Christmas in Northumberland


We spent Christmas 2018 in Northumberland and between family gatherings in the coastal village of Seahouses we also visited places such as Hexham Abbey, Lindisfarne and the Angel of the North so it was all very varied and full of interest.

Christmas Eve in Hexham:

Hexham is dominated by St Wilfred’s Benedictine Abbey, just down the road from our hotel, and the venue for 9 lessons and carols in the evening on Christmas Eve.  It was very peaceful when we visited in the morning and we had the whole place to ourselves surrounded by Christmas trees and crib figures.  There is an exhibition about its history and a cafe serving coffee and mince pies.

Hexham also has a 14th century gaol which was the first purpose built prison in the country.  It is now a museum but was closed over Christmas so I intend to return another time.  Buses run from the town up to Hadrian’s Wall nearby.

Christmas in Seahouses:

The village of Seahouses is small with a picturesque harbour from where we had a good view of the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne.   There is a good walking route north along the coast to Bamburgh where I visited the Grace Darling Museum.  She lived in a lighthouse on the Farne Islands and became a national celebrity in 1838 when she saved people from drowning. The museum is small but has lots of information on her family background, lighthouses in general and a panoramic view of her grave in the churchyard opposite.

Boxing Day on Lindisfarne:

Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island, is a must see at any time of year.  The island is accessible by the causeway at low tide.  It was quiet and the scenery was wonderful. St Aidan established a monastery there in 635AD.  There is also ruins of an abbey, a 16th century castle and a visitor centre.  They were closed for Christmas but I walked to the castle on the headland for fantastic views of the island and mainland.  In one of the churches there was an exhibition about the Lindisfarne Gospels which were written on the island and are now in the British Library, London.

St Cuthbert also ran the monastery on the island and was also a spiritual healer.  Lindisfarne is still a place of sanctuary especially at high tide when there are less visitors and several of the guest houses offer spiritual retreats.  Good for meditation, writing and  walks!  Two long distance footpaths in Northumberland both go to Lindisfarne.

Lindisfarne has a few hotels, gift shops, cafes and pubs plus a bus service to and from Berwick on Tweed.  Information about the times of high and low tide is available locally and on the internet and if you get stuck on the causeway when the tide comes in you can climb the wooden platform half way across and wait for the tide to go out again.

The day after Boxing Day:

There were 2 highlights on the journey home… Firstly, Barter Books, one of the largest second hand bookshops in the country housed in a huge Victorian converted railway station in Alnwick.  It was wonderful with lots of atmosphere, murals, a log fire, a cafe and a model railway above the bookshelves.  It’s a haven for bibliophiles and railway enthusiasts. I didn’t want to leave and would go back to Northumberland again just to visit Barter Books.

Secondly, we went to see The Angel of the North, said to be the largest sculpture of an angel in the world.  It’s high up on a hill and the height of 4 double decker buses and has wings the size of a plane.  The sculptor Anthony Gormley said he made it because no one has ever seen an angel and we need to keep imagining them.  Just before Christmas someone put a red and white Santa hat on the angel’s head and it looked very seasonal.  The Angel of the North is near Gateshead, just off the A1 and accessible by bus from Newcastle. Click here for pictures.

And finally…all the places we visited would be of interest to walkers, writers, historians, and culture lovers so there’s something for everyone at any time of year.  I will go again when the museums are all open.  See below for more of my blogs about places to go.


The Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London


The Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum is the best I have seen this year.  She was a Mexican artist whose work is described as Surrealist.  She had lots of health problems and was married to the artist Diego Rivero who beat her up.  The Mexican culture and her life experiences are all depicted in her paintings, many of which are self portraits.

Frida Kahlo:

She was born in Mexico in 1907 and suffered from polio when she was a child.  Her ambition to go to become a doctor was cut short at the age of 18 when she involved in an accident and broke her pelvis, her legs and several ribs which left her in pain for the rest of her life so she took up painting instead and worked briefly as a teacher.

In 1928 she married mural artist Diego Rivera who was 20 years her senior, had been married twice before and was fat and ugly.  They both had relationships with other people, divorced but Frida described Diego as the love of her life so they re-married. Her health problems in later life left her wheelchair bound and bedridden and she died in Mexico at the age of 47 in 1954.  Her belongings were hidden for 50 years until they were found and put on display.

