Sunday, September 18, 2022

Two Go To An Island

Oh Lindisfarne, you are so beautiful and strange. Driving over the causeway, a mild frisson of fear that maybe you've got the tide timings wrong, and the sea is going to come rushing at you as you get halfway, is always something special. The vast flat expanse winks with shallow saltwater pools as you cross. One day, I've promised myself, I'll do it by foot to get a real idea of what it would have been like, back in the 7th Century, to undertake that crossing. A leap of faith that even I, a faithless person, can appreciate the magnitude of. 

Whizzing across on tarmac just doesn't contain the same profundity. 

And once across, everywhere you look, that shimmering North Sea surrounding you, the air full of gull cries and oozing seaweed smells. Boats lean drunkenly into the sands, lobster pots sink into each other with resignation. Years ago, when I first came here, there was a sandwich shack selling fresh crab sandwiches. I couldn't see one this time around. 

There was also that strange glitter in the eye of residents, a twitch to the professional smile, that indicated they were, at the end of this long summer, coming to the end of their patience. It's a look I recognise. It's a look I once had. It states very clearly, to those in the know, that the person before you has dealt with approximately eleventy-billion people asking the same damn silly question about the tide/Vikings/whereabouts of ice cream/Lindisfarne Gospels/insert own tic-inducing question. 

Like a parent of small children, they will have been repeating the same information/issuing the same demand (do not feed the dog pickled onions! Yes, you have to get across before the sea starts coming in! Do not put your sister's fingers in the electric socket! No, you cannot eat ice cream in the museum!) since time immemorial (or, generally, since around March when the weather starts to get a bit nice and people think they'll start taking trips again) and they are oh-so-tired. 

To wit: the exchange I overheard in the Lindisfarne Gospels shop and experience entrance, where we'd gone looking for a bit of Viking history on the island - everywhere else having been a bit light and sniffy on the subject. 

"So, these are the real Lindisfarne Gospels in here?" asked a very English woman (no, not me) as she clutched her battered debit card (a day on this island is an expensive day) to her quaking bosom. Bravely asked, I thought, having recognised the glaze and twitch of the stout woman behind the counter and also having clocked the sign outside that said 'replicas'. There is an intake of breath and, as one, the entirety of the population in that space, including me, leaned forward for the answer...

"NOOOOOAH!" Came the roar of a woman asked that question just once too often in a 24 hour period. "Those are in London [she all but spat the word]! These are REPLICAS, like it says on the sign! But you can see allll on 'em pages 'ere. You can't in LONDON!"

At which point, I quietly put down the postcards and headed outside so I could laugh without having a replica holy book thrown at my head, so I missed finding out whether the customer paid up and went in anyway. I suspect she did. It's what the English do. 

And where was N? Leaning on a wall outside, eyes closed and wishing he was in a pub after having suffered through the castle and then the priory. To be fair, he enjoyed both but his stamina for old buildings and epic vistas is not quite as well trained as mine. I'm working on it. By the time we get back from Bruges later this year, he will also be able to show unlimited enthusiasm for flying buttresses and an unflagging determination to see one more gargoyle/Medieval masons mark. Or I'll have completely broken him and he'll refuse to go anywhere with me ever again, preferring to whimper quietly on his own at home, rocking gently back and forth, whispering "please don't tell me again why the Dark Ages is a misnomer". I'd say we're at the 50/50 possibility mark of him going either way at the moment. 

ANYWAY, back to Lindisfarne. The castle is a stunning piece of architecture and has been nicely done up by the National Trust who've employed their now-standard method of interpretation, printing bits of letters and diaries on to unlikely places. Here, their focus is on the early 20th Century and the members of the Bloomsbury Group who came here, particularly Lytton Strachey, who could be a bitchy little number when he wanted. I always wonder why people invited him anywhere. But there he is, snarking all over a tablecloth or a coat, wittily snarking no doubt, but snark nonetheless. He'd not have got to pudding stage at my house, much less been allowed to stay for weeks as he did here. 

