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The A-team Go Over the Wall

You do it once, you’ve done it once. You do it twice, you’ve got a tradition on your hands; things may be added to the tradition, but must not be subtracted. After last year’s excellent expedition to North West England with four granddaughters there had to be a sequel. And there was no doubt in our minds that Northumberland was the leading destination. And while we’re there, why not Edinburgh? The team is older now: Lily (9), Ava (8), Elly (7), Sylvie (6) and Ann (65); the car is newer – in fact it’s practically brand new. The itinerary is quickly evolved: Billingham (Seaton Carew), Alnwick Castle, Dunbar (as a base), Lindisfarne, Edinburgh, Hadrian’s Wall, Hamsterley Forest, Billingham (Seaton Carew). The opening and closing destination refers to the fact that we sleep in Billingham, but spend as long as possible on the beach at Seaton Carew.

Of course I am tempted to comment on the individual personalities of the team, but it would be a fatal mistake to do so. But I can comment on their collective character. They can be difficult and there are spats and spurts of jealousy and diva and drama queen impersonations. Sylvie has particular excuses for being a bit of a diva: in the four days since her sixth birthday she has had the whole of Symphony Hall in Birmingham sing Happy Birthday to her, escorted the England team onto the field at Edgbaston for the first test against India, been interviewed on local and a national radio stations and won three gold medals and a silver at the Transplant Games. Very few people can have had such a fuss made on their sixth birthday. Having said she and the others are all keen and robust. They carry no electronic devices; if you show them a mountain they want to climb it and if you show them a sea they want to swim in it – even the North Sea. Put food in front of them they eat it; don’t and they demand it. They have no difficulty with the television not working in the Dunbar apartment.


Jane Percy, duchess, wife of the 12th Duke of Northumberland, describes herself as a “businesswoman”. As such her big investment is her garden, costing somewhere on the other side of £50 million and supposedly making Alnwick the “Versailles of the North”. But businesswomen, like generals, need a bit of luck and she got hers when the first two Harry Potter films used Alnwick for both the exteriors and the interiors of Hogwarts School. “Doubled the revenues”, I suggested. “Much, much better than that”, said Ann. The castle and its grounds on this hot August day are essentially overcrowded and understaffed, but they are also magnificent and perfectly satisfying either for those seeking the ultimate castle or for those who want the “real” Hogwarts. At the peak of the season there are many things to do and to watch. Although we watch the knights battling and try the broomsticks our lot prefer the treetop walk and talking to the medieval lady about life in Olden Times. (There is nearly always one I knew they’d like and one that is unexpected.)

A Perfect Morning

We’ve travelled plenty in the last two days so the schedule now suggests relaxation. Our apartment is to the south of the town of Dunbar, by the golf club and our very simple plan is to walk along the beach to the town and back through the main street. “To see what there is” – to use a phrase much loved in this family. The tide is in and our activities are hunting for shells and crabs and finding skimming stones. These stones are for Grandpa because nobody apart from me can remotely master the technique despite careful instruction. So the competition is merely to find a stone that I can bounce more than the stones found by other people. I manage a seven at one point while lecturing on the properties of the perfect stone.

In the New Harbour, the busiest part of Dunbar’s tripartite harbour, fishing boats are unloading mackerel and lobster. And, joy of joys, common and grey seals are popping their heads out of the water and looking at us. A man tells us that there is a concert in the Battery, Dunbar’s little gun emplacement, built in 1781 due to a somewhat exagerated fear of the newly formed United States Navy; it has never been used in earnest. The performers are the Nevis Ensemble, a group of forty-odd young musicians playing an eclectic variety of stuff. I am particularly taken by a piece by John Maxwell Geddes, for example, who died last year, which is completely new to me. When the time comes for the last piece the (English, female) band leader announces that they will finish with something awfully popular in Scotland these days. “Not bloody Flower of Scotland” growls the elderly Scotsman next to me and I tell him that I think she means 500 Miles. I’m right and everyone stomps joyously.

A little schadenfreude is irresistible. All over Europe people are baking in record temperatures or cowering from violent storms. Here in Dunbar it is 22 degrees and the sun is shining; the North Sea is a glassy blue, they are landing handsome lobsters in the harbour, the seals are bobbing and diving and the band is playing brilliantly. Who wouldn’t want to be in Dunbar?

All of which makes our trip down the A1 to Lindisfarne, timed for tea time as the tide goes out and renders the causeway passable, a bit of an anti-climax. They bathe in St. Cuthbert’s Bay, but have to be very careful of the rocks. In the church they are intrigued to see that on the small war memorial the first three names are Allison, including a James Allison, the name of my father and my eldest son. Our granddaughters may have roots in Ireland and the Punjab and even Kenya, but right now they’re feeling pretty Northumbrian.

Old Smelly

This is intended to be the biggest day of all and it starts with Dunbar to Waverley on a crowded train. When we emerge from the depths of the station it is to a city that feels more like Ancient Rome during Saturnalia or Venice at Carnival time than like the grey drizzly old city I remember from half a century ago. This is sunlit Edinburgh in Festival time, posing as the capital of the world, a Tower of Babel. The immediate cacophony includes a New York marching band and a piper, but the piper gives up on the unfair contest. We make our way up to the castle, which is set up as a stadium for the Tattoo (strange word – “tattoo”) which rather spoils the views. But there by one of those coincidences which are to be explained, I think, by the human ability to pick out the familiar from a mass of detail we pick out someone we know in the crowd. It is one Derek MacMillan, our guide around Japan four months previously. Naturally, we recognise him more readily than he recognises us; we promise to meet next time in the Congo.

With this particular team we can always rely on furry animals to win approval and this applies even to long dead animals. We just have time before lunch to visit the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal terrier who supposedly guarded his master’s grave for fourteen years. At lunch we have a guest: David Caldwell, an old friend and former colleague who started work on the same day as I did in 1969. He lives in Portobello and it is delightful to see him again, but also slightly sad because he is recently widowed and in “the old days” as one inevitably thinks of them we knew Ann as well as we knew David.

After lunch the expedition is heading for the summit of Arthur’s Seat (remember what I said about the willingness to tackle mountains!), but progress is very slow because the route takes us down the Royal Mile which is thronged with people including every kind of free street performer and those advertising and soliciting for paid fringe performances. Many of both categories are aimed at children so four pretty girls attracts a lot of attention. I giggle at a conversation between a couple coming the other way. It is, I think, a Bolton accent: She: “So ‘ow far is it, then, up this Royal Mile?”. He: “Ah think it’s abaht a mile. Clue’s in’t name really”. The Seat is dusty and slippy and rather over-populated, but we make it to the top where the view is wonderful. By the time we get to the bottom there is no energy for further tourism and we return by an earlier train than originally intended.

If you read Tripadviser there are complaints, admittedly by a minority, but it is quite a substantial minority, about Edinburgh in Festival time. “Commercial” and “over-crowded” are the accusations, “avoid August” the advice. I regard this as pretty odd. You don’t want a city to be under-populated or uncommercial. Commerce, carnival, crowds – that’s what a city should be. I’d quite like to see Alnwick Castle on a quiet, cloudy October day, but this is how I like Edinburgh.

The High Road

Many of the features of our new and very modern car seem either pointless or irritating. It won’t let you freewheel, for example, and you open and close the boot electronically. But the “Infotainment” system, a world whose surface I will merely scratch, does contain one function which delights: the altimeter. We came north on the Low Road (the A19/A1) – the very low road at one point since we came through the Tyne Tunnel. But we are going south on the High Road, the A68, and the altimeter is giving us a higher and higher score. Will it get to a thousand? Of course! Then eleven, twelve, thirteen hundred . . . stopping just short of 1400 feet at Carter Bar. At the border there is a rock with the names of the two countries and an old piper in a kilt who also sells souvenirs. The view of Scotland is vast and mixed. The view of England is more limited and elemental, also deceitful because there are nothing but forests and moors for miles. We have the reivers to thank for that: during most of history it was simply too dangerous to live up here.

Appropriately our next stop is Housestead’s fort on Hadrian’s Wall. And equally appropriately we have our only really bad weather there as a black cloud swings in from the west and slants rain at us, the temperature dropping below ten degrees, all recalling Auden’s poem about the wall:

Over the heather the wet wind blows

I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose

Thus a shorter visit than originally intended and on to Hamsterley Forest, where the sun is shining, to see Gruffalos large and small.

