Posted by: Steve | April 20, 2013

Grey seal pup at Boulmer

What a fantastic morning!

It’s been a long,  l  o  n  g     w  i  n  t  e  r, and it was so good to feel the warmth of the sun for the first time in 2013. I’ve just finished a large database project, so a long walk along the Northumberland coast sounded like the ideal way to clear all the leftover queries and tables from my aching head.

Leaving Dawn and Lynne in an Alnmouth tea-shop I launched Henry, our crazy cocker spaniel, North, up the beach towards Boulmer. The sea was clear and calm, with brilliant-white breakers frothing on the rising tide.

There was plenty of wildlife to be seen: eider  ducks, grey heron, and the first house-martins of the year, swooping around the cottages at Boulmer.

Henry and I were both very surprised to find this little chap sunbathing among the rocks near Boulmer.


The grey seal pup looked fit and well-fed, and didn’t mind having her photograph taken at all. After a few minutes she became very relaxed: stretching, scratching and basking in the sunshine.

Seal Pup 2

My first instinct was to try and ‘rescue’ her, but I remembered that the advice in this situation is to leave the pup alone, then check the location after 24 hours to see if it is actually injured or sick.

I’ll go back to the spot tomorrow, but I’m hoping that she’ll have taken advantage of the high tide, and calm sea to swim back to her home on one of the local islands. 

Seal pup 3

Update, 21/04/2013

Bad news – we checked on the pup this morning. She’s still there, but she doesn’t look very well at all. I’ve been in touch with the British Divers Marine Life Rescue Team they’re sending their guys out to help later today. Hope she makes it!

Update, 22/04/2013

The BDMLR team took a look at the pup yesterday afternoon. The feedback I was given was the she was reasonably well and active. They decided to leave her on the beach for a little while longer, and see how things progressed. When I visited the spot this morning (Monday) there was no trace of the pup, so it looks like she’s made it back out to sea.

I rang my report into the BDMLR, and they seemed quite happy with that news. I’m advised that she may return to the same spot again if she’s finding food and shelter in the area. We’ll certainly be watching out for her over the next week or so.

Posted by: Steve | January 1, 2013

2012 – A year in Muck Boots

Muck Boots 2012After the demise of my old wellies in 2011 I decided to break with tradition and kit myself out with a pair of new-fangled ‘Muck Boots’. They’ve proved to be a good investment, with 2012 being confirmed as the UK’s wettest year since records began in 1910.

It’s not just the weather that’s been unsettled in 2012, it’s been a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs for me personally, with family health problems and some long-overdue career changes to deal with.

Thankfully, Dawn’s mum has fully recovered from the mini-stroke she suffered in April. My dad is still as active as ever after his third treatment for bladder cancer. At 84 years old he’s still making it to the local bookmaker’s on a daily basis!

To escape the dreadful weather at home we took off for the guitar festival in Cordoba in July. It was a brilliant holiday, great food, wine, and a good hotel, The Hesperia, in a very safe and friendly city. The guitar festival was a little more low-key than we’d expected, but we did see some brilliant, authentic flamenco danced by Mercedes Ruiz.

Despite the recession (is it a triple-dip, or have they given up counting?) we’ve been very lucky to find ourselves in a position to pay off our mortgage. By reducing our spending a little we worked out that I could afford make some big career changes.

I’d been working as a quality manager for a medium-sized engineering company since 2007. It’s a role that I really wasn’t enjoying, particularly after the company opened offices in London and Qatar. In October I switched to a part-time job on the Performance & Development team at Northumberland County Council in Morpeth. No more daily 90 mile commutes to work! I’m also doing much more database development work, building on the skills I gained as part of my BSc in 2006.

As well as paying our bills, the part-time contract has given me enough free time to launch and develop my own software design company – metamatix. It’s too early to say if the new venture is going to be viable as a full-time job, the competition is cut-throat, but this is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so I’m giving it my best shot.

Although the new business is demanding a lot of attention I’m slowly beginning to re-gain some free time for long walks with Henry, lots of chores around the house, and… some practice-time on the banjo!

I’m hoping to get back to some regular traditional music sessions around Northumberland later in 2013. Unfortunately I’m well out of practice and my playing is, well, pretty awful right now…

Did I hear someone say ‘it always was’?

Posted by: Steve | November 4, 2012

Autumn frost 2012

Sunday morning in November

After last night’s fireworks bursting in clear, velvet skies we woke to a landscape crisp with sugary frost this morning. We just had to grab the camera and snap a few shots down by the Coquet near Felton. It was a beautiful autumn morning, with a wintry sun casting long shadows across the Northumbrian countryside.

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Posted by: Steve | August 19, 2012

Alnmouth Raft Race 2012

Another brilliant success!

By tradition we use the Otter’s Holt ‘eye in the sky’ surveillance drone to monitor the annual Alnmouth Raft Race. Due to austerity measures, and a dodgy spark plug, we found ourselves on-foot, cheek-to-cheek so to speak, with the sweaty masses on a hot August afternoon. Luckily we managed to avoid a drenching from the RNLI lifeboat as the guys softened up the crews of this year’s shoddy and shambolic craft.

Batmen get a soaking

Splish-splash for Team GB

Tension increased as the start was delayed – the Alnmouth press-gang toured the village pubs and eventually rounded up the stragglers.

Wait for the hooter guys!

In time-honoured fashion the klaxon signalled the start of the 2012 race. As always no holds are barred in this contest of strength, stamina and seamanship.

No holds barred!

Within a matter of minutes the Bat-raft was surging ahead. Clearly a lot of work had gone into the design of this craft – a long, strong projectile that seemed to thrust it’s way forward through the softly yielding waves. I must ask the guys where they got the idea for this!

Hey ho – look at those bat men go!

With the Bat-raft surging through the foam at about 15 knots, the bow-wave was causing a few problems for some of the other competitors. Anyone seen the RNLI?

Someone send up a flare

Tactics always play a major part in the raft race. Even as the bats surged ahead, competition for second and third places was intense. Maybe one of these guys made a quip about ‘lady drivers’.

Toot toot – let the ladies through

With consistent form throughout the race, and a technically advanced boat, it was no surprise that the bats romped in first.

Bats fly home to roost

I wouldn’t dare to suggest that the golfers were sore losers, but it looks like they tossed their captain into the rough at the end of a disappointing voyage.

Golfer tossed into the rough

All that salty seawater and man-handling seems to have placed an unbearable strain on the elastic in this golfer’s pants. Anyone got a bit of string?

Elastic catastrophe at Alnmouth raft race 2012

Team GB flew the flag for England, pushing their raft over the finish line.

Team GB push ahead of the French

“Qu’est-ce qui a mal tourné mes amis. Ne comprends-tu pas que nous devons ramer ce petit bateau à Calais? Nos bras sont comme les jambes de grenouilles, il n’y a pas assez de viande sur eux. Nous sommes vraiment les misérables.”

Les Miserables

All-in-all a great afternoon’s entertainment with all collected donations going  to the RNLI. Thanks to the villagers, friends and families for putting in all the hard graft and making the day another brilliant success.

Alnmouth rafters line up for a ‘kick the golfer’s ass’ competition

Posted by: Steve | July 26, 2012

Big Olympic Buzz on Tyneside

Sport meets culture on the banks of the Tyne 

Most of the olympic action might be hundreds of miles away down in that-there London, but that isn’t stopping the Tynesiders enjoying the Big Olympic Buzz on the banks of the Tyne this year. 

We had a great afternoon at the Sage recently – dropping in to catch some of the acts at their Americana festival.

The Sage Americana festival 2012

It was good to see the Tyne Bridge all decked out with the Olympic rings – very impressive!

Olympic Bridge

Walking along the Quay through the market stalls was a truly multi-cultural experience, particularly under the new palm trees!

Tyneside Millenium Bridge

There were all kids of delights on sale, from goat curry to chocolate churos. There was even some impromptu Irish dancing at the Gateshead end of the MilleniumBridge. 

Impromptu jig – The New Post Office

There’s even more Olympic fun planned in the region, one of the highlights being the Newcastle-Gateshead Bridges Festival on the weekend of the 4th & 5th August 2012 – details here

Posted by: Steve | July 15, 2012

Rothbury traditional music festival 2012

Blue skies over Rothbury

Well, it’s been an awful Summer but we were lucky to see blue skies, at least for a while, over this year’s trad music fest at Rothbury. It’s been a year of changes for the festival with the launch of their new web site at . Not only that, the fest has gone all high-tech with twitter on .

One thing I noticed right away as I visited the various venues and events this year was the number of youngsters taking part. There definitely seem to be a lot of young, fresh faces in the Rothbury Ceilidh Band these days. I even spotted a new recruit among the ranks of the Rothbury Highland Pipe Band.

Young piper

Young piper

There was some phenomenal drumming to be heard, and some very rousing playing on the Highland pipes. The Rothbury pipers are on the net as well, get the full story at .

