‘Different man, different times, different days.’ – three men, comparing the potential consequences of a new hairstyle, Alnwick.
Imagine what perfect harmony would look like it. Sometimes it feels like one stumbles across it in nature, particularly in the wild countryside of the eastern coast I’ve been journeying through. The symmetry on the wings of a moth, the intricate yet always regular swirls on the shell of a snail, or the regularity of wildflowers and trees that wither and bloom each year, from life to death, and back. Even the ancient bricks of different shapes and sizes that each form an unlikely bond together into an old farm wall, marking field from field. Each of these is an odd but effective compromise of chance and opportunity.
I’m starting to wonder if all my politicking about improvements to the communities I pass through has been swayed by some deluded vision of perfect harmony. What makes the dark humour I come across so refreshing is that it assumes the worst and makes the most of it. It’s shit round ere, but … or British weather! or You avin a laff, goin round Britain on that thing?
It doesn’t assume that the given situation would get better, yet in laughing about it and mocking the vanities of oneself and one’s surroundings, it supplies one with a power to overcome adversity with a tough-headed laughter.
The movements of humans suggest a taste of perfection. The whirling Zikr dances of Chechen Sufis are one extraordinary example. Great numbers of men gather together and dance in varying speeds in a large circle. Quickly they become one as a group, following the speeds and movements of the person ahead, moving about in different rings. They chant the names of God as they move, spinning about uncontrollably. The self disappears in this mystical tradition.
‘Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment’.
So says Rumi, Sufi mystic and poet. I need to abandon myself more into the unknown before offering up any easy solutions. And possibly take up morris dancing…
I’m up and about in Monkseaton, just by Whitley Bay. As I pack up my things and say goodbye to Mr Beak, my new friend and host Paul offers to give me a lift part of the way north. I have a couple of adventurous but rough days ahead of me, and I can’t refuse. We squeeze the bike into his boot when one of his neighbours pops out, and we get talking. She explains, in concise and accurate detail, the secret of the Tyneside.
‘Bigg Market? Ha ha ha. It’s a ruse for outsiders.’
Yes, that’s it!
Goin oot on the toon is a big part of Newcastle, but it largely sucks in all the many drunk Scots, southerners and other northerners who come up here in packs to get pissed and collapse on street corners. It’s an ingenious fly-trap, fleecing visitors and local dipsomaniacs of their money whilst corralling them in one small part of the town. The rest of the city, particularly the coastline to the east, is relaxing and pleasant. If you’re heading by Newcastle, do have a look, indeed, have a few beers around town, but be aware that this is not it.
I stop in a local shop for food supplies and ask the cashier about fishing in the area. He laughs – after all, strangers aren’t supposed to start conversations with strangers, are they? – and tells me about his friend who fishes in Tynemouth. Five generations of his family have gone out into these waters in the hope of catching something edible. Today he struggles to catch anything, another victim of rapacious trawlers and shrunken fish stocks. He shrugs at the uncertain future his friend faces, and I shrug at the uncertainty every young person faces. The words of Eden a few days back fade into consciousness: it’s an unholy mess that’s developing.
We drive north out of Whitley Bay, and follow signs for Ashington. The town used to be a huge centre for coal mining, spawned out of nothing from 1866. It was once the biggest pit village in the world, employing 10 000 people in the area’s five surrounding collieries. The company provided a sports club, gyms, camping sites, canteens, swimming baths, colleges, rent-free houses (with free coal) and even its own granary. Again, it’s a Bourneville-style philanthropic mode of employment that is so alien to today’s working cultures.
Mining remained a major employer until the mid-1980s, and for those young men who wanted to avoid a life underground, the Alcan aluminium plant also provided plentiful employment. That’s gone too, and today Ashington’s in real decline, like so many towns across County Durham. I want to go and investigate the town, find out about its distinct ‘pit’ accent and tell you all about the Charlton brothers who hail from here, but time is against me now, and there’s something special I want to see.
