Thursday, January 5

Northumberland

Over the Christmas break Sonia and I went to visit one of her friends who runs a bed and breakfast in Berwickshire near the Cheviot. It is a nice run out and takes you through a variety of Nothumberlands varied scenery. To give you some idea of what I mean, pick up a paperback book in your left hand and turn your hand until your knuckles are uppermost. You are now looking at an approximate map of Northumberland. The upper right corner and top edge is the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh would be at the top left corner. Your knuckles are the Pennines and your little finger and knuckle is the Cheviot and the Cheviot Hills. Your fingers are the hills either side of the valleys The main rivers are – from North to South - the Tweed (which forms part of the border between Scotland and England) the Aln, the Coquet, the Wansbeck – from old Norse meaning "Swans Beck" or stream – and the Tyne.

The bit between your fingertips and the edge of the book represents the relatively flat coastal plain where the major routes (road and rail) are located and most of the major towns (including Newcastle). This is good farmland and arable farming and cattle rearing are the mainstay of the economy.

We drove from Sonias’ house, up the A1 (along the western edge of the coastal plain) and then cross country towards the Cheviot. For the "book-in-the-hand" map users, we drove from the first joint of the index finger towards the knuckle of the little finger (who says I don’t know the place like the back of my hand??) so we were crossing the river valleys and the more exposed moors in a constant up and down rollercoaster of a drive. The moors are austere with their thin soil and underlying grey granite rocks poking through here and there. The dead bracken supplies a splash of mellowed old gold to contrast against the purples, greens and browns of the rest of the scene and provides an ever changing vista. The light in Northumberland is different to anywhere else – it has a clarity and brilliance which beams over the landscape and as it is constantly changing, provides an endless variation of scenery, even if you are travelling slowly or on foot. The curlew is the symbol of the Northumberland National Park and its plaintive cry is the sound of the moors. If you like birds then Northumberland is an ornithologists paradise.

The valleys are often quite heavily wooded so you drive through tunnels of trees. It needs care when driving in the winter as the Sun doesn’t penetrate to the more sheltered spots and frost, wet mouldy leaves and ice can remain for long periods and occasionally never dry out or thaw for days on end. But where the view opens up and the sun plays over the trees and fields, the colours and shapes of the trees present excellent photographic opportunities. Even when it is chucking it down with rain, it’s still picturesque.

In the summer, the twisting roads make for a motorcyclists playground – the traffic is generally light to non existent (at least away from the main routes) and as Northumberland is a big county and sparsely populated, a good ride out is easily achieved. Beware though! As I said, the county is big, the population small and the County Councils budget for road signs is smaller again. So when you see a chevron indicating a sharp turn, they mean it! It makes me drive and ride like a wuss when down south - they seem to put such chevrons everywhere even when the bends are quite gentle. Soft southerners, I suppose.

The consequences of not taking notice of the warnings can be lethal – many of my favourite rides are over some lonely and rugged roads. If you crash (car or motorcycle, doesn’t matter) you may not be found for days. Don’t believe me? One of my friends is an aircraft fanatic and he flies a microlight over the moors looking for World War 2 crash sites. He has found a few which had not been touched for the last 60 years, complete with guns, ammunition and the bodies of the crew. He has letters from the U.S. Air Force thanking him for finding the crash sites and the chance to recover the remains of the aircrew. They return the remains back to the States for burial and it allows the families to lay to rest their dead. How you can "lose" a polished aluminium Flying Fortress is no real wonder. Vast areas of the moors are pretty much the same as they were at the end of the last ice age – deep peat bogs, purple heather and brooding hills with streams everywhere. The aircraft are quickly swallowed up and it takes a practised eye like Johns to detect them.

There are probably more castles in Northumberland than any 5 other counties. From Celtic hill forts through to Norman Motte and Bailey sites to full blown late medieval concentric castles. If you are interested in fortifications, you will be able to study every type including bastles and pele towers. These last two are fortified farmhouses built to protect the people from the Rievers – the tribal families on both sides of the border who engaged in cattle rustling, brigandry, murder, feuding and other assorted activities to keep themselves amused before the invention of TV. Looking at the bastles and pele towers from the point of view of a modern soldier they are still pretty strongly built and easy to defend. Only artillery or antitank weapons would make much of a dent in them. Local stories and legends abound about the Rievers and the various fortified dwellings. If you are interested in narrative poetry, some of the tales make for gripping reading. Most of them are in the Northumbrian dialect which will make it difficult for anyone who isn’t a northerner to understand. 96% of the Northumbrian dialect is based on Old Norse, Saxon and Celtic languages, not the French based language of the remainder of England. As you may guess, I’m interested in the local history and castles. I’ve visited most of them take the opportunity to examine any I find at every opportunity. Even if it is persistently raining and wet.

Sonias friend and her husband are good people and we spent a happy afternoon chatting, discussing books, setting the world to rights, looking at the birds in the garden (3 greater spotted woodpeckers, chaffinches, robins, pheasants, and various tits and dunnocks) and watching the buzzards with binoculars over the distant hills. The cushets (wood pigeons) didn’t like the buzzards but they were in no danger. There are far too many rabbits for the buzzards to bother chasing them.

Driving back through the dark, the night was clear and the stars were out in force. The Orion nebula was clearly visible even to my eyes – it’s not something a city dweller like me sees without the use of binoculars at least.

Sets you up for the week it does! But don't tell anyone - let the tourists howl up the A1 to Scotland and leave Northumberland to the discerning and the motorcyclists.

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