As it was a bank holiday I decided to head for a bank. A river bank. There’s a section of the South Tyne valley that I haven’t explored and I plotted a circular route from the village of Slaggyford.
The walk was a perfect chain-link between two other routes on my blog (September 25th 2017 ‘Gin or Coffee? Coffee Wins’ and May 26th 2016 ‘The Anorak Dilemma and an Antipodean Mystery’) and included a short section of Isaac’s Tea Trail. As it was officially the hottest Early May Bank Holiday since the holiday was introduced in 1978 I was hoping for cool breezes and plenty of shade along the way – by nature I’m much more arctic than equatorial (in so many ways……).
After crossing to the east bank of the river I walked south along a lane that offered intermittent shade, with the promise of denser cover any minute now as more leaves unfurl.
With the river on my right I soon had a different kind of bank on my left – a bank of bluebells. This incipient woodland already has its traditional floor installed.
Leaving the lane, I crossed a footbridge and found myself at the base of a steep grassy slope. Somehow my eyes had overlooked the contour lines on the map. Labouring uphill brought me to a wide parkland landscape, eventually less steep and with views of the river below. I heard a few curlew and lapwing calls, but not as many as I’d hoped for. Maybe the flirting frenzy is over now and they’ve paired up and become parents.
As classic parkland it was ornamented with trees rather than wooded, and while fine specimens and small clumps of trees in a designed landscape were pleasing to the landed gentry, they are less pleasing to a shade-seeker. I could have zigzagged from tree to tree but that would have added distance to my walk. It would also have meant disturbing the sheep and lambs that were quilting the ground beneath each tree.
The path across the parkland led to a narrow lane which I joined for a short distance before taking another path; this time the landscape was small fields and drystone walls. After crossing several ladder stiles I decided to make one of them my lunch spot. I can think of many areas where you wouldn’t dream of settling down to a picnic on the top plank of a stile because you’d be getting up every few minutes to apologise to walkers for the obstruction. As I hadn’t seen a single walker all morning I felt sure I wouldn’t be disturbed. It was a great perch – like a tennis umpire, or maybe a pool lifeguard but checking for burgeoning life rather than imminent death.
After lunch there was just one more field to cross before a lane took me down to the hamlet of Kirkhaugh, and its unusual church with a very skinny spire. It’s the only church in England dedicated to the Holy Paraclete (the Holy Spirit embodied in a dove) and was re-built in 1869 to a design created by its rector Octavius James. Victorian tea pedlar Isaac Holden married Ann Telfer in the previous church building here in December 1834.
By now I was back at the river bank and after a morning of solitude I suddenly encountered six people and seven dogs. First there was a jogger with a Border Collie. They were just passing through, but sitting beside the river were four people with a brown and white spaniel, and standing in the river was a man with four Labradors and a black spaniel. One Labrador was living up to the breed’s reputation for greediness by eating sheep poo.
To distract me as I toiled up the hill on the western bank I mused on the different ways breeds of dogs I meet interact with the countryside. Spaniels need to displace as much vegetation as possible as quickly as possible, as blunderingly as possible. Border Collies walk ever-watchful with spirit-level spine until a ball is thrown, then go from still to streak in a nanosecond. Jack Russells pay no attention to their humans except as a mobile maypole to weave around on invisible elastic ribbons. Labradors, as well as being greedy, keep checking in with their owners, carrying a stick with pride as if the tree gave it to them personally. They leap into water repeatedly, forgetting the pool rules of no running, no bombing. They’re always up for a bit of petting though. Obviously I was still in lifeguard mode.
I reached the narrow gauge track of the South Tynedale Railway which runs north from Alston to Lintley Halt and is soon to reach Slaggyford. So in future I could catch a train back to my car but I’ll probably walk anyway – the trackside path was a level and easy final two miles to my walk.
There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at http://www.allenvalleys.com/isaacs-tea-trail/