About Me

My photo
Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 7: Alwinton and the Coquet

This series is taking us round some of the less well-known places in the North East. We already live in the best part of England – no-one who reads Haydon News will argue with that. My hope is that I can whet your appetite to discover parts of it you may not have ventured to before.

Some of my favourite North Eastern places are densely urban, others are deeply rural. This month we’re back in the countryside. It’s about as remote and beautiful as England gets.

You don’t detour into Alwinton off some nearby main road. You have to want to go there. It’s situated near the top of the Coquet Valley where the river emerges from the high country of the Cheviot Hills. It’s not quite a cul-de-sac but almost. Beyond the village there is nothing but the still silent fells (silent, that is, if they are not firing on the military ranges and if there is no shoot going on). It is also very dark up here at night. Alwinton car park is a destination in its own right because it is one of England’s Dark Sky Discovery Sites (like Kielder on the North Tyne) where you have an unrivalled opportunity to see the aurora or the brighter planets, or simply gaze in wonder at the Milky Way. 

But once a year, Alwinton shakes off its sleepiness and plays host to thousands of people who come every October to the Border Shepherds’ Show. If you are only politely interested in sheep but curious about country life, come anyway. The famous border walking sticks are a sight to behold. I once went to a service in the village church where the churchwardens (there seemed a lot of them for such a tiny place) proudly carried carved sticks in place of the traditional staves, giving the service a delightful and authentic Northumbrian rustic village charm.  

Talking of the church, it is worth a visit. It stands apart from the centre of the village, prominently sited on a bluff on the hillside as if to defend the place from raiders. Maybe it was built there deliberately – in this frontier landscape not many centuries ago, you always had to be on the lookout for invading Scots and for reivers rushing down the valleys on both sides of the border.  

The church is dedicated to St Michael. As befits an archangel, you often find him as the patron of churches in elevated positions. As you get near it, you realise how it’s as if the church has been dug right out of the hill. If you walk up the steep churchyard to get above the church roofline, you’ll appreciate this unique setting, and you’ll enjoy a beautiful view of the Upper Coquet and the Cheviot Hills. Inside the church, you will find the highest chancel steps you ever saw. Clambering up them to take communion at the (literally) high altar must be no joke for the elderly or infirm. But it is undeniably splendid, like a medieval stairway pilgrims would once have ascended on their knees as an act of contrition.    
The Cheviots are the most remote and least disturbed hills in England. (I thought about awarding that compliment to the North Pennines as well, but although they are just as tranquil and beautiful, they have known far more industry – lead mining mainly – during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and this shows everywhere in the landscape.) From Alwinton you can walk along the border ridge with Scotland on one side and England on the other. The summits of Windy Gyle, and Hedgehope supply amazing views across Northumberland to the coast, and north to the Eildon Hills in Scotland – but this kind of expedition is only to be undertaken in fine weather and dry conditions unless you are a serious fell walker. Even on a fine day in summer, you’ll rarely meet anyone else. The only sounds to be heard will be the breeze rustling the long grasses, and the curlews that are the symbol of the Northumberland National Park. 

Coquetdale is one of Northumberland’s most beautiful valleys. When you drive back down from Alwinton, stop off at Holystone and take the short walk to Lady’s Well. There was a small Augustinian priory of canonesses here, and they looked after this exquisite site until the Dissolution in the sixteenth century. It was associated with missionary preachers who were said to have baptised their converts in the pool, among them St Ninian and St Paulinus (the latter is depicted in an eighteenth century statue there). In the pool you’ll find a white stone cross that photographers love because of the reflections it casts in the dark waters. 

And when it’s time for tea, you can stop off in Rothbury, a charming village (which feels more like a small market town) that is a pleasure to wander around. You may want to visit the church with its wondrous Saxon font, or the house and gardens at Cragside (National Trust), or the shoe shop where I once bought an excellent pair of black shoes that were extraordinarily reluctant to wear out. The proprietor of the antique shop has good conversation, and you may find an art or craft display in the village hall. And the National Park has a visitor centre there too.  

At Rothbury you are on the Corn Road (see my article about Wallington a couple of months ago) which will take you either to Alnwick and the seaside, or back home to Tynedale.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Brexit: a Year after the Referendum

The first anniversary of a bereavement is a time of mixed feelings. On the one hand, the fact that the date has come round again can reopen the sharp pain of loss. On the other hand, it can also help us continue to let go of the past as we come to terms with the life we must now live.

Tomorrow, it will be one year since we voted to leave the European Union. Here's what I wrote in a blog the next day.

If I say that I am heartbroken, I don't want you to think that I'm dramatising. But as this "day after" dawns, it's hard for me to see any good in it. So much of my own story is intertwined with the story of continental Europe - if you've been reading this blog regularly, you'll understand how. So it feels as if part of my identity is being stripped away, all that is symbolised by the words "European Union" displayed in the cover of my passport. I've been immensely proud of my EU citizenship. I've regarded it as a privilege to think of myself in that way. To face the fact that I am going to lose a fundamental aspect of myself feels terrible. It's as if a light is going out.

