Blue in the Face

Took a short stroll between weekend storms in a near deserted countryside down the dale from our home. Simonburn is an ancient settlement whose parish, up until 1814, claimed to be the largest in England, stretching some 33 miles from the Roman wall right up to the Scottish border.

Photo Credit: W F Millar 2010

A glimpse of the grand former rectory off the delightful village green underlines that former status. It was the rows of humble estate cottages that helped single it out in more recent times as a perfect location for a TV mini-series dramatizing the novels of Catherine Cookson. Simonburn has also featured in an episode of ITV’s police drama series, ‘Vera’. The dignified 13th century church of St Mungo overlooks the Crook burn, whose course we followed for much of our three mile ramble, mainly on single track lanes servicing scattered farms and hamlets.

I was amused by this accidental artwork at an elbow of lane where valley woodland had given way to open high pastureland. Hopefully it really does function well as a reflector in the mist or at night.

We pause to admire a gang of impressive rams with prominent ‘Roman’ noses. These are Bluefaced Leicesters and Kim knows the family who farm here. Their flock produces many fine exemplars of the breed and she was commissioned back in 1984 to record the distinctive profiles of a pair of their prize tups.

Kim Lewis pencil drawing on paper of Blue Faced Leicester tups

Blue faced Leicesters (BFL) originated in the 18th century near Dishley in Leicestershire, bred by agricultural innovator Robert Bakewell from traditional Leicester Longwool stock. So enthusiastically was this new ‘improved’ breed taken up in Northumberland they quickly became known as Hexham Blueface. Today, when interbred with hardy hill sheep, their prodigy are known as Mules, and remain a common sight on sheep farms across the north.  Although principally kept for meat the wool of BFLs is much sought after by hand spinners who value its curly, fine, soft and lustrous wool clip.

We leave the lane to continuing its way up to Hadrian’s wall at farm road’s end and follow the yellow public footpath signs through its yard, by barns and sheds. As the gate was already open we’d no need to meet the farmer’s challenge!

It proved much more challenging, on leaving that yard, not to tumble down the field’s precipitous slopes, with lateral sheep trods more obvious than the public footpath. This sort of landform is typical hereabouts with fast streams cutting through sandstone gorges where dense woodland survives on land too steep for sheep or cattle to graze. A valley topography with a mix of native broadleaf that’s infilled or supplemented with commercially grown conifer.

A wooden footbridge spans the Crook burn and we ascend the other side past great beeches, oaks and ash marking an ancient banked narrow track just below the delineated footpath we are following. Moss coated and grassed over, it would once have had packhorses and carts passing slowly along its gradient.

Back on the level, we take in fine views across the main river valley as we pass between a cluster of rather fine old farm buildings. Simple elegant farmhouse, old granary with exterior steps, cobbled yard with arched housing for carts etc. Glad to note too a low cut but exceptional wide field hedge, alive with small birds dashing back and forth, A spring runs off here as a rivulet run alongside the pleasant farm lane we follow back to the metalled single lane. A clutch of mature ash trees have been felled here in recent times, sad trunks remaining waist high in the roadside bank. Victims of die-back perhaps? Our little lane drops us back down to the start. We cross the Crook burn once again by a recently repointed stone bridge and banking. It’s solidly built to withstand and channel the most testing of floodwaters, both underneath the high arch as well as draining the steep roadway that descends and rises either side.

The tearoom is a popular stopping point for visitors & locals alike

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