In isolation, but not isolated. While the pause button was pressed on life in 2020, NorthPens continued to write and to collaborate. First, they made a film and now they’ve produced an anthology. Quirky, lyrical, poignant and at times hilarious. A unique look at life in a remote part of the country during extraordinary times.

This beautifully produced collection of poems, stories and reflections complemented by Marie Gardiner’s fabulous photographs is on sale for only £5.00. All proceeds will be donated to local charities.

Currently, the book is available from Homefront in Stanhope and the Bowlees Visitor Centre. It will, of course, be on sale at the Weardale WordFest. If you can’t wait that long for your copy, well, we quite understand!

If you would like to order a copy by post, Email Individual copies cost £5.00 + £1.50 p&p.

Our Isolated Dale

We would like to produce a record of our responses to this unique time.We are creating a body of work, poems, stories, anecdotes that reflects how we are feeling and what it is like to experience lockdown in Weardale. Some of that body of work is a direct response to our isolation, or to what is happening around us, some is our way of saying ‘enough’, we need to take our heads outside lockdown and express our emotions differently. Everybody’s take on the situation is different, but what we have in common is a need for a creative outlet for our feelings, a way of staying safe and sane!

That was how it started … we were lucky enough to receive a grant from the Weardale Area Action Partnership covid-19 assistance fund, and that enabled us to work with Mark and Marie of Lonely Tower Film and Media. They took our writing and produced this wonderful film, OUR ISOLATED DALE. We were delighted that some of our friends, writers Avril Joy, Wendy Robertson, Phil Mews and Mike Powell also contributed their words and ideas.

The Film can be enjoyed in two ways, as a whole piece or you can click on the links below to watch segments by individual writers. We loved making this film and hope that you will love watching it! The next phase of the project is to produce an anthology comprising all of the writing you will hear in the film plus other pieces written by NorthPens in 2020.

There was a young writer from Frosterley
Who entered the local hostelry
He dropped down his drawers
And after a pause
Asked ‘Where shall I place my apostrophe?’

We are all very serious poets …. as you can probably tell from the above.

We are continuing to meet via ZOOM every Wednesday. Please get in touch if you would like to join us!


Jo Cundy’s story ‘the Waiting Room’ was shortlisted for the Fish Publishing lockdown prize (Flash Fiction) and is published on the Fish website.

‘The Happiness Equation’ by Chris Powell achieved an ‘Honourable Mention’ (final 10 stories) in the Momaya Press short story competition and will be published in the Momaya Review 2020. Momaya Press is based in the USA.

Jenny Spooner’s book for children ‘Cat and the Dragon’ (written with her sister, Sue Beasley) is selling well on Amazon.

Mike Kane has published 3 novels on Amazon and is working on his 4th as we speak!


A place for NorthPens Writers to share work while we are not able to meet.

While confined to quarters, our thoughts turned to all the travel we can’t undertake. Susan remembered a journey from some years ago … Thinking about a travel piece I felt a fear in the old psyche of looking forward at the moment, so it came to mind that I would write about past excursions to foreign places. Therefore, to begin at the beginning…

France 1980

It was our first trip abroad together. Severe storms in the Channel flung around in our ferry bunks. I did not sleep. I waited for us to capsize. Landing at daybreak in early February in St. Malo I looked sickly and grey. I felt sickly and grey. Clutching our Brittany Ferry vouchers we finally found the Pension in Dinan Square, thankfully without knocking anyone over, driving the wrong way at roundabouts, or finishing our marriage of two years from shared and mutual stress. My ‘A’ level French had frozen, so we relied on his 6 sessions of WEA Conversational French evening classes. I translated and supplied key vocabulary, and he put them in usable phrases. Oh, but of course I could have discussed Anouilh’s characters in Antigone or how many parts there were to the verb Confused, but ” how do I use my travel cheque to pay for fuel” terrified me, and images of my French teacher making me stand on a chair when I made a mistake flooded my mind…Ah well, several servings of Normandy cider later, all was pretty well ok with the world as we drank down the delicious, cloudy, unfizzed nectar from stoneware goblets holding half a litre…really? Not just half a pint? How deceptive! How leg numbing! How I wish I’d stayed awake along enough to take paracetemol!Morning dawned, very carefully.Our hosts, new to working with Brittany Ferries, had just opened their premises after winter, and we were their first, and on that morning, only customers. The breakfast table heaved with a continental spread which denied our understanding of why this is seen as the smaller, lighter option to start the day. And we had to eat it, for we were being watched. Being first guests, the whole family, all three generations, wished to watch us enjoying their fare. A seven year old, the only one with any English, said “you like?” We nodded our heads, very carefully, the family beamed with pride, and stayed in position as we fought with crusty loaves, floundered with bowls of hot chocolate, and hid two raging hangovers. What on earth did think of us? I have continued wonder this, especially in recent times…but I have adored Bonne Maman jams more than any others ever since that day, just don’t let my grandmothers know.

