27. Geordie Land


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Jun 28th, 2011
27. Geordie Land

Having lost time being ill, we have to skip half-planned whistle-stop visits to long-unseen cousins and so we do not see Bristol, Bath or the legendary and ancient New Forest. There is a long-planned rendezvous with old friends in the north. So we return to the northern reaches of London, in time to spend another weekend with Matthew & Alison. Ali teaches at an upmarket private school in the area, in a different world from the government schools where, she says, the kids tell the teachers to get knotted, it’s not cool to be smart, and the parents don’t give a toss, or wo’evva.

Alison takes me to her club for a swim – a beautiful converted manor house, now a golf club and luxury gym. There we spent a wonderful hour in the covered pool, swimming chatty lengths while the cold rain pelted down outside. On Sunday another treat – boating at Waldringfield, at a sailing club on the estuary of the river Deben. Here we were able to meet up with Doug (my son) and his partner Nikki who lives at Ipswich a little further up the east coast. Doug is on a rare visit from Uganda and it’s great to see them both. Seven of us venture out in a small sailing dinghy with the wind rising and the tide flowing out to sea and the rain clouds looming overhead. The small sail cannot cope and just as we contemplate the inevitability of being swept onto a distant sandbank, Mathew starts the little outboard motor. The pub afterwards was very inviting!


Saling at Waldringfield - we got seven of us into that boat....

On Monday we return to the city, to take our leave of hospitable auntie. We pack all surplus clothes and non-essential effects into the largest of the too-large suitcases and have it sent off to Cape Town. It costs £160 and will take 3 weeks on a container ship. It feels a bit like shedding a ball and chain (I imagine).
In London, world events are entirely blotted out by Wimbledon and the Great White Hope, Andy Murray who has actually made it to the final. We drop in on our client Patrick Mavros and with luck, find him in his cave of treasures on the Fulham Road. With his Zimbabwe tan and forthright charm, he is like a warm breeze straight from Africa.
Then it’s time to leave the throngs of pale reserved Londoners (even the black people here manage to give the impression of paleness) and head for Northumberland, to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. We travel by ‘MegaBus’ this time, having wised up to the exorbitant cost of train travel in the UK. The coach fare is a fifth of the train’s, but the downside is the time it takes – a whopping 10 hours. It rains all along the motorway, and our host picks us up near to midnight. For one of the largest cities in the north, the place is remarkably quiet on a Wednesday night.

The following day is spent mostly working, with the house to ourselves as ex-Zim friends Tim & Shaz both work fulltime and our God-daughter Megan is at school. Tim has an excellent wi-fi connection, part of a broadband phone and TV package that is astoundingly inexpensive, fast and efficient compared to South Africa. We wallow in connectivity.

It’s Friday, hooray, the entire family has taken the day off and we can go exploring; my mental image of Newcastle upon Tyne is of a coal fuelled industrial and shipbuilding city peopled by grim, hard-drinking Geordies and the occasional Yorkshire Ripper lurking in grey rain-drenched doorways. Our hosts however are keen to explode such myths and show off their beautiful and historical adopted city.

It certainly helps that gentle spring sunshine illuminates the day as we head out (blankets and waterproofs in the boot) to explore.

This place was once a fortified Roman settlement forming one end of Hadrian’s Wall; after the Romans went home, the ‘new castle’ in question was built in 1080 by another invader, William the Conqueror’s son. Such impressive historical credentials make the serious tourist sit up and take notice.

Today the river Tyne bristles with bridges of all descriptions; remarkable amongst these is a monumental red-brick railway bridge (tourists scream like seagulls as they zipline from the highest span over the river to the other bank, on a spectacular foefie-slide), a cunning Victorian pivoting bridge and a graceful, gossamer-like swing bridge of ultra modern design. The river itself is coal-black/brown but some chancers have a fishing rod over the side, so there must be some life in the water.

Ultra-modern bridge over the Tyne

The riverside wharves in the city centre, once the haunt of fishwives and coal merchants, are today a promenade filled with friendly street markets, pubs, art galleries, public sculptures and upmarket eateries. There is modern architecture on one bank, gothic monuments and ancient half-timbered Tudor mansions on the other. Britain drags its history along with it into the new millennium with such inventive energy.

Glitter Slug? Incredible disappearing building? Modern architecture on the banks of the Tyne

Newcastle is, apparently, the clubbing capital of the north and the younger set travel from as far as Scotland to enjoy the nightlife.

The city also boasts a Chinatown as large as Soho and among the culinary delights we sample in Newcastle, we pig out at an enormous eat-till-you-pop Chinese buffet restaurant.

