Visiting friends at Faugh who took us on one of their favourite short walks in the valley of the River Gelt near Greenhow below Castle Carrock. Bright Spring sunshine, bringing with it welcome warmth, revealed the stark structure of the little vale’s woods and fields. Just visible in the distance the dark fells which are this rapid river’s source. Dominating the scene, soaring above lane and bridge, the magnificent Victorian viaduct of red brick & stone which carries the Tyne Valley rail line connecting Newcastle to Carlisle. Crossing the county boundary we have left behind the dominant limestones of Northumberland and entered the characteristic red sandstone country of Cumberland. The rapid river’s twisting silvered course scours the exposed bedrock, making all look promising for fish & fowl alike. The presence of a dipper working its territory bears witness to the water’s rude health. Numerous newly emerged purple tinged catkins on bankside alders contrasts nicely against swathes of snowdrops & ivy threading through the dense wooded sides opposite.
‘Good fences make good neighbours’ said Robert Frost. Good stone walls make good land boundaries too. Bad ones the opposite. Last year the local contractor did a fantastic job putting in a new fence on the north side of our field. We had it done it because the dry stone edifice was collapsing and we couldn’t keep stock in. Our neighbour at North Farm – whose boundary wall and responsibility it is – has a reputation and nobody wants to get into a dispute with him. Recently, on a freezing cold windswept day, I discovered one of his ewes dead, wedged between fence and wall. Reading the scene I worked out where it got over the unmaintained stagger of stones, followed the narrow course between wood and stone, grazing on the captured vegetation and leaving a trail of droppings as it went, before getting wedged, unable to turn and thus died. By the time I found it foxes had eaten a protruding rear leg to the bone. Consulted our good friends at Southridge Farm and before I knew it they had deftly lifted the dead animal from its crevasse and taken it off for disposal. Only wisps of wool are left now to mark the spot. I guess bad neighbour is now even more likely to let the wall go completely, having the benefit of a fence we’ve paid for work for him too! …Such are the politics of land and the nature of humanity. The good news though is that we have Southridge’s sturdy flock of Blackies back. All in lamb after being put to either Texel or Border Leicester tups. Many have two red dots on the fleece to represent twins. At this time of year, before the flush of Spring grass, these hardy creatures eat the tops of flowering rushes, so slowing their unwelcome progress across the land. The sheep manure the sward naturally too of course. All these factors increase improved conditions for endangered ground nesting birds like lapwings and curlews to breed successfully.
In writing these notes I’m respecting everybody’s privacy and inventing names for people & places. We live in England’s least populated county, around 600′ above sea level, off a C road halfway between a large village and a forestry hamlet, lodged between sweeps of hard rock ridges and many tributary valleys. The main wide river valley has a B road winding through it north over moors towards the border, south to our nearest market town and the A road running east west between motorways either side of the north Pennines. Our stone built house has ‘good standing’, dates from 1878, and was originally a shepherds cottage along with adjoining barns, shippen, piggery & lean to. The whole property was upgraded & converted to one complete dwelling with added double garage/outhouse and an acre of yards & gardens at the turn of this century. A quarter of a mile along the road south of us lies the farm to which the cottage was originally attached. (‘Southridge Farm’) To the south-west an even older agricultural holding centered around the ruins of a fortified dwelling house, which I will call ‘Bastle Farm’. To the east another working farm with converted buildings let as accommodation which I’ll call ‘East Farm’. We have 5 acres of rough grazing running from the back garden fence, encircling crags and dropping steeply to fen & carr. Our northern boundary there is with another holding which – unsurprisingly – I’ll dub ‘North Farm’. The farm itself is tucked away amongst firs in the steep valley on the other side of the twisting burn. This side of the drop is the much older original farmstead, now a handsome private house, orchard & new woodland which I’ll call ‘Oldstead’. It’s approx half a mile distant and, like us, lies on a popular long distance footpath. Apart from a few distant farms and isolated dwellings our uninterrupted view is one over undulating fields & fellside, forest & woods beneath a vast & ever changing sky, stretching for miles.
One day it’s snow turning to sleet, the next all sunshine and birdsong. It must be Spring. Or at least a seasonal sampler. Even more than making bread once a week I like to help make the yearly supply of Seville orange marmalade. Kim likes to add molasses and a dash of whisky for good measure. Reaching the right setting temperature on the thermometer seems to take for ever but once there the sticky sumptious smelling concoction is ready then it’s ladled into jars, sealed and labelled in a happy rush. Whether in huge flocks of thousands or in smaller gatherings of dozens or hundreds, a murmuration of starlings is a spectacle that enthralls us all, especially at this time of year. A few days back one mini-gathering over our field caught my attention and gave me a real surprise. The wheeling restless flight included fieldfares, roughly on a portion of 3 starlings to every fieldfare. They seemed completely companionable, with both species on landing rapidly foraging and some even taking dips in surface rainwater. Fieldfares are thrushes, and arrive in great numbers from northern Europe to overwinter in the UK. Meanwhile, on the garden feeders, goldfinches have arrived and made their determined presence felt amongst the tits, sparrows and chaffinchs who make up the bulk of the resident population. The colourful goldfinch is one of those species whose numbers are increasing in this country and are agile, adaptable seed eaters.
Feb 2nd. Half way between Christmas & Lady Day (25th March) both traditional Quarter Days. Candles indeed. It’s all about light now. More of it each lengthening day. New growth in the garden. Snowdrops emerging everywhere and all the other bulbs peeping through. Out front some have been damaged by the press of County Council vehicles & plant as the workmen rove back and forth on our long loop of C road making the carriageway wider in sections as well as digging out new drains (as here) or clearing old ones. I live in hope that these mini linear nature reserves, if not overcome with too much chemical run off, might prove beneficial for damp loving plants, insects and small creatures…Will watch with interest to see if and when they develop. Last night full of light too. Soundtrack of a numbingly cold wind soughing down from the Arctic. The full moon throwing dancing shadows, fleetingly visible through the most threadbare of cloud. The tawny owls silent now after much mate calling this winter. Perhaps they’ve found each other at last down there, somewhere in the wood, above the rushing burn. This night only sheepdogs heard, barking madly at north farm. Foxes or badgers out and about maybe.