City 27: Newcastle


Newcastle is up next, hauled off the bench then marched to the block with its hands tied behind its back. This time it’s not me and some chattering other, who is to be subjected to the Walk and Talk treatment. Oh no. This time it’s me and a whole bunch of chattering others, the Superdroopers to be precise. But before we go there we have to negotiate Haber, the Jonathan, my former PL and architect of the Droopers. Haber looms large in my personal mythology. Think back to that moment at the end of the Planet of the Apes Movie (The Charlton Heston Version, not the recent pallid imitation) when Heston, staggering along the beach, stops and cries out in agony, when he sees the half-buried Statue of Liberty rising up out of the sands. Well for me Haber is that statue, an ancient monolith, wholly mysterious, crumbling, bearing a torch, pointing the way, guiding me towards a future I could never have imagined thirty years ago.  

From Wrexham to Hexham

Promotional Video for Walk the Wall April 2012

Statues of Liberty

On past walks I’ve played Virgil, the Guide, whilst my significant other has been Dante, descending into hell in the hope of passing through purgatory into some kind of heavenly state, however temporary. In this case though the polarities are reversed and roles swapped. At this point, if you’ve been paying attention you’re asking who in the hell are the Droopers? Well we have to go back in time for that, to Norwich in the early nineties. Haber is there at Uni. He joins the Fell and Cave Society, climbing mountains, hiking trails, clambering about clammy holes and three years quickly pass. Scouts, Ventures, Fell and Cave...surely it can’t end there. 

No it can’t and it won’t, not in Haber’s mind, nor in anyone else’s in his orbit. They look to him and the Droopers are born. I thought they were named after those weird Muppet inhabitants of Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock but Haber informed me on a recent trip to Fort William that it was Loobie’s, (former flame and RaRa Girl) mishearing of the 1980 ABBA hit song ‘Supertrooper’ that spawned the name. Who the hell are the Superdroopers she innocently asked and in that moment said troop were born. So who are the Droopers…we can drop the prefix on account of over familiarity. Depends on who you ask? To me the Droopers are Peter Pan survivalists, intent on not growing up. They are a posse, a gang, a clan of Lost Boys and Girls. Post grad reachers and screechers, keen not to lose their way when offered the Devil’s bargain of cash, middle class respectability, sharp suits and shiny cars. They tear arse around the country like Kilgore did Nam, looking for the shit. They cruise from hostel, (I prefer the term hostiles) to campsite, from airport lounge to ski run, from crash site to disco tent with the sole purpose of doing outdoor stuff, staying connected and having fun. And where they are, Haber usually is, singing Father Abraham, like a latter day Moses in a ragged baby blue blanket covered in Scout badges.  

We first met in 1981 in Whittington on a Scout Night. I was just transitioning from cubs to scouts and hell was that a culture shock, like moving from Beacon Park to Alaska.  Formed in 1907 by Baden Powell the Scout Movement is not everyone’s cup of tea. To many it conjures visions of saddo loners, with militaristic leanings and issues with body odour. But following various tabloid exposes in the 90s The Scout association got their heads and their acts together for a successful reboot and rebrand. Girls were allowed in, the uniforms were given an urban makeover and the duke of Edinburgh award scheme became a focal point for Outdoor endeavour. Suddenly the least fashionable organisation on the planet had entered the twenty first century and after years of losing popularity was once more in the ascendant. And bravo to the Brass who had the vision and the nerve to make it so. 

To me Scouting had offered space, freedom and salvation, laughter and lifelong friendship. Most, if not all of the significant jobs and key choices I’ve made throughout my life that have worked have come through Scouting connections. I know this sounds dodgy, kinda Masonic but there was always a healthy irreverence amongst my confreres and I for normality, rules and the wrong kind of authority. Outdoor stuff be it hiking, climbing, camping, caving or playing ringo builds and tests bonds between people. ‘Work hard, play hard’ was Haber’s motto and it worked then and it works now.  

I should add, I feel, at this point, that Haber has another half and by that I don’t mean his lovely, young, Australian wife Sandy. No Haber’s other half is his younger, darker brother Simon. The Haber brothers, like Romulus and Remus have been in constant conflict or perhaps it would be fairer to say competition throughout my life, driving each other to greater and greater excess. If Simon is dark, Jonathon is light. They are both huge, nude personalities, who do things completely their own way, leading from the front, taking no prisoners, content to kill in their drive to outdo each other. Without Simon there is no Jonathan and vice versa. They shaped and in some ways made each other and still do. 

