Open and Shut

Back road across the fells

With the whole country living through the first week of official lock down, due to the Corona virus pandemic, millions of us are practising ways to survive the consensual suspension of everyday life. Not easy. Especially if confined in cramped accommodation in town or if elderly, infirm or otherwise vulnerable. Not being able to venture out or exercise without good cause is perhaps even harder to bear. ‘Don’t fence me in’ we cry. Trying times which bring out the best and worst in us. Luckily for society at large the overall positive reaction, driven by enlightened self interest if not by morality and ethics, still prevails…For now at least.

Green Laning: Library Image

Convivial catch ups held at the required distance with our farming neighbours over walls, on horseback or quad bike keep us in the loop on what’s happening locally and we get a sobering reminder about negative behaviour. Most Sundays at home we hear trail bikers and other off road vehicles go by and our hearts sink for these are mainly non local men out from town, heading for the nearest designated BOAT. The acronym stands for Byway Open to All Traffic, a legal loophole in access legislation which allows motorised traffic to traverse green lanes and unpaved byways. Each to their own and the greater the diversity and range of outdoor activities open to all the better but it is also obvious that the law here is being systematically exploited nationwide by small but determined groups of bikers and 4×4 drivers who willfully flout the Country Code with impunity, ruining these shared byways for walkers, cyclists and horse riders in the process. They churn up lanes and lonnens (tracks), transforming them into treacherous sloughs; displace or break down ancient boundaries; leave gates open and picnic without permission on farm land and off load rubbish in their wake to blight the landscape and endanger stock. The most publicised cases of misuse happen in our precious National Parks, like the Lake District and Peak District, while lower profile rural areas like ours on the edge of a national park are under even greater pressure by this category of ‘leisure’ user. The chances of police tackling law breakers are virtually nil so farmers and landowners remain frustrated in being unable to prevent abuse unless they take matters into their own hands; and that is a high risk strategy of last resort. Last Sunday our elderly neighbour at Southridge had finally had enough and confronted the latest posse of hard core scramblers piling on to his land up the farm lane. He boldly stood his ground, blocking progress to the track, pointing out they were flouting the government’s emergency provisions by congregating en masse and potentially leaving Corvid-19 virus on gates and footbridges. In return he was foully abused verbally and threatened physically. Our old friend held firm and, knowing they were in the wrong and could be reported to police, the trail riders reluctantly withdrew, cursing and revving engines to the max as they retreated to the regular highway. A small heroic victory in a seemingly never ending struggle. Our friend’s wife however, though relieved, was concerned the more vindictive of the riders might return under cover of darkness to set fire to the barn, vandalise equipment, or worse…

We are conscious of our great good fortune at the corner house in having a large garden plus a four acre field to occupy and exercise us as well as the minor road between valley and forest to walk or cycle along. Oddly of late there seem less delivery vans than normal plying to and from the nearby forestry hamlet. The postie still calls (and picks up) and log lorries continue their comings and goings on what must be officially classed as essential business. Down in our neighbourhood village all is quiet and superficially calm. The post office / newsagent / shop still operates while across the way the butcher sells vegetables and deli goods and has put on a delivery service. We all observe the physical distancing rules, lining up outside waiting our turn in the welcome Spring sunshine and so the conversation flows and anecdotes are exchanged. I then drive up to the valley’s largest village to drop empties at the bottle bank and extend the search to top up on essentials. The three village pubs and three cafes are all shut, as decreed by the PM on Monday. One pub though has a chalkboard outside. ‘We’re all doomed!’ it declares ‘But takeouts are available from 11am’.

The co-op food market, hardware shop, chemist, butcher, garage, baker and greengrocer are still trading, though entrance and exits are regulated. Staff at the latter business cheerfully take your order & payment at the door. Waiting in line outside the co-op (only 5 shoppers allowed in at a time) a Police 4×4 vehicle swings into the square and parks. Enforcement trouble? No, the officer simply joins the queue to get her shopping. In the hardware store one can get nearly all domestic needs plus extras like animal foodstuffs and – much to my joy – veg and flower seeds, onion/potato sets, artificial fertilisers and feeds. (Extra seasonal requirements we missed out before garden centres and nurseries were ordered to close) But, of course, this is what it’s like to live around here in the heart of England’s least populated county. An old capital settlement far enough from the big towns to retain individual non-corporate businesses that service the essential needs of a huge rural hinterland in the ‘open’ times; continuing to sustain it in the ‘closed.’

Back at the house, shopping mission accomplished, the dry stone garden walls highlight the welcome lines of bright yellow of our roadside daffodils. Lent Lillies, symbols of death and renewal, flowering profusely for all travellers, even the motorcycle mobs, to see and enjoy in their brief passing.

Ins and Outs

The first day of Spring today. In these unprecedented times it’s more vital than ever to get out and about, as and when we can, to be comforted and reconnected to open spaces nature and the countryside. On Sunday Kim & I took ourselves off the high ground of home into the wide dale where the two Tyne rivers meet. Started our gentle ramble outside the Victorian town Hall on the long wide main street of the village of Newbrough. It stands on the Stanegate (stone road) an east/west highway the Romans built to link the citadel ports at Newcastle and Carlisle. Where once one of their mile forts stood, just outside the borough, there is now the parish church. A holy well lies beside the old churchyard. Our path took us through a steep wooded gorge up to a lane. Here we stopped to admire the cattle crush (pictured). A simple hold and release mechanism at one end of a wood fenced race to pinion a bovine to be medicated or otherwise inspected. Loved its incidental artistic proportions and weathered rusted texture.

