Field Notes

We’d often walk for miles along the coast, or so it seemed, although I’m sure I’m imagining more than I can ever accurately recall.
Standing on the promenade, staring at the North Sea, he’d flip a coin. Heads, left and north, tails, right and south. Catching it with one hand, he’d turn it onto the back of his other hand, the coin still hidden from view.
‘Heads or tails?
‘So it is. Come on, best foot forward and no looking back.’
Walking, beach combing, collecting coins, occasionally a bank note, dropped by day trippers, holiday makers. It was a popular beach in those days.
‘Wonder what we’ll find today?’, he’d say. ‘Enough for chips and pop, eh?’
Walking, me running, Mickey, our dog, hurtling along chasing thrown stones, driftwood, whatever was grabbed from the tide line.
The talking was mostly me, he’d be casting about the beach. Stop, stoop, scoop up a coin, rub it between his palms. Old money, Imperial coins. Sixpence, two shillings, maybe a half crown. Cleaned and dropped in his pocket.
I remember skimming stones. Pick a flat one he’d say, see how it sits between fingers and thumb, that’s it, aim low catch the water a glancing blow. I’d want to know where he’d learned to do that, to skim stones like that and he’d tell me stories of his wanderings, watching stone skimming competitions somewhere in the States, he’d forgotten where. That was years ago, he’d say. It’s years since I walked with my father on that beach.

A coincidence, a curious encounter, coming across a mid Nineteenth century travel guide to Northumberland, at the time my partner and I had decided to return to the North East, to Newcastle, after being away for more than thirty five years.
Walter White, in Northumberland and the Borders, writes about the region during that intense period of industrialisation in the mid years of the nineteenth century. He carries introductions, access to the industrial base of the region, but he is also attentive to the lives of working people, the ‘common folk’. He’s inquisitive, wants to understand, or at least be able to record, something of those lives he encounters while walking through Northumberland to the Borders.
He describes the banks of the Tyne as, crowded with manufactories, for coal is cheap. […] River and shore show more and more signs of trade and labour as we descend: half a dozen steam ships on the stocks-rows of coke ovens all aglow-troops of boiler-makers all raising a deafening clatter-heaps, nay mountains, of slag and refuse ballast-more steamers on the stocks […] while here and there a green field and hedgerow left amid the havoc and encroachment plead with silent eloquence for Nature.

His guide is partial, biased, constantly referring to the backward nature of the region, while being absorbed in the lives of the ‘common people’ he encounters. But then he was writing a travel guide for a Nineteenth century audience, at a time of increased domestic tourism. As a reviewer in the Spectator (6 August 1859) wrote , He is teaching his countrymen how and where to look for health of body and mind in out-of-the-way places of their own land, places more foreign to many of them than the Alps or the banks of the Rhine.

White was walking at a time of immense change and upheaval, particularly in the industrial areas, but he also records change in the rural borderlands too. I’ll follow, but also pick my own path across a very different landscape, the industry that excited him long gone.

So this is my walking journal. Following White’s travelogue, yes, but also describing a meandering path across what should be familiar territory. It’s curious, but the longer I’m here the more I realise the extent to which I am discovering, as well as rediscovering a local landscape.
I grew up, spent my formative years here, time now to re-acquaint myself with this landscape. White informs but doesn’t limit my wanderings. Suggests routes to follow, which I will inevitably stray from.

Read posts from Field Notes