Dusseldorf and Nordrhein-Westfalen

It’s been a while since we’ve been abroad, but later this month we’re off to Dusseldorf.

This will be Euro-Barney’s second trip to Germany,  though the nearest we got last year was a day in Osnabruck and a night at a campsite in Munster.

I’m really looking forward to it. It’s an interesting area for us to visit, as Nordrhein-Westfalen contains a number of the North East’s twin towns – including Sunderland’s twin, Essen.

We’re hoping to take in Dusseldorf,  Essen and Wuppertal and hopefully make a jaunt to Cologne and Bonn.

Anyone got any tips for me? Things to do with a 15month old in NRW particularly welcome!

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Doing the Locomotion : NRM Shildon

Saturday was another of my partners’ weekends at college (these seem to come around faster and faster) so Barney and I opted for a visit to Locomotion – the National Railway Museum at Shildon.  This was purely an educational visit for Barney’s benefit, you understand…

Like Mima, Locomotion is another new facility we were surprised to learn about when we moved back up here in 2010.  I guess it makes sense – given that Shildon was the site of the first steam hauled passenger rail journey, and went on to churn out tens of thousands of railway wagons over the years.  It just seems a little unlikely that there’s a ‘national’ museum tucked away in this corner of southern County Durham (sorry Shildon) but there is, and that’s great!

It’s taken us nearly three years to go, though.  I guess Barney provides the perfect excuse, but looking at reviews on TripAdvisor, there’s a lot of comments about it being a ‘hidden gem’ or a ‘well kept secret’.  Looking at Twitter slightly bears this out – they’ve been using the social networking site since November 2011 and have only amassed 100 followers.  To be fair, they have over 1,000 likes on Facebook, but perhaps more could be done to draw people in?

So we set off on Saturday, having tapped the postcode provided on the Locomotion website into the SatNav, and after about 40 minutes drive we drew up outside the huge, barrel shaped shed that houses the museum’s collection.

The Collection at Locomotion

Entrance is free, and heading in, you’re immediately greeted by an impressive line-up of engines.  At present, this includes the prototype for the ill-fated Advanced Passenger Train, and one of its predecessors on the Euston-Glasgow run, the equally streamlined Duchess of Hamilton.

Barney was immediately taken by the laminated ‘luggage tags’ attached to each carriage, and we spent a pleasant hour or so meandering up and down the rows of train, with me trying to explain to him the significance of everything from a royal carriage to a sixties slam-door unit which looked uncannily like trains I remember riding from Orpington to Charing Cross just ten or so years ago.  Barney’s favourite was a Wagons-Lit sleeper car.  It might have been the wax-work  models on board, but I’d like to think I’ve lit a bit of enthusiasm in him for some inter-railing at some point in his life!

As we wandered down the last row of trains, I felt a little unfulfilled.  Sure, it was a great collection of engines and carriages, perforated by the occasional bit of memorabilia – but where was the context?  Why was this collection here, in Shildon?  It felt like the story hadn’t been told.

I was soon to find out.  The collection shed is just one part of the Locomotion site.  The whole thing stretches for over a kilometre along a railway line.  Quite how you’re supposed to work this out unaided, I’m unsure.  We only realised because we needed to walk to the other end of the site to find a cashpoint (the cafe, inexplicably, doesn’t take cards, despite the shop on site doing so).

So we strolled along the wide path, past a kids playground, a ‘real’ working Northern Rail station and an interesting sculpture which displays the names of trains sent to it by text.  Eventually – after about 15 minutes walk – we obtained cash for our lunch at a Co-op the other side of a car park at the furthest reach of the site.

It seems like whoever designed Locomotion intended your visit to start at this end of the site.  The Welcome Centre does a great job explaining why Shildon is the site for this branch of the NRM, then you can visit a cottage dedicated to pioneering railway engineer Timothy Hackworth, and the former goods shed that now acts as a station.   Each of these buildings is numbered in order, and large arrows point the way back to the Collection Shed.  The whole site makes far more sense approached from this end.

