2021

I’ve been thinking recently that, despite how i sometimes wish i knew what it was like to live in years gone past, and how it often feels like everything is about to topple over at the hands of { authoritarian reactionary bigots | power-hungry anti-democratic dictators | neurotic puritan ‘progressives’ } (take your pick), i am, at the end of the day, so, so grateful that i live in the modern era, and in a developed country to boot.

I’m grateful to live in a time with the highest living standards in history; where even someone flipping burgers at Macca’s has access to luxuries that would make Louis XIV blush.

To live in a time with modern medicine, where people are inoculated at a young age against pestilences that used to ravage the world, and to live in a country where urgent care is free of charge.

That wars between nations are largely a thing of the past, at least to the scale of World Wars I and II.

That i live in an era and place where being bisexual or gay is, legitimately, no big deal — something that would have been unthinkable just ten years ago.

That every day the acceptance of us transgendered folk is growing, and that, if i had the money and determination, i could get a pretty good approximation of the other sex grafted on — something Heliogalabus could only dream of.

That in the age of the internet, people can find community anywhere, no matter how odd or niche their interests and identities are, and that nearly everyone has access to the sum of human knowledge at their finger tips.

Yes, 2021 has its problems, and so does the UK. But i wouldn’t live anywhen or anywhere else.

….Okay, maybe Norway.

The Penshaw monument

On a hilltop in County Durham sits the Penshawi monument, a nineteenth-century folly built to commemorate the late Earl of Durham. It’s always been on my bucket list, but it’s a bit of a pain to get to via public transport, and i’d never found the time — last week, though, i found myself with some time off and decided to make the trip. I’ll let the pictures do the talking from here…

A panoramic view of a sprawling country park, with some noticeable barriers put up for a race. In the distance, upon a hill, lies a building rather resembling an old Greek temple.
A view of the monument from the nearby country park. As you can see, there was a motorbike race on at the time, which somewhat dampened the otherwise-peaceful atmosphere. Tut tut.
On the top, the same building from before, now pictured from a rather closer distance, on a punishing set of stairs. Its façade is black with soot. On the bottom, a pristine ancient Greek temple, surrounded by a row of hedges.
The monument was based on Athens’ temple to Hephæstos, though in a rather scaled-down format (see the lack of any kind of roof).
The sun shines through the monument's columns.
We weren’t allowed inside the naos, as they were busy setting it up for that night’s Lumiere festival.ii (They did let some of the people walking their bulldogs up — perhaps because they were too scared?)
The country park also has this neat little henge, with viewfinders pointing towards some well-known County Durham sites — that little black square you can make out is Durham Cathedral.

Information for visitors

  • Address:
    Chester Rd, Penshaw, Houghton le Spring DH4 7NJ
    .
  • Accessibility: Getting up to the monument requires a steep hike up a hill; if you have impaired mobility, you may want to think twice before going.
  • Getting there: The hill is served by the A183 road and the 2, 2A, and 78 buses. The nearest train station is Chester-le-Street, five miles away.
  • The National Trust sometimes offers tours of the top of the monument, though those are currently suspended.

Walking the Blyth and Tyne, part three: B L Y T H.

The industry town of Blyth is bordered on four sides by sights iconic of the North­um­brian experience. To the north lies the eponymous River Blyth, carving out a respectable third to the Tyne and Tweed in how it has shaped the course of the county’s history. To the east, the awesome North Sea ebbs and flows, enticing herds of families out to the beach. Southwards, farms and fields stretch on until they meet the city streets. And, to the west, the dismal grey A189 motorway cuts its way through impoverished streets and empty grassland.

So guess which path the railway sent me down? That’s right, it was hugging the fucking tarmac for me. There’s a reason the God of travellers is a trickster.


Two empty, shuttered storefronts. One's text is too faded to read, but the other reads 'Newsham Motorcycles'.

Newsham is perhaps the prototypical post-industrial suburb. The streets are lined with drab row-houses and shuttered shops whose walls sit darkened by cigarette smoke. But even here, there are signs of history, and signs of life. Walking along a small council estate, even in this decidedly hard-to-do area, people’s personalities shine through. One car, judging by the bumper stickers, belongs to a proud gay naturist. Another house has a carved relief of an Indian chief (although i doubt the inhabitants have a drop of Native American blood in them). And at the end of the road lies the holy grail: the old station master’s house, whose nearby decaying platforms just about peek over the fence.

A plaque marking the site of the Station Master's house.

After this, our path splits in two: the main line continues up to Bebside, but a spur branches off and swings to the town centre. The first one is mostly a boring romp through farmland and reclaimed forests, so, for now, we’ll be following the second line.


