Thursday, 27 August 2009

Holy Island: Northumberland’s Sacred Spaces / Tourist Honeypots

Holy Island could have been one of those places that promises much and inevitably disappoints. After all, I was visiting in July. Usually islands guarantee some limitation on the number of tourists, but Holy Island is a tidal island, linked to the mainland by a causeway that is flooded for only a few hours a day. As a result, imagine my wearied astonishment at discovering a main thoroughfare clogged with people heading back to the main car park, towing children and licking ice creams, mostly in the kind of shorts and sandals-with-socks that pass as holiday gear in Britain, a solitary saffron-robed monk accompanied by a little clutch of dreadlocked purple-weave hippies for visual relief. But I am getting ahead of myself, for the buildup to this singularly disappointing moment (not seeing the monk, I hasten to add, but experiencing the press of the crowd) was considerably more dramatic - and things rapidly improved after the pedestrian nadir.

I am of two minds as to whether to continue, having written the phrase ‘pedestrian nadir’. But I shall press on...

I was really impressed with the friendliness of the people of Northumberland. I had been told that complete strangers could strike up a conversation as if they had known you your entire life, and indeed this proved to be true. Only a slight conversational opener with the lady at the petrol station in Wooler, and I found myself hearing all about how she needed a holiday to recover from her week’s holiday, including the visits from the children and how her daughter had rung that she had just missed the bus but luckily her husband was just heading in that direction in the truck. From there it was only an easy jump to selling me the Ordnance Survey map, and advising me in the strongest possible terms to check the tide times before setting off for Holy Island. ‘People get caught by the tide all the time,’ she said. ‘We tell them, and tell them, but they just don’t listen. Last month someone got caught on the causeway, and you’re supposed to go wait in the hut and let the car flood, but the woman’s husband was disabled and he couldn’t walk to the hut, so they had to bring in the helicopter to airlift them out. It’s ridiculous, last year the council spent £11,000 on helicopters to lift people off the causeway because they were careless, and we have to pay for it.’ I absolutely promised her that I would be well careful of the tide times, which I promptly recited, for the next 24 hours. Two days later she checked on me when I called in again. ‘Did you get caught out?’ she asked anxiously, despite the fact that I was standing in front of her, having arrived in a functional car. It was nice to be the object of concern, though. ‘No, I was parked back on the mainland an hour before the tide came in.’ ‘Good, good,’ she said, and then continued the exchange she was having with what appeared to be a nephew, son, or possibly friend of the family. It was hard to tell. There was the adorable baby nephew, captured imitating his dad in all things, including attempts at auto repair, tyre-kicking, and axe-wielding. How much time she spent on Facebook disseminating pictures of these things. ‘Oh, you’re from Wales, where? I went down last year, and put a thousand miles on the car, following the rally all around the south Wales valleys and Pembrokeshire.’ This the nephew/son/friend of family. ‘I got all the way back and the car died on the hill above D-, so I just put it in neutral and coasted down the hill home. That was lucky,’ he added. ‘The car was scrap after that.’

It can be difficult to get away from such entertainment, but I could feel the tide coming in even as he was speaking and was becoming reluctantly restless to get away and go back again. For indeed such was the pull of the island, tourists or no tourists, that I went for three separate visits during my stay in Northumberland.

The lady at the bunkhouse, having duly advised me also about the tide times and the dangers of being stranded, was more than willing to provide information about parking. ‘I bet they make you pay through the nose to park on the island,’ I said as she stood chatting with me, coffee mug in hand. Indeed, she was most willing to tell me about the free parking, which meant only a slightly longer walk. At last I headed off, taking a cross country route that led me over a big rise some eight miles inland, from which I had an unexpected and breathtaking view of the island and the entire coast below me. The island continued to tease me as I followed National Cycle Route 1 north of B-, and found it lurking down below my right elbow, in a view that would have been impossible from the lower A1. Past the petrol station & friendly services (open til 8 every night), over the rail tracks, over which a surprisingly frequent service sprints between Newcastle and Edinburgh, up over a final rise, round the bend and suddenly, the causeway, before which something looking oddly like a city centre bus station - three identical signs so people could pull over in their cars and check those all important tide times before crossing.

