Bat, Trap and Trail

A week of warm days and spurts of Spring growth, the next week frost, high wind and hail. No wonder flora and fauna are confused and often discombobulated. The daffodils were flattened and other plants left punch drunk. Luckily there’s no blossom out yet so fruit setting will not be affected.

Sitting out in the open sided porch in the good weather phase we were startled by the sudden appearance of a bat – a common pipistrelle as it turned out – awake from hibernation in a thumb width gap between porch roof beam and stonewall. 

A fair weather walk on open access fellside a drive away yielded fine views over the valley and beyond, with a pall of static smoke hugging the northern horizon. Almost certainly heather moorland being burnt to stop it getting leggy and to encourage new growth which in turn favours the game birds kept upon it by the landed estates and shooting syndicates. Swaling, as it’s called, is a practice attracting increasing opposition from environmental and anti-field sports bodies. Carbon capture and storage is a major concern in combating climate change and this once widely accepted process on upland peat soils – especially in National Parks – is a controversial issue in the debate on land management in the 21st century.  

A little later we came across another reminder of rural practice that’s far more disturbing to most people. Our attention was caught by what looked like a chicken coop, made of battens and wire, but with an inverted V shaped top. Following off road tyre tracks we approached for a closer look. The coop was populated not by poultry but by a dozen or so corvids – crows mainly I think – flapping their wings, calling, rising & falling. It dawned on me what I was looking at – a Larsen trap, named after the Danish gamekeeper who developed it in the 1950’s. Banned in that country today but perfectly legal here apparently, if done under licence, with water and food placed into the cage in order to make it legal. A live decoy bird – often with clipped wings – is set as bait and the other birds are lured by its calls. Landing on the inverted top they fall through its trap. At some point the keepers will come back in their vehicle, enter the trap and screw the necks of the inmates and dispose of the bodies. Further research reveals that these traps are normally placed near private woodlands, off the beaten track, in use during the game breeding season to control predators like these corvids, so it was unusual to see one here on open moorland off a bridle path, albeit on private land owned by somebody with gaming interests.    

Away from the darker side of country life we were bemused another day when out on a local stroll from home by the sight of a flock of sheep abandoning their rough grazing, with hopes of being fed, trailing behind that rarest of sights these days – a long distance walker on the national trail – after he had stopped to take bearings before trudging on. Unusually he looked rather ill equipped as beside the obligatory rucksack on his back he was also bearing carrier bags in either hand. Later, we spied him back on track and about to cross the lane near home. Intrigued I engaged him in conversation at a style. Turns out our young hiker, a South African based in Derbyshire, was turning his furlough from work into a walking holiday of a lifetime having set off from the north end of the Pennine Way at Kirk Yetholm to get back home at the south end. (A 268 mile trek). He said that the worst aspect was his terrible guidebook, and that so many places en route were closed, due to the pandemic. He was a cheerful soul though and must be tough enough to have done the 45 miles already covered. The bags got lighter as he progressed he assured me. Kim appeared with another shopping bag to replace one that was badly ripped but otherwise our young friend refused our offers of assistance by way of water or nourishment. He was looking forward to finding a good place to bed down by the forest’s edge and enjoy his first cup of tea for days, due to a mix up over camping gas fittings and cartridges which he’d only just that day manage to sort. Our hearts went out to him as his weary figure disappeared from view, but felt enriched by his words. ‘ I didn’t want to spend  my spare time moping about, watching Netflix all day and being bored’ he joked. Now, that’s the spirit!

Down to Earth

Further to my last post on 1st March I put two types of bird feeder at our field end, on our northern neighbours overhanging willow branches. The hope was to see if endangered species of willow or marsh tit might be present in this type of environment, and if so, might they be attracted by this food. Daily visits reveal the fat balls are a hit but the Niger seeds are not. No sign of marsh or willow tits alas but we’re well compensated by the sight of a flock of pretty long tailed tits enjoying the feast. Insectivores, they are clearly also partial to fat balls. Until this point I had seen more of these endearing creatures stopping off at the feeder in the yard of my terraced home in Lancaster than I had here in the rural heart of Northumberland. Rick Thompson in his delightful book Parklife, A Year in the Wildlife of an Urban Park, memorably describes a long tailed tit as being like a ball of wool with the knitting needles sticking out.

