Toon and Country

We must have sounded as gossipy as farmers after a funeral, clucking away just like the hens I'd left riding the (free and organic) range back on the Rio Tweed.

We must have sounded as gossipy as farmers after a funeral, clucking away just like the hens I'd left riding the (free and organic) range back on the Rio Tweed. But we were far from home.

Stretching our legs off the TravelSure coach, we were taking in the remarkable sight of what sounded to me like the "Headbanger" Fjord but was actually the Hardanger, an hour or two east of Bergen in Norway.

Sometimes, being abroad for a few days helps you appreciate what a precious commodity is our sense of community and the friendship that springs from it. Indeed, from the snatches of conversation you'd hardly have thought we'd left the North-East 36 hours behind us.

"I knew your granddad," said William Hall of Tweedmouth, shaking my hand, "and your Uncle Davie. We used to go to dances in Wooler when we were teenagers. And your mother . . ." His memory failed him momentarily.

"Helen Renton," I prompted him, delighted to re-establish a 60-year living link with my late mother. "Not Helen," said William, shaking his white head. "We always called her Ellen." Of course they did, I thought excitedly, her family and friends had always dropped the aitch. His simple correction was like meeting family I never knew I had.

It was a moving moment for me, rather like the night Young Neil and I - in our cups - realised that in 1941 his grandmother and my mum had almost certainly been housemaids together at Ladykirk House, just across the Tweed from Norham.

It was wartime, the year his gran married the chauffeur and my mum left her "below stairs" post to join the NAAFI, never to return to servants' quarters.

Back in Norway, William's wife Isabel was reminding me we'd met at the recent Cornhill shop reopening and she introduced me to her friend Agnes, a neighbour of mine in Branxton.

"You're living in the house in Crookham that belonged to the Miss Browns," she reminded me. "I married Bobby Brown so I was related to the spinster sisters" (you'll observe, good reader, that I'm now living in their house, not that they once lived in mine).

Later, over dinner, I realised that Derek and Betty Walton from Seahouses - he's ex-RAF and writes books on aviation, Betty's a guide at Bamburgh Castle and gives talks to Women's Institute groups - had been fellow students of mine at a recent same Workers Educational Authority local history lecture course at Berwick Community Centre, and shared my concern over the threatened withdrawal of Government funding for the WEA's local educational enterprise.

A story Betty tells her WI audiences illustrates how this region's powerful sense of community can extend far beyond our own shores.

It concerns a trainee guide dog called Sheila, the only "civilian" dog ever to win the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, for finding and saving an American B-17 pilot whose wartime bomber crashed in the Cheviots. Years later, the veteran pilot's dying wish was respected: his ashes were returned to Britain to be scattered on the windy Cheviot fell where his crewmates had perished. Derek used his RAF connections to organise a helicopter to deliver the urn's contents to their lofty resting place.

And, in a touching postscript to that final episode, the RAF flew one of VC winner Sheila's puppy descendents all the way to America to provide a lifetime companion for the pilot's grieving widow.

DID I ever tell you that I'm a one-eyed Liverpool football fan? And that the worst place to be when your team is playing a crucial Champions League semi-final against Chelsea is in the middle of the North Sea on a Norwegian ferry with no live coverage and a mobile that will only receive text messages? And what messages!

From my sister: "Lambs to the slaughter" (but no hint of a result). From my daughter: "Did you hear the result? Wow" (still no clue).

And finally, from Young Neil, who should have known better: "Name's on the Cup, dinna cowp the boat!" And they say you never walk alone.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer