As much history as you could want in one day.

Hello folks and welcome back to my latest odyssey about my trip to Newcastle for a weekend meeting my friends from the excellent and now murdered Virtual Tourist website and I shall start this post not with my usual apology but with a bit of a spoiler. This supposed weekend away got slightly extended so there is plenty more to come! In my previous post, which I admit was very sparse, I did promise you that this one would hopefully be a lot more interesting and certainly have a lot more images and I intend to fulfill that promise.

After a relatively peaceful night following the cacophony of the disco downstairs the previous night, I was up and about bright and early (ridiculously early for me) as I had to because we had an early start for our bus trip along the absolutely beautiful Northumbrian coast. I had written that as I had visited the area nearly 40 years ago and fell in love with it. Again, a tip to those who may be visiting UK from overseas and it is go to the Northeast. It is not on the main tourist beat but it is stunningly beautiful and is so crucial to the history of England with many places of interest still there to visit as you shall see in this and subsequent posts.

My home from home in Newcastle.

The first thing I did was wander across the road, just beside the station, to take an image of my hotel for the purposes of this blog. I wanted to show just how grand the Victorian facade is and how it must have impressed the well-heeled Victorians as they exited the station from the London or Edinburgh train. Sadly, I could not get an angle that did not include the awning for the Hilton Hotel which, in stark contrast to the Royal Station, is modern and, frankly, ugly.

The meeting place was a bus stop in Bewick Street, a very short walk away thankfully and there was an interesting juxtaposition there. On one side of the road was St. Mary’s Cathedral and on the other side of the road was the Newcastle Chinese Christian Church (denomination unknown). This indicates how extensive that particular belief system is.

There was also a complete juxtaposition of architectural style. The Chinese Church was based in what appeared to have once been a commercial premises whilst the Cathedral, which I was admiring for it’s architecture, was apparently designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, a famous British architect and designer who is perhaps best known for designing the interior of the Houses of Parliament in London and, probably most notably, the Elizabeth Tower which is so iconic as it houses the bell known as Big Ben which was cast not a mile from where I live.

There was a brief delay as our guide had been held up somewhere but when he arrived, my word did he make an impression. He was dressed in full Viking kit and really looked the part, you’ll see an image shortly. We boarded the ‘bus with everyone greeted in typically cheery Geordie fashion and I have to say that both guide and driver were to prove to be excellent as the day unfolded.

Sarah, with her excellent organisational skills, had chosen very well again and at the risk of becoming repetitive I have to say that the people who undertake to arrange these large events really do deserve a huge amount of praise as it must take a massive amount of planning. I know Sarah had planned this meet for a couple of years previously but obviously the virus had put paid to all that. She had to keep tentatively re-booking venues not knowing if we would even be able to travel or not.

We eventually got out of Newcastle, which proved to be a lot larger than I had thought it to be and headed out North on the A1 towards Bamburgh and it’s magnificent castle. This is a place that is very dear to my heart, not only because I had been there before but also because it is central to a series of books by one of my favourite authors, Bernard Cornwell, the Uhtred of Bebbanburg series. Bebbanburg is the old name for Bamburgh.

Cornwell is so clever as he can write knowledgeably about virtually any period of history and I have read and enjoyed books by him ranging from his take on the raising of Stonehenge through the period of the Anglo Saxons fighting the Vikings (when the above-mentioned Uhtred series is set) and via the American Civil War to probably the culmination of his career which was the Sharpe series.

The Sharpe series ranges from the Battle of Serangipatam in India in 1798 (Sharpe’s Tiger) by way of the Peninsular wars to the battle of Waterloo which would have made a fitting conclusion to the series as his trusted sidekick, Sgt. Harper, retired thereafter but fan pressure prompted him to write one more story about an expedition the two undertook to Chile. Many of the books were turned into a hugely successful TV series with the excellent Sean Bean in the title role.

I thought I had read all Cornwell’s books but I recently discovered one I had not even heard of which was about William Shakespeare’s younger brother in the London theatre in Elizabethan times, it just shows you how versatile the man is. If you have not read him, I strongly recommend you do, you won’t regret it.

