Sunday, 12 June 2016

Unlooked-for Delights in Northumberland

St Cuthbert - Lindisfarne
(c) Tony Gillam 2016
One of the small pleasures of self-catering holidays is that the owners often thoughtfully provide a small selection of books for their guests, not knowing that I always bring with me more reading material than I could ever hope to get through in seven days. It wouldn't matter if I had a week, a fortnight or a month away from home; nothing will alter the fact that I'm a very slow and easily-distracted reader.  And so it was, exploring the little cottage that was our home for a few days, that my eye was caught by a copy of Ice Cold in Alex, the 1957 novel by a largely forgotten writer called Christopher Landon (who went on to adapt it into the classic 1958 film of the same name.)

I've always loved that film: John Mills, Anthony Quayle and Sylvia Sims on a perilous journey in an ambulance across North Africa in World War II. But I was surprised, when I tried a few chapters, to find it was also a finely written and engaging novel. This was one of many unexpected discoveries during our recent holiday in Northumberland. 

Bamburgh Castle
(c) Tony Gillam 2016
We stayed in the village of Belford - once a major stop-off on the coaching route from London to Edinburgh but now a sleepy retreat.  Nearby Bamburgh beguiled it us with its castle (sometimes encircled by swallows in the welcome summery weather, sometimes cloaked in sudden sea mists.) The castle overlooks both the village and the coastline and, if you stand on the beach, you can look out to the Farne Islands.  Bamburgh called us back several times that week, to visit the excellent Grace Darling Museum, to walk over the rocks and sand dunes, and to sample the Craster kippers or even the Horlicks and Malteser-flavoured ice-cream (something else I didn't know I wanted to try until I went to Bamburgh.)

The lovely town of Alnwick is larger than Bamburgh and its castle overlooks a river rather than the sea.  But the biggest surprise in Alnwick is not the castle (impressive though it is) but the largest second-hand bookshop I'd ever seen.  Barter Books is housed in the old Victorian railway station. As it was once a very grand railway station so the bookshop is a very special bookshop. 

Lindisfarne Castle viewed through the ruins of the priory
(c) Tony Gillam 2016
There were further discoveries to be made:  a fortuitously-timed drive across the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne allowed us to visit its 16th century castle, visible through the ruins of the 7th century priory.  

Other surprises included finding something called the Archimedes screw at Cragside (the first house ever to use hydroelectric power), a walk to the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle from Craster (and then buying kippers to take home) and driving through the Cheviot Hills in search of a good picnic spot only to find ourselves accidentally entering Scotland, arriving at Kirk Yetholm where the Pennine Way ends (or begins) and meets St Cuthbert's Way. 

Which way next?
(c) Tony Gillam 2016
And now, we've settled into being back home. Everything is more familiar and predictable. Northumberland is a series of sun-drenched memories. The weather has turned more typical of an English summer (changeable and thundery) and I'm desperately keen to get hold of another copy of Ice Cold in Alex so I can finish reading the next hundred pages.


  1. I'd have just 'borrowed' the book!

  2. Ha! I've had too many people 'borrow' books of mine.


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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).