In our latest feature on North East creative talent we talk to artist Fiona Carvell who is based in the Northumberland countryside near Shotley Bridge.
Where exactly in the North East are you based?
On the border of County Durham and Northumberland, perched on the edge of the Pennines – beautiful space! Fine Studios at Fine House Farm, Kiln Pit Hill, Consett. DH8 9SL.
How would you describe your work?
Ideas-led, which means I let the subject matter inspire and direct how I respond (as opposed to working in the same way, or having a ‘style’ regardless of subject). Visually, I am interested in line and space, the connections between objects and relationships of pattern in nature.
Tell us how you first started out as an artist?
I graduated as an illustrator and moving image designer, which led to work both as a freelance Illustrator in publishing and then a career in broadcasting. I later moved into teaching but throughout all of this never stopped drawing. I would finish a shift for doing the on-air graphics for Sky News and then go straight to a life drawing class! Teaching in F.E. meant I could spend more time experimenting with materials but it wasn’t until I started running community-based art classes that I finally realised I needed to create more of my own art. It was clamouring to get out!
My love affair with pastel started around this time and a few years later I entered a piece for the Pastel Society Open Exhibition in London which made the first selection round. I was invited to be a Unison Colour Associate Artist soon after this, which I am immensely proud of, especially as they are a North East company and sell around the world.
I was offered studio space at Fine Studios at the end of 2016, which is perfect for me as it’s just a few miles from home and an amazing place to run workshops from.
Which work are you most proud of?
Probably ‘Treasure of The Deep’, which was the first of my seaweed series. It was very big (over 3ft high once framed) which is huge for a pastel piece, and incredibly detailed.
What inspires you?
Lots of things – I go through obsessions! I had a thing about grasses and then trees for a while last year and my current theme seems to be seaweed. I am drawn to connections in nature – patterns of line and surprises of colour, that echo from one life form to another.
What influence if any does North East England have in inspiring your work?
The North East has a wealth of inspirational landscapes. From the Pennines to the beautiful Northumberland coastline, there is so much to draw upon. My parents live on the coast and so I spend quite a bit of time photographing and sketching at beaches and castles.
What has been your most challenging creation?
Probably ‘Treasure of The Deep’. There were so many colours in each tiny section, that I would cover only a few inches a day at some points. It drove me to distraction. I would often go to the studio in my running gear so I could run a few miles of tension off in between pastel painting!
Do you have any tips for up and coming artists?
Work hard, be practical and approach what you do as any profession. If you seriously want to develop a career as an artist, you must get the balance between personal creation/production and all the other stuff that makes it possible. Admin, promotions, attending events, keeping galleries supplied and happy are all part and parcel of the job. As a qualified teacher I still enjoy teaching workshops and have found this a valuable part of my practice as it helps to develop my own artwork.
Which other artists or photographers inspire you?
My favourite pastel artist is probably Sarah Bee. Just gorgeous line work and energy. The most inspiring exhibition I attended was in Paris a few years ago by fashion designer, Issey Miyake. He presented fabric as lines and forms of pleated colour in the most astonishing display that played with light and shade. I am a great believer in looking at everything the world presents to you for potential inspiration – it can come from anywhere.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I have just returned from running my first pastel workshop in France, (which was fabulous!) and I now have another planned for May 2019. I am also in the midst of planning my workshops at Fine Studios for 2019 alongside exhibitions at various venues across the country.
Long term, I would love to exhibit with the Pastel Society, that would be an achievement and a great honour.
We talk to 49-year old Morpeth-based artist, Sarah Farooqi in the latest in our series of interviews featuring talented artists and photographers from the North East of England. Sarah is best-known for her wonderful, colourful illustrated maps.
How would you describe your work?
I am a watercolour artist specialising in landscapes, townscapes and illustrated maps. From a pen drawing, my pictures evolve into busy, layered compositions which reflect my love of detail and colour, and hopefully a sense of fun.
Tell us how you first started out as an artist?
I began drawing when I was old enough to hold a pencil and went on to study graphic design at university. But then I took a wrong turn into corporate TV graphics and lost my enthusiasm. So I trained and worked as a primary teacher until I became a full time mum. During that time I was asked by my local school to work with their youngest children on an art project.
However, I had to stop myself grabbing the paint brushes off the children as I just wanted to do it myself! I started painting again soon after, and have never looked back. I spent a year experimenting and finding out exactly what it was I wanted to paint and how. Then once I had a couple of finished pieces I took them to show lots of galleries, shops, the National Trust etc. until I had a few places willing to sell my prints/cards. I joined Network Artists and had a group exhibition at Alnwick Garden in 2009. From there I was asked to make visitor maps for Alnwick Garden and Castle.
What work are you most proud of?
In the visitor centre at Howick Hall Gardens (near Alnwick) there is a huge map detailing the whole of the Howick estate, its rare plants/trees and wildlife. The map took the best part of a year to complete and some of it was previously unmapped so I was able to work closely with their head gardener and other members of the Howick team. The map has had a very positive reaction from visitors and I am very proud of it.
What inspires you?
Everything really. I love being outdoors and the intricacy of the natural world. But I also can’t resist a bleak northern industrial scene (see below), or something unexpected or irreverent, as I don’t like to take things too seriously. I also have a terrible sense of direction, so if someone asks me to make them a map I am inspired by that challenge.
What influence if any does North East England have in inspiring your work?
I grew up in Teesside and have fond memories of sketching at South Gare near Redcar. Home to the now ghosted blast furnace, at the time I loved peering through the railings and seeing the molten iron being poured into the trucks, and the architecture of the industrial landscape.
It was also right next to Paddy’s Hole with its fishermen’s huts and the North Sea. There is even a lighthouse at the end. Perfect! Now I live in Northumberland I am totally spoilt by the North Northumberland coastline, with its empty windswept beaches and fabulous castles, and even more lighthouses. The fact that Northumberland is a bit of a secret to many people is also quite appealing – I like to help celebrate it.
What has been your most challenging creation?
Definitely the Howick Hall visitor map, as it involved mapping previously unchartered territory, working with a range of different groups, and the sheer scale of the project. I painted it on a series of squares which when laid out wouldn’t fit in any of the rooms in my house!
Do you have any tips for up and coming artists?
Never give up, and if you feel overwhelmed by the possibilities/challenges, take a deep breath, start at the beginning and just keep going. To begin with there will be set backs, and you need to go through these in order to learn how everything works. Also, if you are trying to make a living from your art, try and remember to put the customer/buyer at the centre of your marketing so that you make it as easy as possible for people to see, understand and buy your work. Also, being an artist can be a little isolating, so make sure you make connections with people and get out and about. All the other artists I know are really nice people, and happy to help.
Whch other artists or photographers inspire you?
The Cornish fisherman and artist Alfred Wallis who started painting on bits of old cardboard at the age of 68. Arthur Rackham, the Victorian artist whose work includes my favourite illustrations for the Wind in the Willows. Tove Jansson, who wrote and illustrated the Moomins. The stories, symbols and patterns in aboriginal art are fascinating. I am also amazed by the photos of Iceland by Benjamin Hardman, who I’ve just started following on Instagram.
