The North Shall Rise Again

The English summer was at its wettest and gloomiest as I arrived at Castlerigg stone circle in the rain. High up, all the surrounding hills were shrouded in mist. By the time I got to Long Meg and her Daughters near Penrith, the rain and fog had receded somewhat, allowing more time to walk around the stones. The Long Meg stone is especially interesting; made of the local red sandstone in contrast to all the other stones and marked with ring and cup marks. I notice that someone has left flowers at its base. Further on at Vindolanda, and the sun makes the occasional furtive appearance from behind the clouds. I walk around the ruined foundations before walking down and over a stream to the Chesterholm museum. The museum is in a woodland clearing, with various replica Roman temples, gravestones and tombstones surrounding it; inside the more interesting exhibits include the eponymous tablets and an altar to the god Dolichenus. Afterwards, I walk for a while along Hadrian’s Wall, before travelling on to Hexham. The Abbey contains an unusually complete set of medieval paintings (including a Dance of Death), grotesque stone carvings, misericords, a Roman tombstone, a Saxon cross and stained glass by Henry Holiday.

Arriving in Newcastle, my first impression is of how many bridges there are crossing the Tyne compared to London, with the Tyne bridge, Swing bridge and High Level bridge all in close proximity and the Millennium bridge only a little further on. Looking down the Tyne creates a view of bridge apparently stacked on bridge. The steep banks and narrow medieval chares that lead down to the Tyne are also rather different to the flatness of London; walking along the waterfront at dusk besides some rather incongruous palm trees, the sound of screeching gulls nesting on the cliff top of the Tyne bridge fills the air. Equally unlike London is the way Dobson and Grainger were able to stamp uniformity onto much of the city in a way that Wren and Hawksmoor never could (Dobson creating both the train station and the gothic revival church of St Thomas); the overlay of Victorian and Georgian buildings onto medieval buildings like the Cathedral and the Keep rather more reminds me of Glasgow. The Metro system also brings Glasgow to mind. A lot of the hallmarks of Northern cities are here; decaying brutalist architecture, iconic architecture like the Sage intended to regenerate the city like Selfridges in Birmingham, converted industrial architecture in the form of the Baltic Flour Mill like the Tate in London. A building like Newcastle Civic Centre practically has its genre; postmodernist brutalism. Like Birmingham, Newcastle’s Cathedral is essentially an elaborate parish church, with walls cluttered with medieval and baroque monuments, Victorian gothic revival accoutrements (like the reredos and rood screen) and Kempe stained glass. By contrast, is a relatively uncomplicated medieval structure with its romanesque interior arches. The castle is as impressive as the White Tower at the Tower of London, with much of the interior also following a Romanesque design. I’m staying at Jesmond, with the Victorian park at Jesmond Dene and All Saints Cemetery with its surprisingly ornate tombs.

The following day I go out to the lighthouse at Whitley Bay and walk a while around the rock pools before arriving at Seaton Delaval Hall. The blackening of the stone makes for quite a contrast with other Vanbrugh buildings like Blenheim with its golden Bath stone (as grandiose as the latter if concentrated into a smaller area) as does the ruined and burned out interior with its cavernous entrance hall and cave like basement. The immaculate formal gardens also serve to belie the damage to the interior. The wings that remain intact are notable for paintings Queen Anne tapestry chairs, Godfrey Kneller paintings and Chinese vases. Further south, Tynemouth Priory looks like a David Friedrich painting with the ruins of the Abbey and redundant WW2 defences looking out over the North sea. The sole exception is the Percy Chantry Chapel, with its Victorian renovation. Whilst walking through the graveyard I see a Cinnabar Moth fluttering through the stones. Afterwards, I walk out along the pier, watching ships pass out of the harbour. Plovers and Seagulls rest on the walls of the pier. Something similar can be said for St Paul’s church at Jarrow, although instead of a coastal location it’s in the middle of an industrial estate. The church is surrounded by monastic ruins, while the interior is sufficiently dark as to make it difficult to see the interior choir stall carvings.

