Border Lines

From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

Archive for the category “Escape”

Haiku-ing in Japan

I’ve always wanted to visit Japan. Fascinated by bonsai, tea ceremonies, geisha, sushi and a culture that seems so very, very different to anything I know and truly understand. Well, I’ve been lucky enough to spend 12 amazing days in this extraordinary country. Between my marvellous London Daughter, Lonely Planet and Instagrammer HungryNYC, we have soaked up food, culture and Japan-ness in liberal quantities. The fact is, you really do need a leader on a tour like this: someone who knows that you have to collect you Japan Rail passes from the station before you do anything else; and that you can reserve seats on Shinkansen if you arrive half an hour or so before your bullet train departs; who’s checked out about dumplings and sushi and fluffy pancakes and teppanyake and sprawling markets; who knows about naked bathing in onsen (hot spring baths); and who’s had the foresight to book tickets for the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo before your trip (no tickets are sold at the museum).

I decided to record our trip with daily haikus. I wasn’t totally religious about my application of the exacting rules of haiku which The Poetry Foundation summarises as:

‘A Japanese verse form most often composed, in English versions, of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. A haiku often features an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a specific moment in time.’

Frankly, Matsuo Bashō, the great 17th-century Japanese writer, has nothing to worry about. According to my guide book (not a patch on Lonely Planet) Bashō was so moved by the building of Shin Ohashi (that’s New Great Bridge) in Edo in 1693 that he wrote this:

How grateful I feel

as I step crisply over

the frost on the bridge

Nevertheless, my haikus captured the essence of our days travelling from Osaka to Koya-san, Nara, Kyoto, Hakone, Tokyo and back to Osaka. If you’re going to Japan (or, actually, if you’re not!) I can highly recommend a daily haiku.

Day one: Osaka

A lid is lifted

on a paintbox of colours

our senses are blurred

Jetlagged, we stumbled from our hostel into the streets of Osaka. In Dotombori, neon signs were stacked on neon signs. We hoped for okonomiyaki (a kind of-everything-in, cooked-at-your-table omelette – more later) and tako-yaki (octopus dumplings). In the event we were slightly overwhelmed by this first stop in Osaka but started our Japanese odyssey with a senses-overload wander around the breathtaking Kurumon Ichiba market, too dazed to take pictures or try the sumptuous and frequently startling food that bubbled, sizzled and winked at us as we passed. However, we did have a cracking meal at Mimiu Honten a traditional-style restaurant where we had their famed udon suki and a bento box of delights.

Day two: Osaka to Koya-san

For a country known

for reserve and zen Japan

is very noisy

In Japan there is a sound or melody for everything. Pedestrian crossings make bird sounds, music plays over tannoys, recorded voices speak over one another, there’s a tinkle and bing-bong when a train is arriving and when it’s departing, when the doors open and when they close… you can even play a sound in the toilet to mask any embarrassing noises you may make!

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Day three: Koya-san to Nara

Come to prayer early

on Koya-san you may hear

one hand clapping there

The journey to Mount Koya from Osaka is pretty amazing. Using our pre-booked World Heritage Ticket we took the  Nankai line which dawdles away from the tightly packed city and begins the steep ascent up the mountain. The final vertiginous climb is courtesy of a cable car included in the ticket. In Koya-san we explored Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and stayed in the most welcoming gorgeous guesthouse where the boys tucked themselves away in capsules. We walked, after dark, through the amazing and vast Okuno-in cemetery to Kobo Daishi’s (founder of the first temple on Koya-san in 861) mausoleum following lantern-lit paths. We went again early in the morning for daily prayers at Kobo Daishi’s temple: we didn’t achieve enlightenment but we did find a pleasing sense of spirituality.  

Day four: Nara

Myriad platefuls

sparkling scented in your lap

breakfast Nara-style

 

No pagodas here

cries the woman who has eyes

but no map to see

In Nara we wandered the quaint back streets of Naramachi filled with traditional merchant houses, saw the black and bronze Buddhas encased in the Daibutsuden temple – the largest wooden structure in the world; and we answered questionnaires from just about every school child in Japan. Our favourite foods will be pored over in classrooms across the country! We all loved the many dishes that makeup a Japanese meal: the rice, the meat or fish, the pickles, the omelette and tofu and the miso soup – we won’t mention the miso soup in the lap mishap. In Nara, we got our okonomiyaki (delicious – although not cooked at our table), had lunch at a little café in the woods, met a clueless tourist, and had our first encounter with people dressing up in traditional costume to enjoy ‘a fun day out’. 

Day five & six: Nara to Kyoto

Ancient kimonos

hang on pre-fab walls wings spread

like huge butterflies

 

Sensation-drenched streets

demand all attention but

beware bikes behind

 

Through orange arches

to the mountain top to find

peace, truth and nice view

It rained while we were in Japan. A lot. However, dealing with rain is so normalised, it’s almost a pleasure to carry an umbrella. There are machines that dispense plastic covers for your brollies when you enter buildings and shops, and racks outside temples and restaurants to leave them in and collect them when you’re done. Above all, in Japan there are beautifully kept toilets everywhere;  most have heated seats and a funky control panel that includes an in-built bidet. Bliss. In Kyoto, we loved Nishiki Market full of (to our eye) weird and wonderful offerings, we met up with my niece and her friend who happened to be in Japan at the same time. We trailed through hundreds of orange shrine gates (and rain and cloud) on the pilgrimage loop of Fushimi Inari-Taisha – I pushed the extra footsteps to witness the ‘nice view’ which, although murky, was at least vaguely visible (the whole sky was muffled by the time we descended). And we managed to escape Kyoto on the fabled bullet train before Typhoon Lan arrived. The niece and her friend were not so lucky. But drowned their sorrows in beer and fluffy pancakes.

