The weather has been bleak. Our James, Louise and Little Evie arrived Monday and within 12 hours we had all gone down with a stomach bug – on the plus side, they got to stay another day. James is the our youngest boy of three and the the first produce a grandchild. For various reasons, it seems unlikely that the others will follow suit. So, on this branch of the family tree, it seems likely the Down name will die out. My dad would have been disappointed – no longer a name to go down in history.
It is a surname people struggle with – when speaking it, particularly on the phone, I have a habit of saying “Down, D, O, W, N” – it’s short enough and helps reduce the number of misheard interpretations – they are many. Even people we have known for years will add an ‘e’ or an ‘s’ or both – Downe, Downs, Downes are the common variations. Oddly, the Good Wife, who inherited the name, gets more irritated by this than me.
Enough rambling – I trust everyone is having and will continue to have a great Christmas. Like I said, the weather has been bleak and this is reflected in the external images from the past seven days:
Sunday 19th December – The fog on the Tyne moved up the side of the valley.
Monday 20th December – Someone is looking sheepish
Tuesday 21st December – Little Evie and her two front teeth venture north
Wednesday 22nd December – More thoughtful than sheepish
Thursday 23rd December – More or less recovered from the stomach bug
Friday 24th December – the CCM Spitfire Blackout – another recent addition to the garage.
Saturday 25th December – A Christmas day walk to Beaufront Hill Head.
… week gone by. After a dull and dreary weekend, the sun finally appeared late Sunday and from then on, the week mostly took a turn for the better. Monday was cold, particularly across the moors, but fine enough to get the Scrambler out. Tuesday felt a little like Christmas as I drove to Allendale Brewery to collect a hamper and crates of beer. Bright skies and frost appeared on most mornings such that the camera has spent a lot of time pointing at the sky. Thursday was even good enough to take the GS north, across filthy roads to Otterburn and then on single tracks to Sundaysight, Greenhaugh and Bellingham. Nothing is quite as good as being alone on two wheels in wild, empty places.
Sunday 12th December – the sun finally made an appearance, late in the afternoon
Monday 13th December – On the Scrambler to Stanhope and Wolsingham. Still some snow on high ground and colder than expected, but grand to be out again. No low winter sun, which is good thing on the bike.
Tuesday 14th December – To the brewery at Allendale to collect Christmas presents. So much better than depending on a courier who might, or might not, deliver to the right address.
Wednesday 15th December – Sheep migrating north in a golden, morning light.
Thursday 16th December – traffic jam near Sundaysight.
On the same day, on high ground between Greenhaugh and Bellingham, looking towards Sundaysight. The GS is filthy thanks to the lorries emerging from Divethill Quarry on the B6342.
Friday 17th December – Egger from Oakwood, on a cold December morning.
Saturday 18th December – a hard frost on a bright December morning. Flying high on the left is Turkish Airlines, Boeing 787-9 from Istanbul to San Francisco.
On the same day – a different treatment of the same scene.
In the manner of Garrison Keillor, it has been a quiet week at Beaufront Woodhead. Snow fell heavily last Saturday night such that Sunday dawned bright and very white. Most had melted by Sunday night. Monday remained bright but cold and then the dismal weather set in for three days. Astonishingly on Friday, my first round of golf since November 11th was played up the coast, at Warkworth, under clear blue skies. Normal service was resumed on Saturday. Yes, the English are obsessed by weather.
This is the collection of images posted daily on Blipfoto:
Sunday 5th December – A bright Sunday morning – the first snow of winter
Monday 6th December – Sunburst over Hexham on Monday evening
Tuesday 7th December – A dismal day outside I started playing around with Adobe Photoshop Camera. You see al this before you press the shutter on the smartphone.
Wednesday 8th December – On another thoroughly miserable day, our near neighbours in their very damp woolly jumpers.
Thursday 9th December – Out for Christmas lunch with friends, this is another smartphone + Photoshop Camera image using a reflections preset.
Friday 10th December – The Miracle that was the trip to Warkworth Golf Club. The view from the edge of the 5th fairway.
Saturday 11th December – normal service is resumed – a very bleak day.
In other news, I finished another proof read of Golf in the Wild – Going Home – the third in as many weeks. It’s a slow process but worth the effort – I am still hopeful for publication before the end of January.
