It wasn’t really the fault of ‘The Byre’ on the edge of Weardale that we arrived there at the same time as the worst storms for 30 years. At least it was a cosily modernised cottage in which to sit it out. Nevertheless the trip became known as the red coat holiday, because in every shot I’m wearing the sensible very waterproof coat I got for our daughter when she was a teenager (so it’s pretty much unused).
No sign of actual cows in The Byre any more, apart from a rather startled-looking one staring out from a print beside the mantlepiece. So it was not like the chambre d’hote we stayed in on our last French trip where the sheep really were still in residence on the other site of the partition wall – the rooms in the château itself having been set aside for returning guests higher up the pecking order.
But back to Northumberland, this was our third visit (not counting Mr B’s three-year stint at Newcastle University where he studied geography and geology in the days when the continents were connected and the rocks still cooling), and we had a thoroughly good time.
There’s something about an English autumn that adds to the atmosphere of ancient places. In Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall it was mesmerising to put my hand on the stones so skilfully dressed by craftsmen twenty centuries ago. The North Tyne river thundering by, brown and swollen, and the brisk northwesterly wind only added to our human connection with those shivering cavalrymen drafted in from Spain to guard this far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire. At Corbridge we walked in the footsteps of the soldiers and their hangers-on down a Roman street once lined with granaries and shops.
Fountains Abbey was, genuinely, awesome; deserted as we stood in the great roofless nave of the cathedral, the low grey heavens taking the place of the original vaulted arches. Heads down, we trudged up out of the steep valley drenched by the angled rain that must have soaked the Cistercian monks just as efficiently.
In Leicestershire we walked round the battlefield at Bosworth. Richard III is topical these days, as we wait to find out whether the bones unearthed in a central city car park really are those of the doomed, and rather misunderstood king, the last English monarch to die in battle. It’s only by actually being in the fields that you can understand how long it took for the armies to meet – or how quickly. You could sense the nervous tension among the foot soldiers as Henry Tudor’s men, coming uphill skirted the marshy ground that was, in the end, Richard’s own undoing.
There were more recent ancestors at Beamish Museum – on a farm of Jane Austen’s era, in a late Victorian/Edwardian town and at a pit village and colliery. The most striking encounter was at the pithead where as the steam-driven winding gear hissed into motion behind us we witnessed the 3ft high pit props (‘the wooden ones were better because you could hear them crack when the tunnel began to shift’), and the tubs waiting to be filled with eight hundred-weight of coal dug out by hand for 6d – if it was underweight the hewer would get only 3d. The toughest of men doing the toughest of jobs, hour after hour deep underground, six days a week for a working lifetime. We came away chastened by the memories of our grumbles about work in clean, modern offices filled with sleek technology designed to make everything quicker, easier, more convenient.