Back to our trip, you’ll probably be glad to know. With an excellent running commentary from our guide as to places of interest along the way we pretty soon arrived at the castle and it was every bit as impressive as I remembered it. As the images show, it sits on a large rocky mound (dolerite if you are interested in geology) and was, for centuries, deemed to be impregnable although this was only with the building of a substantial structure after the place had changed hands between the native Britons and immigrant Anglo Saxons three times.

It had originally been a Briton site, presumably picked for it’s obvious strategic values, and was originally called Din Guarie after the Romans departed and is believed to have been founded c.420AD. The Vikings, as we shall see later, were very fond of raiding this part of Britain and sacked the place in 993AD. They were rather good at that sort of thing and their first ever major raid on British soil was in 793 AD on the island of Lindisfarne, visible from here on a clear day and a place we shall be coming to shortly.

After a fairly turbulent time in the Middle Ages when it became the first castle to be defeated by artillery, thereby effectively spelling the end of old style castle building it eventually fell into the hands of the industrialist William Armstrong and, strangely, this brings us back to artillery. As I have said many times before, everything goes round in circles.

Armstrong was famous for very many things, not least having the first house in the world to be powered by hydroelectric power. He had made much of his vast fortune by designing and building armaments, specifically artillery, some of which he perfected due to the exigencies of the Crimean war in the 1850’s. I had never heard of the man until I visited Malta a few years back and visited Fort Rinella where there is an absolutely gargantuan 100 ton gun built by the Armstrong Company. You can see the beast and read about it here.

More recently, just prior to virus house arrest I was lucky enough to have visited Newcastle to dep in my mate’s band and was lucky enough to stay in his lovely home which overlooks Jesmond Dene, a beautiful area on the Ouseburn River which is now a public park but was once Armstrong’s “back garden” as he had built a house further upstream and owned all the land. You can read about that particular excursion here. See what I mean about things going round in circles?

Our Viking guide, complete with mountain boots!

I was fine sitting down on the ‘bus but still feeling terribly weak and exhausted. The driver parked up in the coach / car park and we alighted for what was no more than about a 200 yard walk to a grassed area in front of the castle and by the time we got there I was totally exhausted. The guide who was obviously very knowledgable about the area gave an excellent talk on the history of the castle but it did go on a bit and I was getting more and more tired plus which my leg was hurting badly so when he finished I found a very pleasant bench to sit on looking up at the castle.

The rest of the group were all going to explore inside but that involved a fairly steep climb up the roadway to it which I knew was going to be a non-starter for me never mind climbing up and down all the stairs in the place. I just was not up to it and, more importantly, I did not want to be a hindrance to the rest of the group so I bade them a good trip and sat put, enjoying the magnificent view, breathing in good clean North Sea air and feeling very content if still pretty weak and washed out.

I hate feeling like this as I was extremely fit as a younger man and, even into my late fifties I was happily tramping up to 15 miles a day and loving it, everything just seems to have been drained out of me and I feel so damned useless. I later found out that they do have little golf buggy type things for mobility impaired visitors but a) I didn’t know about it, b) it needed to be booked in advance and c) and probably most importantly I refuse to use all the facilities that are now so helpfully provided for the mobility impaired which I now regrettably have to admit is a category I fall into.

Call it stupid pride or stubbornness, both of which I must admit to but I just won’t use a stick or wheelchairs on public transport etc. although I do admit I will now use the “disabled” toilet in a pub if it saves me a walk upstairs. Stairs and gradients are what really give me trouble and the way I hobble around these days nobody ever questions me. Hence the reason I couldn’t make it to the castle itself but I could at least console myself with the fact that I had seen it before.

Despite my good night’s sleep, I was feeling utterly drained so I limped my way back to the coach, hoping the driver was still there to let me in (although I do actually know how to open a coach door without damage and only if necessary I might add!).

