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.




Katrina Porteous and Chris Ormston — Poetry and Northumbrian Pipes

Saturday Sept 2nd, 7.30pm

Humshaugh Village Hall, Humshaugh, Northumberland

Tickets £8 (£4 under 16)

Please join us for this cafe-style evening. It will be in two halves, and will include a lively performance of poems from ‘Two Countries’, accompanied by Chris on pipes, plus newer poems and some solo sets from Chris. There’ll be Northumbrian landscapes, dialect, fossils, fishing, the solar system and the Roman Wall — and (thanks to NASA and Northumbria University) some amazing real film of the surface of the Sun. I’ll also be talking intermittently about my work and inspiration, and answering questions. Wine, soft drinks and table snacks will be available. It should be a good night!

The event is being hosted jointly by Humshaugh Arts Project and Humshaugh Publications. Many thanks to both.                 Reservations / info: 01434 681924

Katrina & Chris Ormston

Thunder of Artillery, Clatter of Hooves

Passchendaele in 360; Cavalry 360

Once in a while a really interesting commission comes along. This week I’ve been invited to give a live review of two new historical experiences on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, Thursday August 3rd.

The first is the Royal British Legion’s Passchendaele 360, a series of ‘immersive’ virtual reality videos commemorating the centenary of the horrific third battle of Ypres in World War I, which saw 310,000 allied casualties and around 260,000 German casualties.

The second, very different, piece is Cavalry 360, NEON’s innovative in-the-round sound installation, which uses 32 wind turbines to recreate the sound of 500 cavalry horses on the English Heritage site at Chesters Roman Fort in the Tyne valley.

To find out what I thought of these two contrasting pieces, tune into Front Row between 7.15 and 7.45pm on August 3rd, or catch the review on i-player.

Personal Reflections

World War I

On a personal level, reviewing these two pieces has affected me deeply. The Royal British Legion’s films have made me look again at my grandfather’s War record. My father’s father, Herbert Brenton Porteous, signed up underage in 1916 to serve in the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and fought as a Lewis gunner on the Ypres Salient the following year.

H Brenton Porteous Argyll & SH 1916


He survived. Although I knew him well – he lived until I was 15 – he never talked about it. The films have made me reflect on the experiences he suffered, and have moved me to track his battalion via war diaries available from the National Archives. This photo of him, taken a few months before he left for Flanders, shows just how young he was: he, and many thousands of others who were not so lucky. As the memory World War I slips farther into history, it is more than ever vital to keep it in mind, to try to understand it – and, whatever our reflections or personal connections, to remember with gratitude and love those who served there.





Horses were an important part of soldiers’ lives in World War I. The horse has been our link with the land for thousands of years, and only in the last century has that link been broken. Mark Nixon’s Cavalry 360 at Chesters Roman Fort (right) reminds us of that deep connection between horses, humans and the landscape. The horse made it possible for troops to move quickly and efficiently – like a machine.



This is a connection which I was also trying to explore in my sound-poem, ‘Horse’, created with composer Peter Zinovieff for Radio 3’s ‘Between the Ears’ in 2011, and soon due for an exciting revival (watch this blog!). Peter based his music for ‘Horse’ on samples from the chains of the King Harry Ferry in Cornwall.  Here’s a little clip from that music ; and here once again is the beautiful limited-edition book and CD, which includes details from etchings by the brilliant artist Olivia Lomenech Gill, who also created work for Michael Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse – Only Remembered’.


The Romans are celebrated for all they brought to English life, from their roads to their language. They left behind so many tangible remains, not least Hadrian’s Wall. While admiring their achievements, I’ve always felt greater sympathy with the indigenous Northern tribes, whose land the Romans sequestered, whose farms they divided and whose culture they obliterated.

My radio poem ‘This Far and No Further’, in ‘Two Countries’, explores some cultural continuities, before and since the Romans’ brief occupation of ‘Hadrian’s Wall Country’. Excerpts from the poem were used recently in an episode of Radio 4’s Making History, and here’s a picture of another excerpt, used as public art in the YHA at the new National Landscape Discovery Centre, The Sill:


Britain at Low Tide – Beadnell

Channel 4 TV, Saturday August 5th, 7-8pm

Channel 4 is repeating the episode of ‘Britain at Low Tide’ first shown last year, in which the excellent Tori Herridge and Alex Langlands explore the remains of the ‘old pier’ at Beadnell. This is the structure which archaeologist Harry Beamish and I first identified from a 1759 plan of Beadnell in 2006, when we were leading local history walks for Northumberland Coast AONB. I spent several enjoyable days, first with the CITiZAN archaeology team, then with Tori and the ‘Britain at Low Tide’ crew, looking at the archaeological evidence for Beadnell’s wider fishing history.

Watch the programme here.


You can read more about Beadnell’s fascinating history in my book ‘Limekilns and Lobster Pots’ (Windmillsteads Books 2013).