What are your ambitions for the future?
More commissioned work, more of my own work, maybe expand my portfolio from Northumbria into Yorkshire and beyond, and one day to have a fabulous studio. I’d also like to illustrate a children’s book.
DAVID SIMPSON argues that history could play a bigger role in how we market our region when presenting ourselves to the world
Imagine going for a job interview where you weren’t allowed to say anything about your past, an interview where you couldn’t say anything about your past achievements or the challenges you faced or the ways you’ve inspired and motivated people.
We will allow you to say that you’ve got all the right attitudes and ambitions and that you have all the right skills in place but how are you going to prove it? Well it’s going to be hard especially as the competition, under the same restrictions, will be saying exactly the same things as you. So how are you going to demonstrate that you’re unique, that you’re special that you’re different?
Well, you’re going to struggle when it comes to saying something interesting and unusual about yourself. Of course in business there are no such restrictions, people want to known about your past because it demonstrates who you are, what you have achieved and what you might be able to achieve in the future.
Now, this is what frustrates me as someone with a passion for our region’s history. You see, surely the same goes for our region too? When it comes to marketing our region to the world we shouldn’t be coy about our history and past achievements, there’s no rule to prevent us from speaking of our past. We can be selective of course, who wouldn’t be? However, we shouldn’t be shy about it. The problem is sometimes we forget what we’ve actually achieved and it’s a good idea to refresh the memory now and again. It’s a great boost for confidence.
Look we’re in a market, competing with places across the world and when I say we, I mean all of us because everyone who lives and works in the region or even those who are just visiting are at some level potential ambassadors for the North East. We can all play a part in telling the world our great story and all the great things that we can do and all the great things that we have achieved in the past.
Yet there still seems to be a lot of amnesia around, forgetfulness or perhaps a lack of confidence in our story. The present, like the future is very important of course and in attracting investment to our region it’s great to say we are home to world leading companies: Nissan, Siemens Procter and Gamble, Hitachi Rail Europe and many more. It’s great to talk about our fabulous highly-skilled workforce, our partnerships, our infrastructure, transport networks, ports, airports and of course our world class educational establishments.
This is all good and we can be particularly proud to say that in our region it is often more than enough to get the world to sit up and take notice.
The thing is, though, just as with the job interview, you can guarantee that all the competition are all telling a similar story even if they may not be telling it quite so well.
So when it comes to the opportunity to demonstrate something unique, something different and special about ourselves as a region it’s a chance to share the extraordinary links and influences that we often have with the wider world. It’s here that we have an opportunity to shine and this is where our past comes into play.
Now I think in the world of business, history is too often seen as something of a novelty sideshow, or a dust-laden trinket that we bring out now and again to show off like a half-loved antique. It can be seen as something that is beneficial to our tourism industry and little else besides. The exception perhaps is in its contribution to our region’s townscapes, landscape and inherent beauty which we are not quite so shy to promote.
Marketers have recognised these visual attributes and this has been demonstrated by the impact of skilled photographers and film makers who have showcased the region’s glorious attributes in wonderful stunning, panoramic colour. This is great, it helps attract people to our region to see what it’s really like and that can only be good for business.
So we love the stage setting that is the North East but we also need to remember the rich array of stories and achievements from the past that this grand stage has hosted. We need to tell those stories boldly and with confidence.
In our region we have a phrase ‘Shy bairns get nowt’ which means if you don’t ask for things or if you don’t speak up with confidence, you will not receive. Ironically, it’s one of our region’s favourite phrases, yet too often we are rather shy about speaking up about our achievements. We are shy about asking for the recognition we deserve. This is certainly true when it comes to our history.
For example here in the region we pioneered electric light for the world: the story of Sunderland’s Joseph Swan; Newcastle’s Moseley Street; the Lit and Phil; the grand mansion at Cragside in Northumberland; a Benwell light bulb factory and even a house in Gateshead that’s now a care home played a massive, massive role in bringing electric light to the whole world. Yet all we ever hear about is the famed American inventor, Thomas Edison who seems to have that famous light bulb permanently and unreservedly screwed tightly in a permanent place above his head as if it was his idea alone.
Our role in this world-changing era of history was every bit as important as the contribution of Edison and yes, I dare say it, probably more so. It’s shameful that Britain as a whole knows so little about this and this may be partly due to our region’s ‘shy bairn approach’ when it comes to recognition of our cultural and scientific achievements.
Then we have the railways and the first public railway ever, which opened here in the region. There are arguments of course but the Stockton and Darlington Railway was there before its counterpart from Liverpool to Manchester that we hear so much more about. Is it because those two cities are seen as less provincial than the twin Tees Valley towns? Why? It’s probably down to our modest, shy bairn values again.
And even before those railways, we had the unique ‘Newcastle Roads’, the west’s first railways, horse drawn wagonways that existed here in the region long before the days of locomotives. And we may continue: Stephenson’s Rocket was the victor at Lancashire’s Rainhill railway trials as every school child knows it, but too often we forget it was built on Tyneside. So let’s speak up.
And then there is our present year 2018 and next year 2019 and so on and so on. Yes, even that is down to us. How? Well it was a Northumbrian scholar and saint – arguably the most influential man in his time – that popularised the system of dating our years from the supposed birth of Christ.
Yes, it was Jarrow’s own Bede that brought about the adoption of this system of numbering our years that came to be used across Europe and subsequently the entire western world. Just think about that, that’s a pretty major contribution to our world as we know it today. Bede, incidentally, also had the distinction of being the very first English historian as well. He was the first English historian in the whole of the English speaking world and by the way, he knew, quite confidently, that the world wasn’t flat.
There are so many things our region has given this world. Sometimes they are major industrial developments, sometimes they are quirky cultural contributions but they are all worth knowing and sharing as part of our story. We must make sure our young people know these stories and that every businessman and every ambassador at every level knows them too.
What about the world-changing architecture of Durham Cathedral or James Cook’s discoveries in the Pacific and Australia? How about Washington, the world’s most influential capital, which traces its name back to a small North East village? These are all part of the story of the world.
Let’s not stop there. Think about Durham lad, Jermiah Dixon who created the Mason-Dixon line which divided the north from the later ‘Dixieland’ of the south in the American Civil War, or Redcar and Washington’s Gertrude Bell who drew up the borders of Iraq. How about the region’s part in the development of football across the world? What about the first ever football World Cup – won by a team from a Durham mining village.
We could talk about the starring role the region has had in the movies, whether it be Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall or the majestic Bamburgh Castle, not to mention the role of Alnwick Castle and Durham Cathedral in the Harry Potter movies.
Oh yes, Hadrian’s Wall, almost forgot, the world’s largest Roman archaeological feature marking what was once the northern boundary of Europe’s greatest Empire.
We could talk about our language and dialect too which has some of the oldest English features in the English speaking world. Indeed some of these features date back to Bede’s time. Surprisingly the Northumbrian language had a profound influence on the speech of Scotland rather than the other way around. I mention this because it’s a reminder that we played a big role in some notable developments in the world’s most influential language.
