Berwick Literary Festival

Sunday 22nd October, 4-5pm

The Guildhall, Berwick upon Tweed, TD15 1BN

Tickets £5

Last year Alice Robinson (née Burn) and I had a great time – and enjoyed a wonderful reception – at Berwick Literary Festival. It’s a small, friendly, well-run four days of events in an historic setting, and I can highly recommend it. This year they’ve kindly invited us back, to perform a different programme, which will include poems from Two Countries, an excerpt from Sun, and some other brand new locally-based work.

Alice comes from a farm near Holy Island, and plays the Northumbrian Smallpipes. We first met when she was a babe in arms, and I read a poem to her on the touring library van where I was poet in residence for the day. Many years later, in 2009, she was a finalist in BBC Radio 2’s Young Folk Musician of the Year with folk harpist Emily Hoile and performed with North East folk group ‘Folkestra’ in the BBC Folk Prom. Since then, she has been broadcast on radio, including live on BBC Radio3’s ’In Tune’, performed with the Royal Northern Sinfonia quartet as a soloist, and with the Windy Gyle Band at the International Bagpipe Festival in the Czech Republic. She has recently completed an MA and begun a PhD in British Music at Durham University. She tutors at Sage Gateshead and is Northumbrian Piper to the Mayor of Berwick.

Here we are, performing together at the Peregrini Lindisfarne heritage festival in the summer in the newly-restored Old Lifeboat House on Holy Island.

Katrina and Alice

Please come and join us at The Guildhall, Berwick, on Sunday 22nd October, 4-5pm






Tughall Mill

A few years ago the farmer at Tughall, a village adjoining Beadnell in Northumberland, commissioned me to research the outline history of the farm, which the family had bought from Northumberland Estates in 2003.

The research was fascinating. Tughall has a well-recorded medieval past, with a ruined chapel said to mark the place where St Cuthbert’s remains rested overnight during the Harrying of the North by the Norman conquerors in 1069. The Earls of Northumberland, later the Percy family – Lords of the Manor from around that time until their successors sold the farm nearly 1,000 years later – were, in the medieval period, as powerful as royalty, and played a central role in centuries of warfare against the Scots. Most people have heard of their famous son, Harry Hotspur, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

During that time Tughall had a substantial population, and included an important watermill on the Long Nanny Burn to the Northeast, which, in memory of St Cuthbert’s overnight sojourn, kept the monks of Farne supplied with grain. Oral tradition records that, more recently, grain was brought along the sands from the Mill to Beadnell Harbour through a gap in the dunes known as ‘The Miller’s Nick’.

In the early 19th century, with agricultural modernisation, Tughall Mill became a separate farm and probably ceased operation as a watermill. The last mention of a miller there in the Parish Registers is of John Watson in 1811-12. By 1828 Watson is described as a tenant farmer. Today the medieval mill leat is overgrown with hawthorn and whin, but the early 19th century farm buildings still include the housing for a watermill wheel, which probably drove farm machinery. Although I remember Tughall Mill as a working farm in recent times, for some years the buildings have stood empty. Now they and the land between them and the Long Nanny Burn estuary have been bought by the National Trust, which already manages the little tern breeding site and Site of Special Scientific Interest at the estuary.

In late July I spent some enjoyable hours at Tughall Mill with presenter Helen Mark, producer Anne-Marie Bullock and freelance industrial archaeologist Harry Beamish, recording an edition of Open Country for BBC Radio 4. Harry and I have led guided walks in Beadnell, Seahouses and adjoining villages in the past, and Harry has researched the fabric of the Tughall Mill buildings, while I have written about the landscape around it.

For me, the Long Nanny Burn between the Mill and the sea has been a constant source of inspiration for nearly half a century. It is so important to me, its picture appears at the head of this Blog and I’ve written about its estuary in poetry in both my Bloodaxe collections. The name Long Nanny is very old. ‘Nanny’ appears to be of Celtic origin, and so to pre-date the largely Anglo Saxon place names and dialect of much of North Northumberland.

The poem which I read on Open Country, which describes the countryside around Tughall Mill and the Long Nanny, is an excerpt from Shanky, in Two Countries (Bloodaxe Books, 2014).

I’ve also written about The Long Nanny in a more personal prose essay in issue 16 of Earthlines magazine, which – in spite of that excellent magazine’s sad demise – is still available.

The Long Nanny between Tughall Mill and the sea is so wild and atmospheric, it is a great relief that the National Trust has bought it for the nation. The pressure of tourism and the holiday industry on the wider area is considerable, with nearby Beadnell having one of the highest concentrations of holiday homes anywhere in England. In this context, I wonder what the fate of the Tughall Mill buildings will be.

If you enjoy this edition of Open Country you might also be interested in the radio poem ‘A Long Way Home’, which I made with Anna Scott-Brown and Adam Fowler in their Conversations on a Bench series last year. It ranges across Beadnell Bay to the Long Nanny estuary and includes the little terns, as well as the swallows which nest at Tughall Mill. You can hear it here.


19th century farm buildings at Tughall Mill (above) include the housing for a waterwheel. Below: The medieval mill leat runs from the Long Nanny burn to the left, with 21st century harvesting activity continuing in the adjoining field.


Down the Long Nanny Burn
A green gate leans.

Dark, witchy hawthorns
Point along the leat
To Tughall Mill…

Open Country, BBC Radio 4, Thursday Sept 7th, 15.00pm; repeated Saturday Sept 9th 06.07am and on i-player.


Also this week:

Fine Lines with David Dabydeen and Katrina Porteous

An episode from 1999, selected from the Radio 4 archive by poet in residence Daljit Nagra, Radio 4 Extra Sunday Sept 10th 17.00, repeated Monday Sept 11th 05.00am and on i-player.

Open Country 15th April 2010, Northumberland Castles

Still available online, and includes my visit to Dunstanburgh Castle with Matt Baker.