Thursday, 29 August 2013

Gateshead Revisited

I had certainly been there before—but only from a distance. We had passed the coppery guardian many times on our travels around the north east, but to encounter it close up was to experience a sense of the Angel’s size, presence and majesty.

Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North sculpture stands 66 feet tall with a wing-span of 177 feet. It’s a much-loved icon of the north east, and it’s easy to understand why—it embodies pride in the area’s history of mining, it protects the natives and welcomes travellers. Arriving at the site at 9am we expected to be the only tourists there, but within minutes cars and minibuses had arrived and a steady stream of Angel-lovers were lining up to have their pictures taken at its heavenly feet. 150,000 people a year pay the Angel a visit, and it’s seen by 90,000 drivers a day as they pass on the A1. The Angel is a constant in the life of every Geordie—it feels like it’s been there forever and will be forevermore.

The Angel of the North
Elsewhere in the Toon and beyond it was time to catch up with some old haunts and ponder what changes had been made in our absence. Work is finally beginning to revitalise Scotswood—13 years after the area was cleared. Formerly home to Vickers Armstrong workers, the industrial decline led to the area’s degeneration. Happily, residents who had at first opposed the mass clearance and demolition are now excited about, and involved in, the area’s future.

Happy news for Blaydon residents, too, as I understand construction of a new Morrison’s with multi-storey parking is underway adjacent to the Brutalist precinct, through which I have pushed a pram on many an occasion!

Over to Jesmond, known as the posh end of town, and of which I have also been resident. The curious name is derived from its sobriquet “the hill of Jesus” as it’s said that in Norman times the Virgin Mary appeared there with her babe. St Mary’s Chapel—now ruined and enclosed within Jesmond Dene—sprung up in her honour, and Pilgrim Street in Newcastle city centre was so named in recognition of the pilgrims who made their way to the chapel. On a cloudless August day a visit to the Dene is a delight—its shady woodland and banks cool and tranquil relief. I remember it best on late autumn afternoons, when I would push my baby boy in the pram along its paths. Quiet, cool and damp, this is the best and most private time, I think, to enjoy the Dene.

Aside from the landmarks, what I realised I had missed most was the dour bonhomie of the Geordie folk. They’re not great smilers, but they’ll talk to you as if they’ve known you all their lives—and they would hate to admit it, but they’re as soft as butter. Despite my pallor (no fake tan visible) and obvious southern tones, I was instantly befriended by another parent in the playground, “Didna I see you in the Toon a coupla of hours ago, like?” and made to feel like one of the gang.  And I can’t help smiling as I remember the dad encouraging his scrap of a boy to perform a series of press-ups and complicated manoeuvres around the climbing frame. It seemed a bit tough at first—the lad could only have been four or five years old—but the last requirement of the routine was that the child give his dad a big kiss and enjoy a moment’s suffocation in his muscly forearms, tattooed with the boy’s name.

We had driven down the previous day from a sojourn in East Lothian and Berwickshire, the trip arranged around the arrival of the newest member of the clan. In the kind of delightful twist that Vintage Script regulars will know I love, my new great-niece bore the same name as my own great-aunt!

The landscape couldn’t have been more different from East Anglia—hills that looked to us like mountains, and rugged undulations, and the curious reddish mud, coloured by sandstone, that make you feel like you’re walking on Mars. My son was in disbelief that we had arrived in Scotland—a foreign country! —and befuddled all the more by the sight of his uncle in a kilt at breakfast.
The hamlet where we were staying (Whittingehame, East Lothian) is encompassed by the Balfour estate, acquired by the family in 1817. Its most famous resident was the Arthur, the First Earl of Balfour, Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905. As Foreign Secretary in November 1917 he was the author of a letter to Lord Rothschild declaring Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which became known as the Balfour Declaration. The area’s connection with the Jewish folk continued during the Second World War when Whittingehame House was used as a school for Jewish refugee children from the Kindertransport mission.

Hand-holding at Dunbar Harbour
Today residents are a mix of lifers and newcomers (perhaps resident for 20 years or more), and there’s a gentle affability as you bump into near neighbours (from five or ten miles away) in the woods. Connections to Edinburgh are good if you fancy a bit of razzle-dazzle, or there’s Dunbar closer to home, birthplace of St Cuthbert, famous for his connections with Holy Island further south, and of the conservationist John Muir, who emigrated to America as a boy.

Sitting on the steps at Belton House
Other highlights of the trip (all easily accessible from the A1) include the National Trust places Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire (eighteenth century splendour on the site of a medieval priory), Gibside, Tyne and Wear (an estate once owned by the Bowes-Lyon family) and Belton House, Lincolnshire (“the perfect English country house”), as well as Beamish Museum near Durham, presenting life as it would have been in the area,  mainly in the early twentieth century, complete with an early Co-op, a branch of the Sunderland Daily Echo and a colliery village.

Notice at Beamish
An essential part of any holiday is, of course, returning home, and remarking upon what has changed in the past ten days (the earlier sunset) and what is still the same (no hills had sprung up in our absence). A cup of tea, the abandonment of bags till the morrow and the first night back in one’s own bed were the finishing touches to one of the best holidays where spirits were refreshed, connections renewed and—essential to history-lovers—the winged host of memory was brought to life.


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