Travel North!


Alan Ross

According to Google Analytics, readers of Orange and Magenta can be found all over the world. Many are discovered in the United States of America, and a fair few in the United Kingdom, but wherever you call home, if this article prompts you to unearth a map of England from the cupboard or bookshelf, all well and good.

Top right at start of first paragraphBeing an ex-Londoner, I know that the majority of tourists to Britain head straight there, to England’s capital city, in order to enjoy the history, culture, and entertainment. At a price. Other popular destinations are Edinburgh, for those keen to investigate Scottish roots (perhaps there is a family tartan in existence?), and there is a well-worn path to pay homage to Shakespeare, ensuring that the coach parks of  Stratford-upon-Avon are filled for most of the year.

Having spent the best part of thirty-five years off and on in the North of England, I’d encourage more adventurous folk to find and follow the A1 north from London as it snakes its way up the eastern side of the Pennines to the Scottish border. For our purposes, we’ll start just south of Berwick-on-Tweed, where the inhabitants spent most of the Middle Ages embattled and thoroughly confused as to whether they were in Scotland or England (the latter since the fifteenth century).

Here we’re in Northumbria’s spectacular countryside, which can be unremittingly bleak in winter. Hardly surprising then that many locals keep their spirits up and their circulation going with a flagon or two of mead, an alcoholic honeyed concoction first brewed by the resident monks of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island. This mecca for birdwatchers is reached via a causeway of sand and mudflats, over which pilgrims have walked to visit Lindisfarne Priory since its inception in 634 A.D. by Irish monk St. Aiden. Nowadays, most pilgrimages are to the winery shop via car. (Despite the plethora of warning signs, at least one vehicle a month is stranded when the fast flowing North Sea submerges the road.)

The beautifully illustrated manuscript of the Lindisfarne Gospels, created by monks in the early 700s, is the subject of controversy even now. Local campaigners want this priceless document returned to the North East from its current home in London’s British Museum; although it has recently been on loan to the Palace Green Library in Durham, academics seem intent on keeping it in London. Durham may be the nearest it gets to Lindisfarne for the foreseeable future.

Moving south, we reach the small town of Alnwick (pronounced “Ann-Ick”), which is regularly included in the top ten places to live in the UK. As well as the attractive market square and a charming castle, Alnwick now has a worldwide claim to fame.

left side after cliche abusedThe town’s railway station closed in the 1960s and was eventually converted into a huge local bookshop—Barter Books. In 2001 the owners were investigating the contents of a box of books they had bought at auction and discovered a World War II poster, which they framed and displayed in the shop. Customers were soon asking for copies, and the poster quickly moved from being a forgotten piece of propaganda to an iconic comment on the stress of modern life and finally to an overused cliché, abused by every company with a marketing department devoid of an original idea. Yes, it was “Keep Calm and Carry On!”

This section of England was the northernmost extent of the Roman Empire, protected from the onslaught of Barbarians and Scots by a seventy-three-mile long wall built during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian and bearing his name. Started in 122 A.D., it was finished six years later. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it hasn’t always received such official care as it does today. The fact that any of it remains is largely due to the efforts of the Newcastle town clerk, John Clayton, who was so alarmed by the increasing use of it for road building that he bought up sections to stop it disappearing altogether. Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall is a particularly fine example of how the Romans housed their troops.

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North East England is divided by three main rivers that flow into the North Sea, subdividing the area into Tyneside, Wearside, and Teesside. Thought of as a single entity by outsiders, the three areas have longstanding divisions and rivalries, exemplified these days by the local football teams.

The River Tyne is bounded on the north by Newcastle and on the south by Gateshead. Locals are known as “Geordies.”

The main conurbation at the mouth of the River Wear is Sunderland. Locals are known as “Mackems.”

The southernmost major river is the River Tees. Because of the prevalence of the chemical industry (Middlesbrough, the main town in Teesside, has the largest chemical plant in Europe), Teessiders are nicknamed “Smoggies.”

On a sunny day there are few more pleasant river views anywhere than looking at Newcastle’s river frontage from across the Tyne at Gateshead Quays or vice versa.

