Country diary: going with the flow through the Debatable Lands

Perched on a tussocky slope, we eat our sandwiches in the winter sun, sit-mats sinking into damp moss among leaves of betony and St John’s wort. Heather stems nudge against my knees. Young hawthorns make a spiky canopy above my head. Through backlit stalks of knapweed, a field lies way below us, held in a crook of the Warksburn. The far side of the river is bordered by a cliff seen through a lattice of riparian alders. Atop that is a sheep field and above that the wide Northumberland sky.

The Warksburn gathers water from a series of sikes or rills – including Nameless Sike – in the south-east corner of Kielder Forest. It’s a crimped blue line on the map like a pulled thread from a knitted jumper, twisting and looping through boggy ground between mist-caught ranks of conifers. Nearby, there are signs of the farming past in the shielings, stells and stack stands: shepherds’ huts, circular sheepfolds and mounds for drying fodder for winter.

Passing the forestry village of Stonehaugh, the river winds through upland country sprinkled with names drawn from the land: Standingstone Clints, Lousy Bog, Cowcrook Moss and Boggly Burn. The Black Pool is deep and dark. By the long abandoned house of Low Roses Bower, there’s a netty called the Long Drop. A small stone building on the crag’s edge and 12 metres above the burn, it was in use until the 1950s.

Past Roaring Hole waterfall, past settlements and peles, past a former watermill and through ribbons of woodland, the river descends to join the North Tyne. Running through what were once the unruly Debatable Lands, it inspired a 19th-century fiddle tune, the Warksburn Waltz. The great Northumberland forests are woven into the recent audio tales of the November Club, a local performing arts charity; the stories in Lost, Found and Told are united by a soundscape of moving water.

We too find inspiration, sitting on the riverbank, sketchbooks held in cold hands, pencil and pen feeling for the lines of trees, the smooth curve of a natural weir. This was one of the first places that I discovered when I moved to Northumberland. At this difficult time, I feel calmed by the continuity of its flow and the history it carries with it.

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