A Travellerspoint blog

This blog is published chronologically. Go straight to the most recent post.

Man-made landscapes

Kielder Water

View of Kielder Water

Set in one of the more remote parts of Northumberland, this lovely stretch of water is surrounded by forest (at over 250 square miles, the largest working forest in England) and is a great place for a day trip or longer visit.

Activities on offer include miles of trails through the forest and beside the water, boat trips on the lake, wildlife spotting (this is one of the few places in England where you can see red squirrels), mountain biking, and even star-gazing.

There is an excellent Birds of Prey Centre and very good Visitor Centres, with lots of information to enhance your visit, as well as several places to eat and to shop.

Or you can simply relax, take in the scenery and appreciate being somewhere so relatively accessible and yet so tranquil.

The dam that Jimmy built

The dam

Kielder Water is a man-made reservoir – the largest artificial lake in the UK (by capacity of water held). It was first conceived of in the 1960s when it was anticipated that the demand for water, especially by heavy industry in the north east region, would put a lot of pressure on the system. The decline in such industries meant that this never happened, and some questioned whether Kielder was necessary at all, but in recent years water shortages in the UK have seen the south of the country experience restrictions on use (such as banning the use of hose-pipes) while the north east, thanks to Kielder, has had plenty of water for all.

Another reason for controversy surrounding Kielder’s construction was the loss of several farms in the valley, and even of a school. So at the time it was a far from universally welcomed project. But today it seems that all controversy is at an end and the project is generally considered a success, both for the water it supplies and the tourism it brings to the region. Certainly we found on our recent visits that it has been very sympathetically and creatively designed, with lots to do for visitors, especially families, but also plenty of unspoiled countryside and “off the beaten track” areas to explore.

Another view of the dam

Construction of the huge dam took place between 1975 and 1981. The Queen officially opened Kielder the following year, and the valley took another two years to fill with water. This water now supplies the region through regular discharges into the North Tyne River, and is also used to generate electricity.

And why ‘The dam that Jimmy built’? Well, it is simply that my husband's Uncle Jim worked on the construction of this dam, so we have a family connection to Kielder!

Elf Kirk

The view from Elf Kirk

The steps up to the viewpoint,
Elf Kirk

If you want to get a great view of Kielder Water from a bit higher up than the lakeshore, take the turning you will see on your left not long after entering the park. A short gravel track (passible with care in any vehicle) winds upwards to a small parking area, from where you need to walk up a few steps to the viewpoint itself. The minimal effort required will be rewarded with one of the most expansive views in the area. You can see a large stretch of the lake including Whickhope Anchorage, Bull Crag and across to the Belling, a spit of land on the north shore. On a clear day you can see right to the Scottish Border.

A display board here explains about the plans for future forestry at Kielder. Most of the trees visible from here were planted in the years following World War II, when the country urgently needed reliable sources of timber. Large areas such as this were quickly planted with fast growing trees such as sitka spruce. The resulting forest is highly productive but not very interesting to look at nor varied enough to support a really wide range of species of flora and fauna. The plan is to gradually replace the spruce, as it is felled, with a wider variety of trees. A drawing shows what the forest should look like when the plans are fulfilled.

Kielder Forest

Although the main focus of activity is the water, the surrounding countryside is also attractive, and there are several forest walks to be had near the shore. One path, the Lakeside Way, encircles the whole reservoir largely among the trees, but you can also make shorter forays into its depths.

The Forest totals over 250 square miles and is the largest working forest in England. Some may bemoan the introduction of these conifers into what was once mostly open moorland, but there is a mysterious quality to their darkness that appeals to me. You might almost imagine Little Red Riding Hood to walk out of their depths!

In Kielder Forest

The trees were introduced in the 1920s and 1930s, with much of the planting work being undertaken by unemployed miners and shipbuilders from the north east’s urban areas. They were housed in a camp on site – a camp which is now under the waters. I wonder what they made of their work in such an alien (to them) environment? The wide open moors must have seemed a long way from the pit and the shipyard. Today the Forest is managed by the Forestry Commission who state as their aim ‘to create and sustain forests and woodlands which are attractive as well as productive, useful to the community and pleasant places for people to visit, rich in wildlife, both plant and animal, and where the natural and cultural heritage is safely conserved.’


In Kielder Forest

In some parts of the Forest, conveniently near the main activity areas, you will find hides where you can wait in the hope of seeing red squirrels. This was something we’d planned to do but ran out of time for; however, I understand the chances of seeing one are good, as this is the largest concentration of these cute creatures in England – over 50% of the population live here. Oh well, something for next time ...

