Monday, 27 November 2017

Am I Being Unpatriotic?

Dear Michael, I begin to feel that your negativity is bordering on the unpatriotic! Don't you think that our leaders deserve our support?

That was an intriguing tweet to receive yesterday, not as a personal message but publicly. She (it was from someone I know) was responding to a tweet I'd posted that contained a link to an article in The Guardian. It was lamenting our political leaders' lack of imagination and sense of history in their handling of the Brexit negotiations, specifically the matter of the Irish border.

In the two years I've been blogging about the EU, I've been accused of many things: being intemperate, ignorant, theologically inept (yes!), and over-confident about being a Remainer. But this is the first time my patriotism has been called into question (though it's a common jibe from people who should know better that Europhiles collectively are not acting patriotically).

So let's go there. First, we need to disentangle patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism means a love of and loyalty to your homeland. In Roman thought, you owe your homeland that much simply because it bore you and nurtured you. It's an act of piety (pietas) to acknowledge your debt to the people and institutions that have formed you. This is not at all the same as saying that your homeland is better than anyone else's. It's simply yours. It's part of your identity as a human being. That's why it's precious to you. At its best, patriotism is a virtue that is liberal, humane, peaceable and beneficent.

Nationalism is different. "Hard" nationalisms survive and flourish because of an innate conviction that somehow, your nation is superior to others. This can be on the grounds of almost anything you care to name, your proud history for example, or your race, religion, intellectual enlightenment, military prowess or wealth. "Soft" nationalisms are more subtle, and not always conscious. But they are expressed by aims and behaviours such as pursuing political or economic purposes that benefit your own nation in preference to, or at the expense of, others. This tends to foster national autonomy and self-determination, where the good of a nation state is no longer understood in the setting of the wider human family. It's hard not to think that agressive flag-waving, hostility to immigrants and rigorous border controls encourage a kind of national egoism that owes more to a romantic notion of "blood and soil" than to a rational idea of what it means to be good citizens.ii

I've often written about my late mother's side of our family. She was a German Jewess who escaped from the Third Reich before the war and was welcomed as a refugee in the UK. She settled here permanently, married my (gentile) father and wanted nothing else than to live out her days in domestic tranquility. She absorbed British ways, learned to speak English free of any German accent, brought her children up to love this country as the civilised, generous nation she had found it to be when she needed rescuing. She became, I think it's fair to say, a patriotic British citizen (she would never have said "English") and encouraged us to be the same. But her keenly attuned antennae abhorred the slightest whiff of self-regarding nationalism. She was a citizen of the world and of her continent, and for this reason was appalled that her adopted country opted to leave the EU just before she died.

For me, this is the nub of Brexit. What was the patriotic thing to do when we voted in last year's Referendum? Part of the answer is surely, to think about what would be in our country's best interests, what would enable it to flourish in the future. I'm sure that most people voted in that way, whether they were Brexiters or Remainers.

But patriotism (precisely because it is not nationalism) doesn't restrict that question only to "what's best for Britain" (to quote the tiresome rhetoric of David Cameron when he tried to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the EU). It asks how the welfare of our nation sits alongside the welfare of all the nations and of the world as a whole. It plays with the conjecture that what's best for Britain in the long run will also turn out to be best not only for Europe but for the worldwide human family. What if we even entertained the thought that we should start at the other end of the question, so to speak, and begin by asking what's best for others, especially those a lot less privileged than we are? I want to say that that option, too, is a patriotic one because it sees flourishing as mutual. We only prosper in any profound sense when everyone else does as well. It's what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. That Golden Rule should have been right at the heart of the Referendum debate. It grieved me that it wasn't.

So I see patriotism as inextricably linked to our belonging, our citizenship, not only in a national sense but in a global one. Patriotism is certainly not less than loving your country (and why not also your region, your locality, the city, town or village where you live?). If wherever we call "home" is important to us, then we should love it and everyone else whose home it also is. But belonging has concentric circles. I love my European homeland and am proud to carry a passport that announces me to be an EU citizen as well as a British one. I love the planet I have been born on, so broken and divided and carrying infinite burdens of pain, yet for all that still full of beauty and goodness, so rich in the diversity of its peoples with whom it's a joyful mystery of life that we share this globe together. Theresa May was quite wrong to say that if you are a citizen of everywhere, "a citizen of the world", you are a citizen of nowhere. Patriotism means we can be glad and grateful to be citizens of many different "somewheres", all of which we can be loyal to and love, whether it's the world we live in, the nation of our origins, or the particular place that we call "home".

