Friday, 9 June 2017

30th - 31st May - College Valley, Northumberland National Park, Kielder Water, and Newcastle Upon Tyne

There was sunshine and clouds this morning, and we decided to head away from the coast and the crowds of people and head inland into the Northumberland National Park, specifically the Cheviot Hills.  I had researched a few sites and settled on a circular walk along the College Valley, on either side of a burn that later becomes the River Glen.  We parked just outside Hethpool, and from there retraced our steps to cross the river at Hethpool Mill.  As is always the case the valley and surrounding hills looked splendid in the morning sunshine

Walking to the river, a Cuckoo called from the surrounding trees, but we were not able to find it.  The banks of the river were lined with gorse in full bloom.  The guide I had found advised that there was the potential of Dipper at the bridge.  I paused on the bridge and could see a bird on a rock.  It flew off quite quickly and called to reveal that it was a Common Sandpiper, strangely my first of the year.

Crossing the bridge the river was now on the the north side and the gorse was now a sun trap and on the old bracken a Peacock butterfly appeared the first of the trip.

The footpath passed through fields and on the slopes to our left there were Cheviot Goats feeding.

These are actually British Primitive Goats, and is a land race of the domestic goat native to Great Britain.  In Northumberland these are referred to as Cheviot Goats and the feral population is considered to be the best examples this primitive goat.

The long association of parts of Northumberland with goats is evident from place names such as Goatstones in the North Tyne and Ad Gefrin (now Yeavering Bell) which means “place of the hill of the goats”. It is unlikely that we will ever know the origins of most of the herds that have existed in the region but there are some interesting theories. For example, it has been suggested that the north Cheviot goats are the descendants of goats liberated by the monks of Lindisfarne in the 16th century when the monastery was dissolved.

One of the main reasons why goats were allowed to continue to roam in the hills long after they were kept to provide milk, meat or skins, was because hill shepherds thought favourably of them. It was believed that amongst their attributes goats could calm sheep, lead sheep safely to shelter, and could kill adders.

Disappointingly the path did not follow alongside the river, as a lot of the area was fenced off.  Instead it wound its way through fields and then a marshy paddock.  here we could hear the reeling song of a Grasshopper Warbler but despite waiting, and searching we could locate the owner.  With the marshy ground came quite a few Cuckoo flowers, and with them several Orange Tip butterflies, while from the silver birch trees the air was full of the songs of Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers.

We finally came upon a track that led to a ford across the river.  As I approached I flushed a bird from the far bank of the river, and fortunately it flew a short distance to a rock.  The firts Dipper of the trip.

Dippers are small, chunky, stout, short-tailed, short-winged, strong-legged birds.  They are unique among passerines for their ability to dive and swim underwater.  They have a characteristic bobbing motion when perched beside the water, giving them their name. 

This bird then moved a little further down river to another rock.

Bobbing all the time as it watched both above and across the water.

Dippers forage for small animal prey in and along the margins of fast-flowing freshwater streams and rivers. They perch on rocks and feed at the edge of the water, but they often also grip the rocks firmly and walk down them beneath the water until partly or wholly submerged. They then search underwater for prey between and beneath stones and debris; they can also swim with their wings.

Unlike many water birds, dippers are generally similar in form to many terrestrial birds (for example they do not have webbed feet), but they do have some adaptations to aid their aquatic habits. Their wings are relatively short but strongly muscled, enabling them to be used as flippers underwater. To reduce their buoyancy in water, the bones are solid instead of hollow.  They have dense plumage with a large preen gland for waterproofing their feathers. Relatively long legs and sharp claws enable them to hold on to rocks in swift water. Their eyes have well-developed focus muscles that can change the curvature of the lens to enhance their vision underwater, plus they have nasal flaps to prevent water entering their nostrils.

 Then it was gone flying down river and out of sight.

There were though plenty of midges and insects over the water and both Grey Wagtail and Chaffinches could be seen on the rocks, while what were either Chiffchaffs or Willow Warblers could be seen flying from the bushes across the water to catch insects.

Further on the path left the river once again and rose steeply, below we could see the river and over it Sand martins could be both heard and seen swooping over the tops of the trees.  A little further on there was evidence of Sand Martin nest holes in the sand soil in the bank of the river.

