A swallow returns
Swallow feeding overhead
This week saw the return of our local swallows. They were a bit later than normal but they came back to a wonderful bright evening; their beige tinted fronts turned to a warm brown in the low, late evening sunshine.
The mornings are a little noisier now as they sing their burbling, scratchy song that is oddly melodic. The wire outside the bedroom window is a favourite place to welcome the new day but it’s a reassuring summer sound that has been missing up to now in our dawn chorus. We now await the house martins…
Dunstanburgh Castle (c) Duncan Hutt
Embleton Bay (c) Duncan Hutt
For a year we have been climbing hills and in doing so have given little attention to the coast, and coast is something that Northumberland does well. Yesterday was a day of sunshine and wind; a strong wind blowing offshore driving sand across the beach in mini sandstorms that blasted exposed faces. The sea wasn’t rough but the waves struggled as they came to shore with their breaking crests blown back out to sea in a swirl of spray that produced mini rainbows.
Sanderlings and purple sandpipers (c) Duncan Hutt
Coral weed (Corallina sp) (c) Sally Hutt
The coast between Low Newton and Dunstanburgh Castle is mostly a wide beach of pale sand but on occasions rocky platforms contained a few seaweed strewn rockpools. A small flock of sanderlings fed in some of these, seemingly oblivious to the constant stream of walkers passing by. In amongst this flock a few purple sandpipers stuck out, brown and grey against the white of the sandpipers.
Lilburn Tower, Dunstanburgh Castle (c) Duncan Hutt
Our walk took us down to Dunstanburgh Castle, a scattered set of ruins perched on a higher chunk of whin sill where it juts out into the sea. The remains are limited but the location is certainly striking and imposing. Nearby we encountered toads heading steadily to the ponds that remain on the landward side of the castle. The plants we found were nearly all yellow: celandine, primrose, dandelion, coltsfoot and an early cowslip, although scurvy grass provided a variation with its white blooms.
Toad (c) Duncan Hutt
River Pont in Stamfordham (c) Duncan Hutt
There are still few signs of spring in the local area. Celandines are out in flower but the cloudy weather meant that most remained closed up, just a few hardy individuals braved opening. On the arable field edge, left fallow this winter, red deadnettle was in bloom alongside common field speedwell but both of these can be seen in flower all year so their significance was limited. Common field speedwell is a non-native arable weed, apparently first recorded in the first half of the 19th century.
Red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)
(c) Duncan Hutt
Our plastic-free challenge has made us even more aware of the litter that can be found on even a very rural walk. Plastic bottles and (plastic covered) cigarette packets made up most of it although drinks cans were also common. Most annoying are the dog-poo bags, filled then left in the countryside to remain for years to come. More positive were the continuing presence of otterspraint under the bridges, a clear indication of their continued presence on our local watercourse.
Common Field Speedwell (Veronica persica)
(c) Sally Hutt
Lane near Pont Brocard (c) Duncan Hutt
A few hundred miles south from home and spring is well advanced. The mornings were still frosty but the warmth of the February sun is noticeably hotter than in Northumberland. So in the lanes that criss-cross the countryside the primroses and celandines were in bloom. In the sheltered spots the hazel trees were showing both the male catkins and the tiny red female flowers.
Fungus on a tree stump (c) Duncan Hutt
Hazel flowers (c) Duncan Hutt
Recent heavy rain made many of the lanes somewhat muddy, exacerbated by the seasonal cutting and harvesting of sections of the lane side trees. Some of the lanes are kept clear as part of footpath routes that cross the area or seem to exist around every local village. Unfortunately those lanes not designated as such are slowly disappearing, nature taking over again as large tractors require alternative access to the neighbouring fields.
In a few months the lane verges will be a blaze of colour from the spring flowers, for now it’s the more subtle hues of yellow and green; a soft and gentle introduction to the new year.