The Woodhorn Colliery is the largest surviving ex-mine of its kind in the area. Rather than demolishing all sign of it and hiding its body over a layer of light industrial warehouses, the local council decided to buy the old mine in the late 80s for a quid, and turn it into a museum staffed by ex-miners. Good eh? There’s some superb exhibitions about the history of mining in the area which carries off being fun, informative and sympathetic to oral and local histories.
Look up at the proud miners’ banners of Northumberland. They present a self-consciously working class vision of progress that knocks me agog. What would such demands for welfare, mechanisation and education appear like today? Or mighty celebrations of nationalisation? Against the false narratives often presented of mining being archaic, attached to backwards technologies and mindsets, these banners indicate that working class unionism has always been attached to the future through technological progress.
Perhaps the more devastating defeat of this movement was not in the 1984-5 Miner’s Strike, but in the failure of Harold Wilson’s 1960s left-wing Labour government to actually deliver the socialist revolution through technological progress promised. In 1963, a year before he would become prime minister of a government that would legalise abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment and remove restrictions on divorce and censorship – enlightened achievements – he proposed this almighty vision. As you read it, compare where the current Labour party stands today.
‘In all our plans for the future, we are re-defining and we are re-stating our Socialism in terms of the scientific revolution. But that revolution cannot become a reality unless we are prepared to make far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society. The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.’
Wilson’s socialist scientific revolution was derailed by internal MI5 plotting and external attacks on the economy by capitalist speculators. By the close of the 1960s many Labour voters had given up on the reality of such promises. Trade unions became increasingly hubristic and uncooperative, whilst Welsh and Scottish nationalism began to emerge in former Labour heartlands. Whilst Enoch Powell warned of race war, and civil rights leaders in America were assassinated with alarming regularity, a sense of crisis and despair with political idealism resonated which has never been recovered. I see the decline of mining, steelworks, and the working class Labour movement all taking place back here. It’s a part of history that popular culture isn’t familiar with.
After peering through these lost symbols of progress, I wander on and check out the paintings of the Ashington group, known as the Pitmen painters. Miners would gather in a small hut in Woodhorn one evening a week to discuss and share their artworks. Together, the developed a cooperative community of working people interested in the power and pleasure of images and ideas, of transmitting the experiences of people ordinarily excluded from Culture into paintings, executed with, to be fair, variable quality.
There are scenes of everyday life in the 1930s and 40s, alongside depictions of the work of miners, one of the few remaining clues of what miners actually did. See the horses working deep underground with the miners, indicating the desperate co-dependence of human and equine nature in every aspect of society before the 40s. Men depict their passions: training greyhounds, fish and chips, or a (perhaps Independent Labour Party) speaker addressing a packed pub of local men. Others cast a more sympathetic eye on the tough domestic drudgery of women’s lives, of a wife dying of TB, or passing through tumble-down streets advertising consumer crap. They’re extraordinarily rich.
In one frame there are a moving series of seven ink drawings of the life of a 14 year old miner. Each day, he awakes in the witching hours to get up and do a 2am mining shift. New miners would often be put on the less productive seams, thus earning less money, unless an older relative could get them to a better seam. The young lad is too tired afterwards to bathe, or eat, or see his friends. He gets home and falls asleep. The phrase is ‘slept it through’. He works, and sleeps, and this is his life.
The group began meeting in 1927 as a branch of the Workers’ Educational Association, and by 1934 they began working with the painter Robert Lyon to develop their paintings. They became fashionable in the art world for a time, though appreciation was laced with some class condescension. Their works were shown across the world, even China, but these modest miners would continue to meet each week until around 1983, when the mine was closed and their hut destroyed.
The Ashington group is just another instance of the value of establishing communal forms of lifelong learning for all. As one miner, Harry Wilson, put it:
‘Here I found an outlet for other things than earning my living. There is a feeling of being my own boss for a change and with it comes a sense of freedom.’
Are these not things we might want today?
