It was Sunday. The weather was set fair, and busking in town centres when most of the shops were shut seemed a waste of time, so I set out for rural Northumberland. I drove inland from Newcastle to Hexham, and then up into the emptiness beyond Bellingham. Just before the Scottish border, you get to Kielder. Kielder is a tiny village of just a couple of hundred people at the far end of Kielder water, Britain’s largest artificial reservoir (by volume).
I parked at the visitor centre car park, £1.50 an hour or £5.00 all day, “Parking charges are enforced at all times” warned the large sign, and headed past the mountain bike shop. The man outside gave me a cheery hello. “Are you going to play that here?” he said in humour, pointing at my fiddle case and gesturing to the front of his shop. “You’d be amazed” I replied. I asked him if he lived here. He said he did. Was it good? “Yes. Until the midges come.” And he visibly shrank at the thought, losing interest in the conversation and heading inside.
The village has two halves. I went to the high part, which comprised one street leading up to the disused railway line. It was neat and clean, and the houses were all well tended to, with a communal garden feel to the frontages. One house had little fake trees outside, made out of bits of chipboard roughly screwed together. The village shop was shut for Sunday, as was the community garage. This was the busiest day of the week for tourists, but old traditions die hard.
At the top of the street was the ghost of the railway. Built by the North British Railway Company in 1862, this railway represented an almost comical attempt to outflank the East Coast main line with an alternative route between Newcastle and Edinburgh. Heading west to Hexham, the line turned North, dividing at Reedsmouth, passengers for Edinburgh would then head up a slow and twisty route through the fells to Riccarton, a desolate junction whose 100 or so residents existed solely to serve the railway, before heading through the borders on what was known as the Waverley route. The fastest services took over four hours. It was a vanity project with no chance of success, and had been abandoned a good ten years before Beeching had chance to force the matter.
The railway is fading back into the landscape now. The community garage, not a new building itself, is standing where the station once stood, and the trackbed heads into a tangle of undergrowth, identifiable by the line of trees that have colonised it, and the occasional in-filled bridge.
It was quiet, in the sense that the sounds of mankind were missing, and instead the true silence of birdsong was all around. I saw a front door with a post-it-note on. Intrigued, I stepped up the path and read it. “The key is under the pottery pig round the side”.
It’s that kind of place. Kielder is England’s most remote village. I met Jessica, a lady who’d lived here for decades. She said the character of the village had changed a great deal. There were now only seven people left in the village who worked the forest. At one time it had employed most of the locals, but the forestry commission largely brought in outside contractors now. She told me the school only had fourteen pupils left,
“I remember when the mums sat on the steps outside every house watching the kids playing in the street.”
There’d been four snowfalls big enough to cut the place off for a while that winter. The old couple who needed home-help couldn’t get it, so the cafe had sent meals round every day free of charge. It was a good community, she said, but lots of the houses were weekenders and out of towners now, and it wasn’t as vibrant as it once was.
“But our Ospreys are back!” She said with a smile “Y’know they just returned yesterday to the forest to nest.”
I was impressed and somewhat envious of her connection to the land. I wondered if she’d seen them, or heard their calls.
“How did you find out?” I asked
We talked about the red squirrels and the newly reintroduced water vole, or “Ratties” as she knew them. She’d heard that they wanted to reintroduce the lynx too, but she thought that a bad idea. I thanked her for her time, and headed back towards the car park. There was a maze by the visitor centre, but remembering I’d only paid for the hour, and what had happened when I’d got lost in the maze at Traquair house some years ago, I sensibly avoided it. The lower village has a Scandinavian style wood pellet communal heating system run from a central boiler house. Two local girls were zooming round in a two person tricycle, free to play in the streets. I wondered where the other 12 kids were and what sort of childhood they had up here.
The thing about England’s remotest village is how remote it isn’t. It’s an hour from Hexham, and 90 minutes from Newcastle and Gateshead. That’s not a trivial distance, but in global terms, not really remote at all. It’s no great effort to get there. The place was heaving with people out for a stroll in the woods, visitors to the centre cafe, and thousands upon thousands of cyclists. The entire area around Kielder has over 100 miles of designated bike trails, and the car parks were full to overflowing with cyclists of all shapes, ages, and sizes. There was probably a greater acreage of lycra per square mile here than anywhere else in the UK. There was also a long queue for the car park ticket machines, the toilets, and the cafes. This wasn’t remote, this was urban without the buildings.
Nor is it in any real way a wild place. The vast ten mile reservoir is man-made, held in by a dam so big it feels like an outcropping of geology. The enormous forest that surrounds it, covering nearly 200 square miles, is also man-made, and carefully managed. It is a huge industrial landscape, maintained and curated to provide water, timber, and leisure. The first trees were planted on a government scheme by unemployed coalminers and shipbuilders in the 1920s and 30s. Their camp is now inundated at the bottom of the reservoir. The object was to create a national strategic timber reserve. I wondered how the men of the great depression would react to being told that what they were really creating was England’s first national strategic lycra reserve. In recent years, diversity and tourism have become more of a concern, and felled areas are re-planted in much more diverse species to create more natural habitats for the future.
It is a beautiful place though. I pulled off the road at a spot marked ‘Viewpoint’, and climbed up to it with my fiddle. I found a large rock with a good view across the reservoir and wrote a couple of tunes, inspired by open landscape. The country was still dressed in the faded oranges of Autumn. The hills were rough shields, unjagged but muscular. A bird in the bush behind me was singing its spring song over and over. It sounded for all the world like “PeepeepeepeepeepeepeepeepeepeepeeTalkSport Radio!”, and once I’d heard that, it couldn’t be anything else. By the road was a public call box, cocked back at an angle, mossing over. Rivers of motorbikes roared past in the delirium of a warm spring Sunday.
