Northumberland Trip, Book Haul, and Reading & 20 Books #9 Emerald

We spent the first 11 days of July on holiday in Northumberland (via stays with friends in York on the way up and back) – our longest spell of vacation since 2016, and our longest UK break since 2013. The trip also happened to coincide with our 14th anniversary. It was a fantastic time of exploring England’s northeast corner, a region new to me. I loved the many different types of landscape, from sandy beaches and rocky coasts and islands to moorland and lovely towns. It’s the county for you if you like castles. We joined the National Trust so we could make stops at lots of stately homes and other historic sites. Some highlights were:

  • Cherryburn, the off-the-beaten-track home of engraver Thomas Bewick.
  • A cheap and delicious meal of authentic Mexican street food in Hexham, of all places (at Little Mexico).
  • Walking along a tiny fraction of Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads Roman Fort.
  • Cragside, the over-the-top home of a Victorian inventor (and the first international arms dealer – whoops), nestled in a plantation of pines and rhododendrons.
  • A boat trip to the Farne Islands with a landing on Inner Farne, giving close-up views of puffins, other seabirds, and grey seals. We also sailed past the lighthouse made famous by Grace Darling’s rescue of shipwreck victims in 1838. (Relevant song by Duke Special, by way of a Michael Longley poem.)
  • Whiling away a rainy morning in Barter Books, one of Britain’s largest secondhand bookshops (located in an old Victorian railway station), and the charity shops of Alnwick.
  • An adventurous (and very wet) walk along the coast to the Dunstanburgh Castle ruin.
  • Searching the dunes for rare orchids on Holy Island, followed by a delicious and largely vegan lunch at Pilgrims Coffee House.
  • Another seabird-filled boat trip, this one round Coquet Island. Sightings included roseate terns and the Duke of Northumberland.
  • Our second Airbnb, The Lonnen (near Rothbury), was a rural idyll shared mostly with sheep and gray wagtails. We were spoiled by Ruth’s excellent interior décor and cooked breakfasts. You can get a feel for the place via her Instagram.
  • Coffee and snacks at Corbridge Larder’s Heron Café – so good we made a second trip.

It was also, half unexpectedly, a week filled with book shopping. First up was Forum Books in Corbridge, a lovely independent bookshop. I don’t often buy new books, so enjoyed the splurge here. The Flyn and Taylor were two of my most anticipated releases of 2021. It felt appropriate to pick up a Bloodaxe poetry title as the publisher is based in nearby Hexham.

Next came a bounteous charity shop haul in Hexham.

On the Tuesday we holed up in Barter Books for hours while it rained – and the queue lengthened – outside. I was surprised and delighted that the nine antiquarian books I resold to Barter more than paid for my purchases, leaving me in credit to spend another time (online if, as seems likely, I don’t get back up in person anytime soon).

Alnwick also has a number of charity shops. I had the most luck at the Lions bookshop.

I seemed to keep finding books wherever I went. Kitchen came from a bookshelf in a shop/café on Holy Island. A secondhand/remainders shop near York Minster was the source of the other three.


What I Read:

The holiday involved significant car journeys as Northumberland is a big county with an hour or more between destinations. Alongside my navigating and DJ duties, I got a lot of reading done during the days, as well as in the evenings.


Finished second half or so of:

Phosphorescence by Julia Baird – An intriguing if somewhat scattered hybrid: a self-help memoir with nature themes. Many female-authored nature books I’ve read recently (Wintering, A Still Life, Rooted) have emphasized paying attention and courting a sense of wonder. To cope with recurring abdominal cancer, Baird turned to swimming at the Australian coast and to faith. Indeed, I was surprised by how deeply she delves into Christianity here. She was involved in the campaign for the ordination of women and supports LGBTQ rights.


Open House by Elizabeth Berg – When her husband leaves, Sam goes off the rails in minor and amusing ways: accepting a rotating cast of housemates, taking temp jobs at a laundromat and in telesales, and getting back onto the dating scene. I didn’t find Sam’s voice as fresh and funny as Berg probably thought it is, but this is as readable as any Oprah’s Book Club selection and kept me entertained on the plane ride back from America and the car trip up to York. It’s about finding joy in the everyday and not defining yourself by your relationships.


Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles – I have yet to review this for BookBrowse, but can briefly tell you that it’s a terrific linked short story collection set on the sagebrush steppe of Colorado and featuring several generations of strong women. Boyles explores environmental threats to the area, like fracking, polluted rivers and an endangered bird species, but never with a heavy hand. It’s a different picture than what we usually get of the American West, and the characters shine. The book reminded me most of Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.


Every Minute Is a Day by Robert Meyer, MD and Dan Koeppel – The Bronx’s Montefiore Medical Center serves an ethnically diverse community of the working poor. Between March and September 2020, it had 6,000 Covid-19 patients cross the threshold. Nearly 1,000 of them would die. Unfolding in real time, this is an emergency room doctor’s diary as compiled from interviews and correspondence by his journalist cousin. (Coming out on August 3rd. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)


Virga by Shin Yu Pai – Yoga and Zen Buddhism are major elements in this tenth collection by a Chinese American poet based in Washington. She reflects on her family history and a friend’s death as well as the process of making art, such as a project of crafting 108 clay reliquary boxes. “The uncarved block,” a standout, contrasts the artist’s vision with the impossibility of perfection. The title refers to a weather phenomenon in which rain never reaches the ground because the air is too hot. (Coming out on August 1st.)


