Travel Post! Newcastle, Wallsend, York, and the Blackbird Bar, Todmorden

I’m having a domestic sort of day today, and the friend I’m staying with is busy writing her sermons for tomorrow so I thought I’d pop in with a quick update on my trip so far, my English Food Experiences, and a review of the bar we went to last night.

I reached Newcastle on Wednesday, and was greeted by my friend Tora, who I have known online for more than a decade, but have never previously met in person.  She drove me back to her house for a much-needed nap, and then pointed me in the direction of a walk in the countryside of Blaydon on Tyne, to stretch my legs, and help convince my body that it was on UK time.

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Blaydon Burn is extremely pretty – I’ve never been to England in spring before, and so I derived an unreasonable amount of pleasure from things like hawthorn blossoms and buttercups.

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Also from spinning around on the buttercup field pretending to be Kate Bush singing about Heathcliff.

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And of course, I had to sing a few Border Ballads as I walked, since the region and landscape was right for it.

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I’m not sure whose nest this is, but it’s a pretty extensive one.

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Tora and her husband have two young boys, aged ten and five, who were very excited about visitors.  The ten year old is serious and imaginative and thoughtful and likes history, and clearly felt that entertaining me was part of his job – he really is a lovely kid.  Also, he has a really excellent singing voice and has the makings of a pretty good musician (he is learning classical guitar).  I hope he keeps up with it and doesn’t get pushed into the whole ‘boys can’t do music’ thing.  The five year old is very cute, and very loud, and will absorb all the attention if he possibly can.  He reads very well and is obsessed with Pokemon, and I now know more about Pokemon characters than I ever expected to need to know.  I spent a fair bit of time with both kids, which was fun – I haven’t spent a lot of time with children that age.

Tora and her husband (whose name also starts with a T, and thus is going to be T2 in this story) are both scientists and work at the local Universities.  I was surprised to find that I remembered Newcastle University (or at least its crest) quite well from a visit when I was six.  Since I only really had a day and a half in Newcastle, they suggested I visit Wallsend and also the Great North Museum, but first, I made a quick stop at Tora’s lab, to meet her fruit flies and learn more about her work, which was fun, and also amusing, because I’d been on long service leave less than a week, and already I was back in the lab… (I picked a terrible time to visit, hence all the solo exploring.)

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Wallsend is a short metro ride from Newcastle, and is the site of the fort marking the Eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall.  The fort is basically gone now – or rather, all that remains is the outlines of some of the buildings and a fragment of wall.  What they’ve done is filled in the remaining outlines with large pebbles and marked the inside spaces with yellow sand, so that from above (there is a tower with a viewing platform) it looks like a huge, life-scale architect’s plan of a Roman fort.

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I was rather struck by the list of men (soldiers?  architects? engineers?) who had worked on the wall.  It seemed awfully short, but perhaps it was only for this section.

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The museum itself includes a number of the finds from the dig, but also an extensive history of the coalmining and shipbuilding industries that were part of the site over the last two and a half centuries.  There are also enormous numbers of activities for children – in fact, I got the impression the whole museum was aimed at children, not adults – including dress-ups and brass rubbings and imaginative exercises.

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I went to the museum cafe for lunch with some trepidation – my previous culinary experiences in England had been really astonishingly terrible – and the menu did seem to focus on fried everything with mushy peas, but they also had jacket potatoes, which came with a few basic toppings – beans, tuna, cheese  (I chose tuna and cheese) and a side salad.  The potato was, of course, microwaved, but there has never been anything wrong with the actual ingredients in English food, and the meal was quite tasty in a nursery food sort of way.

After lunch and a final exploration of the  museum and its shop (which sold, among other things, rubber duckies wearing roman helmets and a book called Catligula, also starring Spartapuss), I decided to make my way back to Newcastle to see the Great North Museum.

(If you are wondering why I didn’t look for somewhere to walk along the wall – which was, in fact, my original plan – the answer is that on both my days in Newcastle it was very cold and rainy, and Hadrian’s Wall being on a high ridge is invariably colder, rainier, and windier than Newcastle.  I decided I didn’t need to walk the Wall that much.)

This turned out to be a small but very good Museum with a scale model of the wall and a lot of archeological finds from the area (and a lot of advertisements for the archaeology department at Newcastle, which does, indeed, sound like fun, and if I could afford to be a student again, I’d be there with bells on).  Mostly this had the effect of making me want to go out and dig up Tora’s garden to look for Roman and Anglo-Saxon treasure.  I restrained myself.

The Museum has a lot of different exhibits about Roman history, religion, and culture – I especially liked the Mithraeum, which gets bonus points for having its little video with subtitles and a sign language interpreter (though loses some for the fact that the soundtrack was out of sync and kept randomly cutting out).

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They also have a big natural history section, and a section on the Stone Age and the Anglo Saxons.  Seeing the fossils right next to the many carved rock remains from the stone age and later was very strange – they just looked like more carvings, similarly shallow, similarly detailed, just different themes.

