Along the way

The tale of my break in Northumberland begins on the way home. I always liked to be contrary. I’m starting this longhand on the train home from Berwick, as of now on the approach to Dunbar, and I’ve just given my home town a respectful salute out the window. Dire Straits playing through the earphones. It’s been a cracking few days, filled with great places, food and even some sunshine, albeit coupled with a fair bit of chill since it’s January. Our drive down from Edinburgh on Friday night, after a glorious Hibee victory, felt like a release as the world got steadily quieter and cars were even fewer,. By the time we turned off the A1, the sky was full of stars – not something I see a lot of in Glasgow – but when we reached the cottage in Embleton, I could have happily stood for hours and watched the night sky unfold above me except for the fact I was absolutely knackered.

Up relatively early on Saturday and down to the beach. From the cottage we walked up then down a lane, soon revealing a wide expanse of sea and sand plus Dunstanburgh Castle on a cliff in the distance. At the beach we turned right, heading for the castle. There were quite a few folk out that cool, bright morning, including some families and one wee laddie who seemed utterly fearless walking into the waves in his wellies. Sadly I had left my own wellies at home, which became more of an issue nearer the castle as the coastal path became ever muddier. To be back on a beach was deeply joyful, restorative in an instant and especially being where I was. The break to Northumberland was planned the very moment we stepped onto that very beach a month ago. We had three days ahead of us in that most beautiful part of the world though as ever never long enough to cover all of the ground we wanted to.

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Down to the beach
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Warkworth Castle is about fifteen miles south of Embleton, not far from Amble. It’s a fine, mighty castle that I had been to about five years ago but had forgotten the largest part of. That made the experience all the better since it was as if I was seeing the place for the first time, wandering the huge keep and into its various nooks and crannies. After we went for a walk through the village and along the River Coquet. Warkworth is a beautiful village, old-fashioned, Northumbrian and not a little bit posh. The riverside walk yielded great views back towards the castle. As the light began to fade, we went the short distance to Amble for a wander along its long, wooden pier and around the marina. I hadn’t been in Amble in about fifteen years. That day I ended up on a fishing boat but that’s another story. This visit, though, kept me firmly on dry land and it was interesting to see how Amble had become quite gentrified with its harbour housing very few fishing boats but a lot more yachts, right beside huge new blocks of flats.

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Warkworth Castle
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Warkworth Castle
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View to Amble from Warkworth Castle

The next morning started with bells, more precisely a set of rings and changes from the nearby church. We were heading for another familiar place, Tynemouth, near Newcastle, though took the scenic route via Alnmouth and Newbiggin-by-Sea rather than braving the more direct but indubitably duller A1. Alnmouth was my request as it always looked nice from the train. On driving in it looked all right, perfectly decent but not somewhere that encouraged you to stay long. Newbiggin was for my dad’s benefit since he is due to go for a break there in April. It’s a nice village by the sea with a long promenade and a decent beach covering its length and beyond. What is notable about Newbiggin are two sets of sculptures, both a man and woman, one on the shore, the other on a platform facing out to sea, apparently to epitomise man’s relationship with the sea, at the edge of the land and normally human control. The jury’s out on that one for me – I’m not sure I like sculptures dominating the skyline when there’s a perfectly good sea to look at. As a species we assert enough on the planet.

Everyone and their granny seemed to be in Tynemouth on Sunday. It is a pretty seaside town, at the mouth of the Tyne as the name suggests, but these things make it popular with walkers, families, surfers and anyone who felt the call. The Priory, thankfully, was less crowded and we spent a couple of hours amidst its ruins, scranning our sandwiches then digging into the depths of its outbuildings, the sacristry with its stained glass windows reflecting off the stone in vivid red plus the gatehouse as we disturbed quite a few pigeons along the way. We then walked down to the Collingwood Monument by the river. Impressively I dredged out of my memory on the walk down that the subject was an Admiral involved in one of the big sea battles in the Napoleonic War. (It was Trafalgar, as I discovered from the plaque.)

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Tynemouth Priory
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King Edward Bay, Tynemouth

The beach was quite full of people, some playing, others walking and surfing the tall waves that crashed to shore every few moments. I daydreamed as we walked along the sands, wondering idly how much electricity the tides would generate here compared to the wind turbines visible just up the coast. I also imagined trying surfing, experiencing the waves from above, harnessing their power and, most likely, falling face first into surf. The things you think about in a day as you put one foot before another, some harebrained schemes amidst small semblances of sense from time to time.

