A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about landscapes

England’s Border country

Introduction

Northumberland

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Steel Rigg, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland

This isn't a blog about a single trip but a collection of entries about the beautiful English county of Northumberland. I come here often on short visits while on our frequent trips to nearby Newcastle and want to share some of my favourite places.

Northumberland is one of England’s loveliest counties, and one of its least visited. This is due perhaps to its relative remoteness in the far north east of the country, and perhaps also to the fact that those of us who know how lovely it is choose not to shout its praises too loudly for fear that too many visitors will spoil it!

Despite that fear though, I can't resist the temptation to share some of its beauty and to encourage anyone who wants to see a different side of England to visit. Whether you’re looking for stunning coastal scenery, wild landscapes or ancient history, you will find them here.

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Druridge Bay

Some of the country’s most beautiful beaches line the Northumbrian coast, although the chilly waters of the North Sea and the often cold winds that blow off it mean that they will be largely deserted on all but the hottest of summer days.

Inland the Cheviot Hills are almost completely unspoiled, and you can stand on the ancient Roman Hadrian’s Wall and look north across one of the least populated areas of the country. A series of majestic castles fringes the land on its seaward side, including Alnwick and Bamburgh – two of the most interesting castles in the country to visit. And to the south lies industrial Tyneside, which too has its attractions, not least in that very industrial heritage.

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Dunstanburgh Castle

This blog does not claim to paint a comprehensive picture of this beautiful county, but is rather a collection of snapshots of destinations there that I have enjoyed visiting. I will add more suggestions as we continue to explore this lovely county.

The flag of Northumberland

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At Heatherslaw Mill

Wherever you travel in Northumberland you are likely to come across this flag. It was adopted as the county council’s flag as recently as 1995 but it has clearly captured the imagination of local people who display it proudly on buildings, as a bumper sticker on their cars and even on their clothing (e.g. baseball caps). This popularity may be because its origins are much older than that appropriation by the council, and there are claims that it is the oldest known flag design in Britain. It is derived from the red and gold striped flag of the ancient Anglo kingdom of Bernicia, which merged with that of Deira in the early 7th century to form the Kingdom of Northumbria. Later, in medieval times, the colours of red and gold were adopted by the first Earl of Northumberland.

The British County flags website describes its history thus:

‘The 7th century King and Saint, Oswald, founded the kingdom of Northumbria by merging his domain of Bernicia with its southern neighbour Deira. The Venerable Bede, England’s first historian, writing in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum describes Oswald’s tomb where “…they hung up over the monument his banner made of gold and purple.” It is probable that this description caused the medieval heralds to assign arms of eight alternate stripes of red and gold (yellow) to Bernicia.

It is reported that in the Middle Ages the same colours were flown by the first Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy. Before its formal award of arms in 1951, the Northumberland County Council had informally used these attributed arms of Bernicia although the College of Arms modified the design, dividing the stripes by an “embattled” line, that is an indentation which resembles a castle’s crenellations; the red and yellow stripes in the lower half were then “counter changed”. The modification was intended to symbolise the interlocking stones of Hadrian’s Wall, which runs through the county, and Northumberland’s position as a border shire.’

It is quite probable that most people flying or displaying the flag know little of its history, but they reflect an ancient tradition when they do so, as well as demonstrating their pride in their county.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:01 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes beaches castles history national_park Comments (9)

A castle by the sea

Bamburgh

Bamburgh Castle

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Bamburgh Castle from the south

One of the grandest sights on the Northumbrian coastline is that of Bamburgh Castle. It is a view that I never tire of.

The castle stands on a massive outcrop of rock and towers over the sands below. Unlike many castles on this coast, it is still a family home, and thus far more complete than the ruins elsewhere. It is truly an impressive sight.

There has been a castle at Bamburgh since the sixth century, when the site was chosen as the Royal capital by the kings of Northumbria. And it is easy to see why this site would be chosen. It has commanding views over the coast – a coast that was vulnerable to attack from Vikings and others. And the basalt outcrop on which the successive castles have stood is one of the most prominent landmarks along that coast.