Fortunately the driver was indeed in residence, stretched out over the front seat reading a newspaper and with the door open on what was a fairly decent day. I explained my situation and asked if it was OK if I sat down, a request that was granted with very good grace and a considerate enquiry as to whether I needed any assistance, water or anything else. I mentioned that Sarah had picked well and this guy was an absolute diamond. I headed to the back seat where I had been sitting earlier (old habits die hard), took off my trainers, stretched out full length and promptly went to sleep, not waking until my friends got back maybe two hours later. I felt so much better for it.

The others were all buzzing about how wonderful the castle was and I know this to be true so especially for my American friends whose country wasn’t even founded until over a millennium after this place was first a defensive installation (OK, the present building isn’t that old). I was so happy that they enjoyed it and they said the guide was great. He had told us in the initial talk that he actually knew one of the younger members of the Armstrong family who still own the castle and had stayed there a few times. Knowledge from a guide doesn’t get much more local than that.

Once we were all head-counted and accounted for we were off again for our next stop, Lindisfarne aka Holy Island which I mentioned above as the site of the first Viking raid on British soil. As I also mentioned, it is not far as I told you that you can see it on a good day from the castle.

You have been warned!

We had had to pick our time well ahead of the crossing on the causeway as the island is only accessible by road at certain times of the day. The road is completely covered when the tide comes in and there are plenty of warnings, alongside images of totally submerged cars, one of which you can see above.

Lindisfarne is a massively holy place to followers of the Judeo-Christian belief system as I shall explain in a moment and, as we were traversing the causeway (thankfully completely dry at that point due to good planning) the guide pointed out a line of posts in the fairly sandy bottom of what is twice a day the North Sea. He explained that the ultra religious of that belief system feel it necessary to walk barefoot to the island from the mainland, which can take a couple of hours. I have never felt the need to do any such thing as I am an atheist but, even as a challenge when I was a fit young man, it would be a bit of a slog. Now, I would get about 100 yards, collapse and be drowned by the incoming tide!

Despite all the warnings approximately one vehicle per month gets marooned requiring rescue by the (volunteer) RNLI and the Coastguard. It never fails to amaze me how bloody stupid some people can be. If you want to see our (perfectly safe) crossing of the causeway, you can do so here. Apologies for the slightly jerky filming but it is not exactly the smoothest road in the world.

Again, I had been to Lindisfarne all those years before and, yes, I really am feeling my age now and paying for the excesses of my youth but I remembered it as a wonderfully beautiful place and it certainly has not changed appreciably in the intervening years, I doubt it has much for centuries, it is somehow timeless so let me tell you a little about it.

Lindisfarne is about three miles by 1.5 miles at it’s widest points which makes it broadly comparable to the equally brilliant Lundy Island, which I also thoroughly recommend, and which you can read about here.

The etymology of the place, which fascinates me with my love of toponymy, is completely unclear and still open to much debate. It was anciently called Lindisferana, which may or may not refer to “travellers from Lindsey” (in modern day Lincolnshire, it may be a reference to a pool or stream with “Farne” as in the Farne islands. The truth is that nobody really knows for sure.

The island is currently home to 180 people (2011 figure) and it must be a strange existence being cut off from the mainland for half the day. I can only guess that the inhabitants of working age either work here or from home as there is no way you could hold down a job with regular hours on the mainland bdcause obviously the tides are always changing and your access would similarly be constantly changing. The last store on the island was closed by 2020 (virus presumably) and people have to drive to Berwick-upon-Tweed for supplies now.

I don’t know if there are children on the island although I am guessing there must be at least one or two so they have to be staying with relatives on the mainland or boarding as it is clearly impractical under these circumstances.It is only when you visit here that you start to think about the practicalities of living on a tidal island, beautiful as it is.

The image above is a perfect example as it is, in fact, the Lindisfarne Fire Station. I was told that a number of islanders have been trained by the regular Northumbrian Fire Service as retained (volunteer) firefighters, good for them. I suppose an emergence medical situation would require the services of an air ambulance as there is no Doctor here. Despite the obvious practical difficulties the few islanders I spoke to there seemed very cheery with their lot.