But it is charmingly done, and we enjoyed it, although we (I) lamented the lack of information about residents and owners pre-1800 about from one timeline. We also enjoyed the sight of the staff running around like startled chickens when the fire alarm went off. The newest and youngest member of staff, poor lad, repeatedly asking his walkie-talkie "is this a fire alarm?" as if it were some sort of Delphic oracle. As both N and I have health and safety training under our belts and were the nearest responsible adult to him, we informed him that, yes it was a fire alarm, and his procedure right now should be to evacuate people. Yes, even the old lady determinedly doddering off in the wrong direction. 

On second thoughts, maybe never invite us anywhere? We can risk assess a scenario in our sleep. We are the most fun at parties. But at least you'll never be sued over a trip hazard. 

Luckily for all, it was a false alarm caused by someone vaping (what is the matter with these people?) under a smoke detector, and we were able to troop back in after a half-hour wait surrounded by glorious views. Quite the nicest fire alarm evacuation I've ever been involved in. There was much rejoicing when the all-clear was given. 

Then to the Priory, which contained a nice line of simple, hands-on activities (fit the task into the slot) for kids (and me), some nice finds and the most glorious architecture. That's really what you come here for. The sight of those towering arches, the broad sweep of the walls, the expanse of what would have been windows looking out over the sea. You can imagine easily how it would have felt to see these strange ships appear on the horizon, land. Those strange men in their furs, armed with axes that would wink maliciously in the sun, a completely pitiless band of warriors. Would they have been silent, or howling a war cry to the skies as they made their way up the dunes?

I couldn't tell you because there is No Viking History on the island. Despite the Vikings definitely having made history here. It is very strange. I've been told several times that I should go to Yorvik in York for my Viking fix. But I have been there and I have no need to see freshly-graduated students, the ink on their acting degrees still wet, stomping around the entrance asking "do ye be a witch?" in cod-rural accents ever again. 

Regardless, Lindisfarne is eerie and beautiful, strange and glorious all at the same time. I wish I could be there in winter, watching the storms rage around the ruins. One day. Maybe. There are other places to get in touch with my Viking ancestry after all. If I really wanted to.  

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Two Take a Trip

As previously mentioned, N and I took a trip up to Northumberland the other week - our first holiday since Brighton last September and we were both feeling the need of it. Admittedly, I was more vocal in my need for it than he was, which is a good thing or we'd have just limped on. If there is one thing my Mum has taught me, it's that holidays need to be insisted on, and taken, with regularity. 

Unlike my Mum, I did not insist on the Seychelles (where my Dad once played pool with Michael Schumacher's bodyguards), but on Northumberland, a county I have loved since I stepped foot in it about 18 years ago, and where we have friends who had been saying "come and see us!" for about a year. 

So we packed some bags, handed keys over to the Kid, who was cat-sitting for us, and set out on what I anticipated would be a hideous journey as we were leaving on the day after a Bank Holiday. I have long refused to leave the house for several days either side of a BH on the grounds that the roads are chock full of drivers made crazy by the urge to get there-or-back-again in the shortest possible time. It only took one particularly long and winding journey for me to decide that it simply wasn't worth the candle. 

But, with one thing and another, this year, only this week was feasible, so I gritted my teeth, got behind the wheel and embarked on...a stress - and incident - free journey in which N navigated with aplomb (he is better than any sat nav in getting us out of lane closures and potential sitting-on-a-motorway-for-hours scenarios), and we arrived at Newbiggin by the Sea, which is exactly as it says on the town sign - by the sea, at exactly the time we'd planned to.

I have chalked this up to an early Christmas miracle.  

Exploring around after a much-needed tea at the cafe, we found the church on the cliff top, looking out to the sea, surrounded by graves that are being eroded by the storms, and those superlatively big skies that Northumberland is so good at. 