July News

SUN goes online

SUN by Katrina Porteous and Peter Zinovieff, with visuals by Jonathan Sanderson, can now be viewed — and heard in stereo — on You Tube.


SUN is an immersive, multi-channel performance of poetry and electronic music, with planetarium visuals by Chris Hudson, written in response to the work of Northumbria University’s Solar Physics Research Group, as part of Imagining the Sun, supported by NUSTEM.

It’s available in multichannel and stereo format, and with flat screen as well as planetarium visuals. So we can bring the live version to any venue.

Peter and I performed a stereo version at Poetry-Next-the-Sea in Wells, Norfolk on May 6th, and the multichannel version in the Middleton Hall at the Sound + Environment 17 conference at the University of Hull on June 29th. Thank you to both events for hosting us.

I also took part in a presentation called Poetry Promoting Physics at the BIG Event STEM communicators’ network annual conference at Centre For Life, Newcastle on July 19th. I performed two movements from SUN and, together with Chris Hudson (Planetarium Supervisor) and Sarah Hilton (NUSTEM), discussed the ‘science communication’ involved in Imagining the Sun. The discussion included arts-based science discovery in primary schools, presentations of SUN at non-science events around the country, and the effect of poetry on science researchers’ own language.

A booklet bringing together the work of Imagining the Sun, including some of my poems for the project, information on Peter’s music and the Northumbria University solar scientists’ research, fabulous paintings by Helen Schell and stunning photographs from NASA / SDO and other solar telescopes, as well as examples of our work with schools, will be available in September. It’s edited by Sarah Hilton, with an introduction by Prof. John Woodward. Many thanks to Carol Davenport for all her work throughout this project. For a free copy, please contact NUSTEM.


Hadrian’s Wall

Extracts from This Far and No Further (my long poem about Hadrian’s Wall, published by Bloodaxe Books in Two Countries), featured on Radio 4’s Making History on July 18th.

An extract from the same poem features in an artwork on the wall of the YHA restaurant at The Sill, Northumberland National Park’s new visitor centre, which opens this month.


More Radio

My poem for the Summer Solstice is still available on the Woman’s Hour Podcast for June 21st . It’s right at the end of the programme, together with a short interview.

Conversations on a Bench, Beadnell, the radio poem I made for Radio 4 with Adam Fowler and Anna Scott-Brown of Overtone Productions last year, can be heard on Soundcloud.

You can also catch Radio 4 documentaries I made with producer Julian May on the wonderful William Stafford and on the 2014 Fisher Poets’ Gathering in Oregon USA on the BBC i-player.


The First Women

My old college, Trinity Hall, Cambridge, has just published a lovely collection of memoirs, interviews and stories, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the admission of women. The book is edited by Sandra Raban, one of the first two female tutors, and my former Director of Studies in History. I was part of the third mixed year in 1979. Sandra personally commissioned me to write a new poem in celebration of the anniversary, and I’m greatly honoured that this appears at the beginning of the book. Thank you, Sandra! The First Women is available for £9-95 including postage from Trinity Hall Gift Shop.

Katrina Porteous aged 19 in 1980Katrina Porteous in 1980

Poem for the Summer Solstice

Four Seasons, BBC Radio 4, Weds 21st June

For the last 12 months writer and radio producer Tim Dee has celebrated the year’s turning-points – solstices and equinoxes – as days of poems on Radio 4. This summer solstice, June 21st, he has invited me to read a poem ‘made from the middle of the year’ live on Woman’s Hour.

I’ve chosen my reading from a long poem about a ruined castle, Dunstanburgh on the Northumberland coast. I love this place for its remoteness – to reach it you have to walk a mile across fields – and for its mystery. It stands on a crag at the edge of the sea, and – while its human purpose passed centuries ago – now, reclaimed by the natural world, it seems more alive than ever. All winter it sings in the wind; and all summer, swallows animate its hollow towers.

How will it feel to read this poem, originally recorded on site, in a windowless studio in central London? How will listeners receive it in very different parts of the country?  I hope that, whoever and wherever you are, there is universal appeal in a place where sea meets land, in its wild birdsong at dawn, at midsummer. I like to think that if listeners close their eyes for a moment, radio will take them there.

In the last half century we’ve seen a profound change in the way that people relate to place. It’s not something that we tend to talk about. In my own coastal area, a generation which knew every inch of the local land and sea-bed has given way to one which is less hands-on, which sometimes seems to appreciate the world around it primarily through a smartphone app, a camera or a screen. This is a sudden change, a fault-line, and it brings with it far-reaching consequences, spiritual, intellectual and environmental. It is as if we have all become outsiders looking in.

How can we reconnect with the non-human world? ‘Nature writing’ is a slippery term, as if Nature was not an essential part of us, or us of it. I am interested in art and writing which explores human culture, not as separate from Nature but as an efflorescence of it; and which places the human in a multiple perspective – glorious and terrible in what the imagination can achieve, vanishingly small in the history of the planet.