Big Sean showed up this week with his tanker and pipe to empty our septic tank. Gentle giant of a guy, shaven headed, covered in tattoos and a true countryman, we had fun testing pipe inflows into the tank and he showed me some tricks of the trade to handle future blockages, should we be unfortunate enough to have them!. Our brick and concrete settling tank, hidden in the ground, lies at the bottom corner of the garden, a decent fallaway from the house. Surrounded by blackthorn, gorse and briar, it’s a prickly mini-wilderness to deter human ingress and provide a haven for birdlife. We discover on lifting that some of the concrete slab covers are cracked so will need replacing soon. Must needs get hold of some railway sleepers and cut them to fit across its length.

Everyone is aware just how much lockdown has affected ways we communicate. Because we can’t be with the far off youngest broods of grandchildren I’ve taken to sending them videos shot on the mobile phone when out and about. Given their fascination with all things mechanical that’s invariably the subject matter; from the septic tank suction pipe in operation to contractors banging in field fences, to diggers and tipper trucks clearing a town centre construction site…I’ve had great fun keeping the clips coming for this select but appreciative audience of under 7’s. The other form of entertainment I’ve sent them has been home recorded stories.

The compact electric powered shredder I bought in the farm supplies store sale has proved really useful for recycling cut wood. Branches too thick to chip (over 35 cm) I’m slowly stacking in the spinney as another refuge, beside logs, for wild animals to shelter in or explore. In the past I’ve seen weasels and stoats in and out of such hideaways. We’re excited to have a weasel in residence somewhere about the place. It’s been spotted raiding the vole colony in the rockery after we’d initially suspected its presence from seeing footprints in the snow in February. Likewise a hare will occasionally make a welcome appearance in the garden, unconcerned at our presence, yet maintaining distance. Still surprises us that seen up close a weasel is as small as it is and a hare as large.

After a clean out of their stable Southridge gifted us a digger bucketload of horse manure & straw over our boundary fence. I’ve been commuting back and forth with the wheelbarrow ever since; spreading it on flower beds, round fruit trees and bushes, topping pots and bolstering compost boxes. With the Spring offensive under way at last we’re increasingly involved in garden renewal and maintenance…Winter’s nature friendly dead foliage is cleared, some frost killed shrubs dug up and replaced with other more hardier varieties. The pond, I’m cheered to note, is stirring to life as yellow globe flower heads swell and floating strands of veronica leaves green up.

Willow

‘With a shake of his poor little head, he replied / Oh willow, titwillow, titwillow’

The Mikado / Gilbert & Sullivan

The contractors that put in a length of field fence for us three years ago returned to replace one of Southridge’s this week. Last year there were lambs escaping regularly to roam the road & cause traffic problems so this year our neighbours have  the guys in ripping out the old rotten stuff and putting in new treated posts and stretchers top wire & netting. The hydraulic post banger they use packs a punch.

Five years ago friends in north Devon allowed us to cut some whips from coloured willow they’d planted in the wet end of a field newly planted as an orchard for their juice making business. They took well here in Northumberland and every year we harvest from them to make wreaths and stars or give to our crafting neighbour for her flower arrangement business. Here’s this spring’s bunch, tied in the yard, waiting collection.

My good mate Dave & I have returned to the bottom of our four acre patch of rough grazing to carry on where we left off before the snow came. We traced the barbed wire in the wreck of dead grass and sedge and set up half dozen new fence posts. The soggy ground quaked but received them well. I wore out a pair of padded gloves straightening & pulling the vicious metal strands to get stapled to the posts. This ‘pole and barb’ will keep cattle, as well as sheep, away from the fence dented by the sagging trunks of our northern neighbour’s willows that we had previously trimmed or felled. My friend is accurate and suitably safety conscious with the deadly saw as he goes about his work and we soon have a high pile of branches and logs for a future bonfire. Willow’s not a wood that burns well, being steeped in damp, but once dried it should light with artificial combustible help.