Tower Knowe

Tower Knowe panorama


Tower Knowe is the first visitor area that you come to on arriving at Kielder. This is a good place in which to get your bearings in the park as it has a very good visitor centre with lots of information about everything you can do and see here, and very informative displays about the history of Kielder Water.

Also here is a good shop selling high quality souvenirs, a café and a boarding point for the Osprey Ferry. On a recent day trip we bought a coffee in the café on arriving at Kielder (good cappuccinos) and enjoyed relaxing on the terrace with our drinks, a view of the water and the company of the inquisitive chaffinches. Later we called in again on our way home and enjoyed even more a scoop of the delicious local north-east Spurelli’s ice cream.

Osprey ferry

If you prefer not to drive around Kielder, or if you simply want to get out on the water and see the views from there, you can take the Osprey ferry to travel around, although it only visits three points on the shore – Leaplish Waterside Park, Tower Knowe Visitor Centre and Belvedere on the north shore. Of these, the latter is inaccessible by car so this is a great option for those not able or willing to hike or bike any distance to see another side to Kielder.

The Osprey Ferry

Osprey Ferry approaching Tower Knowe jetty

The jetty at Tower Knowe

You buy your ferry tickets at Tower Knowe or Leaplish and must have a ticket to board (no paying on board). The timetable varies so check at one of those visitor centres for details of this and of the fares. And make sure you note the time of the last ferry, especially if you plan to visit Belvedere, as there’s no possibility of hitching back from there so you could find yourself stranded! Also, note that the ferry only runs from late March to late October so isn’t an option for an off-season visit.

Leaplish Waterside Park

View of Kielder Water from Leaplish

We spent a large part of a recent visit to Kielder here at the busiest of its visitor complexes. There is a lot to do here, although this range of activities means that this is not the most tranquil part of the park.

On the Leaplish site you will find a good visitor centre with lots of information about the park, a shop selling both souvenirs and practical items (such as picnic food, insect repellent and waterproof clothing), a restaurant/pub, children’s play areas, miniature golf, an indoor pool and sauna (for which you need to book in advance according to the website), boats for hire, and a hide from which to look for red squirrels. There's also an old farmhouse, Otterstone Lee, with an interesting and informative sign about life here prior to the flooding of the valley.

Otterstone Lee Farmhouse

And if you tire of the ‘crowds’ (in reality, even in August when we visited, no more than a dozen or so family groups), it is easy to take a short walk into the forest, or to use this as a starting point for a longer hike.

Birds of Prey Centre

The highlight of one of our trips to Kielder was definitely our visit to this small but well-run birds of prey centre near the shore at Leaplish. There are a good variety of birds to see, many of them easy to photograph which we enjoyed a lot. Their enclosures seem small but as they are all tethered I guess that is immaterial and they all get to fly regularly in the various demonstrations. Make sure you time your visit for one of these (every day between March and October, weather permitting, at 1.30pm and 3pm) as you will get to see these magnificent birds as they should be seen and will learn a lot about them.

Harris Hawk, and Peruvian Striped Owl

Peregrine falcon

The demonstration that we saw was led by the man who runs the centre, Ray. He was very knowledgeable and informative, and was also great with the children, allowing them all to have a go at handling all of the birds and encouraging any who were nervous. Luckily for me, any adult who looked keen was singled out for a turn too, which is how I came to find myself with my left hand sheathed in a thick leather glove while first a barn owl, and later a Ural owl, flew towards me and landed there.

With the barn owl

Ural Owl

As well as the two owls we saw a comical ‘performance’ by a young Yellow-headed Caracara who showed us how easy it was to get to a piece of chicken hidden under several plastic pots in the bottom of a dustbin (apparently these intelligent birds are considered a real nuisance by householders in their native South and Central America). We were also persuaded by Ray that a black vulture was beautiful (hmm, I wasn’t convinced) and loveable (well, yes, maybe), and saw a kestrel put through his paces.


Little Owl

Each demonstration involves different birds, so they all get a turn, so if you’re able to stay for both (or return – your ticket is valid all day) do! Unfortunately we had to leave before the second one, as were invited to dinner with friends that evening and had to get back to Newcastle. But we did linger long enough to visit some of the smaller owls on their perches by the keepers’ work rooms, and were able to stroke a little screech owl – very cute and soft!