When it was clear that Leave were on their way to winning, Paddy Ashdown tweeted: "God help our country". I share his sense of desperation. Or is it desolation? Or devastation? All those words seem to fit. At a stroke, we find ourselves in exile. It feels like a lonely place to be.

But I know, of course, that it is not the end of the world, however bad it seems. What I wrote at the end of the official (Christians for Europe) blog is the most important sentence of all. It's a quote from St Paul's second Corinthian letter where, having catalogued the ordeals and suffering he has had to face for the sake of the gospel, he speaks of his indomitable hope in the God of resurrection. "We do not lose heart."

I need to say those words to myself over and over again. It will take time to come to terms with what we have done as a nation. There are "fightings within and fears without". We undoubtedly face times of great difficulty. It may be that the UK may come to rue the day. But Paddy Ashdown has given me the clue about facing the future. "God help our country" is the best prayer we can say right now. For praying is all I can think of doing at this moment. 

What does it feel like a year on?

I wish I could say that we are in an altogether better place. I wish I could say that although I disagreed strongly with the Brexit vote, at least we have been able to unite around the result and face our future outside the EU with confidence. I wish I could say that our government has done its very best to recognise that nearly half of those who voted in the Referendum chose "Remain" and reach out to them. I wish I could say that as the negotiations began, our country had made early and binding undertakings to EU citizens from abroad who are resident in the UK. There is so much else I wish I could say today.

Instead, our nation seems more confused than ever about what it really wants. Who would have thought, on 23 June 2016, that within twelve months a new prime minister would be in office, and that we would have held another general election? Who could have predicted, even a few weeks ago, that its outcome would be a hung parliament with all its weaknesses and ambiguities? The word disarray doesn't feel too strong to describe the state we're in.

However, let's try to accentuate the positive. It's true that one reading of the election result is that as a nation we are more divided than ever. But there's another way of seeing it. It's that the British people has perhaps spoken with a wisdom that was not wholly conscious. I think we are saying: we want to see a more consensual style of politics in the UK. We want to see political parties talk to one another across their differences. In particular, we do not want the doctrinaire "hard" Brexit that Theresa May's rhetoric and negotiating position was leading us towards. The UK, I believe, wants to step back from this cliff-edge and find a way of leaving the Union that preserves as much as possible of what was good about our EU membership. This is now the mandate with which the electorate has charged the Prime Minister. And it's clear that Parliament is in no mood to make life easy for her. The fiendish complexities of Brexit legislation make for a formidable mountain to climb. The Government will be sorely tested at every step. That will be good for the outcome. It's too important for there not to be extensive and thorough scrutiny that a hung parliament now makes inevitable.

If it's going to be so hard to achieve, can we believe Brexit will really happen? Who knows. But I'm clear about one thing. The British people should be allowed a say on whether or not we approve the Brexit terms when they are finally negotiated. I'm not at all enamoured of referenda, because we elect MPs to make national decisions on our behalf. But as we look back to the decision of 2016, it's now become obvious that the vote did not express any view about the kind of Brexit that would best serve the nation, whether "hard", "soft" or "crashing out", whether in or out of the Single Market and the Customs Union and so on. The Government has simply made facile assumptions about what it thought we meant, and acted on them. That is now not going to be as easy to do. It seems to me that the only safe way of ensuring that the nation is behind whatever Brexit is negotiated is to put it to the electorate once again.

And if the electorate changes its mind? Well, that is its right. After all, the 2016 Referendum itself represented a change of mind following the UK's decisive endorsement of EEC membership in 1975. The sovereignty of Parliament implies that it may, if it wishes, consult the electorate and, if so advised, change its own mind on decisions reached previously. No decision is absolute: the 2016 Referendum result is not irrevocable. If the nation wishes to reverse it, we can. And this summer's election result may just suggest that the tide is turning and we are beginning to see sense.

Last year's prayer is still valid. I pray it often. I hope we all do. "God save our country." But it's not just our nation we must pray for. As I argued in last year's blogs, it's absolutely not simply a case of "what's best for Britain". We must pray for the welfare of Europe too, and of the whole family of humanity. These global concerns were always meant to be at the heart of our EU membership. We should never have narrowed our vision and become known across the Union for our grudging, foot-dragging ways. We Remainers should have talked up the importance of being an outward-facing people far more than we did in 2016 as a way of countering the self-concern of so much of the Brexit campaign and its meretricious red bus.

But there's still time to think again. That's part of moving on. Lament comes into things. But so does hope. As I wrote last year, we do not lose heart.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

My letter to Tim Farron

Dear Tim

Thank you for your personal message to LibDem party members explaining that you have decided to stand down as leader. I know you will not have taken this enormous step without a great deal of thought and prayer.

The first thing I want to say is that you are in my own prayers now. I respect your candour as a politician, as a Christian and as a decent human being. Thank you for your leadership of the party in these tumultuous times.