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Bamburgh Castle from the dunes

Talking though of the Vikings, in 993 they succeeded in destroying the original fort. The Normans built a new castle on the same site, which forms the core of the present one. It was a royal possession for centuries, and an important element in the defence of England against the Scots, with the border just a few miles to the north. In 1464, during the Wars of the Roses, it was the first castle in England to be defeated by artillery, at the end of a nine-month siege by the Earl of Warwick.

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Views of the castle from the beach

For 400 years the castle remained in royal hands, with the local Forster family serving as governors. Eventually the castle was made over to them. But in 1700 the then owner, Sir William Forster, died bankrupt and the castle, along with all his other possessions, was handed over to the Bishop of Durham as settlement of his debts. The castle fell into disrepair but was restored by various owners during the following centuries, and was finally bought by the Victorian industrialist William Armstrong, who completed the restoration. It still belongs to the Armstrong family, who maintain it and open it for the public to view. Its grandeur makes it much in demand as a film location, and it has featured in films such as Ivanhoe (1952), El Cid (1961), Mary, Queen of Scots (1972), and Elizabeth (1998).

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Bamburgh Castle from the village

If you like your castles to be romantically ruined, this is maybe not the one for you. But if you like to see a building largely intact and strong, still standing proudly above the coast it once defended so effectively, Bamburgh is indeed an impressive sight.

A walk on the beach

But there is more to Bamburgh than its castle, dominant though that is. There are wonderful beaches that even on the sunniest of summer days are relatively uncrowded, and in winter are almost deserted.

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Bamburgh Castle from the beach

This has to be one of the most glorious beaches in England! A wide expanse of sand over which the castle watches protectively as it has done for centuries. There are dunes to provide shelter from the sometimes chilly winds off the North Sea, a few rock pools to explore, great views of distant Holy Island and the slightly nearer Farne Islands, and enough sand to build sandcastles to rival the “real” stone one!

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Lindisfarne Castle from Bamburgh beach

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Inner Farne viewed from the dunes

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Castle and old mill from the dunes

And it is never crowded. When we visited most recently on a warm August weekday, there was a sprinkling of families in the area nearest to the castle, but even here there was more than enough space for everyone. And if you’re prepared to walk along the sands a little, you could easily find a large section to call your own. Off-season, the beach is popular with walkers, but again, by popular I mean that there will always be a handful here, whatever the weather, and maybe on a bright sunny day you will encounter a dozen or more on your walk across the sand.

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Seaweed on the beach

South of the village is another fine stretch of sand, with (I think) the two connected at low tide. Here there is a convenient car park so the beach gets a little busier, but is still quiet compared with other parts of the country. The reason? The North Sea is very chilly, and only the braver beach-goers will swim there, though small children seem happy to ignore the chill and splash happily in the shallows. And a cold plunge is perhaps a small price to pay for a day on such a glorious beach!

In the village

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Village street with Copper Kettle tea-rooms

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In the Copper Kettle

In addition to the castle there is an excellent museum in the village devoted to local heroine, Grace Darling. Add some quaint old cottages and a sprinkling of tea shops (our favourite is the Copper Kettle), pubs and gift-shops, and you can see that it is a great place to spend a day. It's also an excellent base for a holiday in this lovely region of England, with the beautiful and rather mystical Holy Island within easy reach, as well as other castles such as Alnwick and several pretty coastal towns and villages.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:53 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes beaches castles history views village seaside Comments (11)

Outpost of the Empire

Hadrian’s Wall

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Hadrian’s Wall

Some history

In the early years of the second century AD the northern limit of the Roman Empire lay in what is now the north of England. The Emperor Hadrian commanded a Wall to be built in order to keep ‘intact the empire’, but probably also to assert the supremacy of Roman power.

It was an impressive piece of engineering for its time, stretching from the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west – from what is now Wallsend (Roman name Segedunum) on England’s north east coast to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria on the west coast. It was 80 Roman miles in length (73 modern miles or 117.5 kilometres) and varied in height between three to six metres. It is thought that the Wall was covered in plaster and whitewashed to make it visible for miles around, reinforcing the belief of some historians that its purpose was less defensive and more a statement of power – not only Rome’s, but Hadrian’s. It probably also served as a series of customs points, much like present day borders, with taxes being charged to anyone who passed through one of its gates into the Empire to trade.

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Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads Fort

The Wall was built from limestone, except in the far west where it was initially of turf, although later this too was reconstructed in stone. It doesn’t run in a straight line but follows the contours of the land and in places takes advantage of these to strengthen its defences. There were forts at approximately five mile intervals to garrison the troops who guarded the border, and milecastles at approximately – guess what? – every mile. Most of the forts straddle the Wall; one, Housesteads, is unusual in sitting totally to one side (the south) due to the terrain.

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Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads

After the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain in the early 5th century the Wall, though maintained and garrisoned for a short time afterwards, gradually fell into disuse and into ruin. Its stones were reused in the construction of other buildings (many an old farmhouse in this area can boast of having some stones from the Wall) or in road-building. The nearby modern-day B6318, which you will have driven on to get here, follows the line of the 18th century road built by General Wade to move troops during the Jacobite Rebellion, and local people still refer to this as the Military Road.

In the 1830s a Newcastle man, John Clayton, took an interest in the Wall and started buying up the land on which it stood to prevent farmers from taking any more of the stones. Eventually he owned a considerable area of land, including the sites of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, and Vindolanda. He carried out some excavations and also employed workmen to restore some stretches of the Wall, of which the best example is at Housesteads.

Today Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most visited tourist destination in the north of England. It is also the route of a popular long-distance path and you will see many walkers following the line of the Wall (walking on it is discouraged to avoid further damage).

Don’t expect however to see the Wall standing for its full length, is in many places today it is little more than a rampart. It is partly because the stretch around Housesteads is so relatively well-preserved that it is also one of the busiest parts – so don’t expect to have the place to yourself either, except in the bleakest of weathers!

Housesteads Fort

Of those forts that still have some remains, Housesteads, or Vercovicium to give it its Roman name, is probably the best known and most visited.

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Housesteads Fort, looking south

Relatively little remains of the fort today, but there is enough for you to be able to trace the layout of the buildings and learn something of how those soldiers would have lived.

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Housesteads Fort - outer wall and barracks

But more impressive than those few remains perhaps is the setting. With sweeping views over the Northumberland hills and one of the most intact stretches of Hadrian’s Wall nearby, in good weather it is a glorious place to stand. Imagine it though in the depths of winter, with icy winds blowing and snow falling. How must those Roman soldiers, many recruited from much warmer parts of the Empire, have felt in what must have seemed to them to be the ends of the earth?

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Countryside near Housesteads

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A tourist admires the view

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Photographing the views

Life at Housesteads

At its height 800 soldiers would have been based here at Housesteads – or Vercovicium, as they would have known it (the name means ‘the place of the effective fighters’).

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Barracks (on the left) and granary (right

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Outer wall with oven

Although the environment would have seemed harsh to many of them, especially in winter, they were relatively well-housed and were self-sufficient. The ordinary soldiers lived in barracks and the remains of some of these can be traced here today. These barracks were where they slept and also relaxed when off duty. They ate bread and other food that was cooked in the ovens on one side of the fort. The supplies for these meals were stored in granaries with stone pillars that supported a raised floor to keep the food dry and free from rats and mice.

There was a workshop and hospital, and at the heart of the fort a headquarters building known as the Praetorium or Principia. This had a courtyard where ceremonies (both military and religious) took place, a shrine where the regiment’s standards were displayed alongside altars to the gods and a statue of the emperor, and offices with a strong room to store valuables, including the soldiers’ pay.

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Part of the Principia

A note about access

Housesteads Fort is jointly operated by English Heritage and the National Trust. The latter’s website says ‘A cleared path is provided for the short walk from the visitor centre to the Wall and Fort’ and I noted that ticket seller didn’t explain the walk needed until after people had bought their tickets. The English Heritage website is more helpful: ‘The fort lies uphill from the car park (a fairly strenuous 10 minute walk on steep gradient). A disabled car park is available. Please ask at the visitor centre for directions to this car park.’ They also have a full page devoted to access to the fort: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/housesteads-roman-fort-hadrians-Wall/access

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The start of the path

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Reaching the top

The fact is that the fort is about half a mile on a gravel footpath with quite a steep climb at one point. The path crosses the Vallum, the large ditch that was dug by the Romans south of the Wall to reinforce the defences. Incidentally the name comes from the Latin word which was actually the origin of the English word ‘wall’; it meant ‘stake’ rather than ditch and reflects the fact that the defensive walls built by a Roman army on the march were of tree branches planted upright on an earthen barrier.

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Looking back
The car park is in a dip behind the trees, which is the Vallum

This path presents no problem for the averagely fit but is a challenge for anyone unsteady on their feet and (I imagine) very hard work indeed for anyone pushing a wheelchair. Someone with significant mobility difficulties would find it very hard-going and would probably not be able to visit the fort using this route without help from a friend or family member. So have a look at the path if you can before committing to buying a ticket, and ask for the advice you need, as from what I observed it may not be offered. And do ask about that disabled car park as it may make your visit a lot easier.

The Wall at Steel Rigg

Another good place from which to view or walk on Hadrian’s Wall in this area is Steel Rigg. You can walk here from Housesteads Fort, or drive and park in the pay and display car park nearby, using the same ticket bought for Housesteads. You can of course also do the walk in reverse, starting at Steel Rigg.

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At Steel Rigg
Peel Crags and Crag Lough, with Hadrian's Wall beyond

Whichever way you do it, it’s about eight miles (13 kilometres) roundtrip, depending on the route you take, and the parts on or near the Wall are very undulating with a few steep climbs. It is many years since I did this but the rewards for your efforts are great, with some of the best views in England out over the Cheviots from the top of the Whin Sill on Hotbank and Peel Crags, above Crag Lough. The National Trust website has route instructions, based on starting at Housesteads: Housesteads to Steel Rigg circular walk

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Hadrian's Wall from Steel Rigg
You can clearly see the path alongside the wall

But even if you have no time for the walk, a detour to Steel Rigg is well worthwhile as you can really appreciate the drama of the Wall’s setting and the efforts the Romans made to locate it in the most strategic position. A very short walk on largely even ground will bring you to the point where my photos were taken. You can see the Wall snaking over the rocky ridge of Peel Crags, with Crag Lough beyond. If you’re up to tackling just one climb you can walk over Peel Crags and dip down to the much-photographed Sycamore Gap beyond (so-called because a solitary sycamore tree grows there in a great position for photos) – this spot featured in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. We ran out of time, having spent too long at Housesteads, to do even this short walk, so will have to return.

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Near Steel Rigg

Posted by ToonSarah 07:00 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes history ruins views fort national_park romans Comments (11)

Man-made landscapes

Kielder Water

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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

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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.

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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

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The view from Elf Kirk

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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!

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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.’

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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

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Tower Knowe panorama

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Chaffinch

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.

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The Osprey Ferry

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Osprey Ferry approaching Tower Knowe jetty

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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

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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.

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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.

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Harris Hawk, and Peruvian Striped Owl

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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.

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With the barn owl

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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.

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Caracara

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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.

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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.

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Flora on the walk

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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Evening view from the observatory car park

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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)

Stephenson's birthplace

Wylam

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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At Stephenson's Cottage

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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.

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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!

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Farmland near Stephenson's Cottage

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

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