Sunday, 3 February 2008

A visit up North last Autumn

Wednesday, 26 - Saturday, 29 September 2007

Last autumn I was on a tiny trip oop t'North to retrieve my Dearest Muvver, the Dowager Duchess von Neustadt, from her annual long holiday in the frozen wastes of Northumberland.

Only at that time of year does the ice retreat far enough for us to send in the first, elite squadrons of Jäger to clear the larger concentrations of wolves and permit the repossession of our beloved Bastle Nordgrenze, and certain of its estates and buildings, for the few brief months the watery Arctic sun will allow...

What? Oh yes, sorry. Right.

Mum had been on holiday, as she is most years, for several weeks in the non-large village of Embleton in Northumberland. I greatly admire and envy this personal tradition of hers. We have family connections there going way back; my uncle still owns a cottage there, as he has done since the 1960s. I knew that cottage even before then, when its owner was Auntie Norah, a distant cousin. My grandmother holidayed there, owned property there and indeed lived there for a while during the war and some time afterwards. My great grandfather and his brother are buried there. Mum's pretty much lost count of how many houses round there she's lived in or stayed in and can always surprise me with one I didn't know about. I cannot remember seeing Embleton for the first time: it's always been quite central in my life. It's almost as if it's the place where I should have been born: that's what it feels like to me. It is in my blood. I should perhaps write more about this place some other time.

Anyway, ramblings apart, there I am in Embleton - or, rather, about to be - picking up Mum. The usual deal is that either my brother or I will drive her up there at the start of her holiday, and the other will collect her at the end. It is, obviously, a chance to catch a couple of days there: some minimum stay is certainly required as it's almost a thousand miles for the round trip, and if other factors permit then it's great to do a couple of touristy things and revisit some old haunts. This time I had a couple of days so I drove up on Wednesday night and stayed till Saturday morning when we left for Chichester.

Leaving London was the usual horrible flap. I'd arranged to come home early but was delayed, so my plan of being well en route by five was thwarted, though I was, at least, on the move (just) by then.

Traumatized by recent M1 experiences I decided to stick to the A1. I'd forgotten how much of it is not (yet) motorway so there were tedious, busy, roundaboutoid bits to get through. Eventually it gave up being so annoying and became Easy Driving Road, which is more like it, thank you. Somewhere or other I stopped for a coffee and a break: very necessary but very uninspired, a somewhat depressing place whose name I wish I'd noted in order to avoid it another time.

I got the usual massive uplift from seeing the Angel of the North. I love the Angel. As you may have noticed from this blog I am perhaps not a deeply deeply religious person: but indeed, to be fair, we don't really know whether he/she/it/they are or is a deeply religious angel either. What I do know is that when I catch that first glimpse it's as if someone has gently opened a valve in my skull releasing about 40psi of excess pressure, then poured in some kind of honeyed herbal infusion of pleasure, joy and peace. I know the Angel's just a big metal thing, but hey. The effect doesn't need to be anything much more than associations, the fact that it's telling me I'm very nearly in Northumberland, that I was born a few miles east of here and so on: who cares, if it works anyway.

Just before I get too carried away with this I should perhaps add that the rhapsody ends, and you come down to earth with a bump pretty darned fast, if the Western Bypass is a horrible traffic-jammed mess. This is all too often the case and when it is, it's quite hard to keep any delighted feelings going too long.

On this occasion, however, I was through there quite late at night and it was wonderfully quiet and I just kind of wooshed through and was headed out towards Morpeth in no time flat. Bliss.

It's odd the way the A1 has over the years flickered across the Newcastle area like a faulty connection. When I was younger it went through the city centre, then for a while it did the same but used a few chunks of motorway (can you say "T. Dan Smith"?) Then they built the Tyne Tunnel and suddenly that, miles east, was the A1. Finally (for the moment) there came the Western Bypass and the A1 flickered again and became that.

The trouble is, that can't last either. It gets horrendously jammed up, is too narrow, and is doing too many different jobs. So a second Tyne Tunnel is to be built and when it is (2011) I suppose that it will be the A1 once more...

Anyway, so there I am chugging steadily northwards. Amusingly enough I am also falling off the map, because I forgot that my GPS isn't loaded with all the data for that far north. So now we're on the built-in "base map" which is, well, basic: for example the only road it shows up here is the A1. This is not conducive to fine navigation, but fortunately I do know where Embleton is. Owners of TomToms do not suffer from this 'forgotten the maps" issue, or not without some major between-countries movement, and sometimes not even then. But my GPS is more fun, for nerds at least: and now that the price of memory's down to 1p a zekkobyte I've bought it an even more monster-capacity micro-SD card so actually I probably could now fit in maps for most of the known universe.

