The last difficult “goodbye”.

Describe the last difficult “goodbye” you said.

The last difficult goodbye was just like the one before, and the one before that: quick, cheery, almost effortless. Words spoken at my last goodbye rolled off my tongue because they had to, and that’s taken years of practice.

Going back a few years, I would most often whisper the words “bye for now,” which somehow seemed softer and less permanent, but I really knew that anything I said wouldn’t erase the twelve sleeps that would pass before we could be together again. So with a sinking chest and through tight lips I would attempt a smile, not wanting in any way to appear happy that we were parting. I dread to think how it must have looked to her.

I recall those bright eyes looking back whenever we separated and trying to hold them in mine for as long as I could. We’d hug, and again I’d hold her for as long as possible, not wanting to let go. In some way I hoped that my embrace would reinforce the love and affection I held for her, and I could only hope that it worked.

If those goodbyes ever got easier, it was certainly not from the occasions becoming agreeable, more likely it was repetition. It was a necessary evil we learned to accommodate over years, and only after many lost tears and intense, repeated heartache. The parting still hits me these days of course, but today my bruises, if not my heart, have hardened somewhat.

At the end of every drop-off, in those old days I would wait. I’d busy myself sorting items in the boot or re-tuning the radio or something, whilst really just waiting to see if she was safely seated in her car, and in case she needed to lock eyes one more time. I’d always leave the car park last, having watched as she was driven away from me and that car park. I hated that car park on a Sunday evening, I never wanted to arrive, and always found it hard to leave there too.

Even as she drove away, I would mentally send her encouragement as I began to process another treasured weekend coming to an end. ‘Be strong, be brave’ I would think. “Take care… I love you… sorry…” might also have left my lips as I drove myself slowly away, often squinting to see the road through tear filled eyes.

Jumping back to the present, and my last, most recent goodbye, it was in many ways every part as difficult as the old days. The difference now though is that today my daughter doesn’t climb into her mum’s car, she steps into her own car, and drives away under her own steam.

During the last goodbye random thoughts still filled my head just like they always did. A key difference now is that I willed her to not look back, and to watch the road, take it steady and drive carefully. I usually speak at least two out loud before she’s even fastened her seatbelt.

Since the early days she has grown of course, and my kneeling down dad and daughter hugs have grown up too. Last time, we’d been out for lunch, chatting like proper grown ups at a restaurant but still, inevitably, the time came to leave each other. Before she drove away we hugged, as always, and I tried, as always, to convey in that restricted moment my feelings of affection, comfort, reassurance, support, love and much more. So that last difficult goodbye flew in the face of guilt, it blocked out thoughts of regret, and it focused most genuinely on my feelings of love, the latter element being the one that has bound us together throughout.


It was the beach that drew us on a particular Thursday, whilst staying at Grandma’s house during school’s half term break. A trip out to keep two energetic boys occupied, to busy their minds, to stretch their legs, and to offer respite. Just a week before their Granda had passed away, an immense loss that they, all of us in fact, were still processing. Yet there they were, immersed in a week which on the surface looked like just another holiday week staying over at their grandparent’s house. Except that it wasn’t a normal week at all.

In the background adults were grieving, tearing up at the oddest of moments, and pausing mid conversation, falling deep into thought. We were being especially strong for the boys though, and their Grandma too. Whether it was working none of us knew, but on the surface we were all doing okay, and we moved through the week with the minimum of fuss towards a weekend departure; knowing we’d be back again for the day of all days, less than a week later.

Roker Lighthouse.

On that day though, not for aforementioned reasons, it wasn’t a typical beach day. Their Mam was to stay behind to work from Grandma’s dining room table, as I had done the day before. Beyond that, it was the weather that could and did challenge our trip out to see the sea. Cloudy, possible sun, and a strong possibility of rain later on was the outlook. The offer though to tempt us out was pebble speckled golden sand, lots of it, a harbour with a petite lighthouse, and a modest sea front selection of cafes.

