June • A nice, normal Summer

After all our visitors we’re back to normal. Come to think of it we were never away from normal — it’s just we had another person there to share it. Nice.

And what do I mean by a nice normal Summer? Temperatures in the high teens Centigrade or 60s Fahrenheit in old money. Today was 18ish and glorious for our normal walk in Belsay.

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There were some Canadians in the garden today. And we chatted to another retired couple down by the castle. They were lovely. Both had spent their careers caring for others. Noel chatted to him and I chatted to her. It’s interesting to have a good long conversation with complete strangers. It gives you a bit of hope and faith in human nature.  Like this meeting did too:

This is Keira, a rescued polecat. She’s about 7 months and a bit nervous but she really loves her new mummy who, instead of finding her a new home, has decided to keep her. Her mummy is very experienced in looking after small mammals and has 7 others, so Keira is a very lucky little animal. She’s quite cute too as you see. We had an interesting chat with her mum. Lovely to meet them both. Have a great life, Keira!

And there was the laburnum! By any standards WOW. It hasn’t looked as good as this for 5 years because it had to be pruned, but now it’s back to its old self. Here is a poem I wrote in 2014.

The Loudest Tree by Far

Down near the castle in deep rock rooted
where snowdrops dripped and daffodils have played;
where blue rang a peel of bells in May
to celebrate blossom’s birth in leafy shade;

captured now in poison’s golden chains,
sudden summer quickens the air
with heady disinfectant honey tones.
An inflorescence of racemes appears;

counterpoint and harmony
to the blackbird’s song;
feathery, flighty, shiny,
and not to be outshone,
animated in a gusty shower
Laburnum sings along.

   Oonah V Joslin 2014

Meanwhile another old friend, a 200 year old beech near the entrance to the Quarry Garden is currently being assessed.
Some branches have already come down and the lower path is closed, a diversion in place, so that essential work can take place. It may be that that this tree has come to the end of its life. It reminds us that the garden is always a work in progress and that the work the gardeners and tree surgeons do is vital to maintaining a beautiful and safe garden that all Belsay’s visitors can enjoy

May • in North Northumberland

Please follow the links in red below for more info.

It is a shame that the attractions north of Alnwick are not better signposted and better known. From Morpeth north, there are many CASTLES and Alnwick is just one of them.

Belsay, Morpeth, Warkworth, Norham, Dunstanburgh, Etal, Ford, Chillngham and Lindisfarne are equally worth visiting! We even have a castle at Bothal near where I live… Northumberland is supersaturated with castles due to the troubled history of the Scottish borderlands. We’d never really visited either Ford, or Etal Castle until this year and we didn’t have time to see all there is to see but we’ll be back to see the rest.

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This is Etal Castle, which has a little information centre dedicated to the Battle of Flodden Field — a particularly bloody incident in border history (10,000 Scots slaughtered in a matter of hours). The battle site itself is not far away. I have been there too, and it exudes that silent sadness that is common to such places.

Etal is a pretty village which also features the only thatched pub in Northumberland, The Black Bull. Chef Stefano, makes black pudding bonbons to die for!!! Nice chap too. Came out and chatted. The thrice cooked chips are great as well and the beer is very good. It’s a must for the thirsty visitor.

We parked at HEATHERSLAW MILL which itself makes an interesting place to visit (we did last year) and again I bought some of their wonderful stone ground flour. The next day was my sister’s birthday and I found the perfect present in the Mill Shop. She wore it on Holy Island because hey, Northumberland is a beautiful county but the Bahamas it ain ‘t!!! and Lindisfarne off the North Sea coast can be about as cold and windy as it gets. Sometimes a woolly scarf is just the ticket!

There are several other gift shops too. We took the Light Railway from Heatherslaw on the 4 mile trip along the banks of the River Till, one of the cleanest waterways in England. The countryside is beautiful with views of the Cheviot Hills and the steam railway is FUN trip!!!

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And so to our evening at The Bluebell in Crookham.
a well earned pint, an excellent meal, a cosy room and a fantabulous breakfast! Life doesn’t (in my opinion) get better! Esme had this cherry and meringue pudding that was huge and decadent! As soon as she sends me a photo of it I will enlighten you as to just how decadent is was. She did somehow manage to eat it all though. Brave lass!!!