I hope that listeners who catch my solstice reading through the magic of technology, whether it be digital or old-fashioned ‘wireless’, will let the magic of imagination carry them to that place. I hope that the edges – sea and land, night and day, human and not-human – will flow into one another. Poetry, that most ancient art-form, can help reconnect these broken sentences, promising a wholeness that we yearn for, often without even knowing what it is we miss.

Catch the reading on Wednesday June 21st between 10am and 10.45 and afterwards on i-player.

The full poem, Dunstanburgh, is available in my collection, Two Countries, published by Bloodaxe Books.

2 Dunstanburgh by Katrina Porteous

Photo by Katrina Porteous

On Holy Island

Peregrini Lindisfarne Heritage Festival

Voices of the Sea

Insights into 700 years of Holy Island’s fishing traditions, with poet and historian Katrina Porteous, accompanied on Northumbrian pipes by BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Musician of the Year finalist Alice Burn.

The Old Lifeboat House, Holy Island

Saturday June 17th, 1pm and 3pm (50 mins)

An informal presentation, touching on Holy Island’s medieval fishing history, the Island’s herring industry and upturned boats, women and fishing, the bark pots, fishing lore and superstitions, shipwrecks and the Island’s lifeboats – interspersed with traditional local tunes, and the odd poem.

The newly-restored Old Lifeboat House is on the west-facing shore at the south end of the Island, close to St Cuthbert’s Isle (Hobthrush). It can be accessed on foot by following the road on the mainland side of St Mary’s Church, as it winds down to the shore. Alternatively there is a way-marked footpath across Easter field opposite St Mary’s Church.

Peregrini Lindisfarne Heritage Festival offers a host of free heritage demos, craft activities, exhibitions and guided walks on the Island over two afternoons, Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th June, 12-6pm

More here about Peregrini Lindisfarne Landscape Partnership


Don’t let this be you!

Click here for Holy Island causeway safe crossing times for the festival.









Hadrian’s Wall

Towards the end of 2000 I wrote a long poem about Hadrian’s Wall for Radio 4, called This Far and No Further. The poem was based on interviews with people who live and work along a central stretch of the Wall, most of them hill-farmers. It contains many voices, including those of the place itself, and those of Iron Age farmers whose fields were literally bisected by the Imperial frontier in 122 AD and thereafter.

My interviews with contemporary hill-farmers revealed a widely-felt sense that their way of life was not always well-understood by the many regulatory authorities who now oversee the World Heritage Site. What is the countryside for: Leisure? History? Environmentalism? Farming? All these competing pressures generated a vast amount of regulation.

Underlying this was a deeper sense of a cultural frontier between an urban, ‘metropolitan’, ‘global’ frame of mind, represented by distant administration and bureaucracy; and a strongly-independent, anti-authoritarian, locally differentiated, rural way of life. There was a deep sense that life lived along the Wall was, and had always been, remote from the centres of power. The bureaucratic mishandling of the foot and mouth crisis which followed in 2001 bore out these concerns. I tried in my poem, and in a subsequent poem, An Ill Wind, to articulate these feelings.

Last week I recorded an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Making History (produced by Nick Patrick) about cultural interpretations of Hadrian’s Wall. Historians Prof Richard Hingley and Dr Christopher Donaldson discussed with presenter Tom Holland what the Wall has meant to people across 2,000 years. I read and discussed some sections from This Far and No Further – then worried afterwards about taking excerpts out of context. Brexit has given the debate between the rural and the metropolitan a more inflammatory cast.

All the more reason, then, to open up the discussion. Seventeen years is a long time, and as Prof Hingley points out, perhaps I should go back and ask the farmers how they feel now. In many ways, the cultural frontier between what is perceived as a metropolitan political elite and those parts of the country which feel that they have no real ‘voice’ seems sharper today. This perceived polarity helped precipitate Brexit; on one level, that vote can be read as a symptom of this deeper unease.

The ‘Farmer vs Romans’ confrontation in the poem is not, however, Brexit. Neither is it nationalistic. Rather, it’s a rural voice protesting all distant, anonymous, undifferentiated bureaucracy – whatever the source. It’s a stand against unrepresentative authority — no more and no less. The interpretation that is put on it might change over time; but the sense of remoteness from the centres of power remains. I hope that, read as a whole, the many voices of This Far and No Further – and my book (called, in recognition of that rural-metropolitan cultural frontier, Two Countries) – may find their way to those in authority, to persuade them to listen to rural voices, to think about local differentiation and distinctiveness, and to consider the complex and manifold meanings of landscape in our culture.

If you would like to hear ‘This Far and No Further’ in full, I will be performing it with Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston at The Riches of Gilsland, in The Samson Inn, Gilsland, Northumberland, at 5pm on Thursday June 1st. The Riches of Gilsland, supported by the Campaign to Open Gilsland Station, Lancaster University and English Heritage, is a free day of exploration of many aspects of Gilsland’s rich history, through local knowledge and academic research. For a full programme, see below: