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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!

Stories abound in unique Belford museum, Northumberland

A man with trench foot rescued from a morgue and resuscitated by a disobedient nurse. A woman who extracted her teeth to make way for a wedding gift of a false set. A 16th-century highwaywoman. What do they all have in common?  The answer IS: Belford.

Belford & District Hidden History Museum, tucked into two rooms and a corridor, is a treasure trove of information. Check out the visitors’ book and you’ll find entries saying, “Fascinating”, “Beautifully laid out”, “A model for other places to do the same”, “A wonderful little museum”.

Mike Fraser, one of my tweeting buddies, recently began extolling its virtues on Twitter. Intrigued, I met Mike at the newly established museum. We spent a happy time reading stories of Belford – like the day the suffragettes stopped off en route from Edinburgh to London. They received a warm welcome – unlike the jeering they endured in Berwick.

Mike, whose project on Sir William Beveridge led him to the museum, was so taken that he took on social media and marketing on its behalf. He says, “It’s unique in Northumberland. There’s no other village museum.”

But how do you create a museum from scratch? Fiona Renner-Thompson holds the key. Fiona was born nearby and can see the museum from the window of her quirky townhouse – the former stables of the Blue Bell Hotel. She is rather inspirational. She says things like, “Well you just get on with it, don’t you?” And, “It’s about little history, not just kings and queens.” And, “If we don’t record peoples’ stories they’ll be lost.”

Belford has had its ups and downs. In 1639 someone wrote, “In all the town not a loaf of bread, nor a quart of beer, nor a lock of hay, nor a peck of oats, and little shelter for horse or man.”  By 1763, with the advent of the post and the Blue Bell Hotel, it was “a neat post town having an exceedingly good inn.”

Recently Belford’s high street has struggled. And in 2008 Fiona conducted a grant-funded survey to find out what residents wanted to do about it. She included the question, “Do you think Belford should have its own tourist attraction?” 80% of respondents said “Yes.”  Fiona gathered old photographs and took new ones of buildings needing attention. She had an artist create an impression of what Belford could be like. It all came together in an exhibition in the empty bank.

“As a result,” Fiona says, “a couple of shop fronts were spruced up in heritage colours, people started planting flowers. And people began telling me their stories. That’s when it struck me that this could be the basis of our tourist attraction.”

Armed with a recorder, Fiona listened to peoples’ stories, took more photos, and gathered memorabilia. She uncovered tales of lost houses – from tiny cottages to piles such as Twizell House, demolished in 1969/70. A trunk of clothes under a friend’s bed turned out to be those of the wife of one of the richest industrialists on Tyneside.  Four themed exhibitions followed – one a year. “They weren’t just my exhibitions,” says Fiona. “You’d go along and find that someone had added a folder, or photo.”

The bank was sold and the exhibitions moved to the empty Spar shop. Retired teacher, Eric Gassner, now on the Belford Community Group, recalls the agriculture-themed exhibition, “They wrestled a plough down the high street and put it in the window. Brilliant!”  Others, such as historian, Jane Bowen, came on board.

When the shop was taken over, Fiona’s gaze turned to the Reading Room. Always intended as a community resource, it was closed and unused. Permission was given and, with grants from the Lottery Village SOS Fund, the AONB Fund (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and James Knott Trust, the Reading Room was spruced up and kitted out. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s the stories that make the museum. I wish I could tell you more – like the Old Year’s Eve when Eva Walker led Black Swan customers (including the village policeman) in a conga round the market place to get rid of them… Sadly, there’s not enough space. You’ll just have to visit.

Belford & District Hidden History Museum, the Reading Room, Market Place, Belford, NE70 7NE. Open daily 10am-4pm. Free entry.

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

Couple’s life-affirming art captures the light and rhythm of nature in the Borders and beyond

It’s a rare thing to meet people who are grounded in time, space and environment. But Pauline Burbidge (textile artist, quiltmaker and designer exhibited worldwide, including London’s V&A) and Charlie Poulsen (specialist in sculpture, growing sculpture, drawing) are rather like their respective art works. That is, inspired by and intertwined with the local landscape and its ambience. Charlie and Pauline have created a studio, home and gardens in Allanton near Duns that are an extension of their way of life. A place that breathes vitality, originality and joyful quirkiness.