In fact even our darkest periods have had some impact on language in this respect. Think about the battle-worn Border Reivers of Northumberland, Cumberland and the Scottish Borders who in times past brought into use phrases like ‘blackmail’ and being ‘caught red-handed’ a colourful and interesting feature of our language and our past. Alright, perhaps our connections to such phrases are something we might want to reveal with caution in the world of business.
Well ok, what about all those reiver surnames that still proliferate across the region today? You are going to encounter them everywhere. Reiver names can now be found all across Britain and the English speaking world in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. There must be millions of people with these name but how many of them know their connection to our region and know that our fascinating story is also a big part of theirs.
So if you’re doing business with an American Armstrong or an Australian Robson, or a Charlton, a Milburn, a Shaftoe, a Hetherington – there is a long list of names – it might be worth mentioning the connection. It’s an unusual opportunity to connect with our region and it is in my view one of the great untapped selling points of our region.
So when asked at that interview if there’s anything unusual or interesting we might say about ourselves as a region, we can see that we have plenty to say and plenty that we might share beyond the wonderful attributes of our workforce and our infrastructure.
However, we do need to lose the amnesia, embrace our history and start remembering our story. We need to be unashamedly proud of our past.
Just remember that ‘shy bairns get nowt’ and lets start speak up about our past achievements.
County Durham-based Tangled Worm is a new North East based business publishing poster prints with a bit of difference with an emphasis on Northern heritage, fun facts and just a little frivolity.
“We specialise in colourful poster prints with an emphasis on information, quirky facts and northern history as well as occasionally delve into other educational themes like science” says owner David Simpson, 50.
Based near Durham City Tangled Worm was set up in November by David, a former writer with The Northern Echo best known as the author of a number of books about the North East.
“I want to produce prints that are colourful, fun and informative” says David “and I’m especially keen to focus on Britain and particularly the North of England but also want to produce prints that are just for fun”.
One of David’s most popular prints is a map featuring over 1,000 rude and curious place-names in North East England which includes such wonders as Common Slap, Old Man’s Bottom, Comical Corner, Goodwife Hot, Make Me Rich, Crackpot and Stinking Goat. It also includes explanations for some of the more familiar unusual names like Pity me and Unthank as well as a wide range of place-names with an international flavour like Moscow, California, Boc Chica, Philadephia and Toronto that pop up throughout the region.
Northern history themed maps include the troublesome Border reiver surnames: Robson, Charlton, Milburn, Elliot, Armstrong and many others whose murderous raiding and livestock rustling culture dominated Northumberland and neighbouring border counties in Tudor times. The map includes a few tales associated with some of the most notorious reiving families.
Representing a more distant period is a map showing the Iron Age tribes of the North and the routes and events of the subsequent Roman invasion. Another map features the principal Roman features of the North and two very detailed poster print maps depict the Kingdom of Northumbria in the Viking age and in the pre-Viking era complete with details of raids, invasions, murders, settlements and lists of the all the Kings and Earls based at Bamburgh and York.
It’s not just about history though, Northern culture is well represented. Products include a Geordie Dictionary poster featuring explanations and origins for over 500 North East words and a unique map showing the names of 1,400 notable northerners ranging from scientists, celebrities, singers, comedians, inventors and notable industrialists from Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Hull in the south all the way up to Berwick. All the northern counties from Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire up to Northumberland are featured.
There’s even a map depicting the North East ‘worm’ legends which provided the inspiration for the business name. In case you’re wondering, worms are wyverns, legendary serpents that feature in ancient stories that are entwined and entangled with the mythology of invading Vikings, Angles and Saxons.
David says he loves unravelling such tales and history in general to reveal strange roots and sees the world as a place of entangled mysteries and puzzles waiting to be solved, untwisted and enjoyed with wonder. This goes for science too – his colourful Periodic table is one of his latest additions which explains how the elements combine in ways to make up our universe.
“In the same way as the knights of old defeated the by slicing up those worms I like to break up knowledge into morsels for entertainment and enlightenment. It hopefully whets the appetite to learn much more.”
Why is the Wear an appendage of the Tyne? Why is the ‘North Humber Land’ of Northumberland so far north of the Humber? Why is so much of the River Tees not even part of the ‘Tees Valley’?
In this blog, historian DAVID SIMPSON laments the loss of the straightforward traditional, easy to understand historic counties of the North East and Yorkshire.
Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland are ancient counties with roots going back a thousand years or more but something changed in the 1970s that left communities confused and disembodied in a legacy that continues to this day. It was during that decade that those long-lived county regions were broken into little pieces, redefined for economic or political purposes and given artificial names that were in some cases little more than marketing brands.
Take Yorkshire for instance. It was recorded as ‘Eoferwicscire’ as far back as 1055, though its roots are much older than that. It developed from the Viking Kingdom of York and its three ancient ‘Ridings’. Indeed it was the Vikings who divided Yorkshire into the three parts called ‘Ridings’ (North, West and East) from the Norse word ‘thrithing’ or ‘þriðjungr’ meaning ‘third part’.
Despite this ancient division the Vikings didn’t re-brand the three individual bits with cumbersome names. They kept things clear. Yorkshire or ‘York’ as it was often simply known remained intact and the ‘Ridings’ remained in place up until 1974.
It was in 1974 that London’s brutal battleaxe of bureaucratic boundary changes hit Yorkshire as it did many other places in Britain. A new county called ‘Humberside’ was hacked out of Yorkshire’s south eastern corner and it annexed rather a lot of Lincolnshire too. People from Hull, wherever they might venture, now had to justify that they were still in fact Yorkshiremen, maintaining their centuries old right.
In 1996 Humberside was of course ultimately abolished and quite rightly too. It was then that the East Riding of Yorkshire re-merged (now the only riding) and although Hull’s separate city status was acknowledged, its place in Yorkshire is clear.
It was in 1974 that Cleveland was created too.
Now, as a name Cleveland was not without precedent. Even the Vikings knew of it, calling it ‘Cliffland’ in their time. As an ancient district it was part of Yorkshire and exclusively part of Yorkshire, that is to say part of that giant historic county south of the Tees. This Cleveland – the real Cleveland – stretched as far west as the little town of Yarm, encompassed Middlesbrough (a monastic cell in medieval times) and stretched right down to the River Esk at Whitby taking in the Cleveland Hills and the beautiful Cleveland coast.
However, the new 1974 County of Cleveland was something quite different to the old Cleveland district of Yorkshire. The new Cleveland still included Middlesbrough and Yarm and some of the Cleveland coastal towns but this county of Cleveland was, in historic terms, an awful anomaly.
For a start, Hartlepool, the ancient sea port of County Durham was annexed to Cleveland’s expanded realm along with the historic Durham towns of Stockton and Billingham and pretty villages like Egglescliffe and Norton. Yet south of the Tees much of the real, historic Cleveland was not included in the new county. So, bizarrely, most of the Cleveland Hills and the village of Carlton-in-Cleveland were not included in the new County of Cleveland.
The nonsense of ‘Cleveland the county’ eventually ended (as it did with Humberside) in 1996 after an existence of only 22 years but it was only to be replaced by a new kind of nonsense some twenty years later.
