Have Bag, Will Travel
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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.
“Grimsby was not at all what I had expected…. The town centre was not compact and charming and town like, but grubbily urban with busy roads which were difficult to cross on foot” – Bill Bryson
Since July 2011 I have lived in the east coast town of Grimsby and every so often I get to entertain my grandchildren for a few days at a time. This can be a challenge because to be honest there isn’t a great deal to do in Grimsby. My grandson likes trains so one day last year I planned a three train treat, a main line ride from Grimsby to Cleethorpes, a promenade sightseeing trip and a ride on a narrow gauge steam train.
I like Grimsby but it has to be said that it is an odd place. I am not sure what Bill Bryson was expecting to find, Chichester or Banbury perhaps? Grimsby is a town in decline. On the south bank of the Humber Estuary it is so far east that the only place to go after this is the North Sea and there aren’t any ferries to Europe as there are in Hull on the north side of the river. It is a dead end. It is a place that you only go to by choice. No one visits Grimsby by accident. You cannot stumble upon it while taking a leisurely drive along the coast as say in Northumberland or East Anglia. It can never be an unexpected discovery.
A postcard map of Lincolnshire doesn’t even show Grimsby even though it is the second largest city/town in the county after Lincoln. It doesn’t get any visitors unless they are on business and, believe me they, don’t really want to go there and it doesn’t get any tourists. I mean it doesn’t get any tourists! As a measure of this let me tell you it is completely impossible to buy a post card of Grimsby anywhere in the town. There is nothing in Grimsby that anyone would want a post card of. I challenge anyone to find a reference to Grimsby in any visitor guide to England!
My day out started at the railway station which is an area close to the old Market Square. By all accounts this was once an attractive part of the town with a traditional market place surrounded by Georgian houses and old-fashioned traditional family shops. The sort of place that we remember fondly in a foggy mist of 1950s nostalgia, and then in the 1960s the modernist architects and town planners did their worst and demolished it all to make way for Soviet style concrete construction of modern shops, a hotel, offices, banks and a gloomy underpass and today, except for a good statue that pays tribute to the fishermen of Grimsby, it is a place without heart or soul.
On any average day here you will find unemployed men drinking from about nine o’clock in the morning (unemployment in Grimsby is 50% higher than the national average), teenage girls pushing their babies in push chairs (Grimsby has the third highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the UK) and unemployable young men in hoodies and track suit bottoms or if not track suit bottoms then jeans slung low around the hips to show off a fake designer label band on their underpants.
With nothing really useful to do most of the young people in the Market Place are reduced to making important decisions like which part of the body to have pierced or tattooed. Personally I cannot understand why anyone (unless they are a Maori) would want to disfigure themselves in this way but in Grimsby and all across the UK bodies are decorated with lions, wolves and dragons, goblins, fairies and skulls, a comprehensive A to Z of boys’ and girls’ names and more Indian braves than General George Armstrong Custer had to stand against at the Battle of the Little Big Horn!
Recently I went to have a haircut and waiting in front of me was a woman with a low cut top and tattooed writing all over her voluminous breasts. She was a big woman (Grimsby has an adult obesity rate of over 30%) and although I was too embarrassed to make a close inspection I suspect it might have been the complete works of William Shakespeare with space left over for Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’.
In between the new Market Place, with pointless pavement water fountains, where rag-arsed kids who are playing truant from school dodge the water jets, and the railway station there is a new street layout called ‘shared space’ which is a crazy paved area where neither traffic or pedestrians have any sort of priority. It is the mad idea of an English urban planner called Ben Hamilton-Baillie who proposes that road/pavement planning should be based on what he calls behavioural psychology. Apparently he bases this theory on the basis that he has visited Utrecht in the Netherlands and it works there. The point that he seems to have overlooked is that Utrecht is a pedestrianised traffic free city centre.
This man who is plainly deluded says that… “to make a street safe, you need to make it dangerous. If a driver feels like they have got to really watch out then they will respond accordingly. By deliberately introducing a bit of uncertainty then you get remarkable improvements in terms of safety.”
England it seems has a talent for producing a long line of barmy architects.
It doesn’t come as a great surprise that it doesn’t work of course and despite paying this man a king’s ransom the local council had to eventually climb down, reinstate pedestrian crossings and proper pavements because no one in Grimsby was ready for a space age solution to the traffic problems of the modern town.
After visiting a cash machine at the Halifax Building Society we walked the hundred yards or so to the train station, bought our tickets and went to the platform to catch our train which was due in five minutes time. We were waiting for a Class 158 Desiro Trans Pennine Express but there was nothing express about it this morning because the information board advised us that it was approximately twenty minutes late which shouldn’t have been a great surprise because according to its own website Trans Pennine Express only ever achieves about 85% reliability on providing services at the scheduled time.