I don’t post on WordPress like I used to. One of the main reasons is the distraction of daily posts on Blipfoto combined with a constant desire to be out on two wheels or playing golf. The latter two become much less time consuming over the winter months, but still I don’t post as often as I might. The sequel to Golf in the Wild also occupies much time as does being honorary treasurer of Allendale Golf Club and continuing to maintain about a half dozen WordPress based websites. And therein lies the rub.
All of the other sites are hosted on an ISP with locally supported and maintained versions of WordPress with access to the classic editor whereas, on wordpress.com, I am obliged to use the thoroughly awful block editor. The irony is that I am now paying for this service since I exceeded the free storage quota. I really should use it more and to that end, I will try repeating what appears on Blipfoto plus maybe a few extra images. Possibly, I will grow to like this editor, but I doubt it.
The approach road is black shale and pot-holed – you instantly know this is not a prettified National Trust or English Heritage property. Parked at the end of the long drive is a green Austin bus dating from the 1950s – in dark green with gold lettering, it proudly displays the castle emblem. Inevitably it is a bat. Count Orlok would feel at home here but the castle is more Gormenghast than Transylvania. It is haunted by a variety of not entirely benign characters.
This is Border Reiver country, just fifteen miles south of Scotland, lands which have been fought over for hundreds of years. It is a classic Border stronghold which has been occupied for nearly a millennium. The castle was abandoned in the 1930s and Sir Humphry Wakefield has spent over forty years returning it to its former glories. The castle was the ancestral seat of the Gray family, the Earls of the Tankervilles; Sir Humphry is related by marriage.
The Castle guide is not the glossy over-priced brochure so beloved of the National Trust, but forty-two pages of closely printed text, over-flowing with the history of the Castle and stories about it’s occupants and their possessions, written by Sir Humphry. I have never been good at absorbing facts and figures but some things stand out because I can make a connection, usually automotive – not something to be expected from Chillingham. In the Plaque Room Library there is a portrait of Lord Wakefield of Hythe – Lord Mayor of London in his day, his armorial chairs are in the Great Hall and his medals in the showcase below him. He gave a solid gold coin, marked “Well Hit” to any gunner who shot down a German Zeppelin Balloon as they threatened to destroy London. Wakefield gave famous awards for speed trials, aviation and for the war effort as well as inventing Castrol Oil. He sponsored Campbell’s Bluebird land speed record clocking more than 300mph way back in the 1930s. I take delight in knowing that one of Sir Humphry’s predecessors was directly responsible for creating one of the best smells known to man – Castrol R.
A studied tour could take days – there are nineteen separate rooms open to the public, every one of them overflowing with possessions, accumulated from well-lived lives. Nothing is tied down and security is lax because you are watched over by the Spanish Witch in the Still Room – she casts her spell and curses those who steal from the Castle. Wandering the dimly lit corridors and spiral staircases, it feels like a film set. Not surprisingly it has been used for various minor TV series and the 1998 British biographical period drama, Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I of England, with Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Fiennes. Some of the props remain – the chimney pieces in the Great Hall are made of that well known medieval material, fibreglass. Tap them and they ring hollow – they cover vast Baroque white marble carvings from the huge Wanstead House, a mighty palace built for the Child banking family by the French King, Louis Philippe. I do not think they are suited to the early look of the castle, but future owners may think differently. The chimney pieces from the film first appear in the video at 2 minutes, 35 seconds.
It is the perfect location for any number of horror films and it is perhaps surprising that Hammer Films never thought to call. The torture chamber contains all the necessary props – the iron rack, thumb screws, a wood-block scaffold, an iron maiden, the scold’s bridle, an impaler’s spike; the list goes on and on. It is fitting to end with more words from Sir Humphry – it is difficult to imagine a National Trust or English Heritage guide containing such observations: There are many ways to hurt. All of them so carefully considered by clever men today and yesterday, and constructed by skilled and educated craftsmen. Guantanamo Bay Prison, in Cuba, illustrates those skills currently in action and presents arguments for and against torture used to this day, maybe for the safety of mankind. Does the occasional saving of mass slaughter justify pain to a few with just some of them innocent? The respected Bayer Aspirin Company supplied gasses for the German Concentration Camps but now saves pain for us all. Civilised minds take such different views on all these things.
There are three ways to Throckrington – along rough tracks and a three-gated road, circumnavigating Colt Cleugh Reservoir; through Little Swinburne and Short Knowes, more rough tracks and, I am told, five gates; or, the single-track road (with no gates), signposted ‘Throckrington 1 Mile’ off the B6342, Colwell to Little Bavington road. I have walked the first and ridden the last. So many ways of reaching nowhere.
