Northumberland

Easter was stunning this year.  Days of sunshine and warm weather; the Lake District honeypots were bustling with people: walkers with their poles, families with their dogs, children and cars… it took us an hour to get on to the Windermere ferry, Isabella complaining about the wait but Edward and I keen to enjoy the quirky journey – which in fact was probably still quicker than driving around the wiggly lanes, reversing every so often into a passing place, squeezing past cars and cyclists, queuing to get through Ambleside… 

I love the Lakes even when they’re busy.  I think 15 years of living in London has inured me to queues and traffic – it was always quicker to cycle than to drive in London, especially in the rush hour.  So complaints about how busy the Lake District gets tend to make me smile internally in a superior sort of fashion and to say to myself ‘you’ve obviously never lived in London’ (the same applies to people who think that they have to have a house with a garage….).  I do wish, however, that the economic benefits brought to the Lake District – indeed to Cumbria as a whole – by the visitors were balanced by more environmental benefits.  The various authorities are making efforts (more buses; buses with bike racks; reminders about not walking where you shouldn’t, keeping your dogs on leads near livestock, not dropping litter) but I can’t help thinking how wasteful we humans are.  I’m as guilty as any – I drive to the Lake District, I buy food in cafes, some of which have plastic straws or plastic single use pots, I trample the various paths… (apparently I saved approximately 25 miles by taking the ferry rather than driving – a mere drop in the Environmental ocean…).

One of the things about the Lake District is the narrow windy, undulating roads with stone walls on either side.  Cycling doesn’t particularly appeal to me, unless at least some of the roads could be made car-free (maybe that’s the answer?). Whilst I would love to be out on my bike, if I fall off I might fall into a wall; alternatively I could be suddenly squashed into a wall or knocked off my bike by a car – or van – coming too fast round a corner and not seeing me until it was too late.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t cycle in the Lake District, but I can see what deters people.

Northumberland on the other hand is perfect cycling country.  On Easter Monday I went eastwards to drop a bike off to a friend near Corbridge.  From there I drove more or less due north along back routes to the A697 to go to Wooler.  All day in Northumberland I was to see cyclists, singly and in groups.  Even the quieter roads are relatively wide with grass verges, and many of them have long straight sections, providing great visibility (the grass verges also mean that if you fall off you’ll have a slightly softer landing than against a stone wall).  What’s missing of course are the high fells and the lakes: but the Cheviots are beautiful and provide stunning views, including to the North Sea.

Today was colder and windier than the past few days had been but there was still a heat haze in the distance.  At Wooler I parked in a free car park near the Tourist Centre (in what seemed to be a rather nice community centre) and walked up the road towards the hamlet of Humbleton.  I crossed over a field adjoining a campsite – and through a bower of white flowered bushes into the next field.  There were some beautiful cottages at Humbleton and I paused to admire them before taking a left-hand track slightly uphill towards the hill itself, stopping again to read the interpretation panel about the battle of Humbleton Hill – which happened on my birthday but in 1402 (does anyone else ever feel that things happening on their birth date feels significant?).  The ravine which would have been useful to corralling cattle was clear on my right, and I stood on a grassy knoll trying to imagine what it would have felt like to have seen the battle taking place.  I wonder if archaeology was carried out whether there would be any remains of soldiers’ bones or artefacts?  Were the fields soaked red with the blood of the Scottish soldiers that day?  Apparently English losses were minimal: the English archers efficiently slaughtered most of the Scottish.

The track to the top of the hill bends to the south west and continues to climb – a grassy route and presumably ancient.  Would the Iron Age people who lived here have walked this route before me, all those centuries ago?  The wind was strong and lent an exhilarating chill to the air, but when in sheltered sunny areas warmth soaked into your being.  Internal cobwebs were blown away one moment, to be replaced by warmth and well-being the next.   What an amazing place to have lived, albeit exposed. 

I had particularly wanted to visit this hill fort since picking up a leaflet about it in a visitor centre somewhere else.  I remember going to a hill fort in the south – I think it may have been Cadbury – as a child and being singularly unimpressed whilst my mother raved on about how amazing it was.  To me it was just grassy mounds and some trees on top of a hill.  Humbleton Hill is different, and far more exciting – though I’m not sure that my children would be any more excited than I was as a child.  The remains of the inner and outer enclosure walls can be seen at the top, and clear grass circles of where the huts were situated.  In the distance you could see the North Sea and could understand why people would have wanted to live here.  You could see for miles around, and any unwanted guests would be spotted climbing the hill in plenty of time to work out what to do about them.

At the top the National Park has built a cairn (made with bits of the old enclosure walls???  Presumably not) and then provided thick planks of wood to sit on.  Several people were up there – someone spoke to me but the wind just threw her words away from me, although she seemed to hear what I said in reply all right.

Coming down the hill, and as I was wearing my trail running shoes – even though I was otherwise in normal clothes, including jeans – I couldn’t help but run for a bit, my heart singing in my chest, wondering again if Iron Age people had done the same.  The grassy track just invited it – if I’d been in running gear I’d have spread my arms and run down, the closest to flying on the ground that a human being can get! 

I chose then to take the slightly longer route back to Wooler through some woods (the path through them is part of St Cuthbert’s Way, another route I’d like to walk or run) and then over Wooler Common, which the Forestry Commission have turned into a lovely and educational wildlife habitat.  I got back to the car with time to get to Wallington (National Trust) before closing time.  Here nature has been tamed to an extent, but I loved the walk through the woodland to the walled garden and back and the vivid splashes of colour provided by spring flowers. And whilst the café only had egg and cress sandwiches left, it was pleasant to sit in the Courtyard Café and watch people enjoying the good weather: lazing in deckchairs; picnicking on the grass; chatting at the cafe tables; playing football or frizbee.  In my opinion the National Trust has improved its ‘offer’ vastly over the past decade or two, and there are several properties in this part of the world where you could spend several hours on a visit – Cragside, just up the road from Wallington, is another.

I drove home along the old military road to be met by my oldest son as I turned into my road.  He had been at cadet camp and been promoted, and having not seen him much over the past few weeks it was pleasant to spend an hour or so with him. It had been a glorious Easter.

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