The so-called ‘Tees Valley Combined Authority’ (an awful mouthful it has to be said) began life as a ‘local enterprise partnership’ in 2011 but then became a combined authority in 2016. The new authority was more or less identical to the county of Cleveland, but now also included the historic County Durham town of Darlington which had long been the focal town for South Durham.
There was apparently much support for this new combined authority across that region with 65 per cent of people voting in its favour. In fact, on closer examination (according to Wikipedia) there were only over 1,900 responses to this question – that’s not very many when we consider the Tees Valley region has a population of 700,000.
What makes the term ‘Tees Valley’ really confusing is its geographical scope. For example, you can walk along the south bank of the River Tees opposite Darlington Borough and you are firmly in Yorkshire but for some reason you’re definitely not in the Tees Valley. Similarly up in the Dales you find that Barnard Castle and the surrounding countryside of Teesdale isn’t part of the ‘Tees Valley’ either.*
‘Barney’ as it is known to locals is the capital of Teesdale, on the north bank of the river and still in County Durham as it has been fro many centuries.
Then we have Hartlepool an historic town with an extraordinary history that was once one of Britain’s major sea ports is situated on the North Sea coast. Hartlepool was never a port on the River Tees but is included as part of the Tees Valley.
The reality is of course that Tees Valley is rather a nice marketing term for Teesside with Hartlepool and Darlington thrown in for good measure. It has no real historic meaning beyond that. If you think about it though Tees Valley has a quite a nice ring to it and it is a much more pleasing name than the now deeply ingrained and for some reason widely accepted term ‘Tyne and Wear’ which the American writer Paul Theroux compared to ‘Time and Wear’ (as in worn by time) but we’ll come to that ‘county’ in a moment.
North of the Tees (and yes we do mean the Tees) the name Northumberland (or in Latin style ‘Northumbria’) survived the Viking annexation of Yorkshire. It was a reminder that the whole of the North was once the name of the ancient kingdom of everything English north of the Humber. During the Viking era this remaining Northumbrian rump split into two parts with the land between the Tyne and Tees ultimately becoming County Durham, but the term Northumberland continued to be used north of the Tyne.
Durham developed as a kind of buffer state between Viking Yorkshire and the rest of Northumberland. Centred initially on Chester-le-Street (Conecaster) and then later Durham City it was focused on the revered shrine of St Cuthbert. ‘St Cuthbert’s Land’ as the fledgling County Durham was known was later called ‘Haliwerfolc’ (meaning Holy-man-people and certainly more northern than the ‘folc’ of Norfolk). It was recorded as Dunelmensisschira meaning Durham-Shire in 1100 but ‘shire’ or ‘folk’ never caught on as part of Durham’s name.
As a County Palatine ruled by Prince Bishops, the name County Durham later came into being as the Prince Bishops’ powers depleted. We should not forget that their influence was extensive across the region. I’m always amused by road signs telling yo that you’re entering the ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ on the A19 near Sheraton just north of Hartlepool or on the A1(M) south of Washington. The ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ in fact begins at the Tees and ends at the Tyne not according to some modern make-shift administrative boundary. In fact it ends about a quarter of way across the Tyne on the Gateshead side.
The boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead were founded by the Prince Bishops marking the very beginning of those places as towns. Hartlepool was the Prince Bishop’s port, Stockton the site of one of their major castles. The Priors of Durham founded the port of South Shields. And of course the links between Washington (Washingon CD for County Durham) and the beginnings of the esteemed family of that nameis also directly linked to the Prince Bishops. Agreed that all of these events are a very long time ago but these places are still linked to the unique history of Durham. It’s part of what makes them special and interesting and different and part of their historic identity.
Durham continued to act as a kind of buffer state in post Conquest times with its defensive focus now, like that of Northumberland, directed towards the constant inroads of invading Scots. In later times Durham’s rich medieval roots were eclipsed by a new era of industrialisation. It became an industrial powerhouse of shipbuilding and engineering and above all coal mining with a population straddling the banks of the three great rivers of the North East and the Durham coalfield itself stretching north to the banks of the Tyne.
County Durham of course shared the Tyne with the neighbouring county of Northumberland (and with Newcastle) and shared the Tees with Yorkshire. It’s true that some of the strongest regional identities developed in the riverside communities where the allegiance can be more to the river rather than the county but this isn’t adequately reflected in terms like Tees Valley or Tyne and Wear.
Tynesiders and Teessiders and Wearsiders all identify most closely with their riverside communities which unite each of the people in each of the three areas. I think it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear anyone identify themselves with Tyne and Wear or Tees Valley – unless they’re a politician.
The Wear is odd man out as far as the three great rivers go as it was never a shared river in terms of county allegiance. It was and undoubtedly still is the County Durham river, rising in the Durham fells before flowing through Weardale, the historic town of Bishop Auckland, the City of Durham and Chester-le-Street. The it leaves the county without any apparent natural reason, eventually entering the sea at Sunderland in what is or was the largest and perhaps proudest of all the Durham towns – though now of course a city. It is to Sunderland to which this County Durham river is now most closely linked yet for the entire course of County Durham’s history up until 1974 it was entirely a County Durham river .
Today Sunderland is no longer in County Durham and any glance of the map shows that has become an appendage of the so-called ‘Tyne and Wear’.
Like Cleveland and Humberside ‘Tyne and Wear’ was established as a county in 1974 and despite its let’s be honest ugly name is still somehow going strong today, although now as a unified partnership of individual boroughs and cities linked by economic interests and an admittedly excellent integrated transport system.
Like ‘Tees Valley’ the Tyne and Wear makes much sense on an economic and business level but culturally and geographically there is something highly contrived about the term ‘Tyne and Wear’. In my view, any label given to a geographical entity that includes the doubtfully justifying word ‘and’ in its title must clearly have some kind of inherent disunity at some level. It might work for a business partnership but for political geography the term ‘and’ never really convinces.
Wearside, the City of Sunderland has a population of around 270,000 people that includes large, neighbouring towns, but in reality places like Washington and Houghton-le-Spring which may close relationships with Sunderland are really separate entities.
Tyneside by comparison is mostly a continuous almost homogeneous urban region (perhaps not an endearing description) straddling two sides of the Tyne. Tyneside has a much larger population than Wearside with around one million people – a point, incidentally, rarely taken into account when comparing the relative size of support for the rival Tyne-Wear football teams .
It would be interesting to know what people think of the old counties and if they still fell an affiliation to them within the Tyne and Wear and Tees Valley regions. I suspect older people, particularly in outlying towns and villages in boroughs and cities like Gateshead, Sunderland and Newcastle may still have a closer affiliation to traditional counties rather than the modern ones and those in the larger towns connect more closely with terms Tynesider (or Geordie), Wearsider/Mackem or Teessider.
On my travels I have certainly found an affinity with older people to the traditional counties such as County Durham in places like Houghton-le-Spring and Hetton-le-Hole. North of the Tyne Newcastle, Gosforth and particularly North Tyneside: Whitley Bay, Tynemouth and North Shields in particular certainly seem to me to have something very Northumbria in their nature and personality as much as they are ‘Geordie’ when compared to say Gateshead or South Shields to the south of the river.