Susan Nicholson
Hope you enjoyed that…there may be more to come! Take care,Susan

Armchair travels with KATY

Jim And Sally pored themselves a glass of wine and considered where they would visit. Of  course e Greek Islands were their favourite but at the moment that was not possible so they settled if front of the television to see what their options were tonight.  First a trip to New Zealand for an episode of Wanted Down Under.  The majestic mountains or the relaxed living on the coast.  Nice to see but not to live they agreed.  

Or they could catch up with Rick Stein on his journey from Venice to Istanbul.  He is in Turkey this week visiting Istanbul.  A fascinating country that is a melting pot of two continents.  Surely a place to put on the bucket list.  Tonight he is cooking Grilled Mackerel stuffed with hot red pepper paste, parsley and garlic.  One to try definitely.

They could stay in the Mediterranean and join Ainsley Harriot on a 44 foot catamaran and imagine the breeze and warm sun on your face as the boat heads to shore to cook another fish dish.

Another glass of wine while they remember boat trips in Spain and Greece, some more successful than others.  The near disaster of the shore of Ibizia when the captain had taken them to close to a rocky shore and seemed to have difficulty turning.  One Spanish woman had taken out her rosary beads and started praying.  That didn’t reassure.  However they did get back but the captain was receiving a lot of abuse from the Spanish so they left them to it and headed to a bar for a much needed drink.

Head Back Down Under this time with Griff Rhys as reports on the work of Dr Julian Fennesey as he sets out to save endangered species of giraffes.  Fascinating.

  Back to Britain for a while for a history lesson on Lake Vrynwy,  a large resevoir in Powys.  Then from there for a trip to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales.

Back for another journey to the Spanish coast to visit Valencia.  With the help of local estate agent Scarlett Douglas a couple visit four houses with a view to buying a holiday home.  

For a complete change of scenery Simon Reeve takes us to Alaska to witness the effect of climate change in the Denali National Park. A change of mood from the relaxing vibes of the Mediterranean.

The journeys are still not over.  You could join the teams as they race across the world starting from Panama city.  Or go with Joanna Lumley and experience Guantamano before heading with her to The Windward Pass in Haiti.  The bucket list gets ever longer.

Lockdown will not last forever, it just feels like it.  Get out the holiday snaps and plan the next one.  Jim and Sally know where they are going 

Katy Wallace

And this is one I wrote earlier, Spring 2019 when things were quite … normal! Never again will I take for granted the freedom to roam, each walk now seems like a privilege.

A walk by the river

Walking back alongside the River Wear a flash of blue halted me in my tracks. Could it possibly be the kingfisher, with all these people about? No. It couldn’t! It was a plastic carrier bag caught in the lower branches of the alders that grow on the bank just below the new houses at Horn Hall. It might have been: I think most of my kingfisher sightings have been unexpected, quite accidental, a rush of colour in the peripheral vision as the surprisingly tiny bird streaks like an exotically painted arrow into the water. Not this time, however. 

But dippers are not nearly so elusive. Three male birds, pumped up with testosterone, quartered the stretch of river between the confluence of the Wear and the Stanhope Burn and the footbridge, scrapping for territory. I have a soft spot for dippers. They are very neat birds, upright, about the size of starling with a blackish brown back and head, pristine white bib and chestnut cummerbund – they really do look as if they are dressed for a gala dinner (minus the bow tie). And they are incredibly cool. They can perch on a prominent rock or boulder in the middle of a raging torrent and not appear in the least bit fazed. One moment this smart little bird is hanging loose on his rock, dipping his head up and down scouting for aquatic invertebrates, the next he just flips off, into the current, no matter how fast or cold the water. Ice? No problem. Or you might spot him swimming before he dives for his dinner – a tasty mollusc, caddis fly larva or perhaps sir would prefer a small fish? Dippers can also swim underwater, using their wings for propulsion and, get this, they can walk underwater! Apparently, among flying birds they have a uniquely solid skeletal structure that enables them to do so. Their call is pretty distinctive too, sharp chink chink sounds interspersed with a loud, rich warbling song. Bird books put them in the same grouping as wrens, waxwings and dunnocks, although this  seems to be more a classification of convenience than of near relatives – so I’m not really sure how that works. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, dippers rock.