I met up with Tora & family again for dinner at Nandos, which is much posher than in Australia and has surprisingly good vegetarian options, and then it was home to pack and sleep, because while I am no longer strictly jetlagged, I do seem to want to be up at six and in bed at 9:30, which is rather frustrating, especially as it meant I got much less time to catch up with Tora than I had hoped.  Next time – maybe even in Australia?

Yesterday, it was off to York for the day, on my way to Todmorden.   We lived in York for three months when I was six, and I went back for a week in 1995, but haven’t been there since, which is a shame, because it really is beautiful and I can’t visit without wanting to move there permanently.

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With only a part day in York, I decided to start by walking the walls, and then just ramble wherever my feet took me.

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My first surprise was the Henry VII museum!  In York of all places!  I was appalled at this treachery! York is the stronghold of Ricardianism – what is the world coming to?!

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I decided to leave this for Monday (I’m doing a return visit on my way to London), and walked anticlockwise from Micklegate Bar to where the wall stops at Clifford’s Tower.

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I hadn’t particularly planned on Clifford’s tower, but there it was, so I climbed it. It has shrunk significantly since I was six, and I don’t think there was a museum there twenty years ago, either.

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I got to try some sloe gin, which was unexpectedly delicious, but also potent.

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I couldn’t seem to find the wall immediately, so I meandered randomly into the city of York, noting the Fairfax House Museum for another occasion, and heading for the Shambles.

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But first, I wanted to look in on the Jorvik Viking Museum, which I knew had been flooded badly over Christmas last year and was still closed.  I had a nice chat with the lady there, and donated to the Canute Fund (excellent name) for rebuilding. I still have fond memories of my visit to the museum with P in 1995, when we bought so many scratch and sniff postcards that we stank out our room and had to go and post them all in a big hurry the same evening… the postie must have been delighted.

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I found a Yorkshire Makers Market, full of beautiful arts and crafts, and spent a long time chatting to the lady who makes all kinds of glass jewelry, especially the dichroic stuff, which I am in love with.  I then meandered over to The Shambles, which seems to have been taken over by sweet shops, especially fudge shops, which made the whole street smell like butter and sugar.  I don’t even like fudge that much, but the smell dragged me into two shops where I tasted samples, learned about fudgemaking, and wound up buying clotted cream fudge, chocolate fudge with salt and with peppermint, and Eton Mess Fudge (that tastes nothing like Eton Mess, but is nonetheless delicious).

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After that, I was cold and in need of a savoury lunch, so I chose a little tea shop that had a deal where one could have a sandwich and tea and cake for six pounds 25p.  The sandwiches were very English – egg and cress, cheese and chutney, coronation chicken, or ham – and came with coleslaw, side salad, and house made crisps.  The cakes were Victoria Sponge or Lemon Drizzle Cake or Blackcurrant Vanilla Cake.  I felt like I was in Enid Blyton, which is far from being a bad way to feel at lunchtime.

I then decided to find the Minster, but was a little put off at the steep entry fee – maybe Monday – and walked into a glassblowing shop, where I was given a leaflet for a free, self-guided tour of York with the theme being cat statues and decorations.  So now I know what I’m doing on Monday.

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I walked along the wall some more, which was really beautiful.  There was a lot of birdsong, which I tried to record, but alas, every time I started taping, an ambulance would come past, sirens blaring.  Looking at the map, I see that I was on the side of York that is nearest to the hospital, which would explain it.

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I found found the Richard III museum at Monk Bar – which is the other thing I will do on Monday.

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Then I lost the wall somehow, found myself in a food garden, turned a corner and was in a ruined Abbey.

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This is why one goes to York, really.

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It’s the old St Mary’s Abbey, which was founded in 1055 and then again in 1088, and used to be the largest and richest Abbey in the North of England until Henry VIII was looking for some cash in 1539.

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It’s now a very picturesque ruin set in the middle of the museum gardens.  (I’m still having trouble getting over how green everything is here.)

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After that, I meandered back towards the wall, and walked back to Micklegate Bar and thence to the train station to head for Todmorden!

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Todmorden is near the peak district, and is still in West Yorkshire but for a number of reasons identifies quite a lot with Lancashire.  It’s a former mill town, has produced two Nobel Prize-winning physicists, and apparently has quite a good cricket team.  Not a bad effort for a town of about 30,000 souls.

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I’m staying with Jo, another long-time internet friend who is the curate here.  Her husband is also a curate, and I have already had the opportunity to discover some of the more interesting conversations one gets to have with total (and somewhat inebriated) strangers when abroad in a clerical collar.  I’m looking forward to being her groupie at up to three Masses tomorrow (the jury is still out on whether I will attend the 8am Mass…).

Jo and her husband (whose name also starts with J –  all my English friends have husbands with matching names, it’s a requirement) took me out to dinner at the Blackbird Bar yesterday evening, which is a local eatery that is big on local produce and small dishes – we shared about eight dishes between us, which was about the right amount.  They are known for their cocktails, but I abstained, as I really am trying not to be asleep at 9:30pm every night.  I did, however, have some rather amazing rose lemonade by Fentimans, which is a company based in Hexham, near Hadrian’s Wall, and makes a number of botanically infused soft drinks.  I shall be keeping an eye out for their work.