This is why I believe that my vote to remain in the EU was profoundly patriotic. A patriotism for today means that we must continue to strive for a peaceable commonwealth of nations and peoples that transcends national boundaries, in which our own flourishing is part of everyone else's. So was it "bordering on the unpatriotic" to question the leadership of those who are trying to negotiate a Brexit settlement with the EU? I don't think so. A grown-up democracy doesn't blindly follow its leaders, least of all when it fears it may be heading for disaster. Yes, there is a loyalty to democratic choices that is required of all citizens, whether it is the outcome of a referendum or the government we have elected.

But it can never be an uncritical loyalty. To go on questioning, exploring, doubting, challenging, being open to change in the light of new evidence or arguments - these are both the privileges and duties of all of us in a democratic society. When it comes to Brexit, the national conversation was not suddenly closed off on 23 June 2016. On the contrary, each new step forward requires that conversation to be shifted and reconfigured in the light of altered circumstances or newly understood realities. It's patriotic to want the best out of each iteration. And it would be patriotic as well as democratic if, in the light of circumstances, we decided as a nation to change our minds about Brexit. (The "will of the people" refrain trotted out by some of our elected members including many who voted Remain doesn't advance intelligent discourse in any way that I can see.)

So you can call me a member of Her Majesty's loyal "Brexit Opposition" if you like. A twenty-first century recusant even, as Tony Dickinson suggested in response to the first version of this blog. For I believe that it's not only allowable but positively necessary to monitor how such a major decision is being worked out in practice, interrogate it closely, scrutinise the performance of those who are steering it so that we can hold them to account. If I say that I just don't believe that the case has been made for Brexit, and that this year has felt like a catalogue of mistakes, unintended consequences and muddled aims, is that unpatriotic? Not if it's said out of a genuine care for the welfare of my nation. On the contrary, maybe it's those who won't engage any further in the Brexit conversation who don't care enough about what happens to our nation.

I don't accuse the good person (whose tweet started this whole thing off) of not caring. Far from it. But I did think I needed to explain myself and defend what I want to describe as a liberal global patriotism. In these times, we have to learn to construe patriotism in the largest, most international way we can. Our world is simply too small for any of us to imagine that supposedly sacrosanct national borders can still define the limits of our concern. We urgently need to cultivate a good patriotism if all life on the planet is going to be respected and conserved. Nations and peoples need to act together to solve the world’s problems. In partnerships, we can achieve vastly more than we ever can on our own.

As I see it, Brexit is propelling the nation in completely the wrong direction, towards isolationism and disintegration. That’s dangerous. It’s not unpatriotic to say so.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

In Praise of Coffee

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes!
Lovelier than a thousand kisses,
Smoother than Muscatel wine.
Coffee, I must have coffee,
And if anyone wants to give me a treat,
Ah! just give me some coffee!

Doggerel on a morning when we're told on good authority that three coffees a day brings a whole range of health benefits. Those lyrics are by an eighteenth century poet known as Picander. His proper name was Christian Friedrich Henrici. He was one of J. S. Bach's most important librettists, supplying texts for a number of his sacred works including the St Matthew Passion. And for his secular cantata BWV211, the Coffee Cantata, composed in 1734 whose title "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" translates as "Be quiet, stop chattering". Believe me, this nonsense in praise of coffee sounds a whole lot better when you hear it adorned by Bach's glorious music.

As we know from sources like Dr Johnson and Blackadder, the coffee house was a great social institution in eighteenth century Europe. Coffee stimulated the mind and loosened the tongue. Whether they were people of science, music or letters, those who frequented them would spend hours sharing their insights and debating their implications. The Enlightenment might not have flourished so spectacularly if it had not been for coffee. How many of the world's great books owe their existence to it, whether drunk socially or through the long hours of the night in a writer's garret. At university I often used to stay up all night writing essays against a deadline of the following morning. I kept this up, though with declining results, when I taught theology and had to mark essays, and then in the parish when working on my sermons. Not good habits, maybe, but it all depended on coffee (and the Psalter - reading a psalm as each consecutive hour struck).

And now (not for the first time) we are assured that all this coffee brings added value to our physical as well as our mental and spiritual health. A peer-reviewed "umbrella study" published in the British Medical Journal concludes that "coffee drinking appears safe within usual patterns of consumption". Which is careful scientific understatement for the well-evidenced claim that coffee-drinking is linked to a lower risk of death from all causes including heart disease and strokes. It's also associated with a reduced risk of suffering from several cancers including prostate, skin and liver, and also from type-2 diabetes, gallstones and gout.

