Angel of the North

The Angel stands proud. Stretching out her arms some 54m wide and over 20m tall. She’s an impressive figure on the landscape. Possibly the most extraordinary piece of art I’ve ever seen.

It seems the Northeast of England has been subject to more invasions than the rest of the UK. Even today the “Jordies” speak with slang that dates back to the arrival of the Vikings. It’s a beautiful coastline full of history. Pete’s own history of being a student in Newcastle is what brought us here.

Newcastle was built on the banks of the River Tyne. A position that was defined by its famous history of shipbuilding. Today the industrial revolution has long gone but a vibrant city characterised by its multiple bridges, modern cultural centres beside the riverbanks, and the glorious Georgian facades of Grey Street (so named after the monument to the tea baron at the top end). It’s a fun place to go out, and evidently a fun place to be a student. Pete enjoyed a walk down memory lane.

Tyneside got me. Even in New Zealand we can’t beat the sight of a beautiful ocean beach with a steepled historic church at one end, and magnificent medieval ruins atop the hill overlooking the beach at the other. And that’s before we start talking about the Victorian promenade and steps leading down the sand, or the tremendously funky Riley’s Fish Shack in the neighbouring King Edward’s Bay. It’s a shame it’s cold. I’m not sure if even I could truly enjoy a swim in the summer months. I saw an elderly woman in a floral bathing suit and boogey board playing around in the waves. I wondered if I was seeing things after a late night in town. They come from tough Viking stock in these parts.

From Tyneside we travelled on, exploring the Northumberland Coast. The northeastern coastline is spectacular. Yellow sand, wide stretches of uninhabited land (aside from the odd castle of course), and clean blue ocean waves rolling up toward your feet. It’s hard to believe it doesn’t feature more on the tourist itinerary. But perhaps the solitude is its secret. For us it’s a must.

Bamburgh Castle is magnificent. It’s tall stone walls survived every invasion from the Scottish to the north, to the numerous forces invading the shores from across the water. It also provides a lone point of built form on a stretch of coast that’s been fiercely protected from development.

Further north we trekked through a stretch of farmland known as Ross Cottages. Public access is permitted over an area being held onto as pastoral grazing land. Cattle serve a dual purpose of cutting down on gorse and weeds, providing a wonderful habitat for birds and maintaining the local ecosystem. We discovered that the beach is incredible and well worth a 2 mile walk through no-mans-land. I didn’t think such uninhabited places like this existed in the UK outside of the Lake District. It was quite a discovery.

Lindisfarne was a curiosity to me. A private school in the Hawke’s Bay is named after this former monastery. Perhaps this is because the school was founded under the Presbyterian values of those wise monks that settled here. If I’ve discovered one thing on this trip it’s that the monks sure knew how to find glorious stretches of coastline to retreat to in search of peace and solitude.

Unlike St Michaels Mount, Lindisfarne can be accessed by car when the tide is low, allowing the development of a mid sized community on the island around the monastery. Unfortunately we were there to see enough water lapping over the causeway to make the drive in a van a liability. There wasn’t a procession of skippers and boats to take us across either. We had to settle for the view from afar, over the fertile red soils sloping down to the water, and enjoy a distant perspective of the monastery on an island in the distance. We weren’t disappointed.

Our journey terminated after we crossed over the borderlands and into the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. Author Ian Rankin describes his hometown as having a bit of a Jeckyll and Hyde personality. A city of great wealth and a magnet for visitors, yet I saw more people sleeping rough with a saucer for coins at their chillblained feet than in any other city we’ve seen on this journey. Liam Gallagher was pledging to entertain those sleeping rough in Princess Street Gardens as part of a fundraiser for the homeless just days later.

Edinburgh is close to my heart. My grandfather last saw the Royal Mile as a ten year old boy. He used to describe every shop, every step up this cobbled street, when I sat at his knee some 60 years later. I like to think I can trace his steps. We walked to the gates of the castle and laughed at the incredible number of shops selling the same tartan products to the tourists on route. We sat in bars in alleys off the side of the Mile, imagining what Edinburgh would had been like when the notorious Deacon Brodie was leading two lives and running amok in this city, inspiring local resident Robert Louis Stevenson to write Jeckyll and Hyde. To cap it off we found ourselves sitting in a small, dimly lit pub, listening to a young Scottish duo play traditional Scottish folk music at our neighbouring table. We credited them with holding on to a special part of Scottish History. Who says this generation are self obsessed? We gave them every coin we could empty from our pockets. We wished them luck.

The Northeast was a contrast to the rest of our trip. In many ways it was a chilly version of home with its beaches and natural beauty. Couple that with its rich history and so many tales of old. We were left in awe, hoping to return again.


One thought on “Angel of the North

  1. Really enjoyed this blog. Now it’s quiet here I have time to enjoy reading it. There are several places that we are intrigued with and will add to our list of places to visit in the camper. Thanks for a good read.

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