Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Bolam Lake and Shaftoe Crags

Bolam Lake
Most people thinking about walking in Northumberland would naturally want to explore the coast or Hadrian's Wall.  If you were more intrepid you might consider Kielder Forest or the Cheviots but the area around Morpeth is not natural walking country.  However, this is where we had based ourselves for our week away (deliberately as it happened as we wanted to visit the Wall and the Coast and this was halfway between).  The most local walk in volume 35 of the Pathfinder Guide Northumberland and Scottish Borders was number 15 and after a lengthy spell of heavy rain earlier in the day I was pleased to see a sunny evening open up, which allowed the prospect of a walk.

Bolam Lake is a country park approximately 8 miles to the west of Morpeth and is a lovely little oasis in among grazing land and low moorland.  Judging from the number and size of the car parks it is quite well used and most of the roads around are parking restricted to make sure cars actually use the parking areas and don't clog up the narrow lanes.  That proved a little bit of a problem for me as the car park gates are closed at 8pm, rather earlier than I needed to complete this walk.  Luckily I found a pull off spot at the western end of the lake where I didn't cause a problem.  It did mean though that I had to start from a different spot and the lake couldn't be visited at the beginning and end of the walk but circumnavigated at the start.
Straight Ahead
The lake was laid out in Victorian times to provide timber and was restored as a country park some time later.  It provides a useful habitat to many species of bird and mammals that are rare elsewhere including weasels and red squirrels (sadly I didn't see either).  I started at the western end of the lake and circumnavigated in a clockwise direction.  The results of the earlier rain were still evident in the shape of dripping trees and puddles although the heat of the sun also showed off some localised mist created as the significant amount of wet evaporated.  I walked round half the lake without getting a glimpse of it so thick were the trees!  I paused briefly at the visitor centre which marks the official start of the walk.  Unfortunately there wasn't anybody there so I had to make do with the signage about the animals and other wildlife I was likely to see on the way round.
Harvest Time
From the visitor centre the path dropped down to the lakeside and on the eastern end I got to walk along some boardwalks that afforded the best views across the lake. It seemed pretty popular with swans and coots but I didn't see a lot of other birdlife.  Maybe other species were fed up with the feisty behaviour of these two!  The path continued along the southern shore and I enjoyed the sunny sparkles from the lake.  Sadly I didn't see enough sunshine in my week in this beautiful county.
At the end of the lake I transferred onto the adjacent road taking a left hand turn at the next lane junction to Harnham.  It didn't really look like a public road to be honest as the centre line had a fairly good crop of grass growing on the surface and not long into the lane I had to cross a cattle grid.  As I did so a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside became evident.  There were sheep and cows as far as the eye could see, unlikely bedfellows but they seemed very happy occupying the same fields.  The farm that I passed looked equally attractive - a rural idyll if ever there was one.

At a lane junction I took the right hand turn and passed along the foot of a small hill showing some rather odd looking patterns in the grass.  I later learned that these were a relic of ancient farming practices and they certainly stood out in the low evening sun casting shadows across the surface.  To the right of me the field had recently been harvested and was dotted with shredded wheat style bales at nice neat intervals.  Again the shadows of the evening sun seemed to enhance the prettiness of the scene.

Shaftoe Hall
As I continued down the lane a big black cloud that had been lumbering across the sky finally blotted out the sun and the change in lighting was astonishing.  I went from a glorious sunny evening to a murky overcast one instantly - it was almost as if I had witnessed a solar eclipse!  Luckily this coincided with perhaps the least interesting part of the walk for soon I had left the lane and followed a field boundary towards the far off hill that Shaftoe Crags is housed on.  In the very distance I could see Shaftoe Hall, a pretty good looking house high on the back side of the hill.  I could also see a very busy looking wind generator; not one of the big ones that dominate the skyline but a smaller more homespun looking one.  I was to keep seeing this as I looped around the rest of the walk.

Lonely Tree
Apparently this path was the course of a Roman Road although I am not sure I would have known that if I hadn't been told - there was no remnants of it now, nor of the Roman Station that was buried under the field somewhere.  What I did catch sight of though was a very large buzzard perched on the gatepost ahead.  It stayed for quite a time before eventually flying off.  As I got closer to the large house on the hill I could see quite the growing operation going on in the walled garden to one side of the estate.  On a south facing slope I imagine this is quite productive even in an area like this.

