Summary day 7 – heading home

We had a wonderful (late) honeymoon in Northumberland – and like on our wedding day, the weather has been kind to us. While there were stories from the rest of the country of storms and torrential rain – we mostly had sunshine and blue skies. It only rained on one day, so we were very fortunate. It was our first longer trip away with Zoly – and he seemed to have a lovely time; lots of walks, new experiences, time off lead, things to smell and potential friends to meet and play with. He was really good – coped with the long walks well and slept between us most nights.

On our last morning we thought that Zoly should have a good walk and be emptied out before the long train journey back to Bristol, so Mike took him down to Alnmouth beach for one last time while Matthew finished packing the bags and updated the visitor’s book. The tide was the furthest out that I’d seen it and the sand was very soft underfoot. There were some other dogs for Zoly to play with and he ran into the river a few times. It was a shame to have to turn back for the house.

When we returned to the cottage a small dove was wandering about outside the door – Zoly was fascinated (and salivating)!

Our train from Alnmouth was at 11 and we saw Jill the house-owner as we were leaving. There was an interesting information board, especially about the history of Alnmouth station. The routes we’d taken on some of our walks to Alnwick was along the proposed new heritage steam train route.

We changed trains at Durham and then Birmingham – Zoly was an angel on the train – and as usual had lots of pats and strokes compliments and admiring looks. Everything went smoothly, even though the trains were very full. We arrived back in Bristol at 4:00 and Mike walked Zoly home via Victoria Park to give him a bit of additional exercise before diner and Matthew took all our bags home in a taxi.

We expected to him some trouble persuading Zoly to sleep back in his own bed – but he wasn’t too bad – only two attempts to get on our bed, but each time we took him back to his bed and the second time he stayed there ’til morning. He’s a fast learner that dog!

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about trip and seeing some of our pictures. Hopefully we’ll be traveling by bicycle next time with a dog trailer for Zoly.

Summary day 6 – what to do?!

Today we planned to go up to Holy Island – it’s Good Friday and it would be a nice place to be today. However, the rain was tipping down, it’s a bank holiday so the already meagre bus services are significantly reduced and there’s also lots of engineering works on the railway! The more we considered various travel options the more unlikely it seemed that we’d get to Holy Island in time to cross the causeway and back at low tide and be able to return to Alnmouth in a day! We needed to make alternative plans. Zoly doesn’t like going out in the rain, which is odd because he’ll jump into the bath, the shower, ponds, water troughs – you name it! Apart of pubs, many dog-friendly indoor venues were not likley to be open today so we thought that we’d struggle.

By 1:00 the rain had eased to a fine drizzle (mizzle?!), so we thought we’d risk a local walk. We set off to Alnmouth – the river and the beach. The tide was coming in and we saw some beautiful big herons in the estuary.

The beach had a couple of other dog walkers although their dogs didn’t seem that interested in playing with Zoly. There were some children trying to skim stones and Zoly thought that this was a fantastic game – he went charging into the water after the stones and seemed to be quite disappointed when he couldn’t retrieve them from under the water. Unfortunately, he was wearing his coat – so that was absolutely soaked and covered in sand in no time. Once he was wet through we decided to let him play and run about – he adores the beach – digs in the sand, runs in wide circles, picks up pieces of seaweed or driftwood and rushes about and tosses them into the air then tries to catch them again. If there are other dogs about on the beach then he loves chasing games. He’s had a fantastic holiday and it’s sad that it’s coming to an end. We wondered if we’d have trouble persuading him to sleep back in his own bed when we get back to Bristol!

It was still raining and feeling cold, so we went into Alnmouth village to see if somewhere might be open and get some tea. There was a nice-looking café open next to the golf links by the beach – called Dandelion I went in to ask if they would let dogs in and they said no – even though their promotional material reads: “We chose Dandelion as the name for our new café bars to reflect the warmth of the welcome and the informal environment.” Well we weren’t going to leave Zoly outside, so we continued on and saw that the Red Lion Inn did welcome dogs, so we settled in there and had peppermint tea and chips! Zoly was well-behaved and was universally admired – they don’t know what they’re missing in Dandelion!