 Day seven: Kyoto to Hakone

Naked laughter wrapped

pink under trees and hot springs

soothes body and mind

 

Waiting for Fuji-san

the typhoon below the cloud

could go either way

Every holiday has a blue day. Our arrival in Hakone-en was ours. The cloud was low and the typhoon gusts building. We were deposited in a weird and rather bleak development focused around a hotel complex, The Prince Hakone, on Lake Ashinoko. Planned walks and excursions on the Komagatake ropeway for views of Mount Fuji were abandoned (were we even in the right place to see Fuji-san???)and we ate a rather sulky and dispiriting bowl of noodles (our only mediocre meal) wondering what we were doing  here. What a difference a day makes!

Day eight: Hakone to Tokyo 

As far as the eye

brimful to the horizon

Tokyo is aglow

 

Wide high-rise squat streets

bo peeps moist dumplings scenes of

Ghibli animé

 

Tax-free Uniqlo

and BIC Camera bliss-out but

watch for Oliver

We headed straight for Roppongi Hills for panoramic views of Tokyo skyline and sunset photos of Fuji-san . Perhaps the most surprising hit of the holiday was the Mori Art Gallery (entry included in the ticket to the tower view). We returned to the Shibuya district and committed sushi gluttony at Uobei Sushi: good-value , high-octane and your dishes are fired at you on mini bullet trains. The Ueno-Yanaka walk was a gorgeous nostalgic blend of market, cemetery, temples, shrines and galleries and a glimpse of how Tokyo once was. BIC Camera was impossible to pass for some members of our party and The Husband revelled in a whole floor of techno toilet seats! We saw cosplay stores and various costumed individuals, but the most eye-catching business around dressing up seemed to be in basement stores where young girls dressed and made-up to take social media photo posts – I think!

Day Eleven: Tokyo to Osaka

Row on row of fish

for sushi, fish for noodles

you taste very nice

 

The bullet departs

Tokyo for Osaka and

melodies come too

Before leaving Tokyo we had to visit Tsukiji fish market – another odyssey into food extremes – and seek out ikura don (salmon roe rice bowl). With samples being touted and attention-grabbing shouts, this felt like the most touristy market we visited – but was nonetheless thrilling. In Osaka, we met with my niece and friend for our final night. Our huge blowout consisted of teppanyaki in an izakaya (pub/eatery) Robatayaki Isaribi cooked in front of us and handed out on a huge wooden paddle – it was loud, fun and simply delicious. We could eat no more. Nevertheless we made a mad dash to grab the last three of Uncle Rikoro’s wibbly-wobbly cheesecakes

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 Day twelve: Osaka to Helsinki to Heathrow to Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed 

Anchored in Finnair

view captured in oval frame

reflections released

Japan. So many things to digest (literally and figuratively) and an on-going desire to eat Japanese food. Forever. So many questions (including the need for a definitive answer about the face mask thing). A longing for a techno toilet, for a rigorous outdoor shoes, indoor shoes and toilet shoes policy everywhere. Also, a craving for one of those marvellous little van/cars that are so practical in such a space-hungry country. And so cute. 

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Eating & drinking in Berwick

Of course Berwick Literary Festival 2017 is going to be a gem of a festival. Take a look at the programme and you’ll see why. However, this post and my next one are dedicated to our starry historic host: the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

If you’ve not been to Berwick before, you’re in for a treat and if you have been, you’ll no doubt relive past pleasures as well as uncovering new delights.

Berwick has evocative and historic streets to wander, with cute and enticing independent shops as well as the usual suspects. There are also watering holes a-plenty to delight and surprise you.

This post offers a potted lowdown on a some venues where you can chew some fat (literally and figuratively) and sup a beverage or two between Festival sessions. My next post will highlight some short but enjoyable walks to enjoy as you make your way from venue to venue.

The cake display at the brand new quayside café, The Lookout

Cafés

  • You’ll no doubt stop by The Corner House on Church Street which is the Festival hub, home of an open fire and bookshelves to browse, purveyor of fine local coffee (Northern Edge), cakes (fully-leaded and gluten free) and light lunches. Show your ticket and get 50p off a hot drink.
  • Fantoosh on Marygate serves light lunches and lush cakes (it’s my local, I often grab ‘cakeouts’ to serve guests!), and offers dainty trinkets and gifts.
  • Just over the old bridge in Tweedmouth, you’ll find Riverside Café – good scones and what looked like a sensible breakfast (several tables seemed to be reserved). The café will also be providing refreshments at the Festival venue in Spittal, St Paul’s.
  • Mielle Patisserie is an artisan French-style café on West Street serving excellent cakes and light lunches.
  • A new addition: The Lookout on Berwick Quayside. The quiches and soups smelt lovely when I stopped by and a customer told me the coffee was ‘delicious’. It is a bijoux outlet with tables and chairs by the river and great views.

