The woods are lovely, dark and deep, – Robert Frost, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’
We had had enough of bogs. Three sets of walkers that we met last night had all decided to follow us in thumbing their noses at today’s stretch of the Pennine Way and road-walk the moorland and farmland sections of the 25km from Bellingham to Byrness. There was nothing we could do about the Kielder Forest sections – they were unavoidable. We had specifically managed the route over these couple of days to reduce the amount of time we would need to spend walking through the forest: we thought two entire days would be soul-destroying monotony.
The road-walking was lovely. Dry underfoot. Fast. It didn’t rain all day, and we couldn’t imagine that the views would have been any better on the footpaths. Certainly our heads would have been down and focusing on negotiating the ground and not on the surrounding countryside. The roads were unfrequented and quiet, and after the huge efforts required to gain ground yesterday it was not only a relief but also a delight to be able to appreciate our surroundings: a wide expanse of land opening up around us in a full circle. It was overcast but the clouds were definitely lighter and higher. Verges were thick with a huge variety of wildflowers.
The road climbed and soon gave way to grouse-moor tracks which, because of the rains, had softened up. The winnowing sound of a snipe, unseen in the heather, was a first for us. Flowers colonised the poor soil at the side of the road in miniature: Clumps of blue milkwort offset the yellow tormentil and medic.
I was so enchanted by the flowers that at first I didn’t notice the state of the heather. Was it our imagination or was it dying? It had a greyish appearance, giving a sense of a bleached coral reef rather than heather moorland about to burst into leaf. The occasional twig with a green haze reinforced the impression. But maybe this is what heather looks like at this time of year.
We certainly are so far north now that although trees are in late spring leaf, there are still some of the early signs of spring that we had appreciated as long as six weeks ago back in Cornwall: cowslips, and orchids.
At about lunchtime we came to the first plantation sections of Kielder Forest, knowing that we would be walking through it pretty much for the rest of the day.
But Kielder surprised us. Although from a distance the forest was a looming presence, it didn’t feel at all oppressive. In fact, quite the opposite. The track was wider than the Pennine Way Path yesterday, and the air felt drenched, washed invigoratingly clean, full of complex pine scents. We walked through a permanent chorus of unidentifiable birdsong. Hundreds of tiny saplings grew by the sides of the track, larches, and pines.
The Pennine Way joined us from the right and then the forest changed. It lost its plantation aspect and took on an older and more diverse character. It is still managed for timber, but clearings have been spaciously planted with rowan, willow and birch.
The light and air made space for a thick blanket of mosses to grow, a spectrum of greens and browns:
and the rocks and stones laid at the side of the tracks to create stable paths for forestry vehicles also created the structure for habitat diversity.
The forest was not viewless, either. The ground undulated, and partial forestry clearing work, as well as the track rolling out in front of us, opened up views, unbelievably, away to the Cheviot hills in front of us where, only a few miles away now, was the Scottish border.
The part of the forest nearest the A68 is managed for recreation, with forest paths and picnic tables. The atmosphere was spellbinding here: through the trees near the header photograph of this blog we watched a young roe doe for some minutes through the trees as she stood on the path round a slight bend. The forest paths are simply beautiful and quite varied. We had been completely wrong about taking the Pennine Way through Kielder.
We had booked to camp at the famous Forest View Walkers’ Inn at Byrness, the only accommodation for miles around. Colin and Joyce want to retire so are selling this iconic place and we are lucky to have had the experience.
And iconic it surely was. It runs smoothly like clockwork on a really organised system from the moment you walk in and help yourself to the tea and coffee in the conservatory and your boots are whisked away to dry overnight. They come back clean. Food is home cooked and absolutely delicious. Breakfast likewise and sandwiches can be ordered. Because we are were the only ones camping we had the showers and the drying room to ourselves. But inside it was a convivial reunion with Kevin and Les, and Andy Nichol who had visited the Pit Stop just before we did and written in their visitors’ book. Four others also arrived: a Pennine Way family group of three, and a young woman walking John O’Groats to Land’s End. We all sat in the conservatory drinking beer or tea, swapping stories and getting to know each other. We were told where to sit at supper, and we had a lovely table with Kevin and Les, two good friends who have set themselves the challenge to do the Pennine Way together. Tomorrow is their last day. Colin and Joyce bustled round working like stink to make our stay comfortable. We haven’t had an evening like this before on the walk, and it was the perfect way to celebrate our last night in England.