Shaftoe Trig Point
I climbed up and passed the walled garden and headed out onto the 'moor' beyond.  The change of scenery was quite remarkable and by now the sun had reappeared too, which was perfect timing!  I plodded up to the top of the crags and the view out was quite remarkable.  Ahead of me were the Northumberland Fells in the distance and below I could see the Wallington Estate, a largish National Trust property that I thought would make for a good trip in the morning.  This little area of crags reminded me a lot of Dartmoor although the underlying geology of sandstone rather than granite could not have been more different. The official path actually passes below the crags but I couldn't resist climbing up on top for a better view.  Getting down was a bit of a challenge though - I had to find a fairly convoluted route to get off the top.

Crag View
I headed alongside a large dry stone wall before turning right at the next path junction and heading through a gap in the crag.  This very much had the appearance of an ancient trackway and the gap had been further exploited by the numbers of feet and wheels across it over the centuries.  At the top of the crag the slope fell away gently and initially at least the path was actually made of solid rock.  As I descended into a field of cows the landscape got gradually gentler until the sandstone gave way to pasture once again.  As I looked closer at the cows I realised that not all of them were female.  This caused me some alarm but thankfully the bull had other ideas on his mind concerning the cows and didn't seem to be too bothered about me.  I passed through the area as calmly as I could, looking for exits constantly!

Shaftoe Crag
Eventually I got to the end of the field and the wind turbine came back into view as I completed the loop around the farm where it was home to.  The path now entered a delightful tree lined lane qand once again the shadows created by the evening sun created a little extra magic.  The beech trees had an almost silvery look about them, while the puddles sparkled even though up close they were mostly murky water!  At the end of the lane I met the original road once again by a small cluster of houses.  They all looked delightful - I imagine if you like countryside these would be fantastic to live in although they are perhaps a little further from facilities than I would like.  From here it was a short walk back down the road to Bolam Lake and my car once again.

Tree Lined Lane
As an evening walk this really could not be beaten.  I didn't meet a soul all the way round and I appreciated the solitude.  Although perhaps not an area of Northumberland that you may have considered walking it is worth a look.  Well done to the book publishers for including it in the volume as I wouldn't have thought of exploring this area otherwise.

Is Summer Over?

Monday, 21 August 2017

Craster and Dunstanburgh Castle

Craster Harbour
Our summer holiday this year took us to a part of England that I hadn’t visited since I was a boy; the county of Northumberland.  I have cast longing eyes over the coast path there for some time and was pleased that we finally took the plunge.  Sadly for us though the weather wasn’t great during the week we stayed there.  In fact it was halfway through the week before it stopped raining.  This was most disappointing but eventually the weather relented enough for us to take the plunge on one of the shorter walks in volume 35 of the Pathfinder Guides Northumberland and the Scottish Borders.  This is walk number 6 from that book.

Dunstanburgh is possibly the most photographed castle in the county (although there are plenty to choose from in this county!).  It’s melancholy and desolate feel make it a favourite for photographers and artists alike and its relative remoteness means that it retains that air even though it has had so much attention.  This walk starts in the nearby fishing village of Craster and when we arrived in the middle of the afternoon the place was crawling with people.  In fact I struck lucky with the last car parking space.

We wandered down into the village, arranged around a small harbour.  Craster is apparently named after a family of the same name who have lived here for a good number of years.  The harbour is dedicated to one of the family, who was killed in active service in Tibet during late Victorian times.  We paused here for a few minutes to watch the lobster pots being loaded into the pier from one of the boats that operate out of here.  Herrings are still fished here although much in decline - the Craster kipper is a local delicacy.

Leaving Craster
The onward path out of the village was super busy.  In fact in walking terms I can only describe the next mile and a half as being like the M1, with so many walkers plying the mile and a bit between the village and the castle.  Yet such is the grandeur of the old place that it didn’t really detract from its appeal.  We managed scarcely half a mile when the girls wanted to crack open their arts gear and draw pictures of the old place.  I could well understand the appeal.  The resolutely overcast skies provided extra moodiness to the scene. The high tide also provided small waves that broke into spray as they hit the dark rocky coast.  The rock here is actually dolerite and is part of the Whin Sill, a geological feature that extends for much of the length of the North Pennines and as far as Lindisfarne to the north.  Hadrian’s Wall uses part of the Sill for its route.

Dunstanburgh Castle
We stopped for quite a while until the girls were satisfied with their output.  Regular readers of this blog may remember this feature of our walks - a good example was the trip to Great Cumbrae Island when we visited Scotland back in 2014.  I am pleased that they like to do this - taking in your surroundings is an important component of hiking in my opinion.  While they drew I looked in the rock pools, enjoyed the little piles of stones that had been stacked up by various visitors, enjoyed the constantly changing view of the castle ahead as the clouds billowed over and became amused by the increasingly silly antics of the sheep grazing the ground (and rocks!).