 

Fantoosh at the northern end of Marygate

Riverside Café, Tweedmouth

The Brown Bear

 

Cafés plus

  • Enjoy the view from The Maltings Kitchen over a scone and a cuppa or a fresh-cooked lunch and glass or two of wine – in The Maltings arts centre, Eastern Lane. Open for early evening meals on Thursdays and Fridays.
  • Foxtons on Hide Hill is a café-cum-wine bar which also offers lunch and evening meals using local produce – it has a loyal local following and can get busy.
  • Pier Red on Castlegate is a cake-serving café and gallery by day and a relaxed and elegant wine bar on Friday (cocktails from 5.30!) and Saturday nights. Cheese and meat picking platters are also available.
  • The YHA Granary Bistro in Dewar’s Lane offers a full range of drinks and family friendly meals in a relaxed atmosphere at excellent prices. You can get up to the lovely Granary Art Gallery from here for a quick look.
  • Upper West Street on West Street straddles this category and the one below. It’s a café/bistro serving a tasty range of lunches/evening meals and roasts on Sunday.

More substantial eateries

  • Gasparro’s on Bridge Street is the go-to for Italian staples.
  • Audela on Bridge Street serves reliably good lunch and evening meals using fresh local produce. At time of writing it is about to move to new premises further along the same street so do check first.
  • The Queens Head Hotel – lunches and evening meals which often make inventive use of lovely local produce. Venison is usually a good choice.
  • The Plough on the Hill is a new addition to the area. Four miles out of Berwick at Allerdean, this South African themed gastropub claims 2016 MasterChef Professionals’ winner Gary Maclean as its Executive Chef (allow £18-£20 for a return taxi to Berwick).
  • If curry’s your thing, Amran’s on Hide Hill is the place to go, it offers a great range of fine-tasting Indian food to suit the frailest and the most asbestos palates!

Drinkeries

  • I’ve already mentioned Pier Red and Foxtons – both popular and pleasing drinking haunts.
  • The Brown Bear on Hide Hill is a pub with a heart that serves a super pint and a grand pie and gravy. There is outside seating. It is also a Festival hub and is offering 5% off food and drink to those who show their Festival ticket.
  • The Curfew, tucked down an alley off Bridge Street, is Berwick’s super-popular micropub, serving fab craft beers – including those from excellent local brewery Bear Claw, local game and pork pies, scotch eggs and it’s the only place in Berwick to serve gouda and Dijon mustard – the ideal snack with beer. It has an outdoor patio.
  • The Barrels Ale House on Bridge Street is Berwick’s long-serving real-ale pub and live music venue. It’s a firm favourite with locals and visitors.

Outside the Curfew’s secret alleyway on Bridge Street

This brief meander through the eateries and drinkeries of Berwick is by no means exhaustive. I’ve enjoyed a substantial number of the places listed, others have been recommended by friends. However, just as my shelves are full of books that I have yet to open, the streets of Berwick are teeming with venues that I have yet to sample. If I’ve missed any of your favourites – or if, when you visit Berwick, you find your own hotspot – please do leave a comment below so that we can be sure to check it out!

For those of you who like to keep your step quota up, there are lots of lovely walks in and around the town. Tune into my next post for a few strolls that will wake you up and ensure you get maximum enjoyment form your visit to Berwick Literary Festival 2017.

Wandering in Berwick

Welcome to part two of my brief look at Berwick as the star of the Literary Festival (fitting, as a new film about Robert the Bruce, ‘Outlaw King’, is about to start filming in the town). My last post encouraged you to wet your whistle and whet your appetite in Berwick’s cafés and eating houses.

After all those stimulating Festival sessions, you’ll probably need some fresh air and the opportunity to wander and ponder. Berwick is the ideal place to do just that, enjoying views and wildlife along the way:

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Berwick to Spittal: Looking back at Berwick from outside Berwick Shellfish, Dock Road, Tweedmouth.

Wanders

  • The Walls: No visit to Berwick is complete without a walk round the historic Elizabethan walls. This 20- to 30-minute stroll offers vistas across the mouth of the Tweed, out to sea (with views to Lindisfarne and Bamburgh on a clear day) and takes in many of the town’s historic highlights including a great view along Marygate from atop Scot’s Gate – as seen and recorded by Lowry.
  • The Lighthouse: Pop down to Pier Road and take a blustery stride out to the lighthouse and back – it’s always possible you’ll see seals or dolphins – you’ll certainly enjoy views out to sea and across to Spittal.
  • The River: New Road is actually a footpath that runs inland from town along the Tweed to the base of the Stephenson railway bridge and beyond. Spot herons, seals and otters (if you’re lucky) and pop back up to town along one of the relatively steep paths leading through the beautiful Castle Vale parks.
  • The Bridges: If you’re pressed for time, why not simply walk over one historic bridge and return by the other? You’ll be rewarded with lovely views of the railway bridge along the river and, the other way, the coast.

