Autumn in Northumberland is a great time to visit, explore and discover this amazing County. Although we don’t really get big crowds here, the human summer visitors have gone, the puffins have flown back out into the further reaches of the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic terns have headed for well, Antarctica. In their place come our Autumn migrants, no puffins on the Farne Islands now, but thousands of geese, ducks and waders fill the skies, the bays and mudflats along the coast.
On the Farne Islands, grey seals give birth to their pups, they’ve started already. The first one arrived on Friday 27th September, up to 2000 will be born over the coming months. You can get to see them up close, take a trip out to the Islands on a boat from Seahouses, don’t forget your camera, it’s a wildlife moment not to be missed.
Last Friday, we walked across the sea on the Pilgrims’ Path to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. This unique path, in use by pilgrims for perhaps 1500 years takes you out into a mini-wilderness. We saw and heard hundreds of seals, lying up on the sand banks; their mournful singing is a feature of the journey that walkers take away with them in their memories of the day. It’s not just seals though, curlews call, gulls chatter and redshank and oystercatcher keep up a constant piping call out there on the mud; it’s a great experience, but don’t forget, don’t linger, the tide does come in and you have to press on to reach the land.
It’s the sound of the pink footed geese flying over the coast of Northumberland that makes me realise that Autumn has arrived. These long distance travellers, having spent the breeding season on Spitzbergen, or in Iceland and Greenland are making their way south for the Winter. The Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve off the Northumberland Coast is for many of them their first landfall. Hot on their wingtips are the pale-bellied brent, barnacle and grey lag geese.
Some will spend the Winter here, others will head south and west to fill other skies with the sound of their voices, their impressive flying displays and huge numbers. It’s not unusual for the geese to fly in the dark and all you hear is the ‘honking’ call as perhaps hundreds of these birds driven by the need to migrate fly noisily overhead in the depths of the night.
It has been a very productive Autumn for fruit, berries and seeds. The rowan trees, always a colourful spectacle anyway, are laden with fruit, much to the delight of the blackbirds and thrushes, which have been plucking them clean of their bright red berries. Their Scandinavian cousins, the fieldfares and redwings will soon be joining them as they cross the North Sea for the Autumn bonanza of food to be found on these shores. The one fruit missing from the Northumberland hedges this year is the humble sloe, the fruit of the blackthorn. The sharp frosts of early Spring stopped the blossom, which means no sloe gin this year, a favourite warming drink after a long cold day walking in the hills. Next year maybe, we’ll be picking and bottling this bitter fruit for Winter 2014.
Unlike 2012, this year the grain harvest in the Northumberland countryside has gone without a hitch. Fields harvested are within a day or so ploughed, cultivated and sown with next year’s crop. A sequence of green, then gold, followed by brown earth to new green shoots of barley and wheat is a sure indicator that the seasons are turning once again. There are sighs of relief from the farming community, that the weather has treated them well and the new crops are once again in the ground and growing.
Everywhere you go in the hills, the shepherds are readying the sheep flocks for the coming breeding season. The ewes look healthy, the spring lambs have moved on and the rams or tups in little groups in small fields are building up their reserves ready to do their work. Look out for the tups on your walks; they’re the big sheep, long-horned, big-headed and restful in their paddocks in the valley bottoms close to the farm steadings.
Up in the Cheviot Hills of the Northumberland National Park, the heather has bloomed and faded and it did look very good this year. Little tufts of cotton grass linger, it really did bloom in June, in the gaps where the heather had been burnt back there were acres of this lovely flowering grass bobbing and blowing in the wind.
Now, the bracken is turning brown and dying back. It looks attractive, but for many of us who walk in the hills, we’re pleased to see it gone for another year. Its rampant march across our hillsides seems to have lessened in recent years and I can’t say I’m sorry.
Don’t miss coming to Northumberland in the Autumn, it really is worth it, there’s an awful lot to see, so many places to go and the walking is excellent. Bring your coats, hats and gloves and get on the coast, discover the countryside and explore the misty valleys and hills in the Northumberland National Park, you won’t be disappointed. Once back from your adventure, a pub with an open fire will provide a warm welcome, rest there a while and think back on the places you have been and the things you have seen on your journey in Northumberland.
At Footsteps – walking the beauty of Northumberland, we’ll get you there and back again, show you the hidden places, find you the best views and help identify all those birds; you won’t know where to look next, but we’re certain you’ll be back.
Do a guided walk with Patrick Norris: Footsteps in Northumberland.
Category: Northumberland Walker's Guide