Following the clear stream to another moment of wonder. This is classic estate topography (Georgian grand house and home farm ahead). Simple, graceful arched bridge over a canalised course of stone walls and flagged course bearing the sparkling waters away at speed. Or rather, it would have done if it were not being effectively diverted, slalom like, by a series of split log ‘speed bumps’ which we concluded must be some sort of recent flood prevention work. Entranced by the play of sunlight off sinuous shallow rills.

Further downstream, another rivulet joined this one to run on down through mixed plantations of deciduous and conifer to eventually reach journey’s end in the big river. Just a hint on the nose of prolific shoals of ransoms, interspersed with splashes of yellow flowered, glossy leaved celandine. We stepped down, under the low bridge carrying the railway, and found ourselves on the wooded banks of the South Tyne River. Its speed a wonder, akin to a galloping horse, cresting and swooping in its rapid descent from the high pennines, gathering tributary force as it goes.

Library Image: Dog’s mercury, Mercurialis perennis, in June.

The narrow belt of woodland between cottage walls and river was thick with freshly sprung Dog’s Mercury working its way skyward. Named after the god who supposedly discovered its medicinal properties the dog appellation is a reference to the plant having no edible qualities. Dog’s Mercury is a sure indicator of ancient woodland. Eventually, by May, when full grown it can carpet whole forest floors. Surviving in this protected strip it was yet another poignant reminder of lost wildwood. Further on and our now sandy paths fingered their way through flood margins with combed stands of resilient alder and willow clinging on to tangled islets of earth and rock with their tenacious roots. At a turn of the pathway on the higher bank path two sycamores had grown together, merged, and grown apart again. On the opposite bank, where the deepest channels run, scouring flood waters had extended the river’s more recent reach across a long arc of bend, folding over field edge as easily as the plough would a furrow. At the end of this wide bend a whole swathe of mature trees lay wrecked and leafless, stark witnesses to the deluge’s awesome power. When we finally turned away from the flow, by a railway crossing and cottages, my eye was caught by a gleam as from new coins. Delighted to discover the treasure to be the first modest flowering of Coltsfoot emerging from lush grass. We crossed the railway and walked up a lane between floodplain fields littered with stones. At the foot of straggly gappy hedgerows, clusters of emergent primroses and clumps of fading snowdrops marked the seasonal handover.

Vole Event

Went to a talk last night given by Kelly Hollings from Northumberland Wildlife Trust who is heading up the ‘Restoring Ratty’ project here on our doorstop in Kielder. She told us about their award winning five year water vole re-introduction project; made possible by Heritage Lottery Fund and run in conjunction with partners on the ground, Forestry England and Tyne Rivers Trust. Some 1,200 of these endangered native species have now been successfully released in different sites in the forest around Kielder Water. Three short videos were at the heart of her powerpoint presentation; one about the creature itself, the second on its conservation, the third made by schoolchildren participating at the various sites covered in the first two videos.

The water vole was made immortal in literature as ‘Ratty’ in Kenneth Graeme’s Edwardian children’s classic ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Once a common site on our waterways, the largest member of the vole family has been in steady decline for many years. The process was drastically speeded up after WW2, with the loss or fragmentation of habitats and predation by American mink who had discovered the perfect substitute for muskrat. Mink – escapees from farms where they were once bread for fur – are small and agile enough to enter the vole burrows and exterminate whole populations. Voles are prolific breeders, with up to five litters a year, and healthy numbers in the food chain are key to the survival of all the other creatures (mink apart) that feed on them. Restoration projects to stem the recent disasterous decline are taking place all over the UK and the Kielder team has drawn its pioneer breeding stock from the strongholds established in parts of Scotland and the North Yorkshire Moors. They’ve used late litter animals otherwise unable to face winter conditions when they would die of cold and starvation. Just as importantly these creatures are genetically suited to northern habitats. These young voles overwinter in ideal captive conditions at a specialist ecological facility on a farm in Devon before being returned upcountry for ‘soft release’ into the forest park. The role of volunteers has been crucial in every practical time consuming and patient process; transporting, monitoring, initial feeding, recording etc.

Kelly in her talk pointed out that these fascinating creatures were originally not aquatic in habit but have been gradually adapting to life in water over many centuries. Hence ears that are bedded down in water repellent fur. Yet their feet are not webbed nor do their long furry tails have a rudder shape. They don’t use feet to excavate burrows but instead utilise their long curved teeth. it’s thought they gradually took to the water for safety’s sake as man and predator presence grew. We also learnt that they will eat up to 227 varieties of plant; prefer shallow narrow channels of slower moving water to fast rapid watercourses; need soft earth banks to burrow into, above high water levels, with at least six metres of unshaded bankside vegetation to provide sufficient food and cover. Highly territorial during the breeding season water voles then hunker down in family groups underground attempting to last out the winter.

If further funding can be secured Northumberland will be teaming up with Durham Wildlife Trust, public and private landowners after this project ends in 2021 with the aim of building on its success and ‘break out’ to the lower river courses and catchments of North Tyne, South Tyne, Wear and Tees, in order to restore vole populations there too. The success of the continual battle to eradicate mink is clearly crucial in securing the re-population of these much loved and highly valued species.