  • Spittal: The historic seaside town of Spittal across the Tweed is home of St Paul’s, one of the Festival’s venues. When you pop over there to enjoy the programme, do take a moment to walk along Spittal Prom. It’s a classic Victorian promenade – a place to take in the air and savour the views out to sea and across to Berwick lighthouse. If you’re lucky you may see the pod of dolphins that frequents our coast.
  • Berwick to Spittal via Tweedmouth: The walk from Berwick to Spittal is an interesting and scenic one but do allow 20 to 30 minutes to get round to Festival venue St Paul’s. Turning left off the old bridge you’re in Tweedmouth and you’ll find Riverside Café. As you head on towards Dock Road, several lovely shops including the florist Buds and new additions Dockside Gallery and vintage store, From the Attic are worth a look. You could always stock up on shellfish or grab a seafood lunch at Berwick Shellfish on Dock Road before heading on round to Spittal.
  • The Boat Trip: If your sea legs fancy an outing and you have an hour or so between sessions, why not take a trip out from Berwick quayside? The ‘Border Rose’ makes regular trips up and down the River Tweed and out to sea to the end of October.

Bridge Street with second-hand bookshop, Slightly Foxed, foreground

Cookery & lifestyle shop: Cook+Live+Dream, Bridge Street

Gazing up West Street from Bridge Street

Grieve the stationers on the corner of Marygate & Church Street

  • The Town and Shops: Of course, you may just want to peruse a few shops and take in the general gorgeousness of Berwick. Such a stroll might include a jaunt north through Scot’s Gate and along Castlegate where you’ll find Pier Red (café/wine bar), and some independent outlets including a couple of lovely vintage shops and second hand bookshop Berrydin Books. Walking back through Scot’s Gate take the right turn just before Fantoosh (café/gifts) and drop down Bank Hill past The Loovre ice cream parlour, into Love Lane and on to Bridge Street. This street is packed with delightful independent shops and galleries such as Marehalm (gifts), organic outlet The Green Shop, and The Market Shop and second hand bookshop Slightly Foxed. At the far end of Bridge Street turn left up Hide Hill and poodle up the hill past gift shop Decorum to the Guildhall and Buttermarket. From the steps of the Guildhall take time to gaze along Marygate and the facades above the now predominantly chain store outlets for a hint of what the high street once was. Also, don’t be fooled, there are a number of pleasing independent shops here such as local craft collective Serendipity, the cornucopia that is Vintage upon Tweed and various cafés such as Deyn’s Deli (in the Rum Puncheon building). Another street well worth a look is the cobbled West Street which links Marygate and Bridge Street and is home to Upper West Street and charming independent shops including the jewellery outlet Bijoux and house of handmade artisan chocolates Cocoature.

There are many lovely walks around Berwick and, as you stroll, you’ll probably find some of the narrow back streets and footpaths too enticing to resist. Enjoy!

The Old Bridge

Community green spaces: a precious commodity

One of the most cherished and central aspects of community life is shared green spaces – areas where people congregate, walk the dog, go for a run, enjoy a moment of contemplation, take in a stunning view, or sit on a warm bench and flick through their copy of the Berwick Advertiser!

            In Berwick, we are blessed with some gorgeous bits of the great outdoors. Over the last four years or so it has been a delight to see the parks around the castle and the station – Castle Vale Park and Coronation Park – become welcoming and cared-for spaces once more. This renaissance was spearheaded through the County Council’s Strategic Parks Project and largely funded by Heritage Lottery money. The parks – and all the community events that take place in them – are lovingly tended by Parks Manager Kate Morison and her small band of volunteers. It’s a massive job and always a work in progress. That’s gardening for you: it is frustrating and demanding; it’s also life-enhancing on a range of levels.

Coronation Park

Meadow flowers in Coronation Park. Even ‘relaxed’ gardens require careful planning and attention.

            Events in the parks (mostly free) are instrumental in engaging the community and ensuring our common spaces are used in ways that are positive and beneficial for all – and for raising funds for tools and plants. We have a Dawn Chorus walk, an Easter Bunny Hunt, a ‘Meet the Ancestors Day’, a Beastie Hunt (see below), and a Halloween event. There will soon be a new sculpture trail. Sculptor David Gross specialises in large wooden sculptures and is workshopping with local schools to develop a sculpture trail in the parks based on the children’s designs. It’s so exciting to see young people engaging with our open spaces in constructive and dynamic ways. Such initiatives are surely a massive investment in the future of our parks.

            The recent Open Parks & Garden Day (pics below) was an opportunity to buy plants, chat with Kate and volunteers about the parks, and visit seven private gardens. From Tintagel House at the foot of Bank Hill, to Castle Hills House (the former maternity hospital) you could meander from garden to garden, meet gardeners, enjoy the eclectic mix of gardens on offer, guzzle huge quantities of tea and cake, and support the upkeep of the parks along the way. It’s the second year Open Parks & Garden has taken place – this year we raised over £600: thank you! – and we’re already planning next year’s event. If your garden is reasonably near Castle Vale Park or Coronation Park, why not join in next year? Just get in touch with Kate (see below).

