Our speaker on the 13th March 2024 will be Dr Lesley Milner FSA who will give an illustrated talk on The After-Life of St Cuthbert. 

Our last meeting was the Christmas Meeting.

At our Autumn Meeting on the 25th October 2023 our new Chairman, Ian Grainger, gave a talk titled 

“George Macaulay Trevelyan – a passion for walking in Northumberland and Italy." The text of the talk is reproduced below;

G.M.Trevelyan – A passion for walking in Northumberland and Italy

Even forgetting his many other achievements, George Macaulay (invariably “G.M.”) Trevelyan was one of the most learned but also most popular historians in early 20th century Britain.  He was undoubtedly a great man (and a great Northumbrian), not just as a historian but in many other ways.  He was born in 1876, so even though he died in 1962 - and was therefore a contemporary of The Beatles! - he was in essence a Victorian: he was 25 when the great Queen died.  That Victorian youth is not to be forgotten because in some ways, much of the rest of his life, especially the period after WW1, involved (as he saw it) a gradual erosion of much of what he regarded as best in British life.  You can see the Victorian in photos of him.  Here he is: tall, craggy, slightly unkempt.  Though humane and in many ways modest and friendly, he does not seem to have been easily intimate with others: many, especially those less accomplished than him, found him remote and a tad intimidating.  He did not always suffer fools gladly.  His family background, may well explain why he was as he was, both in terms of its social quality and its intellectual punch.    

First, the family’s social quality.  His father was Sir George Otto Trevelyan, MP for Tynemouth, and his mother was Caroline Phillips, from a leading Manchester political family.  GMT was actually born near Stratford upon Avon but spent much of his youth and large parts of his later years at Wallington, his father’s estate near Cambo.  He was the youngest of 3 sons (often referred to collectively as “the Trevs”).  The oldest was Charles, who in due course inherited the estate and became an MP; and the second, Robert, was a poet and scholar.  As their name suggests, the Trevelyans were originally a Cornish family but they had inherited their vast Northumberland estate from Sir Walter Blackett, a Newcastle merchant.  As you will know, Wallington is now National Trust property.  In 1928, Charles took over as owner of the estate but at a later stage, while retaining a personal life interest, he gave Wallington to the National Trust, of which GMT was a major pillar.  GMT himself had a smaller house at Hallington, towards Hexham.

Next, the family’s intellectual punch.  Sir George Otto and his sons were not the first generation of intellectuals in this family or this place.  Wallington’s central hall, created in part by John Dobson, contained the famous series of pre-Raphaelite paintings of Northumbrian history and legend. They are by William Bell Scott but were commissioned by Pauline Trevelyan.  GMT grew up with those inspirational images all around him, just as he grew up with another monumental brooding presence.  His great uncle (his father’s uncle by marriage) was none other than Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lord Macaulay.  Macaulay was initially a great civil servant in India but later came to be viewed by the Victorians as one of the greatest of all English historians.  Indeed, the very name GMT was itself a tribute to Lord M.  So the monumental achievements of Macaulay were always in the air that the young boy breathed.  And bear in mind that we are speaking not only of M’s historical achievements but also of his literary ones, especially his Lays of Ancient Rome – Horatius keeping the bridge and all the rest of it.  To remind you of the flavour of this verse, let’s see if I can manage the first two verses of Horatius:

Lars Porsena of Clusium,                                                East and west and south and north

By the nine gods he swore                                             The messengers ride fast,

That the great house of Tarquin                                     And tower and town and cottage

Should suffer wrong no more.                                       Have heard the trumpet’s blast.

By the nine gods he swore it,                                         Shame on the false Etruscan      

And named a trysting day,                                             Who lingers in his home,

And bade his messengers ride forth,                              When Porsena of Clusium

East and west and south and north,                               Is on the march for Rome.

To summon his array.


Phew, I did it.  But GM could do even better.  In his Autobiography, speaking of his very early years, he said “I knew the ‘Lays’ by heart (and have never forgotten them, turn me on where you like)”.     

The danger with a major public figure like T is that there are innumerable fields in which he involved himself and in which his changing views were significant.  I shall try to avoid being distracted from my main focus (walking) by covering his major achievements in as short a compass as I can.  The main part of his education was at Harrow.  Then (like Macaulay and his father and his two brothers before him), he was at Trinity College Cambridge, studying in the fairly new school of history.  He got a first and then wrote a dissertation which won him a fellowship.  However, in 1903, at 27, he deliberately left Cambridge in order to create time and space to write.  He did not go back there for a quarter of a century.  