Of course the Tyne (like the Tees) despite its different communities unites as much as it divides, whether it be in the form of the wider ‘Geordie’ culture or in sporting terms where Tyneside is mostly ‘United’ in Newcastle as its focal centre.
Yet in 2016 a vote on a region-wide North East devolution deal suggested that in another sense the traditional county divisions may still be strong. Durham County, Sunderland, Gateshead and South Tyneside all voted against the devolution plan for a North East combined authority. In other words all the places in the old County of Durham. **
However places north of the Tyne: Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland all voted in favour. Subsequently a new deal was formulated solely focused on the region north of the Tyne – the Northumberland of old.
Historic identities dating back thousands of years are perhaps harder to shift than we realise despite the brutal machinations and manoeuvrings of London bureaucrats and local marketing men.
*Note confusingly 1974 also saw the annexation of that part of Teesdale south of the River Tees from Yorkshire into County Durham, moving places such as Romaldkirk and Mickleton into Durham. The administration of Teesdale is of course focused on Barnard Castle, historically a County Durham town on the north side of the river.
** The ‘Tees Valley’ counties were not included in the North East combined authority vote as they already had their own version of this.
DAVID SIMPSON speaks to former London marathon winner and Olympic medallist, Charlie Spedding about his big plan to tackle obesity and help the nation lose a million pounds in weight
A former North East Olympic marathon medallist has launched an ambitious online campaign to help thousands of people lose millions of pounds in weight.
Charlie Spedding, 64, is the owner of ‘Who Wants to Lose a Million Pounds’ a venture that hopes to tackle the nation’s escalating obesity problem, helping people become healthy without feeling hungry:
“I have this collective idea of a whole group of people losing a million pounds” says Charlie, one of the region’s most successful athletes, referring to losing the ‘lbs’ rather than the ‘£s’.
Born in Bishop Auckland and raised in Ferryhill, Charlie started running at school where cross country was compulsory:
“It was the first thing I was any good at” he recalls.
Charlie came second in the English School Championship for 1,500 metres in his final year at school and at 16, joined Gateshead Harriers, regularly taking a bus trip from Ferryhill to Gateshead just to train. Charlie proved not quite fast enough for the middle distances, but moved up to 5,000 and 10,000 metres before finally making his mark in the marathon.
The pinnacle of his career came in 1984, when he won both the Houston and London marathons and claimed Bronze in the Los Angeles Olympics, narrowly missing out on silver to Irishman John Treacy by two seconds.
Considering the marathon’s central place in the Olympic story, Charlie can take particular pride in being the only Brit to have won an Olympic marathon medal in the last 52 years. Furthermore he is one of only six British athletes to have won the London Marathon since its inception in 1981 and is the third fastest British marathon runner of all time, after Steve Jones and Mo Farrah.
I met Charlie at his home in a village near Durham to talk about loseamillionpounds.com the website at the heart of his new business venture. First, though, I ask Charlie if he thinks he should be better remembered for his past achievements.
He’s somewhat philosophical and modestly recalls that there were some great gold medallists around at the time like Seb Coe and Daley Thompson but he proudly reflects on a prized photo of himself with Steve Cram and Mike Mcleod fresh on arrival back at Newcastle from Los Angeles in 1984.
By trade, Charlie is a pharmacist and has been for most of his life, training at Sunderland Polytechnic Pharmacy School, before starting his pharmacy career in Ferryhill. In more recent times he owned a pharmacy business in Wallsend and along with his athletics experience this gave him a sound knowledge of diet, nutrition and how the body works at the chemical and hormonal level.
In his work as a pharmacist he became acutely aware of the dietary problems that many people have: “I just noticed that most of the people I saw regularly had what you call metabolic diseases, not infections” he says “their internal metabolism had gone awry, it wasn’t working properly, they’d been taking medication for years and hardly any of them got any better”.
He concluded that medication was treating the symptom, not the cause of the problem and felt that it would do a lot more good to prevent the cause.
“A lot of metabolic diseases are caused by lifestyle and the most important bit of lifestyle is diet” he says. “I know a lot of people would expect me as an Olympic marathon runner to say exercise, and exercise is very important for mental and physical health” but he quotes the words of influential NHS cardiologist, Dr Aseem Malhotra, who says “you can’t outrun a bad diet”, a point on which Charlie agrees.
Charlie notes we are told that one third of the UK has a BMI (Body Mass Index) of over 25 and that another quarter has a BMI of over 30. “It’s not good, but how do you visualise that?” he asks.
As part of the argument Charlie assumes a BMI of over 25 is about 2 stone overweight and a BMI of over 30 is 5 stone overweight. With roughly 60 million people in the country one third of the population is 20 million and one quarter is 15 million. Charlie equates this to a UK population that is a staggering 2,000 million pounds overweight. On this basis, the North East, which has one of the highest levels of obesity within its 2.5 million people, is around 85 million pounds overweight. Charlie thinks that if he can gather together a group of people on his site to collectively lose a million pounds it would be a great start in beating obesity.
Charlie’s particular dietary approach to tackling the problem will have its critics. He is an advocate of a LCHF based diet (Low Carbohydrate, High Fat). There are a number of eminent supporters of this approach but in the UK there are some major heavyweight opponents such as the NHS who are broadly opposed or at least very cautious and the British Heart Foundation who are a significant opponent. High fat diets are often associated in some minds with heart disease but Charlie refutes this research.
He acknowledges that his approach does not fit in with official guidelines and his website makes this clear. His opinion has been informed from extensive research and he encourages people to make their own decisions with their own research.
In truth, major aspects of Charlie’s campaign are hard to deny. Reducing sugar, present in so many processed foods (a particular bugbear for Charlie) and sugary drinks is a key part of Charlie’s campaign and certainly a key factor in tackling obesity. Charlie is a great believer in what he calls ‘real foods’ as opposed to processed foods and advocates the importance of cooking as opposed to ready meals.
Widespread processed foods, excessive carbohydrates and sugary drinks are a relatively recent feature of the human story and Charlie believes humans are not equipped to cope with this change. Foods with more fat content are in tune with the way we have evolved according to Charlie.
He feels the terminology of ‘fat’ is something of an issue. “The problem is we use the same word for dietary fat as being fat” he says. In fact scientists call the fats within our body ‘lipids’ but it is understandable that in the public mind it is hard not to associate ‘being fat’ with dietary fat.
“It’s carbohydrates that make you fat”, says Charlie.
He notes that fats of various kinds are an essential part of our body’s structure and that much of the body is made from fat. The brain for example is around 70% fat and our cells are encased in membranes made of fat while our nerves are encased in protective sheaths that are fat. Charlie notes that while the body is made up of proteins and fats, “no part of the body is made from carbohydrates” and advocates that fats are a perfectly good source of energy.
He argues that saturated fat as part of a diet became demonised, especially after 1977 when official US dietary guidelines encouraged a diet based on carbohydrates (bread, potatoes, pasta) and discouraged fats (butter, lard, cream, eggs, cheese). Much of the world followed suit, but Charlie highlights a graph on his website that shows a very sharp and continuing increase in obesity in the US since 1977 which he associates with the dietary changes.
