Man on swings in the cherry blossom orchard in Alnwick, Northumberland
All photos: Chris Bethell

Home Coming: Northumberland

An intimate tour of one writer's hometown, one random moment of synchronicity at a time.

Rothbury is located in the north of Northumberland, the last English county before you hit Scotland. It sits in the basin of a valley, straddling a river, surrounded by thick conifer forests, hills that are bald and wild and meadows of gazing heather, which, in the autumn, hold the trippiest purple. Official websites call it a “traditional market town” but everyone in the village calls it a village, and they always will. For every human here, there are four sheep.


It has the pastoral sheen of a postcard when you first drive in, past the bowling green, the tennis club and the stepping stones that cross the glittering river. The tree-sprinkled main street is dotted with a deli, a baker and a florist, and the church bell tolls lazily but punctually, every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. At night a restored three-headed gas lamp illuminates the market cross, and you can see the dim glow of cottages and houses creeping up the valley like fire-lit caves. Visitors are forgiven for assuming that nothing bad ever happens in the village.

Man walking up street leading to river in Rothbury, Northumberland

The street leading to the river.

My great grandad was the village mechanic, and my great grandma was the village baker. Grandad was the village bus driver and then gardener, while Grandma worked in the ladies wear shop on the high street. Mum tried to leave the village. But when I was eight years old, she divorced my Dad and we moved back for good.

I’ve lived all over this small cluster of life: If I was looking down on it from above, I would be able to geographically plot a personal history. The park where I cracked my head open and warm blood trickled down my neck. The vehicle turning point where I sat one evening with my first long-term girlfriend and drunkenly stared at the stars. The builder’s yard my stepdad owned, the newsagent where he bought his winning lottery ticket and the house where his marriage to my mum fell apart. The corner where mum crashed her car into the river. My DNA is sprinkled thick across this place, like little particles in a snow globe.

View of the village of Rothbury, Northumberland

A view of the village from above.

And if you cross the main road, and head towards the river, and past the pub, you’ll see the crenellated tower of the All Saints church, where they held Angela’s funeral on 11 November 1976.

Man in a park near the river in Rothbury, Northumberland

The park near the river, with a view of the church.

I call her Aunty Angela, but she never lived to hear it. I never met her. She died one day, 12 years before I was born, at the age of 20. She had driven to Edinburgh that day, explored the city, and then set off for the Scottish border town of Duns to meet her boyfriend. Nineteen miles from Duns she pulled out to overtake and crashed into an oncoming Jaguar E-Type. She was killed instantly.

Angela was the only one not home when the policeman knocked on my grandparents’ door at around 5PM that day. Grandma had been clock-watching for an hour, that way a mother does when a child is late home, helplessly slipping from calm to anxious. The sun had just set and the air was cold and blueish. The policeman was young. He took his hat off and placed it on the kitchen table, and before either of them had said a word Grandma slid to the floor.

In the mortuary that evening, she saw Angela’s face for the last time. She had given birth to her 20 years, six months, and ten days earlier on the top floor of the village hospital. Now she looked at her, lifeless, and the only thought that entered her head was that they hadn’t done her hair right. She gently combed it.

“We’re going to do a post-mortem,” said the pathologist.


“Why?” said Grandma, “you know how she died.”

“When can we have the body?” said Grandad.

“She’s not a body!” shouted Grandma. “She’s Angela! She has a name!”

The following day, the local newspaper headline read: “Student Killed in Crash”. But most of the village already knew. A bus load of locals had driven past the twisted wreckage just moments after it had happened, on their way to a pantomime in Edinburgh. They knew Angela. They knew her car.

Cherry blossom flowers in Northumberland

On the day of the funeral, Grandma felt a freeze deeper than her bones. She wore two jumpers and then, in the church, borrowed her sister’s sheepskin coat. She felt this cold for six months and her red hair turned white. For a while, it was impossible for her to acknowledge Angela was gone, and not simply on a holiday from which she could return at any moment with a characteristic “Hoohoo!” at the front door.

Grandma felt angry, sad, nowhere really – and as a religious woman, the blame turned inwards. “We must have done something really wrong to lose her,” she shouted at Grandad one night. He didn’t react. He never did.

Man on a bridge looking out in Rothbury, Northumberland

We become more sensitive to physical space when we lose people we love. In a village, this is more acute. Their life is daubed everywhere, imprinted on buildings and benches, gates and fields, memories written in lemon juice. Pain blooms in places once imbued with joy. Where did they go? The world becomes grief, and grief shrinks around you.


You would expect a tight rural community to rally around during a time of crisis. The stereotypical view of the English village is of a warm and friendly place, in stark contrast to the cold and unfriendly character attributed to big cities. And it was like this, in some ways. Hundreds of letters poured through the door. “I can’t find the words…” read one, “Why the Lord our creator should snatch your daughter at such an age, no one can explain…” read another. They continued until Christmas: “I think of you often, especially at this time of year.”

But it was sympathy from a safe distance, outside the explosion zone. In an English village, there’s ‘the spoken about’ and the ‘not spoken about’. You cannot walk the street without smiling or saying hello at least four or five times. Most people assume they will get a chat when they enter a shop, idle conversations about babies, dogs or the weather – the latter may be a cliche, but that doesn’t make it untrue. But it’s all delivered with a distant cordiality, and anything of substance is rarely discussed. Even the subtle humour of the conversations you hear in the pub acknowledge this distinction, this taboo of the deep, a line between what is and isn’t allowed to be spoken about.



“Aye, you’ve got to be haven’t you.”

Middle-aged man standing in doorway of shop in Rothbury, Northumberland

When a tragic death occurs, the cordiality quivers. The things that made a village feel good – the closeness of community, the sociability of the streets, the familiar shape of each day – became modes of torture. Grandma couldn’t walk around as an anonymous pedestrian, as she might have a city or town. She was Angela’s mum and Angela was dead. Alright? Aye, you’ve got to be haven’t you.


A very English social reticence took hold, a desperation not to intrude that unintentionally manifested as cruelty. People would cross the road when they saw her coming. Silence struck the chemist. If she entered a cafe, chairs would screech in departure. When she finally returned to work in the shop, business plummeted. Keeping company with Grandma meant keeping company with one of life’s greatest terrors: surviving your child. “Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Girls of Angela’s age or lower would often try to speak to her, but soon be ushered away by their panicked mothers. For the few that did talk, Grandma was angry if they mentioned Angela and furious if they didn’t.

Close up of oranges at shop in Rothbury, Northumberland

Coincidences are explicit in a village. Six months after Angela’s burial, a local man accidentally crashed his car through the wall of the cemetery and into her gravestone, cracking it in half and smashing the ornamental vase. Me and my family, we all tell that story, like it means something, but we’ve never really known what to make of it.

Man walking across the stepping stones that cross the river Coquet.

The stepping stones that cross the river Coquet.

My four-year-old niece, Ester, has a ritual in the park. First she runs up a very small green mound and shouts, “I’m the king of the hill!” and then sprints into the play area and towards the swings, which she prefers you to push her on as she stands, facing you. “Push me high!” she screams at me, “higher than the sky!” One time, a cloud of bugs gathered around my head and her eyes gaped at me as if she was witnessing one of nature’s great wonders.


From the moment my sister got pregnant she decided that if Ester was a girl, she would be called Ester Angela. Grandma had no idea of this plan until my sister rang her, an hour after Ester Angela was born. It just so happened it was also Grandma’s birthday. When we’re all gone, someone will ask Ester what her middle name is and she’ll tell them about Angela, as long as we tell her who she was. The last part of you to die is the stories people tell about you, I imagine.

The park is down by the river, the River Coquet, like the word coquettish, which means to act like a coquette: flirty but usually with a view to deceive or disappoint. Ester always scrambles in, and I follow her. Her tiny soft feet are seemingly averse to the spiky rocks on the bed. I point out shoals of minnows, shining emerald and gold, and she says hello to them and then goodbye.

