Nomads broke with tradition to settle there and a Prime Minister couldn’t tear himself away. David Whetstone on a book detailing the charms of Howick.
SOME people write books for fame, some for fortune. Others have a story inside them that just wants out. For Avril Meakin, who lives in the Northumberland village of Howick, there were other motives – a chilly church being one of them.
As church warden of St Michael and All Angels, the parish church on the Howick estate, Avril initiated a campaign to have heating installed. The work was to cost £37,000 and the bulk of it was raised in a remarkably short time for a small community.
But, as so often happens, one final push was needed to get the fund-raising campaign over the line so a small but faithful congregation could worship in comfort.
Avril, who has retired as church warden, explains that for a few years she wrote articles for the parish magazine, The Bridge, recording village events and also highlighting interesting moments in local history (no mean feat since Avril says there are 10,000 years of it).
“I thought, why not pull them all together and publish them as a book and sell it? That’s what happened. But I did add quite a few extra stories and people also wrote me some stories so it’s more than just the parish magazine collection.”
Avril was inspired, she says, by a Victorian annual, a beautifully bound collection of the year’s parish magazines, popular in the 1880s.
It’s actually quite a handsome volume with glossy pages and lots of photos. It was published by the Howick Heritage Group with the support of organisations, including Northumberland County Council.
There’s a foreword by Charlie Howick – actually the second Lord Howick of Glendale – who, with his wife Clare, Lady Howick, lives at the heart of the village in the west wing of Howick Hall, ancestral home of the Grey family since the early 1300s.
This is the strongest link between Howick and the heart of Tyneside since a statue of the second Earl Grey, Prime Minister from 1830 and champion of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, looks down on the busy streets of Newcastle from the monument at the top of Grey Street.
Earl Grey, we learn, couldn’t bear to tear himself away from Howick which caused consternation in London. “No good can be done unless you come to town,” said one exasperated colleague.
Lord Howick’s mother, Mary (known as Molly), was the daughter of the fifth Earl Grey and the last to bear the name. Once a great beauty who reputedly turned down many suitors, she died in 2002, aged 95.
There’s an article about her in the book written by Lord Howick and it’s clear she loved the place as much as her ancestor. She’d known a few places, too, having spent part of the Second World War in Canada and then a much longer period in Africa with her husband, Evelyn Baring, who was appointed Governor of Southern Rhodesia in 1942.
Evidently she passed her love of gardening on to her son for he is a noted horticulturalist who has built the gardens of Howick up into a significant visitor attraction (the arboretum features some 11,000 trees and shrubs).
In the book he also writes about gruelling plant-collecting expeditions to the United States, Japan and China.
Lady Howick, who clearly isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, was interviewed by Avril in the Howick gardens. Gardening, she suggested, was therapeutic, although horse breeding is her passion and she is a big cheese in the Pony Club.
We learn that she is also into needlework and knitting... “that’s unless Newcastle United are playing a home game at St James’ Park. I’m a passionate supporter.”
In his foreword, Lord Howick describes Avril Meakin’s book, which she put together with Helen Page, as providing “a snapshot of a small community on the east coast of Northumberland in the time leading up to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee”.
He adds: “Howick is a small place and there are many communities with their own characteristics over the whole country; we are but one piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle.”
That’s true, but perhaps there are fewer places like Howick than there were. Time after time in the book people express their affection for the village and if there is anything to be learned about community spirit, you’ll find it here.
The Diamond Jubilee celebrations are recorded along with the 90th anniversary of the WI and the Howick Show. One large photo shows the whole village assembled on the green, for all the world like an unscary version of the cast of The Archers.
Eclectic is an apt description for the book’s contents. There’s an article on the amorous toads of Howick pond and another on Troglodytes Troglodytes, the Latin name for the tiny wren which was surely dreamt up by someone with a great sense of humour.
Residents past and present are celebrated for their idiosyncrasies and contributions to community life. And by past, I don’t mean just a few decades ago. The book’s cover shows an artist’s impression of the Howick Mesolithic Hut.
Evidence of a 10,000-year-old settlement was discovered in 2000, leading to a two-year excavation by a team from Newcastle University and the reconstruction of the hut in 2005.
Experts had assumed that Europeans were all nomadic at that time. Not in Howick, they weren’t; or at least on the coastal patch that would become Howick one day. Here the nomads arrived... and stayed. They set a trend and Avril Meakin’s book shows why.
Howick: Tales from a Northumbrian Village costs £10 and is on sale in local shops. Alternatively, email firstname.lastname@example.org.