Category Archives: Childhood

Northumberland, Seaton Delaval and George Washington

Seaton Dalaval Hall Northumberland

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.

Seaton Delaval Great Hall

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!”

Seaton Delaval Staircase

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.

Washington Old Hall Tyne and Wear

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.

Minnesota does however have a statue of Leif Ericson.

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?

Washington Old Hall Eagle

 

Northumberland, St Mary’s Lighthouse

“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.

Poppies St Mary's Lighthouse Whitley BayCormorantat St Marys Lighthouse Whitley BayPost Delivery St Mary's Lighthouse NorthumberlandSt Mary's Lighthouse Whitley Bay 2

 

County Durham and Northumberland

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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.

Northumberland Postcard Map

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.

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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.

Tynemouth Priory

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.

Collingwood Monument

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!

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An Alternative Independence Day

I love my blogging pals in the USA but every 4th July there is a emotional patriotic outpouring about American Independence that is like a lava flow of double sticky Maple Syrup.  What is there to be that proud about?  Three hundred years or so later the USA has Donald Trump as President!

In England we have to National Day, no Independence Day, in fact we tend to celebrate a day when we were invaded and lost our Independence.

1066 is probably the most memorable date in English history.

On October 14th (now officially Hastings Day) that year Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England and most of his army with him were cut down at the Battle of Hastings, and William, Duke of Normandy earned his nickname “William the Conqueror”. William, who was using Hastings as his base, then claimed the crown and changed the way England was governed forever.

Unlike the Scots who sing national anthems (unofficial) about fighting the English and the Welsh can’t get over the military campaigns and begrudge the castles of Edward I (even though they generate lots of tourist revenue) it is a curious fact that the English actually celebrate and embrace the 1066 Battle of Hastings. I suppose this says a lot about the nature of the English because instead of sulking behind a defensive nationalist barrier and bristling with rage and resentment we have actually hijacked the event and reorganised our subsequent history around it.

After the successful invasion William the Normans set about imposing their military domination and completely reforming the previous Anglo Saxon administrative and political  regime and they were so successful that modern English history really starts from that date.  The subjugation and the transformation was so completely successful because the English (except Hereward the Wake of course) recognised the benefits of this, allowed it to happen and simply got on with their lives.  They didn’t sit in caves watching spiders or retreat to Anglesey to brood and get angry about it.

Today the French irreverently refer to the English as Anglo-Saxons (in the same way that we refer to them as Frogs) but their description is entirely incorrect because for a thousand years we have been Norman-English whereas the French do eat frogs!

In 1966, I was twelve years old and England went into a frenzy as the 900th anniversary was celebrated and it was such a success that Hastings Borough Council decided to mark the date every year as Hastings Day.

On the build up to the event there were commemorative stamps and gold coins, tea towels, pencil sets and mugs and everyone got in on the act: “Battle of Hastings 1066—Bottle of Guinness 1966” frothed a thousand billboards. ‘Whoosh! It’s another big breakaway conquest,’ proclaimed the makers of Bri-Nylon clothing in advertisements showing mounted Bri-Nyloned models setting out against the Saxons and another alternative version of the battle showed the Norman warriors armed with Desoutter Power Tools.  Heinz offered a chance to enter an archery contest in which the first 1,066 winners would be rewarded with Kenwood Chef food mixers.  Every English town that could claim the remotest connection with either Harold or William beckoned tourists with such  attractions as Conquest puppet shows, town-crier contests and battle re-enactments by grown men who still liked dressing up and playing soldiers.

  

Naturally, in the forefront of all this  was Hastings, which, as its local newspaper proudly pointed out, ‘is better known internationally than almost any other town.’  To give the anniversary its deserved importance and promote tourism, the Hastings Town Council spent a small fortune building a triple-domed exhibition hall called the Triodome.  The principal exhibit was intended to be the great Bayeux Tapestry but the tapestry is the property of the town of Bayeux in Normandy, which, fearing damage to the precious artefact, refused to lend it for the occasion, and so, rather than sulk,  like the Greeks and the Elgin Marbles, Hastings produced its own.

The Hastings Embroidery was made by the Royal School of Needlework in 1965. It took twenty-two embroiderers ten months to finish and it was intended to be a modern day equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry.  It consists of twenty-seven panels, each nine by three foot, and shows eighty-one great events in British history during the nine-hundred years from 1066 to 1966.

The Embroidery is worked in appliqué by hand, with the addition of couched threads and cords in the same way as the Bayeux Tapestry.  It incorporates tweed from Scotland, fabrics from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and feathers from London Zoo.  When completed it went on public display in Hastings, firstly in the Town Hall and then at the White Rock Pavilion.  The Embroidery is currently in storage, and, despite local campaigns to have it brought out of the bottom drawer, apart from two panels on permanent display in the Town Hall, it is not on public display.  The reason given is that to preserve the cloth and appliqué that special storage displays would have to made and the cost would be prohibitive.  I can’t help thinking there may be another reason – perhaps it isn’t that good?