Wild Coast
It didn’t take much longer to get to the castle.  When we arrived we discovered that unusually it seemed to be run by English Heritage and the National Trust.  We use the membership card of the former to get in but I believe we could have used the latter too.  Inside and the castle was decidedly thin in terms of what could be seen.  I did take one of the audioguides and that helped considerably.  It would seem that this castle was built by one of the rebellious barons (Earl Thomas of Lancaster) to try and protect himself from the King.  Sadly it served no purpose to him as he was captured elsewhere and executed.  The castle was therefore forfeited to the King.  After that the castle passed into the hands of John of Gaunt who strengthened its defences against the Scots.  From the few remains still in place it is difficult to imagine the hubbub of activity that would once have been here.

Balancing Act
The greatest activity now at the castle is the rather astonishing seabird colony at the far edge of the site on the cliff that the castle rather precariously sits on.  The girls and I spent some time enjoying the antics of the birds.  For the most part the residents were kittiwakes and razorbills and they seemed quite happy living together on the little ledges formed in the cliff face.  The noise they all made was quite a din!

The other great thing about the castle was the view along the coast both to the north and south.  Southwards we could see the village of Craster and down towards Alnmouth beyond.  Northwards we could pick out Beadnell and the far off Farne Islands.  It certainly looked a very inviting coast to walk, especially as it was relatively flat.  Below us the golfers playing on Dunstanburgh Golf Course must have the most amazing views as they whack their ball around.  After satisfying ourselves that we had seen everything, including climbing to the top of the gatehouse (where the views were even better), we resumed our walk.  The official route had us doubling back quite a long way until we reached a path on the other side of the erstwhile moat.  We however decided to follow the sheep tracks to lose height and saved ourselves quite a dog leg.

Seabird Cliff
We walked around the base of the cliff and paused for another look at the seabird cliffs.  The noise from this angle was quite deafening - almost as if the cliffs themselves were helping with the acoustics.  It also gave us the opportunity to look more closely at the geology.  Some of the rocks were quite interesting as you could see how the dolerite had been injected into the surrounding strata during the igneous activity at the time of formation.  One in particular jutted out into sea - doing its best to resist the waves.

Our path took us alongside the golf course, which was surprisingly quiet given how scenic it looked.  Maybe the overcast and slightly windy conditions put some of the golfers off?  The path now took a route along the crest of sand dunes.  It made for easy underfoot walking as they had been stabilised by vegetation, but the bracken that dominated some sections was taller than the children!  We also passed a pillbox along here - it looked like it had been fashioned from a mould made out of corrugated iron.  I guess there was a good deal of worry about this part of the coast being used for an invasion for it is relatively flat and the beaches would have been fairly easy for landing craft to get ashore.

Field Patterns
A little further on and we left the coast along a tarmac road to the hamlet of Dunstan Steads.  There were some good looking houses here; a good many of them are holiday homes now.  Having reached the hamlet we turned once again to take a parallel route to our outward one but along an inland course.  Most of the early part of the route was along a concrete road that skirted the fields.  I’m not sure why it was here but some former quarrying activity on the left side perhaps provided a clue.  This section of the route was also notable for side on views of the castle across the now ripening wheat fields.  The hedgerows were also teeming with life and especially butterflies - speckled woods, large whites, red admirals, painted ladies and hedge browns were all in evidence.  We also passed another pillbox - this one looked as if it was hastily thrown up using sacks of cement as the building material.

Eventually we reached a farm at Dunstan Square and as we did so the sun made a brief but memorable appearance, lighting up the Northumberland Hills off in the distance.  We took a left hand turn here into a field of horses, which came galloping over to greet us.  The path took us over the Whin Sill, now a prominent ridge through the landscape.  The brief sunshine was immediately closed off as we ascended the ridge.  On the other side the castle came back into view once again.  We kept to the high ground and followed on the other side of the ridge just below the crest until we reached the village of Craster once again.  All the crowds that had been here when we arrived had now subsided and our car was one of the last in the car park.

Dunstan Steads
This walk is a great introduction to the Northumbrian Coast.  Although the walk is a modest length and is quite easy in terms of climbing and navigation, it is full of interest and the castle is the undoubted star of the show, being visible from the path for at least three quarters of its length.  I imagine this would make for a great early morning or evening walk to escape the crowds but obviously the castle would be closed then so you would have to make the most of viewing from outside only.

