Have Bag, Will Travel
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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.
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.