Goddess of the North and the Angel of the North and Blanchland

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The chances are that you will have heard of one of these sculptures but not the other. The Goddess of the North or The Lady of the North or Northumberlandia is a huge land sculpture in the shape of a reclining female figure, started in 2010 and completed in 2012, near Cramlington in Northumberland. She is made of 1.5 million tonnes of earth from the neighbouring Shotton Surface Mine, is 34 metres high and 400 metres long. The sculpture is set in 47 acres of public park and there are a number of trails in and around her contours. Northumberlandia was designed by world-renowned architect and artist Charles Jencks, who took inspiration from the distant Cheviot Hills, which are pulled into the foreground by the curves and shapes of the female form.

The car park is close to the road and you walk through the trees to the site. There is a station for electric cars to use in the car park. I am unsure whether the electricity was generated by coal or wind-power. I say this because from the head of Northumberlandia in one direction you can see around sixteen wind turbines turning gracefully in the icy north-easterly breeze – the long-term future – and in another direction you can’t help but notice the scar of the surface mine – the past and very short-term future – with the lorries seemingly like ants scurrying around performing various carrying roles. If anyone ever complains to me about wind turbines being an eyesore I will tell them to come here and see whether that’s still their opinion after looking at the vast mine and comparing it with the turbines in the sea.  

Whereas Northumberlandia is rather hidden away, the Angel of the North is not. You would have to be concentrating really hard on your driving not to see this amazing piece of work by the architect Antony Gormley soaring above the A1 at Low Eighton, Gateshead. The Angel is 66 feet tall, with the wings measuring 177 feet across. The wings are angled 3.5 degrees forward to create “a sense of embrace” and as with Gormley’s other work, the Angel is based on a cast of his own body.

Work began on the project in 1994 and cost £800,000 with most of the project funding coming from the National Lottery. The Angel was installed on 15 February 1998. Due to its exposed location, the sculpture was built to withstand winds of over 100 mph with the foundations containing 600 tonnes of concrete that anchor the sculpture to rock 70 feet below.

According to Antony Gormley, the significance of using an angel was threefold: first, to signify that beneath the site of its construction, coal miners worked for two centuries; second, to grasp the transition from an industrial to an information age, and third, to serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears.

To get a closer view of the Angel, follow the signs from the A1 and park in the lay-by around 100 yards from the statue. The statue is brown at the base though this is not rust as the statue is made from COR-TEN weather-resistant steel like the Roman centurion at Segedunum. The body weighs 100 tonnes and the two wings weigh 25 tonnes each.

Blanchland is situated in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a conservation village built of stone from the remains of a former Abbey and lies in the Upper Derwent Valley. This is a dark place at night and the rooms at the Lord Crewe Arms Hotel have telescopes so you can investigate the stars. The village flourished during the 19th century lead mining boom. I visited after seeing all the sights along Hadrian’s Wall. I had wanted to come to this place since reading The Pie At Night: In Search of the North at Play by Stuart Maconie, which mentioned another book I’d read called From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L Weston, which suggested there might be a connection between Blanchland and the Arthurian legends. Weston postulated that Camelot could have been situated around modern-day Carlisle and the Holy Grail might have been associated with a chapel in Blanchland. The church in the village is the Blanchland Abbey Church. The original abbey was built in 1165. The buildings and houses all look strong and sturdy as though designed to withstand the cold winters that must surely come their way.     

Hadrian’s Wall – Corbridge, Chesters, Brocolitia, Housesteads

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The permanent conquest of Britain by the Romans began in 43 AD and by about 100 AD there were army units along the stretch of land between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. Their forts were linked by a road, now known as the Stanegate, between Corbridge and Carlisle. The Emperor Hadrian came to Britain in 122 AD and the building of his wall began that year, taking at least six years to complete. The original wall was built of stone or turf, with a guarded gate every mile and two observation towers in between, and was fronted by a ditch.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Roman army of Britain. These three legions of regular, trained troops, comprised about 5,000 heavily armed infantrymen, though they were assisted by auxiliary units. The Wall was manned by auxiliaries organised into regiments of 500-strong mixed infantry and cavalry units and each fort on the Wall appears to have been built to hold a single unit.

Hadrian’s death in 138 AD brought emperor Antoninus Pius to power and he abandoned Hadrian’s Wall, moving the frontier to a line further north between the Forth and Clyde valleys, where he built the Antonine Wall out of turf. This had a short life of about 20 years before being abandoned in favour of a return to Hadrian’s Wall.