So onto Holy Island to visit our friend of 25yrs, Dorothy, and celebrate Esme’s Birthday with an evening meal at The Ship. This is a regular haunt of ours and the Lamb Tagine is particularly good.


There’s no such thing as a bad picture on Lindisfarne

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Like all tourist destinations, don’t expect the impossible. There’s plenty to see but if your family wants rides and a Macdonalds — there are none. This is an island, not a theme park and God forbid it should ever become one. I heard one man as he turned away at the abbey gate, say to his partner: There’s nothing much here! Just as in Paris you have to bring your own romance, so on Holy Island you need to bring your curiosity with you, your appreciation of history and your own peace. It’s busy when the causeway is open. It’s remote when it’s closed. If you want lots of shops and a great selection of restaurants this is probably not the place for you. There are few eateries on the island and be aware that you’ll need to book somewhere if you want an evening meal.

It’s crucial to know the tide times. Please check HERE.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for a visit to the grim North, the most castellated region in England. The natives are, for the most part, friendly and there’s lots to see and do under the big skies. Just — bring a warm coat!

May • Bluebells be with you • Four Northumberland gardens

Bluebells are my sister’s favourite flowers and why not? They are a delight. I think I prefer lilies of the valley, for their scent, but I can’t grow them myself despite others telling me they are a weed. And I seldom see any growing these days. Anyway it’s always great when Esme comes and we go gallivanting to our favourite gardens. So here a few highlights of this year’s fortnight in May.

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This year we went back to Belsay for the biannual quilting display. We always enjoy this event. Here is a tiny sample of why:

WOW right?


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James Graham • Happy 80th Birthday • 13th May 2019

LINKS are in red

I joined Writewords in 2007 with no clear idea of where the writing would lead. I’d been writing poems since I was in school. I still have no clear idea. I wander hopefully. But along the way I have met some friends and a few great mentors, one of whom is the site’s poetry expert, James Graham. Nobody who has not had the benefit of James’ in-depth, insightful and gentle commentary on their work can appreciate just how many people James has nurtured over the years or how much he has contributed to their knowledge and skill as poets. Week after week James gives serious thought to the work of others and writes entire swathes of critique. He always prints the poems out. He makes notes. He questions, he suggests, he encourages. He sees each poem through to the end or to its abandonment. His perceptions are frank, honest and useful and of course his punctuation is unparalleled. He’d want me to point that out 🙂

James engaged in some Writewords work at my house. April 2019

Recently I have had the privilege of getting to know James better in real life. We met for the first time last September in Knaresborough.
This month he reaches the age of 80 and I am sure I am not alone in wishing him a Wonderful Birthday and Many Happy Returns of the Day.

James Reading his title poem from BECOMING A TREE

He has, by the way, read the following poem too and he wrote:
“there’s a particular stand of trees at Thorp Perrow arboretum, and I couldn’t help noticing that they were all, as far as I could see, practically the same height. As poets you and I both stand tall. No false modesty – I know I’ve written some good poems, but so have you. So have several other WW members – work that deserves to be far more widely appreciated. I couldn’t place us all in ranking order. Poetically we’re all handsome silver birches, all 80ft tall, give or take a fraction of an inch.”

The Art of Forestry
(for James Graham)

I met you
on your way to
becoming a tree,

at that point
where woodland paths
converge, we met.

You seemed always straight,
tall, rooted in
forest languages,

with leaf and bark,
versed in mossy soils.

We all grew stronger
under your branches.
Light, filtered through

your determined
shade, greened the sky,
measuring each day’s hours by a poem.

And you make sense
of all our knots,
tip us all a wink.

‘Time gnarls
everything,’ you say,
‘but the path always leads to

becoming a tree’.
Heaps of time pile up.
Leaves fall to their deaths.

