Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: June, 2013

The world would be a better place if we drove across the Ovingham Bridge

George Osborne must be pinning his hopes on the Ovingham bridge. The reconstruction of the 130 year old bridge, at a cost of £2.2m, is the centrepiece of a programme of road improvements in the North East. As we all know, infrastructure investment is the key to economic recovery.
When those of us still standing look back in twenty years time, we will raise a glass to the Ovingham Bridge. We may by then see high speed trains gliding into Newcastle station but we will remember with affection the role played by the Ovingham Bridge in in the economic recovery of the nation.
In the short term, we will suffer. The bridge will be closed for twelve months whilst every nut and bolt in its creaking structure is renewed. At the current rate of progress, the approach road to the Stocksfield bridge, which will bear the diverted traffic may just have reopened in time.
This has been closed following a landslip which Chips, my fellow swimmer, whose morning journey to the pool has increased by fifteen minutes each way, has borne with commendable fortitude. We are good at fortitude and the closure of the Ovingham bridge will provide ample opportunity to exercise this talent.
The people of Ovingham will sleep soundly at night without the constant clanking of cars crossing a bridge built out of a Meccano set. They were reportedly offered a new bridge a few years back, but they turned it down because it would increase the traffic flow through their historic village.
There was also talk of an entirely new river crossing further downstream that would by pass Ovingham altogether and provide a new route for the commuters of Prudhoe to the A69 trunk road. But hell would freeze over before this Chancellor sanctioned that kind of expenditure.
And so an antiquated and inadequate bridge, built when the metropolis of Prudhoe ( population now 11,500 ) was only a glint in the Duke of Northumberland’s eye, will be taken apart and patched up for at least the second time since I have lived in the Tyne Valley. It exemplifies the wartime tradition of make do and mend.
For those of you unfamiliar with the area, I should explain that the historic bridge has a single carriageway, just wide enough for one car to cross in one direction at a time. There is a semblance of a passing place in the middle of the bridge which only a dare devil would willingly attempt.
Unlike the Newburn Bridge, further downstream, which is also single carriageway, the Ovingham bridge is not controlled by traffic lights and so an unspoken and unwritten ( there are no warning signs) code of conduct has developed about how to drive across the bridge.
If the car ahead has passed the mid way point, the next driver will stop and cede the bridge to the car waiting at the other end. If the car ahead has not quite reached the middle, it is in order to put your foot down and catch it up. In my experience, as someone who crosses the bridge most days, the social etiquette is never breached.
It is more remarkable as the drivers at either end of the bridge do not have eye contact. There is none of the “after you, I insist” game that is played in deciding who should go through a door first. This is well rehearsed procedure that enables cars to cross the bridge in a far more efficient way than traffic lights could ever engineer.
The vast majority of Ovingham Bridgers are locals and it could be claimed that the give and take developed by crossing the bridge, analogous to the learned behaviour of a rat in a rat run, has a beneficial effect on those living in the surrounding community.
I notice it in the good natured early morning queue in the paper shop and in the general bonhomie amongst the people walking along Tyne Riverside Park. “ Ah, “ I think, “ they must have just crossed the bridge”. I am sure that the world would be a better place if everyone drove across the Ovingham bridge every day, though the traffic jams would be a major problem..
Sadly, the goodwill does not extend to strangers. The uninitiated are pitied. They can be spotted by their painfully slow approach to the mouth of bridge, presumably in fear that their car will not fit between its tramlines despite overwhelming evidence that every other car can do so.
The first time driver, known affectionately as an ‘Ovirginhamer’ , then proceeds at a snail’s pace and can often be seen sweating or even screaming. They have not realised that once your car is on the bridge, it is quite simple to steer straight ahead and reach the other side. Fear is irrational and bridges are the stuff of nightmares.
The expected response from the locals is a benign smile that masks the feeling of ‘how silly can you get’ or, perhaps better, to keep the eyes down and not embarrass the novice, who will realise their faintheartedness has caused a tailback.
Such sympathy does not extend to the occasional driver who flaunts the rules either in ignorance or defiance of local custom. Ovingham is a genteel place where road rage is unknown but nevertheless drivers who proceed across the bridge without regard to the unwritten rule of giving way are subject to merciless scowls from everyone they pass. Lessons in scowling are given in the Ovingham Reading Room every other Thursday evening.
When the bridge reopens, I hope the Parish Council will introduce a volunteer scheme, modelled on the Olympics, in which the steward would lean into passing cars and ask politely “is this your first time?”
The lessons of single carriageway bridge behaviour could be more widely applied. Other road junctions should be reassessed with a view to decreasing mandatory road controls and encouraging social interaction between drivers. New road schemes could be designed in ways that promote social cohesion.
Indeed it seems that the Chancellor has a hidden agenda here ( A1 campaigners take note.) He may prefer regeneration projects that build social capital on the grounds that goodwill toward our fellows makes us more happy with our lot. Why not invite him to reopen the Ovingham bridge in twelve months time?

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene

Peaceful beauty of the Dene cannot block out arms fears


I lose the after dinner game of scrabble. William Hague gets his way to end the embargo on arming the rebels in Syria  after arguing his case all weekend. Why is our Foreign Secretary leading the charge to send arms to Syria.?


Resolve to read all the novels of Virginia Woolf when I retire next year, inspired by a clergy retirement day at Shepherds Dene. There are only nine  novels  but I can include the five volumes of  self depreciating  memoirs by Leonard Woolf as well. He estimated that he had spent 200,000 hours working for political causes during his life time and “achieved practically nothing.” I know the feeling.

Off to see The Great Gatsby but leave before the end underwhelmed by the shallowness of it all and get home in time to hear the news that Russians will arm the Assad regime. My heart sinks.


Catch John Bell on Thought for the Day as I drive to work. He  makes a calm and carefully reasoned  statement against the race to arm both  sides in Syria which, he says, take us back to the days of the Cold War when the world powers fought each other by proxy.

Shepherds Dene is full of young people from Heaton Baptist Church, musicians from The Sage Gateshead and photographers from  Stocksfield Camera Club, who gather like a group of paparazzi  when Guy Opperman MP arrives to officially open our new front entrance after which Bishop Frank blesses all who  visit the retreat house.

Guy talks movingly to the young people about his frustration at always been called as a last resort about cases of asylum seekers. I am reminded of Chris Mullin’s lament throughout his diaries of the number of cases of appeal against deportation in his constituency business that so depressed him.

What does he making of arming the rebels, I ask Guy as I escort him back to his car? He points out that 100,000 lives have been lost, many through the actions of the Syrian government slaughtering its citizens, but has reservation about the latest developments.


A new  report claims that the Afghan War will have cost the Hepburn household, and every other taxpaying household,  £2000 each . I would give up my free bus pass to stop the welfare cuts but not to  fund this imperialistic campaign which tragically, the report claims, has not  altered the odds in Helmund province and cost hundreds of lives. What will Syria now cost us too?


After two days hard work preparing  the potting shed at Shepherds Dene for their exhibition, Lindsay Cooper and Veronica Bell, our artists in residence, are ready for the private view by early evening. Their work will be on display for the next three weekends as part of the eighteenth annual Art Tour. I had never realised how many artists work in remote parts of Tynedale where the light is reputed to be  as near as it comes  to Tuscany within these shores. The very first visitors, stopping on their way home from work, buy a painting which put us all in good spirits. 



On the early morning news, President Assad claims the Syrian army is winning and threatens to retaliate against Israel for reasons I cannot fully follow. The opposition will not attend the proposed peace conference unless he stands down from power. We pray for peace in Syria and for reconciliation  in the minds of  those in positions of power at morning prayer. 


John Churcher arrives at Shepherds Dene with all the enthusiasm of a child let out of school clutching a brown paper package which contains a sundial. John first visited Shepherds Dene last year to attend a meeting of psychoanalysts and found the beauty and peace of the place so inviting that he offered to make a new sundial for the plinth in the Quiet Garden.  He set off to check his measurements and prepare for the installation before he had unpacked his bags for the weekend.

The sun dial is extraordinarily beautiful and accurately calibrated. The sun shone for the ceremony to install the sun dial later in the weekend. It is one of three gifts received in the last few weeks, all adding contemporary touches to an Edwardian estate, which make me realise how much the sanctuary is valued by our guests.

A deer jumps out in front of my car as I leave Shepherds Dene.


John Humphries interviews a doctor in Qusayr, which has been bombarded by government troops for two weeks. Medical supplies have run out. It is described as a bitter fight to the death on both sides with many civilians caught in the crossfire.


Jessica Lamb entertains our guests with a performance on Northumberland pipes. An eighteen year old from Bellingham, about to start a traditional music degree at Newcastle University , it is no surprise to find that she been taught by Kathryn Tickell.

As the Great North Festival springs into life this month, it is worth reflecting on the contribution of Kathryn, Ros Rigby, Alastair Anderson and others to keeping the folk heritage of the region alive. If Alastair had not gone up into the hills to write down the shepherds tunes, from men in their old age, Jessica would never have inherited them and played them to our guests.


At Shepherds Dene, we celebrate Mervin Spearing’s eightieth birthday with a grand tea party. In Prudhoe they celebrate the anniversary of the coronation with a street party, thanks to the indefatigable organising skills of The Revd Charles Hope. Outside our house, we host the village barbeque and later on I lose another game of scrabble.

The losing streak is now so long that it cannot be explained by the way the tiles fall out of the bag. There appears to be nothing I can do to change the situation. But that does not mean I should not try.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene