We had been officially invited for the first time, accepted, yet felt trepidation. The village’s post Christmas Pensioners Dinner on Tuesday night. This annual gesture is paid for by fundraisers who organise events during the year like the prize scarecrow competition. (see past notes). Here’s year before last’s winner. The young wife at North Farm created this small wonder, reflecting she and her husband’s great passion for horses. I kept meaning to create something but never quite managed it. Guilt feelings abound. Kim likewise. Yet we qualify and in the end, for social reasons as much as any other decided to be positive and show up. 6.30 says the invite. We get there then and we’re surprised to see they’re already sat down, some ninety odd happy souls, either side of white dressed rows of trestle tables and all curious eyes on us as we saunter in. The last two unoccupied seats on the far corner end by the kitchen are ours, an acquaintance signals. We introduce ourselves to two of the couples on our table we’ve never met before, who turn out to be relatively recent retirees to new houses in the village. The remaining diner is a smartly dressed 87 year old widow who Kim knew and had not seen in ages. This lady and her husband kept the farm in the corner of the green where folk could buy the unpasteurised milk from their own herd. The business closed along with the 20th Century. The local country house pub business has made the food and a small team of villagers are busy serving, doing a fabulous job and the three courses (+ coffee and wine) are wonderful. When the Vicar calls for appreciation at the end the applause is long and heartfelt. Finally its time to call the raffle and there’s another 10 minutes of read outs and donated varieties of alcoholic beverages and chocolate to be dispensed. We all depart in a fug of well being and tipsy laughter. One lady in passing opines Kim doesn’t look old enough to qualify which in the circumstances is a double edged comment for us sensitive souls to absorb. At least, during the course of conversation this night no one mentions Brexit and despite the wall of background noise we can both make out enough words to sustain social inter-connectivity. Strolling out into the cold sobering night I feel the need to give something back and will think on what form that reciprocal gesture should take…
Living as we do by the long distance path we’re used to seeing walkers pass by. Sometimes they’re doing the whole 268 miles north/south or south/north along the backbone of northern England, just clocking up a section, or simply taking a stroll like with or without dogs or little ones. Imagine then if one were to run that great distance. This year 137 people did just that, starting from the southern end, at Edale in Derbyshire. The seven day non-stop endurance race is billed by its organiser/sponsor Montane as one of the world’s toughest. The website warns that “tiredness, fatigue, sleep deprivation and exposure to the extremes of winter weather are to be expected”. Our neighbour at Oldstead tells me that last time around he had found a runner in their garden, obviously disorientated and hallucinating; he spoke to him, reassuring, giving time to come back in and start again. Another neighbour – a veteran of long distance trail walker – was out with a torch to guide the exhausted runners at night as they navigated the steep sided gorge below her farm (above). Southridge’s patriarch opined that this was the first year in ages that the three day race had proved good underfoot, with no torrential rain or severe snowfall to contend with!
Noticing a camper van parked outside early in the morning and chatting to the driver we discover he’s the support for a friend who’s competing. Both men live near Barnoldswick in Lancashire and are members of the same running club. John, the runner, is doing well and like all the competitors can be tracked live with GPS. Paul, the support, is managing a Facebook group set up for their man. At lunchtime we free Paul from his van – where he’s been sleeping and doing day job work on line and over the phone – inviting him in from the cold to share our homemade soup and bread. He’s very grateful and we enjoy his company and unfolding of strands of back story that helps us understand the reasons these mad folk do what they do. (137 started this year, but many do not finish). A couple days later we learn via Twitter that John has made it to Kirk Yetholm in time. Hurray! The overall winner is Jasmin Paris, a young vet and recent first time mother living and working in Edinburgh. A first time entrant this truly remarkable athlete broke the record by 12 hours and is the first female to win this most prestigious of ultra races. She confessed to suffering hallucinations at one point, seeing non existent animals popping out from behind every rock she sped past. Pity we couldn’t catch her zipping by our place but our admiration and respect for Jasmin and the rest of the field is heartfelt.