Words bubble.
But what more could we poets ask?
It’s deep in our grain.

      by Oonah V Joslin


James Graham • in Northumberland part 5

LINKS are in red

Alnwick Gardens

All the other garden properties we visited are National Trust or English Heritage and in each case James was admitted as our guest at NO FEE. We are also yearly subscribers to the gardens at Alnwick which are part of the castle grounds and privately owned by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. This was the only place to charge an entrance fee to an elderly disabled person! I don’t think I need to elaborate on what I think of that?

I was glad the cherry blossom was still in the orchard. It’s a difficult thing to time right! Lucky us, there were still daffodils and pink tulips too and petals falling like confetti around us.

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We visited the walled garden. Of course it’s tulip time.

and the oldest tree. I think it’s 200 yrs old?

Poet, Tina Cole and her husband Peter travelled all the way up from Herefordshire to meet up with us at Alnwick. (I have mentioned before how many poets James has nurtured on Writewords over the past decade and a half.) Tina is another of those and she and I have met a couple of times. This seemed the ideal way to say thank you, and Happy 80th Birthday, to James.

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We had lunch at the Tree House.

I was a little disappointed with the Tree House this time. The service was slow and the food, although good, was not of the standard we have come to expect of this venue. Whereas any two courses last July cost £25, this time we averaged £27. That is not much of an increase admittedly but we noticed there was less choice. We didn’t have a cocktail. There was no liqueur on offer with dessert and the cheeseboard was a smaller selection. Altogether the food lacked the presentation and finesse of previous visits, the attention to detail. The WOW Factor, just wasn’t there any more! I am prepared to pay a bit more for WOW!! I didn’t particularly like the thick, thick chips that came with the steak. Had there been more choice I would not have had steak at all. In fact I much preferred their burgers! We’ve eaten there three or four years in a row now because it was so special and the set menu choice was so good. 

I noted too that the service in the cafe at the entrance was very slow this time. Takes ages to get a coffee because there’s only one till!?

After Tina and Peter took their leave, we took James to one place I knew he would love.

Barter Books.

where he satisfied his thirst for world history by buying a book. It was a good final day.

James Graham • in Northumberland part 4

Sunday at Belsay. What could be better? According to James, nothing!

As he was leaving he told me, that of all the places we’d visited, the Quarry Garden at Belsay is best!

From the Winter Garden, the landscape is pure Capability Brown. It melts seamlessly into farmland and woods. The quarry garden itself only dates from the 1980s but the rocks are old and one feels it, and the trees and plants, some of them very exotic, Iron Wood, Candyfloss, Falcon’s wing, Devils’ Walking Stick, Kiwi, Gunnera, Purple Tooth Wort, have taken well even in the quarry walls. Plants thrive here and bloom early, that would not happily grow anywhere else in Northumberland. It’s a place of shelter from the gusty winds. Let’s face it — this is a post industrial site! Men laboured here. Gardeners still do! Yet for me, as for the plants it nurtures, it is a place of shelter too and it embodies a deep sense peace. Between the quarry walls and under its arches, the garden is a testament to the skill of those who planted it and the many who work still to keep it beautiful. I wander there in my imagination whenever I am worried, sad or distressed. I pick a season. There is colour all year round — from the spiky yellow mahonia flowers of January right through to Autumn’s gold and December’s berries.

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Of course James couldn’t go everywhere in that scooter! But here’s some of what he missed.

Up in the Crag Wood, the bluebells will now be in bloom, along with the gorse.

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Down by the leat, there will be damsel flies.


In June, rhododendrons will flood the Winter Garden view with colour.

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We didn’t eat at Belsay, preferring to come the 8 miles home for a cuppa tea and a homemade scone on this occasion. There was chicken to put in the oven too. But I do recommend Belsay’s stotties if you want a substantial snack in the old kitchen cafe.

I was so happy that James loved this garden as much as I do. It is uniquely magical and such a relaxing place. There is something very Zen about this reinvented quarry.

Reading Quarry Garden

James Graham • in Northumberland part 3

NB: red means a LINK


I nearly always take visitors to Woodhorn Colliery near Ashington. The colliery has a fascinating (and very accessible) mining exhibition and of course, as all collieries, its share of tragic history. You Tube Video

The permanent exhibition at Woodhorn is well done, informative and amusing. There are temporary exhibitions, a light railway and a long walk round the lake. Woodhorn has a hotel right next door as well. A good place to centre a trip to Northumberland.