The effectiveness of Hadrian’s Wall had been compromised after it was abandoned, towers were removed and crossings thrown across the ditch. These changes were corrected and Hadrian’s Wall appears to have continued in this form into the late 2nd century. A major war took place shortly after AD 180, when the tribes breached the Wall and killed some Roman soldiers.

The forts on Hadrian’s Wall had a life of 300 years. Many modifications took place to the barracks, the headquarters buildings and the commanders’ houses because the Romans were always learning how to improve. All the forts continued to the end of Roman Britain, that is into the early 5th century. The latest coins found on Hadrian’s Wall were minted in AD 403–6.

Not all the sites to see were once fortresses. Corbridge was once a bustling town and supply base where Romans and civilians would pick up food and provisions. It remained a vibrant community, with two short interruptions in 105 AD and 180 AD,  until the end of Roman Britain.

As a visitor I was able to walk along the main market street of the Roman town and then branch out to admire the the granaries, barracks, commander’s house, water tanks, shrines, and even a strongroom. Inside the museum I saw the Roman armour and knick-knacks uncovered in an excavation in 1964, known as the Corbridge Hoard. This collection is an astonishing assortment of personal possessions, weapons, and armour buried by a Roman soldier. It’s the segmented plate armour that gives the hoard international significance. This find helped archaeologists understand for the first time how this armadillo-like armour fitted together. Today you can see the remains of the armour and a reconstruction side-by-side in the museum.

Ouseburn – Newcastle-upon-Tyne

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

At first I wondered whether I was going the correct way. I had started heading over the Byker viaduct but realised I should be heading down into the valley so I could make a visit to the Victoria Tunnel. It didn’t look too promising as I headed down a street lined with brick walls topped with barbed wire. There was plenty of graffiti and some broken glass.

But then I spotted what looked like a large sheep painted on a wall and smelled a faint whiff of what seemed like horses – in this suburban setting, surely not? I was wrong, because close by were Stepney Bank stables. The sheep was painted on the wall of The Ship Inn near to Ouseburn Farm and the Cluny live music venue. On the opposite side of the street from where I was standing was the recently opened Arch 2 Brewpub & Kitchen. A large lime kiln that had been half knocked down during World War II to stop it being used a signpost for German bombers stood near the Seven Stories centre for Children’s Books, which was opposite the office for the Victoria Tunnel guided tours. All of a sudden there was a lot to see and do.

In the way of the coincidental world a few nights later I saw the opening credits of a TV Series called Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads and recognised the view of the lime kiln, the first time I’d ever known where that was.

The Stepney Bank stables are open 7 days a week to provide high quality riding lessons to both children and adults. They also operate as a charity providing opportunities for children and young people growing up in challenging situations to increase their confidence, develop their resilience and gain qualifications and experience that will enrich their lives. This applies to riders and the volunteers who work at the stables. Stepney Bank Stables is approved by the British Horse Society and the Association of British Riding Schools and are also a Pony Club Centre. This means they’ve passed rigorous checks to ensure that their horses, facilities and equipment are fit for purpose and that the staff are appropriately qualified and skilled.

There’s been a city farm in the Ouseburn Valley since 1976. Byker City Farm was set up by local people, who wanted children living in the city to have the chance of working with farm animals. Over the years, the farm grew from a caravan on the site of a derelict paint factory into a vibrant and popular green space. The farm was forced to close in 2002 when it was discovered the soil contained high levels of lead from the former paintworks.​ The land was cleaned up, the new visitors centre was built and the farm was renamed Ouseburn Farm. With the help of Tyne Housing Association and Newcastle City Council, the farm animals returned in September 2009, and here they are today. This is urban reclamation and regeneration at its finest and the educational possibilities are tremendous for the local children.

Durham and St Cuthbert – The Cathedral

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham is the official name of Durham Cathedral and is the seat of the Anglican Bishop of Durham. The present cathedral was founded in 1093 and was built in just 40 years, an astonishingly short amount of time compared to many others. The cathedral and precincts have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with nearby Durham Castle, which faces it across Palace Green.

