Kielder Water and Forest Park
As a slightly crinkly 63-year-old I recently had my annual medical MOT. My lovely practice nurse interrogated me, then prodded and poked before declaring, 'you have the body of an 18-year-old’, then turned to her computer, and muttered under her breath, 'dog.'
Oh, how we chuckled!
All was basically OK. She even found a pulse in my feet.
‘You could afford to drink a bit less,’ she smiled, ‘and perhaps lose a few pounds. And your blood pressure is raised a bit.’
‘It’s the excitement of your witty asides,’ I tell her.
She told me to do a week of BP self-readings at home. I get nervous and self-conscious every time I rip open the inflatable bandage. In effect, I panic at the possibility of finding out that I’m properly knackered. My heart thumps and I go dizzy at the sight of the BP monitor.
That’s when I decided we should book a relaxing weekend away for Jan’s birthday……. Escape, forget it all.
We headed for Kielder Water and Forest Park in Northumberland. We’d promised ourselves a visit for a while. Jan is going to paint and have a romp with the dog while I’m going for an amble on my electric bike. We’ll take the air and spoil ourselves rotten for the first time in a while.
We’ve learned a little about the area. The reservoir is the largest man-made lake in northern Europe and the forest that surrounds it is one of the biggest man-made woodlands in Europe. It’s home to masses of wildlife, including ospreys – though they won’t have arrived as we visit for Jan’s birthday on St Patricks Day.
There’s also deer, otter, adders and midges in descending order of appeal.
In 2008, after an absence of two hundred years, a pair of young Ospreys made a first attempt at building a nest in what was later described as, ‘a precarious tree’. Apparently it was an effort typical of a young, inexperienced pair. I sympathize having endured the confidence-sapping failures of forty years of undistinguished DIY projects. The crucial difference is that mine are unlikely to result in the extinction of a species - unless I really mess up!
Happily, the pair returned the following year, did it properly, and bred successfully.
We’re staying at a pub, The Blackcock Inn in the village of Falstone. It’s about a mile down the hill from the reservoir’s enormous dam wall. The pub is welcoming, warm and dog friendly.
Full English breakfast (minus the carby bits) then off to Kielder Water in the car. Jan dropped me off with the bike at the south end of the lake next to the dam wall. She drove three miles further up the lake side to the car park for which we’d pre-paid. Here she would settle in and paint.
The dam is 1.2 km long so I pottered across, took plenty of photos, and saw the plaque that commemorates the reservoir’s opening by HM The Queen in 1982. Even seeing her name there makes me feel nostalgic – dear lady. The water is mirror still and about fifty meters from the dam is the huge 70m high valve tower that controls the release of the 44 million gallon of water. The whole thing is on an incredible scale.
I recross the dam and set off on the firm grit path that runs 27 miles right round the lake. Immediately I’m into woodland with the lake to my right. 75% of the trees are spruce but there are also pine and broadleaves. Quite a number of the pines have blown down in storms. They must be shallow rooted to be upended so readily. They lie on the forest floor with their roots standing up like giant saucers on edge. Today there is virtually no wind so the trees are safe. The silence in here is tangible.
The woodlands are beautifully managed by the Forestry England with clear signage, eco-sculptures, picnic areas and wooden bridges which cross the many streams that feed the reservoir. As an elite athlete (!?) I haven’t time to stop at a picnic area. I zoom past and by the time the fleeting thought of a tongue sandwich enters my mind, the picnic table is way behind, cloaked in the swirling dust of my wake. Or would have been if I’d been going a bit faster and it wasn’t so damp. Yes, it’s rained a bit recently.
Periodically, I stop to listen to the silence or chat with walkers and my blood pressure drops to around 25/7. Rather like me on the bike, barely moving. If only my Practice Nurse could see me now.
I meet a lady on a bridge in the middle of nowhere. Below us is the feverish chatter of a large stream that’s feeding the lake. She is walking her two dogs and hopes the little one will go for a swim because he’s had a roll and is liberally covered in fox shit.
I stop because I think I recognized her. ‘Do I know you…..?’
‘Maybe,’ she replies. ‘Perhaps it’s because I served you breakfast about an hour ago!’
Observant or what!?
She said, if I remember right, that there were twenty-three ospreys last year, comprising seven breeding pairs and their young. She took an osprey-spotting boat trip right round the lake last year, about 27 miles presumably, at slow speed – and never saw a single osprey! But she has seen them ‘au naturelle’ from the shore with binoculars. She’s a lovely person and we chat for about twenty minutes. We share an enthusiasm for both dogs and the wonderful park we’re in. She confirms that Kielder is an adder hotspot. They are basically non-aggressive snakes, active April to September, but nosey dogs need to be careful. Treatment by a vet is necessary following a bite. Nearest vet – 30 miles!
One thing we have thankfully avoided, it being March, is the dreaded midge. They surface in May and last through September.
Remember I said that Jan was going three miles up the way to her car park? That’s by road. My path follows the contours, inlets and peninsulas. I’ve been going six miles already and expect to arrive with Jan at any moment when I come across a sign that says, ‘Landal Kielder Waterside, 5 ½ miles’! No matter there’s still plenty of charge in the battery.
I was expecting the lakeside path to be flat, following the shore in a nice gentle oval, but none of it. It’s very hilly in places, particularly where it veers away from the shore. None of these hilly stretches are much more than 100m long, either up or down, but they are certainly steep and twisty. I would have really struggled on a non-electric bike. Good brakes and good battery essential!
Throughout my ride the sun dapples the bright green, mossy floor and colourful finches flit about across my path in the sunbeams. It really is lovely. Smaller paths, more rugged, criss-cross the main one, which itself is only about four feet wide, so there are literally endless opportunities to explore. I have a goal; that is to meet up with Jan in case she is worried where I’ve got to. I stick to the main path – just like most of us do every single day. Straight to work, straight to the shops, same routine. One goal, with no time to look what’s down a side street or stop and chat with the person at the bus stop or sitting on a bench or standing on a bridge.
I did make one sideways diversion up a steep hill to a ‘View Point’ advertised on one of those official brown country park signposts. It promised be a special spot with a spectacular view over the lake. Ten punishing minutes later I arrived. I was pretty spent and wasn’t in the best frame of mind to judge, but the view as OK at best. I could glimpse parts of the lake, those bits not hidden behind trees. A bit of judicial pruning here and there might have helped. I renamed the spot ‘Tree View’ and commenced the downhill stretch. It was easier on the legs but rather perilous due to having to brake hard on the gravel surface. After all there was twenty-four kilos of bike and seventy-six kilos of me. One hundred kilos generates a fair amount of momentum on a steep slope - with a main road at the bottom of it – and trees beyond that!
Was Jan worried when I arrived? No. She was asleep! So was the dog. It took eleven miles to cover three as the crow flies but what a magical ride it was. I woke Jan and we ate lunch overlooking the lake – very civilized.
We’d sat next to a chatty couple at breakfast. The female half had made me feel a bit inadequate because she’d done a ten kilometre, night-time run along the lake path the previous evening. She looked to be positively glowing with good health as I tucked purposefully into my bacon, egg and sausage. The following (and final) morning was even worse. Today’s lady had run a full marathon the previous evening, right round the lake! ‘A bit stiff’ she described herself. I’d done an eleven-mile bike ride on an electric bike and this morning it had taken me twenty minutes to get my socks on!
On the way back we had a nice surprise in the shape of Hadrian’s Wall. Occasional stretches were well defined and the remains of the big stone blocks were still evident. We saw the remains of Housesteads Fort up on the hillside to the north. It is a substantial Roman encampment for such an isolated spot, way up on the moors. Keeping the Scots out was a serious business and the wall was built to ‘separate the Barbarians from The Romans’.
Hadrian's Wall was the boundary between Roman Britannia and unconquered Caledonia to the north and marked the northern edge of the Roman Empire. It’s really fascinating to still see the remains after 2000 years.
Jan and I agree that up here in the north there is a huge expanse of space and beauty. It’s an area that you can breathe wonderful air and hear very little that is man made. Also, it’s a handy part of the world to lower your blood pressure.
Our country really is amazing.