Wednesday, 2 January 2013


Before Northumberlandia, there was Penshaw Monument, and that's where I was on New Year's Day.

The North East of England has an ongoing legacy of earthworks and follies*. Penshaw Monument was built in 1844 as a tribute to the Earl of Durham, created as a half-sized replica of a Greek temple. It's still pretty damn big - nearly 100ft long, 66ft high, and you can see it for miles. Close-up, is is frankly oppressive:

It sits on Penshaw Hill, which is the site of a famous dragon legend: The Lambton Worm: young Lord Lambton went fishing on a Sunday (boo!) in the River Wear, and caught a nasty-looking worm which he discarded in a well. Then he went off to the Crusades ... and when he got back he found the Worm had grown into a huge monster that terrorised the countryside.

This fearful worm would often feed
On calves an' lambs an' sheep,
An' swallow little bairns alive
When they laid doon te sleep.
An when he'd eaten aall he cud
An' he had had his fill,
He craaled away an' lapped his tail
Ten times roond Penshaw Hill.

When I wrote my huge unpublished supernatural thriller a decade ago, I set a pivotal chapter at Penshaw Hill, where one of the characters is menaced by the Worm - and the others bump into Shiva.

 ‘What do you think?’ Steve asked.
    ‘What about?’
    ‘About this place.’
    ‘It’s cold,’ Erica complained.
    He knocked his fists together. ‘Tell me what you think about it, though.’
    Adrian said, ‘If we had enough netting we could catch us some harpies. Like in that Jason film, you remember?’
    There were nods of recognition. ‘Ade, I think you’re channelling Rhys,’ Meena warned.
    ‘Oh God,’ he said in horror.
    ‘Seriously,’ Steve said; ‘how does it make you feel? How do you see it?’
    They looked at him with varying degrees of perplexity and cynicism. ‘Is this a test of some sort?’ May asked.
    He shrugged. ‘Not a test.’
    ‘What, then?’
    ‘Knock away the rational, everyday layers of your mind. How do you see it, deep down?’
    ‘Like, what does it mean to your imagination?’
    ‘It’s big. It’s stone. It’s old.’
    ‘Oh no. You’re not really that shallow, May.’
    ‘Okay,’ said Meena, since no one else was going to kick off. ‘ I don’t like it much. Is that what you want? It’s too big. It’s never been lived in, or used for genuine worship, or even turned into a proper building. It’s got no real relationship to human beings, if you know what I mean. It feels, not exactly hostile, but like it doesn’t understand what it’s supposed to do with us.’
    There was a moment’s silence. Meena felt the columns leaning in around their small group.
    ‘Good,’ Steve said.
    ‘Yeah,’ Adrian said, eyes half-closed. ‘It’s like a machine waiting to be switched on. It’s amazing. I can’t help liking it, myself. It reminds me of a great big steam engine, just sat there, black with oil, ready to be fired up. Does that sound stupid? Like Meena said, it’s got a purpose,’ he continued slowly, ‘but it hasn’t been fulfilled. I don’t know what it would be.’
Yes you do, thought Meena. Twice now you’ve likened it to a cage.

This is, for me, a magical place. A landmark on my imaginative map. I have very happy personal memories of Penshaw Hill because when I was at University we staged two wonderful LARP adventures there. Including the infamous "X Rated" one (really, more like PG) which, let us say, turned out to include a certainly amount of foreshadowing ...
So Mr Ashbless and I wandered through the little quarries and woods in a glow of nostalgia.

It was a good place to spend New Year's Day - a place to look back with gratitude and joy, before setting out into the future.

* (Nowadays, just across the road, a reclaimed colliery site has become Herrington Country Park, complete with modern stone circle. You just can't stop 'em!)


Madelynne Ellis said...

Weirdly was only talking about Penshaw Monument on New Year's Eve with my dad.

Janine Ashbless said...

Have you been there?

Madelynne Ellis said...

Not so that I properly remember it. Lived not far from it for much of my childhood. Dad was saying they'd opened it up again, so you can go up top with the curator. Not allowed without the curator due to folks throwing themselves off.

Janine Ashbless said...

There's no safety rail at all on top - I'm amazed they let anyone up at all, frankly. Plus, it's always windy there!