Long Tails and Trails

The new year brings every kind of winter weather. A new circular walk for us in a different part of the forest, on gravelled access roads through dense plantations of mature sitka spruce with clearings fringed by willow, birch, alder & oak. The tracks following the shallow vales of two sikes (streams) both on the way up and on the way back round.

Damage caused by Storm Arwen very marked in places where the lie of the land caused funnelling of those fierce northerly winds. Pole straight conifers felled like skittles taking others down in their wake with some snapped like twigs. With bridleways blocked we’d no option but to stick to the roads.

Attention caught one afternoon by the dot dash flitting passage of a flock of birds filtering through ash and aspen. Their silhouettes pronounce them to be long tailed tits. We rarely see them so close to the house, and if so only briefly in winter as they quarter trees in the garden copses for insects and grubs secreted away by buds, bark and joins. The following afternoon, late, they returned for another forage. I happened to be standing under one of the birch trees so froze as the flight came in to land just over my head, systematically working their tiny needle beaks over the lattice of branches communicating with high whistle calls I’d never normally hear. This glorious brief immersion made a dull day shine. Meanwhile…At the bird feeder a newly hung column of seeds attracts a charm of goldfinches, flashing dabs of yellow and red, to lord it over the rest of the avian gang. Eventually the regular tits, chaffinches and sparrows adjourn to a replenished column of fat balls set up on a nearby tree, and harmony is restored. 

Just over a week into the new year we wake to a snow covered landscape. Southridge loads hay with ring feeder into the front field for their pregnant ewes. An early morning welcome tanker drop with oil for the Aga secures another 1000 + litres in the garden tank. A late afternoon walk in our field and Southridge’s adjoining pasture reveals a trail of a fox in the snow, who has easily scaled stone walls on the way up from the wood in the valley of the burn below. Also the long and short imprints of hare on the crags. The valley wood’s oaks drip where their trunks and branches reach over the field. Returning homeward on the road, the setting sun illumines snow as a sublime beautiful shade of pink.

That time of year again. Seville oranges for marmalade making with a lemon and grapefruit thrown in for good measure. The glittering fall of white sugar added to the boiling mix. A big dollop of treacle changes the colour and adds to the taste. Thankfully setting point arrives early. Final bottling and labelling of the batch.

Always enjoy making bread at home. I favour a 50/50 very strong white, wholemeal mix with black treacle stirred into the yeast, sometimes also adding beer to the tepid water in which it rises.

A clear dry windless day so we get to work pruning two of the hardest to get to apple trees out front. Kim more ruthless than I at this game while I’m left to do the highest branches using the stepladder. Beautiful apple wood cut branches will be used for plant support with lesser cuts fed to the chipper in due course.

A walk in windy weather round a nearby reservoir reveals it at near full capacity; the exact opposite state we found it in on our last visit at the end of summer. To get there and back we pass through a field, poached by a placid herd of handsome black cows. Take in the sweet warm smell of silage drifting over the chill air from their ring feeder.

Dismayed to see the grand old crab apple tree snapped, its forlorn trunk drapped over the woodland fence and a handful of green apples on the bare bough. We’d picked a big basketful of fruit there on that last visit.

The effects of Storm Arwen are still being felt elsewhere too. The Montane Spine Race, now in its tenth year and billed as Britain’s toughest ultra marathon race, passes alongside our garden and field. This gruelling competition takes place over a week and attracts athletes from all over the world to run and walk 268 miles of the Pennine Way National Trail, by day and night, from Edale in the Derbyshire Dales to the Scottish Borders.

As we sit by the firepit on our deck chatting with friends white lights flicker through the undergrowth and another runner passes, headlight seeking out the well trod muddy path leading away into the enveloping night. Earlier, chatting to race marshals parked in the nearest layby I was told that the Forestry Commission had stopped competitors passing through the Kielder Forest leg of the race, due to the danger posed by fallen and unsafe trees. Instead participants were being bused 15 miles from the rest point at Bellingham up to Byrness where they could resume their solo expeditions into the high Cheviots and beyond, to the finish at Kirk Yetholm.. 

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