Robins are much in evidence at the moment as well, another favourite bird. Who can resist a robin? That pom-pom shape, big, bright eye and cheery Christmas-card red chest. That song: they are related to nightingales – the nightingale that sang in Berkeley Square was probably, actually, a robin. They are also, of course, famously aggressive – especially when competing for a mate, or territory, or a worm. One of the things that appeals to me about robins is that, unusually among birds, the female is as attractively plumaged as the male and it is well nigh impossible to tell them apart. The female robin is also as pugnacious as her mate, and can often be seen giving as good as she gets. Striking a blow, or a beak, for equality I like to think. Testosterone not included.

Chris Powell

A Charabanc to Foreign Fields, (via Blaydon Burn) by JUDY, who else!

Renee was a trendsetter, of that there was no doubt the first to have an indoor bathroom, floored with tiles and grout; the first to have a kitchenette, when sculleries were normal (she had formica benches for when mealtimes were less formal.

Now, Renee heard that working folk were flying to catch the sun, “man was not made for flying, you can shoot me with a gun if you try and make me board a plane”, her husband bravely croaked, “we’ll have to go to Whitley Bay again, and get well soaked”.

“No need to fly”, Renee replied,” there’s ferries that cross the sea, a coach takes us to the ferry port, there’s fish and chips for tea and when you land on foreign shores, the coach will take you on to Jessolo, in Italy, which is famous for the sun”.

“To Italy! The cafes there will only serve us pasta, and tinned spaghetti might be all the foreign chefs can master; the toilets will be funny, men and women going together, and , where will you get a decent cuppa? you can keep your sunny weather, I’m staying put”.

T’was unusual for Stanley to make a fuss or din, He knew exactly who was boss, and it was never him. He knew that he was beaten, and slunk off to pack his case, and rather hoped for thunder storms so he could save some face.

The Northern bus arrived, on time, which our Renee was not, the other travellers grumbled, which put her on the spot. But Renee had the thickest skin, and took her seat, aware that other passengers were giving her the blackest stare.(she didn’t care)!

The bus arrived in Jesssolo, outside the Grand Hotel, Stanley lugged both cases, complaining of the smell of garlic, Renee needed tea, and put the kettle on to boil; the first person from Frances Street to tread on foreign soil!

The holiday passed quickly, in a gin and orange haze They spent all evening in the bar, and sunbathed through the days; Stanley’s fears were unfounded, there were chips with every meal and tea and toast included within the breakfast deal.

The bus stood at the hotel doors, the passengers piled in, encumbered by straw donkeys, sombreros and cheap gin the travel rep reminded them the journey would be long, and toilet breaks infrequent, to ignore these would be wrong.

Well, Renee liked a glass of gin, she also liked to sing the travellers had a sing-song, beer bottle tops went “ping” the final stop was Harrogate, the journey almost done Renee thought she did not need to go, sat on the coach, alone.

At Catterick, her bladder whispered of a need to go By Darlington, her legs were crossed, the driver was her foe, He wasn’t going to stop again, her chances had been missed, By Blaydon, all hope faded, nature won and Renee pissed herself.

Stan chewed his pipe stem viciously tried not to blow a fuse the driver demanded extra cash to bring the seat back to use Renee told the driver where to go, all buses must be cleaned and to refuse to stop for her was nasty, cruel and mean.

Stan struggled with both cases till they reached their own front door, By which time Renee’s underpants had slithered to the floor, Oh well, she said, as she fired up the set pot to boil At least I went from Frances Street to stand on foreign soil!