I too am a Christian and a liberal (big L and small), living, as it happens, not far away from you. I love the far north of England as you do, not least for its sense of spiritual place, its soils infused with the long memory of our northern saints like Aidan and Cuthbert. I don't say that it's easier to be a Christian here than in the hectic Westminster village where, like Athens in the Acts of the Apostles, people are forever in search of something new to gossip about. Maybe up here we breathe a little more easily and are not always having to defend ourselves or our faith against the kind of opprobrium you have had to endure.

It's not for me to comment on your decision. I know you will have taken it with integrity, and from the tone of your letter, not without much inward struggle. But I am genuinely sorry about it all the same. I think you were under a degree of media scrutiny that was pitiless and intrusive in its invasion of your privacy. "We do not make windows on to men's souls" said Elizabeth I famously, but this is precisely what the media have tried to do with you, despite the fact that during the campaign you have not wavered an inch from LibDem policy in relation to same sex relations, equal marriage or anything else. The Prime Minister is also publicly known to be a Christian of conviction, but we don't find the media spotlight focusing relentlessly on her own personal opinions as a woman of faith.

You and I may come from different wings of the church, but this is not a factor as far as I am concerned. I am a Christian who believes with all my heart that the logic of gospel faith drives us to an inclusive vision of the world in which we give our LGBT friends the same rights as everyone else, just as we do people of colour, women and those with disability. I may wish that everyone else saw it that way, but I realise that this isn't the case. So we learn as Christians to practise what Justin Welby calls "good disagreement". I know that you have made your convictions about gay marriage clear in both what you have said, and how you have voted. That should have been the end of the matter. But even if you had taken the opposite view, I would have respected it. I can see that it might have been a struggle to reconcile personal faith with aspects of official party policy, but how you or I do this is no-one's business but our own. In any case, as you've said, a true liberal allows others to have different convictions from our own.

But illiberal media commentators don't seem to want to allow you that privilege (even though on this issue you haven't asked for it!). So if your recent relations with the media are behind your decision to resign, then I am doubly sorry. It is yet another victory for a media that is too often a disgrace to a progressive (I want to say enlightened) secular society that should be proud to sign up to liberal values. It does in theory - but not always in practice.

Of course, you may have been subject to a lot of other pressures that have added to your discomfort in the role of leader. Life in politics must be extraordinarily stressful. But if your resignation is a straw in the wind, and it is going to become harder than ever for a convinced man or woman of faith (any faith) to contribute as a political leader, then I am deeply worried about what this says about our country. We need Christians to be committed to leadership in public life in every sector of a secular society. I know you believe this ex animo because you have given us an example of how to inhabit such a role as a man of Christian principle. So I believe you would not have resigned unless the pressures had become intolerable. That's what is so troubling about your announcement - not because of what it says about you, but because of what it says about the rest of us!

You end by referring to Isaac Watts' great hymn of the cross: Love so amazing, so divine / demands my life, my soul, my all.  I was moved by that confession of faith on your part. And yes, we must not compromise our holding on to that central article of our faith. What could possibly matter more? It's why I have been a priest for more than forty years. And when conscience directs us in the light of the cross to act in a particular way, we dare not disobey.

So I want you to know that I entirely respect your decision, even if it also saddens me. You will be a loss to the party as its leader, and as a man who has brought your Christian gifts and insights to the high table at which our political leaders sit.

Let me wish you well for the future in a spirit of Christian friendship and in thankfulness for all that you have brought to British politics during your tenure as leader.

Best wishes,
Yours sincerely,

Saturday, 10 June 2017

If I were Theresa May... Seven Things to Think About

Never will a prime minister have been on the receiving end of so much advice. It's enough to make you feel sorry for her. Nevertheless, here's one more offering for the smorgasbord as she tries to pick up the pieces after the election.

Who am I to say anything? I'm a lay person when it comes to politics. I realise that comment is easy and comment is free; it's much harder to do the job. Despite her mistakes, despite the fact that she brought this election fiasco on herself, I feel for Mrs May. She cuts an isolated and lonely figure, tragic in the proper meaning of that word because her nemesis is the consequence of her own flawed vision.

So I write in a spirit of constructiveness as one (retired) leader to another. My experience tells me that we ought to be worried at the moment. These volatile days call for highly skilled leadership. How leaders behave under pressure reveals their strengths and weaknesses. Especially the latter. And I don't know that Mrs May has got it right in the last couple of days, indeed, the last couple of months.

But more important than any leadership experience I have, I write as a citizen of this country. I have cast my vote and that gives me an interest in what happens next. (If you chose not to vote, that suggests you don't care too much about your own future or the nation's. Dare I suggest that in that case you forfeit your right to comment on the outcome of this election?) The surprise result has consequences for us all. There needs to be an honest conversation among the electorate to try to understand what has happened. To talk to one another is part of being good citizens. It's what democracy means, not just voting but participating. Gaining insight will take time, and this is only the day after. Nevertheless, here goes.