Celandine (c) Duncan Hutt
Summit of Cheviot (c) Duncan Hutt
Hedgehope from Cheviot (c) Duncan Hutt
The Northumberland Hills are a great place to get distant views at any time of year but recent ventures out there have come with rather curtailed vistas with mist and blowing snow. The snow has come and gone this year with great rapidity, snow one day, clear again a few days later and the snow has barely been seen down at lower levels.
Ice patterns on Cheviot (c) Duncan Hutt
We expected our walk up Cheviot to be in snow but it was only a thin dusting on the top. Fortunately the deep frost had frozen the wet peaty paths making them less problematic. The top of the hill was in mist, a small cap of cloud that increased through the day. The flagstone path led us clearly to a top that is hard to find amongst the peaty pools and boggy ground. It’s not the most pleasant summit in the area but the highest point in the County. Little in the way of wildlife was stirring in the persistent wind despite some sun below the cloud covering.
Rowans in the rocks above Byrness (c) Duncan Hutt
Byrness Church (c) Duncan Hutt
The following week we were out again on a chunk of the Pennine Way leading north from Byrness, with its tiny church. The path climbed quickly from the soggy snow at the valley floor to the windswept conditions of the hilly ridge, past a little group of rowan trees huddled together between dramatic boulders. Glimpses could be had into the valley with its forestry and reservoir. The path itself follows the edge of the Otterburn ranges, with signs along the route reminding you of the chance of unexploded ordnance. Again the wildlife was keeping a low profile but the occasional breaks in the cloud provided rare dramatic views in a largely empty looking landscape.
The top of Ravens Knowe (c) Duncan Hutt
Plastics in the oceans ends up as beach litter on the Turks and Caicos Islands
The family challenge from tomorrow is to live without plastics for a month then try to maintain a low plastic existence thereafter. To be more accurate we will avoid all single use plastics (otherwise no computer, phone, car, TV etc.). This includes recyclable plastics too as recycling isn’t really a solution to the problem. If you do look at recycling marks on plastics then it’s amazing how many are not even recyclable (particularly composite materials). We are doing this with two of Duncan’s work colleagues and documenting some of it on a separate blog: goingplasticfree. Why? Well look at the why page on that blog!
Buttermere from the path up Fleetwith Pike (c) Duncan Hutt
Vole prints in the snow (c) Duncan Hutt
Positioned at what must be about the centre of the Lake District, Fleetwith Pike holds a commanding position at the top of the Buttermere Valley. It’s a steep climb from the valley floor with a few false summits along the way. Once at the top, however, the view can be stunning with Great Gable and Scafell Pike to the south, Helvellyn East and Skiddaw to the North. The valley floor was icy and cold but gave way to a thin layer of snow and bright sunshine on the top. A few ravens flew past but little other life was immediately evident; look closer however and the snow was covered in the trails of small mammals and the occasional set of bird prints.
View east from Fleetwith Pike (c) Duncan Hutt
Old slate mine on Fleetwith and view to High Stile
(c) Duncan Hutt
The land to the east of Fleetwith Pike is slate mining country with Honister mines directly east and the remains of other, now abandoned, mines a little further south. One of the old mine buildings remain as a bothy and the old quarries and tips are slowly blending into the landscape. This was once a busy industrial landscape now just the scars remain, the miners and quarrymen have long gone.
Blackbeck Tarn (c) Duncan Hutt
Innominate Tarn and Pillar (c) Duncan Hutt
Two tarns stand by the walk on towards the smaller but rugged peak of Haystacks. The first, Blackbeck tarn, comes with views of Great Gable while the second and strangely named Innominate Tarn accompanies views of Pillar. Both tarns came with a sheet of ice, any life within them hidden from view. Hay Stacks itself is a tricky hill with three contenders for status as summit and the route down is a bit of a scramble to Scarth Gap, from where the path descends back towards Buttermere.
Two valleys from Hay Stacks (c) Duncan Hutt