24 October 2008


It has been windy and wet for days. The air had been heavy with the departure of a dear friend, spouse, parent and sibling. But it lifted today for the farewell. Bellingham mourned together and quietly. 

12 October 2008

Belated sun

Long time no write. It appears that some of the stories I have been telling have caused one or two of their protagonists  a degree of bother. My use of first initials was intended to protect their identities, but in England's most thinly populated county there are not many of us and recognition is easy. Sorry! I never meant to compromise anybody. I will try to be more discreet, either by using better disguises or, in the last resort, by telling fewer stories involving people; this, I have to say, would be a pity.  

Today's sunny morning is a balm for the eye, but it is hard to accept it with unmixed gratitude. Where was the sun in the summer, when we could have done so much with it? All summer K's barbecue languished in a shed unlit, and the lunches cooked on a fire by the river remained a fading memory of the past. 

Moreover, while I was away in Bolivia this part of Northumberland experienced its worst rain for over 60 years. The river grew to unimagined proportions, flooding the field almost to its middle. K worried that Fluffy might run down his usual route and find himself carried off by the powerful current. She took a couple of pictures to show me. It looks threatening, but even at three times its normal level the river came nowhere near the house. We are safe! The proximity of the river had been a major worry when we were considering this house, but at the time we consulted every local we knew, and their answers were unequivocal: people knew how to build a house in those days, and where. That house has not flooded in living memory, and it is not going to flood now. The worst rainfall in 60 years has proved them right.  

24 March 2008

Bovine visits

As I write the view from my window is of cows and calves grazing outside. We have no cattle, but one day The Farmer announced that, if he opened a gap in his fencing and reinforced ours, his cattle could have access to our field. He did all the work with invisible efficiency. All we knew was that one day there were cows in our field. We saluted their formidable presence; large, serene faces ruminating with slow persistence, looking at us with a quiet confidence that belied their condition as newcomers in our land.

But we were delighted. K loved the calves, their grace and their agility. I celebrated the fancy that the place looked like a working field. Besides, although we prize the solitude of where we live, the proximity of these large beauties felt exactly right, as if in some way the family had grown. The first night the cows spent near us there was a different feel to the place, one of solid confraternity among creatures. It was with disappointment that we saw them disappear.

We never quite understood what made the cows – or their Farmer – decide when to come across to our field and when to leave. The fact is that their visits proved as erratic as they were welcome. Sometimes days would elapse, perhaps a whole week, without any cattle being seen. And then one day K would phone me at work to tell me that the cows have arrived; she likes to call them coos, with a warm intonation in her voice. I would then look forward to coming home and driving past them down the drive. K was less pleased when occasionally a cow would lean across the fence to eat the holly tree or even the much lower-lying daffodils, but these were forgivable offences. Things changed somewhat when, at the corner where the eaten holly and daffodils, the fence gave in.

Since the beginning of the bovine visits K had expressed the hope that they would be restricted to cows and calves; bulls, she thought, were intimidating and could be aggressive. Fate dictated that on this particular day, the first time cattle spilled onto the drive and the garden, a large bull was among them. I was working in Newcastle; K was alone. She phoned The Farmer for help, but he was out, so she left a message. Then, realising that there was nothing to stop the cattle venturing out on the road, the bridge and the outside world, K walked among the cows, past the large bull, up the drive, and she closed the gate; then she walked back among the cattle. Apart from that, all she could do was wait to see what happened. The next development was that H, one of The Farmer’s helpers, knocked on the door and apologised for the inconvenience. By this time the cattle had been herded back to their farm.

That evening The Farmer dropped in, as is his habit when you have left him a phone message. He explained that there had been a breach in the fence which had now been repaired. In any case, he added, lambing was due to start soon and he did not think allowing the cattle out of their field would be a good idea. I didn’t understand the connection but who am I to question The Farmer’s wisdom?

This morning the cattle came out through the same gap again. Being at home, I did as K had done before me: phoned The Farmer and closed the gate at the top of the drive. The bull’s countenance was such that it made me take a deep breath when walking past him towards the gate and back. And I knew I was not going to try to herd him anywhere. The Farmer was not long to come. He adroitly coaxed and menaced the animals back into the field, except for one black cow who somehow ignored all entreaties and stubbornly failed to join the herd. Thus she attracted her owner’s personal attention. It was a joy to behold The Farmer mounted on his quad, border collie next to him, giving chase to the black cow as it cantered up the hill towards the farm.

Our neighbour returned later to repair the fence again. When he finished the job he apologised.

Far from me to cast aspersions on my neighbour’s fence-fixing, but the evidence of my senses was that in the evening there was a fresh cattle invasion. In what was now a familiar routine, I rang The Farmer and shut the gate. Once again he turned up without delay, but there was pleading in his voice when he asked “Shall I let the cattle spend the night here? Tomorrow there’s a lad coming to fix all the fences up the hill”. I knew my good friend had planned an evening out in town, and time was short. Of course I didn’t mind. So I am sitting in the study, recurrently looking out of the window as a small army of cows and calves under the large bull’s command tread on our admittedly long-neglected garden, patio and drive and help themselves to as much greenery as they can find. Some of them come within touching distance, and although I like the brutes I am glad there is a window pane between us. One needs some privacy to work.