So, despite the tragic lack of instructions from anything electronic there I was rolling up in Embleton, hurrah and again hurrah. Despite it being quite late Mum had some delicious food for me and I soon felt as if I'd never left. She actually wasn't in my uncle's cottage, not least because he was, but a couple of doors down in the rather lovely Anvil Cottage which we've rented many times from the Skipper family. George has recently had a lot of work done so it's even better - and it was pretty good to start with! So if Des's cottage is a sort of home-from-home then I suppose Anvil is like a home-from-home-from-home.

One really fascinating thing Mum showed me that first night was a consultants' report, commissioned by the local council, into Embleton becoming a conservation area. This threw me a bit. I suppose I had always thought, in a perhaps rather seven-year-old way, of Embleton as perfect, eternally unchanging and unchangeable. To me it was, in effect, already a conservation area because I couldn't admit or conceive of any change.

This is, of course, hogwash and dangerous hogwash at that. Sure, the report helped make it explicit for me but the fact is that there's massive change there for all to see, right in front of your nose; and indeed there always has been. If I think back to when I first explicitly knew of Embleton, in the early 1960s, lots of stuff is new or altered or gone since then. For example there's a house that ever since I was first aware of it I've wanted to buy so I could demolish it (and no I will not be specifying which one it is). The area opposite Josie's garage has also changed hugely. We once had a holiday at 7 Sunny Brae, but what was once a row of tiny cottages there is now a row of around half the number of mostly larger cottages: and so on.

This isn't going to turn into a treatise on planning and conservation, subjects about which I know nothing. I don't think that all change is bad but I do think that in a place like this it needs managing sensibly, so maybe that's what the conservation area will bring. We'll see.

So. Let me rattle through a few points about my weekend before this turns into too long a haul.

  • On the Thursday morning, going and looking down Sea Lane then catching my first glimpse of Dunstanburgh. Always a great moment. That's when I really know I'm in Embleton.
  • There are new houses, indeed there's (golly) a new road, near the church, off the Christon Bank road. Also, the old police station has been extended (or somethinged).
  • The playground is gone! This is very sad for me: I've spent countless hours there as a child and with my own children. I'm not sure if it is to be reinstated there or reestablished elsewhere.
  • Which brings up a point well made by the conservation area report: most of Embleton isn't really where I think Embleton is. It is in the newer housing north and west. "My" Embleton (ha!) is the old village-green, central bit but most people don't live there and many of its properties are second homes and holiday cottages. Great, now I have middle-class townie-southerner-incomer angst too.
  • Rock Midstead Farm is no longer open to the public! This is a disaster - it had a nice tea-room and did marvellous frozen meals to take away. I don't remember it from my childhood, so I'm not sure when it opened - 80s or 90s maybe? It was a place we went to on many of our more recent holidays and I'll really miss it.
  • We tried another farm-with-tea-shop not a million miles away. It hasn't yet filled the gap left in my affections by Rock Midstead.
  • The nice outdoor shop in Alnwick has gone. This was up behind George's shop and the bloke was incredibly helpful to us over new boots and other kit. On the other hand, there's a nice new (to me) outdoor shop up above the market square, where you go through the building with the clock to reach the next road (Fenkle Street I think). This seemed like a good and clued-up place and did a perfectly reasonable job of selling me a new Berghaus jacket.
  • And what kind of fool visits Northumberland in late September without an adequate jacket? Yep.
  • Still in Alnwick, an excellent visit to the eponymous Garden. I love this place...
  • Since we were last there the maze - officially the Bamboo Labyrinth - has grown into something really challenging, especially if you obey its rule. Actually I couldn't, this time, see the notice with the rule on so I wonder whether they're still suggesting it. But I remember what it was: no sharp turns. In other words you behave as if you're a train and have points to get you through junctions: you can only take a path that meets yours at a gentle angle, probably 45° or less. If you'd need go through, say, 90° to get onto the next path segment, then it's not allowed. I don't know if you can see it well enough but in this photo I could not turn left at the junction - I could only get into that path if I were coming in the opposite direction, when I could choose either fork. Similarly, someone who was already in that path to the left could only go straight on, not turn sharp right to where I am standing. Oh dear, I'm explaining it very badly but it's very obvious in operation. Basically what it does is to add length and complexity to the maze and thus get more fun out of quite a small site. The ferny earth banks and tall bamboo also make this a visually and aurally attractive spot.
  • I am delighted to report that the maze defeated me. I was trying to hurry to get back to Mum and I could not get the hang of it. Eventually I gave up observing the junctions rule and then it was a lot easier. But what a great puzzle! It's by the genius Adrian Fisher by the way.
  • To the sides of the Grand Cascade those beech tunnel things over metal frames are growing up nicely. I wonder how long it'll be before they're complete? They are already a fine sight.
  • The Grand Cascade itself is just wonderful. It really is spectacular and beautiful, but fun too, as witness the surprising number of soaked-to-the-skin schoolkids - big schoolkids - trooping past us on their way to a rather soggy coach-ride home. This was really quite a chilly day but northeastern kids are well 'ard.
  • A hilarious touch at the Grand Cascade is the fleet of plastic pedal diggers round its foot, a democratizing influence in a generally posh gardenscape. The Duchess is very entertaining on this topic in the DVD I bought. She was offered these diggers in some sponsorship deal and was worried they looked cheesy (which they do a little but hey). However, once they were deployed she realized that the instinctive reaction of almost every child was to fill the bucket with water then try to pour it over their parents' feet. So the tractors stayed. Classy!
  • We also visited the entirely wonderful walled garden up at the top ...
  • ... and the unbelievable, superb water'n'chrome garden by William Pye. Ah yes, it's called the Serpent Garden, it says here. It's amazing.
  • All the entrance buildings and café, shop and so on are now complete, a huge improvement over the temporary arrangements. We had a very nice lunch in the caff.

What else did we cram into this brief pre-weekend of tourism?

Howick. Ah yes. Howick Hall Gardens, perhaps in response to Alnwick's success (but perhaps not), have really raised their game in recent years. Maybe this garden always was good, but hid its light a bit - I'm really not sure. What you see now is good publicity, documentation, signage, access - the works, really, so it comes over as a serious, well-managed, high-quality visitor attraction. It's not that it's competition for Alnwick, but rather a complement. Hardly anyone is going to feel that, having seen one, they need not see the other, but I reckon that lots of sensible and interested people are going to see both and have two excellent and highly contrasting garden experiences. Oh and Howick has a superb tea-room situated in a wing of the main house, in one of the most beautiful and interesting rooms you could imagine, a real gem. Being allowed to sit in there is worth a lot more than the price of your cuppa or meal.

After Howick we had a little side-trip to admire the strange pretend-ruined folly at Ratcheugh Crag, a building that has always fascinated me. You can't get that close but we did manage a better view of it than usual. I wish I knew who to bribe to be allowed to see round it! It must have amazing views as it's right on the crest of the crag and looks both ways, out to the coast and back towards Alnwick. The linked site tells me that it was designed by Robert Adam and is a Grade I listed building. Woo: hats off if you please.

We went over to Cragside - it's such a nice drive over the moors from Alnwick. Once there:

  • We didn't go in the house this time. Nor indeed the café, which was uncharacteristic of us.
  • We did the nice long drive round the estate. It's wonderful.
  • We stopped in a pleasant, rocky carpark to look at (or for) The Labyrinth.
  • This always drives me nuts. It's marked on the maps and mentioned in texts as The Labyrinth but there's no definition of precisely what and where it is. There's a fancy entrance and a slightly less fancy exit, and there's a very nice complicated woven wood mini-maze epis. Though these are nice, it is entirely unclear whether they are the whole Labyrinth or just parts of it, so it's really not a very satisfying experience as you're never quite sure whether or not you have seen it and whether you're currently inside or outside it. I keep meaning to write to them and ask for some clarification, but in the meantime it still drives me nuts.
  • After we'd been round the estate we drove up the slope to the Formal Garden. Mum car-sat while I had a quick wander. It was looking very fine and in particular there was a really stunning border full of dahlias, a truly amazing display. That's where the Red Admiral photo posted in October came from. Oh and I had a look around the lovely little clock tower and its interesting-looking and presumably old clock.

