Thursday, 26 May 2011

Houses, life, countryside; reflections thereupon...

I had to get my car MOT'ed today and it meant that I did some walking for a change. I like walking and, for some reason, I really like walking through villages, towns and cities. I look at architecture, the shape, colour, facade, proportion of houses, flats, cottages and so on...I look to see whether they have a name or a number or both...

It's taken me while to get used to living out in the country and perhaps I still don't really qualify as a true country person. I like living out here, don't get me wrong, but I am not sure I could live out in the wilds, wilds, wilds of the countryside somewhere. I still argue it out in my head whether I could live on a farm for instance. Being out in a building where I might not see people for days...unless I made the effort to see that I would struggle with.

You see - I like people and I also like people to be around (even whether I speak to them or not).

My local town is called Haltwhistle. It is not named after anything to do with a train (although that idea has now passed into common mythology). It's believed that the name came from Old English meaning a high piece of land overlooking where two streams or rivers meet. (For more detail look at Wikipedia.) It is in the "Heart of Hadrian's Wall Country". It has the claim to fame of being in "The Centre of Britain"  - the literal geographic centre of Britain. For more uptodate photos click here.

Now you can read about Haltwhistle in a variety of places on the internet. (If you do come here try to get a copy of the booklet 'Haltwhistle's Historic Parishes' which is incredibly informative.) I'd like to talk about it having lived here for eight years now. I find it an incredibly friendly place. It's almost impossible to walk down the high street (or anywhere else) without someone saying hello to you whether they know you or not.

You won't find the 'famous' high street names here apart from about three retailers  - one of which you have to search for because it is hidden away. I like to think that is down to the stubbornness of Haltwhistle - even huge "retail" names have to behave like everyone else. (Everyone does know one another by and large.)

It has (or did have) the reputation of being a frontier town and in many ways it is. Haltwhistle is right on the boundary with Cumbria. Northumberland is a huge county and is the least populated in Britain (with 62 people per square mile apparently). Haltwhistle used to rely on the railways, mining, quarrying, the paintworks and other industrial activities but, sadly, a lot of those activities have melted away. Farming and Tourism are the main employers now.

Anyway I digress. What fascinates me about Haltwhistle is that a lot of the streets and alleyways lead nowhere or to appear to lead nowhere. I still wonder why. This is represented by Hadrian's Wall up at Cawfields where the Wall suddenly goes nowhere. It was cut off/destroyed by the quarrying. (Click the "nowhere" link to see that.) You can also tell when someone 'made money' as a posh house would be built...with a substantial drive and outhouses.

Going further out farmhouses cling to the edge of the land whereas over in Cumbria (a few miles down the road) the countryside becomes softer and flatter...reflecting that - so do the farmhouses and cottages. Quite often local farmhouses were built by the side of the road (on the old trackways) with little or no garden. The rooms were smaller so that they would be easier to heat. Quite often, in the past, they would have no heating except in the kitchen or the parlour.

Contrast this with, say the village of Gilsland (the next village along to our B&B, which became a Spa town attracting the likes of Sir Walter Scott. The houses, in the main, are much, much grander. They are more like the houses I got used to seeing in the wealthier outskirts of Newcastle and London. The owners would have had servants or some sort of people in service to run these bigger houses.

There is one particular house which catches my eye every time I go to Gilsland along one particular section of the Wall:

It is called "Romanway". It used to be the vicarage in Gilsland and it is on Hadrian's Wall trail. It used to be a B&B and Hunter Davies stayed in it whilst 'Walking along the Wall' and writing his book of the (almost) same name in the early 1970s (see p.182-186). It is now in serious disrepair. Apparently there used to be two Roman altars in the porch - one of which was inscribed. Not sure whether they are still there. (Must find out where they are.) In a way it is representative of the type of house which can be found in Gilsland although all the others are in better nick!

There is lots to be said about Gilsland as well and I'll leave that for another blog post. What do your houses in your area tell you about your local history? Is there any one house which sticks out and why? Be definitely interested to hear about them and know why...

Saturday, 14 May 2011

And so, forever, sister - hail and farewell!

Hilda and I about a year ago

Hilda, K, me and Bob (my 95 year old grandfather)

Hilda with the children
Out of the blue the news came yesterday.

Hilda had died in the night.

She'd been poorly for quite some time bless her. I managed to get down to see her in hospital a couple of months ago. It was great to see her again and hold her hand. In fact she'd come out of hospital recently. She phoned me about a week ago. I really had thought, had hoped that she was going to pull through...

As far as I know she'd worked for most of her life for my grandfather Bob's sister, in her fish and chip shop in South Shields. She was a hard worker. She didn't have just one job, she had several jobs to make ends meet.

She married twice. She had a son and a daughter from each marriage. Her second marriage was to a chap called Jacky. I didn't know him that well. He died some years ago. He was best mates with Bob and another important man in my life - my great uncle - Thornley (Bob's brother-in-law). There's a fantastic black and white photo, which I am still trying to hunt down, of them all in the pub during their heyday. (What is amazing that these working class men had many loves including their love of opera music.)

