What have the Romans ever done for us?


Thursday being a fine, and somewhat sunny day, we headed off to the Roman wall for a history fix.  We started at Housesteads, which (after a long climb up a path strewn with rocks, goat droppings and cowpats) took us up to where the original fort was built.  A commanding view of the surrounding countryside, particularly to the north, home of those pesky marauding Scots, was probably not much appreciated by the soldiers on cold, wet, Northumbrian winter days.  But the Romans looked after their own.  Latrines (using the lavatory was very much a communal exercise), under floor central heating, baths and well ventilated storerooms for grain would have meant a degree of comfort many people would not object to today.  A lot of the buildings have been excavated and it is easy to see how the Romans lived – right down to the shops and possibly comfort stops outside the camp walls.  The small museum featured stories, aimed particularly at children, showing day to day life in the camp, but merchandising is the main aim of the game.

From Housesteads we retraced our steps (in the car) along the long, straight Roman road to Chesters.  Here a Roman main street, with soldiers’ quarters on one side and civilians’ on the other, is remarkably well preserved.  We wandered around, admiring the thickness of the walls, the methods of heating (under the floor again), and the layout of the storerooms and the underground prison.  The museum here holds the Chesters horde, a collection of artefacts (clothing, jewellery and household items) excavated from the area.  The ear picks look delightful.

WH Auden wrote a delightful poem about the trials and tribulations of the Roman soldier’s lot, entitled Roman Wall Blues.  I keep expected to see it everywhere I go on the wall, but perhaps it is still under copyright.  I learnt it at school when I was very young, and I think you’ll enjoy it too.

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.
WH Auden


Visitors from Oz

Old friends from Perth arrived in Newcastle yesterday and this morning we met them at their hotel to go for brunch and a catch up.

Mike and Robyn haven’t changed and we had a lovely few hours with them.  We started at the local Wetherspoons with a full English to prepare us for the drizzly morning outside.  After yesterday’s sunshine, the rain was back, but only in a half-hearted fashion, which didn’t stop us taking a walk down the quayside markets, across the Millennium Bridge and into the Baltic Centre, where we took the lift to the fourth floor for views of the six bridges and a close acquaintance with the rather smelly kittiwakes.  Their chicks are all gone now, but still they sit in their messy nests, their beaks to the wall and tails overhanging the unwary walkers beneath.

We decided to walk back to the house, with Mike and Robyn perhaps a little unprepared for the climb, but they were revived with hot drinks in our cosy living room while Robyn tried to remember the password so she could read her email, sadly to no avail.  Mindful of the time, their cruise ship leaving North Shields late in the afternoon, we piled into the car and took them for a tour of the part of Newcastle we know best, Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and Tynemouth.  The sun struggled to brighten up things a bit, and Tynemouth Priory, while not perhaps quite at its best, impressed with its grandeur and antiquity.  Admiral Collingwood surveyed us serenely, but we left the stuffed dog to his own devices, and drove down to the fish quay, where the Boudicca could be seen from an angle its passengers were unlikely to share.

We bypassed unlovely North Shields, arriving at the cruise terminal at exactly the right time, unloaded luggage and friends, admonished them to have a good time and say hello to everyone in East Perth, and waved them on their merry way.  It’s times like this that we realise where all our friends are.

St James’ Park


A crowd of thirty thousand, sunshine, and the Germans to beat.  What more could a Geordie lad want?  Well, he would have preferred a win, and the team to wear black and white instead of blue and white, but a game’s a game.

Monchengladbach and a small group of supporters (in their tiny corner stand) came to Newcastle for a friendly – the first of the season.  I’ve never been in Newcastle on match day, and this was everything, and more, I’d expected.  In their thousands, nearly all clad in a Toon strip, old, new, away and home, granddads to babes in arms, they descended on the ground.  They poured up the stairs, into the building, through the bar and into, in our case, the Milburn Stand.  There were plenty of seats, even twice thirty would not fill St James’.  Some pockets were filled, others were sparsely occupied, and the top decks were all empty.  The big screen (the one that apparently nearly fell down a couple of years ago) was directly across from us, and the booming audio left no one in any doubt of what was happening.  The grass was so perfect it looked artificial, but a studded skid in the first half proved that it wasn’t.  When we sat down the players were warming up on the pitch, and we were warming up in the sun.  I had a lump in my throat when The Blaydon Races erupted from the loudspeakers, two large banners were positioned on the field, and a small army of tiny supporters arranged the logos of the sponsors on the field.  They gripped the edges of the large circle of fabric and tossed it up and down, bundled it up and brought it off again.  And then the crowd rose to its feet, clapping the arrival of the teams.