The settlement comprises nothing more than a sizeable farm and St Aidan’s church which once towered over a village, elevated on a spur of the Great Whin Sill. In 1847 a returning sailor brought cholera, the residents were wiped out and the houses destroyed. If anyone travels to Throckrington today, it is for the church and its graveyard. There is the farm but, nothing else.
The sloping graveyard has headstones etched with the names of the Border Reiver families – the Armstrongs, the Milburns, the Robsons and the Shaftoes, the latter celebrated by a too obvious granite obelisk. It is an odd ambition, to have the grandest memorial in the graveyard and perhaps galling that it is not the Reiver families that attract visitors.
Among the old bones, there are some surprising more recent incomers of note. At the north west of the graveyard lie the remains of Lord and Lady Beveridge beneath two unpretentious, arched headstones. William Henry Beveridge, 1st Baron Beveridge, KCB (5 March 1879 – 16 March 1963) was a British economist and Liberal politician whose 1942 report, Social Insurance and Allied Services (known as the Beveridge Report) provided the basis for the NHS and UK welfare state established by the 1945 Labour government.
A yet more modest memorial, a simple stone carved with the initials CRL marks where Constance Ruth Leathart is laid to rest. Connie flew Spitfires in World War II and was one of the first women with a pilot’s licence. According to Wiki she was born into a wealthy family on Tyneside and started flying lessons in 1925 at Newcastle Aero Club. She wrote her name as “C. R. Leathart” on the application form and was accepted before the club realised her gender. When she received her flying licence in 1927, Leathart became the first British female pilot outside London, and one of the first 20 overall.
She started an aircraft repair business, Cramlington Aircraft, with Walter Runciman, later Viscount Runciman, participated successfully in air races with him, and was one of a group of flying socialites. She was one of the first women to fly over the Alps, in a de Havilland Tiger Moth and was the first in Great Britain to design and fly a glider. When World War II broke out, she was working in the map department at Bristol Airport and volunteered as one of the first members of the Air Transport Auxiliary, female pilots who delivered aircraft from the manufacturers. After the war ended, she became a United Nations special representative to the Greek island of Icaria and received an award of merit from the International Union for Child Welfare. She reluctantly gave up flying in 1958 and retired to a farm in Little Bavington, Northumberland, where she cared for rescued donkeys.
The stone that marks Connie’s grave is the step taken from her unheated swimming pool which she used regardless of the weather. A simple memorial to a remarkable life.
Finally, there is Tom Sharpe, the satirical novelist best known for Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue. Except he is not there – some of his ashes, along with a bottle of whisky, a Cuban cigar and a pen, were buried without permission and were later exhumed by the Vicar of St Aidan’s. Maud’s gardener would have been up in arms.
… down forestry roads, deep into Wark Forest. I am no off-road hero but, some loose gravel I can cope with at sensible speeds. The attraction is that it takes you places you would never otherwise go and mostly, you are completely alone. This route starts at Whygate, a place already far from anywhere, at which point narrow tarmac with passing places turns to unmade forestry roads. Three miles in a sign advises that the already rough track is unsuitable for motorised vehicles. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is designed to deter through traffic – apart from a ford, Google Earth seems to show a cycle route which at worst has grass growing down the middle. I was suitably deterred but intend going back to attack it from the southern end. With echoes of the Northwest Passage I have a burning ambition to break through from Once Brewed on the Military Road to complete a fabulous circular route.
As it was, I turned back and headed over Shitlington Common (I kid you not) to Bellingham, down the North Tyne Valley to Wark and then along the eastern side of the Tyne to Barrasford, Chollerton and home.
It was wonderful to be out and I make no pretence about it being an ‘essential journey’ other than for the sake of my sanity.
New Year’s Day was dull and grey. The next we awoke to a world changed. Overnight snow is the joy of winter. By some standards, it was a modest covering but sufficient to raise me from my lockdown position in front of several PC screens. If we must have winter, if I am unable to ride a motorcycle, if I cannot swing a golf club, then let’s at least have it pretty.
