I’ve always been compelled by history. Imagining the past helps me escape from everyday burdens. It’s always been that way, ever since I can remember. My safe haven is finding a book and curling up in another time and place. Always was. Always will be. But while books feed my love of history the addiction was nurtured by the landscape of my childhood.
Rather like Merlin I was gifted with a means of travelling backwards through time. Though I grew up amongst the bustle and throng of south-east England my mother is a native of Northumberland and like swallows we’d fly north every summer to the wild lands ‘north of the wall’, to a place firmly locked in the past.
Northumberland was my stepping stone into another world. Staying with nanna was like snuggling into a warm cosy blanket and the fact she didn’t have hot-running water or an indoor toilet made the adventure seem even greater. There was never any sense she was poor, nevermind deprived, she just lived in a different world, untouched by the twentieth century.
Nanna was a miner’s wife and the village where she lived had sprung up around the pit. It was a tight-knit community where everyone knew your name, so much so it always felt like we were coming home rather than just visiting. We fitted in, unlike the south, where we were always strangers. I don’t remember grandda’ but his presence filled every room, as though he might return at any moment. Nanna never forgave him for leaving her alone. I realize now what I didn’t know before, that she clung to his memory because she loved him more than life.
Living in a first-floor flat in London meant we couldn’t have a pet but nanna had a dog. Prince was half Alsatian and half wolf, or so we were always told. Though he never harmed a human he liked to pick a fight with every dog in the village. The only time I ever heard nanna raise her voice was to yell at Prince as she dragged him home by his collar. Then she’d bathe his wounds. She had big hands, like a man’s, but her touch was gentle as an angel’s.
I think I was ten when the mine-workings were dismantled. The pit-wheel disappeared but the scars of industry remained, framed by gentle hills and an endless stretch of beach which we thought of as our private playground. Back then we were often the only visitors enjoying the rolling sand-dunes of Hadstone. We’d walk from the village along an abandoned rail track and spend the day climbing amongst the rock-pools, digging for crabs and lobsters and winkles. We didn’t know the rocks were actually a petrified forest or the beach a ‘site of outstanding natural beauty’. Since the bay came into the hands of the National Trust it has been renamed. They’ve built a visitor centre and a car park and charge a fee to enter and our once empty beach is like Margate on a summer’s day.
Also within a hand’s throw of nanna’s cottage was a ruined water-mill. There, in the sand-bottomed mill-pool, my sister and I learned to swim. Sliding down the moss-lined dam gave us better thrills than any mechanized theme-park. The mill had once belonged to the monks of Lindisfarne and I felt the holy men ‘tutting’ as we skinny-dipped down the falls.
A huge ochre-stone castle stands barely a mile up-river. Warkworth’s vacant tower crowned our farthest horizon. When he was home ‘on-leave’ from the navy, mum’s baby brother uncle John, would tease us with tales of the Percy’s who once ruled this county like gods. If you look carefully, he promised, you might see the ghost of Harry Hotspur riding home from battle. He also told us that Coquet Island, which can be clearly seen from the castle ramparts, was infested with ruthless pirates. What better lair for a band of privateers? We never questioned why they’d think to raid coal-boats going to and from Amble.
Uncle John also told us that our ancestors once smuggled whisky from Scotland to England. Like most of his tales it bears an element of truth. Nanna’s father came from the village of Ford, a tiny hamlet which lies very close to the Scottish border. During the eighteenth century the government raised the tax on alcohol so many illicit stills across the border increased production (which is why Robbie Burns found good employment as an officer of the revenue). But however much I discover of the truth, history will always be a cocktail of myth and reality. Where living in London meant being cooped up indoors Northumberland represented freedom and the stones of its landscape formed the foundations of my imaginings and writing is the counterbalance of my sanity, as necessary as breathing.