A well deserved award

A well deserved award

In bright sunshine the Hexham Morrismen and Hexhamshire Lasses entertained the crowds with top class dancing and music.

Hexham morris-man

Hexham morris-man

Hexhamshire Lasses

Hexhamshire Lasses

Due to other commitments I haven’t had much time to practice the banjo this year, so I did the festival a favour and left it at home. The sessions seemed a little less well attended, at least on Saturday afternoon, but there was still lots of great music – Scottish, Irish and of course, Northumbrian.

Session at The Queen's

Session at The Queen’s

I rounded the afternoon off with a nice pork pie, then a splendid pint at the Queen’s Head, listening to some great box playing, courtesy of Mary Larkin, with Carol Hall providing backing on guitar. Mary orginates from Riverstown, Sligo, Carol is from South Shields.

Posted by: Steve | June 11, 2012

Springer Kip drowned at Druridge Bay

Awful news on the blind springer spaniel

This was the news we’d been dreading since poor Kip went missing on Wednesday 6th June 2012. Unfortunately searchers found his body washed up on the beach on Friday afternoon, 22nd June at Low Hauxley, just North of Druridge Bay.

We’d all been hoping that Kip would be reunited with his loving mum, Sylvia. Kip’s story has touched us all, and our hearts go out to Sylvia and her family.


Posted by: Steve | May 25, 2012

What to wear for… correspondence chess?

Comfortable shoes – with laces

In case anyone has any doubt, I’d just like to confirm that I am a grumpy old curmudgeon. OK, I admit it – I make Victor Meldrew sound like a cheerful optimist. In my defence I’d suggest that there’s a lot to be said for everything that’s reassuringly old-fashioned.

Comfortable shoes – with laces, watches with winders, Callard & Bowser liquorice toffees, correspondence chess…

Ah, correspondence chess, what a joy… the ‘slow game’. Sealing your move in a crisp envelope, marching briskly to the local post office, affixing a stamp for one-and-sixpence. Then off it goes, by night-train and ferry, steaming its way to some tweedy, European opponent in Hamburg or Vienna.

Then the wait for a reply. Days, weeks, months go by before you can puff the dust off your analysis board and ponder the response to your 1.E4.

Correspondence chess is back!

Memories of a bygone era? Well, no! Correspondence chess is back!

In the form of an ‘app’ for the iPhone or Android it’s all a little too modern for my taste, but it’s still a great way to play the ‘slow game’ with opponents from Kelso to Kyrgiztan.

I learned to play chess when I was about ten years old. Through my teens, on and off, I picked up all the basic moves and tactics; forks, pins, skewers. Now, in my fifties, I find that correspondence chess by phone allows me to explore the game in a little more depth. It’s currently one of the few leisure activities that I can slot into my busy, late-middle-age schedule.

With the 2012 olympics looming (if you’re reading this in the distant future you’ll know them as the ‘austerity games’) there’s hardly a mention of the 2012 World Chess Championship currently being played out in Moscow between ‘Vishy’ Anand and Boris Gelfand. With eight draws, and one win each out of the ten games played so far, it’s not exactly ablaze with thrills and spills. But this is a game of brains, not brawn. Even correspondence chess, played from the familiar comfort of a favourite armchair, demands that certain standards of fair-play and good manners are maintained.

Dress for chess…

Never play correspondence chess barefoot: particularly between the months October and May. Reliable brogues, waxed and polished, are the ideal footwear for chess, either at home or travelling by train. Never risk any form of slip-on shoe. Trust your laces to see you through to a sound ‘check mate’ at the close of the most taxing of endgames.

Freedom of movement and good air circulation are imperative, particularly for those with ratings rising into the 1800 range. Shorts, tracksuits, synthetic fibres in any form, are just inviting trouble, probably with an accompanying plunge back into the 1500’s. For success choose plus-fours… and good woollen socks – the best you can afford.

Upper body mobility is essential for accurate play. I follow the ‘layering’ method of the modern climber or alpine walker. Base layer in the summer months is a medium weight, cotton shirt with a conservative check, in muted brown or green.

Middle layer is my chess waistcoat. I picked it up in a charity shop for just a few pounds, but most of the stains are barely visible now. It’s a plummy sort of blue. Maybe a little flamboyant, but not distractingly so. If I had a few more pounds I’d probably choose a waistcoat with an extra inch or two around the midriff, this one seems to have shrunk.

