On the top of Penshaw Monument
Looking out of my bedroom window at 7.30 am on Bank Holiday Monday, 29 August 2011, I saw the sun shining on Penshaw Monument. I couldn't see any sign of any life up there. Not yet.
At 9.00 am, I was part of a long queue snaking around three sides of the monument with its 18 Doric pillars, one with a concealed staircase inside. Today, for one day only, the National Trust were conducting tours and opening up the pillar leading to the walkway along the top. This had been closed for many years because on Easter Monday 1926, a young boy of 15 fell to his death.
People kept arriving all the time walking up Penshaw Hill and joining the backlog. We huddled together and sat on the perimeter with our backs against the cold stone to shelter from the biting wind. The word on the ground was that people had been waiting since 8.00 am.
We watched people in front of us in the queue climb up the wooden temporary steps to the stone summit; and hurry over to the National Trust guys to get their hard hats on. We'd see them disappear through the pillar and eventually they'd emerge on the top and wave down at us.
For health and safety reasons they were only taking five people up at one time which meant approximately fifteen people went up each hour. At ten, fifteen minutes per tour it was a long wait from 9.00 am - 1.00 pm. More people kept walking up the limestone hill with their dogs just to have a look at what was happening. Children played happily on the summit,practising jumping down from the heavy stone to the grass below.
I heard someone behind me say, 'Isn't it beautiful, just look at the blue sky and shifting clouds through the pillars.' Cameras snapped. I heard another snatch of conversation. 'My mother went up there you know, around one hundred years ago.'
I remembered my granddad telling me the tale of how he had been up on the top when he was a youngster on a church trip. He claimed he had climbed across the triangle on the left edge to the other side. Talking to other visitors, I gathered that a lot of them were waiting so patiently as their relatives also throughout the generations had been up onto the top. This was definitely a monumental occasion and everyone was very excited and felt like it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
At last we were first in the queue at about five to one in the afternoon. The anticipation grew. Then it was our turn to walk across the heavy stone square to what I called the eighteenth pillar.
We were supplied with white hard hats with head torches and I was the first of our group to ascend the stone, spiral stairway. There was no handrail and it would have been very dark without the head torch. Clutching at the round stone walls, I came across occasional slits of daylight, windows in the age old gritstone. The 74 very small steps seemed to go on and on, round and round I climbed. At last I saw daylight and emerged. 'Watch your head,' I heard someone say. Too late as I banged my hard hat.
It was absolutely awesome, yet dizzying once out on the walkway. This was Sunderland's highest landmark at 66 ft high and with walls of 3ft on either side, the panoramic view was fabulous.
Looking slowly round across neat green fields, houses, the lake at Herrington Park and
the circle of bright flowers that was the roundabout below, I moved around to see Nissan and wind turbines.
Walking along to the end, I saw the open pediment, the triangular facing on the left side, and imagined how exhilarating it must have been for my granddad as he scurried across the middle, open to the elements, with no support on either side.
The wind whipped our hair as we took photos and someone pointed out the square that was Durham Cathedral. I saw our estate and rang home and my husband video'd us from our bedroom window. I waved so he would know it was me.
After ten minutes which raced by, it was time to go back down the spiral staircase where we gave back the white hard hats and torches. We were handed a certificate to say we'd been up to the top of Penshaw Monument on 29 August 2011.
Unfortunately, not everyone was as lucky as us as the event had been inundated with unanticipated visitors and many people were turned away. However they were able to priority book for future events.
At 10.00 pm I looked out of my bedroom window at Penshaw Monument, illuminated and golden like a beacon against the dark night sky. The brightest light seemed to be at the right side where the column is with the concealed staircase. I've been up there, I thought.