Worth noting: in the process of moving on from its coal mining, shipbuilding, and ship repairing past, Newcastle is reinventing itself as a university and media centre, boasting (if that is the right word) some of the most vibrant nightlife anywhere in Britain. It also excels in the arts with the glorious Theatre Royal and a host of  galleries, including the eclectic Biscuit Factory, which prefers to call itself an “art store” and is actually housed in an ex-biscuit factory.

Architecturally, Grey Street has been voted Britain’s finest street, and the bridges across the Tyne are many and include the new Millennium Bridge, which turns on its side to let ships through and is illuminated in a rainbow of colors at night. It is known locally as “the blinking eye” because it looks like one and operates using the power of one lightbulb!

Gateshead cannot boast such wonderful architecture as Newcastle. In the depths of the 1930s depression, J. B. Priestley described it as having been designed by “an enemy of the human race,” but a forward-thinking local authority has now brought some style to the south bank of the Tyne. An old flour mill, the Baltic, has been redeveloped as a cutting-edge modern arts exhibition space and along with it, Norman Foster has designed one of the world’s most unusual music performance venues, the Sage. This looks like nothing so much as a huge slug taking a rest by the river. Inside, however, it has two halls with state-of-the-art acoustics and plays host to all kinds of music events—truly memorable for both content and location.

Old industrial sites provide the setting for two more attractions in the Gateshead area.

The MetroCentre was the European Union’s biggest shopping mall when it opened in 1986, and is still the biggest in the UK. A visit is a day out by itself; it contains over  340 shops. Further south, you’ll pass under the huge wingspan of the Angel of the North, a quite stunning statue designed by Antony Gormley perched on a hilltop on the site of a former mine pit bath. It is made of steel girders to reflect the industrial heritage of the area and the steel used comes from down the road on Teesside, from Hartlepool Steel Fabrications. The funding for this project largely came from Britain’s National Lottery.

The mention of the area’s industrial heritage brings us nicely to Beamish, near Stanley, which describes itself as “The Living Museum of the North.” A visit will transport you back in time to a Victorian and Edwardian town centre, with bank, public house, co-operative store, dentist, solicitor, bakers, garage, and park complete with bandstand. You can travel by trolley bus and tram to a working farm and a reconstructed 1800s pit village with a school and a fish and chip shop! It’s a marvelous day out, staffed by knowledgeable volunteers in period costume, and the very reasonable price of admission allows you to revisit as many times as you like in a year.

We’re now in County Durham, birthplace of  rail transport. At Shildon there’s Locomotion, the national railway museum on the site where the world’s first steam-hauled passenger train departed on its historic journey in 1825. Here are over seventy heritage rail vehicles on display in a state-of-the-art museum, which opened in 2004. Other railway ephemera are on show at Darlington, which also boasts a remarkably realistic brick sculpture of a steam train on the A66 as part of Morton Park, a local shopping centre.

angleterre Part 2 153For lovers of fine buildings and art treasures, the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle is a must. It has something of a sad history, because the creators of this impressive French-style building with its internationally renowned art treasures never lived to see their project realized. John Bowes and his wife, Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevalier, Countess of Montalbo, both died before it opened in 1892. Undoubtedly, the most unusual item in the museum is an eighteenth-century mechanical silver swan that regularly preens itself and appears to catch and swallow a fish.

County Durham takes its name from the cathedral city of Durham, with its cobbled streets, castle, and university—all of which earn it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is best viewed by ditching the car and using the “Park and Ride” facilities. The university was established by act of Parliament in 1832, though a seat of learning was in place centuries before during Oliver Cromwell’s interregnum. Based in the castle, it is regarded as one of Britain’s foremost universities, a worthy alternative to Oxford and Cambridge. The cathedral was established in its present form in 1093, and is a superb example of Norman architecture. Area students ensure that the many timbered public houses in the city centre do a roaring trade, and, along with clubs and restaurants, give Durham a more youthful image than its history might lead you to suppose.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Hartlepool, on the North Sea coast possesses a maritime history rightly celebrated at its eponymous museum. Be sure to visit H.M.S. Trimcomalee, the oldest British battleship still afloat, which was built in Bombay in 1817, and prepare for a bad back if you are over five feet tall and venture below decks.

