, inspiring we hope…… When I say fort I should correctly say forts for there were at least 8 successive forts of which several were occupied before Hadrian’s Wall was even built. Regiments from modern Belgium and Holland were garrisoned here. The visible stone fort dates to the early third century and the impressive remains include the fort walls, the headquarters building and the commander’s house. And of course we moderns never fail to be astounded by the standard of living the Romans expected with their central heating systems which even ran up cavities in the walls as well as being underfloor.Baths were absolutely essential too , and that involved a plentiful supply of cold and hot water. The local landscape must have been denuded of trees and heather to keep this lot going, and fuel of one kind and another brought in on convoys of wagons.Wanting to cram in as much an experience as possible in an afternoon (you could easily spend a few days here) we fairly quickly homed in on the museum where major finds from the site are displayed imaginatively. A wall of leather shoes greets you…..including the only actual pair found….Then we see the weapons….the tools….examples of keys…..an astonishing collection of coins….examples of stonemasons work…much needed people stonemasons as the forts were continually demolished and re-built…….dining sets….and table ware…a beautifully decorated glass bowl….more tools…and even a toilet seat would you believe……but of course what we really wanted to see were the letters…….These are without doubt the most amazing finds from the site – thousands of writing tablets recording daily life – letters from soldiers asking for socks and underwear, a birthday party invitation to the fort commander’s wife, requests for payment, lists of goods supplied and troop deployments. No wonder the Vindolanda writing tablets were voted Britain’s ‘Top Treasure’…….It’s a pity in many ways that the best of the letters and the bulk of them are in London at the BM, yet another example of cultural autocracy…The whole museum was extremely well-designed and amazed at every turn and corner…on the way out there were reconstructions of the study rooms of early archaeologists on site….and an extremely pleasant cafe with outside eating area…..but after some quick refreshment we weren’t finished yet…..more houses to see inside the fort and, what was really interesting a talk with one of the very enthusiastic archaeologists working on a new area…and, to finish, a climb up the reproduction Roman tower…On the way back Alan was good enough to stop roadside to enable me to get a pic of the famous nearby sycamore……”The Sycamore Gap tree is one of most photographed in the country. It stands in a dramatic dip in Hadrian’s Wall in the Northumberland National Park. In late 2016 it took the crown for English Tree of the Year in the Woodland Trust’s awards.” The 1991 film ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, starring Kevin Costner, was filmed here. The tree has been known as The Robin Hood Tree ever since! What a wonderful day………..Whilst on things Roman, I must mention the carved head that Alan found in the wall of their previous house…could be Roman? And I am most grateful that Alan gave me one of his collection of Roman coins…from the time of the Emperor Maxentius whom I will research…..
Next, a trip to Alnwick. We found a lovely place for a mid-morning tea The Cookie Jar a newly-opened boutique hotel…and a lovely terrace where we whiled away half-an-hour..…before having a look round Alnwick itself….plenty of nice stone buildings but plenty of dilapidation as well……..as Julia says, the Duke is one of the wealthiest men around (fifth largest landowner in the UK), so you would think he would do more to support the town…must write to him.The famous Percy Lion here on top of a monument is just outside Barter Books a truly fascinating place to visit, people come from all over the world here. It sits in the old Alnwick station where you can read newspapers in front of the coal fire in winter, plus it has its own railway, always an amusement to children and men! I did like the notice in the window of the antique shop next door….you wouldn’t find that very often! Must send to my friend Malcolm….he likes that sort of thing.And naturally we visited Alnwick Castle. As usual, no photography allowed inside. In one of the courtyards a pack of children were being taught how to fly broomsticks (very Harry Potter). They were still at it when we came out of the castle. Alnwick Castle has been dubbed the ‘Windsor of the North,’ and is the second largest inhabited castle in the country, and has been home to the Duke of Northumberland’s family, the Percys, for over 700 years.The interior is as you would expect magnificent, Italianate, over-the-top, but I must say if you want good china and tableware go to No.I London……16.000 books in the Library, my favourite room, of which the Duke reports himself to have read 14,000 (not in full I think….).
Another day, another thing I had always wanted to do – which was view the Pitmen Paintings at Woodhorn Colliery. Another first…I had never visited a coal mine although F. has actually been underground, and I believe my children did as schoolchildren. No underground today but nevertheless a wonderful experience. First we looked around the site itself, today in its pristine glory…..most unlike when in operation! ‘For more than 80 years Woodhorn was a coal mine. Work to sink the first shaft began in 1894 and the first coal was brought to the surface in 1898. At its peak almost 2,000 men worked at the pit and 600,000 tons of coal was produced each year. Production stopped in 1981 but the shafts continued to be used for neighbouring Ashington Colliery until 1986. It began its life as a museum in 1989 and following major redevelopment, reopened in October 2006. Today, the yellow Ashington brick buildings have protected, listed status. The site is recognised as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and it is the best surviving example of a late 19th/early 20th century colliery in the North East tradition.’ We visited the cage shop, winding houses, the fan house, engine house and more….and didn’t forget the awful toll this grim industry could sometimes reap………After lunch in The Cutter, a dramatic building honouring the massive cutting machines used in the mine’s more recent history…..we moved on to the fascinating museum…complete with terrific audio-visual presentations, mock-ups, and records of everyday life for the miners and their families…..one of the most evocative information boards showed all the pits that closed in roughly a ten-year period…absolutely incredible. Recognising that the industry had had its day, had very bad working conditions etc etc it is still humbling to think of the communities that were wrecked, whole societies shattered, a way of life gone for ever. As ever pluses and minuses…..On then to the permanent exhibition of the Pitmen’s Paintings. This unique collection of more than 80 paintings was compiled by the original members of The Group themselves over many years. They felt the paintings represented the very best of their work. The Group largely made up of coal miners, first came together in 1934 through the Workers Education Association to study ‘something different’ – art appreciation. In an effort to understand what it was all about, their tutor Robert Lyon encouraged them to learn by doing it themselves. The very first meeting was luckily recorded in paint..I just picked some personal highlights to photograph, but really considering who they were and what they did each painting was worthy of respect..There was also a temporary exhibition of some of the paintings still in private hands….and miscellania…..and a great exhibition of contemporary paintings of Ashington by North East painter Narbi Price …….On the way back from Scotland, and before catching our plane from Newcastle, we called in briefly to Julia and Alan’s again and had a delightful walk around Bolam Lake (and Alan and I examined the old hill fort).I loved this armchair and settee…..looks as though it has just been fly-tipped, whereas it is actually made out of a fallen tree…..and this bench inscription rings true…..A quick visit to Bolam Church totally isolated now apart from the next-door vicarage. If of interest do read an excellent archaeological survey which is absolutely fascinating.……….the tower here is a rare example of Saxon work which made it a privilege to see. The narrow slits may or may not indicate it had a defensive use – commentators can’t agree.and the doorway is obviously Norman….in fact it seems the church is what is called a Saxon-Norman overlap….Great records for this church….it’s always remarkable to see this sort of heritage, particularly if you’re the current vicar…..at the beginning of the 14th century, came the addition of the South Chapel or Shortflatt aisle, presumably built as a chantry for the De Reymes family of Shortflatt, the mid-14th century effigy of Sir Robert still surviving. Most impressive. To see the sort of times Robert lived in see a Google Books entry.
A fantastic visit to Northumberland. Thanks to Julia and Alan for making it so worthwhile…..