I've drunk black coffee almost all my life, apart from a couple of periods when I abstained for several months to see whether it made a difference to my quality of sleep at night. (It didn't.)  Black coffee is a virtuous drink because it is calorie-free (the report warns us not to indulge in those naughty-but-ever-so-nice treats stuffed with refined sugars and unhealthy fats like cakes and biscuits - I try not to. "Coffee is safe, but hold the cake"). And we are warned not to claim too much for coffee when the precise nature of the aetiologies is not well understood. "Does coffee prevent chronic disease and reduce mortality? We simply do not know. Should doctors recommend drinking coffee to prevent disease? Should people start drinking coffee for health reasons? The answer to both questions is 'no'."

Well, at this late stage in my life, I can't imagine that I shall stop drinking coffee unless these results are dramatically overturned by new and adverse evidence. Morning coffee - yes, three or four cups - has long been part of my habitus. In retirement, there is the added luxury, which still feels a bit deviant, of coming back from morning prayer with the vicar in church and sitting down with the daily paper over a long and rewarding coffee while enjoying music on Radio 3. I've noticed how many social media personal profiles mention coffee. What would the morning be without coffee, I've often wondered? What is it about this drink whose taste and aroma are as rich and complex as a cup of Lapsang Suchong tea (no milk), a glass of Puligny Montrachet (not too chilled) or a Talisker nightcap (with a few drops of mineral water)? As long as you buy the real thing (fairly traded, of course) and make it properly. Even the best instants are no substitute. If you're going to do it at all, do it with conviction. As Luther said, pecca fortiter! "Sin boldly."

Good old Bach. He has dispensed rich wisdom all my life. It's nice to find he could be playful too, at least when it came to his preferred drink. About coffee and so much else, the great master was never wrong. If you are already an afficionado, listen to the Coffee Cantata. Have your prejudices confirmed and your conscience stilled - and maybe, just maybe, live longer because of it.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

We Need Thanksgiving - but not Black Friday

A Song for Friday. "If you go down to the shops today, you're in for a nasty surprise." Or maybe not, if you knew that it's Black Friday, that annual orgy of shopping and spending that is enough to put some of us off shops for life.

The Guardian has an editorial today that makes interesting reading. It reminds us that the Black Friday custom originated in America (where else?) as a way of filling the space between Thanksgiving on the day before, and the coming weekend. You have a great celebration on the fourth Thursday of November. Families gather not only from across the States but from all over the world to be together on this the most important day in the calendar. It's a wonderful way to enter into and keep alive the founding myth of America, express solidarity with generations past and generations to come, and all under the rubric of giving thanks. There is something deeply eucharistic about that, allowing memory to foster gratitude for blessings past, present and future.

So you are gathered by the fireside in your home with those you love best in the world. Like the eighth square in Through the Looking Glass, it's all feasting and fun. And no doubt every American family, aware of how abundant are the gifts they celebrate, will also be sparing a thought and a prayer for the many who are less fortunate, left outside the warm glow of privileged good fortune. It's a time for generosity, large-heartedness, good will. Americans are among the most kind and generous people I've ever met.

But then Black Friday dawns. Everybody, it seems, gets up while it's still dark and heads for the shopping malls. You’re among them, thinking to yourself, “Christmas shopping”. There are bargains galore to tempt you, big budget items offering eye-watering reductions. You find that some people have waited all night to be at the front of the line at store-opening time. In the headlong rush for the best bargains, people get hurt. Sometimes there are fisticuffs. Extra security is brought in. (We Brits know all this if we’ve ever been rash enough to pay an early morning visit to the Boxing Day sales.) It's as if the normal conventions of polite behaviour (such as queuing and holding the door open for others) break down. The crowd acts out unusual (to them) behaviours that in other contexts we would call feral. If you ever wonder what would happen to humanity if civilisation were stripped away, just watch TV news following an eventful Black Friday.

I'd be glad to be told that this is a wicked caricature perpetrated by liberal elites who read broadsheet newspapers and would never be seen dead in a shopping mall on Black Friday. But even if it is, there's a deeper aspect to it that needs airing.

