… all over the place. It’s not that I think anyone has missed me, it’s just that my WordPress licence is up for renewal and I have not posted since the end of May.
Ten years ago, when I seriously returned to motorised two wheels, for the first time in decades, I never imagined it would come to this. A year that started with a wet ride down to the Triumph factory has continued with many day trips and some longer ‘adventures’ – Orkney and Shetland in June; Newhaven in August and the Outer Hebrides in September. All told, I have accumulated just short of 10,000 miles, the majority on the BMW R1250 GS, the only bike I, and my backside, could contemplate covering 376 miles in one day trip.(Newhaven to Hexham).
All this goes some way to explaining my lack of posts on WordPress – days in the saddle, hours on the golf course and too little time at home with the Good Wife. So, there are no motorcycle pictures in this post, just a selection from this week’s escape to north Northumberland where we are enjoying a lazy seven days together. We should do this more often:
The Gate at Bamburgh Castle.
Illuminated sheep at Bamburgh Castle, celebrating the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the north east.
Beadnell Bay and Newton Links – the estuary is fed by Brunton Burn, Tughall Burn and Long Nanny.
Watery dog walking – Beadnell Bay
The Coastguard look-out hut and Bass Rock, North Berwick.
Monday is washing day – North Berwick
Norham Castle, high above the banks of the Tweed – painted by J. M. W. Turner on many occasions.
Heatherslaw Light Railway – sadly, no steam running today..
And for those who need a motorcycle fix, this is the video of my Orkney and Shetland adventure – you will need patience to see it through to the end:
Inspired by a tweet from Dan Jackson, earlier this week, I headed south into County Durham on the Scrambler: County Durham was among the saddest of the ‘sad shires’ of WW1 (with the Durham Light Infantry alone losing 13,000 men killed), but the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Hunstanworth in the North Pennines was lucky, and is the county’s only ‘thankful village’.
According to Wiki: The church, dedicated to St James the Less, was built in 1781 on a medieval site. The village was designed and built around the original parish church. The Reverend Daniel Capper commissioned architect Samuel Sanders Teulon to create the village in 1862-3; as well as rebuilding the church, Teulon delivered a vicarage and stable block, school and school-house and a mix of terraced, semi-detached and detached houses, all constructed of sandstone.
The church is also home to a hand-blown organ by Gray & Davison which was on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
… the way I intend to continue – on a bike on January 1st. Plenty of rain meant there was no salt on the roads and the temperatures well above 10ºC – almost perfect riding conditions, but for the mucky surfaces. I am fortunate to live among country roads, not best for a sports bike, but ideal for the Scrambler. A couple of miles north and I am on the Military Road, which runs from Heddon in the east to Greenhead in the west. For much of its length, it runs parallel to Hadrian’s Wall and north of the old Stanegate Roman road. There are any number of diversions, south or north, which take you away from this almost arrow-straight tarmac, built by Field Marshal Wade in 1746 to enable easy movement of the troops and equipment necessary to supress the Jacobite uprising. It is a wild, exposed, glorious landscape.
The arrow-straight Military Road near High Teppermoor.
The road less traveled – between Hound Hill and Melkridge Common.
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.
I am reading Neil Peart’sGhost Rider, travels on the healing road. Within a short period from August 1997, he lost his daughter to a car accident and, ten months later, his common-law wife of twenty-three years, Jackie Taylor, who succumbed to cancer. Over a period of fourteen months, he rode 55,000 miles in search of a reason to live. Peart was an admirer of Hemingway and thanks to Ken Burns’ documentary, recently aired on the BBC, I pick up on the references.
