Friday, 25 March 2016

It’s Grim Oop North

It’s grim oop North.Except that it isn’t. This morning was spectacularly sunny in Bishop Auckland, so I thought I’d pop down to the bank and maybe go for a little wander. Bank? On Good Friday? Yes, it was shut. Thing is, I’m not exactly an observer of these sorts of things. I knew I had a violin pupil coming later today, but she’s a Buddhist, so I doubted she’d notice it was Good Friday either.

I stood in front of the automatic bank door for a few moments wondering why it wouldn’t open, then twigged and moved on, at which point I was accosted by a multitude of immaculately turned out young men in suits who one by one greeted me with ‘Hello darling,’ or ‘Hello love,’ followed by an eager enquiry as to who supplied my gas and electricity. They were cheery and it was a sunny day so I didn’t tell them where they could put their gas and electricity, merely hoped they’d have a nice day, and moved on.

It’s late March. It’s spring. It hasn’t felt like spring up to this point despite the mini-daffs in the back yard, but this morning it felt like the sun had remembered the clocks change this weekend to British Summer Time and was hurriedly making spring happen all in one day. I remembered I had my shiny new mobile phone with me and determined to take springy pictures with it. First port of call would be the town hall – which was looking bright and shiny, but the trees in front of it were still convinced it was the dead of winter, so it all looked a bit bare. I left the camera in my bag.

I proceeded in an orderly fashion through the market-free market place and towards the Bishop’s gaffe. His (former) abode was also looking great in the sunshine, so I snapped a pic, but it wasn’t shouting out SPRING! Not to worry. There was the park beyond, and there would have to be something flowering there. I’d make for the deer house, because that’s photogenic, irrespective of the seasons, and along the way I started thinking about stories, poems, and the whole place was a poem. I would absorb it, use it later.

One forgets quite how intensely blue the sky can be at this time of the year and in this part of the world. We’re relatively smog-free here in Bishop Auckland; far enough away from the pall that hangs over Teesside except when the wind is in a mean direction, which is very rare. The air is good, and it wasn’t yet too heavy with daffodil pollen, something which is guaranteed to give me cheese-grater throat.

I climbed the slight rise to the deer house and surveyed the view. Across the River Wear there’s a building site at the moment as they construct the arena and stadium for ‘Kynren’, the vast open air show that is coming our way in under 100 days. People have booked tickets for it from as far away as China apparently. At the moment, it’s a mass of metal and wood on a flood plain which used to be the soggy golf links beside the Wear. The mind boggles at the transformation that’s going on. I worry what will happen to the show if we get a rainy summer, but we always get rainy summers here so I’m sure they’ve thought of that and will be able to cope. Hundreds of people are involved. There will be horses. Everyone loves horses, so it can’t fail.

The deer house is spectacular in a much smaller and more intimate way, and in the past they’ve had little theatrical performances up here, and folk singers, stuff like that, rather than the extravagant picnics for hunting parties that used to happen. The deer are long gone, but sheep wander up here sometimes. Today it was looking very beautiful, but still a bit wintery despite the deep blue of the sky. I continued down, off the mound, and crossed the foolish River Gaunless. ‘foolish’ because ‘Gaunless’ is apparently the Viking word for ‘gormless’, so they clearly didn’t think much of it either. The poor old river always looks to be nastily polluted by old mine workings so it’s a bit dead, but there were people playing Pooh sticks on one of the medieval bridges, which was cheering.

Across the bridge, the parkland becomes less formal, and at last I started seeing signs of spring. Alongside a stream there was a clump of coltsfoot, and much of the grassland near the trees was sprinkled with celandines – in the distance I could see gorse bushes in flower, so I snapped away, each vista looking more delightful than the last.

I hadn’t intended to come this far, but now that I had I thought I might as well continue to the obelisk, a mini-pyramid that caps a well connected to some old underground cisterns. It stands in the middle of a field, and normally I would have photographed it, but I didn’t today because the field was full of ponies and sheep, and more importantly, lambs! Yes! Spring! Evidence at last. I kept well clear. Didn’t want to disturb them. They would get enough of that from the families with young kids that were following me up the footpath and clearly intending to cross the field. 

I turned and went back down the hill, feeling fitter and stronger than I have for a long, long, time, but that’s what spring can do to you. I love winter, I love its snugness, its curling under the duvetness; I love long dark nights, hot baths, woolly hats. I love the sharpness of autumn, the frosts, the bonfire smell of November. I’ve never thought much of spring in the past. It’s been late coming, but there’s something in the air that’s different this year. Not sure what it is. When I was walking back along one of the soft green lanes, I imagined horses cantering up behind me, and it wasn’t the horses from Kynren across the river; it was a memory, though clearly not my own, of one of the hunting parties from centuries ago. They weren’t there, and I didn’t really hear them, but they were damned close, and I almost did.

Arriving back at the Bishop’s Castle, and not feeling quite ready to go home yet, I popped into the old library café and had a pot of real tea served with a proper tea strainer and slop basin, and one of their homemade cheese and spring onion scones, which was meltingly delicious, as expected. They’re going to close the place to visitors for eighteen months or so from September in order to carry out major conservation work – and anyway, the famed Zurburan paintings are going to be off on their hols round the world, so the main draw of the place won’t be there – so I’m making the most of my season ticket, and visiting as often as I can. After my tea I went into the quiet of the chapel. I am emphatically not a religious person, but the chapel, which used to be the banqueting hall and is possibly the largest private chapel in the land – is very, very beautiful, and it’s good to sit there in the coloured light for a while and get stuff sorted out in your head.

After my twenty minutes’ or so recovery time, I left via the shop where I saw they had some greetings cards by local artist Bob McManners, and jolly nice they were too, so I bought one. Dr Bob can’t half paint. On the way back home through Newgate Street I cheerfully told the immaculately dressed young men that no, I still didn’t want to change my gas or electricity suppliers. They seemed delighted. They certainly smiled a lot.

Spring! What a season. I could get to like it after all.

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