According to Charlie some researchers think a low fat diet and lack of correct nutrients increase health and mental health problems and he points to a theory that Alzheimer’s Disease may actually be type 3 diabetes.
It’s seemingly the excess glucose from carbohydrates that is the big problem. The liver turns extra glucose into fat and this makes you fat and the high levels of insulin that come from high blood sugar content prevent the burning of the fat.
Although LCHF diets have picked up a significant following in recent years there is a significant body of opinion that disagrees with Charlie’s approach. As with many issues in the modern world it is sometimes difficult to get to the truth.
Clearly, processed food manufacture is a multi-billion pound business and sugary drinks are amongst some of the world’s most powerful brands and Charlie is cautious of this: “Big business definitely affects some of the research” he says “when I see a scientific paper on nutrition, I always look to see who paid for it. In my opinion it’s nearly always funded by the sugar industry in some form or another”.
Charlie is clearly animated and excited by his new venture and is aiming for at least 20,000 subscribers in order to achieve the million pound weight loss. “I want people to join and learn more about what a healthy diet and lifestyle is” he says.
There are opportunities for family membership (£8.99 a month) so that families can work together for mutual support and individual membership is £5.99 a month. The site includes a personal page for each member to record their progress, calculating how much weight has been lost and plotting it on a chart. There are regular articles and updates on how to enjoy delicious foods that satisfy and nourish, video clips, recipes, meal suggestions, articles, ideas on exercise, information on childhood development and lots of regular blogs.
“I’m aware I’ve got an uphill struggle” says Charlie, using what might be seen as a runner’s metaphor but that seems unlikely to deter him given his proven track record for endurance.
Note: This article is not intended as an endorsement of loseamillionpounds.com or Charlie’s views by the England’s North East site. As with all diets, consult your doctor if you are not sure. The opinions expressed on loseamillionpounds.com are based on intensive research however they arenot intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional.
As Hillary Clinton continues her campaign to become the next President of the United States, DAVID SIMPSON examines her family connections to the North East and our region’s historic links to people of power and influence.
Hillary Clinton’s North East Links
It was not until relatively recent times that Hillary Rodham developed a preference for publicly using her marital surname as she pursued her high-flying political career. Despite her marriage to the man who would one day be President, Hillary would often go by the name Hillary Rodham. Whether she was aware of it or not, she was preserving a family name that has links to North East England going back perhaps more than a thousand years.
Hillary’s father, Hugh Rodham, was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1911 but his father, Hugh Simpson Rodham, came from a family of coal miners and was born in the County Durham mining village of Kyo, near Annfield Plain in the year 1879.
Hillary’s grandfather was only a child when he left Durham for the United States along with his mother, Isabella Bell (a name that must surely have posed questions of amusement within the family). The young lad’s coal miner father, Jonathan Rodham originally of Wagtail Cottage, Holmside near Craghead had gone in search of new opportunities in the New World and with work secured there, he invited his spouse and child to join him.
Hillary Rodham’s paternal family tree and its associated branches show many links to coal mining in Durham and the North East, most notably around Tanfield and Chester-le-Street but also with links to Bishop Auckland and Wallsend. They were people of humble origin, although Hillary’s great-great-great grandfather, a Jonathan Rodham, married an Ann Parkinson at the fairly esteemed location of St Mary-le-Bow church, in the shadow of Durham Cathedral.
Other County Durham family members in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry could well be descendants of Northumberland ‘Border Reiver’ stock with a smattering of Border Reiver surnames in the family tree that include Charltons, Bells and Grahams. There are no Armstrongs in this family, though, or at least as far as we can see. That would have been an interesting link as a descendant of that particular reiver family group have made their mark on American and world history in ways that take us well beyond our skies.
Many generations of the coal mining Rodhams in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry are linked to County Durham but their true roots are just to the north in the neighbouring county of Northumberland. Here, their very name stems from a place called Roddam (its name means ‘at the forest clearings’) and today it is the site of Roddam Hall. The name Roddam is the root of the Rodham surname, despite the slightly different spelling, and Rodhams and Roddams are thought to be the oldest family in Northumberland.
Roddam is near the tiny town of Wooler about eight miles – as the crow flies – from the border with Scotland though you’d have to cross the wild terrain of the Cheviot Hills to reach the border.
According to a Scot called John Major (now I’m sure I’ve heard that name before) writing some time in the 1500s, there was a man called Pole who was granted land at Roddam by King Æthelstan way back in Anglo-Saxon times. This man became the first member of the Roddam family, though over time some members of the family adopted the spelling Rodham.
It’s also interesting to note that among the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast are rocks called Roddam and Green, though it’s not clear how or if these might relate to the family name of Roddam or the place near Wooler.
Our region’s connections to George Washington
If Hillary Clinton is successful in her quest to become US president she will find herself in esteemed company in respect to her links to North East England as the distant roots of George Washington himself can be found within our region.
The historic village of Washington, once in County Durham – we could perhaps call it ‘Washington CD’ – is now surrounded by the modern town of Washington and is a part of the City of Sunderland. It is the place from which the entire Washington family, everywhere in the world, take their name.
The name De Wessyngton (meaning ‘from Washington’) as the family were initially called, reflected the earlier spelling of the place that they acquired and of which they became lords around 1180. The family was originally called De Hartburn as they came from Hartburn near Stockton-on-Tees in the south of our region.
They changed their name upon moving location after purchasing Washington (Wessyngton) from Hugh Pudsey (c1125-1195), the powerful Prince Bishop of Durham.
Perhaps coincidentally, their family crest consisted of stars and stripes. In the 1400s one member of their family became a Prior of Durham Cathedral, an important and powerful political post whose influence was felt across the region. Prior Washington was second only in power to the Bishop in the North East.
Descendants of the Durham Washingtons held land here in the North East until the 1600s but during the 1300s some members of the family had moved on to Lancashire and then ultimately to Sulgrave in Northamptonshire. Nevertheless, they kept their Washington name and it was from this branch of the family that the very first President of the United States was descended. Ultimately though, it is from Washington in Sunderland that George Washington, Washington DC and the US state of Washington all take their name.
People of Power in Our Region’s Past
Aside from presidential connections, Durham and Northumberland are certainly no strangers to people of power in our history. We lay claim to figures of immense political influence and sometimes radical ones too, going right back to the earliest of times.
In the Anglo-Saxon era North Easterners like King Oswald (604-642AD) and King Oswiu (990-1035AD) became ‘Bretwaldas’ or overkings of all England. In later times, King Cnut, Viking ruler of Britain is said to have established a base on the site of Raby Castle in south Durham.
In medieval times the Neville and Percy families along with the Prince Bishops virtually ruled the north as a separate entity from their bases in Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire. Just outside our region at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire was the primary home of both King Richard III and Warwick the Kingmaker (1428-1471), a Neville – whose name literally described the immensity of his power.