Immediately before this, I was reading Lois Pryce’s Red Tape and White Knuckles, a solo motorcycle trip through Africa and before that, her Revolutionary Road, a solo ride through Iran. When I returned from Yorkshire last week, there was a surprise package on the doorstep – two books about a pair of dreamers, hell bent on taking part in the Isle of Man TT. The gift, from Simon at Ducati Preston, was prompted by a discussion about motorbikes and literature and my enthusiasm for Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke – Reflections on Motorcycles and Books. Centred on a road trip from Edmonton to Austin, Ted rides a Ducati Monster
It is not difficult to detect a recurring theme/obsession here. It is mid-July 2021 and already I have covered 6000+ miles – not in Peart’s or Pryce’s league but surely indicative of an unhealthy mania. Many of the miles were accumulated on a glorious one week trip to the north of Scotland. The rest of the time I can be found, alone or in the company of a few like-minded souls, anywhere across the length of Northumberland, the Scottish Borders, County Durham and North Yorkshire. This week I was back at Port Carlisle – I keep going back – the road, any road, is an addiction. To quote Lois – Being on a bike throws you out there into the thick of it, whether you want it or not, and makes you more vulnerable as a result. But with that vulnerability comes an intensity; a concentrated high, a sweet nerve-jangling, heart thumping, sugar-rush sensation of the kind that only comes from real down ‘n’ dirty, life-affirming motorcycling.
There is something other-worldly about this stretch of the southern Solway coast. There are traces of conflict, two separate abandoned railways, a demolished mile long bridge across the Firth and the ruins of a sizeable trans-shipment port. All of this has gone – there are scattered communities but, even in these days of staycations, the roads and shoreline remain quiet, ghostly. It is this that keeps drawing me back – like Ted, I was riding a Monster:
To quote that well-used adage, you don’t stop riding when you get old, you get old when you stop riding. I imagine myself riding into my eighties – isn’t it pretty to think so.
… pronounced Anster or maybe Enster, if the man in the golf clubhouse is to be believed. But then, this sounds different again. Regardless, the brief golf trip into Fife was a great success and just one in a series of adventures that has kept me from WordPress since April. A week in Swanage was followed by a 1200 mile motorcycle journey to Scotland and the North Coast 500. A golfing trip was long overdue.
Anstruther Golf Course would have appeared in the sequel to Golf in the Wild but Covid delayed the trip and its inclusion beyond my deadlines. A shame in many respects as it proved to be everything I had hoped for – a fine course with some challenging holes, not least, the three consecutive par 3s at the southern end of the course. The first of these, the fifth – The Rockies, was deemed the toughest par 3 in Britain in 2007 by Today’s Golfer. It would be hard to disagree.
Beyond the golf course, the town was vibrant with much going on regardless of any social distancing obligations. These are a selection of images from a brief one night stay – they paint a better picture than words:
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.
Sunday, April 17th 2016, we travelled from South Uist to Eriskay across the causeway, opened by the Earl and Countess of Wessex on the 11th September 2002. This one mile crossing is the last in a series linking the islands of Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay. A sixty mile string of roads and bridges which has added much to the convenience of local life but taken some of the romance from travelling these Outer Hebridean islands. We briefly toured the island by car, stopped at the Barra Ferry, took a quick look at Am Politician and were gone, heading south by ferry to Skye.
The ferry to Barra from Eriskay (in my pre-RAW days, the X100S quality now seems a little disappointing)
In 1934, Werner Kissling arrived by sea and stayed on Eriskay for the summer. A career diplomat for the Weimar Republic, his postings took him to Spain, Hungary, Switzerland and finally, the UK as Second Secretary in the German embassy, London. Alarmed at the rise of the Nazi movement, he resigned when they came to power in 1933. Personally harangued by Hitler, he borrowed the yacht, Elspeth, and headed north to escape the attentions of the German secret police.
This great escape undoubtedly suited him immensely. For reasons not entirely clear, he had, from an early age, developed a passion for the Scottish Islands and its people. During his time on Eriskay, he filmed the islanders as they went about their daily lives – collecting peat with their ponies, sheep farming, fishing and tweed making. The resulting film, A Poem of Remote Lives, is an astonishing record of a Gaelic community and a way of life that had not changed in hundreds of years:
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.