By the way, all these birds were bred in captivity, none were taken from the wild (which is against the law and would be cruel). The centre aims to educate children in particular about the birds – its website describes its “mission of publicising the plight of many Birds of Prey in the wild, allowing the general public (particularly children) close access to the birds in order that they will learn to appreciate the need for the species to be protected in their natural habitat for future generations.” The centre is licensed by DEFRA, the Department for Farming, the Environment and Rural Affairs.

There is also a paddock with two fallow deer and (somewhat incongruously) some wallabies. As well as regular visits and the demonstrations, you can book a one to one photography experience, an introduction to falconry or even a full bird management course.

Lewis Burn inlet

On our most recent visit to Kielder we stumbled across a really tranquil spot. Taking the track to the parking place at Lewis Burn (just to see what was there) we spotted an opportunity to pull over soon after leaving the main road and did so. We never got to the end of that track, as what we found here was a lovely stretch of the lakeside way which here leaves the shore of the lake to turn for a short distance up the burn, before crossing it via an elegant suspension bridge and returning through forest glades to the water’s edge.

Views from the suspension bridge

On the day we visited this was a magical place. The inlet was almost completely still and reflected the surrounding trees and blue sky perfectly, apart from when on occasion the reflections were disturbed by a leaping trout. There were beautiful wild flowers – foxglove, rosebay willow-herb, thistle and many I couldn’t name.




Flora on the walk

Part of the path

We walked from our parking spot to the large deck among the trees that used to be the site of an art installation, Mirage. Disappointingly this has been removed (one of the staff in the Kielder Castle Visitor Centre later told us that it was proving too expensive to maintain) but it didn’t really matter as the walk had been so enjoyable and packed with great photo opportunities. We then took the side path signposted to the Mirage jetty, where we walked out to the end to get some great views of Kielder Water itself.

Kielder Water from the Mirage jetty
(the photo at the top of the page was also taken here)

We reckoned we had probably walked a little over a mile to this point (hard to estimate when you stop so many times for photos or simply to enjoy the view). We could have returned by the same route but chose instead to climb the low barrier by the road and follow this back to our parking place which at this point was just a couple of hundred metres away – we had come full circle.

An evening at Kielder Observatory

Kielder Observatory

Friends had told us about the evening events at Kielder Observatory and how much they had enjoyed them, so one year on our usual August visit to the North East we decided to spend one night in Kielder (which we normally visit just on a day trip from Newcastle) so we could go along to an event. These take place on most evenings and must be booked in advance – numbers are limited and places fill up fast, especially for the more popular special events. We booked our August ‘Shooting Stars’ one, timed to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower, in February and were told that they could have filled it 20 times over! During the day you are free to drive up to see the observatory, but in the evenings access is only permitted if you have booked, so don’t try to go there on the off-chance.

Kielder Observatory

Of course, booking so far in advance means taking a gamble on the weather. Events go ahead regardless (except when snow makes the track impassable) but if the skies are cloudy you won’t see much. Our friends tell us that the visit is still enjoyable however, as you learn a lot from the talks and from touring the observatory. Nevertheless, we had all our fingers and toes crossed for clear skies as the date of our visit approached, and we were not to be disappointed – it was a beautiful evening, if a little chilly for August.

Evening view from the observatory car park

One of the telescopes

As requested we arrived 15 minutes before the 20.00 start time and were checked in at the gate. We then drove up the rest of the track and parked in the car park just 100 metres or so from the observatory. There we were welcomed into the ‘classroom’ area. There were about 30 people there that evening I think, with quite a lot of children. The latter were mostly about 9-12 and all keen and well-behaved apart from one toddler who was unsurprisingly fractious and disruptive – I couldn’t understand why her parents could have thought she would be anything else! They took her out after the first few minutes and must have missed most of the event they had paid for and travelled to see!

Once everyone had arrived the director, Gary, introduced himself and gave an interesting talk, illustrated with slides. We learned a bit about the observatory which was clearly a labour of love on his part and was created not for research but to introduce people to the wonders of astronomy and enthuse them (judging by the numbers who visit it is definitely succeeding in its aim). We also learned what to expect of the evening, and a little bit about the origin of the meteors we would (hopefully) see. Gary adapted his talk well to the very mixed audience, but later we were split into three groups so that an adults-only group could hear more about the science while the families toured the observatory. We then followed them and got an introduction to the workings of the two main telescopes.