Willow carr (wetland wood) is no longer as common as it would have been centuries back. Draining and agricultural improvement have gradually seen to that, while post war urban expansion and fracturing of ecosystems into disconnected blocks has severely threatened the survival of much dependent wildlife.

The willow tit is one such affected species. The latest annual RSPB ‘State of the UK’s Bird Report’ records a staggering 94% decline in their numbers since 1970, making it the most threatened ‘Red List’ native UK bird species. If you were to draw a line from the Severn to the Wash, nearly all the densely populated land to the south east of it has become a virtual desert for this wee flyer. Land lost to housing, new roads and other infrastructure projects have hit woodland species like willow tits particularly badly. They are sedentary birds, less able to adapt to climate and other changes and need a particular stable environment to flourish in. For them that’s dense wetlands or scrub where they can work their nests in decaying wood, preferably willow or birch, which also provide the insect life on which they feed. Modern agriculture and construction mitigate against such environments. Another factor may be the effect of deer. Their numbers have greatly increased in recent years and they’re believed by some to be eating out many remaining retreats of dense thicket and woodland understorey. Ironically, where willow tit populations have stabilised, and even increased, are on former industrial sites, like coal workings, in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire that have been allowed to ‘re-wild’ or have become official reserves.

By way of experiment I am going to try hanging a variety of feeders from the willow branches overhanging our bog and see what birds, if any, they attract. Marsh & willow tits are virtually identical to look at but have distinctly different songs and calls. If  fortunate enough to see either of these lovely little birds I would be quite made up. Will report back here if successful, or not, as the case may be.

Winter Pass

Over the land freckled with snow, half thawed / The speculating rooks at their nests cawed / And saw from elm tops, delicate as flower of grass, / What we below could not see, winter pass. [Edward Thomas]

The snow lingered a week and more, alternating days of bitter easterlies with those of utter calm, broken only by occasional traffic on our winding rural C road. Driving to the village for supplies is characterised by cautious evasion of potholes that a deadly combination of harsh weather and log lorries has caused to emerge on stretches of road not resurfaced 18 months ago. I register a complaint to the county highways authority and trust others will too so we might see some remedial action. (Don’t have much hope that that’ll be any time soon).

Bump into a friend in the street whilst down there who tells me her bronchial problems have been made worse since the lockdowns began. That’s due, she holds, to a big increase in the burning of logs and coal, day and night. The village, snug in the sheltering dale, holds by-products of home heating only too effectively. Another friend, a nurse, says that pulmonary complaints, along with rheumatoid ones, feature strongly in many residents’ health profiles.

Being under virtual house arrest in an environment like ours is not ideal but it is bearable. Revived childhood excitement when I dug out the red sledge from the garage and took it to the end of our field. On that steepest of slopes I managed to hang on and avoid the worst bumps caused by stones and rushes. Huge fun, much laughter generated, plus good exercise in clambering back up top for another go.

Our daily circular strolls from home over the whiteness provided extra interest in following tracks and intersections of various wild animals. Foxes, hares or rabbits, possibly a stoat or weasel all identified. And not just their varied paw prints but arrangements of limbs and tails, pressing or brushing the snow. In the garden too we could see where the rodents trailed from house to rockery.

Walking further afield, atop our nearest fell, drew intakes of breath when we came across the effect of alternating freezes and further snowfall in preserving ghostly marks of passage along the well trod bridleway. We drink in the vista over miles and miles of moors, fells, fields and converging dales; grand on any clear day but even more so now without a soul to be seen anywhere.

