In the summer when my two daughters were little, on those rare occasions when it was a warm sunny Saturday, my wife and I had this habit of taking the kids to Corbridge. The centre is very old; with its Roman Fort guarding an ancient crossing place on the river Tyne, a stone bridge still spans it to this day. The buildings have seen so much history, raiders from across the borders with Scotland, the market place where goods were bought and sold for centuries long since passed. This ancient town now bypassed by modern dual carriageway and often forgotten about in the competition for tourists’ attention amongst the many jewels Northumberland has to offer, both scenic and historic. Nestled in the original small town square there is a shop where we would get sandwiches made up, each of us choosing our favourite filling and type of bread. Our mouths would water as we waited for the sandwiches to be crafted for our immense satisfaction, but there was more to come. Then we crossed the narrow road to buy cakes from the bakery opposite, I suspect that there has always been a bakers in this hidden town dating back to the Roman’s and possibly before. I remember thinking how grateful I was that this tiny town is less well known, as its charm has been preserved, the people are welcoming and grateful for the trade, but not in any hurry to become a beacon of mass tourism. The crowds go elsewhere, wafting past at 70 miles per hour to Hexham, Hadrian’s Wall, North Pennines, Lake District & Carlisle and so on. So we only whisper of the secret that is Corbridge, that is our sandwich shop & bakery (please don’t tell anyone!).
With sandwiches, cakes and drinks in the picnic hamper, with a table cloth folded and waiting to be used, we drove to another secret place only known to local people, and found by even fewer. The high hedges, narrow roads act as a maze to the uninitiated and many a traveller has given up, favouring the safety of the ‘A’ roads that are the epitome of Roman origin, straight and broad stretching far into the distance. But those willing and able to keep their sense of direction, as the lanes twist and turn, narrow to farm tracks and pitted with potholes and the occasional passing place, you will find the most magical of places to have a picnic. If you keep your head and ignore the utterly misleading road signs, which I am convinced are put there and changed by the locals to deceive people into driving in huge circles on dusty, bumpy, suspension grinding roads leading to and from nowhere, and the occasional heart stopping emergency stops in order not to become a fixture of huge green tractors, you may be lucky and find yourself on a rocky, dirty, cratered farm track that leads to the hidden gem called Aydon Castle. You can’t see it until you are almost upon it but as it unfolds before you it never ceases to become the most mystical and welcoming of visions, with ivy covered ruined turrets.
The name is a little misleading, it is a very old fortified manner house that was built from the remnants of local Roman Forts and Wall, to create high, thick impregnable walls and fortifications to make any group of Border Raiders fade back to easier conquests. Built on an outcrop of rock surrounded on three sides by a very steep sided wooded valley with a stream going through it, it stands as a monument to a time when such walls were needed and if you were the local lord you could afford the best. Even though in ruins to some extent, the walls now crumbling but so do all walls given the passage of centuries, it is still able to impress by its obvious grandeur. Passing by the remnants of once mighty oak gates an inn curtain wall encompassing the stone manner house & storage barns. Inside their is a lovely grassed area giving a sense of openness despite the walls, Aydon is a place where the kids can run round exploring the grounds, and buildings, letting their imaginations run wild.
As you step into the main courtyard of the manor house, Aydon has another secret it wishes to share with you. To the left is an open doorway inviting you to step through. As you step from the shadows cast by the courtyard high walls into brilliant sunlight, it is as if you have been transported into a walled apple orchard. I suspect this orchard is as old as the buildings and perfect for sitting in, breathing in the clean air, slight fragrance of hay meadow, the perfect carpet below the apple trees on which to unfold the picnic. Often you only share this magical place with the occasional bee or wasp curious as to the cakes and drinks we had, but these slight irritations were easily chased away and never dampened the experience. I knew from the very first time we went that this was a place that would become a memory my children would never forget, family time in peaceful surroundings that were once only the preserve of the local Lord and his family. Now their home had become a regular fixture and a lifelong memory for my children of happy times.
There was more to explore below Aydon and as our family tradition had dictated, once the sandwiches, cakes and drinks were consumed, and before we left, we would make our way down a very steep, snaking, narrow path to the side of the farm yard attached to Aydon. The path led below the dark, rich, green canopy of late summer leaves, humid and sticky air, where eyes initially struggled to adjust from brilliant sunlight to shade and shadows. I always remembered shafts of light breathing through the canopy as the a slight breeze would move the tree tops, pure spears of light darting from place to place as the leaves moved. Far below in the steep valley bottom the light would dazzle and sparkle as these spears of pure white hit water. Slipping and sliding down the path on tinder dry leaves of last year’s Autumn shed, we made our way further and further into the V shaped valley, and it was only until you were nearly at the end of the path could you see the destination we were aiming for.
The air was often still in the very lowest point of the valley, which wound its way round the Aydon outcrop of rock high above us, impossible to see forming the most natural of ancient defences to any aggressor. At the bottom the dirt path turned into an old wooden bridge just spanning the stream, and on the other side the path continued winding its way up the other side of the valley in the direction of Corbridge some miles away. Nearer to the stream it was cooler, the brook babbling along over stones as it snaked on the valley bottom, turning this way and that, until it passed just beneath the rickety old bridge. We would stop and watch the water or display from Swallows and Swifts darting effortlessly taking insects on the wing. Occasionally these aerial feathered acrobats would land on the banks of the stream as if to dip their feet for a paddle, gathering mud for their nests that we had seen hanging below the eaves and overhangs of the castle, the few summer residents of this once grand building. It was such a magical time there on the bridge but we weren’t finished yet.
Full of sandwiches and cakes, the children would, under close watch from my wife and I, rush around, as we just waited for one to slip and fall into the shallow water, I mean it was almost guaranteed wasn’t it. If watery disaster was avoided my babies would return to the bridge with sticks in hands and there we would enact the classic and wonderful Poo-Sticks over and over. Our excitement would shatter the peace of this hidden gem, and yes we inadvertently scared off the birds and woodland wildlife within a ½ mile radius, but to be perfectly honest we didn’t care, we knew we were in a moment in time that was special to us. Time slipped away so quickly at Aydon, such wonderful times, such peaceful times where nothing else existed, no problems of stresses could penetrate the canopy, just joy and happiness as a family, playing with twigs. I miss these times so much, times before wheelchairs, ramps, hoists, before the indignity of personal care, the lack of any sense of spontaneity or independence. But I am not sad that these times have gone as they are still with me, when my mind drifts I find myself at these magical places we had found, these times we had played. I cherish these memories so very much as these times aren’t past they are very much with me and now even being repeated by my children.
Yours most sincerely
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