By this stage, he had already begun visiting Italy, both with his parents and walking there with friends, and he developed a deep passion for the country and its people.  In 1904, he married Janet Penrose, who was herself extremely knowledgeable about medieval Italy, and the Italian travels continued with her, sometimes cycling.  In 1907, he published the first volume of his Garibaldi trilogy – Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic, followed by Garibaldi and the Thousand in 1909 and Garibaldi and the Making of Italy in 1911.  These books, especially the first two volumes, were hugely successful, partly due to the epic and rather “Boy’s Own” quality of Garibaldi’s life story but also due to T’s ability to produce narrative passages which were at once learned and literate but also hugely readable.  The books have their faults, not least a strongly expressed aversion to Papal power.  [Trevelyan was in fact an agnostic – he was never confirmed – but he was, if you like, a good Protestant agnostic!]  But he knew how to tell a dramatic story and to tell it well.  These books sold.

Moving on, the First World War was a vast watershed in GMT’s life.  He was 38 and unfit for service due to poor eyesight but despite that he volunteered for work in Italy with the British Red Cross, as the Commandant of the first British ambulance unit there.  He did that for 3 and a half years and God alone knows how he escaped unscathed.  Initially, he was on the Isonzo front, near Gorizia, working of course only with the Italian army; and then after the mega-disaster of Caporetto in 1917, he worked on the Piave front, where large numbers of British troops were brought in to stem the Austrian advance towards Venice.  He produced a book about this service called Scenes from Italy’s War.  In later years, he viewed the awful experiences of this time as having given his writing an air of reality which it might previously have lacked as coming from a scholar based simply in libraries.  Quite apart from the awful medical realities which he must have witnessed, the book certainly contains scenes for which his privileged background cannot have prepared him.  I remember an episode during a cholera outbreak when he berated two southern soldiers for ignoring an Aqua non potabile notice - i.e. Not Drinking Water – when they were drinking from the spring beside it.  When he angrily said “Can’t you read?”, they replied to his shame (not theirs) “No signore, we can’t”.  At that stage, unlike what he was used to at home, a huge proportion of Italians remained wholly illiterate.  

Anyway, after the war, honours and achievements poured in thick and fast.  He wrote only one more book on Italy – Manin and the Venetian Revolution of 1848 – but many more home-focussed works for which he grew famous, among them a one-volume History of England (1926), his 3 volume magnum opus on England under Queen Anne (1930-34) and two books with Northumbrian roots, Lord Grey of the Reform Bill (1920) and Grey of Fallodon (1937).  His most successful book, which is perhaps the one still most often read and which one used to see in second hand bookshops everywhere, English Social History, came out in 1944.  In 1927, he had gone back to Cambridge as Regius Professor and in 1940, partly due to the influence of the new PM, Churchill, he was made Master of Trinity.  But honours flowed in – Order of Merit, Companion of Literature, Chancellor of the University of Durham.  Nor should one forget his influence in one particular wider sphere.  The First War had imperilled the privileged life of the landowning gentry in which he had grown up and he viewed the modern city-based life of the 20’s and 30’s as rather imperilling civilisation altogether.  He tried to protect what he had always known by playing a massive role in promoting the new National Trust, not only at points giving them land himself but also for many years chairing their estates committee.  Many of the NT’s vast landholdings were down to his influence.  And appropriately for a manic walker, he was also the first president of the Youth Hostels Association.

As I say, there was only one Italian book after WW1 and that reflected something of a general retreat on that front.  He loved Italy and travelled all over it as a preparation for his books but that changed after Fascism.  There were far fewer trips to Italy.  He was involved in Italian cultural activities in London but even they were problematic because of the growing influence of Fascism.  In 1941, when we were at war with Italy, he joined (and indeed was Vice-President of) a new organisation called The Friends of Free Italy, a society which, after the war, changed its name to The British-Italian Society, under which name it happily continues to thrive.  I have been one of its Vice-Chairmen in my time and there is at least one other member here tonight.             