It's what question Black Friday is meant to be the answer to. The answer is that it's a direct response to Thanksgiving. It stands with it, depends on it like a parasite for its very existence. And yet, hard on the heels of the exquisite evening before that so affirms the American founding fathers’ and mothers’ spirit of gratitude, public faith, social and family values, the importance of remembering together, how can Black Friday not be bathos of a particularly glaring kind? On this of all long weekends, who wouldn't want to share memories and laughter in long happy conversations, play sports or games together, enjoy the fresh bracing air, read, make music, indulge your hobbies. Who wouldn't want to continue the spirit of Thanksgiving into the next few days, maybe linking it to visiting someone who is sick, or volunteering for at the local foodbank or sharing your foyer with a guest who would otherwise be alone?

It's hard to see how a shopping spree doesn't trivialise much of what Thanksgiving stands for. The dead hand of monetising everything always has that effect (“knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”). It's as if Americans can't think of anything more creative to follow Thanksgiving than the emblematic cliche of going shopping. But in the UK it's rather worse. We have lifted Black Friday straight out of American culture and reinstalled it in our own country in both its physical and digital forms (except that there's nothing virtual about parting with money: it comes down to the same thing in the end). It has taken off in a big way. But what we didn't import along with it was the day before. Here there is no Thanksgiving to give it even the vestige of a larger meaning. So Black Friday stands alone, revealed in all its overt, rampant consumerism. It is a shameless day of homage to what we have largely become: a nation of shopkeepers and shoppers whose aspirations are to buy and sell, make profits and grab bargains. The infamous Greggs' sausage roll is placed in the manger where the Christ Child should be, and made an idol of for the Magi and all of us to adore.

I exaggerate of course. But The Guardian is right to argue that shorn of Thanksgiving, there is no case for this indulgence of Black Friday. Somehow the very name, a conscious shadowy echo of Good Friday, tells us that it can't be good for us. Among the seven deadly sins are named greed, lust, gluttony and wrath, all of which could describe aspects of the Black Friday Experience. A theologian might argue that the root of all these behaviours is perhaps the original sin of all, envy. (I gave a lecture on this a few years ago in which I made a case for its being the primal sin at the very core of Adam's rebellion against God in the mythical Garden of Eden.)

I don't want to be unduly portentous about this. I'm not one of those preachers whose Christmas sermons are tiresome diatribes against consumerism and commercialism. Let's be positive as Advent begins, and hopes and longings are reawakened. As Christian faith has always understood, it's thankfulness that is the foundation of a healthy, hope-filled way of life. There are more than enough shopping days to Christmas that allow us to go in search of good gifts for family and friends, not in the mad feeding frenzy of Black Friday, but in a virtuous, ethical, thoughtful, happy and above all thankful way. That will add quality and integrity to the precious act of giving to the people we love.

So don't let's encourage the worst instincts of a retail industry greedy for profits. Forget Black Friday. Make it a personal Thanksgiving Day instead. Because that's something we should certainly learn from our American friends. (And to any of them who are reading this, Happy Thanksgiving Day to you all!)

Friday, 17 November 2017

#140: Why has Twitter Changed the Rules?

Forget Brexit, that sausage roll and who's going to win Strictly. If there's one thing that's exercising social media at the moment, it's Twitter changing its rules of engagement. As I presume everyone knows, until this year you were limited to 140 characters per tweet. But now they've doubled it to 280. And some of us are grumpy about it.

I've used Twitter since the end of 2011. I blogged about it when I was very new to it and again at the end of my first year on it. Here's what I said when I was starting out.

I've been surprised how I've taken to it.  It feels a bit like discovering photography a few years ago.  Perhaps it's because they are quite similar.  Photography captures the essence of something by putting a frame around it. Composing an image is to limit the viewer's horizons in ways that 'focus' (pun intended) attention so that we see afresh and perhaps gain 'insight'. In the same way, Twitter imposes the discipline of 140 characters which requires us to put a (pretty small) frame around what we want to share and try and communicate in a sharply focused way.

 Someone once spoke of 'the sonnet's narrow room'.  That means the 'given' shape of 14 lines with rhythms that are set: the poet who wants to write a sonnet isn't free to vary its structure.  The challenge of doing something interesting, creative and beautiful inside that 'narrow room' has fascinated poets since Petrarch.  Shakespeare's Sonnets are like Bach's Goldberg Variations: they show the endless variety that is possible at the hands of a master even when the terrain on which to work is no bigger than a pocket handkerchief.

I think Twitter may appeal to people who are miniaturists.  We like the idea that much can be said in a few words.  We value understatement and reticence, where a wealth of meanings can reside at the margins of what is said, implied by nudges and hints rather than stated openly.  'Tell all the truth but tell it slant' said Emily Dickinson, one of the great practitioners of saying much in a small space.  The truth at the centre of Christianity can be expressed in a tweet: The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth.


