There always seems to be something new to discover at Cragside. After our last visit to the lake area this time me headed to the house and formal gardens.
1. This not the combination you hear of everyday but the Vintage Transport and Real Ale Festival @tanfieldrailway sounds a day out that is going to hard to beat – the chance to be a driver for a fiver too?
2. If you weren’t at the 150th Miners’ Picnic today, head to Woodhorn Museum, near Ashington tomorrow and mix mining heritage with coming face to face with the daddy of all dinosaurs the T-Rex himself and a train ride too
5. I had magical happy memories of visiting Holy Island as a child and my first return visit with my family didn’t disappoint
9. There’s something “other worldly” about Cragside, near Rothbury – visit Lord Armstrong’s famous home – the first to be lit by hydroelectricty, learn about Sir Jospeh Swan and the lightbulb, ramble through the craggy woodland and have a cheeky zip wire in the playground
I doubt that Sir Charles Monck had in mind Frozen-mad five-year-olds when he designed the romantic Belsay Hall. But if he had, he couldn’t have come up with a much better acoustic paradise for their off-key “Let it Go” renditions than his underground wine and beer cellars.
For those of you who don’t have a school-age daughter, count yourself lucky as those of us who do are enduring the constant warbling of the central ballad: “Let it Go.”
So when a very kind, if possibly unsuspecting, member of the English Heritage staff suggested that we make sure we visit the cellars under the hall, to try out the incredible echo, there was only one song on my daughters’ minds. I would like to apologise to any other visitors to Belsay on the weekend for putting an end to any idea of them having a peaceful stroll. But the lady was right, the echo was fantastic. The children were absolutely captivated by the sounds of their voices being repeated back at them again and again and we were there for ages “letting it go” along with singing nursery rhymes too. Unfortunately, like their mum, they are pretty much tone deaf, so I won’t inflict their Frozen, the cellar version, soundtrack on you, but I’d recommend giving it a go. I can only imagine how beautiful the underground rooms sounds when, as we were told, the choirs go there to practice.
We’ve made a number of family outings to Belsay over the last few years, but one of the quite handy things I find with young children, is that it’s not long before they have almost completely wiped it from their memory and every visit carries with it the excitement seeing things a new all over again.
With the weather threatening a serious downpour, we headed straight for the former hall. It may look very grand, but one of the things I find that makes it a great place to visit with children is that there is nothing in it. There’s no need to worry about them breaking any invaluable objects or knocking over a piece of prize china, there’s just great, empty rooms and towering Greek pillars that allow for plenty of imagination to picture how they would have been filled all those years ago.
You can also learn more about the Wild Man of Belsay – a loner, a family man, an enigma, an free spirit…
With the odd spot of rain beginning we had a quick picnic on the lawn outside, against a backdrop of stunning rhododendrons, before having a swift walk around the garden then heading back to the car.
On a brighter day, or if we had come more prepared, from the hall you can then walk along through an old quarry, filled with prehistoric-sized flora and fauna that reminds me of scenes from Jurassic park, before arriving at the ruins of a medieval castle. This is another great picnic spot and the children have enjoyed climbing in the ruins and up the staircase to the top of the tower.
The walk then takes you back to the hall, via a slightly different route, which makes a lovely circular walk – suitable for pushchairs.
On a practical note, there is a cafe and toilets at the Hall and more toilets by the castle, always handy with littleones.
The merest hint of sunshine can see me scramble for the picnic rug, bucket and spade and mandatory cheese & pickle sarnie and head off like a woman possessed in the direction of the beach.
More often than not, the end result is a progressive drop in the car’s thermometer, a gathering of cloud and a pick-up in the wind until I arrive at the coast to unload my swimming cozzie-clad youngsters shivering onto the sand, while waterproof and welly-wearing dog walkers glance at them in pity.
But not this weekend. To my relief it actually got warmer the closer we got to our sunny destination and I even began to think that it might even be “busy” and “would I get parked?” in our usual spot right above the beach.
I found myself thinking “oo it is quite busy” – but that was because there were actually one or two other families scattered sparsely across the sand, whereas usually we have almost the whole beach to ourselves and even though I never need reminding, I did think quite smugly how lucky I am to live so close to such a beautiful and peaceful coastline.
