Bolam Lake & Shaftoe Crags
Mon 15th April 2013
A draughty day but we only experienced a couple of short-lived “April Showers” which we managed to largely avoid by hiding behind drystone walls and calling them meal breaks (for Ian of course); the rest of us forced down coffee and biscuits just to be sociable! This walk was the fourth in the Tour of Northumberland series where we aim to walk in each of the nine geographical sub-regions of Northumberland following a route that shows the best that area has to offer whilst avoiding the honeypot routes. Bolam Lake and Shaftoe Crags in particular are very well known to Tynesiders but we managed to avoid the crowds and gain a different perspective of the evolving human occupation in the area. Hopefully even the free car parking location helped?
The focus of the walk was the site of the deserted medieval village of South Middleton, first recorded in 1296, alongside the River Wansbeck where the remains of the village site are bisected by the modern road and surrounded everywhere by ridge and furrow cultivation.
The settlement was abandoned by 1760; the reason for this is unknown. There were lots more to see en-route from the sites of stately homes and follies representing Capability Brown type landscaping (who was born and lived his early life close-by at Kirkharle, the current home to Shepherds Walks). This is an area of mixed farming and it was a pleasure to see lambs in the fields and recently ploughed land where the drainage was sufficient to enable it to take place. The glacially derived boulder clay that blankets this area results in a potentially heavy, cold and “late” soil especially when saturated; remember last “summer” and the weather since then? The solid sandstone bedrock pokes through the boulder clay in places most notably forming the crags at Shaftoe where climbers test their bouldering skills, protected by crash mats below. Unsurprisingly when we lunched in the relative shelter of the crags there were no brave boulderers, the south-west wind alone would have swept them off their routes and they would most likely have missed their crash-mats being blown sideways by the strong wind. We saw several wind farms at various points along the route, always good for promoting healthy debate, but few were actually operating in the gusty wind including the largest one that we could see near Sweethope Lough. It seemed to be an ideal day for wind generated energy but perhaps it was too gusty?
In the morning we considered what settlement and land-use would have looked like in the medieval period when it was farmed using the open field system. We used evidence we’d observed along the route but particularly around the deserted village of South Middleton. Sheltering from one of the sharp showers provided a good opportunity to see how the sets of individual ridge and furrow strips fitted together to form headlands and how the differing orientation of these changed even within a single open field. The gentle reversed S-shape of furrows ploughed by teams of oxen was also plain to see. We passed South Middleton Mill Farm (another farming clue) shortly before inspecting the site of the deserted village with its individual house platforms and crofts laid-out behind. It was easy to imagine the village at a dry-point site alongside the Wansbeck overlooking its floodplain surrounded by cultivated extensive open fields with woodland beyond. Have a look at the following website for aerial photographs of South Middleton from Newcastle University’s collection http://sine.ncl.ac.uk/retrieve_results.asp?si=671
The afternoon leg built on the morning’s experience to explain how the open field system that existed for a millennium was transformed by enclosure to produce the rural landscape we see today. There were lots of questions about why, how and when these change took place. Eventually the penny dropped and newcomers quickly learnt not to ask as it always led to yet another “explanation” by you know who! Nevertheless the route did demonstrate how enclosure led to rural landscape that we see today and how the Agricultural Revolution was a necessary part of the parallel Industrial Revolution in terms of food supplies for the growing urban industrial centres. We even went as far as considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of enclosure to the different social groups in the villages of enclosure, cerebral stuff indeed. Never mind, the 360° view from the top of Shaftoe Crags was magnificent, Newcastle and the Tyne Valley to the south and south-west, the coast and Alcan near Lynemouth to the east, Simonside to the north and west to the Kirkheaton windfarm. Paradoxically the Piper’s Chair was more obvious from a mile away across the fields compared to when we were standing right next to it, similarly the large south facing walled garden adjacent to East Shaftoe Hall. Just before we left the fields for the gentle walk through Bolam Lake country Park (more landscaping but not by Capability Brown) we passed Shortflatt Tower dating from 1257 which weathered the best attentions of the Reivers to survive today as an up-market country retreat for social and corporate events, holidays etc.
It was nice to see some regulars who pull my leg incessantly to keep me in my place (I think?); I’m sure that my wife would approve. It was god to see some new faces including four from the Deep South, or County Durham as we call the area south of the River Tyne Border Control. We hope to see you again soon now that you know not to ask too many questions or appear too interested. The unwritten protocol to be followed in these circumstances is a follows. You pretend to be interested but never ask follow-up questions otherwise it can take all day, anyway, Ian often doesn’t have enough food to last that long. Kathleen, I hope you enjoyed your birthday. Do have a look on Google Earth to see where we have been, everyone should easily be able to pick-out the site of the fort you saw (once it was pointed out) immediately to the south of us below the trig point on Shaftoe Crags. It is easiest to see when you zoom-in to a height of about 500 metres (shown in a box at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen next to the words “eye alt”). Thanks to everyone for another good day out.
Monday, 15 April 2013
N.B. The Budle Bay and Bamburgh walk initially advertised for Saturday 18th May has had to be rescheduled for Sunday 1st December 2013.