The GardenA blog by yours truly

Posts tagged as “outdoors”

A despatch from Consett

Hello. I’ve been to Consett. I thought you might like to hear about it. (Gosh, i’ve missed writing that.)

It’s been a miserable year so far weather-wise, so wind-swept, cold-nipped, and rain-soaked that it took until April for me to look outside and go, ah, not a bad day, let’s go for a jaunt.

A map showing the planned route

The plan was simple: get a bus into Consett and head straight for the nearest hill. A short and sweet saunter through woods and farmland; short compared to some of my previous odysseys from Newcastle to the Wansbeck, sweet compared to the scenery in the more populous parts of the palatinate. (It was not to be.)

A storefront for "Teatan Lounge and Lunch" and "Oasis Tanning Salon"
I’m at the bubble tea / I’m at the tanning salon / I’m at the combination bubble tea and tanning salon

We start in the centre of town, a humble lower-middle-class affair whose high street would strike southerners as horrifyingly dilapidated and northerners as above average — nice enough, at least, for the area’s local MP to choose it as his base of operations. Around the corner from the cinema1, the pedestrianised and sensibly named Middle Street plays host to (in decreasing order of classiness) a provider of musical instruments, an independent sweet shop–gift shop–pet shop, a building society, a Greggs, a Superdrug, an animal rescue shelter, a frozen food emporium, a Turkish barber, Ladbrokes, a vape shop, another vape shop which also sells computer parts and repairs your phone (my lawyers say i can’t call it a mob front), and Barry’s Bargain Superstore.

A streetscape A nice old church with a red sign out front

This dumps us onto a crossing onto Parliament Street, where the Ga­li­le­an­ically inclined can attend the charming parish church (with “messy church” every month for the tots). I follow it down its procession of historic terraces, in a rather literal sense: Briton Terrace, Saxon Terrace, Norman Terrace, and then to spite me they finish it off with the pattern-breaking Tudor Terrace. I suppose it could have been a later addition, going with Stuart Court across the road, as well as Georgia and Edwardia Courts, two small cul-de-sacs i only noticed on Google Earth after the fact… but that sequence gets thrown off yet again by the road whence those two branch off, Romany Drive, which unless they meant to write “Roman” but hired a dyslexic cartographer has sod all to do with the other streets.

A street sign proclaiming this lane to be known as Briton Terrace

A path bearing at its mouth a welcoming sign (all caps, “no part of this land is dedicated to the public, any use of this land is entirely at the user’s own risk, et cetera, et cetera”) marks a liberating end to our onomastic confusion, funneling us down a sloping green crescent of parkland into a reclaimed steelworks. (It’s always a reclaimed steelworks.)

A quintessential English landscape stretching across one’s entire field of view
A steep path downhill
Cue the music.

Finally, we reach the end of the funnel, where the light pours from the sky, the buildings abruptly stop, and any wayward ramblers are left with only a gorgeous view of Durham’s rolling hills stretching out before them. This exact moment, this exact view — this is why i get out. To sit on the edge of a hill, the dull traces of modernity firmly behind you, and see the country not devoid of man’s presence, but shaped by it, over hundreds and thousands of years, from hunting-grounds to cleared forest to farmland to steelworks to grass for grass’s sake, a place where, like the terraces of Parliament Street, you can hear England’s history sing in your veins.

Anyway then there’s a really steep path downhill where i almost slipped and fell like Super Mario going down a slide.

A graffiti-covered pipe crossing a ditch inside a steel frame

Traipsing down steps i’m not 100% sure were public and over a road made of more pothole than asphalt i wind up following a burn to the River Derwent. This is where our route’s industrial past makes itself seen. Every few yards a worn sign pops up warning of a “drainage ditch”, or a graffiti-blanketed pipe crosses the rain-cleaved dene; at the very end, a picnic table by a former pump house grants me some respite.

I take stock of myself. My phone’s battery, always surprising me with innovative ways to run out, is in danger of crossing the ten-percent mark. It’s the first nice day of the year, but that also means i’m out of shape and out of practice: i won’t be able to make it all the way.

Equally, i’d be a fool to clamber back up all that. I keep walking. The rushing burn has become a tranquil river, its waters still enough to see your reflection. I think to myself that if you’re going to name a pencil company after a river, this one’s not a bad choice.2

Civilisation creeps back in with the tell-tale sounds of power tools. This is Al­lens­ford Holiday Park, a modest gathering of caravans proudly advertising itself as “near the outstanding Northumberland National Park”. (It isn’t.) When i get there it’s thronged by teen schoolboys freshly out, chattering about video games and lining up for ice cream. (Something, something, nature is healing.) Checking Google Maps with what power i have left reveals my worst fear: there’s nowhere to go but up.

The distance is short, but the slope is grueling. I convince my legs to heave themselves up along the side of pave­ment­less roads, ducking into fallow fields and passing places wherever i can find them. It gets worse the further i get. By the first field, i’m a little out of it. By the Catholic boarding school, i’m utterly exhausted. When i climb what i think is the final hill, only for perspective to cruelly show yet more around the corner, i wonder if this is what hell is like. But i make it — sweating and breathless, hydrating myself sip by sip, i make it to the bus stop, and wait. The driver, when he comes, must think i’m a zombie, but i’m glad to be on my way home. Note to self: don’t take that big a break again.

A despatch from Ashington

I’ve been hammering away at a big ol’ 2022 recap post, trying to get it ready before it’s irrelevant. It seemed cruel to leave you all with nowt over the new year, though, so i thought i might send you some photos from a recent evening walk.

A quixotic signpost for the National Cycle network, done up in rainbow colours and pointing towards destinations in elaborately decorated lettering

Ashington1 is a poor erstwhile mining town at the very tip-top of the local conurbation, Newcastle’s last gasp before coal and collieries give way to princes and pastures. It takes pride in two things: one, its mining history, and two, the fact that two Ashingtonians delivered England the world cup in a final remembered by ever fewer people.

The moon glistens over a large pond in the evening sky; to the right, there's a lifebelt in the foreground and a strange purplish pinprick of light in the background

This is the Queen Elizabeth II Country Park — not to be confused with the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park down in that London — a marvellous regeneration project which has turned a spoil heap into a lovely lake complete with a Premier Inn. That purple light off in the distance is the Woodhorn Colliery Museum, a whistle-stop tour of Northumberland’s mining history which apparently fancies itself the Blackpool of the North.2

A closer look at the museum reveals that a cutter-like building is lit up in purple, while two old mining rigs have their spokes illuminated as if they were neon

And that’s all i wrote. Tune in next time for either another bashed-together filler postcard (by Gods, am i going to have to make Blyth sound appealing next?), or the first annual Horny Awards™. We’ll see how far the Procrastination Monster lets me progress. :‌-)

A walk down Bedlington Country Park

Hello again. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I went on a nice riverside walk and thought i’d send you some photos. (Look, i was getting desperate and it was either this or a post about why seven is my favourite number.)

Our scene today is the southern end of Bedlington, a reasonably sized and — if i’m to be honest — terribly mediocre town right in the middle of that conurbation in the southeast of Northumberland. Thankfully, we’re not going to concern ourselves with the town centre (a place whose selling points are a Greggs and a void that used to be a Tesco) — no, we’re going down a steep and heavy slope until we wind up on the steep banks of the river Blyth, where the local parish have kindly set up a path. Won’t you join me?

Seeing this, i was simply overcome by the androgynous urge to stomp and plod around in a stream. (It’s what Hermaphroditos would have wanted.) Alas, my shoes were terribly unfit for such activity, and i had to call it off for another day. A national tragedy!

Four or so ducks swim peacefully down a rocky stream, flanked on their left by a small islet overshadowed by leaves.

About halfway down the river, there’s this small leafy island that some ducks appear to have claimed as their home. I would have admired it further, but i was being shadowed by by a couple with some particularly yappy and aggressive dogs and really just wanted to get the whole predicament over with.

A view from the middle of a river — water pours down a dam on the right, while in the dead centre, a pillar is visible in the distance.

I’m not 100% sure what’s going on with the pillar in the middle — it’s about where the path on the opposite side comes to a sudden stop; perhaps it used to be the support for some kind of railway bridge.

I did, i admit, have to trespass on a dam for this view — the ducks, i hope, would never be grasses. It’s just not in their DNA.

A fencepost crudely vandalised with some sort of four-way grid, an owl saying “Peace”, and the burnt-in initials of one “R.C.”