It is around this time of year I get itchy feet and plot escapes north, always by rail – Inverness, Wick, Kyle of Lochalsh and Bodø/Lofoten have been my destinations over successive years, although only the latter yielded the white stuff. This year, inevitably, I am going nowhere – locked up, locked down, call it what you will, I am told we are in Tier 4. News channels can speculate, offer opinions, call in experts, exhort, criticise and alarm – just don’t assume I am listening. I am out of reach and much the happier:
Crossing the Birkey Burn
Between Beaufront and Acomb
Hexham and Egger from Salmons Well Farm
Egger from north of Oakwood
The sheep get up and make their many tracks And bear a load of snow upon their backs John Clare – Sheep in Winter
The Victorian postbox at Sandhoe
Today I walked down the street I use to wander Yeah, shook my head and made myself a bet There was all these things that I don’t think I remember Hey, how lucky can one man get.
The field next to our home is filled with sheep. The red dye on their backsides confirms they have been seen to by the tup (ram) – he has been a busy boy. It is disappointing that, around the time the fruits of his endeavours begin to show, the flock is moved to the lower nursery slopes.
The ram has been rushed off his feet.
After a while you begin to notice how your neighbours behave. On really cold, still nights, they gather beneath the trees to avoid the ground frost. Generally timid, they will disperse as we leave the front door but, rattle a plastic bag that might contain ewe nuts and they will come running. Lie down for any length of time and a significant number will limp away, appearing to suffer from dead legs.
I share their pain – a golf induced knee injury, rotten weather, salty slippery roads and various tiers of lockdown have all served to constrain the usual activities – travel, golf and motorcycles. Nevertheless, there is always much to see, just look to the skies:
The sun going down in late November
… And sunrise
Christmas is coming – 23rd December
Post Christmas steely blue skies – 29th December
And then modest snow arrived on Christmas Eve and hung around for the next day – a White Christmas for Hexham:
Towards Fawcett Hill
So, to sign off for 2020, I wish my modest band of followers, all the best for a much-improved 2021. Before I go, some 2020 milestones:
a. In late 2020 I approached maximum disc space on wordpress.com after eight years – I am now subscribed with an annual fee which at least demonstrates commitment and should ensure my readers are not subjected to peculiar adverts;
b. Despite lockdowns, I still managed to clock 7165 miles on the motorbikes – several hundred more than in lockdown free 2019;
c. We still managed to get away – to Saughtree in the Borders, twice to Mallaig and once to north Northumberland. A return to the latter was abandoned due to the second lockdown;
d. The text for the Golf in the Wild sequel is now complete and due for publication in September. Possibly the only golf success in a year when playing was much curtailed.
Finally, as parting shots, a couple of images of the ‘Bad Company‘ I kept on some of the most memorable days in 2020:
An information plaque on one of the viaduct columns provides a brief overview of its history: In 1969, after being in use for 100 years, this railway viaduct was preserved for the public by the Northumberland and Newcastle Society through the generosity of many donors. The viaduct was constructed in 1862 to carry the North Tyne Railway and is a notable example of Victorian engineering. It is a rare and the finest surviving example of the skew arch form of construction. This required that each stone in the arches should be individually shaped in accordance with the method evolved by Peter Nicholson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a pioneer geometrician in this field.
The viaduct is decorated with crenelated ramparts and arrow slits to appease the Duke of Northumberland. The line passed in front of his hunting lodge at Kielder Castle and he insisted that its design should be consistent with the castle’s Gothic style.
Later known as the Border Counties Railway (BCR), it ran from Riccarton just over the Scottish Border all the way down the North Tyne Valley to Hexham. Opening in stages between 1858 and 1862, commercial traffic was limited from the outset and the thinly populated Borders meant that passenger numbers were always small. The line closed to passengers in 1956 and the tracks lifted in 1963.
From the banks of the North Tyne
The view from atop the viaduct
Keep walking south for just under a mile, following the route of the abandoned line and you are confronted with open water. This is where the BCR is submerged beneath Kielder Water, not reappearing until Falstone, some six miles south and beyond Kielder Dam. Much else lies beneath – Plashetts Colliery, the station, parts of the old village, various farms and HMS Standard. Sadly, a prolonged drought will not reveal ghost villages as the buildings were destroyed before the valley was flooded. Nor will the superstructure of some long lost battleship emerge – HMS Standard was a shore based assessment and rehabilitation centre for naval personnel diagnosed with personality disorders. Whatever inspired the reservoir’s civil engineers, it wasn’t the lost city of Atlantis.
The end of the line
Beneath the viaduct there is a neat little device called a blackbox-av. Wind the handle to provide a charge and you can listen to the Viaduct Voices – short stories told by locals about the railway, the wildlife and a time before the coming of the reservoir. The voices are appropriately faint and distant – much like Hendersen’s Bridge on Raasay.