Waking Up

The cold blow of April deters us spending more time in the garden but the necessity spurs us on. A cold frame full of tender plants escapes the effects of late frosts. Cosmos in pots inside a trough with just muslin covering do not. We are excited to have tracked down and purchased (with all the trimmings) a small metal greenhouse (5’3″ x 6’5″) which will be with us around the end of May. The company we bought it from will send their contractor to erect it but we have to get the ground cleared and prepared. To that end, in the vegetable garden I’ve felled a conifer, transplanted ground covering euphorbia and geraniums, transplanted a former Xmas tree, re-positioned moss covered boundary stones and (most challenging of all) dug up half a dozen tree stumps. Sharp sand and stony gravel await in dumpy bags in the yard. I’ve also dug a drainage ditch between grass and beds and filled with stones to help drain what is otherwise a soggy edge to the garden. Our cheerful retired builder and his son will be shortly giving us a concrete pad on which the smart green greenhouse can be secured…Can’t wait!

Meanwhile, elsewhere round the garden I plant our main crop desiree seed potatoes in the raised bed after clearing the last of the old year’s salad vegetables….Out front I find a slumbering toad tucked up in grass and moss round the bole of the infant gean we planted on the roadside. There’s delight at the spread of fierce yellow globeflowers fringing the pond and sigh at the sad sight of one of our resident dunnocks floating drowned in the overflow of one of the water butts. However did it end up in there I wonder? The hedgehog Kim discovered (and re-covered) with leaves and moss on the bank border in the February warm spell has upped and left. Or has it? Searching for permeable liner in the railway carriage Kim once again uncovered a slumbering hog under an insulating cover of fleece. Is this the same creature seeking what it thought would be a berth where it would not be disturbed again? He/she sleeps on for now…We’re all wanting the year to properly turn and wake up our north country dormancy.

Lambing

Little Baa by Kim Lewis

This website has been down for the last month (trouble at ‘electronic mill) hence no posts. It’s a busy time of year for farmers and growers of course and the thread that links most farming activity around us is that of lambing. Fields get parcelled up: ewes with singles in one, twins in another, tups in a third. Barns start to fill with animals taken in by, ready to start delivering, and soon farmhouse kitchens will be lodged in by bottle fed orphans. Meanwhile, down in the valley with its richer sheltered ground the ewes and their lambs are already turned out. March brought the weather extremes it’s always associated with. Mid month, taking a short stroll up the lane from home, the ewes carrying started moving downfield to the lea of our garden wall. The incoming weather was so fierce I was pricked by needles of hail which half blinded me to a heads down stagger back with coat iced solid by the time I reached sanctuary. Another day, the massed assorted daffodils in our garden radiate in the sun, celandines glisten, plentiful buds on the damson display a beautiful subtle green, while the air is filled with birdsong and the curlews liquid call reverberates over the freshening fields. This hard land is low in minerals so our neighbour early in March had rounded up the pregnant ewes & walked them back to the farm where they were dosed with copper supplement. This reduces the high risk of illnesses like ‘Swayback’ where new born lambs can’t stand on their back legs. Another day the farmer is driving his quad over the rough ground dispensing pellets through a concentric feeder – the ‘snacker’ – with the flock in hot pursuit. The family have decided to lamb later this year due to the problems caused last Spring by the ‘Beast from the East’ and the poor grass growth. Even now in early April we’ve had two days of non settling snow showers and sharp east winds; just the sort of weather hill farmers do not need with masses of newborn lambs arriving. Before that, on a dry sunny day, as Kim & I gardened, the next door flock put up a hue and cry, baaing and trotting fenceward, convinced we were there to feed them, as we wheelbarrowed cuttings and foliage to the bonfire pile on the crags. These beasts are so keen eared to particular engine pitches that they set up a-bleating when the quad leaves the farm a third of a mile away. Our field is currently occupied by the half dozen tups that Southridge keep to service their mixed flock of Blackface, Swales, Mules and Cheviot. Mostly Texels (a favourite choice of farmers round here) these boys won’t win any prizes for pedigree, but they do the job they’re bred for and earn their keep. No longer rivals these testosterone driven progenitors are docile enough now but stand their ground, chewing mechanically when eyeballed, yet looking more done in than the ewes do. Often scratching lower bodies with their hooves I suspect the presence of ticks and other ovine irritants. Meanwhile they skillfully chew on anything vaguely edible deposited on the fire site and we grow grateful for the gift of lengthening days and a gradual return of colour and form to our upland topography.