            Mind you, things may look quite different next year. Lottery funding for the parks ends in June 2018 and so, therefore, does the funding for Kate’s job. With no paid parks manager to co-ordinate volunteers, devote time and expert knowledge to maintaining the parks and the rolling programme of events, it will be a tall order to keep these beautiful spaces as accessible and cared-for as they are now. It seems mad that so much money should go into refurbing these green spaces, only for them to decline again a few years later.  Of course, the Friends of Castle Parks are doing our best to try to ensure that will not happen and it’s possible (but by no means certain) that Kate’s contract may be extended for a year. But then what? These public green spaces bring communities together in so many ways, it’s worth fighting to keep them professionally managed. It’s a tough battle: resources are being taken away from parks all over the country. The Friends need all the support we can get. Do make your voices heard by speaking with your local town and county councillors, joining the Friends group and/or volunteering in the parks.

More information:

www.friendsofcastleparks.org

kate.morison@northumberland.gov.uk

(A version of this article was first published in the Berwick Advertiser 20 July 2017)

 

Today is the time and place for miracles

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We invest so much into beginnings. We wish for better. Or for different. Or for change. And New Year is the classic time when we decide this is the moment that it’s all going to happen. It’s a time to breathe in new possibilities and exhale what’s past. Despite all the partaaays!, and Auld Lang Synes, and live-like-every-day’s-your-lasts, an indefinable profundity drapes itself around the start of a year. And what better place to be at such a time than the home of Hogmanay: Edinburgh.

Even before we’d arrived at the top of the Waverley Steps by the station, there was an expectant thrum about the place. It was New Year’s Eve or, in northern parlance, Old Year’s Night. Roads were being cordoned and stages erected amongst the shoppers and sightseers of Princes Street. Unlike London at times of mass gatherings, Edinburgh did not appear to groan under the weight but rather to expand happily to receive the flood of anticipation, awe and anxiety that comes with one year’s end and the next’s beginning. I deposited my daughter at the hip eatery Indigo Yard on Charlotte Lane with an agreement to meet in a couple of hours’ time.

Free! I tripped along Queensferry Street, past Randolph Crescent (which always makes me think of its namesake in London’s Maida Vale where I used to live), towards the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Suddenly I was in Alexander McCall Smith’s book A Work of Beauty ‘under the towering Dean Bridge’ and in the cobbled streets of Dean Village. I’ve been there before, but in that moment it felt fresh and new.

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To arrive moments later at Nathan Coley’s illuminated installation There will be no miracles here, is surreal in the very finest way. What more thought-provoking piece of art could you wish for when mangers and shepherds have still to be mothballed. I am perhaps particularly sensitive to the concept of the miraculous: this time last year I had just come through a major operation and, in truth, was not sure whether I would still be around a year later. But here I was. Here I am. A miracle of sorts.

The Joan Eardley A Sense of Place exhibition at Gallery Two (until 21st May 2017) is a profound experience in its own right. Eardley tenaciously sketched and painted the tenements and people of Glasgow’s Townhead and the brutal and evocative landscape around Catterline just south of Aberdeen during the 50s. The exhibition is a tour de force that encapsulates the human and, specifically, one individual’s relationship with time and place. For Eardley this began with buildings in Glasgow and then extended to people – particularly children – who she portrayed with a curious and memorable blend of gritty macabre and Pierrot sentimentality. In Catterline, her initial focus was on the ramshackle fishermen’s cottages, rather than the stunning coastal views below the village. As you progress through this well-curated exhibition you are drawn into Joan’s world of urgent painting. From fishing creels to graffitied shopfronts, her’s is an emotive and at times jarring vision. You feel that she wanted to capture this moment, this place, to stop them being lost.

As I walked back to the meeting place I’d set with my daughter, I enjoyed the failing light and the drizzle. There was something about the water-smeared festive lights that brought a fitting wistfulness to the glitzy shop windows, fairylight-draped hotels, and spinning fairground rides. The fireworks later would be fabulous, but we were not staying to see them this time. Our moment here was done. As we sat on the train back south to Berwick-upon-Tweed, I felt strongly the creative miracle of time and place. And I thought how I would love to live 2017 not as if each day were my last but as if it were my first. Now that would be a miracle.

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County agricultural shows: Never mind the bullocks – feel the rhythm.

You know you’re the wrong side of 50 when you start asking existential questions. Not about life, the universe and everything – leave that to the teenagers. No, about what you were just about to do. That moment when you stand in front of the fridge and wonder why you opened it. Or when your purposeful stride into a room stalls to a bewildered halt. Eventually, you remember that you were getting milk for your coffee and glasses to read the paper. But now something far more pressing is on your mind. Why are you holding a telephone and what is the name of that flower with the blue and yellow bits?

Like many of us I worry that this is the first step towards dementia. Although it’s not an unfounded fear, most of us probably worry a bit too soon – the Alzheimer’s Society estimates that one in 14 people over 65 and one in six over 80 will develop dementia. The fact is, dementia or not, these blank-mind scenarios will repeat themselves in myriad different ways from here on, and I need to find a way to accept and assimilate them into the rhythm of life.

Recently I had a senior moment that was more about finding a thought than losing one. Stood by a row of toilet cubicles at the Glendale Show I thought ‘Why am I here?’ (not by the loos; at the show). What, I asked myself, is the point of the Glendale Show? I know this is tantamount to sacrilege. I spent most of my childhood May Bank Holidays being blown across the Suffolk Showground past sheep, goats, Victoria sponges, flower islands, and motorbikes sailing through blazing hoops.