Man staring out at river Coquet in Rothbury, Northumberland

I never wanted to leave the house when I was a kid, I don’t know why. But whenever someone did drag me out, this river gave me peace. On summer evenings, you could smell the village best down here, away from the cars, like an olfactory slipstream. The breeze carried fragrant, eye-stinging smoke from someone’s bonfire – someone was always having a bonfire – and then, from nearby allotments, the lovely scent of green things growing. Sometimes I threw a branch in the river and followed it, walking alongside, almost feeling a small level of concern for its well being, watching how the currents carried it and the eddies slowed it down.


The Victorian industrialist, inventor and arms dealer, Lord Armstrong, visited our village as a sickly child, convinced that the clear air he breathed while fishing in this river, our river, would soothe his ailments. At the age of 53, he decided to move here permanently and built a fairytale palace on a ledge of rock to the east of the village. Here, he hosted key thinkers and world leaders. The architecture was envisioned by Richard Norman Shaw, lamps came from Joseph Swan, wallpaper and stained glass was supplied by William Morris, and the guest list at regular soirees included the Prince of Wales, the King of Siam, and the Shah of Persia (my Iranian dad liked to joke that the Shah was the first Persian to visit the village, and he was the second). It became a laboratory of modern living and the first house in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity.

Close-up of river in Rothbury, Northumberland

The murderer, Raoul Moat, was also drawn to our village to relive his childhood memories – after shooting three people and instigating Britain’s biggest ever manhunt. For six days he hid in fields, forests and the storm drains beneath our homes, recording his every thought on a dictaphone. I was working as a waiter in the village hotel on the night the manhunt concluded. While Moat sat against a tree by the river with a shotgun in his mouth, I served pasta to a wedding party some 400 yards away. Police informed us that nobody was allowed to leave. Tabloid photographers offered us cash to let them go to the staff quarters on the fourth floor and take photos of Moat’s final moments. We said no to them all, instinctively. It felt like something strangely sacred was happening. He died at 1.09AM, a hundred yards from the stepping stones, where Grandad once saved a boy called David from drowning. At 3AM, I walked home in the rain and mist with a pizza box in my hands, past armed police holding MP5 sub-machine guns and looking like statues.

Cows in a field near Rothbury, Northumberland

The incident shocked everyone, but bad things have always happened in Northumberland, amidst the rolling beauty. From Roman invasions to Viking attacks to murderous raids by Border Reivers, death lurks in these wild borderlands like a rustle in the bushes. My childhood memories are painted with stillborn lambs, mixy-struck rabbits perplexed on the roads seemingly waiting for cars to kill them. The moles never saw me but I saw them, hanging from the barbed wire fence at the big house where  grandad was the gardener, strung up and displayed like decorations. The mole man, after all, was paid per mole. I recall whispered conversations about farmers shooting themselves and “See someone else got flattened on the moors? When are they gonna sort that crossroads?” I have pungent flashbacks of my school bus driving past smoking towers of dead cows as they burned during the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, like small volcanoes, like the remnants of some human versus animal war raging nearby.

And wars, like they once did, still rage and echo near the village but now mostly in play. The skies above are often torn apart by the sonic booms of fighter jets on military exercise from the RAF base that’s 15 miles east of us, and the horizon gives a low foreboding rumble when rockets explode at the largest military firing range in Britain, 15 miles west of us.

View of the military firing range, 15 miles west of the village of Rothbury, Northumberland

View of the military firing range, 15 miles west of the village.

Sometimes, a fisherman lured by our flirty river will find not a bull trout or salmon lurking on the bed, but an unexploded WW2 bomb, like a silent monk ready to speak. But sometimes, it’s nice to forget all that and see it through Ester’s eyes, to see the sky from the seat of a swing, to see a mound as a mountain, to wave hello to a minnow, and then goodbye.

Angela’s story is one that I have grown up inside. This aunty of mine, both older and younger. Her presence has always been there, not like the looming of a shadow and not like a ghost. More like the comfort of a winter sun warming my back through a coat.