It was a friendly game, the visitors won, their cheer leaders encouraging them on, and the new players all had a go at the end.  Each was cheered as he was seen warming up on the edge of the pitch, and each graciously responded by clapping the crowd of supporters.  It was quite an experience for me.  I’ve never been to a ground bigger than Subiaco oval, and never seen so many people.  I hope to see it when it’s full.

No one seemed downcast by the end result, and to the strains of “I’m coming home Newcastle”, a cheery crowd left in an orderly fashion, filling the afternoon streets as they headed for buses and trains.

On the road again

Actually, this time, the railroad.  And only Kevin.  He is on his way to London for an interview at The Nautical Institute.  Some weeks ago he saw advertised in Seaways the position of Chief Operating Officer at the NI.  As a bit of lark, never for one moment thinking he’d be considered, he sent his CV and a brief (very brief) covering note.  And out of the blue last week he got an email saying he’d been shortlisted, and could he attend an interview at noon today.  So I dropped him at Gateshead Stadium metro station at 6.30 this morning, all in his best bib and tucker and wearing his USB cufflinks (thanks, Katrina), carrying his presentation, laptop and iPad and his very expensive train tickets.  So that’s one possible job.  Also possible is a job in Perth, if Woodside ever make a decision (the job isn’t with them), and Luanda, in Angola.  Kevin didn’t ask for either of the latter two, he was asked if he was interested and of course he is.  I am not sure about Luana – the most expensive city in the world in one of the poorest nations, go figure.  It would be great to come home to Perth and by far the easiest option.  The Nautical Institute would mean finding somewhere to live in London (definitely not commuting from somewhere like Crawley), and all the upheaval a move within England would entail.  At least going back home to Perth it would just be moving lock, stock and barrel.  Luana – well someone else would be paying and you know the O’Neills, never miss an opportunity to go somewhere else!

After two days of solid rain, it is clear this morning but cold.  It is midsummer, but colder that Perth in midwinter.  No wonder the Brits think Australia is God’s own country.  Come to that, most Australians think that, too.

On Saturday we went to the football.  Michael was working (at Gosforth Racecourse) and Gateshead was playing Hartlepool at the Stadium so with one eye on the weather (it was mizzling when we went out) we set out for the fifteen minute walk to the other side of Asda.  The rain held off until very late in the game, and Gateshead romped to a 5-3 win against the Monkey Hangers.  We chatted to two young fans about Australia (was it burning hot, they wanted to know), enjoyed a glass of wine each at half time, and managed to get home without getting too wet.  Nothing beats a live game – I’m not a real fan of any kind of ball game (except tennis) but I’ve been to the AFL and the rugby (usually as a guest of someone’s corporate hospitality, which is even better) and to the football (soccer to you lot) in Crawley and now Gateshead.  And hopefully, on Saturday, I’ll be watching Newcastle play in a friendly against some European mob whose name escapes me, in St James Park – holy grail of all Newcastle supporters.  It’s only £5 for seniors, and we won’t have to pay for Michael because he’s going to be working there all afternoon, selling food and drink to the faithful.

And that’s today’s news – I don’t know how long it will be before Kevin finds out whether they want him or not, but you’ll see it here first, whatever the result.

A Day of Firsts

Saturday was cool and grey, not the best day for the Pride Parade.  The Mardi Gras it wasn’t.  Hardly anyone was dressed up – or down, hardly surprising given the weather and that they were walking all the way to the Town Moor.  But a sea of rainbow flags fluttered bravely, and banners proclaimed all the organisations supporting LGBT people in the north east.  I was impressed by the two girls on stilts, with their art deco headdresses.  They, and the young person in the highest of platform heels, were going to have sore legs and feet by the time they reached the Moor for the party.  We didn’t follow them, though.  We had other plans.

From the Civic Centre we caught the metro back to Central Station and then onto a voyage of discovery around the back of the station (under the railway bridge) hunting for the venue we’d read about in the morning’s Journal.  Apparently there is a national street food competition and the north east/Scotland leg was to be held in what turned out to be a converted warehouse, down a back street.  It cost £5 to get in, which gave you a free pint of beer and a voting ticket.  Outside were three booths (one with two beer taps, one cooking fish and one meat, plus a one man band.  Inside were a wine bar, a gin palace, a bar (where we redeemed our tickets for a pint of real ale each) and several different booths and gypsy caravans selling their own versions of street food.  Moroccan (which seemed more Asian), sausages, steak sandwiches (our choice), ribs, cider and food cooked in cider, and a couple of others.  There weren’t many people there at midday, but the organisers told us it would get a lot busier later, being open till midnight, and again the next day.  We thought the concept was quite good, and our steak sandwiches were very tasty, but we all went home smelling of smoke.  The weather didn’t improve, but we didn’t get wet.

And the weather still hasn’t improved.  Yesterday we drove up to Holy Island, where we haven’t been since Michael was about twelve.  It was the first day of the school holidays, and weather notwithstanding, the tourists were out in force.  We wore our coats, but the hardy Brits eschewed such pampering and many sauntered along with bare arms.  Brrr.

The island is as lovely as ever – no new houses, no cars allowed unless you are staying on the island, quaint cottages with lovely gardens.  But last time we went there was hardly anyone there.  Yesterday it was packed.  And disappointingly for many, the castle itself was closed for a wedding.  Given that you could only cross between nine thirty in the morning and four thirty in the afternoon, it looked as though most people would be staying the night as restaurants had signs saying “booked out tonight”.  So after a quick look in the mead distillery, where Michael bought some overpriced fudge, we took the coastal route home, past Amble and Seahouses, three castles, and had lunch at the Dunstanborough Castle Hotel, from where you cannot see the castle.  But the crab sandwiches made up for it.  And of course it rained on the way home.

A day in the country

Yesterday dawned fine and sunny with an expected high of 17 – and this is summer.  But we take our pleasures when we can.  Michael wasn’t working, we have English Heritage membership, so off we went for a cheap day out.  Belsay Hall and Gardens is a half hour drive away, and I was looking forward to the gardens, so off we went.  We arrived not long after ten, but there were already a few cars in the parking lot.  But we hardly saw anyone while we walked around.  It was sunny, warm enough to get down to short sleeves in the sun, but cool in the hall and on the crag to the castle.  The hall itself is quite different from most places you see on trips like this.  It has not been tidied up, and there is no furniture in any of the rooms.  Some people on Trip Advisor were disappointed about that, but we found it to be a very good experience.  For a start, you can go through almost the entire house, from the cellars up to the bedrooms, all the doors are open.  It gives you quite a different impression of the eighteenth century house from that you see in places like Bath, where you look at rooms that have been done up, but all the others are closed off.  Belsay gives you a real feel for the actual size of the house, the number of bedrooms, and how they are laid out.  Downstairs has a large reception hall, with a large drawing room and dining salon off, plus the owner’s study, immense library with shelving all around, and other rooms no doubt dedicated to being morning rooms, withdrawing rooms, receiving rooms, etc.  I could really picture a Georgette Heyer romance going on here.  Upstairs, were lots of bedrooms, but no discernible bathroom (some doors are kept locked, though).  Below the ground floor the cellars run coldly echoing under almost the whole building.  Wine and beer cellars abound, still with the racks for the kegs and numbered shelves for the wine.

After the hall we came out into the sunlight, walked through the formal gardens and then took the crag walk up to the castle.  We had missed the best of the rhododendrons but the monstrous crags with trees growing out of them were dark and oppressive.  The castle has not been a complete ruin for long, judging by the window frames and doors, but all the internal floors are gone, and the layout is typical of the thirteenth century.  Stone floored rooms, leading in and out of each other, with fire places, and garderobes in abundance.

We strolled back the way we had come, while Michael tried to pet the sheep (or catch them, perhaps), picking wild flowers for later identification, looking through the shop on the way out, and then driving back to Gosforth for lunch at a generic chain pub – less than £20 for three meals, one beer and two glasses of wine.


The Cemetery

Well, remember I said the cemetery opposite was no longer used?  Wrong!  We have a full blown committal going on at the moment.  Kevin noticed first the small knot of people waiting up near the gate, all dressed in black, and then more arrived, and suddenly there was the hearse, all gleaming blackly, and the mourners’ cars.  Then more cars filled the cul de sac, and parked on the pavement outside our house.  More people arrived on foot, and now they have all headed into the cemetery.  Everyone, from adolescents with newly white necks, to a grandmotherly type in black crepe and sequins, disappeared from my view.  No doubt they will be off to the Bluebell for tea and cake after.

You are probably wondering why I haven’t written lately.  Well, it’s because a week ago today Kevin received a phone call (which he missed) followed by an email, from someone in Australia looking for a potential manager.  Naturally we were quite excited, especially since he said it was urgent, how soon could he start, etc.  Well, they had two long discussions on the weekend and he said he’d get back to Kevin.  We’d heard nothing by Wednesday so Kevin did a little jog, and the instant reply was that Angus was waiting for concurrence from the other company involved.  So we are no further forward so far.  Needless to say, if we are coming back I will email everyone.  It would probably mean Kevin coming back on his own, with Michael and me following later after I organise removals, selling the car, getting rid of all the food, etc.