Top layer is my trusty shooting jacket. I only ever wear this for playing chess or drinking single malt. Oh, I also wear it Sundays for my beef dinner down at the Tankerville… and I usually wear it if there’s a ‘do’ on at the playhouse. Come to think of it, it’s the only jacket I’ve got, so I wear it for everything. It’s still ideal for chess though – you can pop all the major chess-pieces into the shotgun cartridge loops. Unfortunately it doesn’t work with pawns – they just fall straight through onto the floor.

This is not John Douthwaite!

The ideal outfit for correspondence chess

Once you’re kitted out in the correct attire you’ll be eager to play your first game. Currently I’m playing France and the USA. My oponent in the States only has five days and nine hours left to make his next move. The Frenchman is making about three moves a day. I suppose that’s classed as a frantic pace in correspondence chess.

If you’ve got the footwear, socks, an Android phone or tablet, and the patience for correspondence chess, look for the ‘Chesspresso’ app in the Google Play store. Here’s a link to the Chesspresso website for a more serious description of the game.

Posted by: Steve | May 7, 2012

Ancient sites around Old Bewick

Magical and macabre

Finding myself with a few spare hours on the May bank holiday I packed Henry into the car boot and headed North up the A697. The plan was to try and find the hill fort and cup & ring marked rocks on the hills behind Old Bewick.

To find Old Bewick, take a right on the A697 about 2.5 miles North of Powburn (just past Scott’s sawmill). Follow the B6346 for about 4 miles until you reach the T juction. Turn right following the sign for Chatton. Travel on for about about 1.5 miles, Old Bewick is basically the farm and cottages on the right-hand side of the road. You can find a sensible spot to park here, or go a little further to find the track up to the Holy Trinity Chapel.

I’d visited the Holy Trinity Chapel at Old Bewick several times in the past – a magical site! It seemed like a good starting point to begin the trek uphill towards the fort. There’s a stile into a farmer’s field just over the little burn in the graveyard at the front of the church.

Old Bewick Hill

Old Bewick Hill

Just head towards the wooded hill that dominates the landscape directly behind the farm and cottages of Old Bewick. This is a very steep climb with a few fences and gates to cross. The land can be boggy, so you’ll need good boots.

The hill-top is quite flat:  if you’re approaching from the Northern edge you’ll immediately see an exposed burial cairn. Unfortunately there’s no sign of the cist among the smaller stones.

Old Bewick Cairn

Climb a little higher and you’ll reach a point where you’ll see the ramparts of the extensive hill fort. It’s worth checking it out on Google Earth first to get an idea of the layout. While the Western edge is very defensible, offering brilliant views of the Cheviots, the ramparts form a very odd arrangement of ditches and mounds. Like the nearby site on Beanly moor, one begins to wonder if these sites were more about ritual rather than defence.

Old Bewick Hill Fort

You’ll notice two second world war pill-boxes as you explore the fort. Walk on past the one on the edge of the hill and look for two large stones further down the gentle slope to the east. Both stones have some pretty spectacular cup and ring marks. The stone over the fence in the farmer’s field has the better markings.

Old Bewick cup and ring marks

As I made my way back to the car I noticed what looked like an isolated shepherd’s cottage about a mile in the distance towards the North East. My curiosity got the better of me, so I put Henry on his lead and we set off to explore.

As we approached the cottage we passed a superb kerbed cairn complete with what looked like several cists and cap-stones. Follow-up research turned up this report (link), authored by Ian Hewitt and Stan Beckensall. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in the technical details of an excavation of the site in the 1980’s.

Blawearie Cairn

The ‘shepherd’s cottage’ turned out to be the ruins of a homestead, the place is known locally as Blawearie. It’s fascinating to explore, but very strange and unsettling. The whole landscape is dominated by menacing, rocky outcrops of fallen stone slabs and boulders.

Blawearie Homestead

The slabs and boulders around the abandoned cottage have been formed into a weird garden. Some of the stones used to form a maze of walls and passageways are quite large. It must have taken considerable effort to put them in place. The original reasons for creating this place have probably been forgotten. What remains is a mysterious, magical, quite macabre location.

Blawearie Garden

Posted by: Steve | March 22, 2012

Enda Scahill’s Irish Banjo Tutor II

THE best tutor ever for ambitious players!

Judging by the number of hits on the blog recently it looks like the word is out about Enda Scahill’s new tenor banjo tutor.

I’ve got a copy, and I’ve been totally engrossed in all the new tunes and techniques. Rest assured that it’s THE best tutor ever for players who want to move their technique on from sessions into working with a group, competitions, or maybe sharing the stage at Celtic Connections with the big-boys in the world of tenor banjo.

Click here for my review of Enda Scahill’s Irish Banjo Tutor Volume II

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