Despite the steaming we’d seen going on earlier, there was no sign of any trains at the goods shed,  nor of the ‘Eco Bus’ which was advertised as running every 15 minutes.   Puzzled, and hopeful we could be whisked back to the collection building for lunch, I headed to the Welcome Centre.  There, a friendly curator explained that the steaming we’d seen was for a private function, so no train rides would be available  to the public on the day of our visit.  Despite the signage suggesting otherwise, the bus wasn’t running either, so walking it was!

I have to say, I’m still perplexed about why Shildon direct visitors to the Collection car-park (not just by Sat Nav, the brown tourist signage does the same thing) when the site is so much better approached from the other end.  It was noticeable how much quieter the Welcome Centre and Hackworth were compared to the Collection Shed, so it seems we were probably not the only visitors confused by the whole thing.

Back at the Collection, we finally got ourselves some lunch.  Having tracked down one of only two high-chairs available, I tucked into a huge jacket potato, while Barney grazed on sandwiches, banana and yoghurt.  The food’s pretty hearty – sandwiches, jackets, bacon or sausage butties and lasagne were on offer during our visit.

The shop is also worthy of a mention.  If you’ve got a train enthusiast in the family (old or young) I’m sure they’d be in heaven.  From what must be the north-east’s largest collection of Thomas merchandise, through Brio-style wooden railways to more techie (and expensive) models and books, there is a whole world of railway memorabilia on offer.  Barney was strangely unmoved – perhaps the array of choice was too much for him, or perhaps the whole thing had got too much by that point – so I limited myself to a couple of postcards which will no doubt prove popular on Postcrossing.

I think this is one to return to in a few years.  The play-park was slightly out of Barney’s age range, and though there was a plethora of kids activities (colouring-in, brass rubbing, bits of railway equipment to play with), none of it was really suitable for a kid as young as him.  All in all, though, a good cheap day out.  A little out of the way, but worth making the effort for. We’ll certainly be back in a couple of years.

Update: I dropped Locomotion a line with some feedback about the cafe and the signage, and was pleased to receive a really prompt reply from the museum manager.  He advises that they’re aware of both these issues – people are directed to the Collection car park due to issues previously with parking in residential roads.  They are aware of the need for additional signage for visitors arriving at the Collection, but this may take a little while to arrange due to lack of available funding.   Plus, they’re in discussions with the cafe re taking cards. Good news – both these things will make a good day out even better.

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Walking the Skyline in February – a trip to Gibside

Gibside is a wonderful 18th century pleasure garden that’s now in the ownership of the National Trust.  Perched above the River Derwent, where Tyne and Wear meets County Durham, it’s just 15 minutes drive beyond the Metro Centre, yet it’s a world away from the North East’s shopping mecca. I doubt there’s anywhere in the Metro Centre with an unobstructed 100 yard view, let alone the mile-long vista between Gibside’s chapel and the soaring Column of Liberty.

We’ve been to Gibside a fair few times before, so fancied a slight change of direction this time.  Once we’d made the obligatory stroll along the long tree-lined avenue, we headed down towards the River Derwent, intending to walk round the Column of Liberty and then head back to the chapel and cafe.  Once we started going, Barney soon drifted off in his sling, so we made a spur of the moment decision to head up to the Skyline walk.

The Skyline – as its name suggests – takes you up the side of the Derwent Valley, along part of an old waggon way and then across the tenanted farm above Gibside, giving you great views over the Column of Liberty and back towards Rowlands Gill.   The bracing wind we had a couple of weeks ago made the  walk feel much more taxing than it actually is – I was sure we were about to find ourselves in Burnopfield, right at the summit of the valley side, but looking back on Google Maps, you probably only climb half the height of the ridge (though it feels like more!).

The walk was only opened a couple of years ago, with access over key sections kindly provided by the Whickham Golf Club and the NT’s tenant farmer.  There’s lots of variety, from the managed woodland, through the tree-lined former waggon way and then onto open farmland.  There are some pretty muddly sections, some stiles to conquer and even (on the day we were there a couple of weeks ago) some remaining snow.