Judy Goodwin

MIKE visits the Cloud People

14th July 2011 Today we went to visit a remote village high up in the Oaxaca Mountains. The purpose of the trip was to seek permission to set up a temporary home there (for Dave and family) and to spend some time obtaining Mixtec words for various common objects as part of Dave’s language learning programme. It took about one and a half bone shaking hours driving up the dirt road (if you could call it a road) to get to Santa Maria Yucunicoco. All Mexican cities, towns and villages have two names; Spanish and native. The Spanish name takes precedence; in this case Santa Maria and is followed by the local name (Yucunicoco) which is Mixtec. It was hot and dry as we left Juxtlahuaca (pronounced Hux-LA-whaca) about 2:00pm in the afternoon. As we ascended the steep dirt track, climbing from 6500ft to around 9000ft, magnificent views of the Juxtlahuacan valley unfolded before us. Wild, wooded areas began to encroach upon the track as we got higher, perfect hiding places for bandits (yes there are still bandits roaming the remote areas of Mexico) which is why most locals carry guns. My fevered imagination began conjuring up swarthy, moustachioed gentlemen in sombreros leaping out of the undergrowth brandishing pistolas. Reaching the plateau (without even the slightest whiff of moustachioed bandits holding us up – actually I never saw a Mixtec with facial hair), we began the descent towards Yucunicoco at 8000ft. As we descended we came into mist and rain – quite heavy in places, the ruts in the track becoming raging water channels. Arriving in a steady downpour, we parked the truck near the municipio complex, a modern Spanish style, brightly painted building with an arched colonnade in front of a many-doored structure. The municipio houses the gaol, police office and mayor’s office. As everything was shut up and no-one was around we turned away and walked into a small general store opposite. This was a newish, concrete building run by a young Mixtec woman. Initially cautious, she soon became quite friendly and Dave got out his word lists and asked if she would supply the Mixtec words for the pictures of birds, animals and common items. After a while an older man came into the store and joined in. This went on for quite a while; I felt like the proverbial spare part and all the time the rain beat down and mist swirled round the mountains, visual evidence as to why these mountain dwellers are called the ‘Cloud People’. It was cold and damp but it didn’t stop three young boys kicking a football around on the concrete road in front of the store or several ladies, using tarpaulins as capes, who hurried into the store during our time there.

The rain eased off and we ventured a short way to where two men were standing by the door of another, smaller shop. The younger man was weaving a traditional Mixtec basket from flat colourful plastic strips. The older man carried a long staff with red ribbons attached near the top. This, apparently, is a symbol of office (all village men serve a term as officials in village affairs). After a few pleasantries, Dave produced his word list and I relapsed into spare part mode again. A little girl came running down the road, took one look at me and ran off wailing. Rather inauspicious I thought. Forty five minutes later the second list was completed and Dave bought Coke all round from the shop. To call it a shop was perhaps a little grandiose. It was more like the front room of a house which had been turned into a convenience store. The shelves were rather depleted and the large refrigerator that contained drinks was plugged into a light socket in the ceiling by a rather grubby, frayed electrical wire. Hmm – so much for health and safety! Having slaked our thirsts, we wandered over to the municipio once again where signs of life were now evident. Dave began to converse with the assistant mayor who was sitting with the police chief on a bench under the colonnade and I reverted to spare part mode for the third time that afternoon. Anyway, the discussion was successful and permission was obtained for Dave to return the next day to formalise things with the mayor. We couldn’t achieve any more and as it was now 6:00pm we thought we should be on our way in order to get back to Juxtlahuaca before dark. Having made our farewells and been given directions to the public toilets we set off. The toilets turned out to be a wooden shack of dubious cleanliness, situated behind the municipio and as discretion got the better part of valour we decided to ‘hold on’ and avoid using them. Climbing back into the truck, we drove off down the dirt road to Juxtlahuaca. The rain had now become an deluge and the road became even more like a river. In places, the verge had been washed away and now (because of course they drive on the wrong side of the road in Mexico) we were on the outside edge with a drop of several thousand feet to our right. Barriers? Forget it! My fevered imagination was no longer conjuring up swarthy, moustachioed gentlemen in sombreros leaping out of the undergrowth brandishing pistolas but huge lumber lorries crawling up the road in the opposite direction. We reached the plateau and began to descend; slithering round a corner what should we meet but one of those damned lumber lorries I was worrying about. Size is power on Mexican roads; he wasn’t about to give way so Dave had to manoeuvre our truck dangerously near the precipice in order to get past. Thankfully we didn’t stall or slip over the edge and eventually made it back to Juxtlahuaca, in one piece, by 7:30pm. Tequila all round!

Mike Kane

JENNY’S Graveyard Journey

I’ve travelled not as far as these. They’ve travelled life, and now they’re here

on some hillside, a place for me to visit.

The camera catching cracks and carvings, chiselled lines that tell us stories

that if read are unforgettable.

Eleanor, beloved wife of John, late of this parish. They rest together journey done.