One night we had dinner at the new (?ish) restaurant in Alnwick, Louis Steak House, which belongs to Mark Turnbull, he of Turnbull's the butcher and indeed the travelling shop which so usefully visits Embleton. You might expect that a restaurant run by a proper local butcher would know its meat: well, you wouldn't be disappointed. This was without doubt the best restaurant steak I have ever had: absolutely delicious in every way. The only thing which prevents it being the best steak ever is the fact that My Dear Wife (Bless Her) always cooks steak on my birthday. But for a restaurant steak beyond compare, Alnwick's where it's at. Des joined Mum and me for this evening of advanced gastronomy and we were all in agreement that the food and service were impeccable.

I'd love to write something about the music there - its programming and volume - but I am unwilling to besmirch the memory of a cosmically delicious meal. Tell you what, in the purest interests of research I'll go there again as soon as possible and, if the music's still annoying, give it both barrels irrespective of the wonderfulness of m'dinner. Fair enough? I think so.

Back in Embleton, it was very nice to pop into Grieves' garage for petrol - as I must have done a million times before - and be recognized and spoken to very kindly by Josie and her son. The sad fact is that, Skippers and Grieveses apart, there are very few other people there nowadays who know me. A few more - mostly older, I guess - would understand who I was if I explained: Mum, Des, Kathleen, Neva, Auntie Norah, Granny ... but really my sense of belonging there is mostly an illusion, albeit a very pleasant one. It doesn't cut the other way, and indeed I cannot imagine how it could, for the ties I feel are pretty much one-way: in other words Embleton's in my blood, but I am not in its. From the village's point of view I'm just another fat middle-aged bloke renting a cottage: not exactly rare, then. Tsk.

What else can I tell you? Not much really: just another routine visit though no less pleasant for it. Mum gave me an absolutely fascinating book on - well OK this might not fascinate you - wartime air crashes in the Cheviots; which few words, face it, contain enough slightly nerdy box-ticking to keep me rivetted (aha) for more than an evening or two. And I know you won't believe me, but it really is good, interesting, historical, human storytelling: it is exciting, moving and at times scary, and reminds you that things were amazingly more complex before we all had mobile phones, indeed landline phones, let alone helicopters and infra-red imaging and all that cool stuff. For some odd, middle-aged, midlife-crisis-type reason I am at the moment having a bit of a bee in my bonnet about my Dad and his war service and of course this book feeds perfectly into that.

Our journey down was uneventful: it was made much less pleasant by dark and rain, and much more pleasant by a stop at the excellent Tavern Inn in Walcote, Leicestershire, just a sneeze from J20 on the M1. If you ever find yourself hungry in this part of your journey don't mess around with service stations and chains: go straight here for its fabulous home-cooked deliciousnesses. Off at J20, A4304, head east (towards Market Harborough) for no more than a minute or two, and it's on your left as you enter the village. Yum.

Eventually we made it back to Chichester and I had a kip and a lovely snack (thanks Mum) and set off home, this latter trip being just two more hours. It was more than tempting to stay over but I didn't want to miss the orienteering at Ally Pally in the morning, and I had a Salomon rehearsal in the afternoon too, so I really needed to get back.

Thus ends an all-too-brief yet highly satisfactory trip to a very precious corner of the world. I am, as ever, deeply indebted to my Dearest Muvver for permitting me to be her chauffeur for this jolly jaunt.


Lottie said...

Reading this made me think two things:

1. Gosh, this chap is a rather fine writer.

2. I genuinely cannot remember the last time I was in Embleton. I remember not going in 2004 due to GYLC, Amsterdam etc, and I definitely haven't been since. When was the last time we went before that? 2003? 2002? Earlier? I feel that this question should be resolved and that the issue of me not having been there for at least 5 years should be rectified asap.

Strawberryyog said...

1. Thank you: that's very kind. Especially coming from you.

2. Cripes Lot, you have put me on the spot and challenged my elderly memory. Hang on ... (fumbles around on interwebnet) ... 2003! Check the family photos pages. 2002 definitely not (Hury and La Gomera); 2001 dunno, 2000 not - Martha and I were there, you were in SA with Haringey. Before that it all gets a bit vague, but I do have some very fetching pics of you there in 1987. :)

So yes, it is eight years this summer since you were there, and yes, you should go back. I know it's not the same for your generation and that Brynhyfryd to some extent fulfils that role (does it?), but it's a pretty good place anyway ... and there's a lot to do there ... and it's not too hot! xx

Strawberryyog said...

PS Lot, I will stand you and Jake a steak dinner at Mark's restaurant.

(Same offer to other daughters with reasonable substitutions allowed for access, veggieness etc.)

(If you are not my daughter but feel I should stand you a steak dinner there anyway, do say ... we can negotiate, or not.)