Having taken in the view, the steep descent is good fun and soon you find yourself back among the less adventurous NT day-trippers – about halfway along our usual far shorter circuit.  After such a challenging ramble, I think we  could have been forgiven for diving straight into the small Renwick’s Coffee Shop in the stable block, but we decided to press on, back along the tree-lined avenue to the potting shed cafe, where we knew more filling lunch options awaited us!

We weren’t disappointed – a suitably warming Panhaggerty (a north east speciallity, it’s a  kind of cheese, bacon and potato hash) was my choice while Laura went for a jacket potato and Barney sampled the decent kids offering.  The ubiquitous IKEA Antilop high chairs are livened up by the addition of some red ones – clearly a limited edition which, as a Sunderland fan, I’m disappointed to have missed out on!

If we’d had the energy, we could have moved on to the kids’ adventure area, but Barney’s sling nap was beginning to feel like some time ago, so we reluctantly tore ourself away from the cafe and headed home.

Gibside’s kids offering is well worth a mention, though.  As well as the adventure area, there are some nifty ‘all terrain’ trike-style buggies for those who aren’t sold on the whole ‘sling thing’.  In future, things look to get even more fun, with the opening of a new car park right in the bottom of the valley, and a new elevated walkway taking you up among the trees on your way up to the current entrance.  This will remove cars from the walled garden and mean that area can be properly opened up to visitors.   Staff we spoke to seemed a bit frustrated that weather had delayed this work, but we got the impression it was now moving forward and should be finished before the summer season.  It certainly looks like a really fun way to start a day out, and we’ll no doubt be back before long to give it a try!

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Hardwick Park

I’m very fond of Hardwick Park near Sedgefield for two reasons – firstly, I have very happy memories of childhood visits to a place we always referred to as ‘Hardwick Hall’.  These visits usually involved me getting wet one way or another – with pond dipping or over-enthusiastic exploring by the serpentine the usual causes.  The second reason I like Hardwick is that it’s actually one of the first places we took Barney for a day out after he came home from hospital.  Me, Laura and my mum headed down in an old Saab I had a mercifully brief flirtation with. The day out went well, but the journey back was marred by the appearance of the engine warning light and some worrying burning smells. It was the beginning of the end for my relationship with that particular motor.

Today I had Barney to myself, so after a visit to Pasmore’s Pavilion in Peterlee (of which more anon) we drove on down the A19 – in a fully-functioning car – to Hardwick Park for the first time since our visit nearly a year ago.

Hardwick’s got a rich history – the park itself was constructed on the orders of landowner John Burdon in the 1750s. It’s supposed to look like a natural landscape, but in reality the gardens were all planned, – right down to the finest detail, including the ‘ruins’ dotted about the place designed by Burdon’s architect James Paine. The overall effect’s quite convincing – the Serpentine does resemble a small river, and the ruins look real enough, if a little incongruous altogether. Other aspects like the grand terrace and circular pond are more typical pleasure garden fare, but no less pleasant for that.

Following a Heritage Lottery grant, the park’s been restored to its former glory and has benefited from the addition of a visitors centre and cafe – making it a great place for an afternoon out. The park is managed by Durham County Council’s countryside service, but nowadays it has more of a ‘park’ atmosphere than the nature reserve feel I remember from childhood.

We actually only took in a small portion of the whole park this afternoon. It was bitterly cold – the water was frozen in parts, so we stuck to the wide, flat paths around the Serpentine, which only took us about 20 minutes at a very slow pace with trike in tow.  If it’s warmer, there’s a longer mile-long walk around the whole lake which we completed on our last visit, and an even longer 1.4mile cycle route.  Doing the whole circuit does reward you with the whole collection of follies, including a ‘gothic seat’ and a ‘Tuscan alcove’, and that would always be my preferred option were it not as cold as today.

Barney loved the trip round on his trike, taking in the geese, mallards and dogs as he went. Animals seem a big thing for him at present. The small playpark was also a big hit – swings, a slide and a wooden train to play on. He pushed himself off on the slide for the first time today, so that’s another milestone, and quite a brave thing to do, in my admittedly biased opinon. He was less keen on the statue of Neptune, but you can’t win ‘em all.

We retired to the cafe to warm up. It’s reasonably priced and really kid-friendly, with the ubiquitous IKEA Antilop high chairs. We (well, I, mostly) just had tea and cake today, but they do sandwiches, jackets, flans etc if you’re looking for lunch. Baby-changing is inside the neighbouring toilet block (full marks for changing facilities in the gents, too!) and there’s also a information point/office where you can also buy food for the ducks – though we didn’t realise ’til it was too late. The cafe closes at 3.30pm at the moment, so bear that in mind if it’s as cold as today!

There’s more information about Hardwick Park on Durham County Council’s site or the Friends of Hardwick’s site. They’re also on Facebook. One change from last time we were there is that they’re now charging for car parking, but this is only £2 for two hours or £3 for the whole day. There’s also motorhome parking, which is a nice touch and I know something that’s sometimes hard to find at venues like this.

All in all, a great place to spend an afternoon, and easily reached from either the A19 or A1.

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Lugano, Switzerland

I mean, why wouldn’t you want to go after seeing this?


The poster’s from 1952 and is now in the collection of the Zurich Museum of Design. Thanks to Merlin3 for sending me a copy through the wonders of Postcrossing.

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Mima by bus

I’m having another of my weekends on my own with Barney. Currently managed to get him to sleep, so thought I’d use the time to write up our adventures yesterday.

I’ve noticed he likes buses – I think it’s the variety of people he gets to see while he’s on there, and also the fact that he can get on them and go somewhere without being tethered down in the same way he is in the car. His nan’s also commented on how much he’s enjoyed his bus trips with her. So, I thought – if he likes the dull single deckers we get in Sunderland, he’ll love a trip on a double decker.

The X9's biggest (smallest) fanThat’s why we found ourselves in Peterlee bus station yesterday morning waiting for the X9 express to Middlesbrough. We were lucky to get seats at the front of the top deck, and the result was one very happy chappy. The top deck of a bus does give you a different perspective, and the route the X9 takes down the A19, then through Billingham, past some of the Teesside industrial plants and then over the Tees via the Newport Bridge meant there was plenty for Barney to spot from his brilliant vantage point.  For me, there was free wifi and plug points – a thoroughly modern bus service!

Once in Middlesbrough, we headed for mima – the town’s  Institute of Modern Art which was one of the more surprising additions to the north east I discovered when we moved back up.  Part of a new ‘centre square’ it’s an asset to the town, but the inward-facing nature of the Cleveland Centre shopping mall means the impressive square (complete with fountains, library, town hall,  etc) isn’t really linked to the rest of the town centre.

Mima 12-1-13

I have to say Mima’s current crop of exhibitions didn’t do a lot for me. There’s a touring Yannis Kounellis exhibition in the ground floor galleries, which I quite liked – but I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say – as mima has – that his use of everyday materials is something that should particularly resonate with a north east audience.

Elsewhere, there’s quite a fun set of installations by Liliane Lijn called Cosmic Dramas.  The  galleries are dark, and the installations seem to interact with you as you walk round – lights flash, voices etc.  Barney was asleep by this point so I didn’t get to find out whether he’d think it was terrifying or the best thing since double-decker buses.

The other slightly disappointing thing about mima was how quiet the galleries were – I was the only one in both the major exhibitions, and passed only a couple of people in the smaller galleries.  It’s odd, because the public areas of the institute – the foyer and terrace – were teaming with young people.  Loads of teens on the terrace, and their Saturday Art Trolley is obviously really popular with younger kids, and something we’ll have to check out with Barney when he’s a bit older.

Lunch (this is a before pic - he wasn't this clean afterwards!)

We stayed on for lunch, which was great.  They do a 3-for-£3 deal for kids, so Barney got a toastie, fruit and juice for lunch.  Plenty of high-chairs, plastic plates, etc.  He loved it (a small fit-as-much-as-I-can-in-my-gob choking episode aside).  Baby-changing was in the disabled toilet (good news for dads!) and they even had lockers so I could dump the changing bag.

Finally, given the debate on arts funding that’s raging in the north east at the moment, I did find the list of FAQs mima had in the foyer quite interesting.  Top of the list: “who pays for mima?”

Visiting Mima

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