Read most or all of:

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris – I feel like I’m the last person on Earth to read this buzzy book, so there’s no point recounting the plot, which initially is reminiscent of Luster by Raven Leilani but morphs into its own thing as Nella realizes her rivalry with Hazel, her new Black colleague at Wagner Books, is evidence of a wider social experiment. The prose is hip, bringing to mind Queenie and Such a Fun Age. It was a fun road trip read for me, but I could have done without the silliness of magical hair care products.


Heartstopper, Volume 1 by Alice Oseman – It’s well known at Truham boys’ school that Charlie is gay. Luckily, the bullying has stopped and the others accept him. Nick, who sits next to Charlie in homeroom, even invites him to join the rugby team. Charlie is smitten right away, but it takes longer for Nick, who’s only ever liked girls before, to sort out his feelings. This black-and-white YA graphic novel is pure sweetness, taking me right back to the days of high school crushes. I raced through and placed holds on the other three volumes.


The Vacationers by Emma Straub – Perfect summer reading; perfect holiday reading. Like Jami Attenberg, Straub writes great dysfunctional family novels featuring characters so flawed and real you can’t help but love and laugh at them. Here, Franny and Jim Post borrow a friend’s home in Mallorca for two weeks, hoping sun and relaxation will temper the memory of Jim’s affair. Franny’s gay best friend and his husband, soon to adopt a baby, come along. Amid tennis lessons, swims and gourmet meals, secrets and resentment simmer.


Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto – A pair of poignant stories of loss and what gets you through. In the title novella, after the death of the grandmother who raised her, Mikage takes refuge with her friend Yuichi and his mother (once father), Eriko, a trans woman who runs a nightclub. Mikage becomes obsessed with cooking: kitchens are her safe place and food her love language. Moonlight Shadow, half the length, repeats the bereavement theme but has a magic realist air as Satsuki meets someone who lets her see her dead boyfriend again.


I also made a good start on a few of my other purchases from the trip: Islands of Abandonment, No Time to Spare, Filthy Animals, and Female Friends.

Alas, most of the in-demand library books I brought along with me – Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Still Life by Sarah Winman – didn’t hit the spot, so I’ve returned them unread and will borrow them at another point later in the year (except Malibu Rising, which felt soapy and insubstantial).


It’s been a struggle getting back into the routines of work and writing since we got back, but I’ve managed to review one more of my 20 Books of Summer. This is #9, slipped in from my Forum Books pile, and I’m currently working on books #10–13.


Emerald by Ruth Padel (2018)

This was my 11th book from Padel; I’ve read a mixture of her poetry, fiction, narrative nonfiction and poetry criticism. Emerald consists mostly of poems in memory of her mother, Hilda, who died in 2017 at the age of 97. The book pivots on her mother’s death, remembering the before (family stories, her little ways, moving her into sheltered accommodation when she was 91, sitting vigil at her deathbed) and the letdown of after. It made a good follow-on to one I reviewed last month, Kate Mosse’s An Extra Pair of Hands.

Emerald, the hue and the gemstone, recurs frequently in ornate imagery of verdant outdoor scenes and expensive art objects. Two favourites were travel-based: “Jaipur,” about the emerald-cutters of India, where Padel guiltily flew while her mother was ill; and “Salon Noir,” about a trip down into prehistoric caves of France the summer after Hilda’s death. Overall, I expected the book to resonate with me more than it did. The bereavement narrative never broke through to touch me; it remained behind a silk screen of manners and form.

Two favourite stanzas:

“Your voice is your breath.

The first thing that’s yours

and the last.” (from “Fragile as Breath”)


“that’s all of us

sifting the dark

in our anonymities and hope.” (from “Above is the Same as Below”)

My rating:


Next books in progress: The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon

31 responses

  1. What a great trip you had. I loved Northumberland the one time I went. I’d love to go back, as I didn’t make it to Cragside in particular. But I did love the Farne islands trip (did you do the Bill Shiels one from Seahouses?), and Alnwick Castle with its treehouse restaurant and Poison Garden, plus Barter Books of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cragside was well worth the visit. Stately homes can start to blend into each other, but not that one! We skipped Alnwick Castle as it was a pricey one not covered under the NT/English Heritage joint arrangement (and it was covered in scaffolding at the time), but we’d try it another time. We sailed from Seahouses, but I don’t know if that company name rings a bell. The boat was Serenity.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The poison garden and grounds at Alnwick are definitely worth it, shame to hear about the scaffolding though! This post is a mix of things I’ve done and loved and things I’d really like to do soon (Farne Islands trip, Cragside).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you again for the recommendations of Forum Books (we loved Corbridge in general) and Dunstanburgh Castle. I fancy coming back up a couple of summers from now and doing a reunion with uni friends at a big cottage. There would be a range of activities and scenery to satisfy everyone. I’d be sure to do Alnwick Castle as part of that (and Barter Books again, of course!). Northumberland has so much to offer — lucky you to have it on your doorstep to explore 🙂