That has all the zeal that goes with discovering something new. Maybe I was a bit over-enthusiastic then. I hadn't seen how social media can damage people who get addicted to it, or - far worse - become victims of online haters, trolls and bullies. We hadn't heard of fake news. I'm the first to admit that an unregulated cyberspace is dangerous and puts people at risk. And not just the young. Think of Jo Cox and Gina Miller.

Yet for all that, I still believe that used responsibly, social media is an immensely powerful tool for doing good in the world. Twitter in particular had an elegance and succinctness that seemed to command attention. No wonder politicians like Donald Trump were quick to spot its potential. To be able to say something striking (whether true or not, whether wise or not) and reach millions of people in just 140 characters offered an irresistible challenge to anyone who saw the possibilities in vivid, focused communication.

Note the past tense. Because that has now changed for the worse. Open your Twitter feed and what do you find? A never-ending stream of ponderous essays of 280 characters. Your screen is crammed with text. Your eye could just about scan 140 at one go, take in the message, tell your brain that here was something worth thinking about, endorsing with enthusiasm, being grumpy about, disagreeing violently with, smiling at. Here was something had bothered to take the trouble to distil for us. When there is so much information out there clamouring for our attention, we love succinctness. But now Twitter is sprawling like Face Book, clogging up the weirs and culverts so that the flow is turbulent and muddied, and we can no longer quickly tell the difference between what matters and what doesn't.

So what has possessed Twitter to change the rules and double the character limit? We loved the discipline of 140 characters and the sharpness it gave to our writing. Dr Johnson once said to a plodding writer something like, "strike out every other word in what you have written: it will do wonders for your style." As someone who is tempted to use too many adjectives and adverbs, I've found it's been a great reminder to try to write plain English. No, the medium wasn't broke and didn't need fixing. Except in the eyes of those who thought that the more Twitter emulated Face Book, the more popular it would be and the higher the advertising revenues. The trouble is that the 140 "brand" was such a distinctive USP. Maybe adjusting it upwards to 160 would not have mattered too much. But to double it (which is to multiply by 8 its "cubic capacity" - hugely more if in my analogy cyberspace stretches beyond three dimensions) is a big risk.

I was tempted to give up half my character allowance next Lent and stick to 140 for a few weeks - like the Lent a few years ago when I gave up colour photography and worked only in black and white. Then I thought: why wait till Lent? Let's start now. So I am doggedly carrying on in the way I've learned to know and love Twitter by continuing with the 140 limit. I've been encouraged by others who've adopted my suggested #140 hashtag in their Twitter profiles. I know that without a numerical counter on the tweet screen (again, why?) it's not so easy. But all we have to do is to stop writing when the blue line hits the bottom of the circle at the "half-past" mark. Sooner if we can.

I won't be obsessive about #140. If I stray over by a dozen characters, I'm not going to worry. But we want to keep the spirit of Twitter alive. Brevity is not only the soul of wit but the soul of Twitter too. So maybe I can encourage you to give it a go? I'll follow you if you let me know you've put #140 in your profile. There's an offer you can't refuse. I'm at @sadgrovem. I've tweeted @Twitter to say I'd be glad to have their comments and to publish them here. You may want to ask them too.

"Always the supporter of lost causes" I hear you say with a sigh. "Always the remainer." Ah well. Put it down to retirement and having too much time to think. And blog. And tweet.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 10: Where the Roman Wall Ends (or Begins)

No-one in this village needs to be told about the Roman Wall that strides above us along the crest of the Whin Sill. Sycamore Gap is beautiful, but we don’t need yet more pictures of it. The same goes for the outstanding Roman sites at Chesters, Housesteads and Vindolanda. (But it’s worth putting a word in for the newly opened National Park Centre “The Sill” at Once Brewed on the Military Road. It’s worth a visit, and there’s a nice shop and a good café-restaurant there too.)