All this took place before it got dark, but eventually we started to see a few stars appearing in the deepening skies. By this point everyone had been left free to wander where they wanted, checking out what the staff and volunteers were focusing on through each telescope, or settling into the chairs out on the deck to look for the first shooting stars. The first excitement for us came when we were able to see Saturn through the telescope, just before it set, with the rings and even one of its moons very clearly visible. We also later saw the Andromeda Galaxy and a few other things.

Sunset in the forest

But the main point of the evening was the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, which happens every year in mid-August. Kielder is the third largest protected Dark Sky reserve in the world, and the largest in Europe, so it would be hard to find a better place to watch this spectacle. Sightings are pretty much guaranteed on clear nights anywhere in the park, but the advantage of coming to the observatory is in having experts on hand to guide your viewing and explain the science. I’ve always been interested in astronomy and learned quite a lot that evening.

The observatory at nightfall

Oh, but you want to know if we saw any shooting stars, do you?! OK, I can tell you – the answer is yes, lots! And with the sky so clear and dark here they really stood out, with the tails of the brightest lingering briefly after they shot past. We also saw the International Space Station pass overhead at one point, and a couple of satellites, as well as having various constellations pointed out. It was a fabulous evening and we came away very keen to visit again one day, which I fell we surely will.

Prices for these events vary – check the website for details. As well as the tickets, we paid £1 each for a mug of hot chocolate, and an extra £3 each to be able to keep the mug as a souvenir. The observatory is run as a charity so any money you spend there is ploughed back into developing the facilities – well worth supporting as they’re doing a great job.

Morning at Matthew's Linn

Morning mist on Kielder Water

Any photographer knows that light is everything, and that the best light is often found at the beginning or end of the day. All of our previous visits to Kielder had been day trips from Newcastle, meaning that we had only ever been here during the middle part of the day (it’s pretty much a two hour drive from the city). But on this occasion we had stayed overnight, to visit the observatory, and as we left the village the next morning and started to skirt the lake I spotted that the early morning mist was still drifting among the hills on the far side and the water itself gleamed silver. Luckily I also remembered that we were just coming up to one of the waterside parking areas so I quickly alerted Chris who was driving, and he turned off into the car park at Matthew’s Linn. We grabbed our cameras and hurried down to the jetty.


Morning at Matthew's Linn

Truly a serendipitous moment! The light was perfect, we were on the spot, and what is not always the case, had been able to pull over in the car and capture it. Of course I took far too many photos and had to do a serious weed of them later, but the joy of digital photography is that we can all afford to do that – and the joy of photography itself is being, from time to time, in just the right place at just the right moment.

Morning at Matthew's Linn

Posted by ToonSarah 09:05 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes lakes trees birds night boats water wildlife hiking views national_park stars Comments (12)

Quintessential English villages

Ford and Etal

Northumberland’s only thatched roof pub, Etal

Nestled in the valley of the River Till in rural Northumberland, only a few miles from the border with Scotland, are two quintessential English villages. Ford was built as a model village by Lady Louisa Waterford while neighbouring Etal is a pretty village with Northumberland’s only thatched roof pub.

There is plenty in these few small miles to keep you occupied for several days – two ancient castles (though only one open to the public), rides on a light-gauge railway, an old corn mill, nature reserves and even (though we haven’t yet been there) a prehistoric stone circle.

Ford model village

Typical Ford houses

There have been people living in Ford since the time of the Norman Conquest and probably long before – Bronze Age carvings near here suggest that there may have been a settlement here even back in those days. But the village as we see it today is the brainchild of one woman, Lady Louisa Waterford, the widow of the 3rd Marquis of Beresford who owned the Ford Estate. Lady Waterford was committed to the welfare of the tenants on the estate. She rebuilt the village and also built a new school (which today is known as Lady Waterford Hall – see below).

Typical Ford houses

The houses have a pleasant uniformity although in some ways they look more suburban than rural, perhaps because of that same uniformity. Certainly when built they must have been far pleasanter and more salubrious to live in than the run-down cottages and hovels that were here before. Today many of the houses are still occupied by workers on the estate, and the village also has a few tourist-focused shops such as a second-hand bookshop and an antique shop in the old forge.

The Ford Estate was bought by the Joicey family in 1907. The same family purchased Etal a year later and thus the joint estate of Ford and Etal came into being. The Joicey family still own all of this area today.

Lady Waterford Hall

Mural in Lady Waterford Hall

When Lady Louisa Waterford remodelled Ford village to improve the lives of workers on the estate, she also had a new school built for their children to attend. That school, opened in 1860, is now the village hall and is known as Lady Waterford Hall in her honour. The village hall in most villages would not be on the tourist route, but this one is exceptional because of the legacy Lady Louisa left inside. A talented artist who was associated with John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphelite movement, she spent 21 years decorating the interior walls with stunning murals depicting Bible scenes as a teaching aid for the pupils.


