In the early hours of 7 September 1838, Grace Darling, looking from an upstairs window of the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands, spotted the wreck and survivors of the Forfarshire on Big Harcar, a nearby low rocky island. The Forfarshire had foundered on the rocks and broken in half: one of the halves had sunk during the night. She and her father William determined that the weather was too rough for the lifeboat to put out from Seahouses (then North Sunderland), so they took a rowing boat (a 21 ft, 4-oar Northumberland coble) across to the survivors, taking a long route that kept to the lee side of the islands, a distance of nearly a mile. Grace kept the coble steady in the water while her father helped four men and the lone surviving woman, Mrs. Dawson, into the boat. Although she survived the sinking, Mrs Dawson had lost her two young children during the night. William and three of the rescued men then rowed the boat back to the lighthouse. Grace remained at the lighthouse while William and three of the rescued crew members rowed back and recovered four more survivors.
Meanwhile the lifeboat had set out from Seahouses but arrived at Big Harcar rock after Grace and her father had completed the rescue: all they found were the dead bodies of Mrs Dawson’s children and of a clergyman. It was too dangerous to return to North Sunderland so they rowed to the lighthouse to take shelter. Grace’s brother, William Brooks Darling, was one of the seven fishermen in the lifeboat. The weather deteriorated to the extent that everyone was obliged to remain at the lighthouse for three days before returning to shore.
The Forfarshire had been carrying 62 people. The vessel broke in two almost immediately upon hitting the rocks. Those rescued by Grace and her father were from the bow section of the vessel which had been held by the rocks for some time before sinking. All that remained at daybreak was the portside paddlebox casing. Nine other passengers and crew had managed to float off a lifeboat from the stern section before it too sank, and were picked up in the night by a passing Montrose sloop and brought into South Shields that same night.
Grace’s achievement was celebrated in her own lifetime: she received £700 raised by public subscription,was awarded a Royal National Lifeboat Institution Gallantry Medal (along with her father), and was catapulted into national and international celebrity. Overnight she became the first Victorian heroine. Lionized by London’s press, royalty, and the aristocracy, her image was everywhere (on soap, annuals, chocolates etc).
A number of fictionalized depictions propagated the Grace Darling legend, such as Grace Darling, or the Maid of the Isles by Jerrold Vernon (1839), which gave birth to the legend of “the girl with windswept hair”. Her deed was committed to verse by William Wordsworth in his poem “Grace Darling” (1843). A lifeboat with her name was presented to Holy Island. One of a series of Victorian paintings by William Bell Scott at Wallington Hall in Northumberland depicts her rescue.
At Bamburgh, where she was born, there is a museum dedicated to her achievements and the seafaring life of the region. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution Mersey class lifeboat at Seahouses bears the name Grace Darling.
Grace died of pneumonia or tuberculosis in 1842, aged 26. She is buried with her father and mother in a modest grave in St. Aidan’s churchyard, Bamburgh, where a nearby elaborate cenotaph commemorates her life. A plain stone monument to her was erected in St. Cuthbert’s Chapel on Great Farne Island in 1848.
One commentator noted that “lots of tosh” has been written about Grace in order to embellish the dramatic aspect of her personal story. The truth is, three months after the rescue she responded to the pressure of fame by becoming a recluse in the lighthouse, where her social position was to do domestic work for her mother and father. She received countless marriage proposals which she ignored. She had no interest in fame. There is no need to embellish her story; her heroism speaks for itself.
Grace Darling’s feat gives me the opportunity yet again to sing the praises of English regional cooking, this time the dishes of Northumbria. This is not haute cuisine, but delicious nonetheless – good hearty fare.
From the nineteenth century, Northumberland had a flourishing kipper industry, for which the picturesque harbour of Craster was particularly renowned. The smokehouses at Craster have their own special light cure, based on a technique originally used for salmon, which hasn’t changed much in over a century. The kippers have an appetizing flavor and good, rich color that owes nothing to artificial dyes or additives but comes instead from lengthy smoking over a slow oak fire. One of the best uses for them is to make Kipper Paste or be spread on toast.
Salmon is another fish available locally. In the 18th century Potted Salmon was very popular also to be spread on toast. Cockles are available here and can be made into a delicious Cockle Soup or poached in seawater then doused in vinegar and black pepper. In addition, mussels are popular, as in Northumberland Mussels in Cream.
