Meet some real-life heroes in my series of special interviews with people who represent the spirit and heart of the North East.
Dr Frances McIntosh is the Collections Curator for Hadrian’s Wall and the North East for English Heritage. An archaeologist by training, she specialises in Roman small finds, having completed her PhD on the Clayton Collection material, on display at Chesters. She joined English Heritage in 2012 and has been learning about the history of the sites, and their objects, ever since.
In this interview, Frances tells us about her role as Collections Curator, her favourite North East businesses, and more…
Frances, please tell us a bit about you and your connection with the North East.
I was born in Manchester and have always (well, since I was about nine) wanted to be an archaeologist. My love of the past came, I think, from being taken to castles, historic sites, and stately homes by my parents. We would read the panels and I would always want to know how they knew all this information. My dad told me it was archaeologists excavating, and I was hooked.
I came to Durham to do my undergraduate degree in archaeology, graduating in 2006. I couldn’t believe how little I had to use my umbrella in the North East compared to the North West! After working for an archaeological unit in the North East for 6 months, I moved to Liverpool for a couple of years. I returned to the North East in 2009 and have never left, I just love it up here, and it well and truly feels like home. My great grandad was from Hebburn but left in the 1920s in search of work, so the North East is in my blood.
Tell us about your role as Collections Curator for Hadrian’s Wall and the North East at English Heritage. How did you get into this role, what does it involve, and what do you love most about the work you do? What are you currently working on?
My job is varied, busy, and extremely rewarding. No two days are the same, and that is part of the joy of it. One day I could be cleaning bat poo off the important 19th century organ at Brinkburn Priory, then planning an exhibition, and the next giving a paper at a conference. I have been working as a curator for English Heritage for over ten years, first just on Hadrian’s Wall, and since 2018 covering the rest of the North East as well. Luckily I am not responsible for the buildings (historic or modern) on these sites, just the objects within our collection, whether on display or in store.
The collections from the Roman sites are by far the largest, and take up at least half of my time, Corbridge Roman Site, Chesters Roman Fort and Housesteads Roman Fort. Then there are collections from other English Heritage sites in the region such as Warkworth Castle, Lindisfarne Priory, Brinkburn Priory, Belsay Hall, Tynemouth Priory, Prudhoe Castle, Aydon Castle, Lanercost Priory and Carlisle Castle. These are often smaller in number but still have much to tell us about the site they came from.
As a Collections Curator I work closely with the Conservator to ensure we’re looking after these precious artefacts so that they survive for future generations. This entails making sure they are kept in the correct environment, so we control the temperature and relative humidity, we package them carefully, and monitor them regularly.
I am also involved in planning and creating new displays in our museums, writing content for our website, and helping provide resources for our education team. It’s been a real privilege in the last few years to do museum projects at Chesters Roman Fort, Corbridge Roman Town and Birdoswald Roman Fort. We were able to use our amazing collections from these sites to tell the stories of the people who lived there almost 2000 years ago.
We’ve just come to the end of Hadrian’s Wall 1900, a year-long celebration where the organisations and community groups along the wall have put on events, exhibitions, and created a variety of art. It’s definitely kept me busy and this winter I’m looking forward to catching up on more of the day to day aspects of my job, as well as getting ready for the opening of the exciting project at Belsay Hall. As part of the Belsay Awakes project I’ve been talking to people to record their memories of Belsay, including people who worked for the estate, and knew the Middleton Family. These oral history records are so important to help understand how the estate ran, and what life was like.
Wow – your job sounds amazing!
The North East is steeped in history, myths and legends, songs and folklore. Do you have a favourite story from the history of the region? Or any songs that you associate with the area?
For stories, I’m pretty biased towards Roman-related ones, and perhaps one of my favourites is that of William Hutton, a publisher from Birmingham, who in 1801 at the age of 79 walked from Birmingham to Hadrian’s Wall, all along it, and then back home. He was frequently mistaken for either a tax collector or government agent, and no one could understand why someone would care enough about the Wall to walk its length. A far cry from the hundreds of thousands of visitors we have to the World Heritage Site today.
In terms of songs, there is the classic Blaydon Races song isn’t there, but I have to say, when the cover of ‘We Built this City’, where the words ‘rock and roll’ were changed to ‘sausage rolls’ was released, the song was taken to the NE heart as the home of Greggs, and it always made me chuckle!
It’s often said that the people and landscapes of the North East are full of ‘spirit’ and ‘heart’. Tell us, what do you love most about the region?
For me, the North East is just beautiful, both in terms of its scenery but also the warmth of the people. I got on the bus with my daughter when she was just a few weeks old, and an elderly lady who I didn’t know came up to us. She pressed a 50p into her hand, a traditional action to give the child prosperity and good health for their life ahead. What a lovely gesture, and something typical of the North East people. I feel proud that my daughter will grow up a Geordie.
Oh, and a sneaky second thing, I have always longed to be near the sea, and so the North East coastline is such a treat to me, it is just truly stunning, and you can often have a beach to yourself.
That is such a lovely gesture and so telling of the North East spirit!
Is there one place you always like to visit that you’d recommend to others?
Gosh, it’s so difficult just to pick one, whenever we have visitors I always struggle to limit the things I try to do with them! We have beaches, countryside, and brilliant museums and galleries – we are very spoilt.
I love Northumberlandia (Northumberlandia, the Lady of the North.). It’s a beautiful spot, created as part of the quarry works next door. I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem, and is something completely unique. A huge landform sculpture of a reclining lady, it’s great for an explore. We also love the small woodland area where they have lovely childrens’ trails. It’s ran by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust who do some great work across the region. Plus, it has a great little café with some very tasty homemade food.
Do you have one favourite shop or business you think everyone should know about in the region?
Another tricky question! I think I’m going to cheat and say a few, but all linked to a good day out.
We like to park in the Ouseburn, then get a coffee and cake from either the Cycle Hub, or Northern Rye. Then walk along the river and cross over at the Millenium Bridge. Then you can spend a lovely few hours in the Baltic, which is a free art gallery, in an old flour mill. If you have children they have a great area with books, crafts, and activities, then in the Front Room downstairs you can eat your packed lunch and get free snacks and drinks. It’s such a wonderful welcoming space in the city centre. Plus, they sell lovely things in their shop, linked to their exhibitions. When you’re cultured out, walk back to the Ouseburn and get a drink at the Free Trade, the Cluny or the Tyne Bar.
Fantastic recommendations there! Which three words best describe the North East to you?
Friendly, beautiful, home.
Finally, tell us what makes you smile?
A day on the beach with friends and family. Building sandcastles, splashing in the sea, and getting treats from one of the many lovely cafes we have!
Thank you so much for joining me, Frances, it was so lovely to hear from you!
Special thanks to Kate Baguley, who helped co-ordinate this interview.