One local speciality we discovered – from the ice-cream van – was the Single Nougat (pronounced ‘nugget’). James says this is found as far north as Scotland but is virtually unknown amongst the barbarians in the south. There is also a Double Nougat which has the chocolate coated nougat filled wafer top and bottom.

The northern ice cream treat known as the 'single nugget' - I am holding it upside down apparently.

The countryside around Newcastle is full of castles, market towns and blustery seascapes joined up by stretches of highway.

A short drive along one of these highways leads to the lovely town of Alnwick which provided us a whole Sunday’s outing. The most brilliant second-hand bookshop on earth, Barter Books, is there. It is an entire Victorian railway station, preserved and modified and now entirely filled with books and all things delightful to readers. Including of course, an elegant reading room which once was the old Waiting Room. (You can also buy books from this shop online at barterbooks.co.uk). They have a rare and iconic World War II poster framed on the wall, the very British public exhortation to “Keep Calm & Carry On”

Inside the old train station building - note model railway train running round the top of the shelves, and the red "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster in the centre of the picture.

Then there’s the Duke of Northumberland’s place, Alnwick Castle with its amazing gardens. The Percy family have lived here since the 13th century and still live in part of the castle – but most of it is now open to the public, and is much used as film set (some of the Harry Potter movies, Robin Hood, etc. were shot there). But we didn’t have time to visit the castle – we were there to walk round the spectacular gardens.  The Alnwick Garden is world famous.

There’s a main building with a vast terrace looking out onto a sweep of lawn and a gentle slope, down which a showy and busy fountain – called the Grand  Cascade – plays for the tearoom visitors. A handy map invites you to go forth and explore. The terrace floor was inset with tiny pinpoints of light – LED bulbs somehow let into the concrete; first time I’d seen that effect, and it was stunning.

The rose garden is like walking in paradise; being June all the roses were flowering – so you walk beside and beneath billows of glorious blossoms, wafted along by a hundred different perfumes. Massed beds offer spectacular colour from delicate pastels to bright oranges and reds – and every type including antique roses, modern roses, climbing, trailing, bushy, elegant, showy, modest, cabbage-sized and miniature roses. Each rose was accompanied by its name.

A corner of the rose garden at Alnwick

Ornamental Fox statue in the rose garden

Then there’s a maze you can dive into, a shady and mysterious maze, with twisty turny tunnels made of sound-absorbing thickets of miniature bamboo – great fun when one is accompanied by an energetic youngster keen to see if she can get lost. In the very centre you find a stone with the inscription: “Only dead fish swim with the stream”…

Godchild Megan inside the water sculpture

Next there’s the ‘Serpent Garden’ where clipped hedges guide you from one astonishing water sculpture to another. You can play, touch, get wet, watch your distorted reflections, or just contemplate the shimmering artworks.

Cloister-like covered walks, made of trees

There are vast corridors shaped out of living trees, roofed over with boughs and complete with windows cut into the walls. A magic circle of young oaks; a stream leading to a fountain inside a spiral of smooth river stones. Views and visual surprises everywhere you look.

Then there’s a glorious, walled ornamental garden with formal beds of intensely blue and purple hollyhocks and massed blooms and pathways and trellises, streams with miniature bridges, love-seats and bowers. Harmony and colour everywhere, and all of it marked out and edged with tiny perfect foot-high hedges of a mind-boggling level of maintenance.

And then – a natural woodland under which are banks of foxgloves and probably other wild woodland flowers in the spring. Here one stumbles upon an ancient and heavy-limbed tree – the largest and oldest tree on the whole estate – there was no label so we didn’t find out what kind of tree it was.

And then – the Duchess’s work-in-progress, the Cherry orchard, which is a whole hillside planted with hundreds of ornamental Japanese tai-haku cherry trees, which produce snowdrifts of blossom each spring – we were sadly too late for that. Each tree can be sponsored for charity. Under the trees, over 600 thousand pink tulip bulbs have been planted, which also come out in spring. It must be mind-blowing!

And then – there is the Tree House – the largest in Europe – which has aerial walkways and  platforms and suspended rope bridges – with a café and restaurant, all built of wood and with living tree-trunks coming up through the rooms.

And then – there was a Poison Garden for educating people about Deadly Nightshade and other noxious plants and herbs – but it started raining so we had to beat a retreat and didn’t get to see that. Trust the bloody English weather to spoil the fun…! We also missed the vegetable and herb garden, where the original walled kitchen garden has been turned into a learning place for keeping bees, growing seasonal fruit and veg, herbs and flowers – and propagating from cuttings, seeds or bulbs… Shaz and I could have spent a week there. (Maybe one day we will!)

The ornamental garden with high-maintenance features




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