Rail and River

So walk with me, Aye and talk with me / Be a friend of mine/ And we’ll walk together hand in hand,/ By the banks of the bonny north Tyne [Chorus to ‘The Banks of the Bonny North Tyne’ by David McCracken]

Our new year’s day walk combined my love and interest in two things; railways and rivers. In search of this happy union we took a leisurely drive alongside the nation’s largest man made lake and forest at Kielder, feeling we might well be in north America or Canada, not the north of England.

We park beyond Kielder village, in a finger of forest between hills, relatively mature and open structured.  Strolled past resting machinery and harvested tree trunks waiting collection on what was turning out to be a busier than expected C road. We eventually broke free of the confine of conifers to take in views over bleakly beautiful fellside under skies weighed with scattered dark clouds.

A handsome cluster of grey stone farm buildings embedded in the shoulder of hillside to our right turned out to be Deadwater Farm. The monument marking the source of the north Tyne river lies on its land, and we need to walk a little further to the actual border with Scotland to pick up the permissive path that leads us to it, some 300 yards uphill.

Thanks to regional charity ‘Daft as a Brush’, founded by keen walkers to provide transport logistical support for cancer patients, the respective courses of south and north branches of the Tyne from source to sea are way marked as a long distance path…A total length of 135 miles.  

Sculptor Gilbert Ward’s work of 2013 is a simple modern menhir, fourteen solid feet of sandstone, donated by a local quarry and which had to be lifted in place by helicopter. Our river’s spring source could not get any nearer to being in Scotland, securing its emergence in England by a whisker. Unlike the mighty River Tweed which demarcates the border at the other end of Northumberland, this barely perceptible trickle would escape notice entirely by anybody driving over the culvert that marks the first of its many crossings.

I take an amused delight in straddling the rivulet as it emerges to gurgle down the gentle slope to the flat valley bottom. There we temporarily lose sight of it in the bog and tussocks either side the raised trackbed of a disused railway.

The 42 mile long Border Counties Railway opened in late 1850’s and closed a century later, pre-Beeching report. It had branched from the Newcastle/Carlisle line outside Hexham to weave its way through the whole length of the north Tyne valley before crossing both border and watershed at this point to join the former Waverley line, connecting Carlisle with Edinburgh, at Riccarton Junction, via Saughtree.

We passed Deadwater station, a single storey stone cottage on its lone platform; now a private house. There’s space for sidings and the lost spurs to two nearby former limestone quarries, the greened over spoil heaps of one obvious in the nearby hillside. No sign though of the well house for restorative bathing that once stood hereabouts in the 1820’s. How such an establishment could sustain itself in this remote and hard to reach setting, pre-railway, is a mystery.

The cinder dark trackbed, now a shared cycle & walk way, leads us straight as an arrow between forest and reed filled mires back towards Kielder. From here our peat coloured stream finally breaks cover, when conjoined with a first proper tributary, to assert its presence. At this point I begin to feel this other stream, the Deadwater Burn, might have a greater claim, by virtue of length and volume alone, to be the real source of the north Tyne. I also can’t help musing if ‘Deadwater’ had picked up a capital D and dropped an H at some point in its etymological history.

My eyes are drawn to a prominent monument as informative as the one marking the river’s origins – the military radar installation atop Deadwater Fell some 2,000 ft. up, from whence the burn of the same name springs. We are after all in Reiver country, the lawless borderlands of medieval and Tudor times crossed and re-crossed by clans of marauding cattle raiders and feuding national armies. The slow transition from hand to hand conflict into automated forms of national defence in our age – whether utilising installations like this or thousands of acres around nearby Otterburn for troop training – all evolve from a long history of accommodating armed engagement within the boundaries of these wild uplands.

As darkness began to fall, smoke was rising from the odd inhabited dwellings, including a pair of former railway workers cottages by a level crossing where we re-joined the road. We crossed to the opposite bank by the river’s first proper road bridge, a handsome stone arched structure spanning an enlarged and widening river after its confluence with the Bells Burn and other rivulets. Another piece of the geographical jigsaw in place, happily tired and suitably exercised, we drive contentedly back down the valley, thinking where the next outing alongside the home river might be….

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