- Five miles of Felton & West Thirston.
NE65. OS Grid Reference: 185005. 9 miles south of Alnwick/27 miles north of Whitley Bay.
Felton & West Thirston, two pretty villages separated by the River Coquet, are joined by two bridges: the Old Bridge & the New Bridge. We park, for free, in the spacious riverside car park opposite West Thirston’s Northumberland Arms. The Arms is a very smart looking, grey stone, roadside establishment, typically Northumbrian (to these eyes), that identifies itself as a ‘5* gastropub, with rooms.’
Before we get out of the car, Raymond, collecting his map & compass from the dashboard, says, with some gravity, “Gentlemen, we are ostensibly parking here illicitly. I propose that if anyone asks, we say that we are going to be patronising the restaurant later, but first we are going for a stroll to fire up an appetite.” We all know that we won’t be visiting the gastropub anytime soon today. Across the street a maid on the first floor can be seen cleaning the window inside one of the aforementioned rooms. She pauses & then waves. I don’t anticipate any trouble. But we agree & collect our gear from the boot. I play the alibi over briefly & we head off, Raymond, Mike, Ian, Malcolm & me.
The Old Bridge is old. It dates back to the 12th century & is closed to traffic. The Coquet meanders below, carrying a sord of mallards. We visit the church of St. Michael & All Angels. It is set within a small, walled & gated cemetery. It has stood on this site since the early 1200s. From the roadside the nave appears to be without a roof, but this is an illusion. Saint Michael’s has seen many renovations & additions over the centuries &, once inside, it becomes clear that the ‘original’ building is almost encased within the outer, newer, structure; a church within a church. A sign on the door suggests – ‘Come in & reflect’. It always seems right to remove my hat as we pass through the door. The atmosphere inside is charged with the quiet, solemn, energy peculiar to ancient buildings. We wander. We reflect. Beyond the altar a stained-glass Christ on the crucifix is bathed in light. At his feet, worked into the glass, is the message – It Is Finished. We leave.
The woods are damp; peaceful & cool. The earth is muddy & the path leads down to a stream. The villages are behind us. The river is banked with huge Wild Burdock weeds. They are woolly to the touch. Three measured shotgun blasts, far away, echo through the trees.
“The Andulucians snag small birds, sparrows & the like, in nets – nido – during August, September in the early evening. They roast them.” Ian spends his time between Spain & Northumberland. He is back for several weeks now to catch up with his kids & to escape the heat. He peppers his sentences with a heavy Spanish accent & phrases. He is a Brummie.
“There can’t be much meat on a sparrow,” says Mike.
“Not a lot. The cazador, the hunter, collects many birds, los pajaros, in his nets. They are a delicacy. Rather like the French, if it moves, they will eat it. I met my neighbour, Santiago, in the woods near the village last month. He had a collection of birds wrapped up in his shirt. No bolsa, Santiago? – no bag? – I gave him my rucksack and he put the birds and the shirt in there. Ah, bravo, amigo! Gracias! Gracias! I didn’t eat any though.”
We cross the stream, single file, on a damp, wooden bridge & cut across a field of sheep & geese. It is bordered on three sides with Pines & the ground is thick with sheep turd & thistles. “The Turd & Thistle would be a great pub,” I say. We talk about pub names. Many of the sheep are on their front knees, head to ground, eating grass, chewing thistle, turds falling out of their arses. We pass into the treeline; Park Wood. The wood is dense & dark & damp. The pathway is knotted with roots & littered with damp pine cones. Another inevitable wooden bridge takes us across the Coquet again. We talk about theology & how Muslims discovered that the world is round by using maths & shadows on sticks stuck in the sand. We talk about The Byrds. The wind picks up & rushes through the tree tops. The wood creaks.
Two of us think that Chestnut Mare is The Byrds best song. Malcolm thinks it’s West Coast hippy shit. I’m thinking that the Egyptians had the world sussed as round way before the Muslims, but I can’t quite place who came first.
The path is muddy & talk turns to festivals. “I saw Copperhead at Wolverhampton in 73,” says Ian. “It was so muddy – enlodado – my loons were brown to the knee.”
“Sounds dreadful,” I say. Copperhead. Wolverhampton. Nineteen Seventy-three.
“I didn’t care.”
“I used to paint my loons a different colour every week when I was at university,” says Mike.
“You didn’t go to uni,” says Malcolm.
“No, but I lived in Leeds & I used to sneak in and go to the disco every Friday. No one would stop you. I used to use the practice rooms, too. Work up my boogie woogie.”
“What do you mean you painted your loons?”
“With watercolour. Wash it out each week & paint them again for the next. Flowers, stars, words.”
I try to picture Mike wearing painted loons. There is a lot to take in. “When was this?”
“The year I lived in Leeds. Seventy-four.”
“Hmm. A hippy hangover, but also some sort of proto-punk.”
He seems to like the idea of a hippy hangover, but recoils at the suggestion of him being a punk, proto or not. It’s his age.
We sit at the far end of a field of cows & eat our lunches. Malcolm eyes the distant animals & wonders if any are bulls. Bulls worry him. It starts to rain & we all pull jackets from rucksacks. I eat a salami & brie & olive & english mustard sandwich that I cobbled together the night before. Also, a Belgian Bun from Greggs. A group of walkers appear over the brow of the field & we watch them approach. They have a big, white, muzzled dog on a lead. They were also at the car park back in Fenton. We all say hello as they contrive to pass the stupid hound over the style. The dog looks indignant. “That looks good,” says one of the women. She has red hair & bramble scratches on her legs. “The cherry was missing,” I say.
We all say goodbye & they disappear into the next field.
“Can you see the heron on the other bank,” says Raymond. He is stood at the barbed wire, pissing. Everyone but Mike stands up & looks through the trees over the river. On the far side a carrier bag is snagged on a bough that is bent toward the water. The bag – the way it is caught in the tree, in the stream, in the breeze, does resemble a heron.
“That’s a fucking bag, you idiot,” says Malcolm.
Raymond knows this. He’s no fool. “A bag from Heron’s,” he says, quite pleased with this joke. And, rightly so.
Nature is a wonderful thing.
This is the turning point. We begin to walk along the river again back toward Felton. The weather drops out & the shower persists. We pass a corn field & all the corn is brown. Although the heatwave of recent weeks has broken, the ground is cracked. The gorse no longer in flower. We wade through waist-high ferns & into the tree cover again. Back in the woods we come across a man & his two young boys. One of them is crying.
“Is this the way to Felton,” says the man. They are going in the wrong direction. The upset boy hides behind his dad. The other one says, “We’re lost.”
“Not lost,” says the dad.
“Felton? Felton’s back that way,” says Raymond. He points to where they have just come from.
“Are you sure?”
Of course he’s sure. Raymond is the map man. Surely this is apparent, what with the map & compass around his neck. The man looks behind him, then ahead of him and decides to carry on as they were. “We’ll just carry on,” he says. We watch them go off down the path.
“Have a good adventure,” says Mike.
“We will,” says the other boy.
Back at the car park we change out of our boots before getting back into the car. Malcolm takes a photo of the Northumberland Arms. “I’ll have to come here to eat one day.”
“Look,” says Ian, pointing at one of the windows. “One of the windows is roto – is smashed.” A small pane of glass is indeed covered with a piece of card or something. Once seen it is impossible not to notice it.
“Probably a disgruntled guest threw a cup through it,” says Raymond. “Call this fucking room service!?” It is really quite out of character to hear him swear. And quite hilarious, too!