I mean, just look at it. Beautiful. I love the way it shifts and changes from moment to moment. 

Most of these were taken the next morning at around 7am when I decided to take myself off for a walk along the beach front before N, and the rest of the world, got up. There was just me and some dog walkers, plus one very hardy couple bobbing gently in the sea. I quite envied them, being only brave enough to dip my toes. There is something about the way the North Sea sucks and roars at the sand that makes me wary. But I do long to be brave one day. 

Still, the paddling was lovely, there is nothing like the feel of the sea rushing and foaming over your toes, sending a shock of cold whooshing up through your body. By the end of it, I'd thoroughly soaked the hem of my handmade (by me) skirt. 

I'd also collected 5 coke cans and bottles, 2 red bull cans and an assortment of 11 other bits of rubbish from the sand, deposited by the tide. In turn, I deposited them in the town recycling bin which had the legend "DRY recycling only!" What does that even mean? Did these count as dry now I'd shaken the sea water out of them? I decided they did. 

We spent that first day in Bamburgh with its castle on the high cliff above the sea. There was an aviation museum on site as well, full of incomprehensible information boards with tiny writing and complicated diagrams and models of planes that widows had "kindly donated after the sad death of their husband, Major Findle-bough Heetherstone-Pugh." I have been on the receiving end of those kind donations - "Eric was so keen for the museum to have them" - and let me tell you, each and every widow skips out with the relief of having got rid of "Eric's blasted models". It made me chuckle to see the same pattern being repeated. 

It was also full of men staring intently at sprockets Aiii6b to Eivx9h and multiple cogs and levers. Occasionally a family would wander in with their perplexed children, the female of the group doing a pretty sharp about turn to find the cafe while the male got that peculiar eye glaze and rate of breathing that men get in museums like this. 

My own male being on the mild side of this condition, I left him to it, preferring to watch the sea, imagining myself back to seeing the Vikings land at Lindisfarne (visible in the distance) and read up on my favourite legend - the Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh. My favourite mainly because it's so pleasing to say. The title has a nice bounce and rhythm to it. Also because, as a child, I was very taken by the notion of the castle by the sea and that giant poisonous worms could be placated by milk. 

After the castle, we popped into the Grace Darling Museum, which was splendid. Oh my word. Ignore the castle (overpriced and a little patronising) and head here instead, give it the money you would have spent on castle admission as a donation. It Is Good. Renovated a few years ago (grant money from the HLF), it's still small but perfectly formed with the poignant details of Grace's life well told. Letters written by her, the shawl she wore during the rescue. The actual boat (coble) she and her father set out in. 

It had a lovely line in interactives (something of a bug bear of mine, having seen too many swish tech options consigned to basements, broken after only a handful of months and too expensive to repair), where you pushed a button and it lit up a tiny figure such as Grace's father mending the nets, or her mother teaching the children. 

Best best best of all, there was the challenge of setting the lighthouse light glowing. You had to select the 5 essential tasks in sequence; once successful, the light at the top of the 4-foot-high replica in the middle of the display lit up and flashed around the whole room. There were genuine cries of joy and delight when people managed to do this, me included. Yes, this cynical old museum professional was charmed.  

Then, the coast road back to Newbiggin, winding through little villages, listening to the sea through the open windows. Getting lost a few times but keeping our tempers because it was all so wide and beautiful, familiar and strange. 

We did the things you are supposed to do on holiday - eat chips on the beach - and some of the things that you're not - write a quiz that should have been written before we left. We puzzled over hilariously divisive public art and soothed our sunburn under the wonderful rainfall shower (an absolute plus point of our Air BnB). 

Next time, the story of the Lindisfarne Gospels gatekeeper and little Dink's Great Adventure. 

Monday, September 5, 2022

A Found Thing

I had a bit of a blogging break recently as I rushed to get some work finished up before we went away. There was work that I'd not managed to do because the heatwave knocked me for six and other work that was fast approaching a deadline and more work that had been put aside because I'd got carried away helping a client set up an exhibition. 

Actually, the latter made me realise that, whilst the freelance life suits me, I do miss the energy and buzz of being in a museum, working towards a common goal, rather than sat solo in my little office, tapping silently away. It's nice to have a taste of it every now and then. So now, once a week, I catch the train into Gloucester and work and chatter and plan and help out. It's a lot of fun and very good for my soul. 

Last week we made an escape up to Northumberland, that beautiful county full of moors, hills, woodlands and beaches. Ruined castles staring moodily out to sea. Viking lore. Big brooding skies that stretch over wide empty sands. Hills turning slowly purple as the heather flowers. Yeavering Bell. Lindisfarne. The Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh. Grace Darling and the heaving North Sea. Corned beef pasties. Craster kippers. I'll blog more about it next time. 

The week has helped to reset my head and revive my energy. Grief is a strange, shifting thing that, this year, has made me mostly sad (as opposed to last year's incandescent anger) and feeling as though joy might have been locked up forever. I could find enjoyment in the moment of things, but that pure joy, with its giddy laughter and keen eye for nonsense, had gone. 

Or rather, not gone but hiding. Time away, some spent with good friends, and the absolute determination that I would not go through life joyless, found it for me again. I'm very grateful. 

And also grateful for the shift from August to September that occurred while we were away. There has been much-welcome rain. Dew on the ground. Stripy spiders creating complex and beautiful webs right across the very path you need to walk down. Socks are required once more and I had to, brace yourselves, Put A Cardigan On last night. When Mabel comes in at night, she is no longer dusty from lying under bushes, but speckled with water from damp grasses. The smell of the air is different and I can feel my lungs opening up to it. 

The Kid looked after both house and cats extremely well. So well that neither cat bothered to get up when we got back. Actually, that's their standard behaviour. The house was clean (we had given him 4 hours warning of our return) - even the bins had been emptied - and I think he'd seen it as a bit of a holiday for himself too. It is hard: at 24 you don't want to go on holiday with your Mum and her partner necessarily, but you can't always afford to go by yourself. Have decided to put the offer in of a break regardless and see what he says. 

A stay away always makes me think back to my stint in hospitality, over 25 years ago now. How I took pleasure in making sure guests had everything they needed so that the first thing they could do was kick off their shoes, make a cup of tea and just sit for a while in a chair that held them like a hug. I wanted them to say "oh it is good to be here." 

What does not make people say that is making them track down the nearest supermarket for milk the minute they arrive, or expecting them wrestle with a coffee machine/kettle that needs a NASA degree to operate and then sit on a sofa that fair rattles the bones. Luckily, we were only there for a couple of nights before moving on to our Friends in the North.

I think self-catering providers should be made to stay in their own properties for a month before letting paying guests in. Trust me, once I rule the world, that will become law. 

N starts uni on Monday and is keeping a very careful lid on how nerve-wracking he's finding the notion of returning to education. Rationally, we both know he'll be absolutely fine. Irrationally, I'm fighting the urge to make him a packed lunch and iron him a clean handkerchief. 

Later today, I shall take myself off to the allotment to see what it's been up to during my absence. Hopefully there will be more damsons on the wild trees for me to scrump on the way back. I'm going to make a hearty risotto full of mushrooms and garlic. I'm going to put on fresh bedding that carries the smell of autumn with it. I'm going to soak for a long time in the bath and remove the summer peach polish from my toenails. I'm going to book tickets for See How They Run. 

But first, I'm going to savour being back in my little office, tapping solo at my laptop, In Our Time teaching me new things at a low volume, gently closing the window against the sound of the aggressive needless lawn-cutting going on outside. It's good to be back.  

Weather Advisory Service

On the way home from the train the other day, I took a shortcut through the dripping allotment grounds, the grass and earth squelching under...