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.

APRIL • The Cruelest Month

April has indeed been cruel to The Linnet’s Wings. We lost Peter Gilkes. Marie has been in through the mill this month for sure. The title of our Spring Issue was never more appropriate and we salute their work together.

The Linnet’s Wings: Take All My Loves

I have the Easter Sunday slot with Easter Sunday at Writing in a Woman’s Voice. A memory of those spring straw hats with elasticated chin strap, and the deeper marks of Easter on a child’s mind.

Don’t forget to listen to the April poems in Gyroscope Review this month. I am up on the final day and there’s some fascinating poetry there. I love the voices — the accents. You can catch up HERE

March • No Spring in my step

Something took the spring out of my step, recently. GOUT. Oh the pain! If you have never suffered it, I hope you never do. There is a genetic element to it (isn’t there always) but yes too much meat (which is purine rich), too much rich food (sugary stuff, salty stuff). Purines are also in yeast and yeast products such as bread and beer, and eggs and dairy also have purines, so it builds up easily if you’re not careful. I wasn’t careful! Two weeks on I can get my shoes on at last!

So, despite the glorious early spring weather, I haven’t been out for my usual walks for a fortnight now and that really gets to me! Anyway — I’ve been off the meat and onto cherry and turmeric with black pepper and just about any cure I could access. Cherries are very good for gout — but I genuinely can’t taste cherries!

See Forever Berries.

Dark chocolate is also quite good apparently. Maybe if I ate dark chocolate covered cherries? It’s a thought!

So I offer you one I wrote earlier with photo from Nellie’s Moss Lake, Cragside Northumberland — complete with cute monster:

The Nellie’s Moss Monster

Nellie’s Moss monster sleeps the winter long
Her reedy mane defies the dark and frost.
The warmth of first spring sun and bright bird song,
and sap that rises through the bark, the lust
of frogs and toads that stir the lakes
at the full moon of March is all it takes.
She wakes up to the sound of honking geese
visitors’ feet, cars crossing the bridge.
Cameras click and she has all she needs,
for it’s on admiration that she feeds.

Nellie’s Moss Monster

I too feel as if I’ve been hibernating all Winter and a bit of admiration wouldn’t go amiss some days — but there you go. We are all monsters at heart.

I wrote a haiku a day all through February. I don’t know what to do with those yet. Some of them need honing. They will come to light eventually. I have also been devilishly clever with these double acrostic Up & Down poems. They took a bit of writing!!! I hope you enjoy them.

LEVEL CARBON in Bewildering Stories this week.

I may go for a walk tomorrow — if I can get my shoe on. See you soon.


Last week in February • A Reading and story for Andalusia Day

Why Andalusia Day? Because it’s this Thursday and it’s St David’s Eve.

Linnet’s Wings Editor Marie Fitzpatrick is based in Andalusia. And 12 years ago this very week I was there. I didn’t know Marie then. I was at a pretty low ebb, having just resigned from teaching in Autumn ’06. I felt very trapped having gone through a horrible year of being bullied out and able trust no one and at last I told them to shove it — but it’s a hard thing to put a career (and livelihood) behind you. My husband said we’d manage financially — but what would I do? I’d always been a teacher. I really wanted to move on but I was finding everything difficult! I was sad and hurt and had no purpose left in life. I was depressed! My husband, who knew what I’d been through, decided a change of scene was just the thing — and it was!

All packed and staring out of the window on the eve of the trip, I saw a little jasmine flower.

At the end of February jasmine flowers are dying, dropping to the ground. This one was trying to drop, trying to let go, but she was a bit stuck — like me — toying with change but not quite getting anywhere — not quite prepared to let go. Reticent. Afraid. And so, out of empathy, I wrote Catching the Wind (LISTEN using the link below)

While we were away, we watched a Lunar Eclipse over the bay at Benalmadena and we visited Tangiers on Andalusia Day (28th Feb). I was so stunned by the place, I wrote A TRIP TO TANGIER and when I got back and I posted it in Writewords and I posted my poem Catching the Wind.

And that was the beginning. I’d let go! I was away wherever the wind might take me. It took me to The Shine Journal who published Catching the Wind, to Bewildering Stories who took A Trip to Tangier, to Every Day Poets and to The Linnet’s Wings who published Three Pounds of Cells.

It’s a ill wind…as the saying goes.

Our Spring Linnet is due out in March. It’s looking great with some Irish poems for St Paddy and a nice shift in landscape between Winter and Spring. I’ll be back in March with another reading and some more reminiscences and maybe a bit more new work.

Happy Andalusia Day, Happy ST David’s Day and don’t forget Pancake Day!

Valentine’s Day • Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is the last new moon before Spring — did you know that? I didn’t. So since I am writing a haiku a day this February, here is one to celebrate The Year of the Pig. And there’a a porky story for you at the end too 🙂

travelers head home
this last new moon of winter
a feast of trotters

I don’t need flowers for Valentines. The best flowers are not picked or cut but enjoyed and left to thrive. And in The Conservatory at Wallington Hall there are beautiful blooms all year round! Even on a dull February day, it shines with colour and form. And of course there are snowdrops too — be it teensy little ones and 9ft tall basket ones. Already some crocuses and daffodils are pushing through. It might be cold but it’s bright. Take a walk somewhere you love, with someone you love.