The road - two lanes of tarmac, raised a few inches above the sand, narrowing to a single lane on the bridge over the river that wends its way through the endless beach, above which a wooden sentry box on stilts sits surveying the seabirds and the endless line of wooden posts that mark the pilgrim’s route to the island over the sands, the way of St Cuthbert. The way of Margaret remained along the tarmac, dunes and reed grasses spooling by as I hurtled along at surprising speed along one of Britain’s most scenic three-mile stretches of road. From the line of seaweed it seemed that the road would flood way past the causeway. Eventually I spotted what I thought must be the free carpark (‘No overnight camping on island’ warned the sign) and pulled in, to accompany three other cars dotted about, including one with a man sitting with the passenger door open, smoking a pipe as he contemplated the bay past the dunes. I realised I was still at the far north of the island, well away from the abbey and castle, but decided to have a bit of a walk anyway. The track led to an isolated farmhouse and what had once been a traditional windmill, but now sported a tiny modern eco-model spinning gaily. I turned into the dunes, seeing a man out working by the barn, and emerged onto yet another endless beach, populated only by a distant couple walking a dog. This is what islands are all about, I thought, looking down at my feet and discovering and compulsively photographing a flattened handbag washed up by the tide. (There is no accounting for the effect of watching the six-DVD series of The Genius of Photography.)

Upon my return to the car, the man was still smoking his pipe and contemplating the horizon.

Colour Chart at Tate Liverpool

Tate Liverpool. Photo copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009

(Continued from long ramblings about trying to find the Tate...)

Oh, you thought I was going to talk about Tate Liverpool, and the Colour Chart exhibition. Indeed I am. I didn't know what to expect from this Tate, or this particular collection of what I suspected would be mainly colour field paintings, a style of uniform application of colour without representation that I had found derisory as a child roaming free range in the Albright Knox (I could do that! As in, I'm still learning to draw but I could paint a solid block of blue next to a solid block of yellow just as well, but no one would put me in the Albright Knox). In later years (I won't presume to say maturity) I found them tedious compared to other modern styles, such as my beloved abstract expressionism. And yet, a few years after attending a course exploring some of the symbolic and spiritual applications of colour, I had embarked on a project that effectively transformed my flat into a walk-in colour field painting, through the magic of Dulux custom mixed strong pigments, a different jewel tone for each room.

So I didn't have any particular expectations of this exhibition, except to make further good use of my Tate membership. After jete'ing neatly into the lift, and not so neatly having the doors nearly close on my shoulders, to the alarm of the two girls inside, I found myself breathless on the fourth floor, ready to flash my membership card. 'You have twenty minutes to see the exhibition,' smiled the woman at the desk. 'That's all right,' I said. 'Better late than never.' And so, through the doors...

In the initial room the visitor is confronted with Marcel Duchamp's wonderful valise containing miniature reproductions of his oevre to that point. I have no idea what the link was to colour, but I've wanted to see this valise for years (knowing Duchamp, he probably made more than one). Truth be told, I'd love to make one myself, or to have one containing works by all my favourite artists. To the left, a smaller room contains the Ellsworth Kellys, including the one featured on the museum promotional materials. These do amazing things to one's eyes, when standing at a certain distance. All the squares appear to be leaping about on the retina. Remarkable, for such an apparently simple composition. I was also impressed with Kelly's entrepreneurial lateral thinking: young, poor, and working in Greece, he was unable to afford to ship an 8 foot square canvas (and didn't have room in his studio to work on one). The solution? Sixty-four 1 foot square canvases, to be assembled in a precise order at the receiving end. Brilliant!

There were many other points of interest, including displays of historical books on colour theory, and annual volumes belonging to Japanese artist On Kawara, who had meticulously documented swatches of each colour that he used on a daily basis. Having enjoyed Robert Rauschenberg's numbers painting in the Albright Knox as a child, I was delighted to see his series of ten lithographs of the digits 0 to 9, each in a different specially mixed but apparently straight-from-the-tin colour. On a wall backed with the Dan Flavin neon piece (and hence having a slightly jarring pink light spilling over the partition into the adjoining room) was a real treasure: Jan Dibbets' 'Colour Studies' from the 1970's, printed in large square format in 2007. These abstracts (or nearly abstracts) of details of cars had a colour cast typical of Kodachrome 64 or similar slide films of that era. But their primary interest for me was how well they worked as abstracts, and how well they were hung with contrasting colours next to each other. A sure sign that I like a piece is if it is the sort of thing I would like to make myself. (Countering this selfish approach to art appreciation, I hasten to add that I also enjoy work employing techniques, subjects or media that I would never use myself.)

After that, there just wasn't enough time to see the rest of the exhibition properly. I had assumed I was near the end, but in fact the Dibbets pieces were about halfway through. Still, I would highly recommend this exhibition, even to people who are reluctant to confront minimalist modern art. Oh, and look out for the exhibition staff. A chair in one of the first rooms proclaims that their attractive waistcoats were specially designed, making them living, breathing performance pieces. 'You have five minutes left, if that's okay!' said one brightly, popping his head round the partition as I contemplated Dibbets. Excellent work.

Finding Tate Liverpool

Liver building and Albert Docks. Photo copyright Margaret Sharrow 2009

Coming into Liverpool was supposed to be straightforward, an easy stop between points north and south. I had the whole route written down on a card: M6 exit 26, M58 to the end, then pick up an A road into Bootle, one left turn and a straight run down to the Albert Dock and Tateland. No, no, no, no! I hear a chorus of Liverpudlian drivers exclaim. But how was I to know that there was a bizarre slip road feed just before the roundabout at the exit, and unable to see past a big white van full of big men who obviously realised that I hadn't a clue where I was going, I found myself instead on the A49, Liverpool's answer to the suburban shopping hinterland, non-expressway route into so many North American cities, plagued by endless unsynchronised red lights. (Residents of Hamilton, Ontario may now swell with justifiable pride at their perfectly synchronous traffic flow system.) At any rate, after my somewhat delayed departure from Lakeland, I began to despair of arriving at Tate anything before the heartrending moment after the doors were locked. As it happened, I eventually found first the Albert Dock, and then, after driving past and returning on the other side of the central road barrier, the pay and display parking. £2 for one hour, £4 for two, and £5 for three hours. 5:07 pm, read the meter. I slipped a two pound coin into the machine, yanked my ticket out almost before it had printed, popped it into the car on the dashboard (North American visitors take note: without completing this step, you are subject to a fine and the dreaded clamping!), and legged it towards the water.

While 'Central Tourist Attractions' are notably well waymarked, Tate Liverpool itself is not. On the other hand, I had no idea it was competing with so many other attractions. Granada Studios and the inevitable Beatlemania I knew about; what I didn't realise was that the waterfront had been completely (re)developed with arenas, cafes, Bug Experiences (I kid ye not), and an endless range of boutiques and tourist tat shops occupying every square inch of the former warehouses. Naively, I had thought that the Albert Dock was a working dock, that just happened to have an art gallery attached to the northeast corner. I can hear Liverpudlian laughter echoing like the studio outtakes attached to the tail end of so many of the later Beatles tracks.



Lincolnshire: It all comes out in The Wash

I suppose that pun is completely overused if you live in Lincolnshire. The Wash, for those who don’t know, is much more than an inlet. On the map, it is a square chunk taken out of the east of England, above the rumpy bulge of Norfolk and Suffolk. On the road atlas, it seems quite far from Boston on the west to King’s Lynn at the southeast corner, up to Hunstanton at the northeast corner. But on the ground, when you actually see it, the Wash is vast. You think you are seeing across it, and then realise that you are just seeing one small corner of it. It is big sky, over a big, big, big inland sea. Giant tankers loaded with stacks of cargo boxes disappear into it like gnats into the night sky / a football stadium.