But the real reason I take people there is for something quite unexpected:

The Pitmen Painters

James, like most visitors, had never heard of them though Bill Bryson mentions them in ‘Notes from a Small Island’. There are 75 paintings on display by this marvelous group of miners. It is an impressive and unique collection. I make no secret of the fact that my favourite is Oliver Killbourn and, of his paintings, my absolute favourite is Coalface Drawers (1950). Please do, if you ever have the chance, see the work of these amazing artists of The Ashington Group.

James bought a book and a print for his wall. He was impressed.

There is a cafe at Woodhorn too and it’s quite good but we chose to go to Newbiggin for lunch so we could visit two more favourite haunts. The Endeavour Cafe provided the main course. Then we strolled across to Bertorelli’s for a scoop or two of their excellent ice-cream and coffee. I have to admit — it was ‘bliddy nitherin’ on the seafront! We didn’t sit long. Mission accomplished.

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Later I recorded James reading two of his poems.

Pork meatballs with pasta for dinner — we didn’t need much!

James Graham • in Northumberland part 2

NB: red denotes a LINK


Cragside is simply unmissable and especially for anyone who loves trees. There is a shuttle bus you can take from the car park to the cafe, formal gardens and house. That was very useful. The first house in the world to use hydroelectric power, the site was chosen and the entire landscape was managed to that end, yet it looks natural and it is beautiful and impressive.

James was very eager to know all about Lord Armstrong. I’m afraid I am not a great source of information so I got him a book. Noel knows more and happily chatted away. For me the scenery is the thing — and the 10 ton marble fireplace, which I am afraid was inaccessible as there are many stairs. But the kitchen is fabulous and there was a wee taster of some cheese scones to be had from two women who were there baking as a re-enactment. James and I were recalling scenes from our own past. We remember huge enamel sinks with wooden draining boards and our mothers using mangles! There’s a good chance all either of us would have seen of upstairs, in those days, was to set the fire or clean the rooms! Marble is vastly overrated.

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Once again the cafe provided an excellent lunch this time in the form of a one-pot lamb broth. And so what if we got a little damp? The chat was good and the scenery breathtaking.

That evening: Dinner at The Mulan with friends

James Graham • In Northumberland

NB: everything in red is a LINK

It was our privilege to have poet James Graham stay with us here for a week and show him some of our favourite haunts. James and I met on Writewords where he has been Poetry Host for 15 years. That means he oversees the forum and comments on the poems everybody puts up and his comments are always detailed and helpful. Over the years he has contributed an immense amount of time and effort into nurturing the talents of everyone with whom he comes into contact on that site and we all owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. During the course of the time I joined in 2007, we have had some banter and become friends. Last year we met for the first time in Knaresborough. I love how sometimes virtual friends become actual friends.

So…Over the next few blogs I will show the highlights of this visit leading up to James’ 80th Birthday on May 13th. On the first day we just went for a walk in Carlisle Park Morpeth to see Emily Davison’s statue and have a swift half in The Joiners but we all forgot our cameras!

Never mind… there was pulled balsamic slow cooked gammon waiting at home and apple tart.


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Wallington can provide a mobility scooter if you ask in advance. The staff couldn’t be more helpful and even the East Wood is accessible provided you follow the signs that avoid steps. You can get right down to the bottom of the walled garden and so I was able to allow James to meet ‘My Aspen at Wallington’ below (which is the title of one of the poems in my book).

James loves trees (of which more anon). His second collection is called Becoming a Tree.

Lunch at the cafe there is very good. James pronounced his pork pie with cheese to be the best he’d ever eaten. That’s a good enough recommendation for me — I really must try one of those in the future.

In the afternoon we spent an hour in the house. There is a lift but we didn’t have time to see it the entire house so we just took in the wonderful Northumberland panels in the main hall and the flower paintings which are my favourite part of that beautiful space.

Evenings at our house usually consist of nothing more than a good meal and conversation. On this occasion the fare was my Lamb Keema Methi, vegetable bhaji and home made rotis followed by a spiced yellow rice pudding.