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This is why I love February.
And we are now in the Year of the Pig — so I give you a story and wish you L O V E and a great Year of the Pig!

The Old Pig

Nobody truly recalls what the village pub was called before it became The Old Pig. Some say it was the Wheat Sheaf, some The Bargeman’s Rest and others The Horse and Dog which in itself shows the diversity of the Suffolk countryside.

A tiny piglet wandered in one night and the locals put it in a log basket by the fire and fed it buns in milk, and cider and although enquiries were made, none of the pig farmers around reckoned to have lost a piglet and since none kept Old Spots, his origins really were a mystery. Obvious he was an old spot with his lovely long, white ears and snout and he had just one great, perfect, black spot on his hind quarters, yet strangely nobody called him Spot or gave him a name of any kind. He was just The Pig. And what a handsome pig he was!

He was easily pub trained and the locals dribbled beer or cider into his dish, left part of their ploughman’s lunch or whatever fare was going, in his plate, and gradually started saying they were going ‘down The Pig’. He got to know the regulars and greeted them when they arrived. There was nothing he liked more than a tummy rub and chat and he got plenty of both. A lot of folk took their troubles to him and he listened attentively as they stroked his ears and they always felt better for it.
‘That ol’ pig could near as damn talk’ locals said.
The vicar observed that it was probably a good thing he couldn’t! But he reckoned the pig was doing half his job for him.

Visitors were much amused when greeted with a friendly grunt and a nuzzle though if he took a dislike to some stranger they were very likely to be shown the door. Of the three pubs in the village, The Pig soon began to be most popular.
When the pig got sick the vet treated him for free. Couldn’t have the pig being ill! And it wasn’t as if anybody owned him!

Every winter local knitters made him a colourful Christmas jumper which he’d wear to the service on Christmas Eve. In spring every farm within a radius of five miles had an Old Spot or ten. In Summer he took first prize at the county show and in Autumn he got the run of the orchards because he was so very fond of windfalls and everybody was fond of him.

A decade on, an artist was commissioned to paint him and the portrait was hung above the bar. There was a huge party. No pig ever had a better life. And it is fair to say too, that no pig ever had a longer life either. He lived just over 24 years, as near as anyone could judge it, and never uttered the secrets he’d been privy to. But weighing in at over 600 lbs, there was only one appropriate send-off – a hog roast! The entire village came, cider was drunk, baps were sliced. They toasted the old pig even as they ate him and never a tastier pig was known and the vicar assured them his squeak had gone straight to Heaven. A new sign was hung over the door and from that time on the pub was officially called ‘The Old Pig’ though it’s other name had long been forsaken. Some say it was The Keys, others The Bittern’s Boom – I dare say it doesn’t really matter.

By Oonah

Welcome February • I Love you

A recipe for February

Take the last dull dregs of January,
sprinkle with frost and a lengthening day.
Heat with the gentle flame of Candlemas.
Leaven with bulbs that grow amongst the grass.
Add rice and crackers for Chinese New Year,
rose petals for the one that you hold dear.
Sparkle with champagne, add a chocolate kiss.
St Valentine will surely do the rest.
Place in a bowl the citrus of the Med.
Look out for the first daffodil’s bright head,
the purple crocus, yellow aconite
and add them to your mix of hope and light.
Savour it’s brevity. Take it as a cure.
In Twenty eight days Febru’ry will mature.

It’s a long climb out of Winter still but I love February for it’s brevity and it’s hope, it’s little celebrations of light, love and life and we’re still eating Turkish Delight here — nothing wrong with that. It’s dusted with icing sugar and the ground is dusted with snow. There are a few wee February treats to be had. Happy Candlemas/Groundhog Day, Happy Chinese New Year (of the Pig this time so maybe sweet n sour pork), Happy Valentine’s Day and Happy Andalusia Day (28th)

Thirty Years ago 1989, I broke my wrist badly. I had just started a new job in January and now was off work until May (not impressive). A kind stranger helped me on that day. He took me to hospital, took my car keys to my husband and gave my husband a lift to the car and I don’t know his name. I needed surgery and constant pain killers and lots of physio, and my right wrist is not very mobile to this day.
In June of that year a close friend, Betty Caddy, died during what should have been a routine procedure.
In September my father-in-law died.
In November we moved house. We didn’t stay long in that house — 18 months later we moved 400 miles. 1989 was the precursor to big changes.

Things are settled now. I like settled! Looking back it seems like someone else’s life. I am happier now than I have ever been — thankful for all the little things these days, warm bed, good food, love, friendships. I know I don’t always seem happy but that’s just me…and thankfully people who know me just put up with that and my gallows humour. I love where I am and what I do at The Linnet’s Wings. And if I forget to tell you I appreciate your love and support, I do! Thank you.

Speaking of which, I have chosen two lovely groups of poems for the Linnet’s Wing’s next issue which Marie is now working on. There’s a set of Irish themed poems for St Patrick’s Day and poems about landscapes, places that are somehow ‘other’ in the mind, in the imagination, in the real world (but perhaps only in that instant) in the past or maybe just in the part of you that hurts. We all know these landscapes but sometimes only a poem can take us there.

I am still looking for Moon Poems and Marie is still looking for Moon photos and art. Submission time is however running…

Maybe this tree is an ant highway or a squirrel sky tether — who knows? Trees are wonderful worlds — even the skeletal trees of February.

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