CURLEWS AND CURSES ON HEXHAMSHIRE COMMON

Is there a North Pennines dialect word that expresses the particular longing, in fact the need, to hear the first curlews calling as they return to their breeding grounds? The Welsh have ‘hiraeth’ for a deep, nostalgic longing as a kind of homesickness, the Portuguese use ‘saudade’ for a melancholic feeling of longing and incompleteness.

So it was that I enacted the Swedish word ‘gökotta’ which expresses the urge to get up early in the morning and go outside to hear the first birds sing.

Parking where the road south from Whitley Chapel meets the edge of Hexhamshire Common I opened the car door …… and the burbling call of a curlew filled the air. Not just the two or three notes of a contact call, but the full glorious trill of rich liquid bubbling song.

My mission was a success even before I had laced up my boots.

Walking along a lane I passed a wood where chaffinches and thrushes were giving it the full ‘Spring is sprung’ song with percussion from a woodpecker. Gökotta had paid off big-time.

Descending towards Rowley Burn I had lapwings whizzing through the air above, a pair of curlews gliding and calling to my left and two golden plovers peeping as they scuttled through the grass. If I’d been ticking my sightings in the I-Spy Book of North Pennines Waders I’d have almost had the set and could send off to Big Chief I-Spy for my badge. (Note for younger readers: this was an actual thing in the 1960s).

The lane led downhill to a bridge which marked the end of the road. From here, just acres and acres of moorland and pasture.

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Climbing the steep farm track up the valley side I kept stopping, not because I was puffed out (unusually) but because there was so much curlew action. They were walking about in the tussocks, seemingly paired up and establishing territory. Seeing them in such numbers reminded me how important the North Pennines are to the survival of these charismatic birds. According to the British Trust for Ornithology breeding populations throughout the UK have dropped by more than 46%, making curlews our most rapidly declining bird species. They are now listed as globally near-threatened, one of the few British species on this list.

Wishing the curlews around me a successful breeding season, I opened the gate onto the moor and a skylark started singing. This was becoming a Bumper Birdsong walk. The signpost showed three miles to Allendale, home of Victorian tea seller Isaac Holden who has loaned his name to Isaac’s Tea Trail. The Tea Trail links some of the locations associated with his door-to-door tea selling, and the community projects he helped fund. Although today’s route wasn’t on Isaac’s Tea Trail he would surely have been a regular sight striding across these moors.

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The next 3.5 miles of my walk was along a wide track surfaced with broken stone, an access road for the grouse moor. Red grouse cackled at me as I passed or rocketed out of the heather as I came alongside their hiding place. Another crossroads of tracks showed me I was now just two miles from Allendale.

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On the horizon I could see Stobb Cross and was tempted to go and have a look at it but as my route took me in the opposite direction I decided energy conservation was a priority. I was only half way round and wasn’t sure how tiring the rest of the walk would be. Apart from the crest of trees in the distance behind the signpost, all I could see were miles and miles and miles of heather moorland. 

As the hills undulated so did the track, sometimes dipping sharply into a steep ravine known locally as a cleugh, pronounced as in Brian. (Note to younger readers: he was a famous footballer and manager in the 60s, 70s and 80s).

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The stony access road became a sandy track after it joined a short section of the charmingly-named Long Drag. In total the Long Drag runs for more than seven miles from Spartylea to near Whitley Chapel and it always grieves me that anything in the wonderful North Pennines should be called a drag. It should be renamed the Long Delight.

Quite often on my walks I like to play Vera Location Scout, spotting atmospheric places that could host any number of mysteries. In quick succession I saw three buildings in this very remote location that would be worthy of a visit from Vera in her Landrover.

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All too soon I had to leave the easy walking of the Long Drag Delight and head north east across the heather. Ominously this bridleway started near Hangman Hill and it turned out to be a rutted, puddled, eroded, rocky, tedious 1.5 miles. I was quite tired by now and made very slow progress. Thankfully grouse don’t have the mimicking abilities of parrots or that moor would be ringing with some choice oaths and curses.

However, the views were amazing as the path climbed. I could see across to the old lead-smelting chimneys above Allendale and there were huge slabs of scenery in all directions. Eventually the annoying track descended and became easier to walk, taking me to the edge of the common and my waiting car.

After channeling Welsh, Portuguese and Swedish words at the start of my walk I finished it in a state of waldeinsamkeit, a German word for the joy of solitude. Officially it relates to being alone in the woods, but it also celebrates a connectedness to nature.

There’s more information about Isaac’s Tea Trail at https://isaacs-tea-trail.co.uk/ and https://www.northpennines.org.uk/location/isaacs-tea-trail/

 

 

 

 

 

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