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Archive for the category “Escape”

Today is the time and place for miracles


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.


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.


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)



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!

Roll out the Burrell: Berwick’s community treasure chest

A new exhibition at the Granary Gallery showcases a fabulous town treasure – The Burrell Collection: a legacy always intended by its donor to be freely accessible to Berwick townsfolk. Berwick Visual Arts (BVA) and Berwick Museum wanted to do more than simply select artefacts for a one-off show. So, during the six months before it opened, volunteers explored and catalogued documents, oral histories were gathered, relationships and learning resources were developed with local schools, and a restoration programme began. This has enriched a delightful exhibition and fed into a wider programme of talks and school visits. James Lowther and Val Tobiass of BVA and Anne Moore of Berwick Museum hope it will begin to reconnect the town with this extraordinary gift.

Schoolchildren take inspiration from one of the newly framed Melville’s (Picture: Kimberley Powell, Berwick Advertiser)

When a community receives an arty bequest it can be a dilemma as well as a delight. In 1851 JMW Turner famously left a mass of his work to the nation, decreeing that his paintings ‘Dido building Carthage’ and ‘Sun rising through Vapour’ must be hung alongside two paintings by 17th-century master Claude. A complex juggling act followed, complicated by a legal challenge to Turner’s will. Ultimately the four paintings were hung together in the National Gallery (and still are). The bulk of Turner’s collection – including beauties such as ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ – was shunted around London until finally taking up residence in the new Tate Gallery in 1910.

About the time Turner’s bequest was being pass-the-parcelled around London, Berwick Naturalists’ Club founded Berwick Museum (1867). A bit later, in 1875 a slip of a Glaswegian lad started to work his way up the rungs of his family’s shipping firm. This Victorian boy would become Sir William Burrell of Hutton Castle (he moved there in 1927). Aged 18 he chose to buy a painting instead of a cricket bat (to his father’s disgust), and began a 60-year hobby-cum-investment habit of collecting art. In the 1940s, he gave a princely slice of the works he had amassed to the people of Berwick. At the heart of Burrell’s gift of some 50 paintings and 300 ornamental objects was a desire to “give the people [of Berwick] an interest in Art”.

it came as a surprise and thrill to discover that I could experience works of great quality directly and freely in my local library

Through today’s lens Burrell looks like a classic didactic Victorian: a control freak with a keen mind and sharp business eye – sometimes expressed in eccentricity and meanness. He liked to shut off the electricity at Hutton Castle at 10pm, plunging all residents and guests into darkness whether they were in bed or not. However, Berwick can be thankful that, whilst Burrell enjoyed being hands-on during the renovations (which he paid for) to Berwick Museum so it could house his gift, he did not impose the restrictions he placed on the massive collection given to Glasgow. That city took years to find a site that met Burrell’s criteria and the doors did not open on Pollok Park until 1983.

Sir William Burrell – very much a man of his time. Picture from The Glasgow Story

Meanwhile, people in Berwick stopped by the Library and Museum on Marygate (now Costa Coffee) and perused the works of Arthur Melville and Jacob Maris while waiting for the bus. One man remembers spending weekends in the Library while his parents worked. He had free access to the Museum above where, he recalls, the Burrell Collection “shared space with a collection of local artefacts: huge keys and locks, cannonballs from the battle of Halidon Hill, a statue of Jimmy Strength and other treasures… it came as a surprise and thrill to discover that I could experience works of great quality directly and freely in my local library. The works that remain most strongly in my memory are paintings by Joseph Crawhall and Eugene Boudin.”  Degas, Daubigny, Gericault and Muhrman also feature in Berwick’s Burrell hoard, plus exquisite ancient Roman and Venetian glass, Japanese Imari pottery and Ming porcelain.

Vincent Lomenech in his Belford Studio reframing the prized Gericault

Vincent Lomenech in his Belford Studio reframing the prized Gericault. Picture Olivia Gill/Vincent Lomenech

An often neglected aspect of publicly owned collections is restoration, conservation, and preservation. Thanks to some Heritage Lottery Funding several works in the current exhibition have received TLC from local paper conserver and restorer, Vincent Lomenech. In his Belford studio, Vincent eased from their frames watercolours and pastels undisturbed for over 100 years in order to release them from damaging acidic board and adhesives. He healed and cleaned, remounting and reframing as necessary. Vincent is a master in a precise and fragile art – in the past he has restored pages from the 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, and is currently working on redeeming the original plans and drawings for Alnwick Gardens. Whilst working on the Burrell Collection, he found annotations in the artist’s hand on the back of a Maris, and a £45 price tag behind Melville’s ‘Cairo Bazaar’, “probably what Burrell paid for it”. Vincent’s wife, artist and illustrator Olivia Gill, remembers being inspired by the portraits in the Glasgow Burrell Collection as a 15-year-old and says she was “childishly excited at having Gericault’s ‘Wounded Cavalry Officer’ in the studio”.

BVA’s and Berwick Museum’s aim to rekindle community interest and present the Collection as a resource and attraction for a new generation echoes Burrell’s original desire. Hopefully the project will contribute to the on-going story of this important and extraordinary haul. As one local school teacher said in the visitors’ book: “A wonderful exhibition and workshop. Such a great resource for Berwick – we are very lucky!”