There are a lot of things about Blyth that i’m sure the town council would love for me to tell you about. It has an historic beach (though it’s all the way on the south end of town, and there’s no reason for you to make the trek when Newbiggin and Whitley Bay are closer and just as nice). There’s a weekly market on Thursdays (though on the Thursday i went in, they’d all packed up already), by the plaza next to the shopping centre (whose selection of options is laughable when compared to Manor Walks in the next town over). And they’re dead proud of their local football team, the Spartans, who famously performed somewhat above average in the 1978 FA Cup (never mind that Ashington spawned two World Cup winners).

By now you may have noticed that everything in Blyth seems to be a slightly crappier version of something from elsewhere in Northumberland. This goes too for the ignoble fate of its former station. While some have been turned into houses, shops, pubs, or just returned to the land whence they arose, Blyth’s once-proud central station is now… a Morrisons car park.

Cars parked in front of a Morrisons store.
You cannot make this up.
A sticker of Top Cat smoking weed labelled 'Pot Cat' (no, really)
This was the only useable photo i got.

The branch line itself is now a straight-on footpath, cutting its way through town with a hospital and shopping centre on one side and impoverished estates on the other — until about halfway through, that is, when it suddenly becomes much more suburban in character; charming parks take the place of pools and appendectomies, while a long allotment fills the other side. (It was also — and i cannot stress this enough — absolutely pissing it down by the time i got to this end, and as such, i failed to get any usable footage. Just trust that it eventually meets back up with the main line.)


Back on the main line, the motorway leads to a depressing interchange at Bebside. Just across from the former site of the station sits the grimiest petrol station corner shop i think i’ve ever been to (no photos, alas, again); the site of the station itself has long been bulldozed and turned into a horse riding centre.

I’d love to stay and show you more, but the next phase in our adventure is a big one — because we’ll be taking a brief diversion to County Durham. It’ll all make sense when we get there. Ciao!

Mx van Hoorn’s link roundup, Volume II

Lords of Misrule

This is a copy of the main page for this event.

“Iō Saturnalia!” So went the cry that marked the start of the eponymous classical holiday. For one glorious week, Roman society was turned on its head: slaves became masters; togas were out and ostentatious displays of colour were in; gag gifts were given; and one lucky person was elected the local King of Saturnalia. Whatever orders the King barked had to be followed, no matter how ridiculous. This tradition clung on even into the Christian middle ages as the English “lord of misrule” — a lone pagan vestige in a monotheistic world.

So, in the spirit of those winter holidays, to lighten up this frosty time of year, i thought it would be fun to let you play that rule for my website. Welcome, one and all, to the first annual Marijn.uk Lords of Misrule!

If you write or put together something — absolutely anything — and email it to misrule@marijn.uk, come Saturnalia (that’s December 17 to 23, for those who understandably aren’t up to date with ancient festival customs) i’ll put it up on the site, both on the blog and on its own dedicated, permanent subpage, etched in stone for all to see.

I would ask that you don’t submit any political polemics (we’ve had quite enough of those) or anything that would get me in legal trouble, but apart from that, anything goes. Your gran’s chocolate cake recipe? An impassioned defence of Freddy Got Fingered as an ironic masterpiece? A rant about how keyboards aren’t what they used to be? Whatever you — my lords of misrule — want.

You can submit your entries from today until the 16th of December, 2021. Have fun, and don’t be afraid to get weird with it!

— Marijn

The mystery of Newcastle’s vampire rabbit

Down a narrow alleyway to the back end of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, in Newcastle, one can find a rather curious decoration garnishing a door on the opposing façade. The “vampire rabbit” has stood watch over the cathedral for at least half a century; while records are scarce (a quick search of Google Books doesn’t bring up anything until the twenty-first century), it could well date back to the building’s construction in 1901.

Spooky.
Here’s a noticeably brighter bun, as it looked in 1987.

Here’s the thing, though. Nobody knows how it got there. Indeed, even the name “vampire rabbit” is a misnomer; its jet-black fur and red claws were added on some time in the 1990s,i as were its distinctly batty ears. Some say it was put there to scare away wannabe graverobbers, but i have my doubts that twentieth-century crooks would be so dumb.

Yet others posit that it represents a mad March hare, arising at the time of Easter, or that it refers to Thomas Bewick, a nearby engraver who had a fondness of all things lagomorphic. Most fascinatingly, a theory advanced by one Mr Adam Curtis suggests a Masonic pun in reference to one George Hare Phillipson, a local doctor (hence vampires) and active Freemason, as was the lead architect, one William H. Wood. It being a secret society in-joke would also explain why it’s located around the back, rather than the front, which faces onto one of the busiest streets in town.

Perhaps we might never know for sure. In any case, it’s a fascinating little secret — what do you think is most likely?

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