Charlie & Pauline's marvellous kitchen. (c) Charles Poulsen 2006

Charlie & Pauline’s marvellous kitchen. (c) Charles Poulsen 2006

Charlie is my husband’s stepbrother so I knew the couple were artists. However, it wasn’t until I met them eight years ago, that I began to grasp what that means. Even then I was naïve. I was beguiled by their clothes – a collision of the practical (overalls) with the hippy-cum-homespun (knitted waistcoats, printed scarves); enthralled by their home – painted wooden floors, bunches of herbs hung artlessly but precisely, Kilner jars glistening with preserves, upcycled Marmite jars, feathers here, a bowl of stripy stones there – like a perfectly organised version of Kim’s game; and entranced by the garden – fronds of sculpted and entwined branches guiding you round beds of flowers and vegetables growing to the right height and in the right direction. And, yes, I was wooed into thinking that this kind of stylish artistry is, well, easy, for artists. Of course, generally, artists work incredibly hard, create beautiful stuff, and just about scrape by. Pauline confirms this, “Survival can be quite hard. Being a couple, we can be supportive of one another – we keep separate pots of money so we can borrow from each other from time to time.” Charlie owns up to being in debt at the moment, “You’ve got to keep your costs right down. If you don’t spend, you have all that free time to do the work you want to do.”

The Allanbank Mill Steading kitchen during Open Studio. (Image (c)  Jason Patient 2013)

The Allanbank Mill Steading kitchen during Open Studio. (Image (c) Jason Patient 2013)

Charlie in one of the exhibition spaces at Allanbank Mill Steading (Image (c) Charlie Poulsen/Pauline Burbidge) 2014

Charlie and Pauline came north from Nottingham (where they met, married and, until 1993, worked) searching for a property to make the most of Charlie’s small inheritance from his brother. Most people would have balked at the slightly dilapidated group of house-less farm buildings. Pauline says, “We knew within 15 minutes of arriving at Allanbank Mill Steading, this was it!”  Ten years passed in a whirl of camping on mattresses, developing studio and exhibition space, creating a home, producing work, and taking on supplementary jobs here and there to keep financially afloat.

Pauline at The Quilt Museum & Gallery, York. (Image York Press)

From the start, the yearly Open Studio was at the heart of the Allanbank Mill Steading ethos. “We came up with the idea as a way of letting people view our work and see it in the place it was made,” says Charlie. “Being in a rural location, we felt we needed buyers to come to us, particularly as my sculpture is heavy and difficult to move. The first Open Studio in September 1994 was a fairly basic affair but we attracted a surprising number of mainly local people.  However, we made more money on donations for the tea, coffee and home-made cakes than on the artwork!”

The garden featuring some of Charlie's living sculptures and a Nigel Ross sculpture in wood.

The garden (above and below) featuring some of Charlie’s sculptures in lead and living sculptures and a Nigel Ross sculpture in wood (foreground below).

Allanbank Mill Steading

Since 1999, Open Studio has featured the work of a guest artist each year – including architecture, furniture, ceramics, glass, photography and much more. Last year local artist Olivia Lomenech Gill (who has illustrated for War Horse author Michael Morpurgo) was there. This year it’s the turn of Halima Cassell and her carved ceramics. Open Studio now attracts some 500 visitors over four days. It is 21 years since Charlie and Pauline conceived Open Studio and the on-going renovation of Allanbank Mill. To mark the anniversary, they have published a vibrant visual feast of a book printed in Berwick by Martins. It’s a celebration of their life environment and a taster of their work – from Charlie’s epic growing sculpture (400m long and 150m wide) on the Southern Upland Way and playful, thought-provoking ‘ghost’ sculptures in lead and concrete; to Pauline’s stitch art and quiltscapes that hum with the colours, light and rhythms of places such as Holy Island Causeway, Pittenweem, and Puglia in Italy. The best way to appreciate this generous life-affirming couple’s work is, of course, in situ. And you can do that during their Open Studio 2014 from 1st – 4th August and at other times by invitation or appointment (details below).

