Have Bag, Will Travel
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When I woke I was encouraged to see strong sunlight leaking underneath and around the sides of the curtains and I turned over and slept a while longer confident in the certainty of a good day. When we finally got up however there was some cloud and by the time we had finished breakfast and set out for the day it was overcast and threatening to rain. We should have got up earlier!
On the advice of the nice lady at the car hire office we planned to drive thirty kilometres or so inland to the city of Guimarães which is ranked second in the country’s most livable cities survey published annually by the Portuguese newspaper Expresso. As might be expected Lisbon is rated first and Porto is third.
We joined a deserted motorway and with the weather less than promising I drove at an appropriate Sunday morning pace because there wasn’t any need to rush. I encouraged everyone to have ‘blue-sky thoughts’ and it must have worked because by the time we arrived and parked the car (free on Sundays) there was a brighter sky and little hints of sunshine.
As the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães is known as the place where the country was born – ‘The Cradle City’. In 1095 Count Henry of Burgundy, who had married princess Teresa of León, established in Guimarães the second County of Portugal and on July 25th 1109 Afonso Henriques, son of Count Henry of Burgundy, was born here and it was where Duke Afonso Henriques proclaimed Portuguese independence from the Kingdom of León, after the Battle of São Mamede in 1128, declaring himself to be Afonso I, King of Portugal.
Today Guimarães is a busy and important University city with an industrial base of textiles and metallurgy. It was quite relaxed this morning with groups of men chatting on street corners and waiting for the wives to leave the churches scattered in little clusters along the streets. The city is clean and smart and since Portugal and Slovenia and were selected to host a city as the European Capital of Culture in 2012 Guimarães was chosen by Portugal to represent the country. Slovenia chose the city of Maribor.
We walked through tidy streets and open green spaces without high expectation of Guimarães but we found a street map that indicated a castle, a palace and a UNESCO World Heritage site in the old centre and so we walked to the top of the city and into the grounds of the twelfth century castle where there were some musicians playing tradional songs inside the delightful leafy gardens. In 1881 the castle was declared the most important historical monument in this part of Portugal and in the 1900s a lot of work has gone into its restoration. We went inside and were struck by the fact that they hadn’t spent a lot of the renovation budget on basic health and safety.
The Castle is a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations. In the middle of the castle was a keep where there was a stiff climb to the very top which was slightly perilous and hard work but the reward for tackling it were some excellent views of the countryside and the city including the football stadium where Rio Ave had narrowly beaten their neighbours only two days before.
After the castle we visited the Palace and without explanation there was free admission today but where an officious attendant still insisted on issuing tickets and someone else insisted on checking them. Inside the Palace of the Condes de Castro Guimarães there was a small museum containing family portraits and other paintings, as well as furniture, china, silver and gold objects and local prehistoric finds. At just half an hour to walk round it was the perfect size for a museum and without crowds of other visitors to slow us down we wandered from room to room practically by ourselves.
The sun couldn’t quite manage to make a full appearance but there were bits of blue sky here and there and the weather was pleasant and warm enough to sit outside in the garden terrace of a trendy little restaurant selling fair trade products and local handicrafts and we had a drink in a charming shady garden surrounded by herbaceous plants, herbs and fruit trees and with the relaxing sound of a water fountain close to our table.
From the castle we followed the cobbled Rua de Santa Maria, that didn’t look as though it had changed a great deal since the Middle Ages, down into the heart of the old town, where there are superbly restored historic buildings including a former sixteenth century Baroque convent of Santa Maria, now serving as the City council offices.
At the end of the street were two delightful squares with outdoor cafés and balconied houses, Praça de Santiago and Largo da Oliveira. At Largo da Oliveira is the old Town Hall and the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, with a Gothic shrine erected in 1340 standing in front of it. There are many legends about its origins, but a popular story says it marks the spot where Wamba, elected king of the Visigoths, refused his title and drove a pole into the ground swearing that he would not reign until it blossomed, and it then sprouted immediately. We walked right the way through the streets of the old town and then reluctantly left Guimarães and returned to the car.
We were leaving the caravan this morning and I wasn’t especially sad about that. It was nice enough but disappointing compared to the luxury accommodation that we had enjoyed a couple of months previously in Norfolk; the constant sickly smell of calor gas reminded me of childhood caravan holidays and was giving me headaches, although Kim accusingly suggested that it might alternatively have been the Stella Artois!