Our connections with royalty extend into modern times too. The present Queen’s ancestry has firm roots in County Durham through the Bowes family while, the Duchess of Cambridge along with her husband William and their children cement these links further through her family’s humble Durham mining connections that are not unlike those of Hillary Clinton.
PMs and Political Giants of the North East
We have also had our notable share of Prime Ministers hailing from the region. Most recently, Tony Blair, though born in Scotland, was raised and schooled as a child in Durham and returned to represent the region in parliament. Under his influence the county of Durham became the only place in the UK outside London to be visited by President George W. Bush. The President dropped in on the home of Blair by helicopter before calling in for a meal at a local pub. Bush was the first US president to visit the region since Jimmy Carter came to visit both Newcastle and our Washington here in the North East back in 1977.
In addition to Blair, earlier Prime Ministers who have have hailed from our region included Anthony Eden (1897-1977) of Windlestone, who came from a well-established Durham family and of course the great Northumberland-born reformer Charles the 2nd Earl Grey of Northumberland (1764-1845). Yes it is he of tea fame, who tops the monument at the very heart of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Much of Grey’s Great Reform Bill that brought about radical changes to British democracy was drafted with the assistance of his son-in-law John George ‘Radical Jack’ Lambton (1792-1840), the First Earl of Durham, a coal owner to whom Sunderland’s Penshaw Monument is dedicated. Lambton, a statesman who forged important international links, first as the Ambassador to Russia, would become Governor General and High Commissioner of British North America. He was the man who instigated the process of Canadian independence from Britain.
Women of Power and Influence in the Region
The role of women may often be callously written out of the history books but the influence of powerful females is ever present and no less so than in the North East of England.
There have been many notable female figures of power in the region going right back to Roman times when the first ever Northerner to be mentioned by name was in fact a woman, Cartimandua, who was. a formidable female opponent to the Romans in the North. When the Romans arrived she ruled over much of our region from her fort near Scotch Corner.
Then there was St Hilda, abbess of Hartlepool and Whitby in Saxon times, in her time one of the region’s most powerful figures, who shaped the religious course of Northern England in those early times and a woman by whom kings were guided.
Some of our region’s most powerful political campaigners have been females, notably Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), the one-time MP for Middlesbrough and MP for Jarrow who was so influential in the famed Jarrow Hunger March for jobs in 1936.
Then from earlier times we have Josephine Butler. Born Josephine Grey (1828-1906) at Milfield near Wooler not so many miles from the ancestral home of the Roddams, Butler was one of the most determined and influential ladies in Victorian Britain. Her campaigns against human trafficking and her work on behalf of female suffrage helped to change the lives and often appalling situations of women living in the Victorian era and beyond.
We could also mention Gertude Bell (1868-1926), the Tyne, Wear and Tees industrialist’s daughter born at Sunderland’s Washington ‘New Hall’ only metres away from the ‘Old Hall’ that was the ancestral home of the illustrious Washington family. Bell became a mountaineer, a political administrator, a spy and an archaeologist with a penchant for Middle Eastern culture and politics.
Her extraordinary life included her brave acts of diplomacy; meeting face to face with powerful members of often turbulent Arabian desert tribes in what was very much a male dominated culture and era, even compared to Britain of that time. Bell was of course also noted for her part in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq, working alongside T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and she was by all accounts a very formidable person.
So it can be seen that whether or not Hillary Clinton comes to be elected as the first President of the United States, North East England is likely to take its links to her family very much in its stride. As a region we are certainly no strangers to people in positions of power.
RICHARD CALLAGHAN explains why Sunderland’s bid to be the 2021 UK City of Culture will be a great boost for both the city and the whole North East region.
Before I tell you about why I believe Sunderland becoming UK City of Culture in 2021 would be great not just for the city but for the region, I have to declare an interest.
As much as I would love to be able to make a living writing for esteemed publications such as this, I’m afraid I’ve actually got a day job working for the Sunderland City of Culture bid. Admittedly, this makes me less than impartial on this subject, but I can honestly say that, even if I wasn’t being paid to say it, I’d still think that City of Culture would be a great thing for the North East.
The UK City of Culture competition was founded following the success of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Culture had effected a transformative change upon Liverpool, the argument went, just as it had on Glasgow in 1990. Why should UK cities wait another twenty years to feel the effect again? The idea of the UK competition was that rather than seeing this boost once every few decades, it could be felt every four years instead.
Derry-Londonderry was the first city to win the title, being named UK City of Culture for 2013. If you’ve not already heard them, I’ll give you a quick run down of the numbers: 48 new start-up businesses as a result of their year. 25% rise in hotel occupancy in the first six months, with May to September the highest the city had ever seen. £5 back for every £1 of public money spent. £100m invested in the city through cultural programming and infrastructure. These are real numbers, real impacts.
Hull will take the title of City of Culture next year. The city’s already feeling the effects. Look at any newspaper, watch the six o’clock news, check out whichever news site you prefer. There are already world class artists coming to work in Hull, ready to make great art in the city next year. I’ve got family in Hull, which has meant I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for that unfashionable city on the Humber. It is, like Sunderland, significantly nicer than people who’ve never been there think it’s going to be. And, with the boost from City of Culture, with next year’s prize on the horizon, it’s a city metamorphosing. Go to Hull today and what you’ll see is a place getting ready to transform itself, a civic chrysalis preparing for its year as the national butterfly.
All of the economic impacts are great. Much needed, much welcomed in the North East. But for me, the power of the City of Culture, the reason why it would be so fantastic both for the city and the region, goes beyond the economy. The North East is a fantastic place. We all know this. It’s the place I was born, the place I’ve lived most of my life, the place I’ve chosen to raise my family. It is my home. The North East, as a place, is profoundly important to me.
Yet, too often, the perception of those from outside the region is of a post-industrial wasteland, of economic deprivation, of somewhere we’d all leave if only we could. It’s a destructive narrative, one that must be argued against for two reasons. First, it makes it harder to attract skilled people to the North East, harder to attract businesses, harder to attract investment. Why would you want to move to a cultural backwater, or an economic sinkhole? Why would you want to come somewhere everybody else wants to leave?
That’s the first reason, but for me it matters less than the second. The second reason is this. That narrative, the story we’re told about the North East, affects the way that we feel about ourselves. If the North East is a failed place, then the only people here are failures. If it’s somewhere everybody wants to leave, then the only people who stay are the people who have to. Because they’re not good enough for somewhere else. Because they couldn’t make it in Manchester, couldn’t hack it in London. They’ve settled for second best, accepted their lot. What that story says about us, all of us, is that we haven’t made a choice. We’re here because nobody else wants us.
Well, my friends, I’ve made a choice. I wouldn’t live in London if you paid me. For all its faults, for all its failures, I love the North East. There is nowhere else I’d rather live, nowhere else I’d rather raise my daughter. It’s a beautiful place, vibrant and exciting, with a fascinating history and a wonderful story to tell. That, for me, is the power of City of Culture. It’s an opportunity, a chance to tell a different story about the place, about ourselves. To make the argument for all of us who’ve chosen to be here because we want to be. The renaissance in Newcastle and Gateshead in the last two decades has begun to shift that narrative for Tyneside, but it’s time for the rest of the North East to see that kind of change.