But the antiquities in urban Tyneside offer something a bit different. I’m thinking of Wallsend north of the Tyne and Arbeia on the south bank opposite. You don’t expect to come across Roman remains where there were once shipyards and the tangle of heavy industry, or in the midst of long streets of red brick Victorian houses. Just as the lonely upland setting of the Roman Wall in our area is a great part of its appeal, so it is, for me anyway, in the gritty townscapes where the Tyne nears the sea. What they lack in scenery they more than make up for in urban atmosphere, especially on the sort of grey overcast days the North East does so well.
Let’s focus on Wallsend. If you can, get there by Metro from the city centre. I suggest this for the sake of getting off at Wallsend station. It’s nothing special to look at, but it has the distinction of being the only railway station in the world that has signage in Latin (and in English too, should you need it). A short walk under the tracks brings you to the site itself.
Segedunum (does it mean strongly fortified place?) is dominated by an unlikely looking 1960s tower bearing the inscription “Where Rome’s great frontier begins”. This is the observation tower and it’s worth starting the visit at the top (there’s a lift as well as stairs). From here you can take in the entire excavated site and its setting. You are looking west, up the Tyne that flows alongside the fort. Upstream you can see the remnants of the legendary Tyneside shipyards and beyond, the city-centre where the Roman bridge Pons Aelius once stood. This was the lowest crossing of the river, a key strategic location, and it’s likely that Segedunum was built to protect it.
The Roman Wall has a long history, but what matters at Wallsend is that it was at Pons Aelius that Emperor Hadrian began to construct his wall in 122AD. (Aelius is derived from Hadrian’s family name.) The short four-mile section eastwards, running under what is now Byker and terminating at the fort also included a spur running down to the river. This was completed a few years later. When you walk the site and gaze at the two short chunks of wall that survive, you can’t help pondering this extraordinary monument that stretches all the way to the Solway via our parish about half way along. What was this edge-of-empire wall for? Probably not to defend the empire or attack enemies. More likely it symbolically marked the extent of empire, with its many gates serving as points at which to control traffic and regulate trade between the empire and the peoples beyond it.
 

But I left you at the top of the observation tower. Come down and visit the galleries on the two floors at the bottom. There are good interactive displays about the history of the Wall, exhibits of excavated artefacts and (what school children especially enjoy), resources to help you imagine what it would have been like to live in a Roman garrison. You are also told something about the history of Wallsend after the Romans left in about 400AD. Its key role in Tyneside’s heavy industry, particularly mining and shipbuilding, is rightly made much of. This characterful area is all part of Newcastle’s hinterland.

There isn’t actually a lot to see above ground when you walk round the site. I’ve mentioned the short sections of wall that survive. The reconstructed Roman bath house is the most prominent building (not open at the time of writing). But as I’ve said, it’s more a case of setting and atmosphere. This close to the river, you appreciate its significance for this part of England, and the strategic importance of a crossing point as near to its estuary as you can. You see why Segedunum was necessary. And if it all feels a little forlorn, think what it must have felt like to soldiers from Syria, north Africa or Spain whose legions served on the Wall at different times. They would have wrapped themselves up against the keen east wind blowing off the North Sea and wondered how they ever came to exchange their azure Mediterranean skies for this bleak and lonely place.   
That’s why I say that atmosphere is everything. If you want to feel the authentic North East in all its ancient, sharp and uncompromising character, Wallsend offers plenty of scope. So does Arbeia, when it opens again in the spring. And if you want to know more about the Wall and those who served on it, the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran and the excellent exhibitions at Vindolanda will give you plenty to think about.

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 9: The Tyne Valley Railway

This month I’ve chosen, not a place but a railway line – ours. As someone who’s loved railways since I was little, I couldn’t ignore this aspect of the North East. I’ve already written about the museum at Shildon, the “cradle of the railways”. But what about the living, working railway that runs through our own village? The Tyne Valley Railway is a daily part of our life in this community – and aren’t we fortunate to have a working railway station, however basic, in our midst? But how many of us have taken in the long history of this line, or some of its fine lineside features?

Our railway is both one of the prettiest in England, and also one of the earliest. Planning began in the 1820s (the legendary Stockton and Darlington Railway began carrying passengers in 1825). While sections of the line were running earlier, the entire length of the route between Carlisle and Newcastle was opened in 1838. And although Haydon Bridge station is now only a shadow of its former self, it’s nice to think that in its way it is the village’s monument to the pioneering spirit that inspired the construction of railways across the country in those first few decades.

You can see why the railway has been branded the “Hadrian’s Wall Line”, though in fact the Roman Wall is visible from only a very few locations along the route. But the Tyne is a different matter. The railway hugs it closely all the way from its eastern terminus at Newcastle Central to Haltwhistle; even then the former Alston branch, now partly reopened as a narrow gauge railway, continues the marriage of river and railway up into the North Pennines not far from its source. (I say the Tyne, but of course I mean the South Tyne. The North Tyne had its own railway, the Border Counties that diverged from the Tyne Valley line just west of Hexham. You can still see the piers of the original bridge that crossed the river at that point.)

As I am focusing on North East England, I won’t linger on the part of the line west of the Pennine watershed around Gilsland (where there is an active campaign to reopen the station, and who’s to say there isn’t a good case for it?). Up here you get marvellous views eastwards along the whin sill crags that carry the Roman Wall, northwards to the Bewcastle fells, and westwards across the Solway and beyond, the hills of Galloway. 

Haltwhistle station has some of the line’s best buildings. My wife and I visited them recently on a heritage open day. We were able to climb up into the splendid signal box and admire the restored ticket office (the cardboard railway ticket as we used to know it was invented on this very line by an enterprising station master at Brampton called Thomas Edmondson). The water tank on its three arches is another fine feature, as is the footbridge in a design you find repeated along the length of the line.

Hexham station always seems well looked after with its air of tidiness and hanging flower baskets. The signal box, poised over the rails themselves, is one of the best on the line. Riding Mill and Stocksfield stations both have their original station-masters’ houses, as does Wylam, another station of great charm. Opened in 1835, it is said to be one of the earliest stations in the world that is still in daily use, an achievement of which the great engineer George Stephenson, born in the village, would no doubt be proud. It even features in Simon Jenkins' recent book Britain's Hundred Best Railway Stations.

Wylam marks the Tyne’s tidal limit. Downstream you leave Northumberland and enter the tangle of industrial wastelands, new commercial buildings, baffling road networks and riverside developments. The urban townscape of Tyne and Wear has created huge spaces for retail on an industrial scale. The Metro Centre, cathedral of consumerism, has its own useful but unlovely interchange where every train on the line is destined to stop. I wonder why?
Our journey has two last hurrahs. The first is the long climb up through Gateshead to join the East Coast Main Line. There’s a breath-taking climax when you realise that you are high up on the south bank of the river perched on the edge of a gorge. From here you cross it either on the King Edward Bridge or the older and more venerable High Level Bridge. This outstanding monument to North East engineering was designed by Robert Stephenson and opened in 1849. If you have never walked along its lower deck, you have a treat in store. Both bridges offer magnificent views up and down the river, and if your train is halted in mid-passage as it often is, you have an unrivalled photo opportunity too. Is there a city in Europe with such a majestic river frontage as Newcastle-Gateshead?
The second hurrah is Newcastle Central Station itself. The river crossing has already created a great sense of arrival, and it required a station to match it. Newcastle architect John Dobson rose to the challenge by creating one of the grandest stations in the country (it merits 5ive stars in Simon Jenkins' book). The vast porch (called a porte-clochère) where passengers would disembark from their horse-drawn carriages is now a pedestrian concourse. The train shed is a beautiful piece of ironwork in its own right, perfectly set off by the curve of the railway line as it comes off one of the bridges at either end and sweeps grandly alongside the platforms.
The Tyne bridges, Newcastle Central Station, the two Cathedrals, Anglican and Roman Catholic, and the (new) Castle make up an outstanding ensemble of historic buildings. Here at the heart of one of England’s great cities, we are a world away from the Pennine reaches of the Tyne in its remote upland valley. But each is a foil for the other. There aren’t many railway journeys that offer so much to enjoy. And all from our own doorsteps here in Haydon Village.
**The Tyne Valley Rail Users’ Group is well worth supporting. Its purpose is to develop relationships between the line and its principal train operator Northern, and the communities they serve. This includes campaigning for better services and facilities. Go to www.tvrug.org.uk 

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 8: Durham Cathedral

I've been a bit remiss about posting articles I've written about some of my favourite places in the North East for the Haydon News, our village magazine.

When I began this series, I said I wanted to explore some less well-known places in the North East. So why have we come to Durham? I don’t suppose there is anyone reading this who hasn’t been to its mighty Cathedral, probably many times. It’s famous the world over as one of the greatest of all Romanesque buildings. It’s often been voted Britain’s favourite cathedral. Bill Bryson called it “the best cathedral on Planet Earth”. Having been Dean there, and lived in its shadow for nearly 13 years, who am I to disagree?
 
But even if you’ve been to the Cathedral, there may be things you have missed. It would take a lifetime to get to know it in every detail and unearth all its secrets. So here are some corners of the place and its surroundings you may not have taken in. And if you have, let this reawaken enjoyable memories.
 