Children’s inability to feel the cold never ceases to amaze me and I was quite jealous that while I was slightly chilly in my jeans and cardie, my two girls lolloped around in the water as if we were in the Coast del Sol.
Roll on summer.
Making the most of the weather on Sunday we headed down to Carlisle Park, Morpeth, where the grassy banks were filled with picnic spreads, families took rowing boats out on the river against the backdrop of the busy bowling green, (and Dunkin Donut van) in an almost idyllic vision of Englishness, A dedicated chap was also hard at work painting the brilliant paddling pool, so I look forward to that being open soon.
We then headed along the riverside path, great for scooters and small bikes towards the “Steppy Stones”. Whilst it’s not as scenic with the current flood defence work underway, the shallow river is great for paddling, fishing and like a big kid, I love navigating the Stepping Stones. I also love having a nosy at the beautiful picture-perfect riverbank houses with their terraced gardens that lead down to the river.
If you are out without bikes/scooters/pushchairs you can cross over the stones and the path leads back up to town centre, where you can then walk back to the park.
We had a lovely time, an hour or so of giggling and laughing and playing the same game of animal snap over and over again, as two minutes after we’d finished, they all seemed to forget we’d ever played and so would start all over again.
Time wasn’t important to them. According to my gran it was 2pm and she’d just enjoyed a lovely lunch. My five year old insisted her watch said seven minutes past fifteen, so what did it matter that mine said 10.30am?
I took a few photos and will send them to her as I know that despite hoping that she will at least remember something of our visit, the next time I talk to her, she will have forgotten and will ask why I never come to see her.
Sometimes you can’t help thinking what’s the point? Does it make a difference? Did it really even happen if she won’t remember? But when we are there, at that moment, she’s the mad, fun loving gran I grew up with and I’m sure that even if she can’t recall it, it must be with her somewhere inside.
But it’s not all laughs and giggles. I still find it hard to be honest and open about mental health. Physically my gran, in her 80s, was so fit and healthy, playing golf till her late 70s, walking several miles down the town to do her shopping, lapping the park. But gradually as her mind stopped keeping up her old friends started not to visit quite so often, then not at all. Even her local church said she couldn’t help out at coffee mornings anymore because of her “odd” behaviour and she became more and more isolated. Then when my mum started to get phone calls from the police as my proud, respectable gran had been caught shoplifting we realised something needed to be done.
She lived independently for a while. The manager at her local supermarket was brilliant. Recognising there was a problem, they showed understanding and called my mum who arranged to pay for the goods she’d taken. Others were not so. A security guard at one large high street store called the police after he caught her in action. We had to get her from the police station, where a sympathetic police officer agreed not press charges despite the security guard insisting it was not dementia she was a “crafty old woman.” How I wished this was true.
And then there was the “cold callers”. Checking her bank statements mum found she was paying out three monthly insurance premiums for sky, even though she didn’t have it. A salesman persuaded her to pay for metal security shutters on her house and we once found her kitchen full of mounds of fish she’d bought from a passing salesman who must have known she could never have got through all that on her own.
Eventually, it was decided she needed to go into a nursing home. In some ways she is happier, she sees people every day, and she is well cared for by the staff and there are activities and trips. But at other times she gets angry and frustrated and she cries and cries. For a long time she packed every single morning, including taking her picture frames off the wall, and waiting for my mum to come and take her home. My mum then had to go through the emotions of explaining the whole thing to her over again, day after day after day.
Every day I feel guilty, that I should be doing more to look after her, should visit more. Then I worry that our visits upset her, as it seems to trigger memories of what life used to be like.
Then there’s the impatience that creeps in, as you have to answer the same question over and over again. Or when you feel tempted to correct her and try and get her to remember what actually happened.
So my Dementia awareness week pledge is that when we visit, I am just going to try to be more like my children. I will try to forget about concepts of time, the past, the future, of truth and make-believe and just exist in the moment and enjoy our time together while we can.
Want to escape the school holiday rabble? Some of my favourite free places to walk with kids. Where do you like to go?
Rising Sun Country Park
Alnwick and Barter Books
Park on The Wynding and walk along the beach