On my journey from London to North Shields, if I stopped every fifty miles, I would have difficulty conversing with the locals.
The drive from London to North Shields isn’t long by Australian standards. About the same distance as Adelaide to Broken Hill, give or take. But there the similarity stops. My images of England after twenty-five years away were of rolling countryside, basking in a gentle sun, divided into a patchwork of multi-coloured fields and dotted with Friesians, Jerseys and Guernseys, munching contentedly on rich green grass. I have not been too disappointed, except for the gentle sun bit. And I probably knew better about that deep down.
Driving south to north is a good way of intensifying the differences with my adopted country. South Australia has a beauty of its own, but that beauty is reflected in dry, gold and brown hues. The most prominent growth along the sides of the road is eucalypt and although it has many shades of green, they are all a light, slightly washed out grey-green. Not like the emerald greens I gaze on as the countryside sweeps by on the road to North Shields.
And as you travel those Australian miles, the people don’t change all that much. You get to Broken Hill and they all sound the same, more or less. On my journey from London to North Shields, if I stopped every fifty miles, I would have difficulty conversing with the locals. Even now I have trouble deciphering a Geordie accent. But I love listening to it.
One aspect of my return to England which makes me different to many returning ex-pats is that I left southern England and now return to the north. The most startling impression I have is that the south and the north of England are more ‘foreign’ to each other than England is to Australia. My arrival in North Shields reinforces my impression that England is a very compact country. During twenty-five years in Australia my mind has slowly acclimatised to space. Give a plant a bigger flowerpot and it spreads its roots. Space, or the lack of it, is not an issue. Houses are built apart on quarter acre blocks of land. Yet here I am confronted with row upon row of terraced houses, just like the Victorian terrace I was brought up in. And yet they evoke a baneful beauty that reflects the industrial history of North Shields.
I have surprised myself by how much I enjoy the sombre beauty of the buildings in the north. Whilst some areas are a reflection of the southern fields of brick houses, buildings with a bit of history, all over Northumbria, reflect the grey stone of the natural building materials. Even on a cold, wet December day, there is a certain grim beauty in the sometimes soot blackened walls that seems to exemplify the raw, hard-working history that is the north.
The first impression I have of Tynesiders is how friendly everyone is. Maybe I have just been lucky, but people in North Shields still manage to retain a sense of interest in their fellow citizens. And there is a tremendous pride in the north-east; a sense of history and sometimes a sense of loss for the industries like mining and shipbuilding that have long since ceased to exist in other than minor form. But at the same time, there seems to be little anger at what has happened. There is a fatalistic acceptance of what had to be and a sense of purpose towards doing something new. And I think I detect a sense of disdain towards those parts of Britain which are confronting, with maybe a little less fortitude, the same problems that the north-east has faced and overcome.
The Northumbrian countryside, especially the coastline, has to be one of the best kept secrets in England. Beaches comparable with anything available in South Australia, although maybe without the benefit of five months’ continuous sunshine. Living in North Shields has, I must admit, been a culture shock, although a very pleasant one. But I have had to take in the contrasts between, not only my adopted country, but also my place of birth. It has been a fascinating journey and I hope it will continue to excite my sense of history.