14th - 17th May 2011 - Northumbria
The pelting rain is driven by the frozen wind directly into our faces as we struggle up the barren hillside towards the ridge through the littered remains of an Empire. The bleak dales rising up around are almost invisible through the sheets of rain, as if the weather is determined to force upon you the extent of the desolate, miserable isolation of this place. This is Hadrian's Wall. And I am so very, very excited.
We have driven down from Alnwick to get here, along single-track roads winding through wooded valleys, along the ridges of high moorland, and through small slate-roofed towns. A journey started in weak sunshine deteriorates rapidly into horrendous conditions, but this to me seems fitting - how better to appreciate Hadrian's Wall than it seemed to the Romans - a godsforsaken, cold, miserable backwater truly at the bleak end of the known world. Consequently, as my family pulled on their waterproofs with resigned expressions, I was gambolling around, eager to explore Housesteads Fort where we had stopped and to get a glimpse of the great construction itself. The fort, formerly known as Vercovicium, was well-preserved and incredibly interesting,
especially with its explanations of how its use had changed over time, from the home of a double-sized auxiliary infantry cohort and a detachment of legionaries in the 2nd century, to that of only a few scattered guards by the end. The wall itself stretched away on both sides climbing and slipping down hills and valleys, built on the crest of the ridge and commanding an impressive view of the surrounding land... when you could see it through the rain and mist.
We followed the wall a short distance away from the fort, longing to explore further but restricted by time. Returning to the visitor centre, I casually asked the assistant how far we were away from Sycamore Gap, and was astounded and excited beyond description to discover it was only a few minutes down the road. Sycamore Gap, you see, apart from being extremely dramatically photogenic in its own right, was also the filming location to one of my favourite scenes from my favourite films of all time, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. My parents kindly drove us along the wall to Steel Rigg, and then me and Chatts braved the hostile conditions once more to hike the
steep ridge to the famous tree. The wind was almost strong enough to blow us off the cliff at certain points, and we had a strict time limit of 40 minutes to achieve the sighting and return, but despite all this, the wonder of actually seeing Sycamore Gap after all these years of dreaming about it made everything worthwhile.
Two dreams fulfilled in one day. Perhaps the North is not so grim after all.
We are here to celebrate my parents 30th wedding anniversary, joining them for a long weekend of their week's stay in Northumbria. Travelling up on a Saturday morning from London, and joined on the train at York by Chatts, I looked eagerly out of the window as we sped north, waiting for the hills to rise on either side, moor and craggy wolds and dark forests a tonic to my gradient-starved eyes... but the land remains as resolutely flat as in Surrey. We arrived in Newcastle for lunch, and made our way through the steeply sloping town to the banks of the Tyne for a pub meal, before taking in an exhibition at the BALTIC (George Shaw - excellent). The quayside certainly deserves its
famous reputation, the graceful spans of the Tyne and Millenium Bridges and the futuristic shape of The Sage making for a dynamic skyline. We were sad not to see the Millenium Bridge lit up at night, or 'blinking' - tilting on its axis to allow boats to pass underneath - maybe we'll be luckier next time. We were
surprised by how deserted it was however, especially for a Saturday morning. Maybe there was football on that day?
Up the hill from the Tyne, Newcastle reminded us very much of Glasgow with its elegant Neoclassical buildings and covered shopping arcades. Apparently the city is the birthplace of Greggs bakeries, and I was charmed to see just how many branches there were in the city centre. We strolled Grainger Town, walked across the Tyne Bridge for the impressive view through the iron slats, and then briefly explored the dark atmospheric cathedral and the ruined remains of the castle of Newcastle, before meeting up with my brother and his girlfriend Jas for a drink. Then it was onto Alnwick to meet my parents and head out for a delicious celebratory meal.