Haber started Uni in 89 and left in 93. He studied Norwegian, a subject hardly guaranteed to earn you a pittance, let alone a fortune, until the Brevik massacre when Norse speakers cashed in their chips and their morals in the wake of the tabloid feeding frenzy. Haber true to his principles refused the work despite being on the staff of the FT. Howling mad and yet irritatingly decent, as least where such matters are concerned Haber took part in a trans Norwegian sky race and almost lost his toes to frostbite. Careering round the ward like Anthony’s Sher’s Richard the Third he schemed and planned and began to dream a mad improbable future. 

Ever restless he moved around a bit. In fact he moved around a lot and in 1995 ended up in Southampton where he joined the local Venture Unit as a leader. Here he met Future Droopers Nobby and Luke Day. Nobby was chubby and funny, Luke had sun-kissed hair and cool, even in his teens possessed of surfer chic and a great rock voice. He played a mean guitar and in 1996 when I met him, on an International Friendship Camp, I married him to said guitar. Some hundred or so slack jawed scouts from a wide array of international locations watched the ritual. Lord alone knows what they thought of it but then, as now, I didn’t care. It just seemed right. 

‘Nae man can tether time nor tide’, Robbie Burns wrote in his 1791 epic Tam O Shanter, a piece I’ve memorised and perform at Burns gatherings most Januaries.  Haber obviously took this to heart and, keen to leave his mark on the world gets his head down and comes up with a plan. Eighteen years after our initial meeting, in the Spring of 1999 Walkabout Scotland is born with Uni pal Paul Mason. The Scot and the Englishman offer walking tours, which will enable punters to ‘Escape to the Hills.’ Its basically Scouting in a tartan dress. Will it work or won’t it?   

It does for Jon, less so for Mason who perhaps envisaged a quicker return. With Mason keen to bail after a few years Jon bought him out and carried on alone. From his third floor eerie in Strathairn Road he runs his empire overseeing trips to the Highlands and Islands, hiring and firing guides, living the dream. The years between 99 and 2006 are fairly Haberless for me. People grow up, move on, find careers and wives and leave Scouting. I start a second degree in Psychology in 98, having abandoned the first and fled to Morocco and for the first time in my life get my head down. Three years later, in 2001, I leave Uni and start my teacher training. For five years all I do is work and train, work and train. I live and work in Telford with my then girlfriend Laura. Of course there is the occasional meeting with the Haber, the odd Drooper weekend away in Derbyshire or Wales but its not until 2006 that the opportunity to work for the Big Yin materialises 

This is my first Walkabout season and its pretty terrifying. I get through it but after the trauma and the PTS I leave it alone. Also a full time job materialises which keeps me farting through silk until 2010, when after eight years lecturing I leave to set up my own company, Spiritual Pathways. In 2010 two big things happened I left work at TCAT and Luke Day, recently married, died on his honeymoon in Egypt rescuing his wife and friend from drowning whilst he himself succumbed. It’s a tragic accident and a gut wrenching loss. So senseless, so sad.  

It’s not the first Drooper loss though. In 1995 Ingo Quark, A German Climber and a friend died whilst climbing Ben Nevis. Their lives were in many ways tangential, peripheral to mine but our lives crossed and touched and I feel an acute sense of sadness and loss at their passing.  In 2011 I’m back on the Walkabout books, returning to terrain and tests that had damn near wasted me in 2006. In the Walkabout kitchen in the small hours we discuss future endeavours and Jon talks about Luke. Slowly a plan begins to form.    

I ask about Hadrian’s Wall and Haber supplies the details. He’s great at this. The wall is a bit of a ruin he says, best to walk only sections of it, say the middle section. We get out the map and begin to study it in detail. Suddenly we’re looking at a much bigger project and what started off in my mind as a bit of a bimble turns into a coast-to-coast odyssey. We need to trial it and as the Walkabout season runs to mid September we wait until November before doing just that. Before then we meet up in Wrexham for a Drooper do and our title is born. 

From Wrexham to Hexham. Catchy, like plague or pox. 

Later Haber picks me up and we drive to the wall. I’ve borrowed a camera and Haber and I generate the necessary electricity to shoot a video advertising the bike, hike, bike as it now is.  The film already exists in my head, as do the images that will make it spark. I just have to get them down working and reworking the angles of our 30-year relationship. It’s not enough to walk the wall, we have to do it dressed in period costumes as Romans, Haber as the Emperor Haberian and I as Stuartus Goodwinus, trusty centurion with a trusty if rusty blade. Our latest script will see us finishing our quest in Newcastle, riding down the Tyne into the heart of Geordieland. I’ve passed through the toon on the way to Walkabout trips but never stopped, never bothered to actually get out. 