The plan was that the guide was going to conduct a tour of the immediate environs of the main settlement with an optional add-on of a wander further afield for the more energetic members. Obviously any of that was way beyond the scope of my physical abilities so after listening to his very interesting introductory talk about the island I withdrew to the excellent Crown and Anchor pub, one of two I had spotted within about 50 yards of each other. It was to my complete chagrin that I later discovered there was a third pub which I missed, I must be slipping. The plan was that we were going to re-convene at the local winery for a mead tasting at 1430.

I shall now adjourn metaphorically to the very pleasant lounge bar in the Crown and Anchor, which seemed to be doing a roaring trade in food on this Sunday lunchtime, and tell you a little more about the history of Lindisfarne. I shall put in a few images of the island, mostly taken from the back garden of the pub purely to relieve the tedium of my historical discourse which promises to be a long one.

Although the Romans had a large military presence on Hadrian’s Wall nearby to repel the marauding Picts and Scots there were few Roman civilians this far North except thos directly involved in servicing the troops. It was completely unlike the South of England (even if it wasn’t even called England then) where Roman civilians arrived and established fine villas, farms, various manufacturing industries and so on.

After the Romans upped sticks and left in the early 5th century there was somewhat of a power vacuum which was eventually filled in this part of the world by an Anglian king named Ida who established a “kingdom” in 547 AD. The Angles, like the Saxons, Jutes, Danes and others had seen their chance and invaded from mainland Europe with the Angles establishing power base in Norfolk and Lincolnshire, some of which area is still called East Anglia and ultimately led to the name England which was originally Angleland.

There was some fairly token attempt at Briton resistance and some time in the 6th century a Brittonic Force under a warlord called Urien besieged the Angle Theodoric on the island for three days but, as usual, the Britons could not agree amongst themselves and the siege collapsed.

Around 634 AD an Irish monk called Aidan was sent from the monastery at Iona, an island off the West coast of Scotland. Iona was formed by St. Columba and 12 followers in 563 AD. I have long wondered if Columba had some form of Messianic complex as there was him and his 12 “disciples”, does that ring any bells? Whatever his thinking, the monastery at Iona was the origin of the Hiberno-Christian tradition and the monks there were credited with converting the Scots to their brand of Christianity.

When Aidan was dispatched to the Northeast of what is now England, it is not surprising that he picked Lindisfarne to set up his monastery and base of evangelical operations. It was a small island on a fairly rugged coast and relatively isolated, it must have reminded him a lot of Iona. I wonder did he take 12 followers with him.

Aidan must have been a very persuasive orator as he, as Columba had done before with the Scots, is credited with converting the formerly pagan Anglo-Saxons of Northumberland to the same brand of Hiberno-Christianity which had originated at his parent establishment. On his death in 651 he was succeeded as Bishop by a chap called Finan aka Finian and standby for another digression.

When I was a teenager growing up in Belfast in the 70’s we lived in a house with a church directly across the road called St. Finian’s Parish Church and I always wondered who he was and never quite got round to finding out and now I know. Every day is a schoolday writing this blog. Finan was abbot of Lindisfarne / Bishop for ten years until his death and you are probably wondering how a place as small as Lindisfarne became the bishopric. It actually held that position until 735 when it moved to York as it was the principal place of Judeo-Christianity in the area, it really was important.

Perhaps the most interesting of all the leaders on Lindisfarne was Cuthbert who entered monastic life after apparently having a vision on the night Aidan died. After periods in various monasteries he ended up in Lindisfarne as prior in 655 AD. By 684 AD he had been elevated to bishop but resigned to return to his hermitage where he lived in great austerity until he died on 20th March 687 but his story is in many ways just starting here.

Cuthbert was buried on the day of his death but the poor man certainly did not get to “rest in peace”. His remains were later exhumed due to the imminent threat of invading Danes and went on something of a “magical mystery tour” all over the North of England being carried reverentially by monks and finally ending up in Durham. Well, not quite finally as we shall see.

