A series of mid-week walks around Anglo-Saxon Northumberland.
Woden = the chief god of the Anglo Saxons.
Woden = Wednesday.
Walks = travels on foot.
• The Woden Walks: Five miles of Haltwhistle.
OS grid: NY 7083 6412
Haltwhistle is a small town and parish in northwest Northumberland. It lies 10 miles east of Brampton and has a population of 3,800.
Early forms of the name are Hautwesel (1240), Hautwysel (1254), Hawtewysill (1279), Hautwysell (1381), Haltwesell (Speede/ 1610).
The second part ‘-twistle’ relates to two streams or rivers. It derives from two Old English words twicce or twise, ‘twice’, ‘division into two’ and wella, ‘stream, brook’.
The second word is reduced in the compound word to ull, making twicculla, twisella. All but one of the examples in place names represent a high tongue of land between two streams where they join.
The first part is probably derived from Old English hēafod, here ‘hill-top’, in general, ‘head’, ‘headland’, ‘summit’, ‘upper end’ or ‘source of a stream’. If so, it describes the hill-top on which Holy Cross Church and the oldest part of Haltwhistle was built, enclosed on the north-east and west by Haltwhistle Burn and on the south by the South Tyne. Rowland suggests Hal from ‘hill’ An suggestion is French haut-, meaning ‘high’, since the settlement already existed long before the Norman conquest.
Haltwhistle lays claim to being the most central settlement of the British Isles.
Malcolm is exacerbated by his brother, Stuart. Stuart has left their band, Soul River, by text. “My own brother! By text!” he says, more than once during our pilgrimage. “Sounds official,” is all I can think to say. The rub of it is that Stuart is tired of turning up to rehearsals and being the only one who has their chops down. “Surely,” says Raymond, “that is the point of rehearsal.” This is very true. Only half the fun is in the playing and the learning.
“He has left us on tenderhooks.” He, of course, means tenterhooks.
The Woden Walks: Five miles of Kirknewton.
6 miles north of Wooler. 6 miles shy of the border.
OS grid: NT912303.
Kirknewton, Northumberland, is one of the largest parishes in the UK, with one of the smallest populations. Pop: 108.
- the lunchboxes.
We stopped for lunch beneath *Collingwood’s Oaks.
Malcolm: Cheese, ham & onion roll. Tea.
Ian: Bavarian smoked ham & lettuce sandwich. Hard-boiled egg. Water.
Nick: Brie & blueberry sandwich. Water.
* “Captain Cuthbert Collingwood, later to become an admiral and Nelson’s second in command at Trafalgar, had his home at Morpeth, in Northumberland, and when he was there on half pay or on leave he loved to walk over the hills with his dog Bounce. He always started off with a handful of acorns in his pockets, and as he walked he would press an acorn into the soil whenever he saw a good place for an oak tree to grow. Some of the oaks he planted are probably still growing more than a century and a half later ready to be cut to build ships of the line at a time when nuclear submarines are patrolling the seas, because Collingwood’s purpose was to make sure that the Navy would never want for oaks to build the fighting ships upon which the country’s safety depended.”
Dudley Pope: ‘Life In Nelson’s Navy.’
- The Woden Walks: Five miles of Rothbury.
NE65. OS Grid Ref: 056017 (13 miles north-west of Morpeth. 26 miles north north-west of Newcastle. 33 miles north west of Whitley Bay)
The public lavatories, just over the bridge from the car park, are closed. They are padlocked. By order of the council. No one gets in. Mike, the Coquet rushing in his ears, the rain collecting in the low cloud above, the pressure on his bladder, goes round the back of the concrete tomb & pisses on its wall. “It shouldn’t be allowed,” says a man in tweed as he emerges from behind the building. “I’m sorry,” says Mike. “I was bursting.” But the man explains that the closure of the public toilets is what shouldn’t be allowed. And with that, one zipper rising, one lowering, they swap places. Mike picks up a half-eaten cornbeef & pickled onion bap that he had placed on the concrete near the locked door just prior to his urination. He gives it not a glance & consumes it.
Rothbury is a market town with an array of art suppliers, yarn & gift shops. There are some smart, stone cottages & several sturdy-looking pubs. The Tyne Bandits (‘traditional folk tunes with a modern twist’) have a poster in the window of The Turk’s Head. They played last month. Mike directs me to the shopfront of JR Soulsby & Son. We stand outside & admire a diorama of the battle of Rorke’s Drift taking place behind the glass & rendered in 1/32. “I bought a stuffed Tawny owl next door,” he says. Mike used to collect stuffed birds. But The Red Grouse Gallery is now a sandwich shop. A cursory search reveals that The Red Grouse Gallery has closed. But specialised in model trains & taxidermy (no pets).