Some incredible visual storytelling here. Someone’s drawn an owl saying “Peace!”, then someone else has come and vandalised it with a swastika, then someone else went and turned the swastika into something resembling the Windows logo. I don’t know where “R.C.” comes into this, but if they were the last fellow, i salute them. Truly, one of the heroes of our time.

(I was somewhat tempted to scribble over it myself and turn it into Loss.jpg…)

Dispatches from a coastal walk

I had some time to kill after buying my mam a present from Tynemouth’s station market and decided to spend it by taking a walk in the golden hours of the day, now that spring is coming around and the weather isn’t quite so permanently miserable. I thought i might show you some photos.

These are not the warm, jade waters of the Mediterranean — the North Sea is (usually) grim, cold, and trying to kill you.
St Mary’s Lighthouse, off the coast between Seaton Sluice and Whitley Bay. Fond memories of many a school trip.
A very long series of public benches
Oh shit i took both pills and now i’m stuck in the Bench Dimension

The Big Here

Kevin Kelly, ex-editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and founder of Wired, brings us “The Big Here Quiz”, a 30(+4)-question test of how well you know your local area. I thought i’d give it a shot. Mr Kelly says he’s “extremely interested in hearing from anyone who scores a 26 or better on the quiz on their first unassisted-by-Google try”, which absolutely does not include me. You’ve got to learn these things somehow…

  1. Point north.
    • Easily done — that’s what a lifetime of staring at maps and stargazing will do!
  2. What time is sunset today?
    • My intial guess was twenty past five; Google helpfully confirms that i was off by only five minutes.
  3. Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap.
    • My local water company’s water is primarily sourced from the Kielder reservoir, in the Northumbrian outback — i’ll confess i’m not entirely sure what system of pipes brings it to my house…
  4. When you flush, where do the solids go? What happens to the waste water?
    • There are several sewage treatment works near my house; could be any one of them. (The local water company’s website is hopelessly vague about what happens to the wastewater — perhaps i should have paid more attention in school.)
  5. How many feet (meters) above sea level are you?
    • My intial guess was in the vicinity of 15 metres — hopelessly far off. The actual figure was more like fifty!
  6. What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom here?
    • No idea. (The Woodlands Trust helpfully informs me that primroses appear as early as December when the winter is mild.)
  7. How far do you have to travel before you reach a different watershed? Can you draw the boundaries of yours?
    • I couldn’t draw the boundaries, but the next town over is in a different watershed basically any way i travel.
  8. Is the soil under your feet, more clay, sand, rock or silt?
    • Clayey — oh, so clayey.
  9. Before your tribe lived here, what did the previous inhabitants eat and how did they sustain themselves?
    • The question strikes me as a little Amerocentric — should i just ask my Welsh friend what he had for breakfast? (And, in any case, since i’m half immigrant, who exactly are the previous inhabitants? The Normans? The Anglo-Saxons? Romans? Celts?)
  10. Name five native edible plants in your neighborhood and the season(s) they are available.
    • Garlic, from summer to early autumn.
    • Blackcurrants, in summer. (Banned in America!)
    • Blackberries, from August to September.
    • This is about where my limited knowledge runs out.
  11. From what direction do storms generally come?
    • The southwest.
  12. Where does your garbage go?
    • Landfill, mostly. (A quick Google reveals many landfill sites nearby, mostly owned by Suez.)
  13. How many people live in your watershed?
    • I have a right to privacy, Kevin.
  14. Who uses the paper/plastic you recycle from your neighborhood?
    • I should hope myself. I’d be a bit peeved if it all just gets shipped off to the Gambia or somewhere like that.
  15. Point to where the sun sets on the equinox. How about sunrise on the summer solstice?
    • You’re not going to believe this, but i can, in fact, point to the west. (Some tinkering about with Stellarium informs me that the sun rises almost due northeast on the solstice.)
  16. Where is the nearest earthquake fault? When did it last move?
    • Iceland, i would imagine. It’s constantly moving, but the last tectonic activity that reached the British ear was the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.
  17. Right here, where you are, how deep do you have to drill before you reach water?
    • No idea.
  18. Which (if any) geological features in your watershed are, or were, especially respected by your community, or considered sacred, now or in the past?
    • Taking “watershed” more broadly, the river Tyne was and is quite highly regarded. The Duddo Five Stones have expansive views of the Cheviots. The Tyne Valley is home to Hadrian’s wall — dotted with temples and such for Roman soldiers — and the oft-photographed Sycamore Gap tree.
  19. How many days is the growing season here (from frost to frost)?
    • No idea — after some research, it’s about 280 days… which is a full month longer than it was thirty years ago. Probably not a great sign.
  20. Name five birds that live here. Which are migratory and which stay put?
    • Kittiwakes (migratory; the bastards have colonised the Tyne Bridge and made the whole quayside smell of bird cack), robins (stay put), common ravens (stay put), barn owls (stay put), tawny owls (stay put).
  21. What was the total rainfall here last year?
    • I’m no statistician, mate… (It was about 690 millimetres.)
  22. Where does the pollution in your air come from?
    • Petrol emissions and the occasional blast of dust from the Sahara, though one presumes coal once made up a greater part.
  23. If you live near the ocean, when is high tide today?
    • No idea, at first — my 2022 Almanac tells me it was at about 4 p.m.
  24. What primary geological processes or events shaped the land here?
    • I know about the geological history of the Channel and the Scottish Highlands, but my earthlore regarding the north east is dreadfully lacking. Something something Pennines?
  25. Name three wild species that were not found here 500 years ago. Name one exotic species that has appeared in the last 5 years.
    • Grey squirrels, murder hornts, and Japanese knotweed. In today’s globalised world, exotic species aren’t very — but perhaps the pet otter trade has driven up the numbers for Aonyx cinereus.
  26. What minerals are found in the ground here that are (or were) economically valuable?
  27. Where does your electric power come from and how is it generated?
  28. After the rain runs off your roof, where does it go?
    • Right into the gutter, mate.
  29. Where is the nearest wilderness? When was the last time a fire burned through it?
    • “Wilderness” can be a messy term to define, but a decent candidate is Northumberland National Park. No idea about the history of fires.
  30. How many days till the moon is full?
  31. What species once found here are known to have gone extinct?
    • Wooly mammoths, Irish elk…
  32. What other cities or landscape features on the planet share your latitude?
    • In Europe, we have Copenhagen and Moscow. In America… erm, Churchill, Manitoba?
  33. What was the dominant land cover plant here 10,000 years ago?
    • No idea.
  34. Name two places on different continents that have similar sunshine/rainfall/wind and temperature patterns to here.
    • Wellington and Vancouver, maybe?