To update, I’m now somewhere in West Lothian, furth of Edinburgh, powering through the night in a haste for Glasgow and home. Chvrches are on the dial as I scribble this.

Anyway, to this morning and the first rain we had seen all weekend. We headed inland to Alnwick and Barter Books, the best bookshop in the land, spread across an old train shed and bedecked in murals, apposite literary aphorisms and a working train set. It was busy despite it being 10.30 on a dreich Monday morning. Impressively neither of us spent any money, spending time instead browsing and contemplating just how many lifetimes it would take to read even a fraction of these books nestling temptingly all about us. The atmosphere was library-esque, full of reverance but very much a place of function with books, purely and simply, meant to be read.

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To Craster, a place I see every morning on Twitter through the Sea Window Craster’s daily picture of the sea view. It’s a village nestling in a cove, just at the other side of Dunstanburgh Castle from Embleton. It was dry but still a bit grey, by sky and the sea too, though even as we walked around the harbour it brightened up and we even got some sun. To build up an appetite before lunch we walked along the mile and a bit to Dunstanburgh Castle, dodging mud and sheep shit along the way, and it was joyful, watching the waves and being able to daunder along the path in the pale, bright January sunshine. We had lunch in the Jolly Fisherman, right across from the smokehouse where kippers were on the go, and it had a nice bustle of folk in for chow, plus some dugs as is expected in a haven for walkers.

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The view from Craster c.11.30am, Monday
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The same view an hour later

Bamburgh is best known for its castle, which loomed high over us as we parked the car. It also has a stunning long beach, shown off to full effect by the sun and the retreating tide, with views north to Holy Island and across to the Farne Islands with its lighthouse and tales of Grace Darling. This beach, above all, was my favourite of the time, surrounded by mighty fortresses, history and natural beauty, plus only a few other people. It was the right place for the right time, a beach to part on, a glorious place to round off a pretty good weekend.

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Bamburgh Castle
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Looking towards Lindisfarne

Northumberland is an incredible part of the world, full of history, life and stunning places. It is neither Scottish nor particularly English, proudly independent as seen by the many red-and-yellow flags around the county. Its familiarity from many visits over the years, plus the new sights and sounds encountered, made it just the right place to ease gently into the new year with its new beginnings. As the train pulls into Motherwell, and I get ever closer home, I sigh and feel contented with where I’ve been and what I’ve done this weekend, time spent amidst the waves enough to drive their energy into me which I’ll need in the weeks and months to come with what is along the way.

Dundee

Very often, I have a backlog of posts I want to write here. I have adventures that don’t appear here just as I have ideas that flit out of my brain before some words hit the keyboard. In the last couple of weeks, I have neglected to write about a recent trip to Dundee. I was really there to watch Hibs. As it turned out, they got beat but that wasn’t the most important bit to take from that trip. I have been to Dundee a fair few times before, at least three times this year, and I quite like the place. It’s no Glasgow but it’s fine. It has a deep history and it is like Liverpool and indeed Glasgow because its history is defined by the sea and what lies across it, with whaling and jute only but two facets of the city’s past.

I had thought about journeying to Dundee via Fife, perhaps the East Neuk, but a lie in put paid to that so I took the Citylink bus instead, enjoying the journey up past Stirling Castle and through Perthshire. It was nearing dark and I headed straight to the McManus Galleries, Dundee’s big public museum and to my mind one of the finest in Scotland. I spent about an hour wandering its halls, focusing particularly on its natural history, Pictish and art galleries. Taking each of those in turn, I have always liked to quote the wonderful line from The Blue Guide to Scotland, that it is always better to travel to Dundee than to arrive there. It’s true and particularly passing by the Tay with its great variety of bird and wild life as you go towards Dundee in any direction. Dundee is near the south of what was once Pictland and the McManus has three cracking Pictish stones on display, including some bearing Z-rods. No one has a clue what they mean but they are no less beautiful as a consequence. The art galleries upstairs in the McManus are particularly fine, with lots of 19th and 20th century art, including a few crackers by James McIntosh Patrick and William McTaggart. I always feel better every time I go there, inspired by the range of collections and the history of Dundee. For instance, Winston Churchill’s reputation in history mainly comes from his speeches and actions during the Second World War. A lot of folk don’t know he got absolutely horsed in an election in Dundee in 1922 by a Prohibitionist candidate. img_2283img_2305img_2291img_2292

After I left the McManus, I still had a little while until the game so even though it was dark, I went for a walk down by the Tay, nearly as far as the Rail Bridge before turning back to get some food. I walked down past the RRS Discovery, lit up in lights to try and compensate for the massive construction sites next door (the V and A) and across the road (the new railway station), and spent much of the walk gazing across the Tay to the lights of Newport, Wormit and Tayport. It was commuter time but short of the steady stream of cars passing on the nearby duel carriageway, it wasn’t too obvious. The path was quiet that time of night. I like walking along waterfronts in cities and Dundee’s honestly getting better. It was cold but the twinkly lights had a nice effect as I walked, not thinking all that much except beginning to drift towards the football later in the evening.

