I spent the last three days guiding a familiarisation trip around the northeast, showcasing the landscape, wildlife and birdwatching of Northumberland, the North Pennines and Tees Valley for two wildlife officers and the development manager from ORCA (Organisation Cetacea).
My main input was to the 2nd and 3rd days, as I had another booking for the 1st day so only joined the group late in the afternoon on a rather wet Northumberland coast.
Day 2 dawned bright and dry at home but, as I passed Morpeth, it looked wet and misty ahead. The main road to Rothbury had been closed by flooding so a detour via the moors and past Cragside was necessary. We met up with Gill Thompson, the Northumberland National Park ecologist, and parked at Lordenshaws for a walk up Simonside. It was cold, snowy and exhilarating and we walked up to the start of the ridge. Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and Red Grouse were all seen as we climbed.
Returning to the car we set off to drive across to Otterburn, round the base of Simonside. That ran into a slight problem as, although we were fine in the Landy, Gill’s car couldn’t get through one of the floods we encountered. I continued with the girls and Gill backtracked to Rothbury to find an open route to Otterburn. After an excellent lunch at Otterburn Mill we headed towards Kielder Water and Forest Park. A drive along a forest road that isn’t publically accessible produced excellent views of Roe Deer and Common Buzzard…in increasingly heavy snowfall. At the Kielder Castle visitor centre there was excellent information provided about Ospreys, Goshawks, Tawny Owls, Red Squirrels and Hen Harriers. We also visited the two wildlife hides at Bakethin and Leaplish. Crossbills were calling in the tree tops, Goldeneye were displaying on the reservoir and the feeding station was a hive of activity, with Chaffinches, Coal Tits and an elusive Treecreeper. As we returned to the dam wall and waved goodbye to Shona, it was time to head to Hadrian’s Wall. Gill provided an excellent description of the wall, it’s history and the geology of the area while we were at Steel Rigg. Then, after a long day out it was time to travel the short distance to Saughy Rigg Farm; our accommodation for the night and also where were having dinner, hosted by the Kielder Partnership. The welcome, accommodation, evening meal and breakfast at Saughy Rigg were as outstanding as ever and it was good to chat to Sian and Shaun (who were both students at Haydon Bridge High School when I was teaching there).
Yesterday was our North Pennines day. I went out for a walk at 6am, and it was a beautiful Spring morning; Curlews were displaying and the early rays of sunlight were highlighting the contours and crevices of the landscape at their very best. After a breakfast that would set anyone up for being stranded in the middle of nowhere, Black Grouse was clearly high on the wanted list and I’d devised a route that would take in my top 2 sites for this handsome bird. The first obstacle was a vintage Triumph, completely blocking the road with it’s front wheels in a ditch where it had hit a patch of black ice. We manouvered our cars (Stephen had been away at a meeting the day before so was now travelling behind us) and a van to safety, in case the Triumph started sliding once it was back on the road. Thankfully that was accomplished without any problems and we continued. We would have checked one Black Grouse site and then re-traced our route, but that patch of black ice on a sharp downhill bend led to a change of plan and we took the road from Allendale to Carrshield instead…
As we crossed the moor there was a thin layer of snow on the road, but there were tyre tracks coming from the other direction so we continued. Stephen was following our tracks and then, at the high point of the road, the Landy skidded on some hidden ice, juddered and stopped. Snow was drifting in faster than we could shovel it away and we couldn’t get any traction to free us from the drift. Other vehicles from either direction were getting into difficulty in less snow than we had and…to cut a long story short…the entire incident involved two Landrovers, a family estate car and a snow plough all stuck fast, a team of drivers busy shovelling snow, two snapped tow ropes and Steph and Kathryn using the supplies (and flasks of boiling water) from the back of our Landy to provide coffee and hot chocolate to keep everyone warm. (Note to self; keep two shovels in the Landy in future!).
Once we we free from the drift, and checked that everyone else was able to continue, we headed on and found two excellent Blackcocks by the side of the road. Across to Langdon Beck and our (delayed) rendezvous with Shane Harris from the North Pennines AONB Partnership. As we re-structured the schedule Shane said “can anyone hear hissing?”. Yes, after all the effort we’d put into trying to get some traction with our offside front tyre…it was punctured. Just a minor inconvenience really so, with the spare wheel on, we had lunch at the Bowlees visitor centre (where the weather was positively summery), walked along the river at Low Force and then drove all the way down the Tees Valley to visit RSPB Saltholme. Finally, I dropped the girls at Royal Quays, ready for their first sailing this afternoon.
As Stephen put it at the end of the trip “A real Northern Experience!”.