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Around Northumberland’s National Park


It starts with a cry of alarm cutting through the cool morning air. And then all is mayhem, a confused blur of steel and leather, sweat and blood.

It is a raiding party, grim men from over the hills, from Scotland, the enemy to the north. If the victims cowering in their farmhouse are lucky, the attackers are here to plunder, to steal the family’s livestock, and leave. If the day is less fortunate, the raiders will want to spill vengeful blood, to right a long-festering wrong perpetrated against their clan.

Many surnames common in Northumberland today can be found in the records of this period. Ridley, Armstrong and Taylor were all noted Reiver family names

In Medieval England, the land that now comprises the Northumberland National Park was a lawless place, inhabited by homestead farmers and a people known as the Border Reivers. The word ‘reiver’ derives from an early English word ‘reive’, meaning to steal or rob. Reivers inhabited marginal land, unsuitable for arable farming, fit only for easily-stolen grazing animals such as sheep or cattle. The Reivers’ lives revolved around raiding and an unwavering loyalty to their family or clan. Many surnames common in Northumberland today can be found in the records of this period. Ridley, Armstrong and Taylor were all noted Reiver family names.

The long centuries of border conflict affected the architecture of Northumberland. Still to be found in the dips and valleys of the Park are the remains of fortified farmhouses known as bastles. One of the better-preserved examples is Woodhouses Bastle near the village of Harbottle. The walls of the bastle are constructed of rough-hewn stone and are some 1.4 metres thick, a testament to the need to withstand repeated attacks.

It was only on the accession of James IV of Scotland to the throne of England that tensions began to ease between the two countries. From that point on, Reiving as a way of life started to disappear, to be remembered in the romantic fiction of Sir Walter Scott and in the celebrations and traditions still upheld on both sides of the border today.

The countryside of the Northumberland National Park has long been witness to conflict and military might. At the southern end of the Park, the broken remains of Hadrian’s Wall rise and fall along the contours of the landscape. It must have been an awe-inspiring sight when first built by the Roman invaders a little less than 1900 years ago. But the Wall served not only as a defensive structure at the edge of the Roman Empire. It was also an effective method of controlling trade between north and south, and of collecting taxes due from that trade.

Today, the Wall is the most visited part of the National Park. In May 2003 the popularity of the Wall as a tourist destination was boosted with the opening of the Hadrian’s Wall Path, Britain’s 15th national trail. Starting in Wallsend on Tyneside, the Path runs for 85 miles west to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria. By popular consensus the most dramatic stretch of the walk is the section that crosses the National Park. It is in the Park that the highest point of the Path is reached. At 345m, the crest of Whinshields Crag offers a commanding 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside, south to the Tyne Valley and north to the vast plantations of Wark and Kielder Forest.

The Otterburn Training Area covers some 23% of the total Park area and has been used by the British Army since 1911

Militarily, there is still a significant area of the National Park that resists outside invasion. It is the 21st Century Ministry of Defence, not some long-forgotten Roman legion, which now controls certain routes through the Park. The Otterburn Training Area covers some 23% of the total Park area and has been used by the British Army since 1911, when fears of European conflict exposed the need for a well-trained land force.

The access restrictions have one surprising benefit. The Otterburn Training Area is a haven for wildlife. The ranges boast England’s most northerly upland heath, home to ground-nesting birds such as black grouse and curlew, the symbol of the Northumberland National Park. There are also over 260 hectares of blanket bog in the OTA. This habitat is now an internationally rare resource and great care is taken by the Park Authority and the Defence Estates to preserve this precious environment.

Every spring the Otterburn Training Area falls quiet and restrictions are lifted on some of the roads that run through the ranges. The reason for this temporary lull in activity harks back to the origins of Reiving. The Northumberland National Park is sheep country, and spring is lambing season, a crucial time of year for farmers. Potentially two-thirds of a farmer’s annual income will be determined by how successful the lambing season is. And so from February onwards, for two to three months, sheep take precedence over guns, and the bleating of newborn lambs replaces the sound of firing on the hills of the ranges.

The National Park has its own breed of sheep, the Cheviot, a hardy creature named after the range of hills in the north of the region. The Cheviot is particularly suited to the grassy hills and uplands of the Park and to surviving the long, cold winters that can leave snow in the valleys as late as April. Cheviots can be found grazing as high as 3,000 feet and live in the hills all year round thanks to the thick fleece characteristic of the breed.

Over 75% of the National Park is farmed. Even within the boundaries of the OTA numerous farms can be found, soldiers and farmers sharing the land in an occasionally uneasy but generally good-natured way. There are four main landowners in the Park, the Ministry of Defence, and the Estates of Northumberland, Lilburn and the College Valley. For this reason many farms are run by tenant farmers rather than the landowners. Even though the tenant farmers may not own the farms, it is often the case that a family will have managed the same farm for several generations.

The north is the land of the Cheviot Hills, an ancient line of weathered volcanic peaks formed during the Devonian Period some 400 million years ago

The geology of the National Park determines the optimum size and shape of a farm. In the south, the average size of a farm is 293 hectares, but in the north, the average is four times the size at 1205 hectares. A look at a relief map of the National Park shows the reason for this disparity. The southern end of the Park is gently undulating and manageable; the north is more rugged and open, a suitable habitat for widely wandering sheep. The north is the land of the Cheviot Hills, an ancient line of weathered volcanic peaks formed during the Devonian Period some 400 million years ago.

The highest peak in the Cheviots is Cheviot itself. Though the 2,674ft height is modest by international standards, the climb to the top of Cheviot is still a test of stamina. The most popular route to the summit, from the floor of the Harthope Valley, crosses a landscape of rough grassland and sticky bog. Fortunately, the recent paving of part of the path, in an attempt to control erosion, has made the task of ascent easier.

The Cheviots are crisscrossed with numerous evocatively named streams and rivers; the Breamish, the Coquet, the Alwin to name just three. And yet despite all this water rushing down hills and through valleys, there is a surprising lack of any sizeable natural lakes. There are only two that are accessible: Darden Lough and Harbottle Lake (the third, Linshiels Lake is within the OTA). Both lakes are glacial in origin, and to reach their respective shores requires a climb of some distance. Fortunately both are surrounded by heather moorland, and the walks in summer are spectacular. The landscape becomes a palette rich in purples and greens, and the walk is well worth the effort.

If one phrase can sum up the Northumberland National Park it is ‘Land of Far Horizons’, a description of Northumberland by G.M. Trevelyan in his 1926 book, ‘The Middle Marches’. It is an apt phrase, not only as a description of the physical landscape of the Park but also as an evocation of the two-thousand years of living history still to be experienced there.

Visit the Northumberland National Park website for more information.

Comments (1)

That’s a really interesting piece about Northumberland David. It’s a place I’d like to visit at some point…

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