The walk back to the bus station was quick but downhill so I managed to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time. The bus ride to Glasgow was a fight to stay awake with some fine music. I don’t remember much except Stirling Castle wasn’t lit up, unfortunately. Stirling will be back on the calendar soon – like Linlithgow and quite a few other places in the Central Belt but there are other places higher up the list. Dundee might be saved for a repeat visit in a wee while, though Broughty Ferry with its fine castle museum might be one for next year. That night, though, I fell asleep and didn’t really mind that Hibs had been beat, for once, since my day hadn’t been half bad and that I can live with, if not the hoofball my team were playing.

Still a country bumpkin

To some extent, I am still a bit of a country bumpkin. I am a product of my upbringing but I am also autistic and a fussy person when it comes to food. I am getting better. My love of croissants, for example, came after a meeting I had with an employment adviser in Edinburgh when he shared his breakfast of an almond croissant with me. I tend to be more adventurous when there isn’t a choice. For example, recently I was at a friend’s house for dinner and almost everything I ate and otherwise consumed that evening was unknown to me, with the sole exception of a French martini, which I had tried on a previous visit. I enjoyed it too, not just the food and company but encountering something new. I spend a lot of my leisure time travelling but it isn’t entirely new as an experience. Spending time on buses and trains is familiar and comfortable. Eating chilli or broccoli soup isn’t. Neither is being social, at least to start with.

The reason I mention it is the serendipity that sometimes happens when you are thinking about something and the world responds to it. I subscribe to an e-mail newsletter called Lunchtime Poetry, put together by Laura Waddell of Freight Books. I think I have written about it before in the context of Pablo Neruda. One of the poems a couple of weeks ago was ‘Naming it’ by Leontia Flynn, published in 2004, which reads:

Five years out of school and preachy

with booklearning, it is good to be discovered

as a marauding child.

To think the gloomiest most baffled

misadventures might lead so suddenly

to a clearing – as when a friend

taking me to her well-stocked fridge says:

look

this is an avocado and this

is an aubergine.

I should add that to my knowledge I have never encountered an avocado or an aubergine. This poem is 54 words long and contains at least three moments that give me pause. I am just shy of ten years out of school though while I can be preachy at times, hopefully what comes out of my puss isn’t always booklearning. Hopefully I am still a marauding child, though, or at least a marauding man-child. I am still on the hunt for new experiences and adventures, or more likely baffled misadventures, which seems like a neat description of much of my life to date.

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Belfast

Leontia Flynn, incidentally, I hadn’t encountered before. I’m glad I did. I just looked at her website and she is from Northern Ireland, County Down to be precise, though now lives in Belfast. Read some of the poems on her website, ‘The Vibrator’ particularly is excellent. They are neatly worked poems, conveying a lot with not a lot, the best kind of poetry with those that take the feet out from under you with just a few stray words.

North Berwick

Sometimes I just have a notion to go somewhere. It doesn’t always happen, however, depending on the time I’ve had said notion or where the desired destination is. Someone I know has just been on holiday in Cambodia but Angkor Wat is sadly not a day trip possibility from Glasgow. Thankfully there are some places I want to go to within reach and one of them happened to be North Berwick. I woke up and thought ‘I want to go to North Berwick today’. So, I had a shower, breakfasted and left with all due haste. Having a notion to go to North Berwick in particular is unlike me. Being from Dunbar, a mere 12 miles away, means I have a deeply ingrained dislike of North Berwick. It’s a local rivalry thing born of parochialism and narrow-mindedness. Now living in Glasgow, however, has changed my outlook on many things, including North Berwick. When I’m in need of a sea view, I do one of two things. On Twitter I follow an account called Sea Window Craster, which has a new picture each day taken oot the windae in Craster, a village in a beautiful part of Northumberland. Or I look up the website of the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick, which features webcams from the Bass Rock, Fidra, the Isle of May and North Berwick itself, looking towards the Law and to the harbour. Every few days I take another look, getting my fix of the sea and the eastward perspective I still firmly believe is the only way to see the world.