We started the day by making a third attempt to visit nearby Seaton Delaval Hall which had been inconveniently closed for the last two days. We arrived at ten o’clock but it didn’t open until eleven (Kim said that I should have checked the web site and I couldn’t argue with that but I blamed the Calor gas/Stella Artois headache) so we walked around the gardens and then sat in the pleasant sunshine in the garden until the ticket office opened.
We didn’t need tickets because now we were members of the National Trust so we flashed our temporary paperwork and walked straight through without stopping even to look in the ridiculously overpriced gift shop.
I liked this place immediately. I could imagine living there. Sadly the main block is almost derelict, destroyed by a massive fire in 1822 but even though it is soot blackened and blaze scorched (it reminded me of one of my garden BBQ attempts) it remains a magnificently impressive building.
What a tragedy that a place has magnificent as this should be destroyed in a single night and after two hundred years or so still be left as a great ruin.
It was designed and built by Sir John Vanbrugh who had been previously responsible for Castle Howard in Yorkshire and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and although this one is much smaller in scale historians and architects today consider it to be his finest work.
The Delavals were rich landowners and early industrialists who made their money from coal, salt and glass and by all accounts they worked hard and partied hard and weekends here of parties and shagging went together like dog’s tails and wagging! Everyone in society looked forward to an invitation popping through their letterbox!
Of all the places that we had visited this weekend this was my favourite, I could have stayed and poked about in the corners and the recesses for a whole day. The west wing (not destroyed by the fire) was lived in until relatively recently by a member of the modern day aristocracy but upon his death the owner had a huge bill for inheritance tax and unable to afford it sold the place to the National Trust.
Taxes! We pay taxes all of our lives to the Government and then when we die we pay them all over again. Bloody outrageous if you ask me, reminds me of a film I once saw with a great line – “There is nothing more certain in life than death and taxes – unless you are Greek!”
As we walked around the West Wing my eye was drawn to a painting which described the subject as Baron Astley of Hillmorton in Warwickshire and why that poked my interest is because I lived and grew up in Hillmorton in Warwickshire. None of the guides could give me any information on that point and that was not especially surprising because as it turns out the Baronetcy of Hillmorton was/is just a convenience title and the man who enjoyed it actually lived in Norfolk.
There is however a street in Hillmorton called ‘Astley Place’.
After visiting the Hall we walked around the grounds and the formal gardens, which didn’t take especially long and then we left Seaton Delaval and Northumbria and headed for the Tyne Tunnel and the journey back home.
Before driving into Yorkshire we stopped briefly at Washington Old Hall, another National Trust property and the ancestral home (allegedly) of George Washington of American Independence and First president of the USA fame.
It has to be said that the link is quite tenuous because George’s ancestors left Washington Old Hall almost a hundred years before he was born and he himself apparently confessed had little interest in genealogy or his English heritage.
I have said before that I always like to see how far a place name has travelled and not unsurprisingly there are a lot of Washingtons in the USA and thirty States have a place named after the town in Tyne and Wear or, more likely of course, the first President of the USA. These are the nineteen that don’t – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming.
We spent a very pleasant hour or so at Washington Old Hall and as we finished with a cup of tea and a slice of cake in the café I did some final reckoning up and was happy to find that we had fully recovered the cost of National Trust membership and we had a full year ahead of us to make a tidy profit.
I wonder where my next caravan holiday will take me?
The scenery was wonderful, sweeping and serene as we left the fringes of the Northumberland National Park and the Cheviot Hills and headed east back towards the coast.
Out of curiosity, I checked later just how far north we were and I was surprised to find that although we were still in England we were further north than the Scottish border at the Solway Firth in the west. In fact the Scottish border there somewhere north of Carlisle is almost seventy-five miles south of the border in the east at Berwick-upon-Tweed, the most northerly town in England (the most southerly town in Scotland is Gretna).
That is why despite being in England, Berwick Rangers play in the Scottish Football League and Carlisle United play in the English Football League. If Berwick Rangers played in England (and assuming they were in the same division) than a match for the team at England’s southernmost and westernmost league team, Plymouth Argyle, would result in a round-trip of almost one thousand miles.
By contrast Gretna FC (2008) play in the Scottish Lowland League and not in England.
As it turned out we were even further North than Scotland in our caravan park at Whitley Bay, just outside of Newcastle.
