Imagine the scene. The night before D-Day, June 1944. Standing with ground crew by the hangers your eardrums threaten to explode with the noise of 20 C-47 Douglas aircraft taking off from Station 479, a US Air Force base in Lincolnshire. Their task is is to spearhead the allied invasion by dropping paratroops, supplies and equipment behind German lines in Normandy. For months these same aircraft, flying just above the waves of the channel to avoid radar, have been systematically dropping navigational equipment at key locations in preparation for this moment, the greatest sea borne landing in military history.
Fast forward to Boxing Day 2019. The only noise you hear is the constant though subdued drone of the AI, out of sight beyond the forest’s western edge. From time to time you also hear gunshots; game is being hunted somewhere. Our airfield was built rapidly, to a standard pattern, during 1943 and handed over to the US 9th Air Force whose pathfinder squadrons were based here; some 3,000 personnel living in huts and tents at one time. Closed at the end of hostilities in 1945, the base was handed back to the RAF who used it to store munitions. RAF North Witham closed for good in 1960 and the land was given over to the Forestry Commission (now Forestry England) who gradually replaced woodland that had been cleared to make way for the airfield in the first place. Oak, beech and other native species now proliferate alongside stands of pine. Colonising birch has made inroads into the concrete and tarmac runways while willow and alder are well settled in bogland by the original perimeter road. Big rectangles of concrete that make up Runway 30 remain fully exposed and the whole expanse remains deeply impressive when its vanishing point is obscured by today’s atmospheric grey mizzle, framed by bare trunks or swags of distant conifer.
In recent years this otherwise forgotten architectural remnant of war has been the site of a series of illegal mass raves, which explains the flat bed of an articulated lorry blocking the vehicular access by the official car park. We’d love to return in Summer as these woods are also home to two nature reserves rich in rare butterflies. Volunteers have registered sightings of purple emperor (dwellers in the deciduous tree canopy) as well as numerous sightings of silver washed fritillary and common blue alongside rare species like grizzled and dingy skippers. Those same spirited volunteers turn up every March in working parties to patiently clear scrub and saplings in the rides between woodland. These sheltering glades are the equivalent of wartime runways for butterflies and moths, securing their precious life cycles and enriching our own lives in the process.
The Summer nests uncovered by autumn winds / Some torn, others dislodged, all dark / Everyone sees them: low or high in a tree / Or hedge, or single bush, they hang like a mark. (From ‘Birds’ Nests’ by Edward Thomas)
Well, not quite everyone….I was oblivious to many until recently. A good half dozen springtime homes now finally logged around the premises. One or two are remarkably complete, despite the ravages of rude weather. I particularly love this little cone shaped nest, lined with wool and flecked with moss, woven into an intersection of branches in the copse that shelters one side of our yard at the west end. Having observed pipits active round that quarter in the summer I thought it may have been one of theirs but on discovering both meadow and tree varieties are usually ground nesters have had to revise my opinion. Now believe they’re more likely to be the seasonal abode of a member of the tit family, as the other nests in the east copse – lodged in the dense branch framework of either pine or elder – are identical in construction. For the second year running all the usual small garden birds have declined boxes put up for them around the place, clearly preferring their traditional open air pitches…Clearly they know what’s best!
Meanwhile inside the house there’s an almost daily awakening of small tortoiseshell butterflies. Having secreted a winter berth to settle down in, either warmth or light has roused them out of hibernation. One will appear out of nowhere to flutter noisily around a lamp shade, crawl unsteadily over carpet or repetitively climb window panes. I gently capture them in a jam jar and remove each delicate torpid form to the garage workshop; hoping they will find the cool relatively undisturbed haven they need in order to fully shut down for the season.
40 tonne loads of timber pass our door on an regular basis. Extracted from the country’s biggest man made forest the stripped conifer trunks are on their way to be chipped for board or for burning in a new power station. Once a year though, since 2000, three specially grown trees from Kielder are spared this mundane destiny. A 45 year old, 40 foot high Sitka Spruce along with two smaller specimens are felled, carefully wrapped and loaded onto one of the local contractor’s flat bed lorries. The boss himself drives the precious load all the way down to London. Very early the next day he delivers them to officials of the Palace of Westminster. A crane then winches the biggest tree into its prominent place in the square outside Parliament, where it is decked with lights. The middle size tree goes into the great medieval hall while the smallest ends up in the Speaker’s apartment.
Trees from the forest also featured in another star turn last week. We went to see ‘Robin of Sherwood’, the mass cast Christmas show from our remarkably talented amateur drama company which they stage for four nights in the Town Hall of the biggest village in the valley. Both sides of the spacious auditorium were lined with conifers from the forest, while scaffolding on one side allowed the players to run through the dense greenwood above us. AV back projection on the stage allowed more forest to be projected while town scenes saw the rolling in and out of painted flats. Nottingham Castle being burnt down by Robin and his men was vividly created by fiery stage lighting & stage fighting. Unlike many other amateur companies nationwide there is no shortage of young men hereabouts willing to take roles and many children too had parts. Brilliant community production that created a memorable immersive experience.
I also loved the themed bar at the back of the hall that they used for scenes involving Friar Tuck. The tent like structure had beer taps dispensing a local brewery’s fine products, with names like ‘Merry Men’s Delight’ and ‘Friar Tuck’s Tipple’. Home made mini pies and pasties were also on offer. In the raffle at the interval we won one of the play’s spare props – a leather purse of gold wrapped chocolate coins! All in all a lovely heartwarming and laughter filled way to launch the Yuletide festival.
After the road and off road roaring around of the recent car rally it’s an apposite time to feature a more traditional and leisurely form of transport. Our rural thoroughfare is regularly used by horses and riders. The neighbours at North Farm for instance have developed livery as part of their operation and nearly all farms hereabouts have a horses or ponies on site. The fox hunters hold occasional meets in the area. A road safety campaign – Dead? or Dead Slow? – is currently being promoted through a joint initiative from Northumberland County Council and the British Horse Society (BHS).
The figures quoted by the BHS are sobering. Over the last 9 years 315 horses and 43 humans have been killed in incidents on UK roads. In the last year, of incidents reported, 73% were caused by cars passing too closely to horses, 32% of riders reported road rage or abuse while 31% were caused by vehicles passing too quickly. BHS also urges riders to always wear bright or reflective clothing along with fitted covers for their mounts as well as LEDs when necessary. All good advice, and timely as Winter draws in.
For many years the RAC Rally was a popular event in and around the forest. Remote location, oodles of space and absence of population made it the ideal location to test the skills and resilience of the nation’s rally drivers & navigators. TV coverage gave it great publicity and profile. Eventually the kudos and rough glamour faded as roads and tracks, torn up and unusable, needed repair or replacement and other even wilder locations in Wales and Scotland presented better alternatives for the dedicated petrolheads. Today an annual motorsport event still takes place right on our doorstep, albeit on a reduced scale with less environmental damage. The Roger Albert Clark Rally is the longest of its kind in the UK, covering 300 miles in forests and 700 miles on public roads. More than 100 classic cars from the 1970s and 80s took part in the regional leg of the event last weekend, which lasted 12 hours and covered 100 miles beginning and ending at Carlisle. We heard the competitors before we saw them as day turned into night, gearing high and low along narrow twisting roads. What photos I took with the phone were only possible because the vehicles had to slow for our 90 degree corner. Later, going out for the evening, we scented the lingering petrol perfume on the freezing air and passed pulled over support vehicles and the odd customised car of bright stripe all caked in mud doubling back to complete this day’s leg of the overall five day event.