Bellister

Joined a handful of other National Trust volunteers this week for a guided walk by a ranger around the Trust’s Bellister estate on the southern side of the South Tyne River near Haltwhistle. Our five miles of meandering by footpaths, green lanes, woodlands and open fell was a revelation. Despite the two months of little rain and mighty sun the fast flowing Pennine river was clean and clear, the well worn waterside path shaded by hazel, oak, ash & alder. Later woodland wanderings included an encounter with an ivy coated dead elm being further digested by brown lumps of honey fungus. Back down to the river we were introduced to one of the three SSSI sites on the estate – a raised stony bed, a flood plain, set in a wide bend of river. Normally thriving at this time of year much of this extreme meadow now lay blistered and crunch dry under foot. Due to the wash down from old mineral workings upstream this environment would be too toxic with heavy metal residue for most plants. Here though dune helleborine, thrift, spring sandwort, thyme. scurvy grass, alpine penny grass and hawkweed can all thrive. Volunteers had laboured in the winter to clear the site of gorse to help make it happen and rabbits had helped too in reducing coarser plants. Later we would encounter a small orchard between road and river, replanted by volunteers, giving a home to old apple & plum varieties that would have been grown by the former working agricultural population: Czar, Keswick Codling, Grandpa Buxton and the neatly named Lancaster Ladies Fingers among them. Sheep from one of the estate’s three tenanted farms graze here between September and May which helps regulate rampant grass and encourages the growth of traditional (and increasingly rare) meadow flowers; The betony looked particularly graceful in the long grass. Another highlight was a cooling stroll through lush ancient willow carr in the valley bottom. Once again conservation work had helped preserve the habitat and promote butterfly and insect presence by opening glades and clearing scrub from old stone bedded flood channels similar to the shingle bank visited earlier. Loved the sight of cardinal beetles smothering the head of an umbillifer. Leaving the valley we headed up through a farm yard by a hough – steep wooded tributary stream – emerging on to open fellside, rough grazing dotted with heather, ladies bedstraw and an old favourite of mine – little yellow flowers of tormentil. Had our picnic lunch on a ridge overlooking a waterfall complete with grey wagtails bobbing about the deep pool at its foot. Wondered at the fabulous far horizons of rolling fell and sill stone ridges, much of it baked brown after this long dry summer. Encountering a bull and lively herd of heifers we beat a diversionary retreat through a long neglected ancient woodland previously overplanted with commercial forestry that had now been cleared. Among the deciduous trees thus liberated was an oak that we stopped to admire, deemed to be at least 500 years old. Lots of northern marsh orchids, enchanters night shade and other exotics around the ferns and grasses that had sprung up with the newly let in light. Finished the walk tired but happy to have made new friends and learned so much about the ups and downs of conservation and challenges of effective land management in this impressive yet vulnerable upland landscape.

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