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 anyone...now 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...