One of the top ten walks anywhere
I am the secret tourist and here is my report. Like my more famous secret counterpart, who graces these pages later in the week, I pay my own admission and travel incognito, and thereby hangs a tale.
You may however spot me. I am the one in the queue who does not wear shorts or sandals, whose tee shirt is not emblazoned with a cheeky slogan and who looks just like himself. In a crowd of tourists, this may be a give away.
Due to a combination of family visitors and guests to Shepherds Dene, it has been an exhausting fortnight and I report in chronological order.
Auckland Castle: Greeted effusively and, for a very reasonable fee, view the paintings of the 17th century Spanish master, Francisco Zurbaran. The makeover of the Castle, following its acquisition by the hedge fund philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, has hardly begun but it promises well and has an air of quiet decorum despite most other visitors wearing shorts.
The twelve larger than life paintings of Jacob and his sons are well worth a visit on their own. A good job lot for the reported £15m that Mr Ruffer paid for them. As I walk through the park, I wonder how I would spend £15m on charitable causes and may return to this topic another day. ***
Escomb Saxon Church The detour on the way home from Bishop Auckland is highly recommended. The key has to be collected from a house across the road and the visitor is welcomed by way of information sheets displayed throughout the small stone building. These do not spoil the sanctity of a place which has been used for worship since the 7th century. I happily slip a donation in the box on the way out. ****
National Railway Museum, York To my surprise, admission is free and I make a gift aid donation on behalf of our party. This joyous exchange at the entrance desk activates the feel good enzymes that may well make me more generous.
The Railway Museum is a national treasure. The famous locomotives and historic carriages in their immaculate liveries take pride of place but there is so much more to the museum; shelves of railways memorabilia, displays about the social and engineering history of the railway, steam train rides and childrens activities.
I am shocked to find the museum is at risk of closure if there are further cuts in government grant. Should the cherished principle of free entry be sacrificed to ensure the survival of the museum, I ask myself as I ring up a large “secondary spend” in the bookshop? *****
Ghost Hunt of York: If you want to see tourists teem and heave, head to the middle of York on an August weekend. On a hot sunny day, everyone wears shorts and little else with the exception of your truly. I am elbowed off the pavement by a large group heading in the opposite direction . I am forced to make detours to avoid people inanely photographing their girl friend in front of the Minster.
The ghost tour shows that culture can be fun. We follow a man dressed up as a Victorian undertaker through dark alleyways and listen to frightening tales which have some passing reference to historical truth, thoroughly enjoy ourselves and still sleep soundly. ***
The Treasurers House: Spilling out of church, we head to the Treasurers House in the Minster precinct, a historic and reputedly haunted house embellished in the early twentieth century by an earlier, more flamboyant version of Jonathan Ruffer. At the entrance, I am hard sold membership of the National Trust. Although I decline, the assistant continues to tell me about the special discount available this month. She then charges me the higher gift aid admission rate, without my permission.
Mrs Secret Tourist cringes as she knows my strongly held view that the concession to allow museums and stately homes to claim gift aid on their admission charges is unfair on other charities who cannot gift aid their services. “ If it is a donation, can I pay what I like? ”, I not unreasonably ask. Don’t worry, I will not return to this arcane subject in this column another day. **
Cherryburn: The birthplace of the engraver Thomas Bewick is another National Trust property . I approach with guests from Shepherds Dene in trepidation. To my delight. the attendant throws away her script and works out the best way of providing tickets for an assorted collection on members and non members, adults and concessions. A long and informative conversation about the property follows in the course of which I offer to return as a volunteer. What a difference a day makes. ****
Hadrians Wall: The walk along the escarpment from Houseteads to Steel Rigg must rank as one of the top ten walks anywhere. It is on a par with the Machu Picchu trail.
The stone steps make the steep climbs possible and the volunteer rangers patrolling the route are full of encouragement. The trail is impeccably managed but the signage and interpretation is as confusing and lacking as ever. I never know what is due to the National Trust, English Heritage or National Park but if any of them had been holding out a bucket as we reached Steel Rigg, I would have emptied my pockets into it. ***
Beamish Museum Despite a long queue, we sweep quickly through the admission procedure, perhaps helped by the extended family all being called Hepburn ( as in Audrey) and are issued with year long passes for an average under £12 a head. Great value.
Beamish just gets better and better. Since my last visit, there is a new brass band hall, fish and chip shop and clever new entrance to the tea rooms. A bakery is due to open soon. There is so much so to see that Beamish can absorb crowds of visitors on a busy Saturday and I suspect there is a greater variety of colour and class than at other venues in this report. *****
Lindisfarne Gospels Exhibiton Advanced reports effusive, tickets pre booked on Ticketmaster, drab clothes at the ready, I am off there next Monday and I bet they are already quaking in their shoes as the secret tourist approaches.
George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene http://www.shepherdsdene.co.uk