OUT in the wide, open spaces above the Tyne Valley is a tiny gem of a church with beautiful stained glass windows and birds chirruping in the trees outside. It’s St John’s, Healey, and its proportions are probably just about right for a lightly-populated, scattered parish.
The parish has a magazine, too, but not your conventional photocopied list of services with a message from the vicar and a line drawing of the church on the cover.
The Parish Magazine of St John’s, Healey, has a bit of swagger about it. It glories in the name of The Hotspur and every edition – the proud boast goes – contains “a free print by a first-rate poet or artist”.
With a print run of about 100, it is becoming a bit of a collector’s item, and was reviewed in the Independent on Sunday, thereby attaining a reach far beyond the parish of St John’s.
What is more, there is now a book – just published – containing short stories from The Hotspur.
How did this all come to pass?
For the answer, I drive to a very big house not too far away. And here, after a certain amount of knocking, hooting and hollering, the door is finally opened with a warm and apologetic greeting by Jamie Warde-Aldam, the editor of The Hotspur.
Jamie is 52, and Healey Hall, which dates from 1860, is where he grew up – a descendant of Quakers who eventually turned to the Church of England.
Jamie’s brother Tom, farmer and land agent, looks after the acres we can see from the window, although Jamie can’t tell me exactly how many.
He did a degree in the history of art and architecture at the University of East Anglia and has taken care of the parish magazine since December 2005.
He casts his mind back to a parochial church council meeting when the previous editor announced he didn’t want to do the job any more.
“We have very convivial meetings and I’d probably had a couple of glasses of wine, so I very rashly agreed to do it.
“A couple of months later, my wife said, ‘What are you going to do about the parish magazine?’ Then I got into a panic. I have an appalling memory.
“I pretty much put the first one together myself, although quite a lot of people contributed to it. The story is that I just wrote to lots of people asking them to do things. That got published and it got an amazing response.”
Since then, a growing list of respected writers, artists, photographers and poets have contributed to The Hotspur.
They include Bill Feaver, who wrote the book which inspired the play The Pitmen Painters, the illustrator Georgina McBain and artists Simon Cutts, Leo Fitzmaurice, Catherine Bertola and Cornelia Hesse-Honegger.
The latter is also a scientist and paints anatomically-correct paintings of mutant bugs found near nuclear installations.
Bill Feaver wrote an appreciative essay about Newcastle’s Lit & Phil, which was accompanied by a fantastic photo taken by the city-based photographer Dan Prince.
Every issue of the magazine has a theme chosen by Jamie – marriage, food and drink, gardens, forgotten books, to name but four. Each is a capsule of elegance and wit.
The dogs issue includes a glossary of barking as a foreign language, listing woef (Afrikaans), bup, bup (Catalan), boj (Esperanto), guau guau (Spanish), baf-baf (Ukrainian) and wau wau (Vietnamese).
Another issue lists – tongue in cheek, no doubt – the Eskimos’ 100 words for snow.
Jamie says that, after university, he went into advertising: “I still do it when people ask me, and I still love doing it.
“The job description is copywriter but the secret of a good advertisement is connecting words and pictures. You have to think visually.”
Jamie says he had always been aware of contemporary art but didn’t really start to look at it properly until 1996, when the North East hosted the Year of Visual Arts.
He says: “I suddenly found myself standing in front of things that really put me on the spot and forced me to think and, actually, that feeling – well, I became rather addicted
“The thing about advertising is that you have to be pretty unambiguous. You are looking for a very specific, very clear meaning.
“But with a good piece of poetry or work of art, it’s open-ended. Art and poetry leave you room to think around them and about them. They’re better for you.”
In 1996, he saw the paintings of Northumbrian artist James Hugonin for the first time, and stood in front of Antony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles in Gateshead, marvelling at the huge crowd of clay figures.
He met Jon Bewley, director of Newcastle art producers Locus+, who asked him if he could use the Healey Estate for half of an art performance called An Indian Shooting the Indian Act by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. The other half took place at the National Rifle Association Range at Bisley, Surrey.
Jamie is now on the board of Locus+ and the empty cartridge from that 1997 performance is framed in a downstairs loo, along with a poster for an exhibition by Cornelia Hesse-Honegger.
The Hotspur, with an example of each issue filed carefully in a plastic sleeve, is clearly a labour of love.
But what do local parishioners make of this parish magazine which doesn’t look like any other parish magazine you’ve ever seen?
“I think they like it,” says Jamie, “although there are probably some who use it for kitty litter or to light fires.”
Whereas people in the parish get The Hotspur free, outsiders pay £25 for the four issues a year, which helps to keep the enterprise afloat.
The new book was conceived with the same idea. As Jamie states at the back: “With its tiny circulation, the magazine needs all the help it can get.”
The little yellow book is called Lady Baby Gypsy Queen Elephant Monkey Tangerine. Jamie says this is what his sister used to say when counting plum stones and having exhausted Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor.
The book is an anthology of short stories by contributors to The Hotspur – and some by newcomers.
As Jamie says in his introduction: “They have no unifying style and represent no particular attitude to writing. All they have in common is that they come from funny, talented, generous people who write fiction for their own amusement, not for a living.”
Amateur storytellers, he adds, can give just as much pleasure as “the usual suspects we’re encouraged to spend our money on”.
One of Jamie’s own stories, Dazzled, tells of the tragic consequences of exposure to a piece of dazzle camouflage – invented during the First World War to confound U-Boat commanders.
Roadkill Barbecue, by 18-year-old Karl McManus, from Hexham, tells of an attempt to emulate survival expert Ray Mears.
They are a mixed bag – dark, funny, lovingly crafted and readable. The book – title too long to repeat – costs £9.99 and can be found in book shops in Corbridge and Hexham, and via email@example.com