Norm’s Overseas Odyssey 2005 – 2006 – Episode Eighteen

Monday 23rd January 2006

Any hopes I had of visiting and photographing “High Force” on my way north were well and truly fogged out, which also meant of course that my progress was painfully slow.
The higher I went, of course, the worse it got until at one stage I just pulled off the road in the hope that it would clear. That wasn’t the smartest idea I’ve ever had either, because it just happened to be the highest point on the road across the moor and the outside temperature was down to -4° C. As, after 45 minutes or so, there was no sign of the fog clearing I decided to soldier on… …only to find that about half a mile further on there was no fog at all!
While this meant that I’d be able to see what I wanted to see on Hadrian’s Wall when I got there, I also knew I was going to have to “rug up” really well!

My first stop was at Housesteads Roman Fort, a steepish 15 minute walk up from the car-park, which – if nothing else – got the circulation going. Although no audio-guide was available, there were information panels at each of the main features of the fort, but the information provided was sparse at best. While the section of the Wall itself to the north is relatively intact, all that remains of the buildings are foundations – of which those of the granaries and headquarters are the best preserved. Perhaps more important than any appreciation of the buildings, however, was a better understanding of the overall and logical layout of what, on its commanding 5 acre site, must have been one of those important “outposts of empire”.

Then on to Chesters Roman Fort 8 miles further east where, believe it or not, the fog had returned and it was even colder. Chesters does boast a small museum containing artefacts from excavations not only from this site but also from Housesteads and others, and it was really because of those that I spent 30 minutes or so there – rather than that it was somewhere warm! Fibber! Nonetheless, while the museum is far too small to display adequately all that it contains, for those with an interest in the Romans, it is still well worth a visit. In the end of course I just had to brave the elements to view what was left of the fort.
Chesters was obviously very important to the Romans who built a sophisticated bridge (very little of which remains today except foundations) across the River Tyne at this point. As far as the rest of the fort is concerned, foundations again are all that survive other than of the “Bath House” down by the river. That’s not to say that it’s an intact building but rather that there is more of it still above ground, and identifying the various parts of it seemed easier as a result. Optimistically, I did take some photographs, but they were more of the some atmospherically fogged trees rather than the bath house.

In the end, the cold won out and I beat a retreat back to the car and its potential warmth. For some reason or other, I found Chesters a more approachable site than Housesteads and don’t for a minute regret braving the elements to view it.

Chesters Roman Fort, Northumberland – Remains of Bath House
23 January 2006
Chesters Roman Fort, Northumberland – Tree by a foggy River Tyne
23 January 2006

Again, fortunately, the fog disappeared a mile or so north of Chesters so I had a reasonably good run from there to Longhorsley and “Linden Hall” where I arrived just before 3:30 pm. A converted minor stately home, it looked a bit more pretentious than I had envisaged but I had chosen it more for the availability of free WiFi access than its location and its two AA rosettes – believe me? Having unpacked I plugged in to find that the aforesaid access was unavailable and after a lot of prevarication I was told that it wasn’t available in the bedrooms quite yet but that I was welcome to use the Functions area where it was. So, inconvenient as that is, the speed and “freedom” of WiFi is such that I decided to settle for being the solitary soul in one of the conference rooms in the functions annexe.

Despite its two AA Rosettes, the Dobson restaurant at “Linden Hall” in Longhorsley couldn’t have been further removed from that at the “Rose and Crown”. A wait of 30 minutes from ordering to being seated and insufficient and disinterested waiting staff (just two to cater to the needs of thirty or so diners) didn’t create too positive an impression – one that turned out to be quite accurate. The entrée of mussels was no better than that served in the “Café Rouge” chain and having to ask twice for a bowl in which to put the discarded shells did nothing for my enjoyment of one of my favourites!
And while the pan-fried salmon was beautifully moist and full of flavour it wasn’t enhanced by being served on a bed of chilli and celery couscous where chilli was the predominant ingredient. I didn’t bother to try the desserts!

Tuesday 24th January 2006

Back on the road, not because it was part of the grand plan but rather because the sky was blue and the sun was bright and shining. Not knowing when there’d be another day like that, I wasn’t about to waste it. So I drove north to the Scottish border and west briefly before heading south again, through the Border Forest Park and back across the border into Northumberland National Park. A quite different experience from my drives on the moors! And I did get to drive across the dam at Kielder Water to a large “Pay and Display” car park on the other side. Perhaps not surprisingly, there wasn’t a single car there – and devil that I am, I didn’t pay!