We were also some way north of Hadrian’s famous wall and although a lot of people think that the Roman Emperor’s Wall marks the border between England and Scotland it never has and never will because it runs a conveniently short distance between Wallsend near the River Tyne in Newcastle and the Solway Firth in Cumbria. When it came down to military expediency the Romans didn’t concern themselves too much about geography.
So we carried on now to Dunstanburgh Castle stopping briefly on the way at the pleasant but unremarkable little town of Alnwick where it was market day and which by all accounts has a very fine castle but is not National Trust and with our membership cards burning a hole in our pockets we drove straight by and on to the village of Dunstan, determined to get our money’s worth from the membership fee that we had forked out earlier.
As we drove some previous life memories came back to me and I remembered how in the 1990s I worked for an incompetent waste management company called Cory Environmental (I wrote some stories about them some time back) who had purchased some seriously unprofitable contracts in the North-East at Wansbeck and Castle Morpeth Councils and I chuckled to myself now as we drove through these two council districts and the towns of Morpeth and Blyth where the company had their depots and recalled just how disastrous the privatisation of public services had been at that time and continues to be even today.
Eventually we arrived at the coast at the fishing village of Craster with a sheltered harbour, with the tide out fishing boats resting up on the mud banks and lobster pots stacked on the quay ready to be taken out to sea later.
Do lobsters like bright colours I wondered?
From Craster there was a long walk to Dunstanburgh Castle, almost two miles as it turned out, but the weather was exceptionally fine and we made our way north along the coastal walk. A grassy stroll across a windswept headland and on the way we passed through flocks of sheep and herds of cows and as we stopped now and then to look out to sea over the salt stained black rocks decorated with vivid green seaweed and water polished barnacles I imagined the intrepid Vikings bearing down from the North Sea and sweeping westward across the land.
Dunstunburgh turned out to be a very fine Medieval Castle, ruined of course, collapsed into the sea in some parts and pillaged over the centuries for building stone for nearby Craster but I liked it, it has a nobleness and a sense of the ‘Wars of the Roses’. I forgot about the Vikings now and imagined a Baron’s army laying siege to the castle or a great Lord of the realm leading his men out to defend against Scottish invaders from the North or possibly from the South depending upon which direction they came from.
So we climbed the towers and the battlements and walked through the courtyards which are no longer there and then we took the two mile walk back to the car park and began our journey back to Whitley Bay and the caravan park. Still determined to get full value from our recent National trust membership we stopped en-route at the stately home at Wallington.
I was pleased that we hadn’t driven too far out of our way because although it made for a convenient stop and there was a fine house and extensive grounds to explore it wasn’t especially thrilling but at least we were closing in now on break-even on the cost of our National Trust annual membership.
It was Father’s Day and everywhere was rather busy but we didn’t expect to see long untidy line of people queuing up outside a pastry shop in the small town of Seaton Delaval. We were intrigued by that and although we didn’t have the patience to investigate right now we made a note to return possibly the next day.
(We did that and it turned out to be an Italian bakery with the most delicious vanilla ice cream made from a secret recipe from Tuscany, which apparently draws people in from miles around).
Rather unimaginatively we ended the day at St Mary’s Lighthouse where we just sat with the local people who regularly turn up here at high tide and watch and see if any unsuspecting tourists get cut off and have to either swim for it or spend the night on the island.
“To me a lighthouse was meant to be lived in. It was part of working life. And ships passing, day or night, knew there was somebody there, looking at them.” – Dermot Cronin, the last Lighthouse keeper in United Kingdom
Since 1998 all of the UK Lighthouses are fully automated.
After breakfast we left the caravan and headed north and stopped first just a mile or so up the road at the coastal village and sheltered fishing port of Seaton Sluice.
Not an especially attractive name I agree but it turned out to be a delightful place with a working port full of fishing boats, wonderful rugged coastal scenery and a curious gaily painted blue shed. A timber treasure house full of riches washed up from the sea and fashioned into wood carvings, trinkets and what you might generously describe as exclusive souvenirs by the hippie owner/artist with grizzled beard and wild hair. He might easily have been washed up from the sea himself. I thought immediately of Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea’ and Norman Lewis’ ‘Voices of the Old Sea’.
He invited us inside and told us that everything on display was for sale. It was impressive stuff, we admired the workmanship but there was nothing that we could imagine would add anything to the decoration of our home (except to collect dust) or our garden (we have no room for a Viking Long ship) so we just left a small contribution in the optimistic collection plate at the door and moved on.