In the wake of freezing rain came a sudden increase in temperature and the landscape was once again transformed, with most of the snow and ice melting rapidly away. Indoors, the odd flutter of small tortoiseshells awakening from hibernation, brought on by extra heating when the weather was at its worst.

Outside, helibores, snowdrops and daffodils greet lengthening days. I resume spreading woodchip in the woodlands and Kim starts clearing around borders. We both get our NHS letters today, offering the Covid-19 vaccine. So yes, the year is turning and Spring has come.

Winter and Rough Weather

Here shall he see / No enemy / But winter and rough weather  (As You Like It)

The annual marmalade making was last month’s culinary highlight. Seville oranges import a touch of far away sun into the kitchen and two extra lemons in the mix gives it the 2021 taste. Previous years keynotes have included black treacle and whisky. Usually our visitors depart with a pot at the end of their stay so currently we have a year’s backlog to get through (or prepare for a giveaway bonanza) when things are back to something like normal.

A naturalist friend had said it was the place to see them, up on the south facing slopes of the fell between us and the big village. But it was a couple we passed while out walking the lane leading to the telecoms mast who pointed them out and lent us their binoculars to get a better view. Golden plovers. That first time they were hanging out with starlings when quartering the fields. Looking rather like lapwings but with more distinctive pointed wings. The second time we saw them, a week since, they were on their own, a flock of some 40 – 50 birds, calling and flashing out on the turn, not settling for long, always moving. A beautiful, mesmerising sight and sound to lift the spirits on wet grey winter days.

The unchanging spell of mean weather ensures we get a lot done indoors. Glad one morning in the yard to catch up on news when taking delivery of a log drop and an unexpected gift of woodchip from our friends in the forest. Days later, determined to do something constructive outdoors, I start to spread the chippings in our mini woodlands and feel better for doing so.  The woodman tells me they got bogged down on the grounds of a school in the city where they were contracting and had to use his climbing ropes to pull their truck out of the mire. That’s £150 of ropes ruined, but a garage rescue would have cost a lot more.

Our farming neighbours too have no option but to be out and about, whatever the weather. Through the days of snow and then constant rain Southridge’s tractor has delivered round bales of hay to each and every ring feeder. They also rotate the metal frames to avoid the wear and tear of a flock’s hoof marks. Stock poached ground, when seen in isolation, puts me in mind of crop circles and UFOs.

All the neighbours have been getting their cattle sheds cleared of accumulated muck and straw and spreading it on their fields. The lucky ones did this while the ground was hard enough to more easily accommodate the combined weight of tractor and spreader. Southridge are pleased their Texel tups have exceeded expectations – all ewes being scanned and nearly all in lamb. They’ve put a flock of singles out on the rough grazing next to us. They’re less pleased with the price of hay. Last summer was so wet that some of the traditional hayfields failed and now they have to buy in, and prices are high.

Taking a short walk from the house each day, by field or lane, we came across this floating mass of bright greenery in a water trough. No flowers of course but plenty of healthy looking leaves. Can’t put a name to this winter wonder. Can you?

Due Delivery

Our tribe of regular and seasonal home delivery drivers have given great service this winter. Frenetic peak activity over the Christmas and new year holiday period saw them driving even longer hours over vast routes, bounded by our regional market town to the south up to the wild Scottish border. It’s a mix of high open fells, steep valleys and dense coniferous forest with many a rough and ready off road track leading to isolated hidden properties. One of the drivers told me he works to a broad figure of eight, enabling return visits that same day to customers if called for. Running against the clock and wedded to their Satnavs they curse the US developed GPS system many have to use, which takes no account of localised UK geography. Another tells me he’ll make as many of the easier in by drops to villages first thing in the short day, leaving more flexitime to crack the hard to access places out by.

The regular Royal Mail drivers know their large rural runs inside out of course. Where to safely leave the stuff that won’t go through the letterbox, which place harbours the pathological ankle nipping pooch; where the potholes lurk or lanes where ice never melts, and so on. Since privitisation these stoical souls have been left more exposed and pressurised than ever in the name of efficiency, with vans that aren’t always up to the rigours of rugged rural rounds. In recent periods of snowfall and sub zero temperatures we’ve clocked a van unable to get up a sloping tarmac drive. Covid has taken its toll too and under-staffing has been an issue. We all love our posties though, as they often make for an eyes and ears social service when out in the sticks. For many isolated and potentially vulnerable individuals he or she may be the only person they meet for days. One welcome advance the Royal Mail has made in recent times is the picking up of post when delivering. That’s proved particularly useful, especially during lockdown. 

Other deliveries are nature’s own. Over the years we’ve had some puzzling drops. An unmarked recently deceased young rabbit, still soft to the touch, inside the east end field gate; an open mouthed weasel, its lithe little body showing puncture or possibly claw marks, in the west end yard; the headless lower half of a mature salmon in the back garden. The latter was not as surprising as it sounds. This early morning find was in the wake of autumn spawning in the big river, three miles distant. The bodies of spent mature salmon often wash up and are carried off by all manner of birds and beasts. We may have accidentally interrupted such a predator about their work. Our beloved old, but still fiercely active, cat Pip was alive then, so she may well have dragged corpses found elsewhere back home…Who knows!

Food To Go

We have feathered friends aplenty in our garden every winter and feed them regularly from November to the end of March. Three different stations in place at peak periods, offering fat balls, peanuts and a mix of seeds. I also top up water in the stone birdbath, as garden ponds and water troughs are often frozen. The usual suspects appear without fail after each refresh of rations. Top of the pecking order – in numbers and disposition – is the tumultuous tribe that inhabits the dense cover I call Sparrow Towers…A ferocious chirping emits from that corner of hawthorn hedge, crab apple and privet. The ability to feed on holders as well as the ground ensures they cover all bases. Hard to believe that nationally there has been a dramatic drop in house sparrow numbers of up to 71% when they are so noisily numerous here round houses and farms.

The extensive tit family are next. The ubiquitous blue tit and great tit maximise their superb acrobatic skills, giving them the edge in extracting food from otherwise hard to get to angles, as well as being great fun to watch in the process. I particularly like the smallest of their kin, the coal tit. Perhaps it’s because of their masked faces and dainty habits; darting in quick, before the chunkier birds can retaliate, wheedling out a nut with their needle beak, then flying off to a quiet spot to safely feast on it. Recent studies by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have shown that both blue and great tits lose up to 5% of their body weight each night in winter. An 11g blue tit must eat almost it’s own body weight every day in order to survive (the equivalent of 300 insects) and that non stop forage will take up to 85% of daylight hours.

A visit by that most colourful of seed lovers, the goldfinch, always cheers. Unlike many other small birds its population has increased year on year over the last decade. Elegant Siskin and thick billed greenfinch come calling too, lured from their home territories in the great conifer forest a short flight away. Sunflower hearts and tiny black Niger seeds are their favourite fodder by far.

Of the ground, a battery of beaks sweeps the frosty ground, between shy clumps of emerging snowdrops, picking up debris flung out of the feeder above. Prominent among these foragers are dunnock (hedge sparrow) blackbird and robin, all of which remain resident the year round. The sparrow gang and many of the tits absent themselves from our winter hangout for their summer getaway destinations. From observation I’ve concluded that they shift base to the broadleaf wooded valleys of the burns to our immediate north and south. (above) Those environments offer the best selection and supply of insects to feed their spring hatched broods.

One lone visitor is in a class of its own. Watching a greater spotted woodpecker on a peanut holder is like witnessing an adult swinging on a child’s play seat. Fascinating to note this bold bird’s posture – tail as anchor point, body stock still while head hammer drills into the nuts. There’s a huge punch there, so little wonder all the small birds wing clear and leave him to it. Last autumn our rural community had an arranged power outage over two mornings while BT contractors, in a complex co-ordinated operation, removed and replaced telephone poles along our road. The reason? Over the years woodpeckers had exploited holes in the timber to excavate the interior tissues for food and to nest, rendering the poles unstable and prone to collapse.