Berwick’s YHA: home of the Granary Gallery. Picture: Visit Berwick


  • Berwick’s Burrell Collection at The Granary Gallery, Dewar’s Lane: Free entry, 11am-5pm Wed-Sun until May 4th 2015
  • Berwick’s Burrell Collection at Berwick Museum:
  • For more information about the Schools Programme, Digital Learning Resources, Mobile App visit:
  • To contribute to the oral history project: contact Val Tobiass at or telephone 01289 333 088.
  • Vincent Lomenech, Paper Conservation and Restoration and specialist Picture Framing:
  • Olivia Lomenech Gill, Artist, Illustrator, Printmaker:

This article was first published on 2nd April 2015 in The Berwick Advertiser

Somewhere under a rainbow

A treat to pop out this afternoon after the torrential rain and find that Berwick truly is a place under a rainbow. Snapped with my mobile phone.

The trill of the opera – time to take the plunge

I took a plunger with me the first time I went to the opera in the early 1980s. My brother lived in Peckham, south London – his sink was blocked. I lived and worked near Shepherd’s Bush in west London. Covent Garden was a good halfway house. Our plan was to experience an alien music form (and hand over the plunger). Our chosen opera was in English – we figured that we’d never understand warbly voices and a foreign language. I’m pretty sure the work was called “Samson!” Nowadays I would immediately be wary of a gratuitous exclamation mark: then I was young and innocent in the ways of punctuation hyperbole!

It’s a plunger!!!

In our childhood, my Dear Old Ma had a few Gilbert & Sullivan LPs – Iolanthe and HMS Pinafore spring to mind – I was aware that these romping tunes and catchy songs were not ‘real opera’. Real opera was difficult and hard to listen to. “Samson!” confirmed this. We folded ourselves into the stifling gods of the Coliseum. Below, tiny figures aboard huge turrets – half in black, the other white – skittered about colliding and separating, emoting and trilling. The good/evil metaphor was obvious even to us but we came away bemused and sure that this was not an art form to pursue. My brother, however, did unblock his sink.

We’ve all heard of operas such as Carmen. Here’s the reason: they’re the good ones.

Years later I was lucky enough to be reintroduced to opera through the Husband’s work. Many of us have only heard of a handful of operas: Carmen, The Magic Flute, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata to name a few.  There’s a reason: the operas we’ve heard of are the best ones. If only I’d realised that 20 years earlier! Other winning aspects of opera that passed me by for many years were the spectacular sets, opulent costumes and huge casts. Opera, I now know, is glitz and bling – the Dubai of theatre, if you will.

“Opera is glitz and bling – the Dubai of theatre, if you will”

Matthew Rooke (Artistic Director of The Maltings, Berwick) has a beguiling vision to take well-known operas and produce vibrant new productions to fit smaller venues in smaller towns. He tested the water last year with a new orchestration of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (performed by the ebullient Newcastle-based Rocket Opera at the Guildhall, Berwick). It was fab –and despite what the cognoscenti may say, I think G&S is real opera. The trial led to a mini opera season this year. Would punters miss the pizazz and panache of large scale productions?

Rocket Opera’s rumbustious performance of The Pirates of Penzance had the audience giggling and guffawing. One man in front of me silently sang along to the whole show. The orchestra navigated the pared down score seamlessly under the helmsmanship of Nick Butters.

Not at all. Each of Berwick Festival Opera’s offerings was extraordinary in its own right. This was opera up close and personal – conductors, singers, musicians and audience bound together in the experience. Who’d have imagined orchestrating Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas with four Saxes (the super Sax Ecosse) and an electric bass guitar? Rooke would. Or conjuring the seaside (G&S’s, Pirates of Penzance/Rocket Opera) with Doddington’s ice cream, some deck chair fun, and a sea-shanty riff or two? Watching Opera dei Lumi’s music director Peter Keenan rally some fine young regional musical talent in their electrifying inaugural performance of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte gave me goose bumps of delight – yes, the young male singers flagged slightly towards the end, but their female counterparts managed to buoy them up and sustain the energy and characterisation essential in a show without costumes, lights or sets and with the conductor tucked behind them. Hats off to them. Conductor Peter Selwyn dextrously steered the sublime Hebrides Ensemble and NYOS Camerata through the surges and splurges of Wagner’s Die Walkϋre with singers Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (first seen in Berwick last year in Rooke’s Flyting), Ronald Samm and Stuart Pendred making the most of the acoustically brilliant Guildhall. Pared down operas? Yes. Tailored to fit? Perfectly.

Another plus of local opera for local people is the opportunity to showcase local talent which was abundantly represented during the Berwick Festival Opera. Including well-known local singer Tamsin Davidson as the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas.

Berwick-based singer, Tamsin Davidson.