Heading across the road after parking, our fists were already clenched in our pockets and eyes squinting, as the cool coastal wind made its presence felt. Along the promenade we ventured with a handful of the hardiest dog walkers, each with at least one hound in need of a stretch. Down on the shore itself, a terrier like specimen shocked us as it played vigorously in the cold sea, rocking back and forth as it scampered to chase and escape the fast rolling waves.

Tracking along in search of a lunch stop, the marina to the south stopped us in our tracks, forcing an about turn. Previously going with the flow, we then faced into the wind and walked on in search of lunch; a necessary element to ensure the afternoon would have any longevity at all. Passing a meagre cafe offering, it soon became clear that we’d have to adopt the traditional sea side fish and chip format for our food stop, although on that day and in that weather, even that would be something of a challenge.

Eventually we found ourselves sat in a beach hut eating our tasty scran, as I think they say in those parts, each with a single hand buried still in a pocket to keep it warm, the other used of course to wield the chip stabbing wooden forks. If only those huts hadn’t faced north I thought, exactly where the wind was coming from. Still, after a belly full of grub we were fuelled and cooled and ready to take on the beach, regardless of the weather. (So long as it didn’t rain!) So along the front we ventured and down onto the stoney sands, to enjoy the intermittent sunshine.

A smile that says it all.

In no time at all, shouts from the boys were the only thing that surpassed the volume of the wind, as they looked to experience everything that beach had to offer. Rock climbing was first on their agenda, and who could blame them, clambering up huge boulders stacked haphazardly against the sea wall. Smooth, dark stone surfaces facing this way and that, hiding black holes large enough to swallow an unsuspecting leg whole.

Down on the flats, damp and firm underfoot from the morning’s high tide, the golden sand made its presence felt. Desiccating winds coursing left to right across the beach front were constantly drying and lifting the grains, sending them airborne in dreamy ribbons that created streamlined fins on the leeward side of every stone, shell or sea worn stick. As the boys played I walked on a while into the wind, enjoying the sun’s warmth on my face that somehow made its way through, until I reached the pier wall that offered itself up as a shield. There I stayed awhile, leant against the wall watching passers by, my boys in the sandy distance playing happily together for a change.

On my return I realised the youngest of my lads had created some kind of desert scenario for himself, although he was in live-time crawling and dragging himself across the beach using sticks for climbing hooks. His whole face was covered by a neck scarf like some kind of adventurer up against the weather, but it wasn’t to stop his hair, shoes and most of his clothes filling up with sand, as I later discovered. I could see he was getting in a messy state of course, but in the moments I drew near I could picture the play he was making, dragging himself most likely up a Sahara sand dune in a raging storm. So I let him be, not wanting to break that magic.

Adventure is in the mind and heart.

Although chilled, we rattled around that beach for a good while, not knowing when we’d next get an opportunity. I also knew that every moment out in the salty fresh air where worries could blow themselves away, and where innocent fun could still be enjoyed, were our moments to have and to treasure. So we played and spent time together yes, but also had time to ourselves throwing stones into the sea, digging holes, searching for sea glass or just staring at the sea spray flying up behind the pier’s lighthouse.

Now, as I record those moments on the sand, I see smiles and hear shouts as the boys wrestled and experienced some of nature’s seaside elements. Real grins appear as I remember asking them to pose before a seaward rainbow, a rainbow that heralded the shower that would send us packing to the car.

Above all, in a time underpinned with grief and sadness, I know that we all captured an afternoon in time that, despite the wider picture, was unique, irreplaceable, happy, thought provoking and priceless. A valuable moment of respite.

Gary Webb. February 2023.

Just a Park?

A little while ago whilst staying away from home, and with a need for some fresh air, I carried myself and the little ones off to Herrington Park, Sunderland. On the surface, I simply wanted to experience some of the bracing wind, some casual walking and, I hoped, some late February sunshine. There was also an ulterior motive to get the kids away from their screens and outdoors for a while.