View Across the Fields

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Pulborough Brooks

Village Sign
A modest walk but  perfect for a Sunday afternoon is this one in Pulborough.  It is walk number 3 in vol. 66 of the Pathfinder Guides West Sussex and the South Downs. I've been waiting for the perfect day to do it and think I found it - dry everywhere; no mud (which would plague this walk in the winter), puffy clouds and plenty of sunshine.  I had youngest daughter for company and we headed out late afternoon after the heat of the day had passed. We parked in the car park by the library, which is free to use on a Sunday (pay and display on all the other days).

Outstanding tree
Much of this walk is familiar territory, having featured in other walks on this blog but it is worth doing in its own right principally because it packs so much into its short length.  We set off from the car park down the lane that takes you straight out on to the flood plain of the River Arun and past the old house at the end that looks so idyllic (see my walk from the Arun Valley).  

Idyllic Cottage
As soon as we left the built up area of Pulborough behind it was like we immediately entered a different world.  Now the skies were big, the atmosphere airy and the immediate surroundings full of life as the brooks were full of fluttering butterflies and buzzy bees and dragonflies.  It was certainly a good education for young daughter as we identified wild flowers and their visiting butterflies as we went.  

Morning Glory
We soon reached the river and this was in a serene mood.  It is surprisingly still tidal at this point and was quite full suggesting that the tide was in.  That probably helped the mood, in keeping with the lazy summer's day with clouds just bobbing along in a bright blue sky.  Our moment with the river was quite brief as we were soon heading across the floodplain to the RSPB Nature Reserve that flanks this part of the valley.  As we did so we passed by quite a large flush of thistles that were covered in ladybirds - I'm not sure I have ever seen so many in one place before!

As we entered the nature reserve we followed some of the butterflies that lived here and in particular the Commas that seemed to like the brambles that grew in profusion around the path.  The route across the nature reserve takes a different course than the walk that RSPB visitors take but apart from the visits to the hides I am not sure it is any less enjoyable.  Although I never have it looks like it would be quite possible to enter the RSPB reserve walk from this angle.  

New Growth
From a closed in track we headed through a gate and across a wide open field - the contrast was quite a surprise.  It looked like it should be full of grazing animals but there weren't any today, not even lurking in the shadowy corners out of the sun.  At the other end we resumed a course along a hemmed in path between fields and soon came across the delightful little church at Wiggonholt.  This is  church without a village it seems as there are few houses here and surely not enough for a congregation.  Yet the old place looks quite well kept and in good health so the few that do come for services here obviously have a lot of pride in the place.  Sadly the church was locked so we were denied a look inside.

Wiggonholt Church
We pushed on, avoiding the suggestion of a visit to the visitor centre this time as we have been many times before.  Instead we took a hard left and took a path between two large houses and headed back in the direction of Pulborough.  The path was flanked by the same thistles that we had seen down in the valley but this time they were covered in cardinal beetles rather than ladybirds.  I assume they vie for the same food?

Cardinal Beetles
Away from the Brooks the scenery was quite different, signifying the sandy soils that this area of the Weald has.  In fact this is the Greensand ridge of Sussex, a much smaller feature than the equivalent one in Surrey and almost unnoticeable in places.  The soil is a dead giveaway though as the dry conditions would contrast greatly with the pudding conditions of the alluvial plain in the winter.  On a dry summer's day there was little difference between them.

Holiday Cottages
We crossed a field with some friendly horses who all came over to have a nose at us.  Sadly for them we weren't carrying any tidbits or peppermints and as a result they soon lost interest.  We continued on a route that took us down to a footpath that tracked along the very edge of the floodplain.  It was a delightful path, flanked by wild flowers and with tantalising glimpses across the valley to the ridge of Bignor Hill beyond.  We also passed a holiday cottage that is in a very tempting location for birdwatchers.  I suspect that this one gets good residency rates even in the winter months when birdlife is a bit more obvious than it was today.

Eventually we got to the end of the path and crossed a small footbridge and entered the built up area of Pulborough by the White Horse pub.  I have long liked the look of this place although have yet to visit.  With a small child in tow I wasn't going to today either.  The remaining part of the walk suffers from being along the  main road back towards the car park where we had started.  The only saving grace were some of the fascinating houses along the way.  There were so many lovely ones but I'm not sure I would be tempted by any of them due to their proximity to the main road.
Pulborough View

Only an hour and a half or so after we had started and we were back to the beginning - both of us were well satisfied with this short outing.