With somewhat lower expectations than on the night before, I ordered dinner and was seated within 10 minutes. The service was better and so was the dinner, though it still has a way to go before it’s up there with my best! But rather than keep you in suspense, this is what I had: Soup, Mushroom and Madeira – delicious; Main, Slow-roasted shoulder of Lamb – very good indeed; Dessert, Sticky toffee pudding with banana ice-cream – scrumptious!

Wednesday 25th January 2006

As forecast, this morning was warmer but soggier and not the sort of day to venture too far! Nonetheless, I ventured into Morpeth – the nearest town of any size – primarily to buy petrol and tissues and top-up my PAYG mobile phone account; and then headed off east in the hope that I might see the sea, so to speak.
Whilst there was a “Coastal Drive” it was someway inland – and what glimpses of the sea I did get were more than a little rain- affected. I had also hoped that I might get to see Dunstanburgh Castle – accessed only by a mile-long coastal path – but while I can cope with frost and fog for that distance, very wetting rain is another thing again. That’s not to say the drive wasn’t pleasant – just a bit frustrating. In the end, I beat a strategic retreat to the hotel and made good use of the afternoon finding and booking accommodation for the next week or so.

For dinner my choices – and ratings were: Entrée, Grilled sardines (not “King Oscar”) but equally delicious; Main, Pan-fried halibut with an olive and parmesan crust – the fish was just beautiful and would have been magnificent if it hadn’t been overpowered by the strong olive flavours from the crust; (why do chefs insist on “enhancing” things, I ask myself?); Dessert: the crème brulée wasn’t up to the high standard set in another place – Boston, specifically – but the portion of natural honeycomb that accompanied it went a long way to redressing the balance.
And while on the subject of balance, I have to say that if the Rose & Crown Restaurant rates two AA rosettes, Dobson’s rates one at most!

Thursday 26th January 2006

Another coolish morning, but fine and fogless! No further excuse was needed to return to the coast and trek along to Dunstanburgh Castle. And, yes, I had checked that it was open before setting off!
The castle can be seen almost all the way along the level walk to it. At a distance it appears a picturesque ruin on a fairy-tale site: up close it looks what it was built to be – a massive fortress.
It was built on a grand scale from 1313 on by Thomas Earl of Lancaster less, as I understand it, for strategic defence than the politics and personality of its builder. Whatever the reason, its sheer size, covering as it does some 11 acres, as well as the quality of the stone-work, still manage to impress. I’m glad I returned to see it.

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland
26 January 2006

Photos: My visit to Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland – 26th January 2006

Then on up that “Coastal Route” to the “Bamburgh Castle Hotel” in Seahouses where I’d booked for four nights. I had done so partly to serve as a base to explore the surrounding area, but mainly so that I could spend one day at least on Holy Island. Generally spoilt thus far in my travels, this hotel can best be described as basic – which, given that its DBB rate is considerably less than I’ve been paying – is quite understandable. Whether the dinners will rate write-ups remains to be seen!

Friday 27th January 2006

The answer to that last question – at least for Thursday night’s dinner – was “No”, though, in the interests of even-handed reporting, you’re going to get one anyway! The seafood broth was something akin to one of those prawn cocktails of another era, but in this case the “marie rose” sauce was in sufficient quantity for it to be designated soup!! The main course of pork loin served with dauphine potato comprised two loin chops (perhaps frozen) artistically arranged on a cube of par-cooked (as opposed to par-boiled) potato and served with steamed seasonal vegetables (one broccoli head, ample carrots and a heap of shredded cabbage). Hoping for the best – no, the better – I ordered apple crumble and ice cream. Regrettably the crunchiness of the crumble didn’t survive the microwave experience, though the apple filling was nice enough. Only another three nights to go! But to be positive, the potential for incipient rotundity – or portliness, even – is lessened somewhat.
But wait, all is not lost…  …while temporarily (I hope) out of black pudding, breakfast was more than acceptable, and, on a cold, wet and windy Friday morning just what was needed to brave the elements.

Alnwick Gardens, some fifteen miles south, was suggested as being worth a visit – even in winter when the adjoining castle is closed! If I’d known that it was going to be a construction site while new developments are being built I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but having driven there it would have seemed petty not to have made my contribution (£6.00) to The Duchess of Northumberland’s charitable trust!
Given that you literally have to walk through some of the construction works to reach the garden, I thought it decidedly cheeky of the Trust to charge full price for entry. So there!
Needless to say the gardens themselves were, to all intents and purposes, bare, but the Labyrinth, the Grand Cascade and, in particular, the Serpent Garden with its stainless steel water sculptures were worth seeing and almost justified the contribution.

Alnwick Gardens Northumberland – Water Sculpture I
27 January 2006
Alnwick Gardens, Northumberland – Water Sculpture II
27 January 2006

One feature that youngsters would just love was the Treehouse, an enormous wooden structure of turret -topped cottages, walkways and bridges. In the summer the gardens are apparently a major attraction, drawing in excess of a million visitors a year – and if any of the photographs I’ve seen of it are anything to go by, I could understand why!

Dinner a little better – perhaps because I kept it simple! Entrée of bruschetta – OK, but served on a bed of lettuce! Main, grilled haddock (on the dry side) and chips but none of those vegetables – whilst not marvellous, a definite improvement on the previous night’s pork! I skipped the dessert.

Saturday 28th January 2006

Having driven past it a couple of times, I finally made it to Warkworth Castle – one of the English Heritage sites that is open but only from Saturday to Monday. Warkworth is about 20 miles south of Seahouses, so it was a comfortable 45 minute drive on another of those grey drizzly days.

The original castle dates from the mid twelfth century but has been added to or renovated in almost every century since, at least up to as recently as the early 1800s. It is perhaps for this reason that the keep is still roofed and almost complete – something for which I was grateful today in that it helped me get a better feel for the layout of the chambers/rooms and their purpose/s and, of course, as shelter from that drizzle. My exploration was again assisted by an excellent audio guide. Whereas Dunstanburgh is sited remotely on the coast, Warkworth, from its hilltop position above the River Coquet dominates the village it overlooks. Both in their own way were designed to impress – and do!

Warkworth Castle, Northumberland
28 January 2006

I kept dinner simple again! Vegetable soup – OK; salmon and haddock fishcakes and chips – really quite nice! I skipped dessert again.

Sunday 29th January 2006

I set off relatively early so that I could catch the low tide “window of opportunity” to drive across the causeway to visit Lindisfarne Priory. Lindisfarne Castle is closed for the winter, so I didn’t have to worry too much about trying to fit in two “viewings” before being stranded on the Holy Island.

The Priory, or rather what remains of it, was built in honour of St Cuthbert in the 12th century, and probably stands on the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery founded in the 7th century, and which was abandoned in 875 in the face of repeated Viking attacks. Unusually for a monastery, the buildings of the 12th century one were fortified in the 14th century to protect them from attacks by closer neighbours – the Scots. Whatever the history, it really is a lovely place – today helped not a little by sunlight which made the pink sandstone of the priory’s church glow. I say “priory church” only to differentiate it from the local parish church of St Mary’s which is opposite the entrance to the priory.

Lindisfarne Priory, Northumberland
29 January 2006

Conscious of those tides, I didn’t visit the attached and recently refurbished museum, but depending on the weather I may go back again to do that – and have another look at the priory – on my way north tomorrow.

Having made the return crossing safely I had time to spare to drive up to Berwick-upon-Tweed to walk the ramparts of the 16th century fortifications which surround the town and, if possible, get some photos of the medieval bridge and the railway bridge I’d heard about. I did walk the ramparts and got my photos (which says he, immodestly, are really quite good) but, in so doing, missed making use of my English Heritage card at the “Berwick Barracks” which was closed for lunch. To be truthful, I’d had my fill of “viewings” for the day anyway, so headed back to Seahouses to write it all up.

Berwick-Upon-Tweed, Northumberland – Medieval Bridge
29 January 2006
Berwick-Upon-Tweed, Northumberland – A more recent bridge of the railway variety
29 January 2006

Dinner on my last night at Seahouses was predictably simple: mushroom soup which was OK, and a main of deep-fried breaded goujons of haddock and chips, which was slightly better than OK! I have to admit I’m looking forward to my next stop – at a Restaurant with Rooms in Swinton in Berwickshire, called “The Wheatsheaf”. Now that sounds my sort of place!
More – depending on internet access – sooner or later…