Here in Berwick festival season is now in full swing – we’ve just smacked our lips over the final lobsters and locally sourced organic sausages of the family friendly Food Festival (13th & 14th Sept), and it’s eyes-down-look-in for the internationally acclaimed Film Festival (17th-21st Sept) with its blissful mix of free installations around our historic town, well-priced and accessible workshops, and cutting edge films. Plus there’s the all-new Literary Festival (17th-18th October). So, here’s to the delights still to come and, if you’re an opera sceptic, I urge you to take the plunge next year with the Berwick Festival Opera – but perhaps not the plunger.

Conductor Peter Selwyn conducted Jonathan Dove’s arrangement seemingly effortlessly.

(A version of this article was first printed in The Berwick Advertiser on 4th September 2014)

On the lash in Newcastle – a two-day dash and dine experience

The 12-year-old was gallivanting on a school trip so the husband and I took the opportunity to go on the lash in Newcastle. Usually we seek our kicks in a northward direction – drawn to Edinburgh like skiers to après ski. However, an impossibly cheap deal for two nights at Premier Inn Quayside (£29/£36) was a siren call.

We romped from restaurant to restaurant barely taking time to digest, managed a gig at the fabled Cluny, and a fly-by The Workplace Gallery (Old Post Office, West Street, Gateshead). We arrived at Workplace to view work by Cecilia Stenbom (Berwick Visual Arts’ resident artist, 2013) via a stroll in the leafy Gateshead Riverside Park, home to a variety of public art.

The Cluny – photo: Evening Chronicle

Some thoughts on a Newcastle getaway:

  1. The first notable point is that a city break on Sunday and Monday nights avoids the inevitable Friday and Saturday hen and stag parties (and four-foot inflatable penises).
  2. David Kennedy’s River Café. We had high hopes for this North Shields hotspot. Kennedy is a former North East chef of the year and River Café bagged the Observer Magazine’s top café of the year accolade within 12 months of opening. The metro journey was eyecatching enough taking in Wallsend (signs in Latin and English nod to the station’s location near the end of Hadrian’s Wall). Sunday downsides include the ubiquitous Sunday roast. I’m not a fan of huge slabs of beef served with giant Yorkshire puds, however beautifully cooked. I went for crab bruschetta, whole grilled mackerel, and gooseberry fool, the husband had ‘fabulous’ mussels. It was all nicely done and cracking value but somehow not quite the aaah! of delights I’d anticipated. I’d like to revisit on a weeknight and sample a less formulaic menu. Nevertheless, well worth the trip and Fish Quay is a great location.

    Fish Quay – photo: Newcastle upon Tyne and Northumberland Daily Photo

  3. Back to Newcastle for supper at Café 21, Trinity Gardens. Don’t be put off by the hotel-like décor. We sailed merrily through ‘the finest Provençal fish soup this side of the Channel’ (according to the husband), crushed peas with goat’s curd on toast, scallops and venison. This was tip-top food – the priciest of our visit (no change from £100 for two courses plus a shared cheese plate, cocktails and a bottle of wine) but, we felt, worth the blowout. We also had it in mind to try out a trendy gin bar – we went to Pleased To Meet You on High Bridge and sampled a fragrant French G’Vine and a classic 50 Pounds gin (a name dating from the taxes levied on gin distillers back in the 18th century) – as we sipped we enjoyed a well-chosen playlist alongside a pleasing (but not overpowering) number of other punters and again congratulated ourselves on choosing the tail end of the weekend.

    The Lit & Phil – Image – BBC Tyne

  4. With a visit to the gorgeous Literary & Philosophy Society, Westgate Road (opened in 1825 and the largest independent library outside London) under our belts, we headed to what the husband dubbed ‘a tearoom run by three bearded men’. The Quilliam Brothers (only two are bearded) purvey over 60 types of tea at their quirky tea-cum-arts café on Barras Bridge. We took ours accompanied by a sprightly Monday-lunch salad of pear and goats cheese with a walnut pesto on the ground floor, whilst those with bendier knees sprawled on beanbags in the basement.
  5. The funky Ouseburn Valley (five minutes along the Quay from the hotel) is a former seat of industry – part regenerated, part in progress. Here you’ll find the Victoria Tunnel – 19th-century wagonway carrying coal from Spital Tongues Colliery to the river – and Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books. Plus, Artisan in the Biscuit Factory, a restaurant headed up by another North East chef of the year, Andrew Wilkinson.  He we indulged in truly toothsome salt cod beignets, mackerel with sublime chilli jam on a mouthwatering salad of watercress, coriander and sesame, a pleasingly puffy cheese soufflé and well constructed sea trout with sea veg and baby clams (although perhaps not enough clams and not sure which was sea veg!). Overall a cracking meal – we’ll be back. I wish there were time to tell you about the delicious Geordie tapas we sampled the following day at Broad Chare, Quayside (fun and tasty nibbles but rather grumpy service). Alas I have run out of space. As had my stomach when we boarded the train home.

Of course, there’s no place like home. Back in Berwick I have since enjoyed toothsome lamb (Queen’s Head, Sandgate), wonderful mussels and lobster (Audela, Bridge Street), candlelit cocktails (King’s Arms, Hide Hill), and a fruity pint at the Curfew micropub (Bridge Street). And now I must lie down!

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