Alnwick itself is a charming town, all windy streets and
slate roofs, and dominated by its castle, home of the Duke of Northumberland and filming location of many Hogwarts scenes. The castle was too expensive to consider venturing into, but seeing the gate to the grounds left open after closing hours one night, me and Chatts took a surreptious wander, using our umbrellas to hide us from the watchful eyes of the Duke's CCTV. Close by to the castle is Europe's largest treehouse, the combination of the two surely making Alnwick every child's dream destination. The treehouse hosts a bar that was sadly closed on the night we visited, but we still made sure to have fun bouncing around on all the ropebridges, watched with bemusement by the cleaners. Perhaps the feature of Alnwick that entertained me most however, was the column erected to Hugh Percy, 2nd Duke of Northumberland, in 1816. A Nelson's Column-type ediface, it was paid for and erected by the tenantry in gratitude to the Duke for lowering their rents. Popular local myth however, states that the Duke was so impressed by the wealth amongst the townsfolk that he immediately put the rent back up again.
Alnick is also famous for its huuuge secondhand bookstore,
At Alnwick Castle
housed in the old train station and overflowing with shelves on every subject. All of us voracious devourers of books; we spent a very happy couple of hours there on a rainy morning and came home laden with purchases. That afternoon we went to the nearby small town of Alnmouth for a windswept walk along the beach and coastal path, despite the cold and wet. Chatts, who grew up as far as possible from the sea as it is possible to do in England, insisted on paddling in the icy waves, though even I decided to accept the stain on my honour rather than join her. She is from the Grim North herself though, and therefore is numbed to cold and wet from birth. Or so she says.
Apart from our day trip to Hadrian's Wall on the Tuesday, we also spent a busy morning at Lindisfarne, or Holy Isle. This remote, low lying spit of land is only connected to the mainland for a few hours a day across a narrow causeway and has long been a place of spiritual retreat. The monastry there was first founded around 635 by St Aidan and was a flourishing Christian centre,
producing such spectacular artifacts as the Lindisfarne Gospels, before it was decimated by Viking raids from 793. This eventually led the monks on their famous pilgrimage with the bones of St Cuthbert, attempting to find a safer place for him to rest (he eventually ended up at Durham). Lindisfarne maintained a small priory throughout the middle ages, but it is now an (albeit impressive) ruin which was fascinating to clamber round. Like Hadrian's Wall, visiting Lindisfarne had been a dream of mine for a very long time, having studied the doings of its inhabitants extensively at university, so I was delighted to finally be standing amongst the relics of this bygone age. We were only sorry not to have more time there, for apart from walking through the town and exploring the Priory and accompanying museum, we had to limit ourselves to a quick power walk out to the headland of Lindisfarne Castle, a miniature ediface built high up on a craggy rock and presumably quite terrifying during a storm. However, Lindisfarne tides wait for no man:
For with the flow and ebb, its style
Varies from continent to isle;
Dry shod o'er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day the waves efface
Of staves and sandalled feet the trace.
Sir Walter Scott
Having successfully made it across the causeway before the car was swept away, we pottered further down the coast to
Bamburgh for lunch and a stroll. Bamburgh was once the royal capital of the ancient kingdom of Bernicia, and has boasted an impressive castle since Norman times. Admittedly Northumbria is littered with a plethora of castles, and we had managed to pass by a significant number even in the few days we had been in the region, but Bamburgh has got to be one of the most awe-inspiring. Its huge ediface rears up from an outcrop of basalt right from the beach, where it looms magnificently over the North Sea. Absolutely massive, you can see it from miles away up and down the coast. Sadly, we again didn't have time to go in for a proper explore, but we circumnavigated its base and wandered amongst the dunes and through the town, pledging, like so many other places we had visited that weekend, to come back for more.
Had the southern pansies been won over by the grim, hard, cold, North; endlessly rainy (but endearingly) bleak, covered in the exposed bones of its history? Well, I'll tell you one thing. Rounds at the pub were certainly a lot cheaper than London prices.
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