The exhibition itself:

I was very impressed with her paintings in the exhibition, especially A Few Small Nips where she is lying naked on a bed covered in blood after Diego beat her up, and The Broken Column which shows her fragile body held together with one of the many corsets she wore.  There are also lots of self portraits showing her dressed in colourful Mexican costume with lots of jewellery.  She also has distinctive eyebrows and a faint moustache.  The moustache isn’t very noticeable in photos of her but is in her paintings.

As well as her paintings, the other exhibits include lots of family photos, her dresses and jewellery, letters and also a film of her house in Mexico which is now the Frida Kahlo museum.

The full title of the exhibition is Frida Kahlo – Making Her Self Up and it is on at The Victoria and Albert Museum.  It has been so popular they extended the closing date to 18 November 2018.  Tickets are like gold dust and the only time we were able to buy them for was 8 am on a Sunday morning.  The staff told us the museum had been open for 48 hours that weekend and many people had come in the middle of the night.  It’s the first time I’ve known this to happen so it was an interesting experience which we got a lot out of.

A few touristy details:

The Victoria and Albert Museum is in Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, a few minutes walk from South Kensington tube station.  Nearby are the Natural History Museum, Brompton Oratory and the Science Museum.  When you’ve had enough of art and culture you can go for a walk nearby in Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens, which is what we did.  It was a good day out.

And finally… see below for more ideas on days out ….



Theatre trip to the Rose Theatre, Kingston


This year the Rose Theatre in Kingston, Surrey, celebrates its 10th birthday.  I went there with a friend recently to see the first part of a double bill performance of Hogarth’s Progress by Nick Dear and we really enjoyed it.

Hogarth’s Progress

Hogarth’s Progress is shown as 2 separate plays, the first of which is The Art of Success.  The play is set in 18th century London and reveals the hidden world of the recently married William Hogarth, painter, pictorial satirist and social critic.  He is spending a riotous evening with friends, his wife and a prostitute, getting drunk, emotional and discussing everything from art to murder.

The play was well acted with lots of dramatic lighting effects, rapid scene changes and brought the characters to life in a very engaging way.  We saw the matinee of the first half of the double bill but not the second part, called The Taste of the Town and performed in the evening of the same day by the same actors playing different roles.

A bit about William Hogarth

He was born in London in 1697 and was apprenticed to a goldsmith and later produced his own engravings.  They were plagarised so he campaigned for a copyright law which was passed in Parliament in 1735.  His paintings include The Harlots’s Progress and Marriage a la Mode which you can see in the National Gallery, London.

He lived in London and his house in Chiswick is now a museum called Hogarth’s House and is near the Hogarth Roundabout.  He and his wife Jane didn’t have children of their own but fostered foundlings and as a result Hogarth became a founding governor of the Founding Hospital.

The Rose Theatre, Kingston

The theatre is unusual because the auditorium is round so everyone in the audience has a good view of the action on stage.  Performances in the next few months range from The Cat in the Hat to music by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra so there’s something for everyone.

As well as showing plays, they also run workshops and courses in acting and playwriting. Now’s your opportunity to learn more!

It is in the High Street between the River Thames and the Guildhall near the Market Place in the centre of Kingston, and accessible by train and bus, and even boats.  Their website is:

And finally…….see below for book reviews and more ideas for places to go for a day out

London Open House – September 2018


London Open House is your annual opportunity every September to visit historic buildings in London which are not normally open as tourist attractions.  And it’s free!  This year I went to visit Television Centre in Shepherds Bush, the UK Supreme Court in Parliament Square and St John’s Concert Hall in Smith Square.  All 3 were very different.

Television Centre, Wood Lane, Shepherds Bush:

The BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane, Shepherds Bush, was built 1958-60 on the site of London’s first Olympic Games.  I grew up watching programmes such as Blue Peter and Doctor Who which were filmed there so I was familiar with the shape of the building and the fountain in the centre of the Helios Courtyard.  I remember Roy Castle and lots of children tap dancing round it and breaking a new record.

After the BBC moved to Salford about 10 years ago the building was converted into shops, offices, flats and restaurants, with a small section still used for filming.  I had always wanted to visit and thought it would be worth it.

However, when I reached Television Centre I was told I would have to wait several hours to join a guided tour.  It was pouring with rain and the surrounding area was full of huge modern buildings like the Westfield Shopping Centre so I left in disgust and don’t intend to return.  For those interested the website is:

The UK Supreme Court, Parliament Square:

The UK Supreme Court was well worth the visit.  It is a neo Gothic Grade 2 listed building and used to be Middlesex Guildhall until Middlesex ceased to be a county and then the building was converted into a crown court.  There is lots to look at – stained glass windows, ornate ceilings, paintings of lords, judges and magistrates, and sculptures.

It is used as the final court of appeal in the UK for civil cases an for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Guided tours take place every Friday and there is a cafe in the basement with a small selection of souvenirs.

The venue is easy to find in Parliament Square and is opposite the Houses of Parliament and between Westminster Abbey and The Treasury.  The nearest tube station is Westminster and lots of buses pass through the area.  For more information visit the website:

St John’s Concert Hall, Smith Square:

Smith Square is a small square dominated by St John’s Concert Hall which was built as a church between 1714 and 1728.  Some of my ancestors used it for marrying and baptising their children so I feel at home there.  It is a huge round looking building but the concert hall itself is rectangular.

It has survived a fire, a lightening strike and in the early 20th century was the target of a Suffragette bomb plot.  Ironically it was later used for the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst.  In 1941 it was gutted on the final night of the Blitz, then left as a ruin for many years before it was restored and re-opened as a concert hall in 1969.

It is now used as a venue for classical music and performers range from soloists to orchestras.  The basement crypt is used as a cafe and has many photos and paintings on the walls showing the building in different stages of its life.  It has a very homely feel and is easy to find as it is just off Millbank between the Tate Britain and the Houses of Parliament.  The website is:

And finally:

Of all the buildings I visited for London Open House this year, St John’s Concert Hall is the one I liked best and I intend to go to a concert there with friends sometime.  See below for more of my blogs about days out and places to go.

Book Review: Teller of Tales – The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle by Daniel Stashower


I came across Teller of Tales – The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle in the library but when I tried to take it out I found I didn’t have my library card, so I went across the road to the charity shops and found the same book there.  It was meant to be. So I bought it.  I learned a lot about Arthur Conan Doyle from reading his biography.  Here’s 10 facts about him:

  1. Conan is his middle name, not part of a double barrelled surname. He was named after his godfather Michael Conan.
  2. Conan Doyle studied medicine in Edinburgh and worked as a doctor on a whaling ship.
  3. He tried studying ophthalmology and set up his own medical practice but wasn’t successful at either.
  4. While waiting for patients he started writing stories.
  5. As well as Sherlock Holmes stories he also wrote historical novels, poetry, plays and articles on subjects ranging from politics to spiritualism.
  6. Despite being a doctor he didn’t notice his first wife had developed TB until it was too late to save her.
  7. He met his second wife while still married to his first.
  8. He stood for Parliament twice as a Liberal Unionist but wasn’t elected.
  9. He was a spiritualist and founding member of the Hampshire Society of Psychic Research and wrote articles for spiritual magazines.
  10. He felt guilty about the death of his first wife, so after he died his spirit sent a message to his family warning them his second wife had terminal cancer.

A bit about the biographer, Daniel Stashower

Daniel Stashower, born 1960, is an American author and editor of mystery fiction and historical non fiction.  As a result of writing Teller of Tales – A Life of Arthur Conan Doyle in 1999 he won the Agatha Award for Best Non Fiction. In 2007 he wrote another called Arthur Conan Doyle – A Life in Letters.

Stashower has done his research well and presented his findings in an informative way, without giving the reader his own views of controversial subjects such as spiritualism.  It was a very interesting book to read and I will look out for other books by him.

And finally…reading the biography of Arthur Conan Doyle makes me want to read the Sherlock Holmes stories again.


Weekend away: Oxford


It’s been at least 20 years since my last visit to Oxford but my reason for returning was to attend a graduation ceremony.  While I was there I also did some sightseeing and learned a few new facts about the city.

