Words and images by Geoff Holland
We first visited Kielder Water soon after the reservoir had been officially opened. It was 1982 and as we drove past Yarrowmoor and crested the hill at the southern end of the dam we let out a collective cry . . . “WOW!”. There, splashed across our windscreen, was a spine-tingling panorama of the vast expanse of water that had now filled the upper reaches of theNorth Tyne Valley. Surrounded on three sides by a horseshoe of tree-darkened hills, the picture was one of wild beauty. A razor-edged wind added to the sense of raw isolation.
The statistics are impressive. By capacity, it is the largest man-made lake in the United Kingdom, with a surface area of 2,684 acres and a shoreline of just over 27 miles. The dam is 170 feet high, higher than Nelson`s Column, and stretches to three-quarters of a mile in length. It is surrounded by the largest planted forest in Northern Europe, covering an area of 250 square miles, which accounts for 25% of the country`s annual timber production.
I had been back to Kielder on many occasions since that first exciting and unforgettable family visit. But the years gallop along and more than 6 years had rushed by since I had last made tracks to the north-western edge of Northumberland and to what had become known as `Kielder Water and Forest Park`. It was also now, officially, the most tranquil area in England.
Fast-forward to 2009 and I was ready to head back to this quiet backwater. As I was putting together my plans for the trip, I heard a whisper that the challenging project to encircle the reservoir with a multi-user track was nearing completion. When opened, `The Lakeside Way` would, for the first time ever, give access to many of the most scenic parts of the shoreline. I just had to investigate.
I decided to explore the more remote northern shore of the reservoir and, as I pulled into the car park at Hawkhope at an outrageously early hour, I already had a mental sketch of my intended route. Eager to make progress, I headed west towards the far end of the car park and immediately found the recently laid and well-graded track. As I entered the forest I could see the reservoir through a narrow band of Scots Pine and a line of hills rising from the opposite shore.
I was barely into my stride when I stumbled upon the remnants of an old building lying alongside a small overgrown mound. Believed to be the site of a small 19th century farm, the one metre thick walls which form part of this jumble of half-hidden stones are thought to be the remains of a bastle (a defended, stone-built two-storey farmhouse) dating back to the 16th or 17thcentury. The adjacent, slightly obscured interpretation board informed me that this was `Gordon`s Wall`.
I pressed on and, after crossing the first of many newly-constructed wooden footbridges, I spied the white rumps of three roe deer slowly and silently moving up the tree-covered hill to my right. It is not, it seems, only the worm that the early bird catches and, with less than a mile of walking under my belt, my crack-of-dawn start had already been vindicated! Determined not to disturb these shy and gentle animals, I almost missed the path which was to lead me on a short circular detour from the main track to The Belling`. Not quite an island, more a peninsula this is perhaps one of Kielder`s hidden gems.
I turned along the thin, winding path beneath a canopy of mature trees and, guided by a smattering of directional fingerposts, I soon reached the dramatic south-facing sandstone cliffs and the 1996-installed `Wave Chamber` artwork. Created by artist Chris Drury, this is a camera obscure which projects an image of the surface of the reservoir onto the floor of the chamber. As you sit inside the dark interior, the walls echo the sound of the waves outside and the floor appears to become liquid. As I left this glorious spot, I glanced back at the stone-built artwork and I saw it as an enormous upturned and half-buried pine cone.
I rejoined the main track and followed the shore of the `Belling Inlet` north-eastwards. With the lower slopes of the surrounding hillsides all but free of trees, I enjoyed uninterrupted views across the ever-so-calm water. Once at the new footbridge across the Belling Burn, I turned to my right and saw, slightly upstream, an old wooden footbridge and, beyond that, the more substantial `North Haul Road` concrete bridge and my eventual return route.
The track now climbed away from the burn and I followed the western shore of the inlet around the south-eastern slopes of the triangulation pillar-crowned Wind Hill. Across the reservoir, the long arm of Bull Crag Peninsula punched a fist towards the distant dam and it was hard to believe that standing here, surround by a vast acreage of water, I was nearly 660 feet above sea level. I crossed the Pot Burn, besieged by trees and out of sight of the reservoir, climbing high above the line of the map-marked public footpath. Following a series of hairpin bends, the trees opened up and there, on the very tip of Benny Shank, stood the award-winning `Belvedere`.
Installed in 1999, the polished stainless steel exterior of this unusual shelter reflects the surrounding landscape whilst inside the gold coloured lining and yellow skylight create a feeling of warmth and comfort. The jury, on awarding this `architectural` work the 2000 `Stephen Lawrence Prize`, described `Belvedere` as, “a beautiful folly” and, “quite simply, a great idea elegantly executed”. I sat inside and soaked up the fine view to the 1½ mile distant dam.
However, not yet ready for a sandwich stop, I pressed on along the shoreline with Leaplish Waterside Park and the dark line of the Larriston Fells clearly visible on the opposite side of the reservoir. I was now entering the shrouded and quieter world of the forest as the switchback track headed north.
The silence of the morning was splintered by the stuttering sound of an outboard motor, more petrol- fuelled lawn mower than high performance, `Vincent Black Lightning` motorcycle. I glanced sideways through a gap in the trees and spotted three men in a boat, fishermen poised to cast their lines into the icy, trout-rich depths of Kielder Water. Modern day hunter-gatherers, out for the kill!
A stout wind was busying itself when I finally stepped out of the trees into a large clearing and a crossroads of sorts. To my left, slightly downhill, a concrete slipway disappeared into the water whilst, to my right, a crumbling, tarmac-covered road climbed, as straight as a rod, steeply uphill. This was `Plashetts Incline`, also known as `Slater`s Incline` after John Slater the man who helped reverse the fortunes of the ailing Plashetts Coal Company in the latter part of the 19th century. Here, in this remote location, coal-laden wagons descended the incline from the hillside colliery to a freight depot on the now submerged Border Counties Railway.
It was time to leave `The Lakeside Way` behind and to follow the incline slightly uphill. On reaching the top, I stood for a moment and tried to imagine what this place must have been like more than a century ago. The contrast with today`s perfectly peaceful scene could not have been more stark.
My route now followed `The North Haul Road`, one of the major tracks through the forest and an old, green-coloured Forestry Commission sign indicated that Falstone and the dam were now only 3 miles away. The arrow-straight track led past the site of Plashetts village, once a thriving mining community where lines of houses clung to the hillside, bearing names such as Stone Row, Tile Row, Wood Row and Chapel Row. What little remains of the bricks and mortar of this village now lie buried beneath a twisted tangle of undergrowth.
Turning downhill, I paused on the concrete bridge straddling the Belling Burn and admired the view of the `Belling Inlet` and my outward route. Below me, the burn danced over a series of small, peat-stained waterfalls. With 7 miles now under my belt, I would soon be nearing the end of my walk but Kielder still had one final surprise in store. It was, it seems, saving the best until last.
With less than a mile remaining I passed the high metal fence surrounding the now defunct Falstone Mine and, as I slowed my pace to peep inside the compound, there on the ground foraging for food was a single red squirrel. Eureka! This is a severely endangered species in the United Kingdom and the Kielder Forest population is thought to represent 70% of England`s total red squirrel population. A twig cracked under the weight of my foot and the squirrel was away in the blink of an eye.
With nothing to detain me, I headed the short distance back to the car park, slipped off my boots and took one final look across the choppy waters of the reservoir. As I pulled away from Hawkhope, I pushed a CD into the car`s audio system and drove across Kielder Dam listening to Woody Guthrie singing the self-penned, `Grand Coulee Dam`. This was a suitably fitting end to a fascinating day.
Author`s Note: Since I completed this walk early in 2009, the Lakeside Way has become a huge success and is an important part of the total Kielder experience. Various events now make use of all or part of the track, including the popular Kielder Marathon. A series of waymarked walks has been created, details of which can be found on www.visitkielder.com, and further open air artworks have been created.
– Geoff Holland is a Northumbrian by birth and the author of four books of self-guided walks: The Cheviot Hills, Walks from Wooler, The Hills of Upper Coquetdale and Walks on the Wild Side The Cheviot Hills. He is a regular contributor to a number of publications including, TGO (The Great Outdoors) and Country Walking magazines and can be heard reading a selection of his poems on the spoken word website www.listenupnorth.com. Two of Geoff’s recent poems about the Hartley Pit Disaster 1862 appear in the book Still the Sea Rolls On published by Northern Voices. He also operates the highly acclaimed website www.cheviotwalks.co.uk . His books are available online from www.trailguides.co.uk. Geoff also contributes regularly to www.thisisnorthumberland.com.
See Geoff’s main column – Exploring The Cheviots.