This is what I know of her. She was Mum’s god and Grandma’s left arm. Her wavy chestnut hair framed sleepy brown eyes and a knowing smile. She was a hippy, with a twist of elegance. In one photo I found, she’d hiked up the ridge of the valley in a fur coat and knee high red leather boots, with a black headband patterned in red autumn leaves and daisies.

Home Coming: Denby Dale

Narrowly ahead of fashion came books. When Grandma sent Angela to town to buy clothes she returned with bags and bags of dog-eared novels from second hand shops. Grandma has kept them all, stacked in a pine bookcase at the end of her bed. As I grew up, reading these books felt like having conversations with Angela. Spike Milligan's Puckoon showed me she had a goofy sense of humour and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea showed me she was more intelligent at 20 than I am at 33.


She was witty, even to herself in her diary. While labouring over a speaking assignment for school she wrote in neat but loopy letters: “Wrote the skeleton of my speech, unfortunately I can’t think of much skin to cover it.” Later she wrote, “Must do Hamlet, I just keep putting him off.” After seeing Elvis perform at the height of his powers in Newcastle in 1973 she wrote in her diary: “Quite enjoyed it, however my pleasure was marred by the advances of the man sitting next to me.” George Orwell’s 1984 was consumed in a day, and reviewed: “It’s alright. One can’t stop reading it but at the same time wishes it was finished.”

Collection of books on a shelf.

Some of Angela’s books, now mixed in with others.

She was the village carnival queen as a teenager, worked as a waitress at the pub, and took tourists on pony rides. It was a huge deal when she finally left home for university – the first ever in our family to do so. There, she met a funny crowd who she loved to bring back and expose to the village. These characters – like John who used to nibble LSD from his leather pouch and wander into the hills – added luminous colours to rural family life. She wrote letters to everyone while she was at university. They are all in a shoe box in Grandma’s attic. Twice she has brought them down with a view to destroying them, but she can’t.

View of a road through hills in Northumberland

The outskirts of the village.

We sometimes take Ester when we visit Angela’s gravestone. She has no true conception yet of why we sometimes wander up to that slab of marble, stand a while and leave, but she understands enough to behave well in its presence. Sometimes I feel sad when I’m there. Sometimes I feel comforted. Most of the time I feel nothing. Have I ever mourned for Angela? I don’t know. It feels abstract to grieve for someone you were never alive with.


Occasionally, while staring at the headstone, I’m confronted with the strange thought that Angela and I – as well as my sister, and subsequently Ester – could never have actually existed together. This marble moment, a point at which everything changed, a monolithic rupture in time before which she could be and after which everything else could. Causality.

When we leave the graveyard I always have a good stare at the bins, which are unfailingly overflowing with grass cuttings, plastic flowers and dried out bouquets. There is no more moving a floral display than that of a graveyard skip.

Mum says I have met Angela. I was a few hours old, lying in Mum’s arms on a hospital bed. The nurses and doctors had left the room, and her eyes were bobbing like buoys on the ocean. Angela came in. She looked over me, touched my forehead, then turned to Mum and smiled. She visited Mum every time she gave birth. Only in my mother’s mind, in these postpartum hallucinations, upon the misty moors between wakefulness and sleep, have Angela and I said hello. 

Man standing by side of the road in Northumberland next to grassy field

Outside the village church there used to be a prunus taihaku, a species of Japanese cherry tree. Its blossom was the purest of white; white like boiled rice. When the wind came and whipped the flowers into the air, a dazzling mist would fall to the ground. And it would fall, in a matter of two weeks or less – a cherry tree blossoms and withers in the blink of an eye. This is what the Japanese, for more than 2,000 years, have found so symbolic about them: the fragility of their existence, and the way in which an awareness of their transience makes them seem even more precious. Everything we cling onto will fall away and vanish and that’s fine. In Japan, they call this sentiment mono no aware.


