Our Travel blog
Monday 4 July
The mundanities of packing up to travel and provisions taken on-board we called in to a relative of Alison’s who is an inspiration to everyone fortunate enough to meet her. At 92 years old she is still driving, entirely self-sufficient in a delightful flat and has the sort of twinkle in her eye that displays a wicked sense of humour. Her life story should be a book in its own right. Marrying an ex German prisoner of war just after the end of hostilities was the just the start of an engaging biography that has been marked by a stoic and cheerful outlook on life.
Duly invigorated by our visit we set off for our destination of Ferry Meadows Country Park on the outskirts of Peterborough. I’m always a little suspicious about big sites that claim to be intimate and close to nature but this was a splendid site, in part because we appeared to be by far the youngest people on it, and that includes some of the pet dogs being dragged around like dusty carpets.
In the evening we went for a stroll around the park. It was the tail end of a warm day and we were joined by dog walkers, joggers, cyclists and fellow walkers in the ample parkland and woods set around three lakes. The park boasts some splendid sculptures, including an elaborate 3D totem pole carved out of a tree and one of an owl carved ‘in situ’ inside a tree trunk. There should be pictures to accompany this but in the event of inadequate Wi-Fi to upload them just imagine an elaborate 3D totem pole carved out of a tree and one of an owl carved ‘in situ’ inside a tree trunk.
It took us a good hour to take an amiable walk around the lakes. Couples wandered aimlessly, fisherman sat staring intently at the waters willing the fish to bite, families trailed pushchairs loaded with the detritus of picnics with over-tired toddlers and older siblings on scooters wishing the slopes only went down; a couple of young boys played football and provided simultaneous commentary, hearing the roar of the stadium as they delivered the perfect arching shot passed the keeper and then were brought back to real life by having to retrieve the ball from the nettles; and a large group of mixed race, gender and age playing an energetic game of dodgeball, just for the fun of it. It was all quite becoming and we followed the meandering path to the lakeside centre café and stood on its terrace that juts out over the crescent Gunwade Lake. We watched the sun sink below the clouds and sparkle on the rippled silver surface of the lake and wandered back to Mavis in a quiet but contented mood.
Tuesday 5 July
We were really taken with the park and also wanted some time to visit Peterborough Cathedral so we decided to stay put for another night and took the 3 mile walk into the city centre. The walkway/cycleway that runs from the park is sandwiched between the Nene Valley Railway and the river Nene. It provided a pleasant, peaceful and mostly countryside walk right into the city centre. Only for the last half mile or so did it become more urbanised, as the path joined the Nene to pass under an assortment of iron railway bridges of various vintages. Crossing the river we came first to the rather dull and uninspiring Rivergate shopping centre. Based around an Asda store it’s one of those brick monuments to consumerism that seems to host all the slightly embarrassing shops that a town wants to hide away; Pound shops, gift shops selling the type of cards you’d get as a child from aged aunts showing racing cars or kittens playing with a ball of wool, and those huge badges that declare you are 21, or 40 or whatever and that you would be embarrassed to wear even in the most drunken of states. We wanted to find a café for a revitalising cuppa but the old boy sitting outside looked like he’d passed to a better life – presumably one that didn’t involve The Rivergate Centre, and his fellow customers weren’t much less cadaverous so we elected to try elsewhere; clearly the correct choice as once we’d crossed a busy road the rest of the town centre was a delight.
At street level you see the usual array of brash glass shop fronts you find in any town but look upwards and the upper stories around the wide central square have been carefully preserved. The gateway to the cathedral sits at one end of the square and the church at the other, between them fountains come directly out of the paving, hazardous to the unwary adult but a source of great delight to young children. The other end boasts the splendid market hall. Built of soft golden stone with the upper story resting on pillars it’s a fine centrepiece. Presently it is decked out in patriotic bunting and a big picture of the Queen to mark her 90th birthday which disguised its imposing stature somewhat.
After lunch in a surprisingly cheap French café, we went to the cathedral. It is, of course, a magnificent building. An imposing 13th Century Gothic style West Front with its 3 central arches sandwiched between two ornate towers. The architect clearly liked arches. There isn’t an inch of stonework that isn’t carved into an archway, whether it’s a window or for decoration. Only at the top of each of the three central archways have they placed a round window.
Greeted by an attendant outside to lessen the disturbance to the children’s service taking place we were sold a photo permit and guide book for a total of £6. There’s no admission fee, no hard sell and a pleasing lack of commercial space, just a modest gift shop tucked away in a corner.
Inside the building it continues it’s no frills attitude with a modest but interesting series of display boards explaining its history and tucked out of the way off the north transept, in plain wooden display cases, a small collection of the interesting and quirky, such as ornate gold chalices and the remains of an incendiary bomb dropped on the cathedral in WW2.
The choir stalls, where we sat later for Evensong, had the comfortable aroma of polish and candles and the shiny patina of regular use. To the front of the stalls, in the nave, a golden figure of Jesus hangs from a blood red ‘rood’ cross; sinister empty eye sockets look down over an emaciated body, across the spacious nave bathed in light and towards the 13th century marble font. It’s a potent symbol and is visible from almost the entire cathedral. It is also relatively contemporary, completed and hung in the 1970s. But for all its ornate carving it looked curiously out of place, dwarfed against the 4 story high walls.
The nave sits below a wonderful painted ceiling, which retains the original 1250 design but was repainted in the 18th and the 19th centuries. Rendered in velvety dark greens and reds, parts picked out in shimmering gold, its opulent appearance contrasts with the bare yellow stonework that supports it. In fact the ceilings throughout are impressive; a luscious blue with gold highlights above the Presbytery and behind the alter in ‘The New Building’ (new in this case being 1509) each of the carved pillars fans out onto the ceiling in a series of intricately carved, yes you guessed it, arches.
In the new building is The Hedda Stone, originally a grave marker in the first Abbey recorded on this site in 870. It’s an ancient piece of art that anywhere else would be the central piece of an exhibition; here it’s tucked away behind the altar. The custodians of the cathedral really are very good at understatement. Wandering around we discovered that the cathedral houses the tombs of 2 Queens. Katherine of Aragon is still buried here in the North Aisle and the South Aisle was the resting place of Mary, Queen of Scots, until her remains were moved to Westminster Abbey in 1612.
Anyway, if you want to find out more, like the story of St Oswald’s arm, the guard tower in a side chapel, the early Saxon church on the site and other interesting diversions I suggest a visit. I really appreciated that for all its obvious splendours Peterborough cathedral is still a church and place of peace and not a money hungry tourist trap.
After a brief respite for food and a quick waltz around the anonymous shopping hell that is The Queensgate Shopping Centre, a brash big brother to the Rivergate Centre, we returned for Evensong. The cathedral has its own music school for choristers and they were in fine voice. I tried to mumble along until somewhere into the second hymn Alison pointed out they were singing in Latin, which explained my worse than usual vocal performance. I let the crystal clear voices waft over me; strange harmonies in an alien language, beautiful and moving, drifting upwards in the vast space above and far better without my accompaniment.
After the service we walked back the way we’d come and settled in for the night, unaware of the drama that was about to befall us.
Wednesday 6 July
This morning the site was alive with rumour, gossip and chatter of the dramatic events of last night. Doubtless angry letters were being composed on carefully preserved Basildon Bond stationery and sent, post haste, to the editor of Caravanning Monthly. Grandchildren would soon be sitting in rapt awe as they were regaled with stories of ‘the night that Ferry Meadows Caravan Club site had a power cut’. I expect special commemorative tee shirts (I Survived the Ferry Meadows Power Cut) were being printed. In years to come we will be able to say to naive young caravaners barely out of their 50’s that “You weren’t there man…” when they scoff at us.
If I was the cynical type I’d suggest that for many people here this was the most exciting thing that had happened to them for some time. As it happens I am the cynical type and I’m fairly certain that for quite a lot this was the most exciting thing to happen to them in some time. Certainly after dark.
One chap approached me and asked if the power was out for us too. I affirmed that indeed this was the case and he informed me he thought he’d caused it operating his pump. I smiled and went about my business wondering why he’d need a pump in his caravan. Probably to inflate his girlfriend I concluded.
And so we left the site in the company of the repairman, who was being harangued at every opportunity by the powerless and therefore prevented from restoring the very power they craved. It was a long haul to Northumberland along the A1 but Mavis took it in her stride and we trundled up to our campsite in good time.
It was a peculiar site, on a farm set back from an arrow straight road leading to Hadrian’s Wall a mile to the north. The site had all the usual facilities and the owners were clearly trying hard to run a farm, which covers a large area of arable land, and running the caravan and camping site. Chickens, and what we think were turkeys, wandered about and approached us in case we had food. Many of the caravans appeared to be permanently stationed with elaborate picket fences, solar lights and awnings turning green from accumulated debris and damp. It was all a little forlorn.
The maintenance seems to be done by their elderly father, who potters around in a golf cart and clearly lacks company. Alison of course soon fell into conversation with him, so seizing my chance I swept by and into the shower while he was diverted. They were still chatting when I re-emerged smelling of manly shower gel, citrus and wasp or something. Whatever it was it kept the insects away and once we were both refreshed we went for a walk to the wall…which was missing. It runs for over 80 miles and we chose the one spot where some bugger has stolen it. We took a stroll along the long distance path where Alison somehow managed to find the only remnant of the wall left in these parts and promptly tripped over it. Back at the van we discovered that if we’d turned left instead of right for our walk we would have found it soon enough. Goodness knows what damage she’d have done if we had.
Thursday 7 July
The reason we are in Northumberland is The Corbridge Festival. When we started planning our summer in Mavis we put a note on Facebook asking if anyone wanted help at festivals over the summer. A friend of a friend suggested we might like to help at Corbridge and sold it to us on the strength of the line-up and beauty of the area.
Thursday was set up day and we arrived nice and early so we could spend a little time exploring the town. Set around the church and market square it’s a quaint and picturesque place in a stunning location. It boasts lots of independent shops including a butchers, greengrocers and bookshop. The children’s outfitters had a sale of organic clothes in the window which probably gives you a clue to the town’s inhabitants. If that doesn’t then the eye watering prices in the estate agents will. Nevertheless its charms are many, although its present status as a peaceful market town has been built upon centuries of turmoil. It’s been burnt down three times, the price of being in contested boarder country. There is still a fortified vicarage in the town centre.
It sits uphill from the broad rust coloured river Tyne, over which is the majestic span of the Corbridge Bridge, a single carriageway 17th century stone crossing that was the only one to survive the Tyne flood of 1771. The broad Tyne valley here is lined with meadows and fields studded with bright poppies, stretching upwards to wooded hills to the north, the occasional big house peeking out from among the trees. On the south side farms and cottages lay amongst green and gold fields and dark green woods on the steeper slopes. The valley still floods in spite of defensive levees, the last time being in December 2015 when Storm Desmond struck. The Rugby Club where the festival is held was under at least 6ft of water; as it happened work to repair the damage to the club house was due to begin on the Monday after the festival. All the houses nearby were being repaired as we drove in, although sensibly we noted the builders had made sure the pub and Indian restaurant were finished first.
On Thursday afternoon and evening we made ourselves vaguely useful around the festival site doing odd jobs. If you’ve ever tried pushing, pulling and generally persuading industrial size wheelie bins to accompany you over rough terrain the length of three rugby pitches you’ll understand why we skipped cooking dinner and took to the pub for fish, chips and beer.
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