While i might not have got the questions 100% correct, i still found it a fascinating learning experience. How many did you get right?

Lords of Misrule 2021: Walking and picking up trash will benefit you personally

Today’s submission, a plea to pick up litter while on your morning (or evening) constitutional, comes from one Quinn Casey. Io Saturnalia!

1. Forces you to walk slower

I normally walk at an incredibly brisk pace. I have found a zen to slowing down to A) pick up the garbage and B) turn around slowly and admire the clean patch.

2. A pass to roam in “less-than-public” land

I’m not talking about hopping a fence into someone’s farmland. There are areas in the US that are legally private property, but in practice are wild, unused spaces.

For a rule-follower like myself it’s a “you know it when you see it”. Some real life examples of property I regularly trespass on and cleanup:

  • A paved sidewalk that ends onto an HOA stormdrain, with well trodden dirt paths throughout.
  • Government / Utility company land
  • Land beside train tracks, under bridges, and on maintenance roads

Picking up trash adds a layer of innocence to your case when pleading ignorance of your trespassing. Even if you are never confronted, it may help immerse you and ease your law-abiding mind.

3. Repeated hikes are prettier than the last

Paths you roam frequently will be cleaned faster than they accumulate garbage, and there comes a point where the space looks natural, untouched by human kind. In my opinion, having those wild spaces close to where we live is essential to mental health.

4. An excuse to go for longer hikes

I’m stubbornly attached to the (unhealthy) notion that a productive day is a successful day.

5. A problem local enough to solve

Where does this trash go when you bring it all back to the bin? Does this encourage more consumption/litter, since the waste isn’t immediately obvious anymore? Is litter even a substantial environmental problem, or is it just aesthetic?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to these. These are problems for a society, a larger than life culture. For too many years this was the excuse I used to not care at all. To not take any action whatsoever.

What’s the point of helping at all?

Well now I’ve found one. (5, if you’ve been keeping count) reasons to take action in a localized, meaningful way.

Small but constant effort by everyone is just as impactful as a one off million dollar idea. For true change we need to alter our behavior for the long term.

Relax, take a walk. Bring a bag.