  2. Looks like a fantastic trip (and book haul!)–even the wet parts. How I love a good ruin–such an American, right?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We were lucky not to have more rain. And the castle was very atmospheric, more so than any intact building could have been. The ages of churches, etc. in the UK still astound me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful way to celebrate your wedding anniversary! You did a great deal more reading than I managed on my holiday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I attribute it to always being a passenger and never turning on the telly or accessing the wifi in our accommodation 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a lovely trip! Barter Books is on my bookshop wishlist, but you got so many from so many places! I’m changing my mind on The Other Black Girl a bit – I think I got caught up in the thrilleriness of it and it was a bit silly, but it was interesting for what it tells us about society, still, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Luckily, my bookshelves easily swallowed all my purchases. Most cases are double-stacked, though.

      I did appreciate the point about code-switching becoming like a separate identity or convincing act, but by about the two-thirds point I was tiring of the setup.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Happy Anniversary to you both. Great haul from the bookshops too. My best recent find was a book called Landscape Stories that I paid £2 for and is worth about £240

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whoa, how did you manage that one?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Charity shop!


  6. It sounds like you had a lovely holiday, I really enjoyed reading about the places you visited and the books you bought and read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Hayley!


  7. What a wonderful trip and what a lovely area to visit! And some amazing book hauls!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was so nice to get away and explore new places. I’m somewhat amazed that it all went ahead and Covid didn’t spoil our plans. Some places were busier than expected (Holy Island) or desired (Barter Books), in fact.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What a great looking trip and some fab book hauls!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We were lucky with the timing and the weather. It was not my intention to inspire envy 😉 I hope you’ve been able to get away a bit, too?


  9. I love Northumberland, although I don’t seem to have seen anything that you mention in your post – next time I go there, I will definitely stop at all the bookshops!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a big place, so a trip of this length was inevitably just a taster. What were some of your favourite sites or activities? Barter Books is a must for your next trip!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. You look so happy in your soggy slicker! 🙂

    And, wow, great places and sights and what a lot of bookshopping! And you knew to take books to sell too? What planning.

    That’s a really well-worn copy of Piercy’s Vida. I really want to know if that Alice Thomas Ellis is the fourth book for a trilogy that I’ve read and loved (I think it’s grouped as the Summerhouse stories…wonder what are the odds that she’s written two longish cycles) so will look into that. And a precious Lodge paperback for you, vintage by the looks.

    Also, I see you loved Kitchen. Me too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I checked in advance whether Barter was buying books back. They only take 10 per household at the moment; otherwise, I would have sold more. As it was, I prioritized the antiquarian stuff and they gave a very generous offer.

      Indeed, I didn’t notice at the time that Vida has a number of pages falling out, but for £1 from a charity bookshop I can’t complain. We did Woman on the Edge of Time for book club earlier in the year and that inspired me to try more of her fiction (as opposed to her poetry and memoirs, which I’d already started to explore).

      The Alice Thomas Ellis is a fourth volume of her collected newspaper columns. I’m expecting autobiographical reflections in the vein of Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, and May Sarton (including cats!). A bit of a shame to start with the last in the series, but I don’t suppose it will matter much.

      The Lodge is to reread, as is the Barbara Brown Taylor above — books I read from the library originally.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. So glad you had a good trip! Happy anniversary. I bought Filthy Animals too… loved Real Life so much. Haven’t started it yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’ve read the first few stories so far. The voice and setup are very similar to Real Life.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Ok, now I know what my dream vacation is… I’m jealous you got to see all those puffins, I went to an island that has some (Grand Manan, off the coast of Maine/New Brunswick) but didn’t see any. And the books! I’ve never seen that cover of Kitchen before, I like it (been on my TBR forever)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’ve been lucky to see puffins close up on a few different UK island trips off Scotland and Wales, too.

      I hadn’t seen this (Faber) cover of Kitchen, either. I’d seen colourful, quirky covers that I think gave me the wrong impression of the tone. Fortunately, I like books about death!


  13. ‘Unexpected book buying trip’ – said no book blogger ever 😉

    Loved your photos – don’t know what it says about me that some of my favourite blog posts are about peoples holidays (although I have zero interest in reading travel blogs… it must be the intersection between books, travel, and ‘knowing’ the blogger).

    Coincidentally, a friend gave me Wintering today (and I loved Phosphorescence), so look forward to reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I only write about travels that end up having some sort of literary significance, whether that’s bookshops and book hauls, visiting a writer’s house or grave, or the reading I pair with the location. Then again, pretty much any trip I go on will end up having a bookish aspect!

      I hope you enjoy Wintering as much as Phosphorescence. The latter was on my radar because of you choosing it as a 6 Degrees starting point, and then a friend passed on their proof copy to me.


  14. […] were lucky enough to manage a short break in Somerset and a wonderful week in Northumberland. In August my mother and stepfather came to stay with us for a week and we showed off our area to […]


  15. […] Oxfam Books, Hexham – a stop on our Northumberland trip last […]


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: