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Sun 30th June 2013

Cragside - building dreams

Cragside - building dreams

The title was building dreams. It was a tour of the history and innovation of Cragside and the man and woman who built it, Lord and Lady Armstrong. Building dreams is also about the future and how the National Trust are aiming to return the Cragside estate to the way Lord and Lady Armstrong intended it; their dream. The walk itself went from the early beginnings through building Cragside and more. Seeing the source of the water that made Cragside and following it through the lakes and ultimately to the house itself.

The day started well. The weather was lovely and perfect for a day out at Cragside. We met up with our guide, who turned out to be Andrew Sawyer, the Conservation Officer for Cragside and also regularly described as "the soul of Cragside". As soon as we met him we knew that we were in for a treat. His enthusiasm and knowledge of Cragside estate were obvious from the start.

We set off from the Visitors Centre, round the North side of Tumbleton Lake. This is the first lake that Lord Armstrong created and is a beautiful start to the walk. Andrew explained the history of the buildings close to the lake and then took us down the Lady's walk, which he was closely involved in the development of. He showed us how they are aiming to clear the understorey and restore the true woodland enviroment, which will in turn restore the views as they were intended. We pass across a small bridge that was recently restored. This was an Armstrong bridge and was constructed in kit form, which was a very advanced way of thinking for the time. We then completed our walk around Tumbleton lake at the spill way. This is the overflow from the lake and is situate next ot hte Pump House.

The Pump House was the place that first generated electricity for the house and enabled Cragside to become the first house lit by hydro-electricity. Andrew explained that the most embarassing thing for Cragside, in recent history, is that it has not been lit by hydro-electricity for some time. However, this will be rectified by fitting the knew Archimedes screw alongside the spill way. Cragside are extremely proud of this and are looking forward to increasing self sufficiency by being to power their own lights again.

We then moved off down the Debdon burn. This is the burn in the classic views of Cragside as it runs under the Iron Bridge. The original paths along the burn are to be restored to allow visitors to follow the burn properly, as Lady Armstrong would have. We followed the existing path up to the newly restored Iron Bridge and crossed it. This structure is still as innovative and inspiring as the day it was built.

Walking into the pinetum, the first of the many artworks that we see is Douglas. So named as this is a dead Douglas fir that has been felled and carved into a face similar to the Green Man. Another more modern artwork ,"Hydraulic Colony", is the first of the installations that we see that are another part of "Building Dreams". The next area of interest goes back to the origin of Cragside. This is the location of the the building where Lord and Lady Armstrong lived whilst building Cragside house. It is also the favourite fishing spot of Lord Armstrong. A pastime which gave him the nickname "The Kingfisher". From here we walked up one of the oldest and steepest paths in Cragside, heading to the highest point of the estate.

On the way to the highest point we passed through the Labyrinth. This was created to make use of the huge area of land covered by rhododendrons. It involved clearing many interlocking routes through the shrubs to make a labyrinth of paths. There are many artworks here, including the statue of the Water Wizard, another nod to Armstrong himself, who also earned this nickname from his work on hydraulic engineering.

Once the labyrinth was navigated successfully, we headed up to the source of the water used for later hydro-electric power generation. Andrew took us up to the edge of the estate and showed us the pipe from the moor that directs the water on to the estate. We then followed the course of this pipe on towards the flume. This is a wooden structure that has been recreated from the original Armstrong design. It guides the water round the undulating hill, alongside the Black burn to the North Nelly Moss lake.

We walked around the North Nelly Moss lake and Andrew explained how the undergrowth and many of the trees and rhododendrons are being cleared by volunteers to uncover the bare rock, as was intended by Lord Armstrong. This will produce the much more spectacular views that can be seen in period paintings of the estate. He also showed us the dams that allow the lake to exist. Just as he mentioned that grey wagtails could be seen here, one appeared on cue. Watching this beautiful bird was one of the highlights of the day. We then walked on past the South Nelly Moss lake and the next art installation. This one shows original images of electrical discharge made by Armstrong. The are illustrated on sails of small yachts showing hte connection to water. On leaving the lake we pass the play park. Even here Andrew explains that there are developments planned. A water park is being funded by a large national company that will illustrate the story of Lord Armstrong by allowing children to generate the water play using archimedes screws to lift water.

We then descend towards the house, past the crag that gives the estate it's name, Crag End. On the way we passed the route of the pipe from Nelly Moss south lake to the power house. Other than a small stream there is barely any indication that the pipe was here. Most would walk past it without giving a second look. Along this path we see some of the rarer species of the rhododendron and even one of the favourites of Lady Armstrong. This has a beauiful white flower with a purple highlight.

Once at the house Andrew asked us if we would like a tour of the house and it's many artworks. Of course we said yes and were treated to and extremely informative tour, showing us many of the features of the house that we would normally overlook. We also took advantage of the second highlight of the walk, a sample of the freshly cooked cakes that are produced on Wednesdays, by volunteers in the kitchen.

At the end of the house tour Andrew asked us if we would like to see the tower. How could we pass up an opportunity like this? We followed him through a private door and up some stairs. He unlocked a door and led us out on to the tower balcony. The views were incredible and it was a real priveledge to stand in this small space that so few people see and which Lord and Lady Armstrong would surely have enjoyed. This was the last and best highlight of the walk and we left the house with a feeling that we had experienced something that very few people would.