The cathedral was begun by William of St Calais, who in addition to his ecclesiastical duties, served as a commissioner for the Domesday Book. He was also a councillor and advisor to both King William I and his son, King William II. In 1083, William created a new monastic order in Durham. The married monks of the existing Cuthbert Community were given the option of joining the new order, without their wives. The monks at the nearby Benedictine monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow were transferred to Durham.   

Durham Cathedral occupies a promontory high up in a loop of the River Wear. From 1080 until the 19th century the bishopric enjoyed the powers of a bishop palatine – this was the Land of Prince Bishops – who had military as well as religious leadership and power. To this day, the Bishop of Durham is the fourth most significant position in the Church of England hierarchy after the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, and the Bishop of London.

The treasures of Durham Cathedral include relics of Saint Cuthbert, the head of Saint Oswald of Northumbria and the remains of the Venerable Bede. In addition, its Library contains one of the most complete sets of early printed books in England, which can now be visited as part of the Open Treasure tour. Before describing Open Treasure, I will provide some background information on St Cuthbert, who was a much-travelled man both during his life and after his death.

St Cuthbert could be described as the patron Saint of Northumbria and the Scottish Borders. He was born in East Lothian and spent most of his life in the abbeys at Melrose and Lindisfarne. Cuthbert was made prior of Melrose in 664. He spent much time among the people, being generous to the poor, and performing miracles. After the Synod of Whitby, Cuthbert accepted the Roman customs of the church even though he’d been brought up with the Celtic customs and traditions. His old abbot, Eata, called on him to introduce the Roman customs at Lindisfarne as prior there. Cuthbert’s reputation for gifts of healing and insight led many people to consult him, gaining him the name of “Wonder Worker of Britain”. His missionary work led him to travel across northern Britain from Berwick to Dumfries to carry out pastoral work.

This Can’t Be Happening by George Monbiot

Number 4 in the ‘Penguin Books – Green Ideas’ series, this book is a collection of speeches and essays by the investigative journalist and ‘professional troublemaker’ George Monbiot, a leading voice in the fight for climate justice.

This book isn’t just about the obvious changes we have to make such as removing petrol-driven cars from the roads, but whether we need to replace these cars with electric cars at all or whether a change in thinking to bring about less journeys in vehicles isn’t the better option. We have to do better very quickly otherwise climate changes will become irreversible.

Over four million acres of farmland in the UK is given over to sheep farming, providing 1% of the food of the country. This is 24 times as much land as is given over to vegetables and fruit and more land than is used to grow grain. This grazing wipes out wildlife and habitats. Even the well-intentioned movement towards pasture-fed meat doesn’t help the planet. Free-range chicken farming doesn’t help either even though it is cruelty free because all the reactive phosphate created by the chickens gets washed into nearby rivers where it causes algal blooms.

Humans have to think through all the lifestyle choices they’re making and follow the ones that do the least damage. This book will open your mind to the best ways to do this.

Murder on the Mauretania by Edward Marston

This book is written by Edward Marston who writes the Railway Detective series. The style of writing is very similar, plenty of dialogue driving the plot strongly forwards like the engines of the Mauretania as it powers across the Atlantic Ocean in the November weather.

I enjoyed the book immensely and will read another in this series, probably the one set on the Lusitania

George Porter Dillman and Genevieve Masefield are the detectives on the Mauretania as it heads from Liverpool via Queenstown to New York. The ship is carrying gold bullion and quite a few would-be thieves of differing professionalism, including one who steals silver. Dillman spots this thief almost at once, however the thief disappears and has to be searched for. Two Welsh ex-miners decide to break into the strongroom where the gold is kept only to find some cleverer thieves got there ahead of them.

Bobo the ship’s black cat also plays a significant role in apprehending the bullion thieves and this is a pleasant distraction from the serious business of murder on the high seas. There are well developed characters including Genevieve’s circle of friends, a courtesan who is pretending to be a loving wife, and a investigative reporter determined to show that the Cunard company is exploiting the members of the crew of the Mauretania.

The situation – Andrew Marr – The New Statesman 22-28 July 2022

The parliamentary structure is the institutionalisation of prevarication.

It is easy to blame the politicians but they take their cues from the public.

Climate change, species extinction, the consequences of global migration, starvation, and the upending of the world order for cosy little Britain are horrible issues to think about.

Most people will only consider them when doing so is unavoidable – and therefore when it is too late.

Too true and the only way out of this is genuine political leadership and an acceptance we have to start doing things differently straightaway.