Gaze out at the boats in the brand-new marina, and  ask, “Is that really a monkey hanging from a gibbet on one of them?”

Well, yes . . .

Hartlepool residents are described by others in the area as “Monkey Hangers,” and this nickname dates back to the Napoleonic Wars when a French vessel was shipwrecked just down the coast. The only survivor was a monkey, dressed in clothes, that had been a shipboard pet. Locals, never having seen a French sailor, decided it must be a very small Frenchman, attributed its jabbering to the French language, put it on trial for treason, found it guilty, and hung it from the ship’s masts.

Needless to say, doubts have been expressed about the tale, some saying that the deed actually took place in a Scottish fishing village, but whether true or not, speaks volumes about our general opinion (and ignorance) about our closest neighbors. And, in a peculiarly British twist, the monkey gets to have the last laugh. The town’s football club mascot is H’Angus the Monkey. Stuart Drummond, who wore the costume for many years each matchday, has been elected twice as Hartlepool’s mayor!

Space precludes more than a cursory mention of Stockton-on-Tees, one end of the famous Darlington to Stockton railway, and possessor of the widest High Street in the UK. The attractive Infinity Bridge and impressive Tees Barrage project with its whitewater rafting facilities have done much to revitalize this former steel working town. Middlesbrough, the most populous town in Teesside, is proudest of having given birth to the explorer James Cook, whose voyages of discovery are celebrated in Marton, his home village. (Rumor has it that Middlesbrough was going to be named Middlesborough when it was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1852, but the name was misspelt by a local official.)

Our journey around the North East finishes by heading south along the North Sea coast, with the beautiful North York Moors as a backdrop.

Saltburn-by-the-Sea developed during Victorian times with the railway line from Middlesbrough, which allowed day trips from the industrial towns to the coast. This charming seaside spot, atop impressive cliffs, has an equally impressive funicular cliff lift, powered by water tanks, to take you to the beach and the renovated pier. It is a destination for surfers and families alike—beautifully preserved and tastefully developed.

Down the coast, a steep road leads to quaint Staithes with a harbor fronted by pubs, restaurants, art galleries, and tiny cottages. Once a genuine fishing village, it now is a haven for artists and has many thriving bed and breakfast businesses. Enjoy your visit but leave some energy for the walk back up to the main road car park.

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Gourmets should make a prearranged stop in what looks like the middle of nowhere, by visiting the farming hamlet of Goldsborough. Jason and Sue Davies have made the Fox and Hounds a renowned eatery, having converted this small ex-pub into a foodies’ favorite restaurant. They occasionally do Sunday lunches but the Ivy-trained chef and his partner now concentrate on a dinner menu from Wednesday to Saturday. It’s undoubtedly one of the best restaurants in the North East, though the Food Social at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle runs it close.

We end this tour in a town famous for several reasons, not least the semi-precious stones found in the cliffs along its shores and made into elaborate shiny black jewelry known as Whitby Jet. It’s the compressed remnants of ancient monkey puzzle trees, and was particularly popular with the Victorians after Queen Victoria favored it during her extended mourning of Prince Albert. The ruins of Whitby Abbey dominate the skyline of this popular resort, a whalebone arch commemorates the port’s links with the whaling industry, and people flock to Whitby for its fish and chips; the Magpie Café has been hailed by chef Rick Stein as the “best fish and chippy in Britain.”

Parts of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula are set in Whitby; the Irish novelist researched for names in the local library. Because of this, fans of gothic horror have adopted Whitby as a destination, and a “Goth Weekend,” in April and November each year, sees thousands of dark-clothed Goths attend music and arts events in and around the town. It is calculated that this produces over £1 million annually for the local economy.

Monks, Quakers, Roman centurions, miners, explorers, inventors, steelworkers, artists, craftsmen, Goths, and many others have played their part in making this area of the UK well worth visiting. You’d be hard pressed to find a more diverse part of the country—just don’t confuse a Smoggie with a Geordie, please. And instead of staying only in London on your next visit to the UK, be sure to travel north!

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Issue Twenty Two