Northumberland National Park – Part 4

10 12 2006

1-10 December 2006

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6

Redesdale Forest

Amidst the forest pines

Amidst the forest pines

Byrness is right in the valley by which the river Rede flows. It is surrounded by a forest in all points of the compass. This vast forest is the Redesdale Forest which has been built on the slopes of many hills high and low. I say built simply because this is not a natural forest. It has been created by man out of a need for timber. In particular, such vast plantations occurred in the post-war period amidst fears that the nation did not have enough timber reserves for a future war in an uncertain world. No forest that is natural would grow in such rigid neatness. Neither will it grow with such ordered precision and regularity.

In this forest I have seen man’s ability to tame even nature, albeit within certain bounds. But this ability must be learnt and cultivated since taming nature is not a trivial task. While I had been staying at Demesne Farm, I had met four French students from Nancy who were in Britain on a field trip in forestry. Each one specialized in a certain aspect of forest management. If Redesdale Forest appeared big to me, let us consider the neighbouring Kielder Forest which is a lot bigger. In fact, Kielder Forest is the largest man-made forest in Britain, while Kielder Water is the largest man-made lake in Europe.

Where the forests stop, the moors begin. It is likely that much of the land in these hills would have been uncultivated moorland. With a low population, very little would have been used for agriculture. So the conversion of such unutilized land into useful forests on such a large scale reflects the forethought of the early forest planters. Here man’s need has in some way stood to benefit nature rather than destroy it. Consideration must also be given to maintain a balance between such conifer plantations and native hardwoods.

Broadly, there are two types of views to be had in the forest: open and closed. With open views, we see the broad perspectives in which the crests of hills define the horizon. One hill merges with another or hides another behind it. The tree-tops stick out as an array of needles or bristles covering a rough hide that is the forest. These tree-tops follow the contours of the hills. Where the hills are bare, the forest green is replaced with a bare brown. The presence of man is ever visible in the curves of bridleways, lanes and forest drives that dip into a valley only to climb up again on the slopes of a far off hill.

With closed views, we are in the intimate company of trees. We do not know or care if we are on a hill or a valley. Our attention is monopolised by the tall pines standing in neat arrays. Their branches stretch out in graceful curves as with open arms, to welcome us into their fold. By their ordered formations, they make perspectives for an effect that they desire. If they curve, we wait eagerly to be surprised at the turn. If they lead us straight in their hundreds, we admire their solidarity. If they dance in the breeze, our hearts sing. If they are still, we are moved.

In this forest, a couple of difficult decisions had to be made. On one occasion an intersection of two roads appeared when none such existed on the map. After some study of the map I concluded that the road must be a new one. After all, the OS map I was carrying was eleven years old. On another occasion, a clear path was visible but it was narrow and followed a water-logged ditch. It did not align itself to the path on the map. It looked more like a deer track. I decided to follow the route marked on the map although the ground was overgrown with grass and no path was visible. In the end, my decision turned out to be right. A certain amount of experience helps.

I walked a great deal on tarmac roads before taking to moss-covered forest tracks. One such is named on the OS map as “Rooken Edge”. Once we leave the roads behind, we leave civilization and man’s presence. The full-flourish of nature is seen and her little secrets are revealed – the red mushroom hugging a bed of rain-soaked moss; rain drops poised delicately at the tip of pine cones that are more beautiful that decorations on a Christmas tree; the many varieties and colours of growth on the open forest floor; the soft red-brown carpet of pine needles fallen from their trees; deer droppings and even deer tracks seen in the flattened clumps of grass; the ubiquitous robin; the calls of birds somewhere in the canopy. In such a place I felt the general isolation of man within the great works of nature. We live in a smaller world of cities, cars, shops and offices.

On Trees

More than love, I have had respect and reverence for trees. In native woodland, some trees are centuries old. They are not travellers like men. They have not seen the world. They do not run around for survival. They accept what is given to them. They grow where the seeds take root. They give to the world what they have. They stand, they watch, they wait. They seem to embody the very spirit of ancient universal wisdom. A lot of wildlife depends on them. World ecosystem as a whole depends on the existence of trees and their forests.