Landscaped over twenty years ago, Herrington Park features machine-sculpted hills and hollows and is dressed with hedgerows, trees and shrub-filled thickets. These plantations are busy and mature, now bringing life to the park with significant opportunity for nesting and foraging birds. Additionally, the planting doubles up to control views and create wonderful characterful areas too, where cleverly a path appears to loop behind every shrubbery to draw you always onward. Any Georgian landscape garden worth its salt could hardly have bettered this achievement – if I dare to draw a comparison that is.

New year foliage off and away…

As we walked, I couldn’t help but notice that buds had begun bursting on some of the thorn shrubs – somewhat early I thought. Tiny fresh leaves in patches had unfurled, boldly opening to soak up some of that same winter sun that I sought, appearing from a distance as green confetti caught in thorny twigs. Mind you, with February temperatures hitting double figures of late and hazel catkins visibly shrivelling as their work neared its end, I shouldn’t have been surprised to witness such eagerness for spring.

Aside from the thickly planted, wilder and open pool spaces though, the expansive park is largely mown grass. To this I can’t help but think that its summer cutting offers a monotonous task each week for someone, not least for the extra challenge of trimming a large grass amphitheater, with its many steps and angles. All that cut grass though, aside from creating acres of playing space does assist appreciation of the sculpted ground forms, and when scanning the landscape, those smoothly contoured and mown slopes often encouraged my eyes, if not my feet, to fly out across and into the view.

Layer upon layer of goodness…

There are curvy peaks and troughs across much of the park, but its success for me is the balance struck between detailed, more intimate spaces and wide open ones. On that blustery day, those thoughtfully composed areas worked perfectly to shield us from the weather’s worst, allowing us to sit calmly on a sculpture bench and watch the world go by in one spot, whilst also giving opportunity to connect with the more distant views in another, most notably the impressive Penshaw Monument, an awe inspiring Greek style structure just across the way.

Another strong and evocative presence in this park is the rows of terraced houses nestled towards the perimeter. I took them for miner’s housing from yesteryear, on the basis that this whole expanse of land was once a colliery from the 1880s, through to the 1980s. Green and pleasant it might now be and a space for people to roam free, but once upon a time it were a working mine, where hard physical inputs had to be matched with revenue building outputs – or else! These time-served houses connected visually and mentally with countless others in nearby estates, and quite appropriately stood as living mirrors to the history of this place.

Look no hands!

Today, Herrington Park is an exemplar venue for rebirth and recreation. Ponds and streams, trees and tussocky grass, pitches and play grounds, ice cream vans and interactive sculpture now populate and heal a place once plundered for its mineral assets.

Artistic and landscape considerations aside, I was drawn whilst walking on that windswept day to consider the park’s impact on us. At one point, after a mini rock climbing moment, my kids were perched on a huge boulder that in turn was perched atop a hill we’d zig-zagged up. They both stood up momentarily in defiance of the wind that threatened to lift them clean off, but on hearing their shouts of pure joy and raucous laughter proved to me that every step of the walk had been worthwhile, and to feel the exhilarating wind that screwed their eyes and chilled their cheeks, was priceless. Talk about being in the moment…

Daring to face the wind!

A football might have been kicked along and carried as we walked but it was landscape, nature and fresh air that lifted our spirits in that park, on that day. People walked dogs, pushed chairs and fed waterfowl, kids played on equipment and wheeled around the skatepark. Birds chased others through branches, a duck danced above the water to stretch its wings and people queued for snacks at the park hub. Everywhere we looked, folks were actively enjoying and drinking it all in.

Herrington Park is, like all other parks I suppose, an engineered and reworked landscape; a re-dressed piece of earth if you will. As I reflect now, understanding more of its past than before, I realise there is so much more to that park with a history deeply imbedded beneath its smooth mown grass. As we walked and talked, observed and experienced during our February visit, what I felt then and what still resonates as the days pass, is that Herrington Park is as rich a resource now as a public park, as ever it were as a colliery; and long may it remain so.

Gary Webb. February 2023. My writing journey continues…