I’m worried about causing uneven wear on Isaac’s Tea Trail by walking the same section repeatedly. It’s the route northwards from Ninebanks and it works well as a two-car job, leaving one car near the Elk’s Head in Whitfield then taking the other on to park at the Holden Hearse House.
The walk is a good introduction to the area for people who are new to the North Pennines, or haven’t explored the paths trodden by Victorian tea pedlar Isaac Holden. He raised money for charitable causes and funded worthy projects such as a horse-drawn hearse for the community’s use. It was stored in the little building which now acts as a shelter for walkers and a mini information centre.
We certainly needed that shelter as we put on boots for the walk. The forecast had been for heavy showers, and a downpour arrived just as we were setting off. By the time we’d walked past St Mark’s Church and out onto the fell it was sunny …… and by the time we were half way up the hill towards Pasturehead another shower was chasing us.
It caught up with us as we crossed the boggy plateau, delivering a thorough soaking. At least we had good waterproof clothing – apparently children as young as four used to walk this ground going to and from Ninebanks School. The drying out of clothes was part of the ritual of school life.
Our clothes dried out quickly as the showers moved away and the sun came out. My friend is a keen birdwatcher and, while I was confident the walk would gift us countless landscape joys, I was also hoping for avian treats. August can be a bit quiet for the binocular brigade, with birds hiding away to moult or migratory species departing.
Early in the walk we saw a buzzard cruising below us in the valley, and a kestrel living up to its other name windhover as it bossed the gusty gale. A few little twittery birds darted around in the rushes, probably pipits, but the rain and the season were conspiring against us as birdwatchers. I did see a huge three-toed bird’s footprint in a cow pat. Heron? Pheasant? Newly-hatched dinosaur?
Our route dropped steeply to the Dry Burn then up again across fields to join a farm track. This passed a couple of derelict farmhouses and an abandoned lorry. The trees around here are frilly with lichen, and it’s even getting established on the old truck.
Soon we reached a field that seems to have magic properties. It’s just an ordinary bit of boggy pasture, but it regularly hosts special bird sightings. The last time I was here (see blog posting of July 31st, The Ultimate Nature Walk) we saw newly-fledged wrens learning how to fly. At exactly the same spot today we saw a charm of goldfinches flitting across the pasture and landing on a fence. Eight of them kept together in a tight group, with their flashes of red and yellow plumage bright against the muted rushy grassland. Goldfinches eat thistle seeds, and there was a banquet spread before them.
A little further on we saw more goldfinches and they are indeed utterly charming.
The weather was as entertaining and unpredictable as the birds. We had much more sunshine than was forecast, but conditions changed every few minutes. I love how the elements give every walk a unique character, and the wide North Pennines views meant we could see what they were getting several miles away (even though my camera didn’t cope very well with the strongly contrasting light conditions).
Our lunch stop was on the hillside high above the River West Allen. Two kestrels were hunting below us, reversing the usual birdwatching scenario of craning the head backwards and seeing the underside plumage. The last time I did this walk we stopped at the same point for lunch and a rabbit hopped close to us and sat companionably for a while. Fortunately kestrels eat smaller prey, so I didn’t need to worry that my rabbit friend had been killed by my new kestrel friends.
The final section of our walk had bright sun shining through the oaks of Monk Wood.
As the track followed the contour the dense woodland gradually thinned out to allow views across the valley to high heather moorland just reaching peak purple. The only birds we saw closely were pheasants which had forgotten that birds can fly and instead were zigzagging ahead of us with their comedy run.
We left Isaac’s Tea Trail at Monk Farm and headed down the farm driveway to the road and the waiting car.
…… and the brilliant thing about the waiting car was that it was a convertible, with a double life as a moving bird hide. We had the roof down for the drive back to the other car parked at the start of the walk, and were escorted by an enormous flock of rooks. Hundreds of birds filled the sky with black bodies, calling to each other sociably and wheeling en masse through the air directly above us.
So yet again the walk was an absolute pleasure from beginning to end and merits its status as one of my favourites (among many other favourites). The route features in whole or part in the blog postings of October 2015, February 11 2016, September 22nd 2016, January 27th 2017, April 22nd 2017 and July 31st 2017.
The map is only intended as a general guide to the location of the walk. Full details, and so much more, are on Ordnance Survey’s Explorer OL43 Map Hadrian’s Wall.
There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at http://www.allenvalleys.com/isaacs-tea-trail