I headed down the North Tyne to Bellingham, pronounced with a soft ‘G’, and took my lunch in the Fountains cafe, situated in a rundown building that had variously been the workhouse, municipal offices, and the library. The cafe was the only part of the building still in use. There were three women working here. We chatted about life in rural Northumberland. They represented three different generations. One lady was just out of school, and hoping to go to university to study to be a nurse. She hoped to go to Liverpool or Manchester. She felt there was nothing here for her here, and couldn’t wait to get away. The next lady was a mother, and was upset that the local middle school was under threat of closure. We talked a lot about this. The council wanted to amalgamate a number of smaller middle schools into one big one in Hexham. This would mean well over an hour’s travel each way for many students from the outlying districts, and there was considerable local opposition to the plan.
“The banks have both closed. We get the Lloyds van for 3 hours on a Wednesday. Now the middle school might be shut. Think how early a kid from up here will have to get up. They’ll get home tired and that’s before they have their evening meal and do homework. Nobody will want to bring a family up here soon.”
She felt it was a sort of accidental social engineering. Services had been cut back, so fewer families were able to grow up here, leading to services being cut back further. Rather than responding to dropping demand, reduction of services was driving it. The number of children growing up in the rural communities was falling away as it became a harder and harder place to raise them. Villages were hollowing out, with weekend second homes and holiday lets soaking up the slack.
The older lady told me she’d had three children but they’d all moved away for work.
“They come home for the holidays, but they’ll never come back for good.”
Even all these centuries, the flow from the country to the city continues. As Graeme Miles wrote in his song ‘Drift from the Land’
“Well you can’t blame young hands throwing the towel in,
They’ll be much better off making iron and steel,
But the drift from the land it will always continue,
Till the money gets better for the man in the field.”
Iron and steel are gone, but the young still leave, pulled now by service jobs and the promise of more vibrant communities.
The building was now for sale, and the cafe staff had no idea what would happen to it, but they weren’t confident that their interests would be taken into account by the council as they moved the property on. I paid my bill and walked around the small village centre. There was a noticeboard with a letter appealing for more young girls to join the brownies, and the dates where the flying chippie and the bank van were visiting.
Bellingham was ceasing to exist as a town. The services that made it self-sufficient being whittled away until it was forced to become the remote appendage of Hexham, miles down the valley.
As I’d left the cafe, the middle lady had told me one more thing.
“It’s not just the shops and schools. When I was a kid, we went out the back onto the land and helped the farmer with his sheep. All the kids did. We got a bit for it too. It’s not allowed now. The kids can’t learn about the land the same way now.”
Up the road was the visitor centre, by the old railway station. Two carriages were trapped on a lonely and disarticulated bit of track, now being used against their will as a restaurant. Diners sat at the windows, oddly framed on a train that would never leave the station and broadside to the car park entrance. It was an uncomfortable sight. In the visitor centre, the two ladies on duty jumped when I walked through the door. It was clearly a quiet afternoon. They took a more positive view of the town, and reckoned that everyone came back in the end. They’d just had the Easter egg hunt.
“Some of the girls are the granddaughters of the girls who started on the first Easter egg hunt.”
“They must be close to finding it by now.” I said
This went down well, and I left with a souvenir for my girlfriend, a decision that allowed one lady to finally be able to train the other on the correct and safe use of the card machine.
I drove in a vague Easterly sort of direction, just enjoying the shape of the land. Northumberland must be the most beautiful county in England. A drystone wall had a line of daffodils all along, each one facing exactly away from the shade of the rock. I saluted their guard of honour. In the field on the right, a magnificent erratic sat alone and unimproved in agricultural land. I could see snow on the distant Cheviot tops.
‘You could manage this forest!’ said a sign. The road became gated, with each gate painted in the colours of the nearest farm. I passed the spoil tips of a quarry, and crossed the abandoned railway again, as we both flowed out of the moorlands and towards the coast. Oranges and browns striped the hillsides. Tufts of reeds grew in the village street verges, and white lambs knew nothing else in countless fields. The fat-trunked trees were bare but ready to burst with life. The land was ready for spring. I was ready for a pint.
I was staying with old friends in the magnificently named village of Hartburn. They have the most eccentric of houses, like a castle shrunk down to the size of a normal dwelling. David was out the back, polishing his steam-roller. It’s the very engine that was used to build the road network in this area. The local pub landlady has become grudgingly accustomed to it being parked outside on Sunday afternoons, simmering away whilst refreshment is taken.
We chatted over tea, under a large and brooding oil painting of a pylon, and I mentioned that I felt there was one group of people from the Northumberland countryside I was yet to speak to, that being the farmers. David agreed to take me to the pub where some of them meet up.
The Ox Inn was dimly lit in a homely sort of way. There were indeed a number of farmers enjoying a pint after a long day at work. I sat in on the edge of conversation. It was lambing time, and they were about half way through. That meant about 700 delivered so far per farm. Discussion was detailed, and concerned feed prices and quality, designations of types of path across land in terms of subsidy applications, and I soon gathered the extent to which a farmer’s life is one of hard and lonely outdoor work, followed by labyrinthine bureaucracy and paperwork. This spring, the wet weather had made things even harder than usual. Their pints were very well earned.
There was no way I was going to interrupt this conversation with my own questions, it just wasn’t the time. Understanding the lives of those who manage the land would have to be a task for another day. I’d probably have to find some work on a farm in order to do it. It was not the sort of life easily understood by looking in through a window. I promised myself I’d come back to the world of farming again with a better plan.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to my account
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!