So much for his career and background.  For the second part, I want to consider, largely using T’s own words, his passionate if not slightly obsessive need to walk. He described himself as having two doctors, his right leg and his left leg: if you used them well and often, there would be no need for other types of doctor.  This passion started very early.  He described himself as a boy “who soon came to think that poetry, history and solitary walking across country were the three best things in life”.  And this passion for walking never diminished until old age prevented it.  

And don’t forget that we are speaking of a late Victorian, educated by even earlier Victorians.  So the distances and methods involved were far more robust than now.

For example, in his Autobiography, describing his time at Harrow, there is this revealing passage about his house-master, Edward Bowen:  (p.11)  [Bowen] was a great walker and battlefield hunter, and I owed my love of walking and of battlefields, partly at least, to emulation of him. I remember his saying to me ‘O boy, you can never walk less than 25 miles on an off day!’   [You may well ask what you do on an on day and T’s next words give the answer.]  [Bowen] was the first of the very few who have walked the 80 miles from Cambridge to Oxford in 24 hours.  He was a bachelor of somewhat ascetic habits: he once said to me, some years after I had left the school, ‘O boy, you ought not to have a hot bath twice a week: you’ll get like the later Romans, boy’.   

So, lots of effort it seems - but minimal soap and water!  Moving on to Cambridge, T speaks of Geoffrey Winthrop Young, the poet and climber who he described as his greatest friend through life.  The two of them served together in Italy, where sadly Young lost a leg. Before the war, Young had run a mountaineering group in the English Lakes and T says this of their activities there: (p.15)  I was never a climber.  Sometimes they dragged me up places but left to myself I was only a walker and runner on the hills.  Geoffrey and I invented and initiated the Man-Hunt in the Lake District, a game which enabled me to exploit my only athletic accomplishment of running and leaping downhill over very broken ground: my ankles are untwistable.  Geoffrey and I also walked to London together, from Trinity to the Marble Arch, in twelve and three quarter hours, a little better than four miles an hour.

In a footnote in his essay on Walking, T gives succinct advice on how to pull off this Marble Arch feat: Start at 5am from Cambridge and have a second breakfast ordered beforehand at Royston to be ready at 8.  

For the most part, his accounts of walking are not detailed narratives of particular walks.  Rather, they are recollections, often very literary and passionate recollections, of past experience – emotion recollected in tranquillity, if you like!  Here is a description of walking in the Borders.  Note how the account is dense with historical and literary allusions, in this case to Thomas Carlyle and to Sir Walter Scott.  As you will hear, he can get very specific in his references! 

The moors were a few miles away to the north [of Wallington], where we used to shoot grouse and blackcock, more plentiful then than now.  But I was not a good shot, and I soon developed a stronger passion for walking across country, alone, at something over four miles an hour, often doing forty miles a day.  In that fashion I traversed again and again the Cheviot country on both sides of the Border, a land of solitude and old romance that captivated my soul and enhanced my historical interests and imaginings.  I also got to know in this fashion the South West of Scotland, the land of Dirk Hatterick and Redgauntlet, of Carlyle’s Ecclefechan, and the more distant fastnesses of Loch Trool; I more than once found solitary moorland graves of the martyrs of the Covenant, that Old Mortality had helped to preserve, and heard tales of the ‘dragoons’, handed down by word of mouth in remote cottages.  One day at the close of the century, Geoffrey Young and I took part in a farmer’s fox hunt on the top of the Great Cheviot, carried out on foot with guns and dogs of all kinds and sizes, in the manner described in the 25th chapter of ‘Guy Mannering’.  I often stayed the night with the Shiells of Sourhope, at the head of Bowmont Water, a family of Scottish Cheviot farmers of the true breed.  But the Lake District, both the outer and inner part, was my favourite ground of all. (Aut. pp.25-26)

He certainly loved the Lakes but perhaps the most rhapsodic passages of all are about Italy.  T seems actually to have walked into Italy, through the Alps, but here, for certain, is his description of their first encounter:

It was in 1895 that I first visited Italy, coming down out of Tirol with Charlie Buxton, my Harrow and Trinity friend. We emerged at Verona. There it all was – the streets and walls of the Capulets and Montagues, the bell-towers and war-towers, the church-porches with the pillars resting on the Lombard griffins praised by Ruskin, and all the smells and sounds of Italy, then smelt and heard by me for the first time! I fell in love with Italy then and there, though I did not foresee that I should ever write books about her liberation, and live to witness her great misfortunes. (Aut. P.27)

Italy’s liberation was, of course, the Risorgimento. Italy’s misfortunes were two World Wars and the blight of Fascism between them.  There are many other moving passages one could cite, including the occasion when his father first took him up the Janiculine Hill “to see all the roofs of Rome shining below in the winter sun” and then told him the story of Garibaldi’s defence of Rome, on that very spot, in 1849.  But for pure literary overload, mingled with heartache at what was to happen to Italy, listen to this short account of a remembered walk in western Tuscany with a university friend.  

