Within less than a mile of its formation the River Allen has cut a spectacular gorge. Lest other rivers get erosion envy, I should point out that the Allen has two powerful parents – the Rivers West Allen and East Allen, which gather their waters from a huge area of the North Pennines.
They marry in a leafy valley north-west of Allendale Town, marked on the map as ‘Water Meetings’, then process together underneath the arch of Cupola Bridge. Isaac’s Tea Trail passes a little to the south of the confluence, and is largely contained between the West Allen and East Allen, following their northern courses closely. The Tea Trail’s southern and south-western sections add the River Nent and River South Tyne to its riparian collection.
My walk started not far from the bridge, parking near the former Staward Station, now a private house but with platform intact and a linear lawn where the railway tracks used to be. Walking north across fields I was obviously under surveillance by curlews carrying out aerial patrols. One was noisily trying to drive away a crow – somehow the melodious voice of a curlew doesn’t do convincing shouty aggression.
The meadows were on a plateau with views as far as the Whin Sill that carries Hadrian’s Wall. Kirsty and Phil would surely agree that the former occupants of a derelict building called Gingle Pot had a brilliant location, location, location.
I find it impossible to pass old dwellings without wondering about the people who lived there and the lives they lead. Historians and local anecdote say Gingle Pot was an inn used by drovers bringing livestock to load onto trains at Staward Station. Others claim it was home to a woodsman and his family, recorded as providing hot water for picnic parties in the 1880s.
After crossing another field I entered a wood and walked along the crest of a narrow and very steep-sided ridge. Staward Gorge was on my left and Harsondale Cleugh on my right, so deep I couldn’t see down to the valley floor.
Perched on the ridge a column of squared stones and the traces of walls are all that remain of Staward Pele. This was one of dozens of pele towers in Northumberland, homes built for defence against raiding parties from the Border Reiver clans.
The descent from the ridge was very steep, but my reward for aching knees was a lovely path along the eastern bank of the River Allen through a wooded valley cloaked in wild garlic. The greenery and shade came to an end at Plankey Mill where the path crossed a couple of fields, and I suddenly walked into the perfumed air surrounding a bird cherry tree on the riverbank.
Having reached the halfway point on my walk, which had all been downhill, the return route would be largely uphill. The first half-mile was up a quiet lane, then I turned off to follow a footpath along the edges of three fields. One was bare earth, maybe prepared for planting, and in the soil were huge hoofprints. This is Sillywrea Farm, still worked with horses.
When I’ve walked here before I’ve seen the farmers with their pairs of Clydesdales pulling seed drills, harrows and a plough, and sometimes I’ve chatted to the horses as they grazed in the fields. No such encounters today though, just a couple of animals that had perfected the Paddington Bear Hard Stare.
First was a Border Collie, standing on the tips of the toes of its hind legs to reach the top of a wall.
Then the only horse I saw was a young Clydesdale lying flat out in the warm sunshine. It too gave me a long look then went back to its sunbathing.
So it was uphill again across fields until I reached a viewpoint where I could see Staward Station on the next horizon. As the crow flies, not very far at all. As the blogger plods, a bit of an effort. A final cheeky steep valley had to be crossed, so my knees had another opportunity to remind me of their age.
Walking slowly down to the burn and then back up again I wondered if I was being observed by dormice. These woods are part of the Staward Pele SSSI, home to the only known population of dormice in Northumberland, at the northern limit of the known range of the species.
The woodland path brought me back out into the fields I had crossed earlier and I rejoined the grassy path up to Gingle Pot.
If the building’s occupants were still there dispensing either beer or hot water for tea, I’d have been a willing customer.
There’s a lovely book and DVD about Sillywrea Farm: “The Last Horsemen” by TV producer and writer Charles Bowden.