First, Mrs May needs to say sorry. I don't mean to her own party, her MPs who lost their seats, those who supported them in their constituencies, her own cabinet colleagues and staff. She has done this (not as swiftly as they would have liked). But what she has not done or even hinted at doing is to apologise to the nation. She has put us through a bruising election that we did not need nor ask for. It has cost a lot of money, and more importantly, a vast amount of precious time that should have gone into dealing with the crises we face such as the terror attacks and Brexit.

It's hard not to feel used (or abused?) by a gamble which, even if it had paid off, would always have been a kind of large-scale displacement activity. We can conjecture about her reasons, though she was clear what they were when she announced it. Whatever she intended. it took our eyes off the balls that were, still are, flying through the air above our heads. But it hasn't paid off. The opposite in fact. That needs to faced up to and apologised for. By her. In person.

If only she had begun by apologising when she spoke to the nation yesterday outside No 10. It would have shown something of the humility we like to see in our leaders. Contrition in public life is a sign of wisdom. It shows we know the limits of our powers and recognise our capacity to get things wrong. Is it too late now? My experience tells me that it's never too late, though apologising always comes with more conviction when it's done as soon as possible. In her shoes, I'd try apologising rather than defending myself when I did the next round of media interviews. I'd say to myself that in this catastrophe, there wasn't much to be lost.

And it would be the right thing to do. "I beseech you, think it possible in the bowels of Christ that you may be mistaken." I've always cherished that advice from Oliver Comwell to parliamentarians. I don't trust leaders who are without any shred of self-doubt. So I was nervous yesterday when the PM spoke no fewer than three times about "certainty". It didn't sound well on a day when we looked for a little more humility and tentativeness in the light of events.

Secondly, the PM needs to be more candid with the nation. It is striking that since the election result, she has stuck rigidly to a message about having "more seats and more votes" than any other party. This is true but it's not the point. She told us when she launched the election that she looked for a bigger majority to strengthen her mandate in negotiating Britain's exit from the European Union. She has signally failed to achieve this. And that has damaged, not enhanced, our position in those negotiations that will shape our country's history for decades.

Nicola Sturgeon got it right when she said how disappointed she was at the loss of SNP seats, even if it was still the largest party in Scotland. She promised she would consider and reflect in the light of the election. Mrs May needs to do that too, and demonstrate more transparency. She must make it clear that she is not just reading from a script but is thinking hard about recent events. This includes the part she herself has played in calling this election and how she has performed during the campaign. There are tough lessons to be learned for her personally. Some are saying that her credibility has been shot to pieces by the gamble she has taken. Maybe. But I do know that she won't be credible if she doesn't show signs of having pondered deeply. Being a "reflective practitioner" is an inescapable aspect of good leadership. We need to know that she understands this.

Thirdly, Mrs May needs to find a different style of working. The rhetoric from the Downing Street lectern last night made it sound like it's business as usual. It's absolutely not! British politics has changed during this election. It's become clear that voters want to be treated like grown-ups. They want to take part in conversation, not be lectured to de haut en bas from a script that "may" not be departed from. The "Maybot" epithet is unkind (even if it's very funny). But like all good caricature, it contains more than a grain of truth. Mrs May's refusal to take part in broadcast debates with other leaders was a clue to this aspect of her character. It hasn't played well. Maybe she has been too quick to listen to the advisors who seem to have had enormous influence over her. Perhaps she needs to discover a new "self" in her leadership role, humanise her persona where she can.

If I were leading a minority government in the aftermath of this unforced error, I would want to reach out to the leaders I had failed to engage with during the campaign. I don't mean her natural allies like the DUP. I mean everyone who shared my belief in doing our best for our nation. I would want to sit down with opposition leaders and ask, How can we work together when our nation faces so many big, even life-threatening, challenges? Without sacrificing principle, are there ways in which we can give and take for the sake of the common good? I think the non-hawkish majority of the electorate likes it when people of different opinions start working together. It's how we find that very often, what unites us is far greater than what divides. I'm not naive about this. It's difficult and takes effort and much patience. Yet this is just such a time at least to try out a collaborative approach to the nation's challenges. Her emotional intelligence ought to be telling her that.

Fourthly, the Prime Minister needs to pay attention to the messages of the election result. There's a lot of "noise" around in these febrile times when we are trying to make sense of an unexpected and perhaps confusing vote. But here's what clear. Our nation is divided, perhaps more than ever it was before the EU referendum. The polarisation of opinion between left and right, young and old, cities and countryside, among the UK's nations and regions, has been much commented on. Another aspect of good leadership is that it is responsive to change. There is a multitude of issues debated during the campaign where the election result calls for a rethink in policy and presentation. I don't simply mean Brexit. I'm thinking of the future of the NHS, education, local authority funding, austerity, welfare and national security. Being responsive as a leader means taking the evidence seriously. If I were the PM I'd want to listen again to some of the best media campaign debates, re-read some of media commentary, try to map the landscape I was travelling in and try to discern the best way to traverse it.