Oddly enough, going to the Wash was the one thing I definitely wanted to do when I was in Lincolnshire. ‘You must go to the cathedral,’ said my friend from Lincolnshire, meaning of course the one in Lincoln, where I never set foot. No, for me, as usual, it was the tiny village, the road to nowhere, the non-event, the empty stretch of beach that drew me. Lincolnshire is not exactly busting with attractions, not ones that you might have heard of if you happen to live outside of Lincolnshire, anyway. And I avoided them all. The cathedral, the galleries, the industrial heritage museums, Scarborough, and a country park lake that all signs and brochures seemed to point to, promising walks, cycle paths, canoeing and a limitless variety of other water sports, teahouses, ice cream, parking, and of course, endless crowds. No, I was to be found in a hostel that has barely survived, in a village that didn’t stock any Ordnance Survey maps in the local shop but was staffed by an owner who wondered why I had the temerity, or indeed the need, to ask for one, in a region so flat as to be ideal for cycling but boasting no cycle rentals for a good twenty five miles. Having found an excellent cycle shop and purchased their cheapest folding cycle, I set off down dead end lanes passing between endless rows of electric yellow rape, the sweet scent drifting on the wind, and ended up hearing the cuckoo call from amidst a thicket of trees at the base of the raised dam flanking a canal, now the MacMillan Cancer Walk heading off to the horizon.

It was nice to be under such an open sky.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Northumberland: England's Wyoming

Let's be honest, I had wanted to go to Holy Island for about four years. So when I had the opportunity to stay with friends near Newcastle for a week, it seemed the perfect opportunity to add on a few days exploring northern Northumbria.

I stayed at Chatton Park Bunkhouse, on Chatton Park Farm near Wooler. Having forgotten to pack my sleeping bag meant £3 extra per night, so £18 per night in total (price on the website is not current). However, I had the place to myself, and it is brand new as of conversion in 2007, very clean, and Jane and Duncan are very friendly and caring. Generally the place is booked by groups, so do phone ahead especially if planning to visit at the weekend. I think it would be pretty difficult to visit here if you didn't have your own transport, either two or four wheeled. The setting is lovely, the cat and dogs friendly, and the kitchen has a lovely woodburning stove that would be extremely cosy in winter. (No microwave, though, so it's a good time to go back to making real porridge and real pasta instead of ping! meals. Got delicious Northumberland sausage from the butcher in Wooler...)

For those who prefer the YHA, the hostel at Wooler has an interesting history as a bunkhouse for land girls during World War II. It was chockablock for the dates I wanted, but then I am usually a very last minute planner (read: spontaneous!) and it seemed nice enough, bursting with tourist brochures. Speaking of which, the Cheviot Centre in Wooler contains not just an excellent tourist info centre but is a community centre with endless activities, groups and meetings, as well as being the best place for the visitor to Wooler to use the internet. For £1.50 you can use up to the minute computers for as long as they're open (10-4:30 seven days a week), versus the public library, open erratic hours (closed Tuesdays, and was it Thursdays?) and although very friendly, costing £1 per half hour for non-Northumberland residents, and 20p per sheet to print versus 10p per sheet at the Cheviot Centre.

Enough of the practicalities - what of the place? The landscape has a spacious feeling generally absent in small-scale Wales (except for inland Pembrokeshire), plus the wonderful northern Baltic light that has a more blue quality than the grey-green light of Wales. Don't get me wrong, I love Wales, but I was open to appreciating the differences. I began to think of Northumberland as England's Wyoming, a big sky country but also with a great coast (obviously there are no endless sandy beaches in landlocked Wyoming!)

What I was after was my usual range of apparently doing nothing, in the landscape, interspersed with mooching lazily around the hostel, and lurking in cafes. I found a good one in Wooler...

The surprise discovery was that Northumberland, like other places I enjoy (including areas of Scotland such as the drive through Kilmartin), is rich in prehistoric rock art, in particular the so-called ring and cup marked rocks. These are large boulders, usually exposed level with the earth, glacial probably but I am no geologist, that have been carved with indentations, usually around an inch or two in diameter, that collect the rain ('cups'), and/or Celtic-looking designs of concentric circles. They date (without me checking references) between 1500 to 3000 years ago, and as usual archaeologists can only speculate as to their purpose. It is always a big thrill for me to locate these, as they tend not to be very well signposted. In Kilmartin there is a fairly well, if understatedly, marked chain of these. In Northumberland, there can be no marking whatsoever... an Ordnance Survey map is essential. I found them at two locations... and then there was Holy Island, best left for another article.