More of the murals

In Lady Waterford Hall

Many of the figures who appear in these were modelled on local people and displays in the hall point these out. Some of her other works and her sketchbooks are also on display but it is the murals that are her most impressive legacy, and reason alone to come to Ford.

Another mural, and the exterior of the hall

Waterford Memorial Fountain

The Waterford Memorial Fountain

At the western end of the village street stands this ornamental fountain, erected by Lady Louisa Waterford in the autumn of 1864. It consists of a granite column rising from a stone basin. At the top of the column is the figure of an angel with a down-turned sword and a shield. This angel is almost certainly the Archangel Michael, to whom the village church is dedicated. It faces west towards Ford Castle, its back to the village.

The fountain is a memorial to her husband, the third Marquis of Waterford, who died in a hunting accident in 1859. On the west face of the base of the column is an inscription to him:

‘This fountain is placed by
Louisa Marchioness of Waterford,
in grateful and affectionate remembrance of her husband,
3rd Marquis of Waterford K.P.; born April 26th, 1811; died March 29th, 1859’

On the north and south faces are inscribed quotations from the Bible. The ones on the south side are clearly linked to the idea of the fountain:

‘“With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.”
Isaiah Chap.3, Verse 3
“Drink ye, drink abundantly, O beloved”
Song of Solomon Chap. V, Verse 1’

While on the north side (although illegible now because of age and lichen) is a quotation from the passage Lady Waterford is said to have been reading with her husband on the morning of his death:

'Now Absalom in his life time had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king's dale: for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance: and he called the pillar after his own name: and it is called unto this day, Absalom's place.’

Ford Church and Castle

The church with castle beyond

Ford's two oldest buildings, situated on the outskirts of the village, are Ford Castle and the Church of St. Michael and all Angels. Parts of each date back to the 12th century. As we were with my elderly mother-in-law and needed to minimise walking we didn’t visit either, but we did stop to get some photos as they looked lovely on this beautiful July day.

The castle has been largely rebuilt since its 12th century origins, several times – by Sir John Hussey Delaval between 1761 and 1764 and by Lady Louisa Waterford between 1861 and 1863. It must have been in need of this regular attention as being so close to the Scottish border made it vulnerable to frequent attacks. Its most significant claim to fame is that King James IV of Scotland spent his last night here before his fatal battle on nearby Flodden Field in 1513.

During WW2 the castle was used by the Red Cross as a convalescent hospital. It is now used as a residential centre for school trips, and for weddings and conferences, so it’s not possible to go inside, but you can get reasonably close if you want to get some photos.

View from the church's graveyard

The parish church, dedicated to St. Michael was originally built in the 13th century. The west wall and parts of the south aisle are part of that original structure but most of the building dates from 1853 when it was remodelled by the well-known Newcastle architect John Dobson (who was responsible for that city’s Central Station among many other projects). It is a Grade II listed building. Lady Waterford is buried in the churchyard and there is apparently an unusual grave slab with bagpipes on it by the west wall close to the entrance door. As I said, we didn’t go close enough to see it properly, but that sounds worth hunting for.

Heatherslaw Light Railway

A view from the train

A ride on this little train will be the highlight of a visit to this area for children I am sure, and is good fun whatever your age, as well as being a relaxing way to enjoy the pretty countryside. It runs from Heatherslaw to Etal and back, a distance of 6.4 kilometres. The journey there and back takes 50 minutes, or you can alight in Etal to explore the village and castle before returning later, which is what we did.

Heatherslaw Light Railway - arriving in Heatherslaw, and riding the train

This 15 inch gauge railway is the most northerly steam railway in England. It has two steam locomotives, ‘Bunty’ and ‘Lady Augusta’, and one diesel, ‘Binky’. The coaches are all covered, and some have open sides while others are glazed. The route follows the River Till and winds through its meadows, with views largely of agricultural land. In Etal the locomotive is detached, turned around on a turntable and reattached to what was the rear of the train for the journey back to Heatherslaw – another fun thing for the kids to watch!

The turntable at Etal

Heatherslaw station is built on the site of the old Ford and Etal sawmill which burned down in the mid 1980s. The railway has been operating here since 1989, the vision of one railway enthusiast, Neville Smith, who achieved his ambition to create his own 15 inch gauge passenger carrying railway in partnership with the late Lord Joicey who had been looking for just such a project to enhance tourism on Ford and Etal Estates. Today it is operated by Neville’s son Paul and has become one of the main attractions in the area.


Slate-roofed cottages and pub sign, Etal

In contrast to the stone of Ford’s houses, in Etal most buildings are whitewashed. Several of the cottages are thatched, the others have the more typical Northumbrian slate roofs. The village pub, the Black Bull, claims to the only thatched pub in the county (see photo at the top of the page). There is also a small tea room, but the main reason to come here is Etal Castle.


Etal Castle

This castle was first built as a manor house by the Manners family in the late 12th century, and fortified by Robert Manners in the mid 14th century, creating a castle to serve as a defence against Scottish raiders. It fell to King James IV of Scotland's invading army in 1513 on their way to defeat at nearby Flodden, although it had already by this time been abandoned as a residence.

Today it is largely in ruins, although the chapel houses an award-winning exhibition about the Battle of Flodden and Anglo-Scottish warfare. We didn’t visit this but were content instead to wander round the ruins for a while, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the late afternoon sunlight on these old stones.

Etal Castle

Although sleepy today (and never large) Etal was in the past a more substantial village, home to a number of pitmen and to businesses such as a carter, blacksmith, grocer, post office, dress maker, stone mason, butcher, joiner and cartwright. By the end of the 19th century there was a ferry across the River Till, operated by a Mary Sutherland, and a mixed Infants school in the village. Today its main focus is tourism, but not on a large scale, and a few minutes will suffice for a stroll along its main street – unless of course you are tempted into the tearoom or pub!


This page, like most of my Northumberland pages, is based on material I wrote on Virtual Tourist. Usually I would write about places I visited as soon as I could after the trip, but this one was an exception. At the end of our day spent exploring these two villages, things took a tragic turn. My lovely mother-in-law Teresa, who accompanied us, was taken ill in the night, rushed to hospital and never recovered. We lost her six weeks later.

For a while all memories of what had been a wonderful summer’s day were tainted by those of how it had ended, and it took me three years to feel able to write about our day out on VT. When I did, that page was dedicated to Teresa, a dedication I am happy to repeat here. Not all women get on with their mother-in-law, but I struck lucky. Teresa welcomed me into the family with open arms 38 years ago, treating me as the daughter she never had, and for that I will always be grateful.

Chris and Teresa at a coffee stop on the way to Ford

Posted by ToonSarah 03:36 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged art people trains castles monument history church village houses Comments (13)

Stephenson's birthplace


The River Tyne at Wylam

Wylam sits on the north bank of the River Tyne and was the birthplace of one of Northumberland’s most famous sons, George Stephenson, one of the early railway pioneers and inventor of the Rocket. Although it was once an industrial village, with several collieries and an ironworks, it is now mainly residential. It makes a nice day out from Newcastle as it offers pretty walks by the river, a couple of pubs, and a visit to Stephenson’s Cottage. The latter is operated by the National Trust and has a good tea room with a pretty garden.

By the River Tyne


Flowers by the Tyne

A footpath and cycle path leading east out of the village, known as the Wylam Waggonway, follows the river bank for some distance.

Information board

There are meadows leading down to the water, perfect for a picnic in fine weather and with benches so you can sit and watch the water flow past – very restful. These meadows are a protected site as they constitute relatively rare Calaminarian grassland. A sign along the path explains that such grasslands are only found where the soil is rich in heavy metals. These are the legacy of the mining industry, when mining spoil was washed away and deposited by the Tyne and Allen rivers. Normally environments rich in toxic metals (like lead, cadmium, copper) would not support thriving plant communities but Calaminarian grasslands have been populated by metal-loving plants known as metallophiles, such as mountain pansy, spring sandwort and alpine penny-cress. Other plants such as thyme and bladder campion have also adapted to the conditions and grow here. Only 93 hectares of Calaminarian grassland can be found in the whole of the UK, so this is a rather special spot.

Stephenson’s Cottage

Stephenson's Cottage

Stephenson’s Cottage lies about three quarters of a mile east of the village, along the river path. This is where he was born, in June 1781, and where he lived for the first eight years of his life. It is now owned by the National Trust but currently (2017) closed while they evaluate its future – sadly it seems it has been receiving too few visitors and they need to rethink how they operate it. Unfortunately, this means that the tea room and pretty garden, where we had lunch on our latest visit to Wylam, are also currently closed. Hopefully this will not be permanent.

At Stephenson's Cottage

At Stephenson's Cottage

George Stephenson’s father, Robert, was the fireman for Wylam Colliery pumping engine and illiterate. George had little schooling and as a child was also illiterate, but when he started work himself, as an engineman at Water Row Pit in Newburn, he paid to study at night school to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. Despite this, and despite his considerable success in developing early locomotives he was always regarded with suspicion by the scientific elite of his time, mainly due to his broad Northumbrian dialect. He invented a safety lamp for miners, rivalling that of Humphrey Davy, but never received the credit he deserved.

Incidentally, one theory behind the nickname Geordie used for people from Newcastle is that the miners in the north east, who used Stephenson’s lamp rather than Davy’s, called it a Geordie Lamp after its inventor (Geordie being a popular diminutive for George) and the name spread to mean first of all any local miner and later any local.

In the garden of Stephenson's Cottage

Later George was inspired the work of Richard Trevithick, a Cornishman who is credited with the first realistic design for a steam locomotive in 1802 and who later designed an engine for a north east mine owner. He designed his first locomotive in 1814, a travelling engine designed for hauling coal on the Killingworth wagonway. He went on to build the 8 mile (13 km) Hetton colliery railway, which was the first railway to use no animal power and opened in 1822, and to set up a company in Newcastle to manufacture locomotives. This company produced the famous engine known as Locomotion, for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which although designed to haul coal became the first engine to pull passenger cars. The gauge Stephenson chose for this line, 4 feet 8.5 inches (1,435 mm) was subsequently adopted as the standard gauge for railways, not only in Britain, but throughout the world.

But his most famous achievement was the invention of the locomotive Rocket, which won a contest to build engines for the first steam passenger railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Stephenson became famous and went on to build more engines, design railways and bridges, and to become the first president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1847. A far cry from his modest beginnings here in Wylam!

Farmland near Stephenson's Cottage

Posted by ToonSarah 06:24 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes flowers history views village river garden Comments (8)

Is it art or is it nature?


Northumberlandia - lake around the sculpture

At first glance the land formations of this small country park look quite natural, if a little manicured – some small hillocks with ponds at their base. They are anything but, however! This is not nature, but art – art on a very large scale.

Northumberlandia, also known as the ‘Lady of the North’, is in fact a sculpture in earth, created from the waste produced by open cast mining in this area. It depicts a woman, lying on her back, about a quarter of a mile from head to toe. You can only really appreciate that this is the case by looking at aerial photos, but you do get some sense of it as you walk the many footpaths that wind between and across her features.

Northumberlandia - view down the body from the head

View from left arm

Looking up her nose!

Northumberlandia is the work of American artist Charles Jencks who specialises in these landform sculptures (there are several more in Scotland, for instance). She was born when the Banks Group mining company applied in 2004 to dig for coal on land belonging to Blagdon Estates. They and the estate owners recognised that, while the mining would scar the local landscape, there was also an opportunity to enhance it. Part of the land next to the planned mine was donated by Blagdon Estates and the project jointly funded by them and the mining company. This has resulted in the art form being developed alongside the mining operation although it is intended to remain here long after the mine will have been exhausted and work ceased.

Work began in 2010, with 1.5 million tonnes of surplus soil and clay being transported from the mine to the site and carefully shaped according to Jencks’ design. Once the major landscape works were complete the sculpture was planted, transforming it into a living landscape. Her face, paths and viewing platforms were constructed with a hard stone surface with every feature surveyed and checked against the carefully designed plans.

People on her face

Chris on one of his favourite two mounds!

The result is a sculpture that is 100 feet high and a quarter of a mile long. Four miles of footpaths wind across the site, some around the base of the features and others allowing you to climb to the high points of her face, knees – and yes, points between these! These vary in steepness – a map at the site helpfully categorises them as level, moderate or steep. From the top of the features you get good views of the mining work still in progress nearby (best from the face) and of the surrounding area, including distant views of Newcastle city centre and the local shrine to football, St James’ Park!

View towards Newcastle

View of opencast mining

Bulrush by the lake

The park is now administered jointly by the Land Trust, who look after the open spaces and the art work itself, and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, who are responsible for the visitor centre and café. The intention is not to keep it ‘groomed’ but to let nature takes its course, so the forms will evolve over time.

Bulrushes by the lake

Posted by ToonSarah 06:43 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes art views sculpture Comments (12)

Of kippers and castles

Craster and Dunstanburgh


Sign on the old smoke house in Craster

Were it not for one thing there would be little to distinguish Craster from several other pretty Northumberland coastal villages. It has a small harbour with strong walls to shelter the boats from the North Sea, stone cottages clustered around, a pub, a couple of cafés … But as soon as you park in the car park on the edge of the village (which lies in a disused quarry by the way) and take the footpath between the houses to reach the centre, you can smell the distinctive Craster scent of smoking fish. For Craster is the home of the kipper, or smoked herring. The Robson family have been curing herrings here for over a hundred years, and still do so in the original 1856 smokehouse. You can taste this delicacy in their restaurant, as well as in other establishments around the village, but they are also exported around the country and beyond.

In a Craster garden

The Robsons’ website explains the process:

‘First, the herring are split on a machine capable of splitting 500kg per hour, this replaces the numerous “herring girls” that used to split the herring by hand. Then the herring are placed in a brine solution of plain salt and water for a predetermined length of time depending on their size and, lastly, they are hung on tenter hooks and placed in the cavernous smokehouses. Fires are placed under the rows of herring made of whitewood shavings and oak sawdust and these smoulder away for up to 16 hours before the kippers are ready.’

Art gallery

If you like fish, do try a kipper when in Craster, but even if you don’t the village is worth a visit. The harbour is very picturesque, there’s an art gallery selling very good local works (I bought a hand-made silver necklace there quite recently) and it is also the starting point for a lovely coastal walk, easy enough to be managed by almost anyone, although wheelchair users and those pushing buggies/strollers would struggle. This is the one mile walk through the fields to Dunstanburgh Castle – more of that shortly.

Craster is named after the Craster family who owned this estate from 1272 to 1965. The harbour was built to commemorate the death of a member of the family who died in 1904, while serving in the army in Tibet. You can see his memorial on the harbour wall. The much taller structure at the end of the harbour was used to lift stone from the nearby quarry on to boats in the harbour to be shipped to London where it was used for kerb stones. The quarry was shut down in 1939 and, as well as being in part used for the car park, it is also now a nature reserve. There is a footpath through the woods here but we are yet to follow it, as our favourite walk is the one to the castle.




The harbour

View of Dunstanburgh Castle from the harbour

The walk to Dunstanburgh Castle

Dunstanburgh Castle lies one mile north of Craster and is only accessible on foot, via an easy walk through a few sheep-filled fields along the coast. Even without a castle at the end of it this would be a lovely walk, with the waves of the North Sea lapping (or crashing on to, depending on weather and season) the pebble shore and rocks to your right, and the gentle folds of the fields to your left.



On the walk to Dunstanburgh Castle

Part way along, last time we made the walk, people have created a group of small cairns. Some may frown upon this human rearrangement of nature, others feel moved to add to it. I simply found it an interesting photographic stop along the way.


Little cairns and stone patterns near Craster

On this occasion there was a sea fret (mist) and the castle was invisible from Craster, although normally you can see your destination clearly as you walk (the photo higher up this page was taken on a previous, less misty day).

But today the ruins emerged only slowly, and atmospherically, from the mist.


Dunstanburgh Castle in the mist

Dunstanburgh Castle

If you prefer your castles in picturesque ruins, rather than the almost intact state of, say, Bamburgh, you will like Dunstanburgh. It was built by Earl Thomas of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322 on the site of a former Iron Age Fort. He was leading a rebellion against the king, Edward II, and needed a place of refuge should things turn nasty. And turn nasty they did, when he was captured at the Battle of Boroughbridge without ever being able to reach Dunstanburgh. The castle become the property of the crown and later passed to John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, who expanded it to serve as a possible defence against attack from Scotland. It changed hands several times during the Wars of the Roses and was damaged during a succession of sieges, so by the 16th century was already in a state of decay. The ruins attracted artists, most notably Turner and Thomas Girtin.


The gatehouse, Dunstanburgh Castle

The most notable structure is the great Gatehouse, three storeys high and still impressive despite its ruined state. It give some sense of the grandeur of the castle, which was the largest in Northumberland.

The castle is today owned by the National Trust, who of course charge for admission (£6 for adults, 2018 price). On this recent visit we decided against going in, and unfortunately I have no photos from past visits (way back in pre-digital days), so for now these misty exterior shots will have to suffice to illustrate this entry.


Wall to the right of the gatehouse, with the Constable Tower

Posted by ToonSarah 03:42 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged castles food fish harbour coast hiking history village weather Comments (12)

(Entries 11 - 15 of 17) « Page 1 2 [3] 4 »