And to cap it all off.  Michael has been given the nod to work at St James Park on match days.  Eat your heart out, Katrina.  And on Tuesday he has an interview at the Premier Inn on Newcastle Quayside.  If he decides not to come back with us, he’ll have to have a refresher course in cooking, washing and ironing.  He makes a mean spaghetti bolognese, but man cannot live on spag bol alone!

A Trip down Memory Lane

That’s what Jackie described it as to her colleagues when showing us around Seascale Primary School yesterday.  I left there in 1958 when we emigrated to Australia.  When we went into the hall, with the stage, where assemblies were held, (and it seemed a lot bigger in those days) I was reminded of our last assembly.  It was traditional for Mr Sims to call up to the stage anyone who was leaving the school at the end of the term.  We waited and waited while other people were called up, and I started to think he’d forgotten about us.  And then, those magical words, “and finally, all those who are going to Australia,” and I said that Glynis, “that’s us”, and up we went, to stand with the rest of the departing throng, to sing Aim High for one last time.

We set off yesterday morning just before seven, maps in hand and Garmin on the windscreen.  It was forecast to be a warm day, cloudy but with sunny patches, and so it was.  We didn’t need our fleecies all day and we travelled in shorts and sandals.  It was cold at the top of the hill where we stopped before descending to the market town of Alston (the highest market town in England), but the view was magnificent.  Cumbria stretched out before us in a patchwork of moors and fields, with one winding road down to the valley below.  Winding it was, too, with several hairpins not really designed for the SUV.  How people used to do it in cars with no power steering and long wheelbases, I don’t know.  But we got to Alston, and then down to Penrith, with no real problems, only a few hairy moments.  Penrith is a pretty town, but otherwise undistinguished.  We did toy with the idea of going to Keswick, to visit the Pencil Factory (made famous in that darkly funny movie Sightseers) but decided to forego that thrill and carried on down to Ennerdale Water.  I had no flashes of recognition, even though it was where we often went for picnics, but we had a lovely walk around the lake, stepping carefully to avoid the ubiquitous dog mess.  I despair at this country.  They have this beautiful scenery but you can’t really look at it because you have to keep watching where you put your feet.  And they have no concept of the ugliness of litter.  It’s also ubiquitous.  We were on the quayside the other day and a man in front just dropped the serviette from his ice cream on the ground.  I felt like picking it up and running after him to say, “oh, look you dropped this, I thought you’d like it back.”  But you know that the nicest response I’d get would be a blank look, and the worst would be a lost worse.

We arrived at Seascale just before lunch time.  Visited the school, then the beach, and took a photo of our old house.  There was nowhere to eat so we headed north, for Mirehouse and a photo of the house where Glynis was born, an unproductive trip through Whitehaven, which is as horrible as ever and impossible to park in.  So we kept driving, eventually stopping for lunch in Cockermouth, in a charming pub with home grown produce.  Michael’s Cumberland sausages went very well with his locally brewed pint, Kevin and I opted for a glass of wine and a pie for him and very good fish cakes for me.  I was going to have the local black pudding, bacon and eggs but decided against cholesterol overload.  In the event, we bought black pudding, and real bacon in a local shop, and had them for supper with tomatoes and beans!  Today we’ll be eating vegetarian!

After Cockermouth we entered home in the Garmin, and followed Hadrian’s Wall to Vindolanda (which we’ve been to before so we didn’t stop) and Housesteads (a trip for another day), ending up with a drink at The Boat Shed Pub on the river near where Michael used to live in Lemington.  It was very popular, since it was sunny and 27 degrees.  A lovely ending to a lovely day.

Thirty seven years today

We were married on this date in 1978, in St Michael’s Cathedral in Wollongong.  It was a cool but fine day, and while I remember most of the day, I’ve always wished I remembered more of the ceremony.  I know I was shaking while my Dad walked me down the aisle, and grasped Kevin’s hands with a grip of steel while Canon Goodhew smiled reassuringly.  Diana was only 15 and wouldn’t smile because she had braces, and Glynis had just come out of hospital after a threatened miscarriage.  She gave birth to Stephen in December that year.

In true O’Neill fashion we didn’t really celebrate our anniversary.  Neither of us bought cards or presents, and although we had lunch out it was at the cheap as chips Italian in Gateshead and we were joined by our son, who didn’t even offer to buy a drink! But it was a remarkably decent lunch for £7.99 for three courses (bruschetta, very good pasta and coffee).  We came home full as googs, and later delivered Michael to the Job Shop to sign on, from whence he was going to St James to apply for casual work during the season.

It’s been raining all afternoon, though did get up to the heights of 18 degrees today.  Note that this is the middle of official summer.  The year we were married we arrived here in July.  It rained until November when it snowed.  A thirty seven year weather cycle.?