Took a walk monday morning in a section of the great forest with my friend Bill, a retired senior manager with the Forestry Commission. We’re walking his daughter’s dog Esca; part whippet, part greyhound with a touch of collie. Esca pads along silently, wraith like, seeming to hardly touch the ground, his slight form our vanguard as we threaded through the pleasing patchwork of broadleaf and fir here in the hidden valley of the Tarset burn. This was once the grounds of Sidwood, a once grand Victorian house, abandoned and demolished by the 1960’s. Estate and house had been bought up by the commission to complete the last great addition to their Kielder Forest holdings. It had all started in the 1920’s when the county’s biggest landowner, the Duke of Northumberland, sold his Kielder shooting estate and grand lodge to the Government at a (relatively) cheap cost. Bill tells me those swathes of moorland around the headwaters of the north Tyne were never great for shooting even then as they were plagued with midges in the Summer. Later the Chipchase estate’s shoot, north of the Roman Wall, along with land sold by the Church Commissioners, would form the basis for Wark Forest and be conjoined seamlessly with Kielder.The Forestry Commission, a public body, was founded 100 years ago this year After centuries of clearances and too little renewal approximately 6% of our land was left forested; today that total has risen to nearly 13%. The First World War had left the UK seriously short of timber and dangerously dependent on imports which could be blocked in times of conflict. The FC were given legal powers and budgets to secure land and plant commercial timber on a scale hitherto unseen. Landowners were encouraged to do their patriotic duty in meeting and supporting that demand. Increased death duties and an agricultural depression helped propel change too. Large swathes of moorlands and small farms in this area, as in many other uplands, disappeared under blanket coverage of conifer. This process was stepped up again in the wake of the second world war and that’s when this estate was absorbed into the greater forest, which is England’s largest by far at 235 Square Miles (610 Sq Km). Oddly, the FC website does not mention anywhere that it celebrates its centenary in 2019. One strongly suspects privatisation is now firmly back on the agenda and government wants to lower the organisation’s profile as part of its strategy to get rid remaining public enterprises. They tried to float it off to private investors earlier this century but a vociferous and widely supported public campaign concerned with access, amenity and environmental safeguarding stopped it happening. With Brexit looming this aspect of DEFRA’s pronouncements should be one to watch…
We enjoyed our constitutional; immersed into stillness, save for the water’s gentle rattle, sheltered by the canopy from the stiff raw wind. Wandering over abandoned formal garden terraces of the lost mansion; admiring stands of magnificent Douglas fir and healthy ancient woods about the burn. Enlivened too by Bill’s stories of those who had retired or farmed hereabouts. The tireless Esca leading the long loop back along the ridge to our lone vehicle in the car park.
Three generations walk up the road to the pond and cattle grid that loop by East Farm this new year’s day. Reluctant little ones revive with the running in as we pass under a clear blue sky yielding fine views over rough grazing, escarpments and blocks of woodland. We point out to them the young spinney of deciduous and conifer that marks the burial place of animals destroyed in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis. Further speculation on the larger, linear stretch of birchwood and heather further north. No habitation there so not a shelter belt. Old mine workings? Was the soil poisoned by heavy metals, rendered unfit for grazing maybe? Subsequently, whether by accident or design, becoming home to those arboreal colonisers with their silvered barks. Fenced and fended I feel it must be home to an interesting selection of wildlife….More research required! Now we pass a sloping field with plastic wire fence posts randomly planted when our 8 year old supplies an answer for such apparent randomness. They’re marking molehills, or rather the traps set there. Yes, of course!
At the farm, as we make the return, a glint of subtle colour in the green shade of the uncultivated verge catches my eye. Creeping habit and labial flower will later, back home, bring in an agreed definition of Ground Ivy. A common wayside plant at one time diffused in tea to treat digestive disorders It’s two months out of its official flowering season but the winter so far has been mild and these days so much is out of sorts that we don’t worry further. (Here’s a library image taken in May…) Our half hour extended family perambulation was not only welcome holiday exercise but another way to experience and share observations and knowledge across the generations…thus starting the year as we hope to carry on!