Tups on the Crags

Birdlife

The weeks fine weather eventual gave way to Storm Freya but not before we heard the first curlew of the season, back from wintering on the coast to inland breeding grounds, we’re heartened to hear that most liquid and haunting of Springtime calls. The return was heralded that same day by a burst of blackbird song, seemingly in response that same unseasonable flush of warm weather. Meanwhile at the feeders whole tribes of finches are battling it out, making short work of sunflower seeds currently put out on a daily basis. Dunnock and robin as industrious as ever in foraging the fallen seeds the more aggressive finches spill in their full on feeding frenzy. Fat balls in a wire basket hooked outside the study window are drawing ever adaptable sparrows in competition with great and blue tits. Their contrasting acrobatics always raise a smile. On the deck last night catch what appears in a second’s impression to be a humming bird moth. Is instead a wren wildly whirring on the storm’s edge to cut skillfully in under to disappear in the ivy that covers the house wall. We may well discover another of their many nests there later this year.

First Spring

Combination of warmth, dryness and lengthening days throws up the first signs of Spring’s arrival which in turn stirs us and the natural world into life once again. We identify the two types of snowdrops that are doing so well all over the garden. The simpler taller one seems to be ‘Mrs Macnamara’ (Named after Dylan Thomas’ mother-in-law), the more complex ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ (after a committee member of the RHS) Earliest I’ve ever started the lawn cutting season was yesterday, the 23rd February. It looks better for it, on a higher cut, and will save labour later, but it still felt odd. The cuttings get fed to the pregnant ewes with their single lambs on our field. I then set to with trowel and bucket to weed the grass and other trespassers in the swathes of gravel around the house. Kim gets stuck into finishing her studio border one day, the semi-circular bank border the next, cutting back and clearing. In doing so she unearths, in a pile of moss dead leaves and stalks, a hibernating hedgehog! It stirs in its deep soft confinement but she carefully covers it back up. We are very happy to have this iconic creature on our patch. Having over the years created spaces and provided lots of insect and invertebrate cover to encourage them this is the first time we’ve evidenced a dormitory presence. I lift a stone by the pond and a young frog dives into the water. Driving home outside the village this evening another frog crosses the road in front of us. This is an annual mating migratory route, heading up from river to ponds, but I don’t remember it being as early in the year previously. We’ve been spotting barn owls too of late on our nocturnal travels and they’re always a beautiful entrancing sight. Also, out on the porch at night, we hear the tawny owls making their interactive presence known down in the north burn valley, a chorus of calling and answering. Our friends at Southridge are in the government’s Higher Stewardship Scheme (HSS) and nothing gives them greater pleasure than to plant native hardwood trees – hazel, alder, ash, oak etc – an ongoing extension of existing mature woodland in the steep valley of the southern burn that cuts through their farmland. The young trees are grown in a nursery further down the dale. Here’s our neighbour with his brother-in-law putting them in with stakes and guards amongst the dead fronds of last year’s bracken. A whole new ecosystem in the making and a heartening example of good husbandry & custodianship.

Clearing

A spell of mild dry weather combined with lengthening daylight hours is a wake up call for gardeners everywhere so we gladly succumb to the urge and get out there, preparing to meet the Spring rush. Yesterday Kim made a start on the borders and I concentrated on clearing and re-sighting birdboxes. One of the three I checked or re-sited yielded a blue tit’s nest and an abandoned tiny egg. Put the box back under garage eaves, lapped by evergreen honeysuckle, and hope it will attract another tenant this year. I also sharpened most of the tools in readiness for another season. This afternoon’s activity centered on weeding the heavy clay bed around the pond watched by a dozen of Southridge’s Texel/Mule gimmers, pregnant with single lambs. In the few weeks they’ve been put on to our crags the flock have made short work of bonfire scraps like the Christmas tree and have (literally) stripped the willow. The only thing that’s defeated them are the pyracantha clippings Kim dumped there after tackling the long border outside her studio. Some thorns are just too tricky to deal with, even for these voracious consumers. All looks a lot better now on both the borders we concentrated our weekend efforts on. Last year’s clearings, combined with muck spreading seem to have done wonders for snowdrops whose numbers have tripled this Spring. Their cheerful presence in the beds, along with aconites in the spinney and wall side daffodils on the roadside, never fail to bring a smile.

Unsettled

We took another of our Sunday strolls early in Feb. Seeking to strike out from home to tread previously untrodden paths and bridleways that fill in missing pieces of our local landscape picture. A chance remark lodges with me from a passing conversation with our neighbour at East farm. It sparks further interest in the settlement’s rocky crags, which the lane shepherd crook’s around. ‘Chap told me it was a fort once’ says the old farmer. Later I’ll ask around and look up archeological websites which yield terse but intriguing information about local ancient sites and monuments. Discover that the crags in question was the site of a village first recorded in 1279 but abandoned by 1811. The last building being East Farm. There are sunken tracks, insets and bumps in the grass indicating foundations and traffic of some sort. The map names the surrounding big open fields we cross as one time common, which it would have been before enclosure in the 18th century. Today, with recent snow still lying in places makes it easier to see evidence of ‘rigg (ridge) and furrow’ – recalling days long gone when climate and/or economics saw what is now permanent pasture put to the plough to grow cereal crops. On this rain lashed freezing day we venture, for the first time, on a muddy by-way under phone lines linking two metalled roads (pictured). The view of the crags from this opposite side reveals a distinctly rounded cliff edged position between the valleys of the two burns, with a small tributary stream rising on its flank. Seductively reasoning its way to potential as a site for defence or associated settlement of some kind. Later circling on another short cut footpath, returning road to road, yields more views, although the weather’s too poor by now for a decent photograph.

Netty

Not so much a new year resolution but a gradual climb back to form for Kim post the ankle injuries sustained last year. We’re also conscious of not exploring our immediate neighbourhood as thoroughly as we could do. Hence an afternoon combining new ground and old in a rewarding circular. Peeled off from the long distance path, heading for North farm. Here huge step slabs of carboniferous rock , laid down 300 million years ago, are exposed in the bed of the burn, making for small waterfalls along its course. To a not unfriendly chorus of barking dogs we brave the yard and pick up signs for the byway heading cross fields to the forest’s edge. Much has been cleared here in recent years and replanted. Part with conifer, part with deciduous. Ground plants, new exposed to light, along with bird and butterfly habitation that follow, have a window of a few years before the conifers grow and close serried ranks once again. Love the views from here. The sky so vast and clear offering totally new views of otherwise familiar buildings and features. Eventually we come to a large stell (sheep enclosure) made of timber and rusted corrugated sheets. Lots of red plastic tubs, magnesium licks for the flocks. A good wooden footbridge carries us over the higher reaches of our northside burn; the chocolate brown swill snaking swiftly into its widening vale, banked with alder and willow. From here we rejoin the road on the watershed of our sill ridge.

It’s but a short stroll downhill to a signpost leading us over rough grazing to reveal the core of a 16th century bastle (fortified house) converted by the 18th century into a regular holding. Alas, today trees grow out of its roofless outbuildings and great cracks run through the dilapidated tin roofed farmhouse. Originally such a site, high above a steep ravine and stream, would have provided good natural defence in lawless times but eventually that precipitous siting proved its undoing and the complex seems to have been abandoned as a place of continuous occupation by the 1830’s. However, we’re told that barn dances were held here in living memory. The unique feature though – for which it is famous – is set neatly in the boundary wall a few yards from the ruins. Restored and gated by the national park in 1994 ‘The Long Drop’ is a netty (toilet) that projects some 40′ feet above the wooded gorge below. After a good look around we take the down path to cross the vigorous Southridge burn, rising to reach a ruined cottage with a massive holly tree in the garden. Behind the river broadens into a deep pool, reputed to be ‘a bottomless linn’, its still surface and peated colouration giving the romantic belief credibility. It’s on Southridge farm land and the younger members of the family paddle and swim here in the heat of Summer. On the last leg of our perambulation, having pushed labouriously through rushy bog, we discover a section of cliffs & near vertical slopes fecund with trees & bushes, ferns and bluebells etc. Only here are they safe from the remorseless grazing of sheep and cattle. Fine clump of old oaks too in one sheltered corner and a well constructed double sectioned stone stell add distinction to the scene. Across the narrow valley another neighbour’s densely replanted and well fenced boundary hedge attracts our praise. Picking up the long distance path again we’re back on familiar territory, dropping to recross the Southridge burn footbridge before a winding climb up the other side. A good viewpoint to marvel at the river’s action over millennia working through the sandstone to form deep water catchments overhung with trees clothed in lichen and moss. We remember our old friend at Bastle farm telling us she regularly sees mature homecoming salmon resting up here on their epic migration each autumn.

Feast

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…

Race

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!

The path curves away north

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.

Jasmin Paris

Forest

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.