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…

Tarset Valley: Image taken in early spring 2018

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.

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