Bacon is a popular ingredient used in the region’s cooking. Alnwick Stew is made from chopped bacon forehock layered with onions and potatoes, while Bacon Floddies are traditional to Gateshead and served with sausages and eggs as a breakfast or supper dish.
The popular Northumberland supper dish of Pan Haggerty is said to have taken its name from the French ‘hachis’, meaning to chop or slice. Traditionally Pan Haggerty is served directly from the pan in which it is cooked. Another popular supper dish from the county is Celery Cheese. Other dishes use cheese and vegetables such as Whitley Goose, a traditional dish from Whitley Bay which has nothing to do with real geese (it’s made with onions)!
Leeks are popular and are grown throughout the area. There are competitions for growing the biggest leeks and many Northumbrians are passionate about them. Leek Pudding is a suet pudding filled with chopped leeks and sometimes other vegetables, served as an accompaniment to stews.
One of the most famous dishes from the region is Pease Pudding, which dates back to medieval days. Traditionally it has been eaten with pork. In the nineteenth century ‘Pease Pudding Hot…’ was sold by street vendors – especially in and around Newcastle. It was, and still is, very much a northeastern dish. Another dish made with split peas is Carlings. This dish takes its name from the Old English word for ‘mourning’. It was conventionally served on Passion – or Carling – Sunday, when church altars were draped in purple in mourning for the memory of Christ’s Passion. Dishes containing peas were regularly eaten during Lent, when meat was forbidden.
Newcastle Pudding is a steamed form of bread and butter pudding, flavored with lemon and served with a lemon sauce. Another dessert from the area is North Country Tart, which is an open tart layered with raspberry jam and an egg, coconut, and golden syrup mixture. Another popular Northumberland farmhouse pudding goes Tasty Batter Pudding, something like Yorkshire pudding, but sweet and served with golden syrup.
Singin’ Hinnies are a type of fried scone that gained its name because it ‘sings’ and sizzles while cooking. ‘Hinny’ is a northern term of endearment used especially to children. Similar to Singin’ Hinnies are Northumbrian Griddle Cakes, also known as Gosforth Gridies. Another scone-like bread from the area is Northumberland Threshing Day Barley Bread that is baked on a griddle and made at threshing time.
Don’t EVER tell me that English food is dull and flavorless. You get a two-fer today, mussels in cream sauce and singin’ hinnies, just to drive the point home that I am spoilt for choice when it comes to Northumberland recipes.
Northumberland Mussels in Cream Sauce
6 pints (2.5 li) mussels
2 oz (50 g) butter
2 shallots chopped fine
2 tbsps flour
¼ pint (150 ml) dry white wine
¼ pint (150 ml) milk
¼ pint (150 ml) heavy cream
2 tbsps fresh parsley, chopped
white pepper (fresh ground if possible)
Scrub and wash the mussels thoroughly, discarding any that will not close when tapped sharply with a knife handle.
Take a large saucepan of water, bring to the boil and then add the mussels. Simmer with the lid on for about 5 minutes or until all the mussels have opened. Don’t overcook.
Remove the mussels with a slotted spoon, and keep warm. Let the cooking liquid sit off the heat for a few minutes and then ladle about a cup off the top, being careful not to disturb the bottom where grit will have settled.
Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and lightly sauté the shallots until translucent. Do not let them brown.
Stir in the flour to make a blond roux, and then gradually add the wine, milk, and sufficient of the reserved cooking liquid to obtain a thick pouring sauce. Add the cream and half of the parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat the sauce through but do not allow to boil. Arrange the mussels in 4 large bowls and pour on the sauce. Garnish with the remaining parsley.
You must serve these mussels with crusty bread or hot garlic bread to sop up the sauce.
8 oz (225 g) all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 oz (50 g) butter
2 oz (50 g) lard
1 oz (25 g) sugar
3 oz (75 g) currants or sultanas
2-3 tbsp milk
Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together into a bowl, then rub in the butter and the lard until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. This can be done by pulsing in a food processor.
Stir in the sugar and fruit and mix to a stiff dough with the milk.
Roll into a ball, then turn out on to a lightly floured surface and flatten into a round cake about ½ to ¾ inch (1 to 1.5 cm) thick.
Lightly grease and heat a cast iron skillet or griddle on medium heat. Lay the hinny on the hot surface.
Prick the top lightly with a fork and cook for 15-20 minutes, turning once, until golden brown on both sides.
Serve hot, cut into wedges and spread with butter.
Yield: 8 wedges