Michael Chaplin: Newcastle and Waters and Harbours in the North

It was our third day together and we were on our way to the Farne Islands via Seahouses, taking a slightly circuitous route from Newcastle, touching the North Sea first at Waren Mill. Turning right on the road south to Bamburgh, we climbed to the point I knew offered a fine view of the north Northumberland coast. We got out and silently took it in: the empty flats of Budle Bay, the heavenly deserted sands of Ross and then in the distance a familiar castle on a geological post of the Whin Sill.

Mattias broke the silence.

‘Is that Lindisfarne?’ he asked.

‘It is,’ I said, trying to keep the surprise out of my voice. I asked how he knew. His answer gave me a second surprise.

‘Because when I started learning history at age seven, the first page of our text books told how my forebears destroyed the monastery there in search of food and gold.’

Lindisfarne, it seems, isn’t just one of the glories of Northumbria and poster-boy for its tourism industry, but also stands at the very beginning of Sweden’s story, albeit for reasons of Viking plunder and pillage.

I guess a main reason for sending writers to visit other countries is to reveal common histories like this, as well as points of differences. This visit, one of various exchanges under the North Seas project focusing on ‘rivers, seas and harbours’, revealed that the writers involved – Mattias Hagberg from Gothenberg in Sweden, Haukur Ingvarsson from Iceland and Oddfríður Marni Rasmussen from the Faroes (and me from Newcastle) shared much in the way of a seafaring culture now arguably on the wane and certainly facing great change. We found a lot to talk and laugh about, and it has to be said, drink beer over. Oh yes…

My job was largely to act as tour guide/historical consultant/driver over the six-day visit that culminated in an enjoyable joint session at the Durham Book Festival. We had plenty of luck: many visiting ships in the Tyne on our trip from the Quayside to the Shields piers, glorious sunshine lit up a magical trip to the Roman Wall and even the Farne Islands grey seals did their bit, producing lots of pups in time for our visit.

At the end of the week my friends flew home with – they said – lots to mull over and write about. I look forward to reading the results, which I suspect will revolve around new perspectives on their own history and culture gained from immersion in ours.

And I pondered this thought: writers really should get out more…