The old favourites:

A visit to the Ashmolean Museum and at least one college is an essential part of any visit to Oxford.  The Ashmolean is like the British Museum in London, only smaller, and if you like Greek statues and Egyptian mummies then you have to go there.  I spent several hours there and didn’t see everything.  And it’s free to go in.

I wanted to visit Braesnose College but it was closed so I went to Balliol instead, conveniently situated opposite the Visitor Centre.  Away from the busy street, you step into an atmosphere of peace and quiet, just like a church.  The entrance to Balliol’s chapel had a long list of names of students who had been killed in the second world war.  Had they finished their studies before they went off to fight?

A new experience:

On my previous visit Oxford Castle was still used as a prison.  However, the last inmate left in 1996 and the buildings were converted.  Half of it is now the Malmaison Hotel and guests stay in the old cells.  The other half of the castle is a museum and I went on a guided tour during which we were taken up the tower for a good view of the city and down into the crypt which is haunted by 17 ghosts.   The guide was very interesting and made the visit worthwhile.

Themed tours of Oxford:

If you want a walking tour you are spoilt for choice – college tours, pub tours, ghost tours, Harry Potter tours, Inspector Morse tours, Lewis Carroll tours, etc.  The list is endless.  There is also a Hop On Hop Off bus tour which takes you round all the main sites and runs throughout the day.  I didn’t go on any of these but they all start from the Visitor Centre in Broad Street.

Getting away from it all:

A walk along Oxford Canal was a good way to get away from all the people in the city.  It was green and quiet and a good chance to unwind and enjoy the scenery.

And finally:

Oxford wasn’t bombed in the Second World War because Hitler intended to use the city as his base if he invaded Britain.  Thank God he didn’t and Oxford still has lots of historic buildings to visit and enjoy.

See below for more of my blogs about days out and weekends away.

Day Out: Surrey Artists Open Studios


In June 2018 we are given the opportunity to visit artists’ studios in Surrey which are not normally open to the public.  The venues themselves tend to be the private homes of the artists, and their work is displayed in their house, a separate studio in the garden or even in their garage.

There are 3 different events organised.  The main one is the Surrey Artists Open Studios covering the whole of Surrey.  The second is the Kingston Artists Open Studios and the 3rd is the Carshalton Artists Open Studios.

The Surrey Artists Open Studios:

This event has been running in June for a number of years.  The studios are all over Surrey with many in the Guildford, Farnham and Molesey areas.  My most memorable visit was in Sutton where the artist had displayed his work in his garage and I have never forgotten his atmospheric images of abandoned empty rooms with bare floorboards.

The website and booklet give detailed information about all the studios, their opening times, how to get there, the names of the artists and what sort of work they do.  The booklet is also available in libraries and museums.

The Kingston Artists Open Studios:

This event also takes place in June and the studios are all over Kingston.  Last weekend I visited the venue in Hawks road and was very impressed.   It is a large building divided into separate studios where the different artists have displayed their work. They are not all open at the same time so if you go twice you will see different paintings and sculpture.

On a different day I visited 3 studios in the north of Kingston. The first was in the pavilion of Canbury Park Gardens and I met the artist who showed me her colourful paintings of  distinctive landmarks in Kingston.  The 2 other studios displayed very detailed portraits and atmospheric landscapes of Richmond Park.  I was very impressed with the variety of the work in all 3 venues.

The website is:

An outing to Kingston can be combined with walks in Richmond Park, guided tours of the historic sites or shopping and there are lots of places to eat, various bus routes and Kingston railway station is centrally placed.

The Carshalton Artists Open Studios:

The artists’ studios in Carshalton are open 23-24 June, 30 June and 1 July 2018.   Last year I visited one and was very impressed with drawings of Donald Trump by an 18 year old student.  They were very detailed and she had depicted his personality extremely well.

The website is:

Many of the studios are within walking distance from Carshalton Pond and the 2 railway stations.  The village has an excellent museum, plus several good pubs and cafes.

And finally:

The artists who open up their homes go to a lot of trouble to show visitors their work and often provide refreshments.  The Open Studios events are a wonderful opportunity to see paintings, drawings, sculptures and ceramics, meet new people and have a good day out.

See below for more of my blogs about days out and book reviews.




art and literature