Usually I was alone, but I remember toiling up, with Robin Mayor of King’s, late one night to the old Etruscan acropolis of ‘lordly Volaterrae’, [Macaulay] and the revelation next morning whither and how high we had come in the darkness, when at dawn the trumpet of the Bersaglieri (it might have been of Lars Porsena) [Macaulay] roused us from sleep, and flinging open the shutters (‘magic casements’ indeed) [Keats] we saw the vast expanse of distant sea, and Elba and Corsica beyond.

But, fond as I was of the olive-sandalled Apennines of Tuscany [Shelley], I preferred as a walking ground the wilder mountains and steeper gorges of Umbria, amid the head-waters of Tiber and Metaurus and Rubicon. / On these tours I got to love the unadulterated Italian people of all time, a lovable folk whom that wretch [i.e. Mussolini] tried to drill and bully into second-rate Germans – and failed. (Aut. p.28)    

I hope that gives a flavour of the man, both his work and his walking.  I fear I have probably overloaded the poetry.  These extracts are, of course, his personal accounts of his passion for walking but many critics would complain that he overdid the literary angle generally, even in his history books, and some even went so far as to suggest that history is simply not literature at all.  T vigorously disagreed with that view but over the years, his essentially narrative kind of history came to be much attacked (unjustly attacked in my view) as being supposedly unscientific.

I add a short postscript.  There are 2 great but awful journeys of which I have not spoken at any length.  Both these journeys were retreats and real-life retreats.  One was the withdrawal after Caporetto, from the Isonzo to the Piave, which T had to join in like everybody else.  Some parts of that considerable distance he simply had to walk, due to bridges being totally blocked by retreating soldiers and their impedimenta.  He mentions the experience only fleetingly in his book on the war.  The other and greater journey, which I have not talked about at all but which T did, is the real-life epic retreat of Garibaldi from Rome towards Venice in 1849, dealt with at length in the second half of Garibaldi’s Defence of the Roman Republic.   T had already walked much of that area before he had the idea of writing that book but then, before actually writing it, he himself walked the route of G’s retreat across Italy.  The route is over what is mostly very mountainous terrain before it arrives, as Garibaldi did, at San Marino, then and now not part of Italy.  G and his wife were trying to get across the Adriatic to Venice to join the revolt there against the Austrians.  In the meantime, the Austrians were assiduously hunting for Garibaldi.  The final part of Garibaldi’s journey was over marshy terrain north-east of Ravenna and Ferrara.  There, near Comacchio, is where his whole expedition finally came to grief, with his wife Anita dying and with G himself having to give up all hope of getting to Venice.  Unbelievably, after a brief time in hiding, he then had to turn around and make his own way back again, right across the Italian peninsula a second time, in order to escape from the Tuscan coast into Liguria.  But anyone who is sufficiently interested (or crazy) can still visit the room in a fenland farm near Comacchio where Anita died, the nearby site where she was first secretly buried and indeed the humble hut in the marshes (now something of a national shrine) where Garibaldi himself then hid.  Or, more easily, you can buy a good map of central Italy and follow on the map Trevelyan’s own passionately restless account of the whole thing in his marvellous book.       

Ian Grainger

For the Northumbria Club, at the Army & Navy, 25.10.23


Over the years we've been incredibly fortunate to hear from a wonderful and varied selection of speakers. 

8th March 2023 - Professor Thomas Otte - Professor of Diplomatic History at the University of East Anglia, - 'Sir Edward Grey (Viscount Grey of Fallodon),'

12th October 2022 - Christopher Dorman O'Gowan - His time in the Forces, Northumberland and at the Criminal Bar.