We started our meal with chickpea and edamame falafel with smoked red pepper hummus.  I really liked the hummus, but found the falafel tasted a bit too strongly of edamame for my taste.  We were also served onion bhaji with a mint yoghurt, and these were really excellent – lovely light, crisp batter, and the onions were nicely on that cusp where they are not quite soft, but not raw and crunchy either.

After that, we were served some potato chips coated with parmesan, truffle oil and chives.  These were amazing – you could smell the truffle oil as they came to the table, and they were rich and absolutely to die for.  At that point, I thought I’d better take out my camera and review things properly.  It’s asparagus season here, so we could not possibly go past the asparagus with crunchy quails eggs, balsamic, and allegedly more truffle oil, though it was subtle enough that I didn’t notice it.  This was tasty, and the asparagus was unexpectedly chilled (I’ve never had asparagus cold before).  I liked it a lot, but it didn’t quite live up to its description.  (Also – 5 asparagus spears between three people?  What are you trying to do to us?  We had to divide the last two into thirds, because it is not acceptable to portion out asparagus unevenly…)

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Next, we had some saffron chicken skewers with chorizo and red pepper, which were lovely, and fortunately more readily divisible by three.  This was a great relief to all our minds.  The saffron really came through nicely, and the chorizo was good, too.

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We also had some pan-fried sea bream with tomatoes and tabouli.  I liked this dish a lot, but I wouldn’t call what they served it with tabouli – it was more like a really good salsa verde without the anchovies.  Personally, I think this was better than tabouli would have been, so I was quite happy.

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My last lot of photos are terrible so I’m not going to share them, but we had broccoli with lemon butter (broccolini, in fact, but apparently that is called broccoli here).  This pretty much tasted like broccoli to me.  I like broccoli, so that was fine.  We also had a charcuterie platter, which included local and continental cold meats, the most interesting of which was definitely the duck ham.  I liked the duck very much, the rest was nice, but I could take or leave it.

Incidentally, the menu had a heap of vegetarian options – in fact, I could have  very happily ordered all vegetarian dishes and been satisfied.  There are also heaps of gluten-free and lactose free dishes, and several which had a gluten-free or vegetarian option.  So it’s definitely a nice place to go for those with dietary issues.

And then we took the bus home and ate a lot of Yorkist fudge and went to bed.

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Today has been a day for washing, and catching up on writing and postcards.

Jo and I walked to the market earlier and bought a variety of strange and wonderful cheeses (apple and cinnamon, and one which is bright pink and apparently contains elderflower brandy and port.  I think.), as well as dinner things for the next couple of days, and got lunch at a Mexican streetfood stall (tasty, but remarkably non-spicy), and also a cinnamon scroll at a bakery (everything a cinnamon scroll should be).

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And that’s about it.  Todmorden is a very pretty town, with a river and a canal, that got hit by the flooding back at Christmas, though apparently not as badly as some other towns in the area.

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There’s a fair bit of black on some houses and churches because of the pollution from the mill – efforts have been made to get rid of it in some places, but apparently there was some concern that the black patina was in fact an important structural component stopping the church from falling down, so that was left as it was.  I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for that photo, so here are some others.

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Now I’m off to write postcards, maybe walk up another hill to look at a church, and make tabouli for part of our dinner.

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I don’t know when I’ll check in next, but that’s the story so far!

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9 responses to “Travel Post! Newcastle, Wallsend, York, and the Blackbird Bar, Todmorden

  1. Sloe gin is a favourite of mine, we are never without a bottle around here. This is a lovely diary of your trip so far, brought back many happy memories of trips taken. On my iPad all the photos were sideways.

  2. Good heavens. Not only did you go to my home town (Newcastle), but Todmorden too (of which I have fond memories visiting as a teenager, and buying extraordinary Victorian clothing from one of the antique shops).

    Excuse me while I just quietly squee!

    (That the North has a lot of lovely aspects is a well-kept secret.)

    • I really do love the north of England! I’m pretty much coming south to see friends, but the North is a pure pleasure and I’d go even if I knew nobody.

    • I love the North! More than London, I fear. So beautiful, and so much less crowded…

  3. Seeing people I enjoy also enjoy each other is one of my very favorite things, so reading about you and the Ts & T-progeny enjoying each other was a particular delight. Thank you for sharing so many delightful photos! I’m glad you’re having such a big time.

  4. Sounds like you are having a great time – I am very fond of york from two fleeting visits and loved climbing the minster and talking with a local about the chocolates they make in york (maybe it was terrys chocolate and another). I really love fentimans drinks – the dandelion and burdock (I thin is refreshing and interesting). And am I imaging it or is your hair a different colour from when I saw you just a few weeks back?

  5. That sounds like a really interesting trip. Maybe I’ll get to go to some of those places some day.

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