I take a look through the stirring collection of exhibits from the last hurrah of the Miners’ Strike. ‘Coal not dole’ demands one leaflet, rightly anticipating the real choice for workers in these areas. In one case is a jar of pickled vegetables sent over from Russia to support the miners. By the close of 1984 many mining families were starting to go hungry and cold, unable to qualify for benefits because of the illegal nature of the strike. Teenagers died hacking out coal in Goldthorpe to keep their homes warm. The miners of Britain, with the exception of Nottinghamshire, held out with pride for almost a year, but by the end of the winter many had been starved into submission. A National Union of Miners ballot voted 98 to 91 to end the strike on the 5th March. Families needed to be supported in the short-term. In the longer-term, of course we know what happened, of the lies and treachery of Thatcher and Ian McGregor. The last mine in this area, Ellington, was closed in January 2005.
As I leave, I talk to Howard, a man working for the museum who is helpful and stimulating. As we talk about stocks of coal and miners’ banners, he cheerily sells me a bottle of beer for half the price and I buy postcards of the paintings. I find out about the Hartley Pit disaster in January 1862, when 204 men suffocated after a mine collapsed. Fathers, sons and brothers lost their lives, ages ranging from 11 to 71. It’s just another example of how nasty, brutal and short life really was for the working classes until the successes of Labour governments from the 1940s on, through achievements like public education, free healthcare and a welfare state.
I leave Woodhorn with a mind full of inspiring and distressing stories and images, unsure what to make of it all. The ride through the peaceful Northumbrian countryside north gradually quells some of this. Indeed, the landscapes here are utterly beautiful. I follow Route 1, that fiendish companion, and take a coastal road along, passing pretty Cresswell and its tangy brine, past ponies and cattle, among immense peace. I reach Amble, a large village by the sea with a little harbour. Its youth service is watched over by a conspicuously aggressive CCTV camera, and its small high street is dotted with a supermarket and other random shops. I gaze out into the sea for a while, mind rolling with impressions unmatched by mere words, then pedal on north.
Northumbria is a place with its own distinctive feel. Once upon a time, this land north of the Tees was called Bernicia, and in its placid and depopulated hillocks and swooping cliff declines, one feels like one has reached a unique place. Time is slower, and space is expanded. At points I consider stopping entirely. I imagine sitting by a wall and gazing up at the ruins of some old medieval fortification for many hours, or resting for some days in an abandoned cottage, wandering out into the fields, attempt to make some understanding of the animals that far outnumber people in these parts. Or I could drift on foot across into the border interzones between Hadrian’s Wall to the south, and the Antonine wall to the north. Who knows what would be found between the patchy settlements in this sparsely populated terrain? One could nocturnally drift up to Kielder, next to nowhere, and turn one’s eyes to the skies, where the clearest views of the stars can be found.
My mind drifts back to visionaries who have opened themselves up to the energies of religious feeling, people like Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, and of the tremendous emotional discoveries they found within these. Beyond phone upgrades or aspirations for a career in something or other, I struggle to locate contemporary myths with anywhere near the same inner power.
Thoughts shift loosely between reveries. My road takes me to Warkworth, a village marked by its floral and bright front gardens, and a great castle that looms over the coastline and the river Coquet. Strange crucifix-shaped markings are bored through its keep, and the structure still seems hardy enough to fight off any invading Scots today, ravenous for Greggs pasties, kegs of Carling, and whatever remains of the profits from North Sea oil.
I head further north, detouring from the coast, passing pretty Alnmouth-on-sea with its kids telly multi-coloured cottages, and eventually reach Alnwick, a pretty and old-fashioned looking market town which feels very out of keeping with the industrial towns I’ve passed through. I pass quaint country gardens and a large, well-kept castle with metal statues dotted about its fortifications. I feel like I might be in Sussex, like Lewes or Grinstead, and when I ask people in the street about the area (‘lovely round ere’) I’m so confused by their distinctive accents. Aren’t they the tourists? No, and that’s the joy of Alnwick (pronounced Annik).
In a closed down railway station there is a treasure mountain of second-hand books. Barter Books is already legendary, and I arrive in time to peer around the shelves of fiction, poetry and travel writing, whilst a model train choo-choos above me. The place is a tribute to the pleasure of books. There are cosy chairs and all about are the stirring words of William Blake, Tennyson and others. I love it here, and it’s hard not to buy everything. Carefully and with deliberation, I reduce my wants to just one book of oral histories about growing up in Scotland. The friendly assistant tells me about growing up in Portsmouth and how much, by comparison, she loves it here. ‘It’s very friendly, you’ll like it!’ She points me to the Black Swan pub, and there I head.