The presence of Cuthbert’s remains effectively led to the founding of the city of Durham and eventually the magnificent cathedral. I have been there and it is another reason why I so strongly recommend visitors to UK to consider the Northeast of England / Southeast of Scotland, it really is a hugely rewarding area.

Poor old Cuthbert still was not going to be left to his rest as he was again moved and re-interred on Lindisfarne. In 875 AD, the Danes took and held Lindisfarne and off he went again, being carried from pillar to post for an amazing seven years after which what was left of his remains again ended up in what was then called the White Church which was the foundation of what is now the Cathedral as I mentioned above.

After his death, many miracles were attributed to the late Cuthbert and even one of our greatest ever kings, Alfred the Great, was said to have been inspired in his massive campaign against the Danes by a vision of him. I should mention that, in the way of the early catholic church who seemed to throw sainthoods round like confetti, that all the monks I have mentioned above were sainted.

In the early 8th century one of the artefacts which is most associated with the island was produced by monks whose names are now lost to history. They are the Lindisfarne Gospels which are now held in the British Library. Although originally written in Latin a vernacular text was added almost three hundred years which gives us the earliest example of the gospels in Old English.

The monastery on the island was declining in influence due to one of the schisms so apparently popular in the Christian church had led to a split between the Hiberno Christians based in places like Iona and Lindisfarne and those favouring the Roman version of the belief system based in Canterbury. Looking now at the amazing Canterbury Cathedral and the ruins on the tiny island of Lindisfarne plus the fact that one sect of the catholic church is now called the Roman Catholic Church, I think you can guess who won that one!

Perhaps the defining moment in the history of the island came in 793 AD, possibly on the 8th June when a major Viking raiding force landed, killed or enslaved all the monks, stole anything of value and generally trashed the place, although they did not remain to establish themselves.

The island had a very minor part in the War of the Roses but the next significant event was the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 when it was shut down and turned into a naval storehouse and by 1613 it passed officially under control of the Crown during the reign of King James I.

After the reformation and it’s declining ecclesiastical importance, the remains of the religious community on Lindisfarne, like so many others, just degenerated slowly into decay and decrepitude. Shortly after Henry VIII closed the place down and it had begun to decay, the ever frugal Northerners decided to use the stone from it to construct a rather magnificent castle which exists to this day.

Although it is not large as castles go, it’s primary function was to guard against Scottish raids South, notably through the first Jacobite rebellion of 1715 when there was fear of a Franco-Spanish fleet arriving somewhere in the Northeast to support the rebels further North.

In the late 19th century the castle was re-designed in the Arts and Crafts style, which was popular at the time, by Edwin Lutyens whose most famous work is probably the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London.

Nowadays, the fishing on Lindisfarne is long gone along with the lime burning which was popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, the local economy is fairly much solely driven by tourism and it is not hard to see why, the place really is a wonderland.

Enough history and back to the pub. By now I had been joined by Colin, Josephine and Henna. I have known Colin for a long time but I had never met either of the ladies before and they proved to be charming company. They had all decided they didn’t want to go on the longer walk and had retreated here, suits me! We had a drink and a bit of a chat and they decided to have another wander round the place which was my cue to finish my pint and head to the next pub which was no great hardship as it must have been 50 yards door to door!

My next watering hole was the Manor House Hotel and I was a little wary about going in as it looked a little bit posh and I was my usual scruffy self but I need not have worried. I was greeted warmly and parked myself in the corner to imbibe my very well-presented pint in very comfortable surroundings.

I knew I only had time for the one as we had the mead tasting booked and I was certainly not going to be late for anything on this day of all days. The concept of having to get an airlift (the nearest non-emergency chopper is miles away in Cumbria, another place we shall visit on this trip, and it costs and eye-watering amount of money so I was going to be where I was told when I was told.

Thankfully in the main settlement of Lindisfarne nowhere is terribly far from anywhere else and it was only probably 30 yards to the Lindisfarne Winery (more properly named St. Aidan’s Winery) which, apart from the mead for which it is most famous, also now produces beer, gin, spirit liqueurs and rum but we were there for the mead. I was slightly ahead of the game in that I had been here before, tasted mead and thoroughly disliked it whereas many of our group had never even heard of it.