Actually Kim thinks one driftwood sculpture in the house is enough. This is one of my own from some time back…
We were driving now to Cragside, a sort of stately home that was built by and belonged to the Victorian engineer William George Armstrong who was enthusiastic about all things hydraulics, hydro power and early electricity.
Cragside is a National Trust property and I am not generally a great fan of the National Trust with their extortionate entrance fees and overpriced gift shops and this was no exception with a charge of £18.50 each. We quickly calculated that if we joined for a year at £108 joint membership that if we then visited a handful more places before we went home that we would soon have covered the cost of extended membership and we signed up on the spot.
Cragside has nice gardens and extensive walks but I was more interested in the house, a real stately pile where a member of the Victorian aristocracy used to live and where there are exhibitions about his life and work.
Armstrong was responsible for developing something called the hydraulic accumulator. Let me explain – where water pressure was not available on site for the use of hydraulic cranes he built high water towers instead to provide a supply of water at pressure.
This is the technical bit which is important – a cast-iron cylinder fitted with a plunger supporting a very heavy weight would slowly be raised, drawing in water, until the downward force of the weight was sufficient to force the water below it into pipes at great pressure.
Simple, don’t you agree?
The hydraulic accumulator was a very significant invention, which found many applications in the following years not least in the mechanism of Tower Bridge in London which is interesting enough but surpassed for me by the fact that the technique was also used in the Dock Tower in Grimsby built in 1852 to provide hydraulic power to operate the giant lock gates of the dock.
Excuse me now for taking a detour two hundred miles south back to where I had started this holiday journey. Grimsby Docks are a rather sad and forlorn place now, abandoned and decrepit, as though everyone left the place one afternoon and abandoned it to a time warp of crumbling buildings, pot holed roads, streets of empty houses, redundant warehouses and a giant ice making factory which is now a listed building that no one cares for as it is slowly being demolished by the passing of time. A process that speeds up month by month!
Lincolnshire is a flat county, a great deal of it struggles to rise even above sea level and this means that any tall building can be seen for miles around. In the south there is the Boston Stump (St Botolph’s Church, the largest Parish Church in England) in the centre there is Lincoln Cathedral (third largest Cathedral in England) and in Grimsby there is the Dock Tower.
It was designed by a man called James William Wild who had visited Siena in Italy and as unlikely as this seems had so admired the place that he based his design for the Grimsby Dock Tower on the Torre del Mangia tower on the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena city centre.
This piece of Italianate architecture on the Humber Estuary may not compare to Portmeirion in North Wales by Sir Clough William-Ellis but is nevertheless a very fine building. At three hundred and thirty feet it is the highest building in Lincolnshire, fifty feet higher than either the Boston Stump or Lincoln Cathedral. If it were in Bristol or Newcastle or Manchester then it would be a major tourist attraction but it is in Grimsby and hardly any one visits Grimsby so not many people have seen it.
Or have they? Let me take you now another two hundred miles or so south to the County of Berkshire and to Legoland Windsor. Legoland is a theme park and one of the attractions is a zone called ‘Miniland’ which is basically a model of London built out of a million or so Lego bricks and here there is Buckingham Palace, The Palace of Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral and a whole host of other famous landmarks.
There isn’t much room for anywhere else but right there alongside the buildings of the capital is a model representing docks – not Portsmouth or Dover or Southampton or Bristol but Grimsby. Grimsby! To me that is completely astounding and I can find no explanation as to why the designers of ‘Miniland’ should select the remote town of Grimsby to be represented in this way, maybe they got lost on their way over from Sweden or they spotted it out of the aircraft window?
There are about two hundred visitors to Grimsby every year (I exaggerate), there isn’t even a dedicated Tourist Information Office, there is no tourist train, there are no postcards to buy in the newsagents, but there are over two million visitors to Legoland so a lot more people have visited Grimsby than they ever realise.
If, like me, you find this hard to believe then here it is…
The Dock Tower (1), Grimsby Port Offices (2), Corporation Bridge (3) and Victoria Flour Mills (4).
Back swiftly now to Northumberland and after leaving the house we tackled the six mile estate walk through the grounds but this proved to be a mistake with little of any real interest to see unless you like rhododendrons that are two weeks past their best or have packed a picnic, which we hadn’t, so after about four miles we took a short cut back to the car park and left Cragside and headed east towards the coast.