Weathered stone, just decipherable.

Robert, on another, lost two wives and a son – so sad a man.

His inscription barely readable.

And Benjamin Dobson lies close, a farmer and a friend to all his neighbours.

For him the mason’s words dependable.

They’ve travelled life and now they’re here on some bare hillside,

a place for me to visit.

Jenny Spooner

JULIA’S safari adventures

I once went on Safari to Kenya far away I never will forget it we-lived from day to day It was a great adventure and the first time that I flew

When landing in Nairobi the excitement grew and grew My companions were well travelled-I really was naive I hadn’t been that far before which is quite hard to believe My packing was extravagant-advice I should have heeded Five pairs of shoes were far to much -when only one was needed We were an odd assorted group of two girls and a chap The daughter of a Bishop, a Dane and me on tap We were driven to the airport in the early morning light  The purple Jacaranda was an absolute delight. My friends were unconventional and nothing was arranged Hotel not booked or any plan-it all seemed rather strange We climbed a tall high building and met a Scot named Bill Who ran a travel agency -and said we might get ill. Malaria was rampant and knocking down the Brits  My pills they were the wrong ones but my friends were well equipped  A quick call to a doctor-now feeling rather queasy- I nearly caught the first flight home-but life is not that easy!

Bill weighed us up and said ‘you’re mad you should book in advance. In Africa you must make plans you’re better off in France. To find you an itinerary at this  late stage is nil. With eyebrows raised he said I’ll try and if I can I will. So off we went post haste for lunch. The Norfolk was just splendid. This old hotel of such prestige comes highly recommended. Miracles do really work – the kindly Bill was great. Our travels would be back to front – I do believe in fate. Mombasa was our port of call- the local flight was hairy. Where had our BA pilot gone? for this was pretty scary. Preceding this we filled our time at Karen Blixens home The Ngong hills in the background, near the farm she used to own. It really was quite beautiful-the quietness and the peace. We sat and soaked up Africa- our wonder never ceased. Regretfully we had to leave. Our flight was looming fast England seemed so far away-like something in the past. We landed in Mombasa – it was very late at night. Now feeling quite excited despite the hairy flight. The hotel was just wonderful-saluted by the porter. One man- two girls they couldn’t grasp and thought one was the daughter.

Exploring Mombasa Old Town and Fort Jesus

Everywhere I ventured I was told now (Pole Pole) by the smiling local people who said I must go slowly. Next day soon after breakfast we drove along the shore  Passing pineapple plantations-we couldn’t ask for more  We decided for a stop for lunch – so drove towards Kilifi We’d hoped to get some local fare. Too early – what a pity By accident we stumbled on a lovely place to eat The African Safari Club- for the German, French elite They obviously weren’t expecting us- so lunch was rather hurried It all seemed strange and rather odd-  but we were not too worried  We sipped our coffee leisurely-while soaking up the sun  admiring the surroundings-while the Germans looked quite glum It could have been a private club and members we should be so we used all their facilities-and got them all for free


We drove back through the Shanty towns-it made us all aware Of the utter deprivation and the poverty they share It made us feel quite humble as they went about their chores  Women’ colourful and smiling -it just moved us to the core

We soon would be Nairobi bound departing from the station. The evening was approaching fast. The old train looked amazing. To board the Lunatic Express-it really was surreal. We hardly could believe our luck. It was the greatest thrill. The station was just buzzing as we tried to find our seats. We three were booked on upper class – our mirth was now complete. Our tickets were confusing-it kept the porter guessing. I’m sure he thought menage a’ trois ? One chap two girls ( no question) We liked to keep them wondering -it happened all the time. I said I was the daughter and everything was fine. We girls had to apologise-as unbeknown to us, we landed in a bedroom and he didn’t make a fuss. An African with lovely smile said it is quite OK In other words he really meant this is my lucky day.

The train was really stunning. The ambience was great. The carriages were numerous- they coiled round like a snake. We chose the second sitting for dinner on the train. I found it all quite magical as we chugged across the plain.

We loved the sounds of Africa – especially at night. Cicadas and frogs croaking, they sang for our delight.. Of all the Great Train Journeys- this surely was the best. From Mombasa to Nairobi – we were totally impressed. A few hours sleep were taken and we woke up to the dawn. Thompson Gazelles were grazing. OUR SAFARI had begun.

Before our next adventure We must top up the Gin To leave a half full bottle Would really be a sin.

Julia Organ