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Discovering Paxton House – by radio

I was privileged to be invited by Tony Henk and Colleen Henderson-Heywood to help create a show for local Alnwick-based community radio station Lionheart Radio.

I knew that Tony and Colleen had bona fide credentials – I’d listened to a previous show they’d done together about the Berwick Stoma Society. The programme was revelatory, entertaining and darn good community radio.

So, how to make a radio show that conjured the atmosphere, sights, history and stories of a stunning attraction in the Scottish Borders in Berwickshire – the marvellous Palladian Mansion, Paxton House?

Swans above Paxton House

During the making of the show there weren’t swans above Paxton but we did hear and see a skein of geese.

The answer was careful planning and fab support and access from Paxton House – including super shepherding and storytelling from Paxton tour guide, Jim Casey. And, of course, a brilliant creative team including classical singer, Tamsin Davidson and her ten-year-old daughter, Tilly, lithe-fingered pianist, James Tweddle, and patient and sympathetic editing (done in his front room!) by producer, Tony Henk.

The result is a blended radio show that allows the listener to enjoy the sights and sounds of this lovely stately home without leaving their armchair. I’m proud to have been a part of the programme. The first airing went out this morning (Tuesday 6th March) and there’s a further transmission today at 9pm and an additional chance to catch ‘Discovering Paxton House’ at 2pm on Thursday. Do tune in by following the link to Lionheart Radio above.

It’s amazing what you can create with an enthusiastic team and determination. Hats off to Tony Henk for driving the project and seeing it through.

Salmon netting at Paxton House

Traditional salmon netting at Paxton House



Firsts: that’s what memories are made of

The older you get, the more important it is to mark big occasions. Then, as your memories fall away, the markers you have laid down become life rafts on which to float moments back into your mind.

We often remember firsts, don’t we? The first time I swam unaided was with my brothers in the freezing waters of Little Loch Broom in 1968 – the peaks of Beinn Ghobhlach and Cnoc a Bhaidrallaich made us snigger because they looked like pointy breasts. First boyfriend and first motorbike ride go hand in hand (1977). First real job – junior secretary at BBC TV – I thought I’d conquer the world from that post: ah well… Holding my babies for the first time. I nearly threw up on baby number two. Anaesthetics (first, aged nine, tonsils and adenoids) have always had that effect on me. First time abroad? France: camping with family – I was six, got mumps and had pessaries. The shame of it. I’ve hated camping ever since.

Twin peaks at Little Loch Broom (Image (c) Jim Farqhuarson 08)

Yes, not all firsts conjure up a rosy warm feeling. Most of us are prone to those wake-you-up-in-the-night moments that scrape loudly and insistently across your mind and refuse to be stuck on the let-me-forget shelf.

I wonder how Miley Cyrus (actress/singer formerly of Disney stable) will look back on her first public nude appearance in the ‘Wrecking Ball’ video.  And if Irish singer/songwriter, Sinead O’Connor, will consider a private little note to Miley might have shown the spirit of ‘motherliness’ and ‘love’ more effectively. Her  ‘open letter’, suggesting that middle-aged music industry geezers zealously fill their sticky coffers by exploiting the gorgeous bodies of young women, provoked a response from  Miley which was, well, like that of a teenager telling her parents where they can stick their advice.

I didn’t listen to my mum’s advice on choosing a degree. No doubt that’s why I dropped out, aged 18, and am having a second go now with the Open University. I’ve met all sorts of people who are trying to tick off the marker of higher education in later life because they either didn’t have the opportunity when they were younger or, like me, didn’t see it through first time round. Even now I toy with the idea of stopping. Maybe a degree is my holy grail – constantly present as an idea but out of reach?

Last month I took childish delight in meeting one of my Radio 4 heroes.  I entered a competition to find a new voice for the Pause for Thought slot on Vanessa Feltz’s  Radio 2 show – the final was to be at Cheltenham Literature Festival. The first 550 entries were whittled down to 30. Imagine my delight to be one of the 30! Thirty were pared down to six. I didn’t make it and was pathetically disappointed. I spent a small fortune getting to Cheltenham to take up my free ticket for the final. To make the most of the adventure I booked myself into a couple of talks. One involved novelist Alexander McCall Smith, historian Alistair Moffatt, and Radio 4’s James Naughtie discussing McCall Smith’s brainchild – The Great Tapestry of Scotland. An extraordinary woven record of Scotland’s heritage and history – 165 panels designed by artist Andrew Crummy, and realised by 1000 stitchers across Scotland and the Isles.