9th March 2022 Philip Benham -  'Robert Stevenson - From Willington Quay to Westminster Abbey'

13th October 2021 - HHJ Ian Graham -  "The MPs for Berwick upon Tweed 1885-1973'

4th March 2020 - Sally O'Neill - Deputy Treasurer to Her Majesty the Queen.


27th November 2019 - David Watt

2nd October 2019 - Bill Muir - Quizzes on radio and television.

19th June 2019 - Simon Sefton - The London School of Economics.

13th March 2019 - Udo Marggraf - The World Bank.


10th October 2018 - Tim Bittlestone - Surprising Career Changes.


13th June 2018 Ian Cooper - International Travels.


7th March 2018. Professor Peter Styles. "Climate Change and Energy".


11th October 2017. David Boll on the life of Robert Surtees.


7th June 2017, HHJ Ian Graham, "Sir Edward Grey".


15th March 2017, Steve Hails, "The Thames Tideway Tunnel".


5th October 2017, Clive Osborne, "The Other Newcastle".


8th June 2016, Mark Skilbeck on the topic of the Yetholm Common Riding.

9th March 2016, The Rt Hon. Lord Shipley of Gosforth OBE

14th October 2015, Dean of Chelmsford   the Very  Reverend Nicholas  Hensall, Dean of Chelmsford ,”Tales of a Scotswood  Road Vicar”

10th June 2015, AGM John Wheatley “The Stephenson’s”

Guest Night 4th March 2015, Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP “ Life of the MP for Berwick Upon Tweed”

8th October 2014,Her Honour Judge Deborah Taylor, “Music in Prisons”

11th June 2014, AGM,John Entwisle,Reuters

Guest Night 12th March 2014, Vice Admiral Sir Neville Purvis KCB, “Vice Admiral Lord Collingwood”
16th October 2013, David Watt “Claw Hammer Coats, Newcastle Central O.S. Maps”

Ladies Night 5th April 2013, Colonel John Kimmins, “The Queens Messengers”

12th December 2012, Ian Johnson “Experiences in Indonesia”

3rd October 2012, David Boll, “Wartime Evacuation”

Ladies Night 16 March 2012, Michael Robson,” High Speed Rail in Europe”

Ladies Night 18 March 2011, Dr Gordon Thomas

Ladies Night 15 January 2010, Desmond Fitzpatrick

Ladies Night 9th January 2009, Laurence Sherman

10th December 2008, Colin Hindmarch "Biodiversity on Europe's far-flung outposts"

8th October 2008, David Barclay

9th April 2008, Mark Skilbeck

Ladies Night 11th January 2008, Eric Phillips

12th December 2007, David Watt

10th October 2007, Rt Hon Alan Beith MP

11th April 2007, Ian Johnson

7th February 2007, Trevor Hindson

Ladies Night 12th, January 2007, Sir Derek Wanless

13th December 2006, David Boll

8th February 2006, Chris Emmerson, “Selling Plastics to Hong Kong”

Ladies Night 13th January 2006, Gerald Clark

Ladies Night 14th January 2005, Dr Nicholas Wright

6th October 2004, Arthur Bell, “A Journey Through Texas”

Ladies Night 16th January 2004, John Entwisle  Ladies Night

Ladies Night17th January 2003, Bill Peters, “Antarctica”

2nd July 2003, Chris Dean, “Bewick”

20th February 2002, David Boll, “Japan Old and New”

21st March 2001, Derek Williams, “The Genius of Hadrian”

3rd October 2001, Michael Robson,” Railtrack the last year”

31st January 2001, R.L.Stewart, “Being a School Governor in the 21st Century”

Ladies Night 12th January 2001, David Boll,” A Childs Life in Northumbria”

7th December 2000, Bill Peters,” Living a Quiet Retired Life”

22nd March 2000 R.L.Stewart, “Changes in the Duties of Being a School Governor”

8th December 1999, Bill Bradbeer,” Genetically Modified Food”

6th October 1999, Chris Dean,” England’s Navigable Waterways”

7th July 1999, Derek Beattie, “Chile”

24th March 1999, George Hepburn, “The Northumberland Fund”

3rd February 1999, John Entwisle, “History of Reuters”

Ladies Night 22nd January 1999, Lord Walton of Detchant,

30th May 1998, 25th, Anniversary Dinner in Alnwick, Alan Willey