The county agricultural show: not simply a place to coo over highland coos! (Photo courtesy of Mike Fraser)

The county agricultural show: a place to coo over highland coos…and a whole lot more.
(Photo courtesy of Mike Fraser).

But what actually is the point of the county or agricultural show? At Glendale I bumped into a wide range of people and discreetly expressed my panic about why these things exist and why we go to them. One friend asserted that it was ‘all about networking’ and ‘glad-handing the right people’. A couple I know from Berwick decided ‘it’s just what you do’ and then asked if I knew what time the falconry display was on. Another friend said her family had had a ringside car slot since time began, but she was beginning to wonder whether it was time for a change. Although her teenage daughter would kill her for even having such a thought. The lass still enters every competition category – it’s tradition.

I stocked up with fruit and veg at Julian’s Veg stall, and paused for a chat with Willy Robson from the Chain Bridge Honey Farm. Business was buzzing. The Aussie sheep shearer had the crowd chortling and local county councillor Jim Smith played the harmonica with his band. Ringside, some picnicking friends offered me a glass of something chilled. I had a brief encounter with sporty types off to do the Fell Race; got up close and personal with Barnacre Alpacas; and considered buying some new wellies. And then it struck me. The actual reason I was there.

The 13-year-old! I rushed to our appointed meeting place and couldn’t find it. Round and round I went. I remembered how years ago at the Suffolk Show a Tannoy announcement described a blond boy aged about six who had lost his family. We all looked round and realised it was my brother. Not wishing to humiliate the 13-year-old by taking myself to the PA announcer, I asked someone to point me in the right direction. ‘I knew you were lost,’ said my daughter. ‘Can we go home now? I’ve been on so many rides I feel sick.’

And, as we wended our way through the grass tussocks to the car, I glanced back wistfully at the rhythm of country life and really hoped I could remember where I’d parked.

Published in the Berwick Advertiser 1st October 2015

From one jam to another – via some unlikely yarns

I have zig-zagged across the country over the summer months, barely taking time to wash everyone’s undies before haring off to grab a cuppa with the next lot of family/friends, and then to join another queue on the A1/M1/A7/M6/M5/A12 (delete as appropriate). Hammering endlessly from one end of the country to another is about as much fun as watching ‘Made In Chelsea’ (don’t do it – ever). If only a traffic-less desire line ran directly from north to south, life would be so much easier.

A peaceful desire line trims the corner off the walk to Tesco on Ord Drive, Berwick. If only such a line existed between north and south.

For a start I might have been able to miraculously zoom back for the many local events I longed to share – from the Spittal Seaside Festival, to the Summerland and Electric Penelope gigs at the Maltings. Plus I’ve neglected our galleries for too long – The Watchtower, Granary and Gymnasium have all had stonkingly good summer shows. Fortunately we managed to anchor in Berwick long enough to catch Chloë Smith’s visceral and evocative dance ‘Tidal’ on Spittal Pier – go see the film at the Maltings on 9th September if you missed the real thing.

Why isn’t basic first aid training mandatory?

It was also great to take in the training session for the spanking new Berwick defibrillator (located outside the Youth Project). Hats off to Simon Landels and the Rotary for linking with the Stephen Carey Fund. This charity was launched by the friends and family of the young Alnmouth footballer who, because of a heart defect, collapsed and died during a match in 2012. It is testament to what a small band of dedicated, focused volunteers can achieve – providing over 45 defibrillators around our north-eastern pocket in their first two years. And now we have one in Berwick. It’s a comfort to the Husband who likes to note the location of such things ‘just in case’. However, should he ever need one (God forbid), he’ll also require the services of an informed and trained passer-by. I have never truly got to grips with what you should actually do if you’re faced with someone who may be having a heart attack. It’s not rocket science but, if you’re on the spot, the likelihood of you managing to roll a 17-stone person into the recovery position without the right technique is slim. Why isn’t basic first aid training mandatory? As our Stephen Carey trainer said: ‘Anyone can use a defibrillator – it’s what you do before you get to that stage that’s going to save a life.’

After a long day narrowboating a bit of yarn bombing makes you smile.

After a long day narrowboating a bit of yarn bombing makes you smile.

Of course, had I not been away visiting I would not have encountered the wonderful art of yarn bombing – thereby enabling me to identify the phenomenon in the photo recently submitted to the Berwick Advertiser of a phone box wearing a woolly scarf. Along the Kennet & Avon Canal at Caen Hill Flight (an eye-pixelating stretch of 29 locks), sweaty narrowboaters can pause on the towpath and smile at jolly knitted neck warmers adorning the lamp posts. What a wonderful example of the unpredictable eccentricity of humankind.

Desire lines are, of course, people’s preferred route over an established pathway – for example, cutting off a pavement-created corner (check out the ones by Berwick Tesco on Ord Drive or at the top of the pier). Mind you, off-piste routes are as capricious as their creators. On a recent St Abbs walk, we succumbed to an enticing path which deposited us on a vertiginous gravelly bank.