The last day is chiefly notable for the length of time all four girls spend in the North Sea without getting hypothermia. But also for our spontaneous visit to the “Tranny”, Middlesbrough’s iconic transporter bridge which swings vehicles across the Tees on what is essentially a section of road suspended by steel wires. It is iconic to us, at least, since I was born at the top end of the beach we have just been on, at West Hartlepool, and Ann was born at the bottom end, at Haverton Hill. This is the first time I at least have seen it actually working for many years. Remarkably, we talk to two Californian tourists who are going across to make their way to the North York Moors: heavy points scorers for off-the-beaten-track.

The Future

Sylvie remarked to me that we would not be able to go on holiday together when she was grown up. Why was that, I wondered? “Because you will have died by then,” she kindly explained. Well done on the arithmetic, Sylves! This means our new tradition has a limited life, but the positive side is that we must enjoy it while we can. There is also a cheerful irony to Sylvie saying it because she has been closer to death in her short life than I have in my long one. But we can assume there is a reasonable possibility of next year, I hope. So where? I had contemplated a modest trip to France. Boulogne, perhaps, Amiens, the Western Front? Lily says Ireland and the others seem to agree.


(If your Grandma and Grandpa ran schools and organised courses for a living you are likely to end up with an information file about your trip. Here are two information sheets we gave the girls. We did not give them name badges!)

Northumberland . . .

(1) is the furthest north of all the English counties.

(2) is the only one on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall so the only one that was never part of the Roman Empire.

(3) was a wild war zone for many years so it has more castles and fewer villages than Warwickshire.

(4) has a long coastline and includes some islands such as Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands. Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, is an island when the tide is in, but you can walk or cycle or drive there when the tide is out.

(5) has a Duke and Duchess. They don’t rule the county, but they do own a lot of it and live in the biggest castle, which is called Alnwick and has been used in the Harry Potter films.

(6) has a very strong accent. People in Northumberland do not say the letter R like we do. It sounds more like a W.

(7) contains the biggest forest in England. It is called Kielder Forest and people go there to look at the stars. This is because there are no lights in the forest which makes the stars look brighter.

(8) includes the town of Berwick-on-Tweed which used to be the county town of Berwickshire in Scotland. Berwick has some of the biggest city walls in Europe, built to keep the Scots out.

(9) has the only wild cattle in England. They are white and they don’t roam all over the county, but live only in a place called Chillingham Park.

(10) is the only place which has football teams in the English and Scottish leagues, Newcastle United and Berwick Rangers.

Scotland . . .

(1) is part of Great Britain along with England and Wales.

(2) has its own laws and parliament and even religion, but shares the Queen and the armed forces and many other things with England, Wales and Northern Ireland (the United Kingdom). There are separate Scottish banknotes, but the money is worth exactly the same as English money.

(3) is the most northerly part of Britain. It has one third of the land, but only one thirteenth of the people so it’s much emptier than England.

(4) has its own national teams in sports like rugby and football, but in the Olympic Games and some other sports it’s just part of Great Britain.

(5) is divided into the Uplands (the south), the Lowlands (the middle) and the Highlands (the north). Most people live in the Lowlands in big cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Highlands have more deer and sheep than people; they also have all of Britain’s highest mountains and deepest lakes – or “lochs” as they are called in Scotland.

(6) a long time ago was usually at war with England, but since 1603 they have had the same king or queen. The first to have both was called “James the Sixth and First” because he was the sixth James of Scotland and the first of England and Wales. Really we should call our queen “Elizabeth the First and Second”, but we don’t say this.

(7) has had many famous writers including the novelist (story teller) Sir Walter Scott and the poet Robert Burns. Sometimes Burns’ poems can be difficult to understand because they use Scottish dialect words, but some are very beautiful and others are very funny.

(8) has a national costume called the kilt. It is a sort of skirt for men in a variety of patterns called tartans.

(9) has a national dish called haggis which is a sort of spiced sausage made with various parts of a sheep.

(10) is famous all over the world for the many things invented there including golf, whisky, tartan and even television. This may be because for a long time Scotland had four universities when England only had two.

Lincoln Allison August 2018