Charlie & Pauline are marking Open Studio's anniversary with this gorgeous book. Printed by Martin's in Berwick. (Image (c) Pauline Burbidge 2014)

Charlie & Pauline are marking Open Studio’s 21st birthday with this gorgeous book. Printed by Martins The Printer in Berwick. (Image (c) Pauline Burbidge 2014)


Allanbank Mill Steading, Allanton, Duns, Berwickshire, TD11 3JX T: 01890 818073 E: or w:,

(This article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser on June 5th 2014)

Breasts, buildings, herrings – keeping it real

On a magazine rack recently I spotted a headline about a celebrity who’d decided to have her breast enlargement reversed. For a wild moment I imagined turning up at my GP and announcing that I’d like my tonsils and adenoids back. Oh, and my bunions, varicose veins, wisdom teeth and dodgy womb. Not really in the same league as a celebrity’s breasts, and not really procedures I’d want reversed. However, reversal isn’t always a bad thing.

“For a wild moment I imagined turning up at my GP and announcing that I’d like my tonsils and adenoids back.” 

In the 60s/70s a new town centre was conceived for Ipswich in Suffolk. Its centrepiece was a concrete tower called Greyfriars which was designed to be a shopping, commercial and residential hub – a town within a town – with 950 parking spaces. It was hated and reviled by just about everyone pretty much from the day the plans were revealed. As a schoolgirl I walked past it every day and mum parked there when we went on shopping trips. Later my buddies and I put on too much make-up and tried to get into Tracy’s nightclub which resided within Greyfriars’ concrete catacomb. Greyfriars never achieved full occupancy and by 1984, about 15 years after it opened, it was largely demolished and replaced by a grassy area. How lovely to be able to grass over the mistakes of yesteryear. But total reversal is seldom an option and the burrs of history always seem to linger and attach.

Greyfriars under construction. (East Anglian Daily Times)

Greyfriars shops and roundabout in Ipswich Suffolk (East Anglian Daily Times)

I was lucky enough to catch the recent production of Northeast playwright, Ann Coburn’s ‘Get up and Tie Your Fingers’ at The Maltings in Berwick. Coburn’s play encompasses themes of loss, female independence, rites of passage, and community through the lives and experience of three herring lasses. The turning point of the play is the Eyemouth disaster of 14 October 1881. From a fleet of 45 fishing boats only 25 made it home safely. One hundred and twenty nine men and boys drowned in the storm. Many boats reached the harbour, only to be swept past and onto the rocks. The waiting women were unable to reach their men but close enough to see them die.

Herring girls in ‘Get up and tie your fingers’: Jean (Barbara Marten) and her daughter Molly (Samantha Foley) (British Theatre Guide)

“Get up and tie your fingers: A dextrous portrayal of the sheer brutality and hard graft of life along the east coast.

The play is a dextrous portrayal of the sheer brutality and hard graft of life along the east coast. In those days the cry of, ‘Get up and tie your fingers!’ brought female gutting crews pouring to the harbour to greet cobles laden with herring. The women’s fingers would be ready wrapped in strips of cloth to protect them from the curing salt and the gutting knives as they prepared and packed the silver darlings. Coburn’s play is also a joyful and poignant celebration of a time when these resilient herring lasses were independent and free to travel when most women weren’t and it encapsulates the visceral connection between living on the coast and making a living from the sea. It is all the more powerful and personal because as it travels from Musselburgh down the coast to Hastings – taking in Cockburnspath, Berwick, Kings Lynn, Hartlepool, Hull, Grimsby, Great Yarmouth, Margate and Folkestone  – it is partnering with a local community choir in each town.

Herring girls in Berwick-upon-Tweed (Berwick Record Office – also see Mouth of the Tweed)

And the marvellous ‘Follow the Herring’ exhibition is going with it. At the Gymnasium Gallery in Berwick, a full-sized knitted coble formed the centrepiece with a network of quirky and colourful local art, crafts, information, and personal stories swirled around it like a wave of beautiful flotsam. If you happen to be in any of the places left on the tour I urge you to catch this wonderful package.

But, would we go back to those days? Perhaps to abundant herring and the sense of community and shared purpose. But to the hardship and uncertainty? Probably not. Nevertheless the ripples of those times will thankfully remain in these parts because these are the stories of real people living real lives.

(A version of this post was published in The Berwick Advertiser on June 5th 2014)

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