A reminder, if you need one, that the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch will be upon us weekend 29-31 Jan. More information here https://www.rspb.org.uk

Let it Snow

Silently, softly but nonetheless surprisingly, the morning light delivers a wide awake vista of snow covered field, woods and forest as far as the eye can see. And around here that’s quite a way, with more flakes flowing gently earthwards. Light traffic has forged ribbed tracks along the C road that angles the house and the occasional lit up log lorry looms out of the settling mist to creep cautiously by or neighbouring farmers in tractors ferrying round hay bales on mechanical forks for feeding stock, nothing much is moving at all over this beautiful winter white landscape.

We remind ourselves the snow will not be settled long so we walk out, well wrapped up, taking in the detailed highlights and recording them as images. If any of the grandchildren were here we’d be sledging on our field but as they’re not one mustn’t let that stop one from having some seasonal fun so I dig out the red plastic sledge from the garage and head out. Zig-zagging a wild course down tussocky slopes, I end up a laughing heap before a sprawl of recently cut timber.

A few weeks back a friend, with me labouring, took his chain saw to some intrusive leaning willows. The edge of a dense Carr (willow bog) here in the north burn’s valley, part of our neighbour’s land, where ducks gather and the guns can sometimes be heard hunting them. The trunks of these succouring trees have been gradually breaking down the boundary fence that secures stock kept on our land from wandering. When time and weather allow my mate and I will finish the job, staking out new poles and re-fixing the fallen strands of barbed wire. We’ll break down felled boughs into portable branches, which, back in the yard, I’ll gradually feed through the shredder. The resulting material makes for great garden mulch, especially in the copses and spinneys where it will intensify and quicken the woodland cycle of decay, fertility and growth.

On one of the local wanders in the snow up the lane I clock a mature cream coloured cat furtively hunting the verges opposite Easterhouse’s yard.  I know such a distinctive feline does not claim any of our immediate neighbours farms as home. The next day, crunching across the yard, cat and me come face to startled face in the old rail goods wagon that serves as our garden hut. With no obvious route of escape the panicked puss leaped backward into the far corner, diving head first into a pile of flowerpots and sacks where it remained motionless, rear legs and tail stuck up in the air. Bemused, I stepped back and retreated. Later I put food in a bowl out to encourage our hungry visitor to return, but it did not, and like the snow a few days later disappeared from view, at least for now. A pity, because since our dear little Pip died in the autumn of 2019 we were half expecting a replacement to pad its way in from somewhere to claim vacant territory. We would value such a creature for its necessary vermin control role, in return for board & lodgings. Without any other agency a suitable cat has to find us and not the other way round. 

Wassail

In this most curtailed of Christmas times we found a new way to make merry for a permitted day of family reunion….or rather, we rediscovered an old one. The Anglo Saxon term ‘wassail’ means ‘good health’ and in the cider producing areas of England at midwinter the country people would assemble to visit their dormant orchards to ritually see off bad spirits and invite in good ones. A frost and fire, essentially pagan community knees up, featuring libations of mulled cider, beer or punch and alcohol soaked bread, (literally, offering a toast) to the trees in hope of a bumper crop in the coming year.

Our welcome visitors this precious day were family out from the city, an hours drive away. A great time to reintroduce some traditional festive fun with a (socially distanced) outdoor homage to the oldest tree in our young orchard – a slightly off beam Arthur Turner – the same age as the youngest grandchild, at 7 years. She and older brother, 10, loved the idea of bashing pots and ringing a bell, with licence to shout and scream to their hearts and throats capacity! Before that cacophonous climax I read an old wassailing verse, recorded as being sung by farmers and their labourers in Devon in the 1790’s

Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayest bud, and whence thou mayest blow
And when thou mayst bear apples enow
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel-bushel-sacks full,
And my pockets full too!
Huzzah!

And then we all sang the first verse of one of the most popular of the old wassailing songs, with its chorus.

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green
Here we come a-wassailing so fair to be seen

Love and joy come to you and to you your wassail too
And God bless you and send you a happy new year
And God send you a happy new year.

I was tempted to do what the chaps of old would have done and let off a round or two skywards through the branches, but somehow an air rifle soft ‘phut’ would never match a shotgun’s sharp blast! There are two wassailing traditions – the domestic and the horticultural. The former reflected the ancient tradition of rich households playing host to their humble tenants and dependents in the bleak midwinter, centred on the feast of christmas or new year’s eve, where begging was replaced by exchange of services – sing us a song and you’ll be rewarded with meat and drink. The song’s second verse catches that provision nicely:

We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door
but we are friendly neighbours who you have seen before

Today (2020 excepted) the domestic tradition has been largely overtaken and tamed by door to door carolling. In contrast the parallel ritual played out in orchards has enjoyed a healthy revival as more people immerse themselves in celebratory communal customs born of manual work practices and craft skills. Peak wassailing seems to take place mainly between Advent (Twelfth Night) up to mid month.

As for our impromptu rural homage, we found it one of the highlights of the holiday, Nicely apt for time and place; providing some family fun, a chance to revive jaded spirits and look forward to a time of fruitful renewal, in all senses of the term.

Wonderwall

With the first real snow of winter comes that age old need to be out in it; making the best of the atmospheric high pressure that has brought us this gift of dry cold air and clear blue skies. The stretch of Hadrian’s Wall nearest our home is a short drive away at a junction off the B6318 (Military Road) where we pick up the official long distance path.

There is something particularly poignant about a winter visit to the wall. Snowfall adds emphasis to the remains and its setting in the rolling highland landscape. The Roman army built their definitive frontier structure in the course of just three years two millennia back, and though breeched and bereft it remained pretty much intact for centuries until 1746. It was then that another professional army deconstructed large swathes of it, in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion, in order to build a military road linking the garrison towns of Carlisle and Newcastle.

The path at this point skirts a wood and square legs it around some rectangular mounds in a field, the remains of one of the wall’s many milecastles. The narrow pathway is stiff and frozen, yet there are eruptions of soft black soil cast up by moles. How do they manage it in such conditions? After crossing a farm access lane the views open up as we gradually ascend. Here ‘thin’ wall (8 Roman feet wide) meets ‘fat’ (10 feet) conjoined at a turret, indicating a change of plan by the engineers of AD 122, perhaps driven by cost saving or construction deadlines. A couple we pass on the other side joke that the wall is proving ideal these days for enforcing social distancing.

The low line of masonry vanishes again before attaining the summit. We pass a graceful hawthorn, unusually symmetrical, branches stark black against snow. The high bank along which the military road runs at this point is a reminder of just how much of the wall lies buried as foundation beneath its metalled skin. Local Georgian landowners too took advantage of the structure’s small blocks of dressed stone to build simple but elegant farmhouses that still grace the land hereabouts.

A trig point defines the heights and snow lies deep over uneven tricky ground. Continuing the line of the vallum (defensive ditch) here proved impossible even for the mighty Roman army, the hard dolerite rock being too hard to break down, so they gave up after 60 yards or so. This distinctive abutment, with its stone spoil, is the most northerly point on their 73 miles of coast-to-coast frontier.

Stop to take in the wide prospect before us. The broad valley’s fertile farmland features ploughed fields and permanent pasture, hedges, woods and blocks of conifer. These estate landscapes gradually give way to rough grazing and upland fells ending with the far blue prospect of the Cheviot range and Scottish border. Meanwhile, just below, a kestrel hovers then swoops, putting me in mind of the legion’s imperial eagles that once oversaw all activity on these ridged and rugged highlands. We leave content; returning downhill as the afternoon’s lengthening shadows add enriched tones to a mottled canvas of sharp and shaded whites.