Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

In which I feed the pigeons… it gives me a sense of enormous well-being.

It was a long way to drive for us: all the way up the east coast past Lincoln, York, Durham and Newcastle. Mrs. P and I were travelling to the lovely little market town of Alnwick in Northumberland. I’m not keen on long journeys on motorways: much as I enjoy driving, I’d rather meander slowly  to my destination, discovering some interesting places en route. That’s not always possible, particularly on a long journey such as this. We did get bored after a couple of hundred miles and decided to break the journey at the small town of Seaham, just south of Sunderland. Once the site of a Victorian glass factory, Seaham is a great place to collect sea glass, so Mrs. P and I had a stroll along the beach, collecting sparkling little jewels from among the pebbles. We amassed quite a haul of the stuff, including some quite large pieces. Glass that has been battered and ground by the waves is rather beautiful. It becomes dull and lustreless when it’s dry but immerse it in water and it instantly becomes as bright and shiny as it was when first discovered. The town of Seaham is also famous for the wedding of Byron to Anne Milbanke.  Seaham Hall, where the wedding took place, is now a luxury spa hotel. It is available as a wedding venue, so if you are planning your big day, you could consider the hall, although the fact that the marriage lasted a little over a year may not be the best of omens. It did result in the birth of Ada Lovelace: one of the greatest scientists this country has ever produced.

From Seaham, it’s only a short drive into Sunderland. I wanted to visit the city as I had recently read about the Walrus statue in Mowbray Park.

“The time has come” the walrus said, “to talk of many things…”

Lewis Carroll’s sister, Mary, lived in Sunderland. He frequently visited her, and her husband, the Reverend Charles Collingwood, at Holy Trinity Rectory in Southwick. Rev. Charles is supposed to have had a stuffed walrus, which Carroll admired greatly. It was even said to have been the inspiration for one of his best-loved poems, The Walrus and the Carpenter. This statue has been created, by sculptor Andrew Burton, to celebrate Carroll’s connection with the city.  We found the statue in a beautiful setting across the lake from the Winter Gardens. The park itself is the most charming relic of Victorian urban planning, complete with formal gardens, bandstand, statues to the great and good of the city and memorials to significant events in Sunderland history. The walrus is clearly beloved of the local birds, many of whom have left their mark on it, and many more occupy the park. A group of young men were spending a pleasant afternoon with an enormous cloud of pigeons wheeling around them. They had their hands outstretched and the pigeons on the ground around them were looking at them suspiciously and cooing loudly. There was a huge sack of bird seed on the ground next to them and, as well as feeding hundreds of birds, they were inviting people to take handfuls of seed and join the feeding frenzy. I happily sat with them in the park with pigeons jumping onto my outstretched hands and stuffing themselves.

All the world seems in tune,
On a spring afternoon…

Leaving pigeons and walruses behind us, we continued our journey north to Alnwick to (eventually) find the home of Dr C and Dr P, C standing outside his front gate and beckoning enthusiastically.  They are delightful people and have a beautiful home. Both university lecturers, they are extraordinarily well-read and intelligent company. We were instantly made to feel at home, being offered a large glass of wine on crossing the threshold. Truth be told, we had far too many of these over the next few days. We spent our week drinking wine, eating excellent food, walking, driving through the achingly beautiful Northumbrian landscape, laughing, talking about literature and watching episodes of Whistle Test from the 1970s. It was fabulous and I had a brilliant time.

On our first day we wandered around Alnwick. taking in the local ‘atmos’ and visiting shops. It is a charming market town, hiding in the shadow of its enormous castle, which dominates the local landscape. The town is a little larger than I was expecting, as well as a castle it has a museum, a theatre, art galleries and numerous shops. One of them, Barter Books, is one of the most delightful bookshops I have ever visited. Among the biggest second hand bookshops in the country, it is housed in a former railway station and sustains the railway theme throughout. There is a model railway running along the tops of the bookshelves and a station buffet if you want a drink or even a more substantial meal. Throughout the store there are comfy chairs on which to sit and read. It is vast. I could easily have spent a day browsing and could easily have picked up dozens of books. In the end, I rationed myself to one.

The Literary Travel section at Barter Books.
I had to limit myself to one. It wasn’t easy.

Alnwick Castle is probably most famous as a location for various films and TV shows, among them Blackadder and the Harry Potter films, where parts of it featured as Hogwarts. We walked there now, stopping at various antique shops on the way. I contented myself with enjoying it from the outside as the cost of entry was pretty steep. If you want the whole package (tour of the castle & access to the gardens) it will cost you £28. I must confess, it does look like a good family day out, with a range of activities to keep everyone occupied and happy. I wasn’t prepared to pay that sort of money for what is a tentative literary connection.

There is a medieval poem called ‘The Ballad of Chevy Chase’. It tells the story of The Battle of Otterburn, in which the entourage of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (‘Hostspur’ of Shakespeare’s Henry IV), set out from Alnwick castle on a hunting trip on the Cheviot hills, met the army of the Earl of Douglas and all hell breaks loose. We were treated to a reading of the poem that evening by Dr C, who does a pretty decent middle-English; just one of his startling array of accents, regional and historical. The Cheviot hills themselves dominate the local landscape, rising above the moorland on which we saw buzzards and kestrels.

The distinctive dome of the Cheviot remained an ever-present landmark throughout the week, as we traversed the national park, discovering the coast and countryside of this achingly beautiful part of the world. We meandered around slowly, visiting a castle here (including Norham, which features in Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion), an antique shop there, sometimes stopping at a pleasant view, historic location or nice looking pub.  Mrs. P was very happy as we were able to identify several of the locations used in the TV show Vera. She loves a murder mystery, does Mrs. P.

“Day set on Norham’s castled steep,
And Tweed’s fair river, broad and deep,
And Cheviot’s mountains lone:”

I particularly enjoyed Bamburgh, a picturesque little town with a huge castle and a  charming little museum dedicated to Grace Darling, who at 24, rowed with her father to collect the survivors of a shipwreck. Having brought half of them to safety, they rowed out again for the other half. It’s a stirring tale of heroism I distinctly remember from Blue Peter in the 1970s. The museum, as well as the boat in which she performed the rescue, has some of her clothing, books and letters. Opposite, is the church in which she is buried. Bamburgh Castle, which we viewed from the serene surroundings of a pub garden, is the home of Uhtred of Bebbanburg in The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell. You may know this (as I did) from the Netflix adaptation. From the coast along here, the Farne Islands were clearly visible and we watched puffins, terns and shags, which,  whilst I suppress childish giggles, always put me in mind of Christopher Isherwood’s poem:

The common cormorant or shag,
Lays its eggs in a paper bag,
You follow the idea, no doubt?
It’s to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have never thought of, is that herds
Of wandering bears might come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

We had a fantastic few days and were sorry to leave. There was a long journey back south in front of us, so we decided to break it with a couple of hours in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a city rich in history and literary heritage. But that’s another story for another day…

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