Gorgeous Jim Naughtie from BBC Radio 4’s Today. I like to wake up with him in the morning!

Afterwards, I interviewed Jim Naughtie for my little show on Alnwick’s Lionheart Radio. I was toe-curlingly starstruck. Still, it will be a lasting memory – as will the system crash that cut off my first broadcast of Jim’s interview mid flow.

The good news is that the ‘Search for a New Voice’ had a truly worthy winner – Paul Oxley. Also positive – 5.45am live broadcasts won’t need to feature in my list of memories. Plus, I’ve escaped the lure and shame of broadcast industry exploitation and mores – after all, just look at poor Vanessa on Strictly Come Dancing!

‘Strictly’ was possibly not Vanessa’s finest hour.

If you have firsts that have made a lasting impression, why not tell me about them by leaving a message below? I may well put together a radio show on just that subject.

(A version of this article was first published in the Berwick Advertiser, November 2013)

The past can be a welcome surprise

When I was little and we all had scrapbooks My Dear Old Ma wrote in mine ‘Times change and we with time but not in ways of friendship.’ My 11-year-old self walked a bit taller because it felt like a grown-up interaction with my mum. Later I saw it as sentimental. Friendships do shift and change with the ebb and flow of life – as do so many other things. We look back and think, ‘That wasn’t for ever after all’ or ‘I didn’t expect that to happen!’

Four years ago, I did not expect to be writing a column for my local paper. I did not imagine I’d be presenting a show on a community radio station (Lionheart, Alnwick), or that I’d jog to Berwick lighthouse, marvelling at the swallows swooping by my feet, and feeling as if I could run across the steely summer sea to Holy Island. I did not anticipate that the 11-year-old’s long-held wish to be a market trader would be granted – courtesy of a nudge from the Town Team and some parental support on the baking front.

A new entrepreneur in the making at Berwick Market

A new entrepreneur in the making at Berwick Market

I certainly would not have imagined myself at a seminar on heritage initiatives in Berwick. But a couple of weeks ago, I was. We’d been invited because we were beneficiaries of a Conservation Area Partnership Scheme grant. It enabled us to replace and repair stone and pipework at the front of our house.

At the beginning of our building project the planning and conservation people seemed, if I’m honest, mildly intrusive and annoying. We wanted to haul our listed house into the era of modern living and they smiled knowingly, shaking their heads when we suggested moving this window and opening out that doorway.  However, in the end, we are pleased with the input we received – even though it scuppered some of what we’d intended to do. Fact is, we have a better, more coherent and pleasing end product than if we’d been left to our own devices. And I didn’t expect to say that!

THI grants have enhanced the look of many buildings on Castlegate, Berwick. Including our own.

THI grants have enhanced the look of many buildings on Castlegate, Berwick. Including our own.

I had not realised the wider implications of the number of regeneration schemes that have cleverly converged on the town. The Berwick Historic Area Improvement Scheme is a catchall for grants received from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Townscape Heritage Initiative, One North East, and English Heritage (plus contributions from County and Town Council and business and home owners). It’s all managed by a project officer (funded by a separate grant). And different projects are happening simultaneously around town – including Castlegate, Bridge Street and, the final hoorah, the restoration of the Cowe buildings (purchased by Arch, the organisation established by County to stimulate regeneration in Northumberland). It equals some £3m pumped into the fabric of the town. That’s on top of vanguard project, Dewar’s Lane Granary (£4.7m), and plus the current Berwick Parks Project (approx. £1m), which could be viewed as a spin-off from these successes.

The Barrels pub and the former Cowes buildings - both being given a facelift with grant monies.

The Barrels pub and the former Cowes buildings on Bridge Street, Berwick  – both being given a facelift with grant monies.

The Free Trade public house on Castlegate - surely not a facelift too far?

The Free Trade public house on Castlegate – surely not a facelift too far?

Of course, infrastructure projects may seem highfalutin and insanely pointless when people are scrabbling to make ends meet. But these pools of money are available for what they’re available for. The works are usually (though not always) carried out by local tradesmen – a local economy boost and injection of new and transferable skills. I said funding had cleverly converged on the town, but it’s not serendipity. It took tenacity and vision to snare Berwick a share.

Come 2015, the current project will end. The conservation officer who made the bids and is overseeing and implementing the projects will be heading out of Berwick and back to County Hall – which will doubtless affect Berwick’s ability to benefit from other such schemes.

I’m sad about that. When we look back at Berwick’s scrapbook I don’t believe that the 2010-2014 Berwick regeneration will be considered a mistake. Or maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age.

This article first appeared in The Berwick Advertiser in July 2013

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