With the path at a higher elevation we were able to look down on the trees and this made it easier to find the owners of the bird song, this was a Chiffchaff announcing its presence.

The majority of the butterflies seen were Orange Tips, but there were also a few Red Admirals, Green-veined Whites and this Small Heath that rested on the path in front of us.

The path was now starting to fall away back down to the river, and the crossing to the other side to start our journey back to the car park.  On the far side the side of the valley was in full sun, and right in the middle was a tiny congregational hall which we would pass on our way back.

After crossing the river we followed a tarmac road, and with the sun now at its height it was quite warm in sheltered spots.  Alongside the path were sheep pens, the lambs were bleating as they looked to find their mothers.  A bird flew up to an overhead wire, and I hoped for a Ring Ouzel as it was quite distant, but it turned out to be a Wheatear.

A little further on Mistle Thrushes flew across down to the river while a Song Thrush foraged for food in the grass field.

We were now realising why in the notes for the walk the suggestion was to do it in the opposite direction to that proposed by the national park guide.  The walk along the tarmac road was quite boring, with very little to see.

Arriving back at the car park, the clouds were winning the battle with the sunshine, and in places looked quite threatening.

The intention was to find another recommended spot in the park to walk from, but with the weather now closing in, the area did not look that attractive.  The route we had taken took us through Rothbury, which is on the River Coquet, that flows out of the Cheviots.  Close by to Rothbury is the Cragside estate, a house and estate now owned and managed by the National Trust, that was originally the former estate of Lord William Armstrong.

William Armstrong was one of those Victorians whose great talents were matched by great energy. He was a Northumbrian inventor, arms manufacturer, and shipping magnate, who also designed and built swing-bridges such as the one over the River Tyne at Newcastle. Amongst his other very active interests were politics, education, archaeology and landscaping.  The TV presenter and comedian Alexander Armstrong is apparently distantly related to Armstrong

Armstrong had happy childhood memories of the area, and decided to build a place there in the country, the estate holds one of the largest rock gardens in Europe leading down to the Iron Bridge, which in turn leads to the formal garden.  A six-mile drive around the estate meanders through lakes and rhododendron forests which were in full bloom when we visited

Our visit was restricted by time to a cream tea in the cafe, and then a drive around the estate in a sharp rain shower.

We made our way back to Seahouses via a stop in Alnwick, and then a drive and stop for dinner along the coast from Amble.  The evening became clear and sunny, and our last night in the B&B was treated to a wonderful sunset.

Our next stop was to be Newcastle, but the plan was to visit Kielder Water on the way.  The attraction here was the possibility of Red Squirrel, and Osprey.  In the morning it was clear blue skies, and plenty of sunshine. 

We set off heading east through Alnwick and Rothbury.  As we approached Kielder the skies took on the crystal clear view, and with the Pine trees alongside the road it reminded us of the time we had spent in British Columbia in Canada.

We stopped at one of the camp sites alongside the water, and followed a trail into the woods where there was a squirrel hide, but nobody had told the Red Squirrels.  The trail then followed the lake with some stunning views.

Unlike the Red Squirrels we did manage to get a little closer to the Ospreys, but I am not sure it counts.  From the watch point we could see one of the four Osprey platforms that have nests.  The watch point is only manned with cameras and telescopes at the weekend, so we had to make do with my camera.  As you can see a long way away.

Does it count as a tick?

From Kielder we headed into Newcastle, the first time I have spent some time in this city.  We stayed in the Malmaison which is a converted Co-operative building on the Quayside opposite the Gateshead Bridge, and the Baltic Building.

The wildlife was restricted to Kittiwakes.  As we stepped out onto the Quayside we could hear them calling, and could see them flying around the Baltic building.  A look closer and you cou see them dotted along every possible ledge.

They were also nesting on the Tyne Bridge.

And any ledge on buildings closest to the river.

The weather was superb, we walked around the city centre, and then had dinner alongside the Quay, before retiring to our penthouse suite, and views across the River Tyne at night.

A complete change to the days we have had this trip, but tomorrow we head south into Upper Teesdale, and across the moors.

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