We thanked our giude, Andrew Sawyer, said our goodbyes and left for our lunch. What a great day.

Thu 27th June 2013

Red Squirrel walk

Red Squirrel walk

Red squirrels in the UK are under threat from the introduced grey squirrel. Numbers in the UK have fallen from a onetime high thought to be around 3.5 million, to a current estimated population of around 120,000.

Tonight was the night that many of us had hoped to see these shy creatures.

Russell who was leading the walk had set up some feeding stations and had photographed some red squirrels feeding at some of them.

During our introduction we learnt the population in England is thought to be as low as 15,000. The most significant threat associated with grey squirrels is the spread and transmission of a disease called squirrelpox virus. Grey squirrels do not suffer from the virus but once a red has become infected they will invariably die within two weeks.

Russell gave us a very detailed background about the red squirrel and as we headed down into the forest the anticipation was building as we all kept our eyes peeled.

After  brief overview of what was ahead we headed off to see one of the feeders but sadly nothing could be spotted and as we climbed up to the road again past another feeder the Red Squirrels where having the final laugh.

I hope you agree it was a very informative evening and hopefully we will all know a little more and be more successful in spotting red squirrels in the future.

Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE) is a project that aims to increase red squirrel.

Their work is principally based in Cumbria, Northumberland, Merseyside, Lancashire, north-west Durham and the Yorkshire Dales, in and close to areas where red squirrels are still living free in the landscape.

You can report sightings of red squirrels, join local groups and find out places you can visit where you can enjoy red squirrels.

To find out more about their work, please visit

Wed 26th June 2013

Four hill forts of the valley

Four hill forts of the valley

Rothbury Walking Festival is now in full swing and today we had a superb walk taking in both sides of the valley looking at the ‘Four Hill Forts of the valley’.

After meeting at the new Shepherds Walks centre in Rothbury we headed up through the village before climbing up along Gravely Bank. A well-deserved rest at the top gave us a great overview of the valley and also the two hill forts on the south side of the valley.

We continued to gently climb up to the first of the hill forts.

- Rothbury Hillfort -

Old Rothbury Hillfort is situated west of Rothbury on the northside of the valley and sits close to westhills camp.

The fort has a double ring fortification though in places only a single ring is visible.

There are traces of hut circles inside the enclosure.

It always seems a bit odd to find a hillfort half-way up a hill. You'd think it would have been too easy for attackers to lob missiles down from above.

But, the inhabitants of Rothbury must have had their reasons I suppose. The fort is on a nicely situated plateau, and there are traces of hut circles. They went to a bit of effort to build the double ditch and rampart system, though in some places there's just a single bank and ditch, as the natural slope is pretty steep.

From Rothbury Hillfort we continued to climb up before reaching and dropping down Physic Lane before doing a short detour to our next hill fort.

- West Hills Camp -

The site covers about 3 acres. This Iron Age multivallate hillfort is located on a spur overlooking a valley located to the south. The earthworks are well-preserved in their eastern and northern part where three lines of ramparts can be distinguished. There is a wide berm between two innermost ramparts.

It has never been excavated, although earlier field reports mention remains of hut circles, nowadays difficult to distinguish. East of the hillfort there are bedrock outcrops with Neolithic/Bronze Age rock art.

After visiting West Hill Camp we continued down to Thropton before crossing the River Coquet, crossing the valley floor and we climbed up to a well-deserved lunch stop at Tosson Lime Kiln.

The sun was out, we had picnic tables, what could anybody else ask for?

Everybody was now fully refreshed for our steep climb up to the next of our hillforts.

- Tosson Burgh Hillfort -

This Iron Age hillfort occupies a very dramatic location, it is visible from miles away (even from Rothbury). It occupies a carefully chosen naturally defended site overlooking the Coquet valley to the north, west and east. Though there are no traces of habitation within the ramparts, the fort is unexcavated, and such features may survive below ground level.

The strong situation of Tosson Burgh hillfort suggests that it was intended for use as a fortification, though a public display of power and status may have been equally important.

Though evidence of habitation may yet be found inside the rampart, the fort is not large in area, in common with many other hillforts in Northumberland, and is unlikely to have supported any sizeable population. Smaller hillforts may have served as defended farmsteads established by autonomous small groups, rather than proto-urban centres.

Onwards and upwards as we climbed up away from Tosson Burgh Hillfort through Rothbury Forest to Simonside. We skirted around the ridge but then climbed upto Dove Crag before following the ridge back down to our next hill fort.

- Lordenshaws iron Age Hillfort -

Lordenshaw Hillfort comprises 3 ramparts separated by ditches and a counterscarp bank with a 2 metres high inner bank. Within the hillfort there are the remains of Iron Age hut circles. There are two entrances to the site, one to the east and one to the west. There are many rock art sites close by the hillfort.

It is a truly striking Iron Age hillfort.

It was downhill all the way after Lordenshaws and the group had a real sense of achievement and so they should. They had visited the four hill forts of the valley and as they arrived back in Rothbury it had been a real walk to remember.