If Sunderland becomes UK City of Culture in 2021, it’ll boost the region’s economy. It’ll attract national and international news coverage. It’ll bring world class art and world class artists into Sunderland’s communities, and offer people opportunities they’d never otherwise have. But it’ll go beyond that. It’ll help to change that story. It’ll mean that when people think of Sunderland, of the North East, they’ll not just be thinking “Post-industrial wasteland with three crap football teams,” they’ll be thinking, “They’ve got the Turner Prize there this year. They’ve got brilliant art exhibitions, groundbreaking theatre, fantastic concerts. They’ve got amazing events. They’ve still got three crap football teams (because some things never change).” That’s why I think Sunderland 2021 is important. That’s why I’m excited about it. And that’s why I think you should be excited about it too.
The smell of chocolate increases theta brain waves, which triggers relaxation. What better a reason do we need to indulge in one of the nation’s favourite treats? HELEN GILDERSLEEVE samples gourmet chocolate that is made right on our doorstep in Newcastle and speaks to a producer from local business, North Chocolates.
The aptly named North Chocolates founded in 2013 is the brainchild of local lass, Bev Stephenson of Forest Hall in Newcastle whose products have been described as ‘more desirable than world peace’ and proudly won ‘Artisanal Producer of the Year’ (Newcastle Business Awards, 2015).
Made from the finest couverture (which means less sugar, no vegetable fats and lashings of cocoa and cocoa butter) they specialise in small batch gourmet chocolate bars from the classic to the unusual. Think surprising flavours that you wouldn’t expect at all to go with chocolate that just seem to work. It’s like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory here in the North East. The fact that they’re healthier than the average chocolate bar is an added bonus!
Chocoholics are spoilt for choice with North which has a core range of 15 to 20 flavours including popping candy, lemon and sea salt, lavender, chilli and lime and coffee and cardamom (a particular favourite of mine). Yum!
I was unleashed to try a couple of bars and I must say I will now be a regular customer at North. I’m a big fan of dark chocolate and ginger so when I spied the award winning ginger and fennel bar, I knew it was the one for me and boy was I right. It had the perfect combination of richness and smoothness with the delicious zing of ginger and infused fennel. It didn’t last very long.
Next I tucked into the lavender bar. The creamy milk chocolate is enhanced beautifully by floral lavender tones. I (almost) felt guilty breaking into it as North bars are packed so prettily, wrapped in an array of coloured foil complete with a quirky ribbon bow. These will certainly be high up on my Christmas list (family and friends, you know who you are).
I spoke with the chocolate goddess herself, Bev Stephenson, to find out the secrets behind her fantastic business:
How did you get into chocolate making?
I used to be a freelance journalist, specialising in food and lifestyle (The Guardian/ Observer, Metro North East) but then the recession hit! I’d been thinking long and hard about another career in food and I’d written articles on chocolate and played around with it a lot and thought I’d spotted a gap in the market. I got a lot of help from a friend who makes chocolate, went on a few courses and launched North in 2013.
Is the business going well?
Very well! I took on an apprentice last year, Gillian Ibbotson, who has been fantastic and I won ‘Artisan Producer of the Year’ in the Newcastle Business Awards last November which was a huge surprise. I wake up some nights thinking I need to hire more people and go bigger but then I wake up the next night worried people will stop liking the chocolate!
Which chocolate is the most popular?
Some bars have won awards including the dark Ginger & Fennel and the milk Lemon & Lemon Sea Salt so they have a head start, but the Chilli & Lime, Coffee (using the Ouseburn Coffee Company beans) and my new one Liquorice & Blackcurrant have sold brilliantly. Bizarrely the milk Geranium is one of my other best sellers – geranium is very similar to rose so it’s a little like eating Turkish Delight without the jelly! It’s a real love or loathe bar but for those who like it they keep coming back for more.
Many people would view what you do as a dream job, would you agree?
I truly love this job but it has its ups and downs. When you’re covered in sticky chocolate and you’ve done an 18 hour day to try and complete orders and then you have to clean down your kitchen, do the marketing, the social media, the admin and then pack and deliver the bars then it can get a little overwhelming! But all small businesses have those pressures and when someone says they love what you’re producing and come back for more it’s honestly the best feeling in the world.
How do you sample?
Some people prefer milk or dark so I always ask them that first and I try to winkle out if they’re adventurous or prefer something more classic in their chocolate bar. I have some flavours that people hate and that’s no problem – we all have different tastes and palates – but sampling is important as we’re sometimes a little safe and they may try and absolutely love something they wouldn’t necessarily buy and that’s a great feeling.
Where can people buy North chocolate?
I’m mainly based in the North East in a lot of delis and shops around the region including Fenwick and some National Trust outlets. You can buy via the website: www.northchocolates.co.uk or if you click on stockists on the site, it gives you a list of where to nab your bars!
More chocolate makers and sellers around the region.
There’s a wonderful variety of chocolate makers and chocolate sellers in and around the North East. Here’s a selection:
North Chocolates, Newcastle
Fabulous range of flavours from Bev Stephenson owner of Newcastle’s ‘Artisanal Producer of the Year’ 2015 (Newcastle Business Awards). Dark chocolate range includes Ginger and Fennel; Geranium and Orange and Chilli and Lime. Milk chocolate flavours include Lavender and Lemon and Lemon Sea Salt. There are many others to try. For details visit www.northchocolates.co.uk or find on Twitter @bevnorthchocs
The Chocolate Smiths, Newcastle
Unusual flavours made by The Chocolate Smiths of Newcastle include everything from bacon to bubblegum. Intriguing flavours include cheese and cracker and peanut butter and pretzel. The Chocolate Smiths sell through a number of North East stockists. For details visit thechocolatesmiths.com or find them on Twitter @ChocolateSmiths
Kenspeckle of Northumberland make unique chocolates and home-made fudge created by a dedicated team who create favourites of yester-year with a traditional artisan twist. Notable products include Northumbrian Honey Truffles and Puffin Beak pralines. Find them online at www.kenspeckle.co.uk or on Twitter @kenspeckle_choc
The Little Chocolate Shop, Leyburn, North Yorkshire
Situated in Leyburn in Wensleydale, this small chocolate factory has a visitor centre where you can watch chocolate being made. You can sample the wares in the adjoining shop and cafe. Visit online at littlechocolateshop.co.uk and on Twitter @littlechocshop
Kennedys Fine Chocolates, Cumbria
Based in Orton village near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria, Kennedy’s is a small family chocolate making company producing more than 90 chocolate varieties. Visit their website at kennedyschocolates.co.uk or on Twitter @kennedyschocs
Chcocolate Fayre, Barnard Castle (shop)
Chocolate Fayre of 31a Horsemarket, Barnard Castle, have chocolates and truffles specially hand made for their delightful shop in this county Durham dalestown. For more details visit www.chocolatefayre.co.uk or Twitter @ChocFayre
Hotel Chocolat, Newcastle (Shop)
One of a number of luxury chocolate sellers nationwide, the Newcastle store is based in Blackett Street. Visit online at hotelchocolat.com or on Twitter @HotelChocolat