It was quite a collection at one point: a mallard, a dove, a robin & the above mentioned owl. “I had to get rid of them. The wife didn’t like them.”
“I suppose there’s quite a market for taxidermy.”
“There is. But without the necessary documentation there isn’t much hope of selling them on.”
“So, what happened to them?”
“They ended up in the bin. Bit sad really.”
You sometimes see teddy bears strapped to the grill of the dustman’s lorry. But I’ve yet to see an owl. That’d be great. A robin, perhaps, would be too small. Although could be sat, with a wodge of Blu-Tac, on the dash quite nicely.
There’s a rough path that winds from the riverside up through the woods. Raymond sees a deer. He leads the pack. He is stood, stooped, looking out through the trees when we catch him up. But it is long gone. I spot a rabbit twitching near a boulder, half hidden by ferns. It watches me.
We take lunch sat on a damp & rotting wooden trailer in the woods: luxury. Discuss Amazon.uk., wild camping, self-service tills, Bronze Age life, the weight of inflatable kayaks (17kg is too much), Fawlty Towers, dogging, Felix Mendlessohn (the genius of), charity shop bargains, obese children, Tommy Iommi’s dressing room requirements (flowers), highwire walkers, Neil Young Vs Dylan (who is the superior lyricist- a short interlude that barely needed confirming & perhaps only brought up as some kind of test for dehydration or the possibility of one of us being a replicant) & bedsit life.
“Jack Loveless, my landlord, had three properties on Wellesley Road in the seventies & eighties. Big old, tumble down Victorian houses – 69, 71 & 77. Proper bedsitland. He lived with his young Malaysian lover in the basement of each one & alternated his life between all three apartments. She wore a filter mesh over her mouth and nose. I lived on the ground floor of number 69. A mattress & a coin-fed electric meter. There was a cold-water kitchen & a shared bathroom up on the first floor. A hole in the wet floorboards allowed you to see who was coming & going through the front door – not with much ease though as it required hoisting yourself up out of the water to peek through it. There was really no point to this surveillance, beyond the thrill of being naked & wet & watching the top of a fleeting head. When the rent date came around you would take your money down to the basement & sometimes Loveless was in & sometimes he wasn’t. If he was he’d open the door & wave you in. It was, to a teenage mind, like entering a thrilling hell. It was boiling hot & dim. Red bulbs & porn mags & vague shapes in the dark. He was a great landlord. Dead now. Long dead. The house got raided by the police one morning & Jack & some rifles & several hundred rounds of ammo were taken away. He wasn’t a terrorist – I don’t suppose he was. He just collected stuff like that. I don’t know, perhaps he was.”
“It’s good to have a hobby.”
- the lunch boxes.
Mike: Cornbeef & pickle onion bap. Fruit pot. 1/2 bar of dark chocolate. Water.
Malcolm: Egg & tomato sandwich with mayonnaise. Tea.
Ian: Pastrami & gherkin sandwich with horseradish. Chewing gum. Water.
Raymond: 2 Soreen malt loafs (children’s size).
Nick: Salami & Stilton sandwich. Water.
Old Rothbury, the Bronze Age settlement, the remains of, can be seen on a hillside. Raymond points out two earth ramparts – just ripples in the heather really. There is only one house out here these days. We pass a stone cottage with dark windows. Parked outside is a muddy Volvo car. A sign on the dashboard reads VISITOR.
“Rumour is that Raoul Moat was shot by a police marksman after a Taser attempt was botched.”
“Tasers are like that,” I say. Mike seems to accept my sketchy knowledge of Tasers quite readily, but asks, “Have you heard of him?”
“Moat? Of course. It was national news.”
“I suppose it was.” (This strikes me as a ridiculous thing to say. Perhaps dehydration has finally kicked in?)
“I didn’t realise that it was here though.”
“Aye. He hid in a drain over there.” A vague area of the town, or just beyond, is waved at.
“That means Gazza has been here, too. I wish you’d pointed it out earlier.”
“You don’t like football,” says Raymond.
I would have hoped that a tour of Rothbury would have included this tossed off, last minute revelation a little more comprehensively though. Still, for £5 petrol money, what can you expect?
“I’m not a big fan of murderers either.”
On the way home we each do our best Paul Gasgoigne impressions, replete with more & more ridiculous details involving his drunken & misguided involvement in the Moat story.
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!