Fifthly, Mrs May needs to look again at Brexit. Why specifically? Because this was her stated reason for calling the election in the first place. It's very odd how Brexit did not feature very much in a campaign whose focus this was meant to be. We were told she was looking for a result that would strengthen her position in Brussels when the negotiations began. Fair enough. Yet we did not learn anything we didn't already know about her negotiating stance. And now that we are on the brink of them, all the evidence suggests that despite everything, she is going into them with her well-known hard Brexit position unchanged.

I don't think this will do. The message from the election seems to be: we as a nation are not disputing the referendum result. But we do not want a hard Brexit. If we did, we would have voted massively to strengthen the PM's position as she asked us to. In particular, everyone who defected from UKIP would have tumbled into Mrs May's arms and not voted Labour in the numbers they did. So we badly need a far more open, nuanced, approach to Brexit. She needs to go into the negotiations willing to have an adult conversation with the EU, not just set out her stall and lay down the gauntlet. She needs to treat the EU27 nations as our best allies and close friends, not as adversaries. And first on her to-do list must be to offer unconditional permanent residence to citizens from other EU countries who are already living in the UK and who are desperately worried about their future.

Sixthly, she must not resign any time soon. This bit Mrs May seems to have got right. What we need now is indeed a version of the stability she has talked so often about. It won't be "strong and stable" but even in her fragility, there can be a measure of continuity. Another Tory leadership election would not help. Even less another general election, at least for a while. Yes, I doubt that Theresa May has a long-term future as a prime minister, maybe not more than a few months. But more elections, with all the uncertainty they produce, can only distract further from the Brexit negotiations and all the other crises our nation is facing. (In any case, I doubt that my ageing constitution can face many more long and anxious nights in front of the TV.)

To me, David Cameron piled error upon error by resigning on the day after the referendum when he had promised to carry on, whatever the result. I think that was an terrible mistake, an unforgivable failure of leadership. Yes, it's tempting to throw in the towel when things don't go according to plan. Which of us hasn't thought in that way when times are tough and so many seem to be against you? But the day after is not the time to make far-reaching decisions. All credit to the PM for putting nation above personal interest, at least in this respect.

Lastly, Mrs May should re-read what she said on the day she took office. When I was a dean, I looked from time to time at the sermon I preached at my inauguration service. Did I really say that, I would ask myself? It was important to be reminded of those first fine (I don't say careless) raptures. I suggest Mrs May does the same. She started out well. She spoke about helping those most in need of what a good administration can do. She wanted to support the "just about managing". Many of us felt included to an extent we hadn't foreseen. It was probably her best moment. We had high hopes.

How long ago it now seems! Mrs May has made so many mistakes in her incumbency that it's hard to imagine that her standing can ever recover. It probably can't: history will make up its mind about that. But maybe she can repair her reputation a little by going back to the values she laid out in her personal manifesto. If she cares about how we remember her, it may be as simple as refreshing her memory to help her re-set her approach to public office.

There's a lot more to say about the 2017 election and how it will reshape our politics. But that's for another time. Meanwhile, we say our prayers and keep the conversation going.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 6: Shildon

All right, I’ll admit it. I’m one of those clergy – and there are a lot of us - who love trains. When I was a youngster growing up in London, my grandmother would spend hours on platform 1 at King’s Cross while I watched Gresley Pacifics like Mallard glide out of the station at the head of premier express trains. They were bound for exotic places like Durham, Newcastle, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Edinburgh. How the idea of the “far north” fascinated me! It would be many years before I would get to know these places. Then, they furnished me with a kind of fantasy-land that I could imagine lying in the mysterious beyond, on the other side of the tunnels north of King's Cross.

But now, here we are, living in retirement in Northumberland right next to a railway line. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a main line. The Newcastle to Carlisle route is both beautiful and of real historical interest, being the oldest cross-country line in Britain opened in 1837. For as locals all know, the North East pioneered the building of railways. Wagonways had been used in the coal and mineral industry since the seventeenth century. It was only a matter of time when passengers began to be transported on the iron roads that spread across the countryside.

The Stockton and Darlington line was opened in 1825. It soon colonised the valleys of West Durham. Its original western terminus was Shildon, near Bishop Auckland. There was already a colliery here. But this little town became a byword for the railway industry when the S&D, soon to be taken over by the North Eastern Railway, established the Shildon Wagon Works. Some of the world’s earliest steam engines were built here. And although the works closed in 1984, Shildon continues to be a focus of railway heritage as home to Locomotion, part of the National Rail Museum whose mother house is at York.

You don’t have to know about trains or railway history to enjoy this fascinating museum. And while we grown-ups of a certain age can become dewy-eyed with nostalgia for long-lost locomotives and carriages that remind us of our youth, children love it too for the beauty (as I see it) of these grand dinosaurs that are so different from anything they have experienced on a modern railway. My last visit was for the great gathering of the six surviving A4 Gresley “Pacifics” including the holder of the world steam speed record, 60022 Mallard.

But Shildon, the “Cradle of the Railways”, isn’t only a celebration of the old and venerable. The collection contains, for example, the prototypes of the renowned Deltic diesel locomotive that used to hurry up and down the East Coast Main Line in my student days, and the ill-fated Advanced Passenger Train or APT that was going to be the future of British Railways.

