Northumberland National Park for Everyone

Lots of people say to me that they bet the best thing about my job in the National Park is being outdoors; or the views on my journey to work; or working at The Sill with its innovative design features.

Well, of course they are all fab things, but the very best thing about my job is sharing all those things and more with others.

This blog is a look back at past great days out with great people who we look forward to welcoming back as soon as possible as I know they are missing us too.

The Comfrey Project is an oasis of growing near the centre of Gateshead. It “provides refugees and asylum seekers with a safe, welcoming environment which promotes personal well-being through a sense of belonging”. At the Park we have tried to replicate that aim when inviting their gardening group and their refugee group to visit The Sill and take part in activities. The learning went two ways. Whilst the group learnt why using peat based products are harmful to the environment, I learnt that those 50,000 domestic sheep that are grazing our National Park share a heritage with the Mouflon, a native sheep of Iran and Iraq!

National Park Staff have been welcomed back to the Comfrey Project to deliver creative workshops and eat delicious food.

Staff members working with craft materials

This April we were really looking forward to hosting a performance of  From Sill to Sea, a  show fusing acting and animation inspired by the mythology of Northumberland.

Actors from Headway Arts based in Blyth and filmmakers from FilmABLE, part of Haltwhistle Film Project, came together and visited the Park for inspiration before collaborating on this original production.  I can’t wait to eventually see the result.

Visitors to the National Park were hand made animal masks

It’s been great working with a number of women’s groups alongside Dr Sheree Mack, a North East writer, poet and creative. Through the project Wayfinding Sheree has taken groups to places such as the Breamish Valley, Steel Rigg and Walltown.

The visits have primarily been about women and girls of colour exploring places which they may not find easy to get to independently, but as usual, we’ve learnt new things and shared new experiences together. One particular highlight was our Hadrian’s Wall Path Assistant Tess Wenham  sharing her daily routine and career journey with a group of young Asian girls from the Angelou Project , Newcastle called the Shereos.

A group of visitors on Hadrian's Wall

Sheree is a trained walk leader and as passionate as I am about connecting all people with nature. Just before lockdown she led an inspirational walk and write session.  One participant told us

“Sheree, I had no idea what to expect and I’ve absolutely LOVED today. Thanks so much. I’m now starting to write from now. “

A young woman writing

As we usually inspire you to do something wild on Wednesday why not start writing down your reflections in nature?

Next week I’ll share some techniques on this and also some ways to make your own hand-made notebook. In the meantime you can read Sheree’s reflections on immersing herself literally in nature.

Dr Sheree Mack writes:

Another sleepless night. I leave the house at 4.30 am to run around the block. My dawn chorus is a flock of gulls. In the movement, I gain clarity and space. Even as my breathing becomes laboured and my leg muscles begin to ache, I keep moving. The benefits out weigh the pain. Grey still light illuminates flapping green leaves along our tree lined street. Dandelions, squeeze through the concrete cracks nodding to their own beat.

There are times I feel like I don’t belong. That feeling of unbelonging lodges in my gut. Like a cold sweet, creeps up my back, circles my neck and prickles my ears and hairline. I’m uncomfortable and exposed.

Before rest, I jump into the car and go to the sea. The sun is rising. The sky is pale peachy grey. Sea fret burns off as the sun’s rays gain power and heat.  Driving along Tynemouth front, I see crowds of people down on Longsands beach. I see couples walking their dogs, families walking along the top. What’s happening? What’s with the crowds at 5am?

I know, because of the circles I roll within, I’m the only black face at the table, in the room, in the building. Knowing this, I still show up, I’m still present as my presence is necessary, is needed within these arenas. My presence is a nod, is a movement towards balance.

I park at Cullercoats Bay, grab my plastic container of gear and walk down the ramp towards the beach. Coming into view after the underpass, Cullercoats’ beach is the same; crowds of people sitting along the piers, people congregating on the sands, kayaks dominating the mouth of the sea. For a minute or two, I contemplate returning home without my customary dip. I come at this time to avoid the crowds, not to rub shoulders with them.

I wild swim. Get called crazy for doing it, especially in the North Sea, the bitter North Sea. But if I care about what other people think, I wouldn’t get out of bed each day.  Not this morning anyway, as I’ve said, I’ve not slept. I can’t sleep while over the other side of the Atlantic, black bodies are in harm’s way.  Cities are burning in protest. The pressure cooker, that’s been simmering for a long while has finally exploded, volcano style.

The people have gathered to witness the sun rise.  And it’s a beautiful one at that. The orange ball bobs in and out of the cumulus clouds, igniting the whole sky with light. But it’s how that light plays on the gentle rippling sea which has me mesmerised. I walk to the shoreline never taking my eyes off the whispering sea.

They say during lockdown, people are learning to appreciate nature more or even for the first time. They’re measuring a marked shifted towards a more ecocentric view of the natural environment. Moving away from an egoentric, self-centred only thinking of oneself way of thinking and operating,  people are waking up to  the intrinsic value of all living creatures and their habitats regardless of their usefulness to us. I hope this is so. If this is the case, then I shouldn’t get annoyed by people coming down to the bay to enjoy the view as long as they keep their distance from me and as long as they take their rubbish away with them.

White grey gulls circle close and low. I strip down to my cossie and  walk slowly into the coming waves. My skin is deep caramel raw, turning pinky red as it registers the cold. The water with a turquoise tinge is clear. Bladderwack lie upon the surface as twisted wack spirals within the shallows. I continue to walk deeper into the sea,  cupping water over my bare skin to acclimatise before I become fully immersed.

Here, I may be the only black body on the beach. I may be the only black body stripping off on the beach, becoming more and more exposed. People might be turning from the sun, from the sea, to stare at me. They may nudge the person next to them to get them to notice and stare at me too. They may share a few words with each other.  Then snigger, laugh,  and point. I don’t know. I don’t care.

Again the sea, she holds me in her charms. The orangey pink light catches the crest of moving seapleats. Making them metallic, making them glossy and inviting. I enter. There’s a momentary shock to the system. Breath catches in short sharp gasps. Be. Here. Now. I’ve no choice but be right in the centre of my body. I calm my breathing. In and out. In and out. And kick off to swim.

Nose to surface.  Electric air gives off a slimy silver scent of fish and salt and promise.

I belong.