On 11th April I joined Newcastle-based artist Henna Asikainen on her fourth and final walk as part of her #WalkCreate commission. Henna has been working with N.E.S.T (North East Solidarity and Teaching) a student-led charity based at Newcastle University which teaches English as a second language and organises community integration support for people in Newcastle who have experienced forced migration.
Henna’s first three walks all explored the city centre of Newcastle-Gateshead – its local history, memorials, cultural institutions and historical sites – landmarks such as the BALTIC, Grey’s monument, Gateshead Millenium Bridge. Henna’s aim for these walks has been to support a sense of home and belonging in the city for those who have been displaced from their own homes – talking and walking to foster engagement, inclusion and positive experiences. Participants on the walks have been diverse, with people from Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Ukraine, South America.
For this final walk, Henna, along with N.E.S.T. project worker Bridget Stratford, organised a day long coach trip up the coast to Howick House and Gardens for nearly 40 of their learners. In the 1800s Howick House was home to Charles 2nd Earl Grey, who was leader of the Whig party and prime minister of the UK from 1830 to 1834. It has been suggested that Earl Grey tea was based on a blend favoured by Grey and his wife, suited to the water at Howick (a blend which was later marketed by Twinings). During Grey’s term as prime minister he oversaw the Great Reform Act of 1832, which gave the vote to men, and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833.
Henna picked this specific location for a few reasons, firstly it linked back to the first walk she led with some of this group in December last year, where she took participants to see Grey’s monument in Newcastle city centre. Secondly the arboretum at Howick Hall is known as the ‘United Nations of Trees’ as since the 1980s it has been collecting plant species from around the world. The arboretum is home to Magnolias from the Himalayas, Rhododendrons from China, as well as trees from East Asia, North America, Europe, the Southern Hemisphere, India and Pakistan. Plants from around the world taking root, finding a new home here in the north East of England.
The coach leaves from the Hancock Museum at Newcastle University campus and takes about 1 hour. On the way I talk to some of the participants. They hear I am from the University of Glasgow and they speak about their love of the city, some of them were there for a short while before being moved to Newcastle.
We arrive at Howick House and after a brief visit inside, we walked through the gardens. The first part of the route took us round the outside of the house along the ‘daffodil walk’. The garden is seasonal with ‘snowdrop walks’ in February transforming in March-May into the daffodils, which were mostly planted between the two world wars by 5th Countess. This walk around the gardens was delightfully slow as many of the group stopped to pose in front of the daffodils, taking selfies, and group photos of each other with the Grey’s mansion house in the background.
Our tour guide from the house then led us through the arboretum, through huge flowering rhododendrons and magnolia trees quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. One of the group was blasting out Arabic tunes from his phone speaker – the very privileged hobby of exotic plant collection meets a different, but no less valid, form of cultural expression.
After about half an hour, I can hear waves in the distance. We emerge from the trees and find ourselves at a small sandy beach. It’s the North Sea crashing onto the rocks. We stop for a picnic. Some of the children with us play on the beach. The wind is at first refreshing after the walk but is eventually chilly. I think about which direction we are facing. Probably towards Norway or Denmark. I think about crossings, movement, journeys. We take a group photo and move on.
We walk along the coastal path towards the old Bathing House, built by the Grey’s in the 19th century (now a holiday cottage). The path is lined with Yellow Gorse and Henna points out to some of the group that when you crush the flowers it smells like coconut. We find a little cove for shelter while we wait for the coach. It has an amazing rock formation that acts as a buffer from the wind. The surface of the rock has been worn away by the waves and you can see where previous visitors have etched their names into the soft surface. Two parents take their little boy over the top of the formation to see the waves crashing up against the rocks a bit further out. The wind whips sea spray off the waves like bubble bath. The boy tries to catch it. As we wait one of the N.E.S.T. volunteers helps to write another little boy’s name using a pebble like chalk. Some of the men, from Syria and South America, climb the rocks. People chat.
We walk up to find the coach waiting for us at the top of the path. I ask one of the participants, originally from Sudan, if he’s had a nice time. He says yes, it’s just good to get out of the city and breath some fresh air and that it has changed his mood. The driver takes us to a small coastal fishing village called Amble where the N.E.S.T. team offer everyone chips, ice cream and/or coffee. Some are fasting for Ramadan, so they politely decline. Once everyone has finished and the seagulls have had their fair share of dropped chips we get back in the coach and head back to Newcastle.
Find out more about the #WalkCreate commissions here.
To hear Henna talk about the project you can sign up for our free online Gathering event at University of East London on 19 May here.