1 The Sanctuary Knocker
This fierce monster greets you as you approach the main door. In the middle ages, if you had committed certain crimes such as unintended manslaughter, you could save yourself from the rough justice of the mob by fleeing to the Cathedral and grasping hold of the knocker. One of the monks keeping watch from the room above would let you inside the church where you would be kept safe for thirty-seven days. This would give you time to choose whether to give yourself up to the authorities and face the consequences, or choose permanent exile, in which case you would be escorted to Hartlepool and placed on a ship, never to return. (What you see is a copy of the original twelfth  century knocker which is kept safe from corrosion or vandalism in the Cathedral’s collections.)
 
2  The Shrine of St Cuthbert
How can you go to Durham Cathedral and not take in the shrine that is the very reason the Cathedral exists? Well, quite easily as it happens. I did it myself on my first ever visit as a schoolboy in the 1960s. If you don’t know it is there, you might miss the stone stairs up to the “feretory”, as it’s called, where the remains of St Cuthbert are buried. Since our churches at Haydon Bridge are dedicated to him, I don’t need to tell how his remains were taken on a long journey around the North (passing through what is now our parish, we believe) until they ended up on the peninsula and the Cathedral was built around them. On the wall outside the shrine, you will see the red Banner of St Cuthbert, a replica of the one that hung there to welcome vast crowds of pilgrims in the middle ages.
 
3  The Neville Screen
The great screen behind the high altar is one of the jewels of the Cathedral. It was given by the Neville family of County Durham in gratitude for the English victory against the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. Unlike the rough sandstone the Cathedral is built from, the screen is made of a beautiful white limestone from Caen in France. If you have field-glasses with you, look at the intricate detailing of the pinnacles, and the marvellous carvings of angels and animals above the canopies on each side. Once, the niches contained sculptures of the saints. These were taken down and hidden for safety just before the Dissolution in the 1530s. No-one knows where they are to this day though that doesn’t stop the choristers from guessing.
 
4  The Transfiguration Window
If you haven’t been to Durham since 2010, you won’t have seen this magnificent new window near Cuthbert’s shrine. It was installed in memory of Archbishop Michael Ramsey who had been both a canon and a bishop of Durham and who is still remembered with huge affection there. The design is by Tom Denney. It shows the Transfiguration of Jesus, one of Michael Ramsey’s favourite New Testament stories. Light pours down on Jesus on the mountain top, accompanied by the disciples Peter, James and John. Nearby the lonely figure of St Cuthbert stands by the sea saying his prayers, and you’ll also notice the Cathedral itself bathed in light. The window with its rich textures casts a radiant golden light when the sun is high in the middle of the day.  
 


5  The Cloister
Here’s another part of the Cathedral I missed when I first came as a boy. On the opposite side from the main (north) door, you come out into the cloister. In the middle ages, this would have been the hub of the monastery’s life, because it connected the principal buildings where monastic activity was focused: the church itself, the chapter house, dormitory, refectory, treasury and the kitchen. All these buildings survive and are still in use, making Durham Cathedral the most complete surviving monastic site in England.
 
6  The Monks’ Dormitory and Great Kitchen
You reach these splendid buildings from the cloister. The size of the dormitory tells you how large the monastery was in its heyday. This majestic room has one of the most remarkable timber roofs in England. The nearby octagonal kitchen is another precious survival from the medieval Cathedral with its remarkable stone vault. Both these spaces now form part of the Cathedral’s new exhibition Open Treasure which tells the story of Christian faith in the North East from Roman times to the present day. The Great Kitchen now houses artefacts associated with St Cuthbert including his famous pectoral cross, his wooden coffin and his portable altar.
 
 
7  The River BanksToo many visitors rush away without taking time to appreciate the Cathedral in its gorgeous setting. When you walk alongside the river, you appreciate what a remarkable site the Cathedral occupies, perched unassailable on its acropolis high above a great loop in the River Wear. The gorge was carefully landscaped in the eighteenth century to show the buildings to best advantage above the abundant tree canopy. It is beautiful at all times of year, but I especially love it on winter afternoons when the Cathedral glows through the bare trees by the light of the setting sun. And when you’ve enjoyed the walk, where better to reward yourself with a cup of tea and a cake than in the Cathedral restaurant off the cloister?
 
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Space doesn’t allow me to write about the font canopy, the Daily Bread Window, The Venerable Bede, the mysterious line in the floor, a mason’s mistake in one of the piers, the Durham Light Infantry Chapel, Frosterley Marble and much else. Maybe another time…