Duncan Usher is a photographer originally from Northumberland, now based in Germany. He divides his time between the UK and Europe, and regularly returns to Stoney Law, Allendale, Northumberland for holidays. You can see his work here. Find out more about Stoney Law, Allendale. Duncan shares with us the magic of Allendale and Stoney Law, and his love for nature and wildlife in this part of the world.
By Duncan Usher
Stoney Law became a focus point for me on my many return visits to the rural town of my birth, Allendale. My childhood and teenage days were spent roaming the surrounding countryside, enjoying its beauty and observing and learning about its varied wildlife.
As a young man I left the wooded valleys and moorlands of Allendale and moved abroad to Europe in search of work and adventure, but my addiction for the area has resulted in me returning over the years to visit friends and family as well as to capture images of the varied wildlife, during my activities as a professional natural history photographer.
During recent years I stayed overnight at Stoney law. On my arrival I would be welcomed in spring by the warbling call of the curlew or the drumming flight of displaying snipe overhead, carried on the winds coming down from surrounding fells, scented with the beauty of unspoilt countryside. I always sensed a welcoming feeling of homecoming.
Built on an eminence high above the valley of the East Allen river not far from the village of Catton, the solid built house offers wonderful views of the surrounding countryside, especially to the east, where the sun-flooded mornings are accompanied by the song of the areas’ prolific birdlife.
On calm spring evenings, the call of the tawny owl can be heard from the neighbouring belt of trees and if you are lucky you will catch a glimpse of the nesting birds bring back food for its owlets, painting the twilight with its silent flight. If one is vigilant and lucky, occaisionally a little owl my be spotted in the odd dead Elm or derelict farm buildings below Stoney Law, on the quaint narrow Colliery lane leading down to Oak Pool. They are a diurnal as well as a nocturnal predator and their agitated bobbing and tilting head behaviour are an entertaining sight to behold.
Venturing down the Colliery lane one arrives at Oak Pool situated on the river Allen tucked in between shady trees, unwilling to give up the rivers’ secrets. You may be witness of a rippling over the waters’ surface below the overhanging branches, – mink or could it be an otter? Lurking in the deeper, darker pools are patriarchal Brown Trout which are reluctant to leave their lair if hooked on the anglers’ wet fly, without a heroic fight. Shy roe deer will melt away before you as you wander along the beautiful wooded valley, like fleeting woodland spirits.
On late balmy evenings in summer, when twilight becomes your escort and the ground mist starts to spread out from the river like an unfurling shroud across the neighbouring fields, your senses may sharpen instinctively. Above the hypnotic gurgling of the Allen river, the eerie bark of a dog fox stops you dead in your tracks, coming from the darkling woods. Bats are now weaving their erratic flight paths above the river, catching their evening meal. As darkness approaches and ones’ feet automatically quicken back towards home, the mind may play tricks and spirits of the past which once roamed through the valley in the form of Roman soldiers or Border raiders can be imagined in the slowly, swirling evening mist.
Spirits, there are indeed if you care to lend an ear to the local folklore in the Allendale valley. Not far from Stoney Law is the ruins of Staward Peel, built in the 14th Centuary on the site of a Roman temple on a promontory above Staward Gorge, which rises steeply above the river Allen, downstream from the Cupola bridge. Over the centuries it changed hand between kings, dukes and lords. Later on it was occupied by monks directed from Hexham Priory. As the fable goes, one day Border raiders were approaching the Peel tower and the habitual monks hastily took all the gold and silver and hid it in a deep pool in the river below. The treasure was never found or seen again but apparently in droughty summers, the glitter of the gold and silver is to be seen shining through the water between the leaves of the surrounding trees – or is it just a trick of the light?
Or the fable of the ox-drawn cart sinking in the swampy grounds of the Duck Marshes above Allendale, one foggy and gale-torn winters night as the travellers lost their way and erred from the route across the treacherous marshes to be dragged down into the freezing, murky waters, never to be seen again. The tale goes as such that if you are caught out in the asaid place by night and the gathering wind carries to you the distant desperate cries of the wretched travellers and the fear-stricken bellows of the oxen as they they are dragged mercilessly into the quagmire of their watery grave, take no heed and hasten to higher safer ground, before the lost souls lure you into treacherous folly. Or is it just a trick of the moorland wind mournfully wailing between the peat hags and the cloak of darkness nagging at your imagination as you hasten from the fell.
Above the wooded valley of the river Allen, the changing light displays the wild remoteness, raw beauty and solitude of the surrounding moorland. Standing at the moors’ edge at dawn can be a lonely and melancholic experience as the wind filters the plaintive bleating of distant sheep through the rushes bending in the wispering wind. When dawn comes spirits are lifted as the sun rays drench the forlorn hills in a myriad of changing light and warm colours. Red Grouse with their bronzed plumage stake their presence in a flurry of feathers and alarm calls as they explode out of the heather below your feet. The graceful buoyant flight of the short-eared owl can be witnessed as well as the effortless, gliding aviation skills of the hen harrier or the dashing direct flight of the smaller merlin as it courses the heather clad moors for prey. Life rejoices in the warm ethereal light of spring.
Each month brings its theraputical products of a natural harvest to the visitor or traveller. For example August sweetens the late summer air with the intoxicating smell of heather honey and the buzzing of the bees. Accompanied by a symphony of red grouse and sheep, lying in the heather on the upper moorland reaches bathed in the warmth of the afternoon sun can elevate the mood to a relaxing level of carefree thoughts.
The whole of the area is steeped in history of the old lead mining days from the17th – 19th centuries. There are many sites and relics which can be visited in the surrounding dales at places like Allenheads and the Kilhope wheel or the old mine workings at Nenthead to learn about how lead-ore was hewn from the surrounding remote moorland hills and smelted at Allenheads or Allendale smelting mills. All operations were carried out under extreme manual effort, wielding pick-axes, shovels and crowbars, and accompanied by the belching blackened smoke of toxic fumes escaping from the moorland smelting chimneys to bring riches to the few, whilst hard work and hardship were the rewards of the working masses. Numerous ruins of workings and buildings scattered through the surrounding countryside are attribute to the once bustling lead mining industry of yesterday.
Stoney Law has much to offer, peacefulness, relaxation, beautiful views, the celebration of nature on its doorstep represented by its bird and plant life, historical sites and relics of a rich history, endless enchanting walks in the surrounding hills and dales, which help one to shrug off the stresses of modern day life and last but not least, the friendliness and hospitality of the Alledonians.
Category: Northumberland Accommodation