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.

New Year

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!

Falls

Our Boxing day walk threaded forest edge and reed dense rough grazing. Two peat rich burns merge below the forestry village and our short walk encircles the modern settlement of some 30 + houses and village hall. It was created by the forestry commission for the permanent workforce after huge swathes of conifer began to be planted here in the 1950’s, but is now occupied as affordable housing by a population with only tangental connections to commercial forestry. We cross a footbridge and follow the tributary stream past an attractive series of small waterfalls marking the boundaries between underlying shale and sandstone layers. We navigate a tricky fording of the peat rich flow and trace our way over a mass of moss and reeds to a corner of mature forest with its diminishing avenues drawing our eyes to distant vertical exits. The village campsite, now bereft of tents, lies closed until Spring. Power here is proudly renewable, thanks to national park & government grants, all solar or wind. At the village visitor car park where we started & finished our mile and a quarter hike, there is an information board and a composting toilet. Below the dark skies observatory the sad sight of three fallen totem poles lying on the ground. Carved some years ago and a local landmark, the fallen timbers show clear rot at their hearts. Will they be replaced we wonder? Let’s hope so. Somehow they catch a spirit of place here in this remote spot, perfectly still under a grey sky with not a soul in sight; just the odd vehicle passing.

Countryfile

A theme running through BBC programming this year has been social isolation. When BBC TV’s ‘Countryfile’ appeared in this corner of Northumberland last month they picked up on an annual activity performed by our local community choir. ‘Carols by Car’ sees choir members spending a long mid winter evening travelling from one remote dwelling to another in and around the upper reaches of our Pennine valley singing carols and bringing a happy set of familiar seasonal tunes to kitchen, living room, farmyard or byre. Sweets, mulled wine and mince pies often in evidence by way of thanks and always a glow of delight in the recipients for being so toasted. Choir members committed to up to two days of filming, in company with presenter Tom Heap and the crew, on locations outdoors and in, with volunteer contributors who bravely submitted to being termed ‘socially isolated’. A widower, a disabled retired shepherd and a young farming couple with two small pre-school children all allowed our circus into their lives and played their parts well. Meanwhile the other strands of the programme were assembled elsewhere round the county – from foraging in the forest to making Xmas tree decos at a family forge – culminating with a knees up at the newly re-opened old pub in a nearby village (complete with micro-brewery at the back, the subject of another strand). The programme ended with a mass singing of ‘Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly’ (above). I enjoyed my walk on role in the chorus to a Teleland cheerful melee, even if it was pitched way nearer entertainment than reality. Being the ‘Christmas Special’ one should have known it would be feather light on content and heavier than usual on presenter led conventional cosiness. Lots of missed opportunities to create a coherent meaningful narrative and a reminder how much lies in the editing process. Last week, to put matters right the choir did the real thing and visited some seven properties out-by finishing our long carolling evening with a simple supper (with more singing) in a local restaurant/camp site in the valley’s heart. Their dining room fir was huge in height and width, simply and effectively decorated with 2.000 little white bulbs. On Sunday, at the same time the TV programme went out, the choir would join forces with the Ceildh band and local schoolchildren and the gathered community. A full house at the most remote church in the vale for the Christmas carol service. No mains supplies so the the candles will be lit and the scent of pine fill the air. Mulled wine and mince pies served at the end. A scene Thomas Hardy would have recognised from his childhood. This is the real rural community. Alive and well, welcoming and inclusive. Warm hearted, and above all, real. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whoever you’re with, have a happy Christmas!

Trees & Creepers

A Sunday stroll in good weather looping out from and returning to our valley village. The path over the fields takes us by an old farmhouse and outbuildings sympathetically renovated and now being lived in by an Anglo-Dutch couple, friends of friends, who both trained as architects. They’ve also started tree planting and hedge restoration. We then descend suddenly into the shaded seclusion of a wooded gorge where the rapid burn rushes noisily through. Residents of he former mill house complex uses ladders to access the bed below the little arched bridge which carries the lane over. At this point it ceases to be metalled and becomes gravelled. Later, as we climb steadily out of the property on the other side, it transforms to bridleway through a sunken lane banked with a magnificent row of isolated ancient oaks. Horses, sheep and cattle tracks all present in the mud of the pass. Further over the woodland slopes are fenced and regeneration is slowly taking place, saplings being free to grow when not grazed by animals. Circling, we pass an ivy covered farmhouse. Picking up a paved lane once again we descend into another, even narrower tributary valley, where a metal gate marks a move into estate land. Here commercial woodlands – a mix of soft and hard woods – have been felled and cleared with new planting high up on the far bank. Later on our walk, where stream enters river, the removal of a dense stand of pine and fir has opened up lovely views of the wide water rushing south through a fertile valley of barley and wheat. Here though, in the steep sided shady combe, the effect is more akin to a battlefield site. Many silver birches though still line our way. One mature tree has a cluster of honey fungus round its base. Further on the pale trunks highlight the flickering ranging presence of a small flock of little birds. I need the binoculars to follow their rapid progress but systematic motions in racing up the bark and out on to twigs, reveals them to be treecreepers. I observe one on a trunk perfectly still for at least a minute, intent on spider or insect, before darting in with its long downturned beak. Due to loss of hearing in the higher registers I don’t properly take in the birds fine thin trill, but fortunately Kim does and I can then start to tune in. Fascinating creatures and delightful to see them in action.