Mead is basically a fermented mix of honey, water and yeast although you can flavour it with all sorts of things. Frankly, I find it obscenely sweet and fairly sickly. I thought that perhaps my palate might have changed over the decades but it hadn’t, I still found it repulsive although the others were tucking into it with apparent relish as the images show. There certainly wasn’t much left to put back in the fridge!

The monks on the island used to produce it in quantity and it is said that the recipe still used by the family who run the place now inherited the recipe which they closely guard. We were told there are less than a handful of people who actually know what it is.

After a relatively short interlude and a chance for some of the party to purchase souvenir items from the shop, it was time to get back on the ‘bus because as Chaucer, a far better writer than I shall ever be, once famously said, “Time and tide wait for no man. I know that round here the tides certainly don’t and I had seen enough pictorial evidence to prove it!

We got back to our start point in Newcastle in good order and all the rest of them headed off to their respective accommodations to freshen up for the evening’s farewell dinner which was usefully in my hotel.

I headed off on my own and hit the first bar I could find which happened to be the Forth which sits in the delightfully named Pink Lane although I have no idea why. The reason for this was not that my alcohol dependency has degenerated to the level where I have to keep drinking but rather, and I am trying not to be indelicate here, there had been no “facilities” on the otherwise wonderful coach.

The Forth is a strange place with lots of nooks and crannies and seems to place a strong emphasis on food. Whilst decorated in a terribly trendy “distressed” style it struck me as being a bit pretentious and with prices to match but it served my purpose.

I said that I had not signed up for the evening meal for reasons as previously stated but I was actually feeling a little peckish (a very good sign for me!) and so I took myself round the corner to the Wetherspoons pub, called the Mile Castle, so named because it was on Hadrian’s Wall which had a castle every mile along it’s length.

One of the meals I can usually manage to eat, in small quantities is breakfast, and I know Wetherspoons do an all day brunch including a small version which was fine by me. Basically the brunch is just their breakfast menu but substituting chips for hash browns after 1130 when they stop serving the breakfast menu. The result, which you can see above, I took to with a will and very tasty it was too, just enough for my sadly limited appetite. After this I headed back to the hotel to refresh myself and meet up with the rest of the gang.

This is as posh as I get.

I have included above an image of the corridor leading to the private dining room my friends were in just to give you an idea of how palatial the place was. I loved the Royal Station Hotel, particularly because it was not ultra-modern and felt like it had a bit of history to it, which I am sure it has, and also because of it’s strong railway connection. I promise you that I do not stay in fancy places like this often but I had got a great deal and it is nice occasionally.

It was a great evening if slightly tinged with sadness as it was the farewell and I had some great chats to old friends and some new ones. During the course of events an announcement was made as it always is at this time and is eagerly awaited, it is the venue of the next Euromeet in 2023 (dates to be confirmed) and is being organised by my good friend Jon in the city of Tromso in Northern Norway. I have to say that I doubt I’ll make it as I played a festival in Norway over 20 years ago and the prices then were crippling so I dread to think what they might be like now. I am not sure that even if I save my pennies I can justify the expense but I am so glad to see that the concept of Virtual Tourist and the Euromeets continues. I hope it never stops.

There were many quite emotional farewells that night which I suppose is hardly surprising after the length of time we had been forced to stay apart. It really did prove to me that the website may be gone but the spirit certainly hasn’t and looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

I retired to my room and there was only one final thing left to do. Lovely as the hotel was, it was my last night booked there so I had to make a plan for the next day. Sarah had asked me at the dinner if I was heading back to London the next morning and I made some sort of non-commmital answer which prompted her to say something along the lines of, “I suppose not then.” She knows me far too well. I was just enjoying my wander round the Northeast far too well and, as a single man with no children to worry about, I could more or less do what I pleased.

After a bit of rummaging about on the internet I came up with the beginnings of a plan, well, as much of a plan as I ever come up with. If you want to know what it was, you’ll have to stay tuned!

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