Newcastle is not my city. It belongs to Jimmy Nail and the cast of Auf Wiedersehen Pet, a show we all first watched way back in 82. A classic it was and a classic it remains on Netflix or wherever constantly shown and reshown in TV land. Like so much from the eighties its the portrait in the attic brought down and placed in your living room. These old shows are on permanent rotation, and as no one ever ages on TV everyone is Dorian Gray. Ooh the agony of nostalgia, it bites deep. The slow ache comparing old faces with new faces. These stars are the unchanging features of our lives, the pillars that support the whole sagging edifice. 30 years of Pet and 30 years of Haber, both landmarks pointing the way. 

Back at home I review the footage and turn in the edit. The video, when finished, is a curiosity, a brief if moving advert filled with images of Haber and I stroking horses and examining rows of moles impaled on barbed wire by some sadistic game keeper. Its time coded too, the dates of our intended odyssey etched into the fabric of the film. 

Tick tock, says the biological clock and winter turns to spring. April is the cruellest month but its also the month when we saddle up and do it for real. This is not just any old trot. It’s a memory walk or perhaps a memorial walk. Luke’s widow Sophie Day will be in attendance. She has given the enterprise her blessing and like the rest of the posse dresses Roman in honour of Hadrian, who accomplished much in his 19 year reign beyond military conquests. 

The day arrives, Luke’s day. Everyone drives to the mid-way point at Hexham on the Friday night and pitches tents and knocks back a few in the local boozer.  An early start on Saturday morning sees us driving to Solway on Firth, our west coast starting point. The costumes are great as is the vibe. There are thirty odd Droopers, all clad in togas and sandals, helmets and in some cases wearing the laurel. We bike and pause, snap and chat, recording the journey and renewing old friendships. At the midpoint of the  day we munch our food, then bike on. Where the wall gets interesting we dump our bikes, shuttling cars back from the Firth and put on our marching sandals. The all rises and falls, at times a full and interesting erection that Hadrian in his wisdom built. If we analyse the gesture we realise that its his way of saying Scotland? Nah, forget it. Too dangerous, too violent, too lost. That wall was the edge of the known world. Beyond it was a space of wildness. On old maps they’d write…there be dragons and leave it at that. Not Haber. 

If Day One is the starter, Day Two is the main course and Day three is the sweet, the icing on the cake. Most awaken early, some require coaxing from their Schlafsacks. Day 3 is a bike day, a day of big hills, both up and doon. The downs are great, the ups are a ball ache. Not being much of a cycliste I push my bike at the first sign of difficulty and incur Nobby’s barbs. As the day progresses I try harder and work up a good sweat and an even better appetite. By mid afternoon we’re turning onto the Tyne where old men and young men alike fish with beachcasters for God alone knows what. Flounders, mackerel? Everyone I say hello to shoots back Way-aye, with a nod of the head and a wink. Freewheeling down the bike trail we enter the city, built, as research tells me, on the location of the Roman Settlement of Pons Aelius. 

It’s a city pleasing to the eye, at least as far as I’m concerned. The river defines it. Named after an 11th century castle it was an important centre for the wool trade and later amongst the world’s largest shipbuilding and ship repairing centres. Riding the final metres you can smell sweat, tar and Newkie Brown on the wind. The Millennium Bridge marks the end point and we ride over it, laughing and whooping, then getting into formation for the finish line photos. Sophie is beaming. 

We chain up our bikes and make for the nearest boozer, passing a bustling market on the Quayside. The place is crowded and the locals are watching the footie and enjoying the crack. There’s a buzz here, the place being populated by people who have not forgotten how to have a good time. It’s a great advertisement for the North. We order drinks and food and propose future projects. I suggest biking to Byzantium but that’s a crossing to far. As the day begins to fade away and dusk approaches I head for the train station with one of the Droopers. At the station he duck inside KFC and when he nips out a minute later his bike has gone, nicked no doubt by hoodied pros, who know where all the cameras are and how best to avoid detection. Nasty, not nice and a bum note to end on but there we are. It’s all been a little bit different, a little bit spesh. We did it. Three days. Three turns of the screw and home. 

I’m glad we did it and back at the car, I lash my bike onto the carrier and reflect on what we’ve achieved and Haber’s continuing influence. 

JH has been a constant throughout my life and I have much to thank him for, more than I can ever express. He’d always come and get me when I was festering in some hole, lost in sleep or adrift in books and drag me away to the hills or moors. I would perform and act out, clown for my supper for the assembled throng as I had in Scouts. It had all been so perfect back in the beginning. The problems for me started when Jonathan went away to Uni. Abandoned I spiralled out of control, with no plan and no direction. 

Whilst the nineties was a lost decade, the noughties was a decade of work and reconstruction and the teenies have been a decade of discovery and reorientation. Out of the ashes of the past the future arose and it wears the faces of fifty cities.



Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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