View South from Shillhope Law (c) Duncan Hutt
The Coquet (c) Duncan Hutt
Another weekend and another hill; this week’s ascent was of Shillhope Law in Upper Coquetdale. The weather swapped between winter and spring with hail flurries and sunshine, a cool breeze but warmth in shelter. The wildlife too tried to cling to the hope of spring with a pair of oystercatchers by the River Coquet and pairs of ravens flying close. Up on the hill skylarks climbed in song, to go suddenly quiet as the hail came, restarting as it passed. The air was clear but the showers shortened the horizon making Cheviot almost invisible to the north.
Pleurozium schreberi (c) Sally Hutt
Map Lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum (c) Sally Hutt
The path ascends through hill grasses until it approaches the summit where heather takes over. Here crowberry and mosses such as Sphagnum capillifolium and Pleurozium schreberi shelter below the mini canopy of the heather. Lower down, by the river, small rocky outcrops were coated in lichens such as the descriptively named map lichen (Rhrizocarpon geographicum) and others that will remain anonymous to us at least.
Muncaster Castle and the River Esk (c) Duncan Hutt
Stainton Tower (c) Sally Hutt
A bit of research would have indicated that the way up to this odd little tower was not the one we chose. The structure goes by the grandiose name of Stainton Tower although locally it’s know as the pepperpot. There is another ruined ‘monument’ on the same ridge and there seems to be very little information to explain these two buildings. The view north looks out over the Esk estuary and across to Muncaster Castle. Some suggestions are that these are follies, presumably to enhance the view from the castle and to go alongside the other structures built there. Another explanation is of a lookout over the Esk and it is a great vantage point although possibly not the most suitable for such a purpose.
Lasallia pustulata (c) Duncan Hutt
The tower is best approached from Dyke Farm but we attempted it from the northern end of the same ridge, a somewhat awkward approach. The path climbed up through oak woodland before opening out onto the craggy ridge above. A buzzard circled on our level for a while and a great tit chimed its monotonous call from the woodland. Lichens coated the old trees and clung onto the windswept rocks. Here Cladonias and the wonderfully named Lasallia pustulata vied for space with an array of crustose species. Lasallia pustulata is one of a few lichens known by the English name of rock tripe and is supposedly edible but is probably best reserved for desperate times.
One lone Herdwick sheep seemed to be grazing the hillside. The view up the Esk valley was up to snow-covered hills although the snow level was surprisingly high given recent weather.
View up Eskdale (c) Duncan Hutt
View north from Long Crag (c) Duncan Hutt
Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
(c) Sally Hutt
It had been years since we last visited Thunton Woods, and then it was on cross-country skis. Why we haven’t been back for so long is a bit of a mystery and it was certainly worth the trip. A bout of dog-sitting forced us to find a suitable spot to go for a walk and Sally’s 50 hill challenge directed us to a hill. Long Crag isn’t particularly high at 319m but it does have an amazing vantage point overlooking the coast to the east and the Cheviots to the west. This is one of the hills on a long line of sandstone crags sweeping down Northumberland and across to Simonside.
Alder bud (c) Sally Hutt
The hill is reached through conifer forest at the start opening out onto heather carpeted moorland with patches of crowberry and cowberry. A fresh and icy wind made us take shelter in the sandstone outcrops for lunch from where we dropped back to the valley of the Coe Burn, overlooked by the castle like rocks of Coe Crags. Here the buds of the small alder and willow were swelling, giving a hint of the spring ahead. We found a route back through the trees to our start point using what appeared to be an old track now partially lost in the covering conifers.
View from Kilhope Law (c) Sally Hutt
Sphagnum moss in the snow (c) Duncan Hutt
Following a few cold winters this one, so far, has been mild and wet. The north-east of England has missed the torrential rain of the south and west but even here mud and dampness are the order of things. Occasionally winter has struck on the hills as it did on a walk up to Killhope Law in the North Pennines a few days ago. The snow was being driven onto wet ground sweeping around the heather shoots; cotton grass leaves and Sphagnum tussocks. Red grouse lifted occasionally though few bothered making their cackling call in the powerful westerly wind.
Wind blown vegetation and snow (c) Duncan Hutt
The top was surrounded by runnels in the peaty soils providing maze like access to the trig point at the top. Just off the summit is a stone cairn, almost lost in the mists and driving snow. There were occasional views down into Allendale but Weardale remained unseen.
This was the first of 50 hills Sally plans to climb this year while helping raise money for charitable work in Kenya linked to our trip last October. If anyone would like to help please go to her JustGiving page.
Mistletoe in the trees (c) Duncan Hutt
Mistletoe (c) Duncan Hutt
One of the distinctive features of a winter walk in Normandy is the scatter of tall trees bearing green clumps of mistletoe. This parasitic plant does produce some of its own food with its green fleshy leaves but gets minerals and water via its host plant. The white berries have extremely sticky flesh which helps in the process of seed spreading by birds such as the mistle thrush.
Polypody frond (c) Duncan Hutt
Elsewhere the narrow lanes that criss-cross the countryside provide excellent walking (except where the mud is deep or the lane is flooded) and also provide shelter. Here ferns cling to the banks or the fringing trees and other plants such as pennywort spread along steep lane sides. In some places the track is covered in empty hazel nuts or the remains of acorns; small holes and heaps of soil provide evidence of small mammals that must feast on this resource.
Bull Crag, Boot (c) Duncan Hutt
Mosses on a wall (c) Duncan Hutt
Occasionally there is a day around Christmas when it is worth getting out, although this year they have been very few and far between. We did manage a relatively short wander in Eskdale (Cumbria) up to Blea Tarn above Boot. This is a ‘Lake District in miniature’ walk and the moody skies helped make it all the more interesting, although the sun was in very short supply.
Eskdale near Boot (c) Fraser Hutt
There wasn’t much wildlife to be seen, gorse being the only flower on show. On the walls the recent damp weather made the mosses particularly green and vibrant. The climb up from Boot passes peat storage huts and a line of mine shafts along a seam of iron ore. As the paths drops towards Blea Tarn the views extend down towards the sea although it was all but obscured in the cloud.
The path up Boot Bank (c) Fraser Hutt
A stormy view up to the summit skyline (c) Duncan Hutt
A glimpse of sunshine along the forest edge (c) Duncan Hutt
Quite by chance we made a return visit to Simonside, near Rothbury, exactly a year after our last trip. This year the weather wasn’t quite so kind although we did get a bit of sun on the first part of the climb. The wind blew strongly, particularly across the exposed parts of the summit ridge. There were a few grouse that broke cover and dived off out of our way but no laughing cry as we heard last year. Virtually nothing was in flower, only a lone gorse bush and a tiny piece of heather. The rain hammered at us for a while and we took shelter, of sorts, amongst some of the rocks. The views were somewhat indistinct although the arrival of wind turbines was an obvious change.
A brief burst of light in the southern sky (c) Duncan Hutt