I began this article by trying to rise above patriotic smugness but I cannot finish without reminding the French that, in a delicious twist of fate, less than three months before the 900 year celebrations of a French victory over the Anglo Saxons, England beat France in the World Cup group stages by two goals to nil.  France finished bottom in the group, England finished top and went on to win the Jules Rimet trophy!

The Annual Family Holiday

When I was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s family holidays came once a year and were rotated tri-annually between a caravan in Norfolk, a caravan in Cornwall and a caravan in Wales.  I’m not being ungrateful because these holidays were great fun and in those days it was all that my parents could afford.

In the 1950s about twenty-five million people went on holiday in England every year as life started to return to normal after the war.  Most people went by train but we were lucky because granddad had a car, an Austin 10 four-door saloon, shiny black with bug eye lights, a heavy starting handle, pop out orange indicators and an interior that had the delicious smell of worn out leather upholstery and this meant that we could travel in comfort and style.

Although there were not nearly so many cars on the road in the 1950s this didn’t mean that getting to the seaside was any easier.  There were no motorways or bypasses and a journey from Leicester to the north Norfolk coast involved driving through every town and bottleneck on the way which meant sitting around in traffic jams for hours and worrying about the engine overheating or the clutch burning out.

1960-traffic-jam

Just getting to the coast could take the whole day and usually involved stopping off along the route at some point for a rest and a picnic.  Granddad would find a quiet road to turn off into and then when there was a convenient grass verge or farm gate he would pull up and the adults would spread a blanket on the ground and we would all sit down and eat sandwiches and battenburg cake and they would drink stewed tea from a thermos flask and I would have a bottle of orange juice.

One of the favourite places to go on holiday at that time was Mundesley which is about ten miles south of Cromer where there were good sandy beaches and lots of caravans.  I last stayed in a caravan in about 1970 and I have vowed never ever to do it again.  I just do not understand caravanning at all or why people subject themselves to the misery of a holiday in a tin box with no running water, chemical toilets and fold away beds, there was no fun in it whatsoever.

In 2000 the National Statistics Office estimated that British families took 4,240,000 towed caravan holidays a year year; how sad is that?  To be fair I suppose it was good fun when I was a five-year-old child but I certainly wouldn’t choose to do it now when I am ten times older.  Caravans simply had no temperature control, they were hot and stuffy if the sun shone (so that wasn’t too much of a problem, obviously) and they were cold and miserable when it rained, which I seem to remember was most of the time.

Bad weather didn’t stop us going to the beach however and even if it was blowing a howling gale or there was some drizzle in the air we would be off to enjoy the sea.  If the weather was really bad we would put up a windbreak and huddle together inside it to try and keep warm.  Most of the time it was necessary to keep a woolly jumper on and in extreme cases a hat as well and Wellington boots were quite normal.  As soon as the temperature reached about five degrees centigrade or just slightly below we would be stripped off and sent for a dip in the wickedly cold North Sea in a sort of endurance test that I believe is even considered too tough to be included as part of Royal Marine Commando basic training.

After the paddle in the sea we would cover ourselves up in a towel and making sure we didn’t reveal our private parts struggled to remove the sopping wet bathing costume and get back to our more sensible woolly jumpers.  Then we would have a picnic consisting of cheese and sand sandwiches and more stewed tea from a thermos flask.

If the sun did ever come out we used to get really badly burnt because when I was a boy sunscreen was for softies and we would regularly compete to see how much damage we could do to our bodies by turning them a vivid scarlet and then waiting for the moment that we would start to shed the damaged skin off.  After a day or two completely unprotected on the beach it was a challenge to see just how big a patch of barbequed epidermis could be removed from the shoulders in one piece and the competition between us children was to remove a complete layer of skin in one massive peel, a bit like stripping wallpaper, which would leave you looking like the victim of a nuclear accident.

Family Holiday

We didn’t always go to Norfolk and we didn’t always stay in caravans.  If we went on holiday with mum’s parents who lived in London we would get a train to Herne Bay or Margate in north Kent and stay at a holiday camp in a chalet which was just about one step up from a caravan.

Beach holidays in the fifties and sixties were gloriously simple.  The whole family would spend hours playing beach cricket on the hard sand, investigating rock pools and collecting crabs and small fish in little nets and keeping them for the day in little gaily coloured metal buckets before returning them to the sea at the end of the day.

There were proper metal spades as well with wooden handles that were much better for digging holes and making sand castles than the plastic substitutes that replaced them a few years later.  Inflatable beach balls and rubber rings, plastic windmills on sticks and kites that were no more than a piece of cloth (later plastic), two sticks and a length of string that took abnormal amounts of patience to get into the air and then the aeronautical skills of the Wright brothers to keep them up there for any decent length of time.

I remember beach shops before they were replaced by amusement arcades with loads of cheap junk and beach games, cricket sets, lilos, buckets and spades, rubber balls and saucy seaside postcards.  I can remember dad and his friend Stan looking through them and laughing and as I got older and more aware trying to appear disinterested but sneaking a look for myself when I thought no one was watching.  I knew they were rude but I didn’t really know why.

For a treat there was fish and chips a couple of nights a week but this was in the days before McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken so most of the catering and the eating was done in the caravan or the chalet or if we were really unlucky in the dining room of the holiday camp.