I have always hated caravans. I remember how horrible they were when I was a boy and we used to have family holidays in a tin box without any modern facilities but now, after a few modern caravan holidays I have become a real enthusiast, a zealot even, rather like someone who has gone through a rapid religious conversion and has become a serious pain in the arse and this time, after banging on about it I persuaded Kim to join me to a holiday park in Whitley Bay in Northumberland.
It was my birthday and we began the weekend by driving north late on a Thursday afternoon and staying at a Premier Inn Hotel in Bishop Auckland. Premier Inn Hotels are my favourite and at £30 for a room for a night, that, in my book awarded them another couple of gold stars.
After a night out at a pub/restaurant we woke early the next day and drove straight to the town centre for a Wetherspoon breakfast.
The pub is called the Stanley Jefferson to commemorate the fact that Stanley Jefferson once lived in Bishop Auckland and attended the Grammar School there. Stanley Who I hear you ask? Well, Stanley Jefferson is better known to everyone as Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame. There is a statue of him nearby on the site of a theatre that was once owned by his parents, long since gone of course.
I remember Laurel and Hardy from Saturday Morning Pictures at the Granada Cinema in Rugby where I lived as a boy. They were my favourites then and they remain my favourites now. Surely there has never been a finer comedy double act in entertainment history? In the UK there are a seriously talentless pair of chumps called Ant and Dec who for some reason known only to the morons that vote for them, regularly win comedy duo awards but take my word for it these are dwarfs in the land of comedy giants like Stan and Ollie!
After a brisk walk around the town centre we left Bishop Auckland and County Durham and made our way north to Tyneside.
It was rather overcast when we emerged from the northern exit of the Tyne Tunnel and paid our £1.70 toll and disappointed by this we made our way to the small town/village of Tynemouth.
At Kim’s insistence (to avoid car parking charges) we left the car in a residential area and I worried about being clamped and then walked along the promenade to the ruins of a Priory on a craggy and windswept headland where by all accounts the queens of Edward I (Eleanor of Castile) and Edward II (Isabella (the She Wolf) of France) stayed in the while their husbands were away campaigning in Scotland. King Edward III considered it to be one of the strongest fortresses in the Northern Marches but not much of it remains today following its abandonment during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII.
It remains in an imposing location however set on a headland separating two magnificent sandy beaches. To the north, King Edward’s Bay and to the south Longsands, an expanse of fine sand which in 2013 was voted one of the best beaches in the country by users of the world’s largest travel site TripAdvisor.
They voted the beach the UK’s fourth favourite beaten only by Rhossili Bay in Wales, Woolacombe Beach in North Devon and Porthminster Beach at St Ives, Cornwall. The beach was also voted the twelfth best in Europe. I am not sure if all the people who voted have ever been to Europe however!
Beyond the Priory and commanding the attention of all shipping on the Tyne is the giant memorial to Lord Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson’s second-in-command at Trafalgar, who completed the victory after Nelson was killed on board HMS Victory. Collingwood is largely forgotten in the wake of Nelson’s tsunami of hero worship but his column in Tynemouth stands equally as tall and as proud as that of his boss in Trafalgar Square.
Travelling north the next village is Cullercoats where a crescent of caramel sand shaped like a Saracen’s sword was once a fishing village and a hundred years ago home to several impressionist artists but is now a rather run down day trippers magnet for people from the city.
Everywhere I go seems to have a story to tell. The most interesting fact about the place is its association with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) because following disasters in the mid nineteenth century and loss of life at Cullercoats the Duke of Northumberland financed a competition for a standard design of a lifeboat. The winner was a larger self-righting boat that had a narrow beam and was much longer with higher end-boxes containing the air-cases tested to self-right when capsized.
The sea was calm today and we sat on the sand outside the lifeboat station but no one was called into action in the hour or so that we spent there.
Further along the coast was Whitley Bay which has a fine beach and a funfair and entertainment centre called Spanish City which featured in the Dire Straits song Tunnel of Love but which is closed now and undergoing extensive renovation. We stopped for a while at St Mary’s Island, just long enough to kill some time until our caravan was ready for us at four o’clock, where there is a redundant lighthouse and rock pools where children fish for crabs with small nets just as I used to fifty years ago give or take a year or so.
We checked in and I have to confess that I was a little disappointed. I had been spoiled a couple of months previously in an especially fine caravan in Great Yarmouth but where that was a gold star van this was only bronze but I am told by my travelling pal Dai that caravan allocation on these sites is always a bit of a lottery!