In Redesdale Forest, I have walked some hours in the company of trees. In every part of the forest, no individual stands out. Rather, I saw families and relationships – brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, sons and daughters. The branches of each tree link with those of its neighbours. In this feeling of touch there abides filial bonding, comfort and security. One generation leads the way for the next. If there are trees barely five feet height, the elders on the hill higher up oversee their growth and lead by example. If there are bare patches of brown breaking the green canopies, we see that one generation has moved on for the next one to grow.

At places, trees are no more than four feet apart. Trees just planted are circumscribed by straight plastic tubes. These facilitate an ambitious growth straight for the sky. After all, light is critical for survival and any tree that does not become part of the canopy will die. On the forest floor, no light reaches. The silence is complete but the greater impact is of a dull darkness that permits no light. It is not a complete darkness for one can still make out shapes, forms and lines. Nonetheless, it is a darkness filled with an invisible light filtered through many sieves of leaves, branches, needles and cones. Perhaps, this is what Milton meant when he spoke of “visible darkness” in Paradise Lost.

Yet for all this natural beauty, it is man who decides when these trees will rise or fall. They grow by the bounty of nature but their fall is predetermined. Silently and patiently they wait for the end that is inevitable.

Danger in the Hills

Much of the land north of Otterburn and northeast of Byrness is occupied by the Ministry of Defence. On many days, live firing is carried out and on those days red flags are displayed prominently on the crests of hills to warn walkers not to enter anywhere within range of artillery. The day I walked from Byrness to Uswayford Farm was one such. The silence of the hills was constantly disturbed by the sound of gunfire. Many paths were littered with shells. Walkers are reminded by sign boards not to touch any of it. Some many possibly be yet unexploded.

While walking in Redesdale Forest I would have gone deaf if not for my quick action. I was approaching the top of a hill. For sometime I had been walking on open terrain as the ground around me had been harvested for timber quite recently. Suddenly, almost without warning, a jet fighter flew past from the other side of the hill. It was very low and the sound was intense. I quickly dropped my walking stick and plugged my ears.

Danger in these hills, if there is any, is not from nature, but from man, even in this isolated landscape.

A Splendid Day

December 6, 2006. Wednesday. The most glorious day in all my travels in Britain. A day that I will remember for many months to come. Spectacular views from the Pennine Way all about the Cheviot Hills, from Byrness to Uswayford Farm.

It is difficult to describe in words and not much better with a picture. The views that I had today have been stunning to say the least. The feelings have been overwhelming. When these views, which unfold at almost every step, are combined with a distant isolation, the soul communes with the great works of nature in the company of solitude. For today, in a seven and a half hour walk on these hills, I met only three other walkers. The rest of the time I have been with the hills, the sun, a gentle cold breeze and myself.

The views are far-reaching but that in itself does not necessarily make a compelling picture. But to see the entire landscape filled with hills, peaks and distant valleys washed by meandering rivers, is really something. From the Pennine Way one can see the lesser peaks of these hills stretched out on either side of the Scottish-English border. One hill folds onto another. Curves dip into unseen valleys below and rise in a new incarnation on the other side.

In the Cheviot Hills, one is never on top of the hills. One is rather in their midst. Everywhere one looks, the hills are laid out in some incomprehensible design. Broad valleys, far below, separate them. Narrow passes, nearer to the peaks, join them. They do not reach for the skies like their bigger cousins, the mountains. They are contented in keeping a low profile, which is seen spread across these parts in interlaced curves. Like the trees in the forests around Byrness, the hills are joined as a family. They converse with the breath of the breeze. They trip the clouds to offer their guests a drink. When the sun sets, they throw their shadows to cover their kin for the night.

There is a great difference between climbing a mountain and walking a hill. In the Cheviot Hills, I never felt I had conquered something or achieved something remarkable. The single-most important realisation has been this exceptional privilege of being able to enjoy the hills with the best advantage that Northumberland weather can afford. I had been invited to sample the beauty of the hills. The welcome was warm. The hospitality was a balance of respect and understanding. I was embraced by these hills.

View from Windy Gayle

View from Windy Gayle

Of all the views, the view towards the hills of Scotland from Windy Gayle was by far the best. I stood there in a reasonably mild wind for a quarter of an hour trying to absorb the beauty of the scene. I was almost moved to tears. The vast perspective, the harmony of diverse elements and the little details are only some attributes of this perfect scene. There are some good views on the English side of the border but the best of them are on the Scottish side. By laying down the Pennine Way on the border, the English artfully peep into their neighbour’s territory to enjoy what they cannot call their own.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6

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