Meet some real-life heroes in my series of special interviews with people who represent the spirit and heart of the North East.
Denise Curran is the Retail Manager at Wallington, a country house and gardens that is the largest agricultural estate in the care of the National Trust, and includes 15 tenant farms across the 13,500-acre estate.
In this interview, Denise tells us about her connection to the North East, her role at Wallington, and more…
Denise, please can you tell us a bit about you and your connection with the North East?I was born in the North East in a small village called Burnopfield, which is just on the hill above Gibside. I have a long history of family in the North East and we can trace our family tree back to 1605 and basically we have not moved out of the area for over 400 years! Most of my family were farriers or blacksmiths during that time. I moved to the coast after marrying my late husband and still live there with my two teenage children. I love the North East and I am very proud of my heritage – I think we live in the most beautiful part of the country. I have worked in retail for over 36 years, predominately for 32 years with Fenwick Limited before moving to the National Trust 4 years ago after being made redundant. At the time I was at a loss at what to do, but I am passionate about history and to merge my two passions together – shopping and history – seemed like a good idea and I have never looked back.
Tell us about your role at Wallington – what do you love most about the work you do?Wallington is just the most beautiful place – it is tranquil and steeped with local history. Wallington is a country house and gardens located about 12 miles west of Morpeth, Northumberland. It has been owned by the National Trust since 1942, after it was donated by Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan, the first donation of its kind. It is a Grade I listed building. The estate was owned by the Fenwick family from 1475 until their financial problems caused them to sell their properties to the Blacketts. The hall house was rebuilt in 1688 around the ancient Pele Tower house for Sir William Blackett and was later substantially rebuilt again, in Palladian style, for Sir Walter Blackett by architect Daniel Garret, before passing to the Trevelyan family in 1777. Charles Philips Trevelyan inherited the property from his father George Otto Trevelyan in 1928. Wallington is the largest agricultural estate in the care of the National Trust and includes 15 tenant farms across the 13,500-acre estate. It has big ambitions for nature recovery and climate action and has recently launched the Wilder Wallington project, with the aim to plant one million trees by 2030, plant a network of hedgerows, restore peatlands, and reintroduce native species. I am the Retail Manager at Wallington. We have two shops and a small plant area outside our seasonal shop. We stock all manner of gifts and some gorgeous local products from local suppliers who we love to support. The thing I love the most is the people – our visitors. Normal retail is all about selling, however, at Wallington we love just taking the time to talk with our visitors. For myself knowing that, the money our visitors spend in our shops, helps to keep our property alive for future generations is just amazing.
Is there one place you always like to visit that you would recommend others to visit?Well, other than Wallington, I love our coastal areas. I always enjoy walking down along the coast to St Marys Lighthouse and stopping for coffee in Whitley Bay. It always seems to have a different look and feel depending on the time of year – its even nice during the winter months, if you are well wrapped up.
Do you have a favourite shop or business you think everyone should know about in the region?I don’t have a favourite shop as I love all shopping, but I enjoy supporting local, smaller businesses when I can. In the Whitley Bay and Tynemouth area a vast majority of shops are owned by local people creating local products and I always shop there first when I am looking for gifts or anything that is just that bit different.
It’s often said that the people and landscapes of the North East are full of spirit and heart. What do you love most about the region?I agree, North East people are some of the most warm, loving people. I love the fact that we are welcoming to everybody. I am often told in my job by people visiting the area that they have had a lovely holiday because of the people and how they are looking forward to coming back to the area. I think we have a brilliant sense of humour and good “crack”, as we like to say.
The North East is packed with history, myths and legends, songs and folklore. Do you have a favourite story or song that you associate with the area.I do, yes, and this is somewhat tied in with my North East Hero: Mary Eleanor Bowes-Lyons. Mary Eleanor, after the death of her father George Bowes was the richest heiress in Britain and in 1767 she married John Lyon, 9th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. They took the surname Bowes in lieu of Lyon by Act of Parliament. Mary Eleanor was the ancestress of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. After John Lyon died, she was tricked into marrying an adventurer called Andrew Robinson Stoney, who changed his name to Bowes. But the marriage was not happy due to his terrible treatment of her. She instituted divorce proceedings in 1785 but he then abducted her. However, she was rescued, and he was sent to prison. Unfortunately, her home at Gibside is a ruin but a couple of pieces of her furniture are still kept at the Bowes Museum in Durham and during a Boxing Day Staff Party HRH King Charles III knocked at the door asking if he could be allowed to look at the furniture as both himself and Mary Eleanor both had a great love of botany. As women had no rights during her lifetime, she was instrumental in changing the law regarding divorce for women. Mary Eleanor died in April 1800 and is buried in Westminster Abbey apparently in her wedding dress to her first husband. There has been a few books wrote about Mary-Eleanor and if anybody appreciated the film The Duchess, they would certainly enjoy reading her life story which should be a Hollywood film in its own right.
That’s a fantastic hero to choose.
What is your favourite North-Eastern slang? What does it mean?I think perhaps the word “canny” which in most cases means ‘nice’. I think to most North Easterners it is a term of endearment and always meant as a compliment.
What makes you smile?I had to think a bit about this but then a friend just laughed and said, “well it’s obvious Elvis and your kids”, and I must agree that they were right. However, reading your DCI Ryan books should get a mention as like many people I have certainly laughed and smiled reading them. Elvis and his music will always put me in a good mood and my kids definitely keep me smiling…or is that grimacing?..
Thank you so much for joining me, Denise, it was great to hear about the work you do and your love for the North East!
Special thanks to Kate Baguley, who helped co-ordinate this interview.