I sup on the local Alnwick Gold and IPA, fine brews, and stand at the bar absorbing conversations. The accent here sounds like a lighter form of Geordie, but much speedier, and spoken with Irish-sounding inflections. ‘Nae bad, what’s the craic?’ asks one lad. I’m a little deflated actually, and can’t put my finger on it. Over the gentle bubble of beery banter, Oasis wafts overhead:
‘It ain’t no place to be killing time
But I guess I’m just lazy’
Men trade dull anecdotes, whilst a girl beside me gazes wistfully into a phone whilst knocking back a large cup of red wine. It’s a Sunday and things are slow, between worlds. Somewhere in the distance a man plays a kazoo, riling the men at the bar. Bland indie rock patters overhead.
I leave the boozer and head north. The setting sun and the residual melancholia of the bar have soaked me through, and the quiet Northumbrian landscapes softly emanate sorrowful words. I think back to home, back to people I’ve known, of those dramatic scenes that trouble each of us in moments of indeterminacy, as the mind replays some scene in the vain hope of making sense of a trauma. There’s a suffering in your eyes I recognise, but it’s not mine. What can I do to protect you, to reach out to you? The disappointed dreams, the loves that came and passed by. In city-centre pubs, those lonely hunters picking at finger-nails and casting out small-talk like a series of protective barriers, adrift, deprived of the hope that prefaces desire.
I return to the coast and reach Dunstanburgh, a very small village with the most picturesque of castle ruins I have ever seen. Against the awesome golden hues of the setting sun over the nearby sea, its ruins loom out gracefully with the weathered and disfigured form of an ancient piece of rock. Approaching closer, I pass flocks of sheep and little else, and glance up at the entrance of a castle that seems to be the relic of an ancient and possibly non-human civilisation.
As I wander by what remains of it walls, it occurs to me that death does not wait for us to be ready. Places as mighty as Dunstanburgh will collapse into clods of dirt trod over by sheep; no aspect of nature respects the follies and vanities of humankind.
I wonder what good my own philosophical research offers against raw moments of inspiration like this, produced out of a deep and prolonged communication with the landscape. Academic research of this kind feels like sorting through the unsorted remains of the recently dead in the hope of discovering some unleft will. Yet no-one has appointed you the executor, and many before have attempted the same hapless task in vain, rooting about cellars, filing cabinets and indecipherable scribblings. It’s in thrall to established schools of thought that stamp into the heads of the young to read this, and not that. The initial sparks of reflection, creativity and inspiration that characterised the first visionaries of philosophy each become suffocated by the schools that sort to codify a way of seeing and living that everyone could understand into a bureaucracy of correct interpretation. As I travel on, the choices of my old life feel increasingly distant. The mind sheds its hardened old layers on this altogether different and profoundly transformative long-term travel.
I pass a beautiful coastal path, albeit quite rocky, and eventually make it to Seahouses as twilight kicks in. The town is pleasant and there are a number of B&Bs by the harbour. Such places command rates well beyond my budget, so I trudge a final few miles in the setting dark to Bamburgh castle, the final epic pile on the coast. I had hoped it would be another old ruin with sufficient space to wild-camp in (of which Dunstanburgh would be perfect for…), but its actually a large and well-preserved fortification in which some rich old lord still lives. All this I find out later, but my plans for camping here are a little routed.
Never will I give in! I sneak around the castle, and wander down the steep hill-edge beneath it. Between the castle and the coastline is a bumpy set of grassland where, after a while, I manage to find a spot largely out of sight of both the beach and the castle. I set up camp and then wander out to the beach, peering out at the hypnotic rays fluttering from distant lighthouses. I have a dinner of tortilla wraps, cheese and mushy peas (hell yeah!), and glug it down with a bottle of my Woodhorn-subsidised beer, Wylam Bohemia, brewed locally. This will be the first and last time I sleep (sort of) in a castle. As distant lights watch over the slumbersome seascapes, I gently drift asleep.