Later, after dad learned to drive, we used to go to Cornwall and Devon and North Wales, to the Nalgo holiday camp at Croyde Bay and the Hoseasons holiday village at Borth, near Aberystwyth.  The last time I went on the family holiday like that was in 1971 to Llandudno and by my own confession I was a complete pain in the arse to everybody and I don’t remember being invited ever again.

In 1975 I went to Sorrento in Italy with dad for my first overseas holiday and nothing has ever persuaded me to go back to British holidays in preference to travelling in Europe.  Since then I have spent my summer holidays on Mediterranean beaches where the sun is guaranteed and the beer, rather than the weather is always cold.

East Anglia, Rebellion, Revolution, Sedition and Defence

Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” – John Adams (Second President of the United States)

After four nights it was time to leave our luxury caravan holiday home and return to Grimsby so after we had cleaned up and made sure everything was spick-and-span I took a last look around to make sure we had left it in good order before locking the door and moving on.

I had really enjoyed it here in Great Yarmouth and I was already looking forward to my next cheap caravan holiday in Whitley Bay in Northumbria the following month.

We had a full day ahead of us now so whilst in East Anglia we planned a day which took in both eastern counties of Suffolk and Norfolk.

My pal wanted to drive into Yarmouth but I didn’t agree that this was such a great idea through the morning rush hour traffic so after visit to McDonalds for breakfast buns we abandoned that part of the plan and drove directly west which was generally against the flow of traffic making its tedious way into the bottle-neck town.

Framlington Castle Suffolk

We drove now to the Suffolk town of Framlington which is a small, rather unremarkable place except for the fact that it has an impressive medieval castle with imposing walls and towers which was once the home of the Dukes of Norfolk who were forever scheming and stirring up rebellious trouble in Tudor England.

It is a good castle, not the best, it reminded me of Richmond in Yorkshire, there are no internal buildings left, all long since demolished but there is an impressive stone wall and 360° walk around the top of the castle walls and defences from which there are fine views of the town and the surrounding countryside.

After stopping briefly for a drink in a nearby pub where my pal almost caused a riot by asking the local drinkers what made them different from Norfolk people we moved on directly back to Norfolk and the town of Thetford which is only just across the border in the neighbouring county.

Framlington Casle Door Suffolk

Thetford also has a castle but we weren’t looking for that today, instead we were interested in the two most famous things about the town – The revolutionary philosopher Thomas Paine and the television comedy programme, Dad’s Army which was filmed around these parts.

Captain Mainwang Thetford Norfolk

We looked first for the riverside statue of Captain Mainwaring, the officer in command of Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard and found it which will mean nothing to readers from outside the UK but which is one of the most successful sit-com programmes from the BBC in the last fifty years. I had a row with my pal here because he seems to be incapable of taking a straight photograph, always excusing himself with the explanation that what he is doing is art. Every picture on a slant as though I was standing on the side of a hill.

We found the hotel where the cast of the TV series used to stay when filming and then the ‘Dad’s Army’ museum which was sadly closed today but only make me promise myself that I would plan a return visit to this very fine town.

Bell Hotel Thetford Norfolk Dad's Army

As we wandered around the attractive town centre we came eventually to the statue of Thomas Paine, the most famous son of Thetford and arguably of Norfolk and all of East Anglia, perhaps even of all of England.

Paine was a radical revolutionary, a sort of proto-Marxist, a latter day Leveller, a real trouble maker, an all round (excuse the pun) pain in the ass to the establishment of late eighteenth century England and he didn’t come from London or Bristol, not even Ipswich or Norwich but from sleepy little Thetford.

He published a pamphlet called Agrarian Justice exploring the origins of property, openly challenged the concept of monarchy, introduced the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, supported the abolition of slavery and questioned the very concept of Christianity, as a consequence of which only six people attended his funeral.

How wonderful it is that history often delivers theses delicious little curve-balls and reminds me that I am privileged to live in the greatest country in the modern World.

Paine supported both the American Revolution (one of the Founding Fathers no less) and the French Revolution and his most important work was The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by the law.  In 1792 he was elected to the French National Convention.  The Girondists regarded him as an ally, the Montagnards, especially Robespierre, as an enemy and eventually he was arrested but escaped the guillotine and was allowed to travel to the USA

The Declaration is included in the beginning of the constitutions of both the Fourth French Republic (1946) and Fifth (1958) and is still current. Inspired by the  philosophers of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire and Rousseau, the Declaration was a core statement of the values of the French Revolution and had a major impact on the development of freedom and democracy in Europe and Worldwide.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is considered so significant that it is considered to be as important as Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the United States Bill of Rights and inspired in large part the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That I suggest is a fairly important legacy and it is rather smug to sit here and think that an Englishmen shaped the American Revolution and the Constitution of the USA except of course we now have Donald Trump and poor Thomas Paine in his grave somewhere in the state of New York is probably on a permanent Hotpoint spin-cycle

Thomas Paine Thetford Norfolk00

East Anglia – Norfolk and Suffolk