A woman trims the corner at Berwick Pier. But not all such paths are quite so predictable.

A woman trims the corner at Berwick Pier. But not all such paths are quite so predictable.

I am a tad dizzy when I think of this year’s Berwick Food & Beer Festival (fab family event – Sept 4th (beer only), 5th, 6th, Barracks). I have often helped in the popular demonstration kitchen, but this year I’m doing a demo (3pm tomorrow, Saturday Sept 5th, thanks for asking!). In my mind I follow a path leading to pert Pavlovas and peachy pies. But I dread ending up in the abyss of deflated soufflés and split sauces. And suddenly the simplicity of sitting in an unending queue of traffic on an A-road somewhere far away is quite appealing.

All prepped for my timed practice run of Jane Lovett’s (from Make it Easy) Salmon en croute with lime and coriander sauce.

(A version of this article was first published on 3rd September 2015 in the Berwick Advertiser)

Do I tell the friend I’ve not seen for 30 years that she’s muddled her memories

I am sat on a train to Sheffield. This is where my best friend from secondary school has landed. We were inseparable: both sporty, both hard working – she relatively quiet and good natured; me loud and ebullient and quick to choose the wrong rails when they appeared on the horizon. And that tendency of mine to just dive off the deep end probably marked the fading our intense friendship. We remained friends, but the bonds of shared love of dogs, netball, Ipswich Town Football Club (back in the glory days of Bobby Robson), and swimming and screaming in the cold North Sea were fractured by my desire to experience the sexier, more dangerous and wilder sides of life.

Hockey team circa 1976/7

Hockey team circa 1976/7. A love of sport kept my friend and I connected.

I last had contact with her 30 years ago. I don’t know how she tracked me down – that will no doubt become clear later today – but we have enjoyed a flurry of reminiscing emails. And this is a bit of a problem. Her memories are at variance with mine. She remembers joining my family for a holiday. She recalls the journey and the names of places – including a mound called Plum Pudding. I have no recollection of going on holiday with her. The area on Scotland’s west coast, yes. It was our family holiday destination for six or seven consecutive years. My father drove us through the night from Suffolk – first in a vomit-inducing Vauxhall Cresta and then a mustard Volvo estate – often with one of us in the back surrounded by luggage and food rations. My friend remembers this too. But in my memory she is not there. Never. This makes me nervous.

As we all know, memory is a funny old thing. I can’t be the only one who struggles to remember what shop was in the now boarded up premises on the high street? Even though I made purchases there and walked past it every day. That’s why archives and websites that enable us to share photos and memories are so compelling – such as the Facebook gem Forgotten Berwick. I could quite happily spend hours scrolling through that Facebook page, despite the fact that my own Berwick history goes back only six or so years (plus midnight drive-throughs on those long treks to Scotland). And there’s the thing. Should the topic of those much-loved Scottish caravanning holidays crop up during my Sheffield visit – which they surely will – what do I do? Do I confess that I can’t remember her ever coming with us, thereby suggesting she has perhaps converted my vivid holiday tales into a memory-by-proxy? Or shall I go along with her version, hoping it will trigger some remembrance of my own?

This conundrum aside, it is exciting to be dipping my toe back into such a formative relationship. I say dipping because, again, plunging might be risky. It’s no surprise to me to learn that all these years I’ve been careering head first into freezing swimming pools and seas to ‘get it over with’, I’ve been running huge risks. As any cold water swimmer worth their salt will tell you, the plunge comes with risk of hyperventilation, a racing heart, and even drowning and heart attack. On the plus side it can also deliver the endorphin high that sets you up for a zinging feeling all day. So, on one hand my experience tells me that diving in leads me into things I might otherwise shy away from – sometimes with good reason. On the other, simply dipping a toe in can often mean I’m heading home moments later with a slightly numb big toe and a lingering regret that I’ve not experienced the full plunge.

Thirty years is a long time. And now I am arriving at Sheffield station. Which, by the way, I don’t think I’ve been to before.

(A version of this article was printed in The Berwick Advertiser  on 2nd July 2015)

 

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Friends reunited. Together in my friend’s amazing garden just outside Sheffield.

Sweet music & community places & spaces – the perfect antidote to politics and politicians

Ne’er cast a clout til May is out. Electioneering mud-slinging has already ensured that May is knee-deep in more than clouts. But, hurrah! Today marks the end of the scrabble for our votes – although the shirt-tugging and hair-pulling will doubtless live on. For me voting is a bit like making a Pavlova. I always go through the same process but the end result isn’t always what I’d hoped for. That’s why, amidst all the endless politicking in Berwick, it’s nice to turn to other more productive topics.

Pavlovas are unpredictable beasties

Pavlovas like politics are unpredictable beasties

Just before I do, I should recap (for those who’ve been lurking under a duvet for a couple of years) that the upturned dander of the politicos amongst us is largely due to the fiercely contested nature of the Berwick-upon-Tweed seat. Lib Dem Sir Alan Beith has been warming it for the last 42 years since the then Tory incumbent Lord Lambton resigned after a scandal that would probably have enhanced his profile if he’d been a French MP. With Sir Alan’s retirement, the Tories are desperate to plump up the cushions of power for their own pert posteriors. And so the game of election musical chairs has been particularly discordant. Happy days.