Some of the very first Japanese cherry trees to arrive in Britain were brought in 1864 by Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist born just outside of the border town of Duns – 40 miles from the village, and where Angela was driving that day. Fortune’s work was picked up by an English botanist called Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram who became obsessed with them. He spent most of his 100 year life travelling back and forth to Japan, working with conservationists, scaling mountains, and bringing back scions to cultivate in his garden in Kent. Prunus taihaku was his favourite, perhaps because of its frailty. The tree had been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, but by 1925 it had become extinct. After finding a rare specimen Ingram was able to revive the species in his garden, and then spent ten years trying to reintroduce it to Japan.

For the rest of his life, Ingram gave scions of the cherry trees he grew to any commercial plant traders who showed interest, free of charge. This created a cherry boom in Britain during the 1960s, as wholesalers began selling popular varieties, including the rare prunus taihaku.

Close-up of cherry tree flowers and hand

In 1977, this was the tree purchased and planted in the centre of the village to honour the life of Angela. Every year the village changed and the tree stood, a growing memorial. Grandma could see the tree from where she stood at the till in the shop. Every spring she would watch for it to bloom, quicker than any of the other cherries in the square, an overnight flourish of purest milk.

The tree started to die at the same time as Grandad. Or maybe it was vice versa, we don’t know. All we know is that Mum went for a drink in the pub with her friend the same day we found out Grandad had advanced thyroid cancer with lung metastasis, and someone from the local council approached her and said, “Angela’s tree is dying, we’re going to cut it down.”

The next morning my uncle took cuttings of the tree and planted them in pots in Grandad’s greenhouse, so we could all keep a little part of it growing, but they all died. Even a professional gardener we knew couldn’t get his cutting successfully grafted. It was like the tree itself was saying no. “Do you want us to plant another tree for Angela after we cut this one down?” Grandma was asked one afternoon by an official sounding councillor on the phone. “No,” she said, “that wouldn’t be Angela’s tree.”

I visited the tree just before they cut it down. The illness was visible. The bark was lacerated and silvery. The trunk was twisted and angular, and branched off into two muscular sub trunks, like a child’s catapult. The sheer weight and pressure of the way it was growing in opposite directions had caused it to tear in the centre, like a body being hung from its legs and ripped apart in slow motion. Inside the tear a white substance gathered that looked fluffy and viscose, like the spume you see on beaches.

And yet it was in full bloom, glowing like a jellyfish in the shadow of the church. The leaves - shaped like tear drops ridged with teeth - were glistening toffee apples, red, green and brown. And sunlight crumbled in the branches, which reached out in bronchial patterns, like a diagram of a lung. The tree, supposedly dead but still there, still standing, still blooming, still undeniably present. Life in the tree. Death in the tree.

The impalpable pulse of sap beat on, and the roots spread below my feet and deep into the earth. I wondered how far the roots of Angela’s tree spread? Beneath the church? Beneath the pub? And when they linked up with the mycelium patchwork in the ground, how far then did it reach and send messages? Beneath the river? Beneath our house? 

While reading a book about cherry trees by the Japanese author Naoko Abe, I discovered that the largest living collection of prunus taihaku cherry trees in the world are located not in Japan or Kent but in the gardens of a castle, just ten miles from our village. An orchard of 350 of them grows there, each of them a direct descendant of the ones that Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram grew in his garden. I assumed the locality of such an orchard was why one was acquired as Angela’s memorial tree, but the head gardener at the castle assured me that they were not planted until 2008, thirty-one years after hers.

Man on swings in the cherry blossom orchard in Alnwick, Northumberland

The cherry blossom orchard in Alnwick, Northumberland.

I don’t know what to make of these strange coincidences: the gravestone being hit by a car, Ester Angela being born on Grandma’s birthday, the tree beginning to die with Grandad, the orchard in the castle garden. Things falling together in time. But my belief or non-belief doesn’t stop my mind recognising them and my brain talking about them.

Maybe there was something occurring there, something beyond my five senses; a deeper connection between the human mind and the world around us than I cared to admit. Sometimes I wonder if, in a village, our lives are so enclosed and intertwined in one small area, that the universe can’t help but repeat itself. Create crinkles. Synchronicities. Or maybe it’s all nonsense. I don’t know. You think funny around death.