By about three in the afternoon the rain had stopped, although it was still grey, so we decided to continue our walk and head into the next village, Lesbury and walk up the Aln to the Lesbury railway viaduct that we can see from our cottage and cross the river by some stepping stones over towards Alnwick then complete the loop back to the house.

Lesbury is pretty – lots of honey-coloured stone cottages, a small church and even the new development looked attractive. The railway viaduct is about half a mile out of the village but it’s really spectacular with 18 arches – the viaduct carries the main east coast railway line from London to Edinburgh across the river valley, it was built in 1849 to a design by Robert Stephenson. The footpath by the river passes right under the viaduct although with all the rain the ground was very boggy.

We crossed the river further upstream by Bilton Mill using the stepping stones. We encouraged Zoly to get into the water there to get rid of some of the sand and mud on him before heading home.

Summary day 5 – Durham, Blanchland and Castleside

We took the train from Alnmouth to Durham this morning.

We’d arranged to visit cousin Catherine, uncle Malcolm and aunt Sheila this afternoon  and we were meeting Malcolm outside Durham cathedral at 12:30. There was a 9:00 train arriving in Durham at 9:45 so we could spend the morning strolling along the banks of the Weir – the weather was glorious – a lovely warm and bright spring day. We had a lovely walk along the river bank path with its famous view of the cathedral and castle, the bridges, the rowers and a lovely little Greek-style folly – called CountJ c folly.Joseph Boruwlaski was a dwarf in the eighteenth century who retired to Durham. Having somewhere so close to the city centre where a dog can be off-lead and having fun in safety is wonderful.

Malcolm had been at a special service for bishops, priests and deacons from the Durham Diocese and when we met him he offered to walk Zoly so we could go in and check out the Lego Durham Cathedral! Aunt Janet had also suggested that Matthew search out the Bishop of Jarrow who used to work with her in Coventry and introduce ourselves to him!

Janet had given us a good description of Bishop Mark of Jarrow – so it didn’t take long to find hime and Matthew had a quick chat about Janet’s work with the elderly in Coventry.

Then on to the Lego Durham Cathedral, which is brilliant and epic! When it’s complete it will be 3.84m wide, 1.53m wide and 1.7m high – it’s scaled from Lego figures – so that they look more-or-less the right size in the model. There will be around 350,000 bricks in the model and anyone can add a piece for £1. We bough 5 pieces and fitted them to the top of the north tower. There were lots of people making their contributions – so it shouldn’t take long to finish.

After the Lego Durham Cathedral we met up with Malcolm and Zoly in th ecoolege grounds behind  the cathedral – I wonder if there’s something about vicars and dogs and keeping off he grass signs!

Malcolm took us on a lovely drive up to the fells around the Durham/Northumberland border, we passed  the Derwent Reservoir and stopped for a short walk along he river in the small village of Blanchland. I remember going to Blanchland when I was young – probably with Malcolm – to visit Leonard Paulin, who had been the vicar at St Alban’s church in Earsdon and who probably conducted the marriage of Mum and Dad and christened me. He was a lovely, cultivated and gentle man and his last parish was here. Blanchland was built with stones from the remains of the twelfth century Blanchland Abbey and has a lovely uniform character as a result of the building stone used and the lovely scale of the buildings.

I think Malcom expected Zoly to have a play in the river – cousin Philipa’s dogs had, apparently – but the water was flowing quite quickly and deep in some places, so Zoly wasn’t going in! We didn’t stay long because I was a bit concerned about Malcom overdoing it, plus we were hungry, so we headed over to Malcolm and Sheila’s house in Castleside.

Lunch was delicious and there was lots to eat – very good for two greedy blokes! Carrot and coriander soup followed by vegetable curry, then fresh fruit salad. Heaven! They’d made sure that Zoly was well catered for too – four bags of treats! The lucky boy! We had a lovely time and it was so nice to spend time with them. We talked about Catherine’s wedding next January, teaching work, Richard’s amazing reviews of the his singing and a bit too much about incontinence for Matthew’s liking! Poor Catherine had a bit of a cold – so I kept my distance as I’m running the London marathon in a couple of weeks.

After a long time at the table Zoly had his dinner, we had a tour of the house then Malcolm drove us back to Durham for the train back to Alnmouth. Matthew wanted to watch the TV election ‘debate’, but I didn’t – he has more resilience than me on these sorts of things I think.

Spring watch

I’m very fortunate in my job that I get to be outside quite a bit. The downside is that I am often travelling quite long distances to be in some picturesque canalside location. It dies mean that I get to see the seasons change and, however fleetingly, the wildlife that heralds the arrival of one season or another.
It’s been wonderful having a week in one place (a beautiful rural place) to watch the march of spring. The obvious signs are everywhere. Daffodils in every shade of yellow sway in the breeze (or gales has been the case earlier this week), bringing their golden smile to front gardens, hedgerows and municipal roundabouts alike. Current bushes drip with their blooms of pink and white. These miniature chandelier blossoms make these bushes look as though there has been an explosion of Pat Butchers earrings.

  If Pat Butcher were a plant

Elsewhere, if you look hard enough, the signs of creatures marking the arrival of spring are all around. Birds are busy performing their courtship rituals, singing their tiny hearts out to attract a mate and gathering material to build their nests. Bees are beginning to emerge from their dormant period and can be seen buzzing around the spring blooms. Hedgerows are bursting into life with patches of butter yellow primroses and Hawthorne bushes fizzing into life with their neon green leaves.

  Primroses announce the arrival of spring

On our walk yesterday we were treated to a wonderful spring sight. As we headed towards Alnwick, along the river Aln we walked across a field and there in front of us were two hates performing their boxing ritual. We weren’t quick enough to take a picture but the image will certainly stay in my mind. The hares were jumping back and forth, their long ears and paws backlit by the spring sunshine. Fortunately Zoly was oblivious to their presence, too busy enjoying his own spring scent fest. The hares meanwhile were a bit more savvy than Z and were soon aware of this lumbering predictor. They were not waiting around to get better acquainted – they were soon sprinting off to continue their ritual elsewhere.


Not much blog writing for me yesterday – too busy writing postcards. You see, I’m an old-fashioned boy at heart. As much as I embrace the wonders of social media, I enjoy nothing better than receiving good old-fashioned ‘snail mail’. I also like to keep up the tradition of sending postcards to those nearest and dearest – although I haven’t always been so choosy.
Despite my now resolutely republican tendencies, (cue ‘tut, tut, tut’ from dear aunt Janet), I once spend a good part of a holiday to the Black Forest in Germany sending a postcard to every member of the Royal Family I could think of. The thing is (and this is a good tip for all you teachers out there) – you will always get a reply.
On return from that holiday a steady stream of post began to arrive for me. Each envelope embossed with a royal crest. Despite what the letter from some minor equerry or lady in waiting said, I doubt very much that the Princess of Wales was ‘most interested’ in my dress design for her (a rather fetching black and white polka dot number on a toilet tissue fabric). But it kept me occupied for a while (probably my mum’s intention all along!).
These royal letters, along with college letters from friends, letters from family, cards from significant birthdays and a pile of postcards from near and far are all stashed in a box in my study. I’m hoping that one day (when some e-bug has wiped Facebook/blog records, that this collection might contribute to future generations understanding of life during the late twentieth/early twenty first century. Although if my box of memoirs is all they’ve got to go on, it will be a very particular ‘rainbow tinted’ take it on history.

Summary day 4 – Cragside

Yesterday’s planned trip to Cragside, William Armstrong’s country house near Rothbury was postponed to today since the weather looked better. It’s only 15 miles from Alnmouth to Cragside, but getting there by public transport wasn’t particularly straightforward. There was a direct bus that left Alnmouth station (which is just around the corner from where we’re staying) at 08:40 – arriving at Cragsie at 09:15, but Cragside didn’t open until 11:00 – so there’d have been some waiting about! There were no more buses from Alnmouth until 18:10, by which time Cragside was closed! The next bus to Cragside that would arrive in good time left from Alnwick at 10:10 arriving at Cragside at 10:40. The only problem with this one was that we’d have to walk the 3 miles to Alnwick in order to catch it! It’s a lovely walk though, along quiet narrow lanes, by the river Aln and across fields – so that’s what we did.

As we crossed some fields two hares came racing towards us – they were incredibly fast. At first I though that they must be a couple of dogs because they were so big! It was an amazing sight. Thankfully, Zoly didn’t notice them before they saw us and turned tail. We were still tramping across the fields when I phone rang – it was my aunt Sheila who we’d messaged about making a visit. She and Uncle Malcolm were trying to FaceTime me – it was a bit halting without a Wi-Fi and slightly surreal to be doing a video call in the middle of a field, but we arranged to meet them tomorrow – we’ll go to Durham in the morning (exciting – I can see the part-constructed, then meet up with Malcolm, Sheila and lovely cousin Catherine in the afternoon.

There was only one other passenger on the bus to Cragside – so it’s not surprising that they’re so infrequent. The provider seems to be under threat, too – lots of SOS (support our Spirit) signs pointing out that they have no funding or subsidy and inviting passengers to donate to ensure the services continue. Apart from the infrequency, there seems to be lots to like about Spirit buses – they welcome dogs and even bicycles on board and the buses can be hailed as they approach – not just at designated bus stops. Once on the bus to Cragside we had  wonderful views into the Northumberland National Park and across to the Cheviot Hills – it made me think that we should come back here some more.

We arrived at Cragside and the parking attendant greeted us with the words: “That’s a Hungarian vizsla!” I was a pleased that she recognised Zoly – we’re often asked what sort of dog he is by admirers (of Zoly, not us). She told that she used to have a vizsla called Zeus and was delighted when I introduced her to Zoly. I don’t know whether it was seeing Zoly or our being brazen and walking in to Cragside a bit early or if it’s normal practice to allow people who’ve arrived by bus in for free – but whatever the reason, we weren’t asked for our £10.70 each admission and as we left our National Trust membership cards behind in Bristol, we were fully expecting to have to pay. So that was a good start to our visit!

On our way in we also saw some splendid carved owls. Our friend Ella back in Newcastle had told us that owls were her favourite animal – Ella showed me her owl rucksack and her owl keyring – so here’s a couple of pictures of the carved owls for Ella. There’s an extraordinary owl bedroom in the house – so that must have been the inspiration for these carvings.

Cragside was the country house of Lord Armstrong – a nineteenth century crane, bridge and later armaments manufacturer. Armstrong’s enormous munitions factories and warship construction yards hugged the banks of the Tyne in Elswick from Scotswood Bridge for almost a mile towards Newcastle. I remember as a child being thrilled at the sight of tanks on low loaders. The company was taken over by BAE and the factories were gradually run down then closed in 2013.

Armstrong became less involved in the day-to-day running of his company and in 1863 when he was in his fifties he bought some land in a steep-sided, narrow valley near Rothbury, had it cleared and supervised the building of a country house perched high on a ledge of rock overlooking a stream. He had a massive rock garden installed around the house, seven million trees planted and five artificial lakes were constructed, which were used to generate hydro-electricity. There are over 30 miles (50 km) of pathways to explore now zig-zagging up and down the steep valley sides, down on the valley floor and up on the flatter high moorland.

We had both been to Cragside as children – but we hardly remembered it and a lot had changed. The most startling new addition was the Archimedes screw, which from July 2014 has powered the lights in the house – effectively restoring hydroelectricity to the first house in the world ever to use it. It’s a massive device and carefully designed to allow fish to pass through unharmed. About 10% of the electricity that the estate needs comes from this one Archimedes screw – enough for all the lights and there are plans by the National Trust to use more renewable sources of energy.

We walked through the valley and up to the formal gardens with their beautiful glasshouses, rockeries and splendid views to Rothbury and the hills beyond.

We paused for lunch and a walk up to two of the high lakes and a detour to take in the recently restored flume, that fed water into the lakes. We wandered around the outside of the house and had our picnic lunch in the old stables’ courtyard.

We returned back to Alnwick – and yet again there was only one other person on the bus (a different person this time!) From Alnwick a pleasant walk back to the cottage in Alnmouth, dinner and another early night – we’re certainly sleeping long and well here in Northumberland.