Moss Troopers Trail 2: Housesteads to Simonburn
Tue 28th August 2012
This was the last section in a series of walks we have been doing each month since January 2012 based on routes both north and south of Hadrian’s Wall within the Hadrian’s Wall Corridor. A characteristic of nearly all of them has been a high squelch factor underfoot regardless of the prevailing weather conditions. The majority of the walks have taken place on little-used routes and we have seen parts of Northumberland that we wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. Our most recent walk began in sunshine, most unexpected for a Bank Holiday and as it turned out by far the best day of the weekend.
A quick transfer from Simonburn to Housesteads saw us walking up to Housesteads Fort in ideal walking conditions, sunshine, a comfortable temperature and virtually no wind. The walk in to where we left the route last month adjacent to East Stonefolds near Greenlee and Broomlee Loughs along the Pennine Way took until noon. This section of the walk held more interest for most of us with the Roman fort, the pastoral agriculture and the remains of the old lime kilns and quarries being most in evidence. It was notable just how quickly we left our fellow walkers behind as soon as we turned north at Rapishaw Gap. The east – west trending scarps and dips of the glacially smoothed geology also contributed to the feeling of solitude. Looking south it was often quite difficult to pick out the line of the Wall along the top of the Whin Sill. We were now walking east in a moorland corridor between Hadrian’s Wall to our south and the Wark Forest to our north. We walked through an outlier of the latter just before leaving the Pennine Way en-route for Houghtongreen Bothy where we had lunch in its sunny south-facing “garden.” This bothy is one of three in the Wark Forest looked after by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) the others being Roughside and Green. The MBA’s aim is “To maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places.” The majority of bothies are located in Scotland with a further seven in Wales and nine in the north of England.
Leaving our lunch stop we disappeared into the fringes of the Wark Forest once more and started the first of several parallel walks we were to adopt to avoid waterlogged sections of the route for the remainder of the day. The scarp crests proved to be a real asset allowing us to walk dry-shod for at least some parts of the route – and sometimes even to see where we were aiming for. The high drainage density on the map certainly doesn’t give a realistic indication of the actual conditions underfoot. The dominance of poor quality rough grazing land with relatively low stocking ratios is a far better indicator on the ground and we certainly found that the sheep tracks were the preferred overland routes to follow. Perhaps sheep aren’t as dim as they are portrayed and know more about avoiding foot-rot than we give them credit for. Even on the walk-in along the Pennine Way anyone departing from the stone causeways across the mire had a rude awakening e.g. with boot and leg up to the knee disappearing first into water and then glutinous mud on touching “bottom.” The key skill is to recover said leg with boot still attached!
The route between Houghtongreen Bothy and Great Lonbrough Farm was challenging both navigationally and in actually finding a viable route over the ground. The word “ground” is used advisedly as, with the exception of the aforementioned scarp crests, the terrain is essentially a moss (aka as mire, blanket or peat bog); really a watery world more liquid than solid. It is hard to generate an enthusiasm for these unique and important habitats when you can’t see where you are going and you suspect that you are developing webbed feet. Facts such as those below take-on a different perspective when you have your own personal bog inside your boots:
• Britain has approximately 13% of the total world resource of blanket bog so these mires are internationally important and a priority for conservation.
• The mires started to form about 12,000 years ago when the last glaciers retreated from Northern Britain. The ice scoured hollows and dips in softer rock and the cool, wet climate then allowed bog plants to thrive in these depressions. When they died the wet conditions meant that plants did not decompose fully in the anaerobic environment and peat formed.
• Peat is up to 15 metres deep in places, I particularly didn’t want to draw everyone’s attention to this under the circumstances.
• More carbon is stored in the Border Mires than in all the trees growing in 62,000 hectare (155,000 acre) Kielder Forest – England’s biggest man-made woodland.
• The bogs also hold more liquid than Kielder Water – Europe’s largest man-made lake. The mires were a refuge of the Border Reivers in the Middle Ages, who escaped the clutches of the law thanks to their knowledge of this chilly swampland - they were often called “Moss-Troopers” and were ostensibly our justification for being here.
We had a particularly muddy diversion to make on reaching Great Lonborough Farm as our route was blocked by sheep being attended to in the yard and every other alternative way ahead was a morass. Just short of the farm we took the opportunity to visit the standing stones on the Rigg of the same name 100 metres off-route. These were formed of sandstone and very similar to the solitary Harraway Stone we’d seen earlier on Haughton Common. The going became easier once we left the Access Land and walked through better quality inbye land towards and beyond Fenwickfield Farm then steeply downhill past the unseen remains of Simonburn Castle in the dense trees to our left. The final walk uphill in to the village was rewarded with afternoon tea at the Simonburn Tearoom, most unexpected as it was almost 5.00 pm but very welcome nonetheless.
Congratulations to all of the stalwarts who have completed all, or most, of the Hadrian’s Wall routes i.e. the Roman Ring between January and May and Moss Troopers Trail in July and August in the current series. We have certainly seen some very different countryside, experienced a range of weather and had a lot of fun along the way, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your company.
Monday, 27 August 2012