Sweet music was abundant at the Maltings’ 25th birthday celebration. Local talent shone in ‘Here Come the Girls’, directed by the indefatigable Wendy Payn. My personal highlight? The boys’ take on the Ronson/Mars classic ‘Uptown Funk’, closely followed by Katie Hindmarsh’s rendition of Hairspray’s  ‘I know where I’ve been’. Fast-forward a couple of weekends and the Guildhall rang to the soaring notes of Northumbrian Kist, confected by Maltings Chief Exec Matthew Rooke. The deftly muscular National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, energetically helmed by Chris George, sailed through a true treasure chest of a programme sparkling with local references and talent. Mezzo soprano Tamsin Davidson and baritone Alan Rowland were perfect foils in Rooke’s tapestry of traditional tunes. Alison Coates pinpointed the twinkly naughtiness of ‘Wor Geordie’s Lost ‘Is Penker’. In Agustin Fernandez’s stunning ‘Arreglos Bolivianos’ the strings momentarily sounded like Bolivian pipes – incredible; whilst Alice Burn (sometime protégée of Fernandez’s partner, Kathryn Tickell) gave us no-holes-barred Northumbrian Pipes; Rooke’s ‘An a Craw Can Sing Anaw’ was a light-handed smile-inducing homage to Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ and a perfect showcase for Sam Lord and her bass clarinet (or crow).

Northumbrian Kist was fab – look out for more classical music from The Maltings including 2015’s Berwick Festival Opera with shows in June, August & September.

If you missed the Maltings’ celebrations, the free Party on the Parade (Berwick Rotary Club and Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research) on 24th May has rapidly become a town tradition. It’s a great bash and another opportunity to tap your toes to local talent.

The public spaces of Berwick are looking absolutely cracking. Kate Morison and her team of volunteers have managed to turn Castle Vale Park, Coronation Park and surrounding spaces into delicious areas for frolics, picnics, or simply to be. And, when mindless vandals attacked one of the handsome new shelters, local tradesmen stepped in and made them good: that’s community. Kate’s laid on a programme of events in the parks, from photography workshops to the wildly successful Easter egg hunt, from family sessions to get you up close and personal with pondlife and heritage to live dance and a dawn chorus walk. Alternatively (or as well!) head seaward to the crow’s nest atop the Coastwatch Tower by Magdalene Fields Golf Course. Volunteers have made this a place of beauty and information. The vertiginous stair will give you an adrenalin rush and the views will make your heart soar (open at weekends).

An example of community and what volunteers can achieve. Berwick's Coastwatch Tower.

An example of community and what volunteers can achieve. Berwick’s Coastwatch Tower.

The refurbed lily pond and shelter near Berwick Station

The refurbed lily pond and shelter near Berwick Station

Here’s a thought. Whatever the result today, let’s lock the politicians in a padded room where they can clout each other to the end of time – we could call it the House of Commons. The rest of us can get on with engaging in the community day-by-day and appreciating our tip-top corner of Northumberland.

The perfect room for politicians to clout each other.

A version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 7th May 2015

Making a molehill out of a marathon

It’s no secret that regular brisk walking – just 20 minutes or so a day is good for you and will keep you in the kind of shape you’d like to be in. But walking on a regular basis – particularly if you don’t have a dog or, like me, can simply sidle upstairs to work – can be less compelling than one supposes. That’s proved true for me. My aim to take exercise at least five days a week has looked a bit threadbare on a number of occasions. And suddenly the date of a giant walk we’d optimistically committed to at the beginning of the year had arrived. The folly of it.

Yesterday, on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, miraculously sandwiched between two duck-weather days, the Husband and I set off on a Coastal Challenge Walk. The route took us along the stunning Northumberland Caost from Budle Bay just above Bamburgh south to Alnmouth taking in seaviews, landscapes and three castles (I’m counting the views out to Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island). It was a marathon. Literally. That’s 26.2 miles. We completed it in 9 hours.

Lindisfarne Castle

Bamburgh Castle

Dunstanburgh Castle

Three castles. From top to bottom: Lindisfarne, Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh.

What kept us going? Chatting to people along the way. Keeping a couple of friends who were rather fitter than us in our sights – and walking the final leg with them. Gorgeous scenery. Excellent organisation from Shepherds Walks – who offer a range of fabulous-sounding less demanding walks as well as these stonking leg-buster challenges.  The cheerful and kind encouragement from the volunteers who manned the checkpoints. Regular munches of cheese and pickle sandwiches. And, above all, the realisation at around the 15-mile point that we really could do it. Something that we had both secretly doubted.

A reviving doughnut, Seahouses Harbour

A reviving doughnut, Seahouses Harbour

We were pretty much in permanent forward motion for 9 hours on fairly uneven terrain and today – bar a few aches and pains – our limbs are still functional. We are pumped up with achievement and the wonderful adrenalin rush that comes from intense exercise – we even braved the drizzle this morning for a cool-down stroll along the banks of the Tweed. Would we walk a marathon again? Possibly not. But we’ll certainly be striding out again for sure – enjoying the fact that our bodies are rather more capable than we gave them credit for.

Finish line

We got the T-shirt!

We got the T-shirt!

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