Jacky worked on the river (helping to guide and moor boats/ships). Bob had his successful fish and chip shop (so had his dad and Bob's sisters each had one) in South Shields. Thornley left South Shields after the war and lived in Lewisham. Lots of bombs dropped on South Shields during the Second World War because of the ship building industry. Thornley decided to leave those sad memories behind him but he still came on holiday to South Shields (and stayed with us) twice a year. He never forgot us all either. He'd do the rounds of his friends. He'd often be off, for a drink, with Jacky and Hilda.

Hilda was a very caring, warm, affectionate, intelligent lady. I came to know her better when I'd moved back North in 2003. Jacky had just died. She called my parents. I picked up that phone call and started chatting to her. It went from there.

I'd always known of her. Both sides of my families come from South Shields where I was brought up. Lots of people were always milling around when we were, friends, friends of friends. Slowly you would figure out who was whom and how they all related to one another. So I'd always known of Hilda.

She always had a smile on her face. She was a huge sports fan. A Sunderland supporter. Bob, Jacky et al had season tickets. Lifelong Sunderland supporters. Hilda went with them to see the matches more often than not...which, I think, was quite unusual in those days. Cricket, tennis, golf. You name the sport - she'd watch it. She knew every player, every game backwards.

She also loved people especially children. All children. She couldn't wait to see them and give them a hug. She was a much liked and loved lady. Every time we went down to see her there'd be someone leaving or arriving: her extended family. She kept in touch with everyone. She regularly rang to check we were all...all right. There wasn't a bad bone in her body.

I'm crying again now. Thinking "Hilda I miss you!" Another one of the old guard gone.

Her house was built on the vicus - the old Roman village - part of South Shields. Apparently Time Team dug in her back lane and she chatted to Tony Robinson. Whether she did or not - I don't know. It wouldn't surprise me. Like many of the old guard she always had stories which would pop out and catch me off balance. They still had a trick or two up their sleeves.

There's lots more I could tell you about Hilda but I feel that it is now time to draw a veil.

Besides, I need to go now to dry my tears: "Atque in perpetuum, soror, ave atque vale!" "And so, forever, sister, hail and farewell!"

It has been an abiding pleasure, a deep honour to have known you and to have called myself your friend.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Robin Hood on (literally!) Hadrian's Wall

I have been meaning to search out a 'Robin Hood' film clip for absolutely ages. (Finally found this one which features the "Sycamore Gap" tree prominently.)

I saw the film, Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves, when it came out (1991) when Hadrian's Wall meant absolutely nothing to me. I would not have recognised this scene at all and like most of the cinema going public I would have been oblivious to its incongruity...

As far as I can recall this scenario is very much "setting the scene". Robin Hood (Kevin Costner) meets up with Azeem (Morgan Freeman) and they decide to take on the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman).

Quite how they have stumbled and walked (very naughty! It's very much frowned upon now.) on Hadrian's Wall (Northumberland) when they are supposed to be in the heart of Nottinghamshire.... (N.B.: Northumberland is Northern England whilst Nottinghamshire is in the middle of the country for those less acquainted with our shores.)

If you look at these actors in this can plainly see the famous "Sycamore Gap" tree behind them which locals now call the "Robin Hood" tree for obvious reasons. Crag Lough (that bit of water pronounced "Crag Loff") also features in this.

My links with Nottingham? I used to work in a pub in Beeston for a while serving behind the bar. The landlord hesitated before taking me on as he thought I was Irish and there were some army barracks nearby. He thought I might be a fifth columnist. (It's not the first time I've been mistaken for being Irish....not that I mind particularly!)

My tenuous link with Alan Rickman? He once towered over me in WHSmith in the old St. Pancras Station whilst I was buying a magazine. He smiled at me thank goodness. I'm not sure that I could have coped with one of his evil he does those rather well...

The walk from Steel Rigg to Housesteads includes Sycamore a good one. Be prepared for some serious ups and downs across the crags. I've also heard that a replacement sycamore tree has been planted to take the place of this famous tree should it ever topple over.

Again...a few things amuse me about this clip:

Azeem asks where "east" is so that he can pray. Kevin (Robin Hood) points to the south. "Are you sure?" "Yes, I would know blindfolded. I am five miles from home!" ("East" follows the line of the Wall over to their left..maybe north and then east towards Newcastle. If anything they are facing south/south west. I know I am nitpicking.)

Azeem exclaims: "Is there no sun in this accursed country?" (Well...yes...a fair bit recently!)

When the fighting takes place between the good guys and the bad guys I can't help thinking about all the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Brigantian, Celtic, Arthurian, Reiver, Jacobite, Monarchist, fighters who probably fought on that same spot at different times (before, during and after the life of Hadrian's Wall) and many, many more...