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Mon 1st July 2013

Northumberlands Mississippi Blog

Northumberlands Mississippi Blog

28th June 2013

Flaming June it certainly was not; cool, wet and windy conditions prevailed with the cloudbase almost exactly on the top of Simonside.  Nevertheless we started off at Tosson Lime Kiln with a quick introduction to the Carboniferous Period of geological time, an even quicker look at the geological map of the area and a closer examination of the kiln itself which brought all of the elements of that particular period of the earth’s history together i.e. the ancient geography and climate and the geology comprising of local Fell Sandstone, coal and limestone.  Darren was happy when I got my tape measure out to show just how relatively recent the Carboniferous period actually was in relation to the total age of the Earth.  Best of all we were able to do all of this sheltered under the draw arches of the kiln itself but we eventually had to go and get wet noting the now disused quarry close by.  Up past the distinctive Iron Age hillfort of Burgh Hill and over the appropriately named Windy Crag we entered the Simonside Forest (i.e. large Forestry Commission conifer plantation) to shelter for elevenses half an hour late but welcome all the same.  I found everyone a nice spot to sit and was sent down the hill to eat my scone; I think that everyone wanted some peace and quiet!

Elevenses over it was onward and upward up the scarp face of the Fell Sandstone towards the edge of the trees via the packhorse trail grooves cut in the sandstone and the nearby possible Neolithic rock shelter as archaeologist have interpreted it, it must have been a draughty spot but it did get everyone looking at the current bedding structures in the rock face.  Out onto the forestry road below the Simonside Crags we could just see parts of the Cheviots with their contrasting rounded topography consisting of the granite masses of Cheviot and Hedgehope surrounded by the lavas of the former Cheviot Volcano (there may have been more than one volcanic cone but all evidence has long been eroded away).  By contrast the crags of Fell Sandstone were bold, sharp and distinctive with more or less concordant summits as far as we could see into the murky gloom.  On the climb up to the crest of the escarpment we had plenty of opportunity to see the sandy hillwash resulting from recent weathering and erosion and see the acid loving, heather dominated, vegetation associated with sandstone bedrock.  It was time to introduce everyone to topset, foreset and bottomset beds in the current bedding and to appreciate how these predominantly shallow water sediments were originally deposited in the massive delta that formed Northumberland’s Mississippi in water that was quite shallow.  The fact that these shallow water deltaic sandstones eventually accumulated to a depth of 300 metres plus had us looking for other mechanisms to explain this, that and a sincere desire to stop for lunch very soon.

A quick lunch was taken in the shelter of Old Stell Crag; it was too cool and windy to sit for long just at the cloudbase with no view.  We moved quickly over Dove Crag and onto The Beacon descending by the old 13th century deer park wall to have a quick look at the Beacon Solar Observatory (re)discovered in 1987 by David Thompson.  We soon located the Central Holed Stone (CHS) a long horizontal hole through a substantial block of Fell Sandstone aligned north-west to south-east.  David did confirm that the sun shone directly through the hole at sunset on the summer solstice of 1988.  We of course took the opportunity to look at the grain size distribution and cement between the sediments and draw parallels with beach environments today – well, I did anyway.  Down off the steeper slopes we crossed Lordenshaws car park to have a look at the cup and ring marks etched into the Fell Sandstone relatively recently, only about 4,000 years ago by early settlers in the area!    Over the moor past the Iron Age hillfort, younger still as this covered the period from approximately 800 BC to the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD and down to Whittondean Farm and Whitton Hillhead, both built of Fell Sandstone.  Then it was back to our cars via Tosson Tower, a pele tower and reminder of the days of the Border Reivers disputes along the Anglo-Scottish Border between the late 13th and early 17th centuries.  The huge facing stones of the tower (pele) were also of Fell Sandstone.

Thanks to Val, Darren, Selina, Maggie and Alan for your company, witty banter and interest, I hope that you enjoyed the geology even if the summer weather didn’t come up to par and that you see the distinctive Simonside Ridge, and the rest of the Northumberland Sandstone Hills, through different eyes whenever you manage to get out onto them in the future.  Geological history really is “deep time” compared to human history.  Remember Darren and the tape measure back at the lime kiln?


Monday, 01 July 2013


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