Northumberland: Romans & Saxons, Floods & Community

I recently spent a weekend visiting friends in northwestern England. True to my travel weather karma, I managed to pick the weekend of the great floods. Nevertheless, I had a terrific visit with my friends, learned some history, and got to see community spirit in action.

My friends live in Humshaugh (pop. c. 700), which is a lovely little village west of Newcastle. I arrived in the rain and soon got my first taste of village life. It was Nick’s night to volunteer an hour at the Humshaugh Village Shop, so I went along to assist. This is a shop with an interesting story. Seems the government closed the post office and the owners of the shop that housed it decided to sell, but there were no buyers. The villagers determined to save the local shop and raised money to purchase it. Now some 40 residents of Humshaugh volunteer and keep the store open for several hours a day, meaning that residents don’t have to drive to Hexham just to pick up their paper or a jug of milk, and the village retains a vital enterprise. The shop has an amazing variety of goods for such a small place, and the prices are no higher than at a larger grocery.

Humshaugh Village Shop
Humshaugh Village Shop

The profits from this enterprise are given back to the community in the form of grants to various projects and individuals, including community beehives and student scholarships. Volunteers also bake bread on Fridays to sell at the shop, and make delicious apple juice from local apples. (If you want to know more about the shop, visit this website.) Nick is even training a couple of local kids how to run the register and wait on people. I love this shop! What an incredible model of cooperative enterprise. After our hour at the store, we joined Liz for dinner and a pint at the local pub, another of my favorite things to do in England!

The shop was not my only encounter with the wonderful sense of community in Humshaugh. The next evening I had the pleasure of attending the Christmas pantomime performed by the local theater group, which consisted of some very talented local young people. The show was an amusing and well-acted parody of “Snow White,” written by a local woman and featuring local references (such as a Handrian’s Wall walker), a dancing cat, fairies, a “cheesy” singing family, and the wicked Stepmother’s efforts to win a cooking contest. The performance was followed by a reception with wine, pie, and soft drinks. A good time was had by all!

The rains continued, meanwhile, which brings me to my final encounter with Humshaugh’s community spirit. By Saturday many areas to the west were flooded, as were local roads and the homes of residents who lived by the North Tyne. On Sunday we visited a woman whose home had been invaded by the river, which left behind mud and ruined furnishings. We helped bag up waterlogged books for disposal while other villagers checked on the electricity and heat.

Despite the weather, I did manage to do some sightseeing. On Friday we took a look at what remains of Hadrian’s Wall, which separated Roman Britain from the “barbarians” in the north, and we drove along the route of an old Roman road.

Unfortunately, the weather did not allow for much walking to explore the area. We then went to Hexham, the larger market town a few kilometers from Humshaugh. There we visited the Hexham Abbey, where we first had lunch (some fabulous mushroom soup) and then toured the museum and church. The Abbey was founded by St. Wilfrid in the 7th Century; the oldest portion is the Saxon crypt, which was closed, unfortunately. Also of note is the Frith Stool (or Bishop’s throne) dating from the 7th century, an 8th century high cross from Bishop Acca’s grave, and a thousand year old Saxon chalice. In addition, I loved the old choir stalls with their carved misericords (ledges on the underside so that monks could “cheat” and perch on them during the Mass when they were supposed to be standing!). These misericords were carved with designs ranging from flowers to the pagan “green man,” beasts, satyrs, and demons. (To see some of the other carvings from the choir stalls, check this out.) Most of the church is Gothic in style, having been built in the 12th-13th century, and then added onto over the years. There are some wonderful Roman stones that had been part of the original abbey, including the memorial to a 1st Century Roman soldier and standard bearer named Flavinus. There is a nice museum that tells the story of the Abbey and also includes a lot of exhibits to appeal to children. All in all, a very cool place.

On Saturday I visited another friend in Newcastle Upon Tyne. I had my first inkling that this was more than just a lot of rain when we got to the station in Hexham and my train had been canceled because floods to the West had made the tracks impassable. I was able to take a later train, and I could see the flooding Tyne, at times ominously close to the tracks, all the way to Newcastle. Howard met me at the station. In Newcastle it wasn’t raining as hard, but the river was definitely running high. We took a tour of some of the local sights, including the many bridges over the Tyne, such as the magnificent tilting Gateshead Millennium Bridge. I liked the Gateshead concert venue, a blobby building that reflects the sky and water (much like the “Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park). We also saw the “New Castle” that gave Newcastle its name. After lunch we visited the Discovery Museum, where I learned about the history of Newcastle.

When I got back to the train station to return to Hexham, I found out just how bad things had gotten to the west. The station was chaotic, with lots of trains canceled and delayed. I tried for several trains. One was moved to another platform but they didn’t bother to inform those of us waiting at the one scheduled. Another was canceled after we boarded, because there was no crew (they were stuck in a flooded area). Finally, I got on a train which turned out to be the last leaving for Hexham that night. We had to wait for a crew but finally, almost three hours after I got to the station, I was heading back to Hexham. Nick met me at the station and filled me in on the flooding, which had closed a number of local roads, and done far worse in other areas. On Sunday we saw just how high the North Tyne had risen (although it had already begun to come down, it was amazingly high) and how fast it was running. When the “Danger” sign is almost completely submerged, you know you’re in trouble!

Despite the rain and flooding, I had a great time in Northumberland. It’s always great to visit good friends! I found Humshaugh to be an utterly charming village, the type I thought only existed in English novels or television shows. I was impressed and humbled by their community spirit and the positive energy of their cooperative enterprises. I look forward to visiting again. Finally, as I passed through security at the Newcastle airport for my flight home, the sign below caught my eye (as it was surely meant to do). Leave it to the British to have a cartoon sewer drain telling us what not to put down the toilet! Love your drain, indeed.

Sign at Newcastle Airport
Sign at Newcastle Airport

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