Interestingly, a return ticket from Glasgow to North Berwick on the train is dearer than it is to Dunbar, nearly three quid dearer in fact. The hourly train service that graces North Berwick combined with the half-hourly bus service to Edinburgh always made me suspicious that some senior First Group manager lived in North Berwick but since Dunbar is now quicker and cheaper to get to, I suspect things have changed since Abellio took over the trains and Lothian took over the buses.

I sat facing backwards on the train out to North Berwick, not something that massively bothers me, luckily. As the train edged out of Edinburgh, I was struck by how big Arthur’s Seat seemed, some six miles away at that point, how it utterly dominates the landscape and the cityscape. From just about any point around the city, even in the fields near Dirleton and Gullane, Arthur’s Seat is clearly visible, sometimes looking like a lion, to the west more like an elephant. I am so used to travelling to Dunbar on the East Coast mainline that it is still a novelty to branch off at Drem towards North Berwick, with views towards Gullane and Dirleton with its castle.

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I walked down Station Hill towards the beach, stopping by the anchor to look towards Fidra, the harbour and the Bass. It was cool, cloudy but getting brighter as I walked along the sand towards the harbour. It was quite busy with folks out enjoying the day, like me staving off the worst effects of cabin fever that Christmas brings. That particular stretch of sand with the houses backing onto the beach always evokes a rather grey painting of the scene in Kirkcaldy Art Gallery but every time I seem to be there the sun’s shining. I reached the harbour and immediately got in the road of some photographer with a tripod. My own camera was getting well-used, I should point out, though I was working hard to be unobstrusive and not get other folk in my photos. I walked to the back of the harbour, nearer to Fidra now, so close I could just about swim to it, and looked across to the Bass Rock, always more like an island from that angle than the cliffs you see from Dunbar.

I sat nearer the Glen Golf Club and ate lunch, watching people walking along the beach, some walking dogs, others putting the world to rights. It was sunnier now, the cliffs on the Bass slightly golden and a nice foamy colour reflected in the waves. Back in the town, folk still sat outside on benches eating fish and chips despite the time of year. Strangely, though, the first I really felt cold was a wee while later back in Waverley Station in Edinburgh, no doubt a result of cooling down after walking for two hours straight.

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On the way back into Edinburgh, the train was full. I looked out the window, this time sitting on the left-hand-side, the shore side, which in that bit of East Lothian is just more interesting. I looked across the fields towards the Chesters hill fort and the Hopetoun Monument. I began to plan a trip to each, stopping at Drem then walking up to Chesters while the Hopetoun Monument will be more work, a bus to Haddington then a decent walk up the Ballencrieff road. The advice for Hopetoun is to bring a torch so I’ll need to invest in one. There’s so many places in East Lothian that I haven’t been to, in the place I spent 24 years of my life, so what hope do I have getting anywhere else? That’s for another day, another time. Before I left North Berwick, I sat on a bench near the anchor and it was hard to leave, the view to the islands, to Fife, the May and the Bass just what I needed to see and I dared not blink in case I missed the rapidly diminishing light upon the scene unfolding before my eyes.

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2017

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So, it’s 2017. Aye, indeed. It feels like a good time to share this again. I think of this every so often when times are tough. I am absolutely convinced that perseverance is the key to any kind of success, sticking in, doing the work and convincing enough people that what you are doing is right. Every little success I’ve had has been because of keeping on keeping on. I am proud that last year I had a lot of success, some of it quite unexpected like getting a full-time job and doing better than perhaps I deserved to with my OU work. It happened because I had a little bit of luck and because I did the work. Success doesn’t happen overnight. It has taken years of working myself to the bone to get to where I am today, plus a slight bit of being jammy.

2017 will be an interesting year and I am hopeful we will see more of the best of humanity as we go on. As well as working this year, I also hope to work on a book and study a little.

The next month’s posts are all written and ready to go since it will be mentally busy this month. They include today’s other post about North Berwick as well as musings about podcasts, Dundee, the use of clipboards in museums, Kirkcaldy, labels, Coldingham, trying new things and signs in the National Railway Museum. There will be other adventures and stories to tell along the way.

Ultimately I am hopeful about this year. Sometimes with the news, it is hard to be hopeful. But still it’s possible. I have faith in very little except the power of humanity for good and in the human spirit itself. I am hopeful for me personally as I am for the wider world. This New Year’s Day morning, the sun’s shining and there are blue skies. That’s good enough for me.

Happy New Year to one and all. Hope it’s a good one!