20 January 2008

A night at the Riverdale

Bellingham’s Riverdale Hall Hotel is a survivor of a bygone era. Not because it is in any way dilapidated; on the contrary, the building, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and its appurtenances, of a distinctly pre-World War Two character, are rather well kept. It’s the concept. The owner, John Cocker, oversees everything with a personal eye that gives the place the stamp of his warm, slightly bohemian persona. In spite of the constant flow of guests, betokened by the quantity of vehicles usually sitting in the car park, John seems to know every customer by name, both the locals and the visitors. The place must, indeed, be of considerable attraction to the latter, magnificently perched on the north bank of the North Tyne, with the promise of abundant fishing and an excellent restaurant. But it is not the fishing or the restaurant I mean to write of; it’s the bar.

A small space with a red floral carpet and floral curtains, the bar has no more than five or six tables, but most of the action takes place around the bar itself and in the clearing at the centre, which is warmed by a log fire of incendiary strength.

On this particular occasion K and I went to the Riverdale at the suggestion of The Farmer. It was a Friday night and, as is often the case on Friday nights, there was musical entertainment, in this case provided by the singer Leevi, whom I knew in her incarnation as a music student at Newcastle University.

We arrived around ten and there was already plenty of what can be called an atmosphere: animated conversations in tones that had lost their reserve. The Farmer knew everybody and at once disappeared among his acquaintances. K and I stood by the fire. Soon a local singer, KD, from Falstone, came to say hello. Some other people recognised K and greeted her in passing. From his stool beside the bar, The Farmer glanced over every now and then. After a prudential time, he came over to our spot by the fire and introduced us to his friend B, who was to be the discovery of the night. Tall, brimming over with vitality, a tanned face betraying outdoor work, eyes sparkling with mischief, B engaged K in a whirl of talk, banter and drink. His twitchy body language made it clear he would have liked to dance too, but he confided that his health prevented him for the moment – a reminder that, despite many signs to the contrary, he was in his sixties.

Leevi began her show. She sang pop classics to the accompaniment of pre-programmed backing tracks and of her own guitar. She surprised me with her confidence in front of her audience, and the ease with which she charmed them into listening and participating. She may be learning at university under her student guise, but as Leevi running her own show she certainly knows what she is doing. The songs, varying in pace and character, were unknown to me but not to the audience, who sang along to many of them. There was also dancing at times, of the sedate kind you would expect to see in a cross-generational crowd such as this. Except that at one point out of nowhere came The Farmer with a young blonde grabbed by both hands. Usually measured in action and speech, he was now as if possessed by a demon. He twirled the girl at high speeds, he pulled her towards him and pushed her away without letting go of her hands, he lunged forward making her arch backwards and stepped back to allow her to stand vertical again, and he performed many other moves, too fast for me to register. Our good Farmer had turned into a berserker, and the blonde looked too surprised to resist. When the song came to an end The Farmer gently led his abductee back to her table in a corner of the room, where her male companion waited with a bemused face. Then The Farmer went back to his drinking as if nothing had happened, never looking again in the direction of the blonde who, it seemed to me, had become rather intrigued by the thunderbolt that had hit her. Puzzlingly, several times since that evening I have heard The Farmer tell exactly this story but attributing the actions to his friend B. This must be The Farmer’s personal brand of bashfulness.

All this time glasses of wine – white for K, red for me – had been coming our way from various quarters and I don’t think we had the opportunity to buy more than one in the whole night.

I lost K for some considerable time, so I went to investigate in the direction in which I had seen her go. I found her in an adjacent room, still part of the bar, talking animatedly to a woman I had not met before and, apparently, neither had K. She appeared to be the companion of J, a tree expert who had just devised for us a strategy to deal with the trees around our house. K wanted me to hear it from J, but, once introduced, J was only interested in talking to me about music. He was evidently proud of the presence of several musicians in his family. Pressed by K, he summed up the tree strategy thus: ask R for the smaller tree jobs, but for the bigger ones get somebody with the right insurance. This advice was to capture K’s imagination, making trees one of her principal enthusiasms for some time to come. R, it was clear, was not present at this time; he was to take a while to materialise, but I will expand on him some other time.

Among the younger contingent, in the same group as KD the singer, was Young R, who had served us at the now-extinct Oscar’s and at the till in the local Co-Op. She could not be much more than school age, but clearly she was working hard. In conversation I found out that Young R was studying for her A-levels, one of them in music, and she now had a new job, at the restaurant in a nearby town.

And of course I talked to Leevi, in a more relaxed fashion than it was possible to do at university, and she was introduced to the Farmer, who did not fail to exercise his charm on her. Meanwhile KD had bought K one more glass of wine, which was more than K could drink, so I offered it to Leevi, no thanks, driving, and to Young R, no thanks, underage. K and I together made a brave final effort as we got ready to go home. By this time a new group of drinkers were asking me where I was from, and at this billionth repetition of the same question I said I was from Albania, but this was received so earnestly that I didn’t have the heart to keep it up. I said where I was from on the way out, prompting some to try out a few Spanish words, along the lines of adiós or hasta la vista.

We left with the conviction that the Riverdale would play a part in our lives.