Odds & Ends

With the swallows gone, the nights drawing in and the temperature dropping more than rising, we start to readjust for the months to come. A good crop of damsons this year thanks to netting of trees still small enough to allow it. The raspberry crop is pathetic but its better than the none at all of 2017. Apples have done well and it’s great to have the cheery juicy reds of Katy appearing along the wall. Nicely contrasted with sunflowers that have truly appreciated this Summer’s warmth! It is also the first year our little pear tree has borne fruit in its sheltered spot by the spinney. Out on the road I have prepared and seeded a previous ragged and weed infested edge and sown with grass seed. In the Summer I’d put stone chippings down on the short funnel of drive to lessen water running off the new surface calibration pooling and icing there in winter. Roadside drainage ditches have been cleared once again and the carriageway widened using compressed earth banks, replacing the soft verges in many places to allow safer passing and reduce the ‘drop off’ dangers following the Summer’s tarmac resurfacing work. Our neighbours dozen hogs remain on the crags and eat everything green we pile on the bonfire. High hawthorn tree hedge on the east now artfully cut back. (I’ve the scratches to prove it) and Kim has cut, tidied, cleared and generally lifted the large cast of shrubs & perenniels to make them all look very presentable. Butterflies (Peacock & small white) alongside hover flies and bees hone in on the swathes of Michaelmas daisies in the main bank and annuals like petunia and cosmos look at their best when the sun emerges to cherish and burnish their colour and foliage. The ash has ominous sackfuls of keys dangling on every swaying branch and the pretty mountain ash in its wake is reddening up and the berries cluster. Wasps gain egress to finish off any apples pecked by birds….There’s always work to be done in the garden but for now it looks as good as it can be, by our standards at least, at season’s turn.


We recently joined the last guided walk of the season at Catcleugh Reservoir, led by Tony, with the help of his friend Ken and wife Margaret. The former are volunteer rangers with the Northumberland National Park and these tours of the last Blackhouse at Catcleugh together with the dam itself are held some 6 times a year and last up to 2 hours. We had a wonderful time and the story Tony revealed to us is absolutely fascinating…

By the end of the 19th Century Newcastle Gateshead’s population levels had rocketed and there was a real crisis in housing and utility supply. A new source of fresh water was urgently needed and Newcastle & Gateshead Water Company undertook to create a new reservoir below Carter Bar on the headwaters of the River Rede. They started preliminary works in 1889 and the whole enterprise was effectively completed by 1905 with its filling. A temporary village for the army of construction workers and their families was rapidly erected on site, a sheltering wood planted and a 16 mile narrow gauge railway from West Woodburn built to handle the vast amounts of material needed. The pipeline still follows that now redundant track, taking Catleugh’s water down to the series of smaller lower reservoirs around Hallington and on to the conurbation. Catcleugh village was well provided for by the standards of the time. Music and dancing, legal (& illegal) drinking, elementary and further education, outings and excursions, weddings, births & funerals all played their parts in defining and shaping this thriving instant community made up of people who came from all over the UK to live and in some cases, die here. Work & social life is well documented in photographs, newspaper reports (25 years of village news in the local weekly newspaper), court reports, coroners inquests, journals, memorabilia, company accounts etc. Today the only sign of past occupation is a rough track through the woodlands below the A68, the resident engineers imposing stone built 12 bedroom mansion now a holiday let and the last restored Blackhouse (workers wooden hut so called because they were sealed in tar). 47 such uniquely styled habitations constituted the village. A fascinating experience wandering room to room today, filled as they are with artifacts recreating domestic existence here 120 years ago, getting such a strong sense of lives led. Later, with Ken as guide, our small party climbed through the lovely, now mature, woods of deciduous & pine to view the reservoir and dam, its immensely wide stone lined overflow, along with grand meter house at bottom and elegant valve house at top. A still functioning resource and a monument to another age. A great public service engineering triumph built in the most challenging of situations. The labour may have been hard but the wages were above average and the workforce enjoyed union representation. The villagers had a contemporary chronicler too in the shape of Billy Bell, the Redesdale Roadman, known as ‘The Border Bard’. His rhyming ballads are a wonderful contemporary source, adding colour and resonance to the documentation. (His work still in print and copies can be had at Bellingham Heritage Centre) Our tour finished with an extended visit to tucked away tiny Byrness Church, just down the A68, to see the remarkable memorial window from 1903, unique in being entirely paid for by worker subscription, honouring in a very moving way the 70 men women and children who died during the project’s construction. This beautiful artwork also features the only known stain glass representation of a steam railway! Tony, our modest and gentlemanly guide, was concerned that no book about the Catcleugh story so he has put his own money into rectifying the situation by privately publishing an illustrated definitive history. (There are only 4 copies). There’s a fabulous story here just waiting to be told to a wider audience, in theatre or film, that would resonate in our own time – a project for public good & the people who made it possible…We all, in effect, raise a glass to them every day of our lives!

Jamaica Inn

Probably the best known hostelry in Cornwall, thanks to Daphne Du Maurier’s full blooded page turner of a novel, Jamaica Inn lies at the heart of Bodmin Moor. Her wonderful tale set in the early C19th, and penned in the 1930’s, makes it appear remote and inaccessible. In reality today it lies by the A30 dual carriage and was (on my last visit) highly commercial and devoid of genuine character. Never mind, that should not detract from the inspiration and the imagination of the great writer who truly loved and understood the spirit of her adopted county and its people. At the diametrically opposite corner of England lies Northumberland. Different accent but very similar moorland and a shared history of unlawful violence in days of yore; wreckers & smugglers in the south west, Reivers and cross border raids in the north-east. I mention all this because I recently got involved accent coaching for a local promenade dramatisation of the above. The location was a Victorian manor house at the heart of a 5,000 acre estate high up the valley, most of it moor and rough grazing, close to the Scottish border. The owners are big supporters of the arts in all its forms and their support was crucial. The barns and gardens at the back of the grand house, with its sheltering woodlands, proved a wonderful setting for an audience of up to 60, over three nights. The main barn, candlelit and straw littered, was fitted out as the eponymous tavern. I particularly loved the way the wrecking scenes on the coast were staged using AV; big bales became rocks, sand covered the flagstones while a back projected screen with sea beating down on a cove shore gave a whole new dimension to proceedings. At the evening rehearsals I attended the cast did their best, with various degrees of success, to get their heads around what was for many of them a completely alien tongue. Never mind. This was a wonderful amateur theatre operation on all levels by a dedicated company with high technical standards and a welcome and constant ambition to create great drama in wonderful settings. Their previous outdoor shows included Hamlet in a local Bastle (fortified house) and Jane Eyre in a Georgian Rectory. It was also a lovely thing for me to be involved, however peripherally, in a wider creative arts project in my adopted rural home. One nice touch of many was having an interval bar in the courtyard with ‘Jem’s Ale’ on tap and costumed maids selling bit size home made pasties. Another was the way we all arrived up the winding lanes. With no parking at the venue we left our cars in the nearest farmyard (the farmer was in the cast) and were ferried back and forth in a vintage single deck bus. Dear me, I thought, I could be back home in the west, catching this very same type of vehicle into my home town, and the amateur production I would have been involved in as a teenager….Transported indeed, in every way. Just perfect!