The train shed with its splendid collection of rolling stock and railwayana is only part of the museum. The site is half a mile long and sits alongside the still functioning branch-line from Darlington to Bishop Auckland. As you walk the path and admire the preserved nineteenth century railway buildings along it, Northern’s unloved Pacer trains squeal and growl their way up and down the line adding a suitably authentic touch to the environment. The buildings seem quintessentially County Durham: unshowy, workmanlike, honest, whether it is the goods shed, the coal drop or the original railway workshops.

At the end of the trail – or the start if you are doing it the right way round, there is a building that houses the legendary steam locomotive Sans Pareil. It was built in 1829 by the railway pioneer Timothy Hackworth whose cottage you can also see by the railway. The locomotive was entered in the “Rainhill Trials”, a competition to find the best locomotive to run trains on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. George and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket won – but Sans Pareil was perhaps the more romantic engine (or maybe that’s because of its name which means “without equal”). Either way, the North East left an indelible mark on Britain’s railway history – and indeed the world’s.

To complement a visit to Shildon, the Beamish Museum near Stanley in the north of the county is a must. But while you are in this part of County Durham, you may want to visit Auckland Castle, the historic home of the Bishops of Durham with its marvellous paintings of the Sons of Jacob by Zurbarán. The palace is now undergoing extensive refurbishment, and is home to the Kynren spectacle about the history of England that was launched in 2016 and is returning to the grounds this coming summer.

The hidden gem in the Wear Valley is, for me, the little church at Escomb. It is a Saxon building that was already there in the time of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede in the late seventh century. It is still in use as a parish church. What would it have to say about the heavy industry that would grow up and flourish around it, only to suffer in our own times a long and painful decline? “To live is to change, and to live long is to change much” said John Henry Newman. The North East, where the railways were born, where ships were built, where steel was made and where coal was once king, knows the truth of this perhaps more than any other part of England.  

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

A Cruise on the Rhine Part 5

Our final day on the Rhine. Brilliant sunshine once again. We take the bus to Cologne. We were due to moor there but because a berth wasn't available our ship was forced to remain at Bonn. (We had a letter about this before we sailed. It is a tremendous pity. To have arrived by river and be berthed in this great city, to be able to walk from the ship to the Cathedral and round the old town, all this would have been unforgettable. And convenient.)

Köln is Omummy's city, my grandmother. She was born here in the 1890s (nobody is quite sure exactly when) and only moved to Düsseldorf when she married my grandfather. I recall that she spoke proudly of her home town, even though by that time it had been flattened by allied bombing. (Memorable quip from a fellow cruiser later on: "Yes, the Cathedral's very fine, but there's not much else to see or do in Cologne: Bomber Harris saw to that!") I think she regarded it as a cut above Düsseldorf (Cologne being a Roman town, a centre of the Holy Roman Empire, the seat of catholic Germany and all that). She may even have thought of it as "trade" though it was precisely a successful upper middle class trade family she had married into (Otto Leyser owned a factory that made leather goods).

The Cathedral is a huge black apparition which, when you have once set eyes on it, you can never forget. It dominates the skyline for miles around, these two enormous spires fingering the sky. Although it suffered in the war, Bomber Harris deliberately spared it, not out of love for medieval gothic architecture but because it was such a useful landmark on the river in guiding his air crews to their destinations. I doubt if the stonework will ever be cleaned up (though the sculptures are being conserved): the blackness of Cologne Cathedral is part of what gives it its emblematic quality. I had not realised that it was only completed in the nineteenth century, after a pause in building operations of a full four hundred years. The medieval crane remained in position on the unfinished north tower throughout those centuries, and there was discontent among citizens when this endearing icon of their cathedral was finally removed when the towers were being finished.

Crowds swirl about inside, but unlike at Strasbourg you can sit quietly in the nave to take in the immensity of this building. It is extraordinary as a masterpiece of soaring gothic. The light streams through the clerestory windows picking out people sitting in nave and imparting to them a transcendent beauty (or maybe I mean binging out the beauty they already have as human beings). Artists have long noticed how human hair acquires a striking delicate translucency when lit by direct light against a dark background.

There is so much to notice and admire: the sculptures on the piers, not only exquisite in their own right, but positioned at exactly the right height to accentuate the scale; the altars; the tombs, the glass, the paintings, the shrines, the stalls in the quire. The shrine to the Magi behind the high altar is a rare treasure. There is an exceptionally beautiful fifteenth century sculpture of the Blessed Virgin on one of the piers that you could spend hours contemplating as you recite the Glorious Mysteries and sing Regina Coeli. Everything here is magnificent, nothing shoddy or second rate. It ranks with the very finest of the gothic cathedrals of northern France. Indeed, modelled as it is on Amiens, you could say that Cologne is an outlier of that great French tradition, as Westminster Abbey is.

Then we visit the treasury. This is one of the most important cathedral treasuries in Europe, like Sens, and it should not be missed. It is built into the Roman and medieval fabric that lies underneath the cathedral, not only its own foundations but the Wall of the Roman city as well. That already makes it a remarkable space in its own right, two entire levels beautifully yielded up by the substrata to create a museum that it would be hard to equal among cathedrals. In it there are vestments, episcopal insignia, sacred vessels, shrines, monstrances, stones, sculptures and manuscripts. I suppose that if you didn't know what all these artefacts were for, you might find it a trifle perplexing, but even so, there is exquisite beauty everywhere and it would be a dull soul who was not inspired by it.

We go back into the Cathedral. Stewards are clearing the nave because a midday prayer service is about to begin. The announcement tells us that we do not need to leave if we wish to join the service. I am sensitive about how people are handled when religion and tourism collide. It is not managed badly here, though it's a pity that a thousand people all leave just when a service is about to begin. I wish we didn't have to be among them. But we have a bus to catch back to the ship. We walk round the outside of this great building. Rounding the east end we come across the railway station with its beautiful wrought iron train shed and the great Victorian girder bridge that carries the railway across the Rhine. This exciting proximity of a great station and a great cathedral, the intersection of the technologies of different eras is hard to parallel anywhere else (though Newcastle is another example, and I suppose St Pancras is also an attempt romantically to imagine medievalism in the context of a railway). I remember that I once changed trains here on my way to Bavaria. I only had an hour and recall how I wished I could have gone inside the Cathedral to have a look. Now I have, and it has made a memorable climax to the cruise.
After lunch I walk along the river to Bonn's "Museum Mile". The Museum of the History of Federal Germany where I am first headed is closed. So I go on to the fabulous Museum of Modern Art. Before I even step foot inside the place I know this is going to be a great experience. It is housed in a building of real quality and power designed by Axel Schultes and completed in 1992. It's a beautiful succession of spaces and artfully placed stairways and corridors that create a real sense of unity in diversity. The interplay of light and shade is wonderfully managed as the different rooms flow into one another; and on this sunny day, the effects are especially magical. I just can't stop photographing this building (which is allowed without flash).
There are hardly any visitors. Museum staff in uniform stand to attention as soon as I come into a room, and follow me round at a discreet distance. There is no eye contact: in this silent, quasi-sacred space, visitors are regarded as contemplatives who must be left to themselves to experience the museum in our own way. There is something quaint about their studied but watchful politeness, their wish not to get in the way while at the same time being aware of each visitor's every move. Maybe all Museum attendants, like cathedral vergers, are educated in this art, but I've not seen it done to such perfection before. One man looks for all the world like Einstein with his hair cut. I long to photograph him but it would be obtrusive.

So I concentrate on the art instead. The top floor is avant garde, much of it interesting and enjoyable, but it isn't where my heart lies. That is on the first floor where there is an impressive survey of Rhineland expressionism, including a large body of paintings by August Macke. He was the leading light of Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) movement, a friend of Kandinsky, Klee and Marc who lived much of his life in Bonn. He was killed at the front in 1914 at the tender age of 27. Such a loss - what might he have produced if he had lived another 50 years?

We enjoy our last supper and start saying farewells. We spend an hour on deck as the sun sinks. A Victorian brick church on the opposite bank glows fiery in the Pentecostal light. The river is ultramarine. Upstream the tall twentieth century buildings belonging to Bonn's era as capital of the German Bundesrepublik throw a reflected light on to the wine dark Rhine. Youngsters throng the promenade enjoying a Friday night out. A breeze stirs and the air is suddenly cool. We are not as young as all these teenagers. It is time for bed.

Up at dawn and ready to disembark at 7 o'clock. We get to Brussels with over two hours to spare. We check in, go through security and sit down for a coffee and a final chat with some of the people we have got to know on the cruise. Soon our train is rushing towards England. The sun continues to shine.

A Cruise on the Rhine Part 4

I don't have high hopes of
Rüdesheim. But we make a good beginning at the Jacobi Church. It was gutted at the end of the war but has been beautifully rebuilt in a contemporary idiom behind the original facade. Original sculptures have been reinstalled in this new setting and it works to perfection. We are struck by the contemporary bronze stations of the cross. This is a pilgrim church of the Camino and it feels well used for prayer and reflection.

By contrast, the rest of the town (almost) has sold its soul. In the Drosselgasse you can buy cuckoo clocks (real and fake), hear Edelweiss pumped out of loudspeakers (this song beloved by the Austrians in defiance of Hitler - see The Sound of Music), buy lederhosen, marzipan and Riesling, be served beer by a girl in peasant costume, and at either end, board the ubiquitous Noddy trains. We stop for a drink. Coffee and tea for two costs us nearly €9. At the far end of the town things improve with a ruined castle, a wine museum and lovely views up to the vineyards. But Rüdesheim did not require a stopover. I doubt we shall ever come again.