The next day, I find myself at Wallington Hall. The building is most memorable for its large central hall, its walls covered with frescos of scenes from Northumbrian History by William Bell Scott and owl light sconces. The hall also has various paintings by Burne Jones, a Swiss dragon sleigh and a wunderkammer filled with items like Kangaroo paws, a stuffed Pufferfish and swordfish tusks. Next on the list to visit is Gibside. The only intact building here is Paine’s Greek revival chapel, with the rest of the park consisting of various follies like a Liberty column and a Banqueting House, as well as the ruins of the Orangery and the house itself. With thunder audible in the distance it rather puts me in mind of a Northern counterpart to Stowe Gardens. Finally, I end up at Cragside where I’m struck by the oncongruous combination of hydroelectric dams, electric lighting, plunge baths and hydraulic lifts on the one hand and mock-medievalism of the building, which stands hill up on the hill like a bourgeois version of Neuschwanstein. The interior is replete with the trademarks of the arts & crafts movement; inglenook fireplaces, William Morris and Burne Jones stained glass and Morris wallpaper. I finally go for a walk around the Pinetum and across the iron bridge that covers the gorge.

The rest of my visit to the North East moves further northwards, starting with a visit to Lindisfarne. I walk for a while around the old jetty and the rockpools around there before walking up to the castle. The day is rather misty and Bamburgh Castle is merely a grey shape on the horizon. Valerian clings to the banks beside the path that winds its way up to the mount past the upturned boats Lutyens left there. The narrow and winding interior mingles halberds and ship models with Lutyens redesigns and MacDonald Gill’s wind indicator. Outside again and I walk to Jekyll’s garden, where I’m impressed by the amount of flowers; Poppies, Sweet Peas, Hollyhock, Lamb’s Ears and Gladioli. A Red Admiral butterfly rests on a cornflower. The Priory ruins seem every bit as desolate as those at Tynemouth; I walk out from them to St Cuthbert’s island, before visiting the church. Leaving Lindisfarne and heading to Bamburgh, I look at the Grace Darling memorial in the graveyard at St Aidan’s church, noting the extraordinary amount of lichen accumulated on the gravestones, before going for a walk along the sand dunes by the castle. The dunes are filled with pyramidal orchids and I noticed a Stonechat in the tree. I then pay a brief visit to Berwick on Tweed, visiting the dark and austere church, the town hall and walking around the city’s battlements.

The following day I visit Alnwick Castle and Gardens. The gardens are some of the most extensive created in modern Britain, with a traditional walled garden filled with Delphiniums, Primulas and Sea Hollies, a maze made from Bamboo rather than Yew, a set of water fountains using effects like Meniscus and Coriolis through to a poison garden filled with Mandrakes, Belladonna and Aconite through to more innocuous plants like Rhubarb and Nettles. The castle itself is entirely medieval on the outside, even down to figures on the battlements but on the inside is highly Italianate, with a large collection of Titian paintings. The main exception is the gothic revival chapel with its medieval tapestries. The church at Alnwick has an unusual lookout tower intended to keep watch for Reivers, as well as the Hotspur capital. After that, I walk over to Dunstanburgh. The sun is shining as I set out but after arriving a mist descends creating a rather eerie atmosphere as I walk round the ruins. For a castle that was originally mostly intended for show and surrounded by water on all sides, this sort of mood seems appropriate for the place.

On my final day in the North East, I visit the Penshaw Monument in Sunderland. Walking up the hill with Bird’s Foot Trefoil growing profusely in the grass, the Monument is an odd replica of a Grecian Temple, designed without a roof as a semi-ruin and its stone blackened by pollution. After that, I call in at Washington Old Hall and walk round its nature gardens including its Hazlenut nuttery, before arriving at Durham. The cathedral is certainly one of the most beautiful I’ve seen, with the Romanesque vaulting, patterned pillars, rose window, Neville screen, medieval frescos, cloisters, gothic crossing, rood screen and Comper’s shrine to St Cuthbert.