We enter the Rhine Gorge. Here it is fairy tale Germany straight out of Wagner, the Grimm brothers and a thousand scenic postcards. But while the risk of parody exists, this is an undeniably beautiful stretch of the river with pretty villages, churches and castles at every loop of the river. You feel you are the centre of both history (the Holy Roman Empire) and - in the strict sense of the word, myth. We pass the rock of the Loreley and I imagine Rhine Maidens playing beneath our feet. It calls for the opening of Rheingold to be played through the ships loudspeakers. A fierce northerly wind is funneled through the Gorge. We arrive at Loreley Stadt (is it really called that?) and St Goar. After lunch we board the coach again.

It doesnt turn out as planned. We are promised a trip to the Loreley rock. When we get there we find ourselves put through the "experience", i.e. a visitor centre complete with an audio-visual presentation. This consists of a stereoscopic film featuring the Rhine in its various guises. The film is fuzzy, the stereoscopic spectacles are irritatng, the light levels of the film are too low and there is no commentary. Is this a grumpy old man speaking? Anyway, we learn nothing about the Loreley myth, how the poet Heinrich Heine elaborated it, and how romantic writers and painters latched on to it. We are ushered into the cafe for tea and cakes. Then we are told that because the normal path to the rock is impassible owing to big development works, and the alternative route will take half an hour, we won't be able to visit the rock after all! This is a big disappointment as the Loreley was billed as a highlight. I was looking forward to indulging in Wagnerian thoughts about the Rhine and its gold. This experience feels like an enacted parable of tourism-in-our-time. You go to the visitor centre, watch the presentation, enjoy your cake, and hey! - theres no need to see the actual attraction at all!

We drive on to the Niederwald which we have seen from below at Rudesheim. The monument is a celebration of the unification of the German Reich after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It is on a huge scale, full of imperial rhetoric about pride in the fatherland, the virtues of taking up arms for your country, the heroic ideals for which we should live and die. The enormous figure of Germania dominates the composition while the personifications of War and Peace that have placed her on her throne are depicted at her side. It strikes me that like the Loreley which we did not see, this heady nationalism is directly inspired by romanticism. Archaic and absurd it may be, but we mustn't underestimate the hold nationalistic ideas have on people today. The unification of Germany has been an immensely powerful idea and cast a long shadow over European history ("Deutschland über alles" meaning "stop thinking provincially or city by city. Think Germany, think the Holy nation before everything else.")

We dock at Andernach where there is a wonderful sunset over the river. Yet again my camera falls for it. Then we go for a walk in the pretty medieval town and enjoy meandering among its medieval walls, towers, bastions, houses and churches in the gloaming.

Ascension Day. We explore
the ancient and interesting city of Andernach on the right bank. It is an intimate place with a strongly enclosed feel thanks to its walls and bastions. The town is silent, Ascension Day being a public holiday. We visit the Romanesque Cathedral, climb the Round Tower, wander the streets enjoying the old buildings and the churches. The city authorities have taken a lot of trouble to interpret their history to visitors. There are information plaques in three languages at all the sites, and maps to guide you from place to place. It is exemplary.

The bells of the Cathedral and of the Protestant parish church ring out for services on this feast day. We go back to the ship through one of the medieval gates. We look up and there, above our heads, are two hives with bees buzzing round them. It is not a place to linger. But we recall the story of the medieval baker boys who, when invaders were at the gates, dropped bee-hives from above the gate on to the luckless enemy heads.

We glide down the sunny river to Bonn. We join the walking expedition into the city-centre. Our guide is fluent, knowledgeable, knows how to condense information into digestible chunks and above all, keeps us moving. After a tour of some of the principal locations, we go to Bonns great shrine, Beethoven's birthplace. It's moving to know for a certainty that my grandmother will have brought my mother here in childhood from their home downstream in Düsseldorf, possibly many times. She (my mother) always used to say when I was young that Beethoven was her favourite composer. Perhaps she felt an affinity with him because of their common Rhineland origins. Later on she turned more to Mozart and Haydn, but she never lost that first love.

The house is the only one of several associated with Beethoven in Bonn to have survived. It's a fine museum that displays many key documents, paintings and artefacts associated with Beethoven such as his pianos (one is an early Broadwood, so we have that in common), his manuscripts, the letter in which he confesses to his brother that his deafness is driving him mad and he intends to commit suicide, and his ear-trumpets and other devices with which he desperately tried to stave off his deteriorating condition. We see his life-mask as well as his death-mask, his will and a painting of the crowds who gathered for his memorial service in 1827. It is impressively done and touches me deeply in much the same way as visiting Haydn's mausoleum at Eisenstadt in Austria did.

We leave the group and go round some of the principal churches. The former Jesuit church is now Old Catholic whose bright cheerful interior speaks of a church that is loved and prayed in. The Münster is a grand Romanesque church with rather too much baroque furnishing and decoration inside, but is still a noble building. The church has a lovely pure Romanesque cloister with a fountain in the middle, a bit like Fontenay in Burgundy, but more intimate. Then we go to Saint Remigius, a church of the Friars Minor, where we see the font at which Beethoven was baptised in 1770.

J goes off into town for a walk. I sit on deck for a while and then decide it's time to listen to The Archers on the iPlayer.