The old railway track walk

I find one of the greatest ordinary pleasures in life is to be doing the same walk through the months, and over the years.  Many might find this boring, but the opportunity to see small changes in places you know very well is – to me – a great delight.

Last year I wrote about our local beach walk in just such a manner, and in this blog I’m going to explore another favourite local walk of ours that takes us in a circle from our home at Seaview up the hill, along the ridge, and down the old railway track, coming back along the sea and the modern eastcoast railway line.The most challenging part of the walk is the very first part as you walk up the long hill behind Seaview. But there’s always something of interest.  Some wet winters the old duckpond reappears behind the farm buildings  …Then there is nothing for it but you must turn your attention to the hill … up and up it goes, – a gentle incline, but a long one. It’s always me struggling just this distance behind Stephen …Even on lush summer days it is an effort …So before long you can allow yourself to look back to enjoy the view (and catch your breath) …The view is always different, depending on the time of the year …Finally – oh glorious moment – you reach the top, and can pass through the gate and out on to the ridge. There’s a better track here because it is used by all the farm traffic …Looking down from this height on Seaview with the sea behind is uplifting. The field is full of stubble here, glowing in the half-light of a late December afternoon … In February the winter-sown crops are small (and you can just make out that puddle) …By June the green is lush and has intensified …And by August it’s golden …Earlier this year, the walk along the ridgeway was quite different from how we have ever known it before.  The evil Beast from the East had blown straight off from the sea, creating the most curious drifting snow shapes.  Conditions were so unpleasant that we didn’t get out for several weeks, but when we finally did in mid-March, the remaining snow was sculpted and very dirty. Meringue-like, I thought …Thank goodness, it is more often like it was yesterday – blue and green …This part of the walk takes us past the old radar station . And yesterday we stopped off to investigate …This is one of a series of radar stations operating up the entire east coast during WW2 (known as Chain Home Radar). And what a fine view of the North Sea this position commanded!There are two buildings here …A smaller one at the back which Stephen thought might have been an old engine room …And the larger one at the front which consists of several rooms – clearly now a good place for the local young to party …Such a change in mindset over the generations!  How differently the men working here in the 1940s must have felt to the people who visit nowadays – and that includes us …

The same generational change applies to the stone wall along this part of the route. It’s crumbling badly. Sadly it seems modern farmers often don’t rebuild walls, they just chuck away – or if pushed replace with fencing …Back to the next part of our route, walking along the road. Here it is several weeks ago when it was wet and watery as well as snowy …What a miserable grey day for a walk! But fascinating too.  We never know what we will find as we turn into the old railway track.  Sometimes there are huge muddy puddles here …On other occasions, we’ve been amazed and delighted by the ice patterns …Apparently this lovely phenomenon is known as cat ice …But when the Beast from the East visited, it left muddy puddles and deep snowdrifts in its wake …Looked almost impassable …No! He’s made it – so can I!This old railway track (known as the Scremerston Incline) was laid down about 1815, and ran from the Scremerston colliery, carrying coal across the land down to the coast, where it met the public carriage way (as you can see in this 1844 plan by engineering surveyors, Martin Johnsons and Fox). From there coal was transported to the nearby river Tweed and could be shipped off to purchasers in Europe and the south. What exactly is the magic of walking down old railway tracks?The history of the place, I wonder?  Here you can still see – just! –  the old stone sleeper blocks where the rails rested …Or is it the pleasure of walking  old level paths that remain even when tractors have churned up the mud … This photograph taken on our warm walk yesterday shows just how inviting it can be, with that blue blue sea calling you down …There is so often something special to see here, from a small clump of determined snowdrops on a cold winter’s day …To vibrant gorse in the early spring …And fragile harebells in late summer …I think I love it best in the autumn …When we walk down here to pick blackberries …And enjoy other fruits abundant in the old hedgerows …The track ends abruptly with our way blocked by a pile of stones …At this point we turn to the left and walk along the edge of the field with the old trackway running parallel to us (clearly marked in March this year by the snow drifts) …But at other times, you find yourself looking down into deep wild secret places …Not far on from here, the old railway track was subsumed into the main eastcoast railway line, as you can see in this 1922 Ordinance Survey map (actually surveyed 1856-60 not that long after the opening of the Newcastle and Berwick Railway in 1847).Now our walk us takes along the main eastcoast railway line with the North Sea just beyond …And if you’re lucky, you’ll get a modern train blasting its way past you!Our walk passes very close indeed to the main eastcoast railway line …Nothing sparks up a cold January walk like a speeding train!But there are other pleasures to this part of the route: playing silly games in the wintry light of a November’s day …And at the end of summer, there’s the willowherb looking amazing …And there’s scrumpying too …This solitary apple tree sits so close to the railway line!  We think it must be the result of casual flick of a discarded apple core as perhaps the Flying Scotsman sped past …We always inspect with interest the area round this drain.  It passes under the main eastcoast line, and was installed the spring after we arrived …The field drainage here can be very bad in winter (even now), with the water funnelling down the hill and reviving ancient waterways …In the spring of 2011, after heavy snows, so much water collected here with the snow melt that it threatened to wash away the eastcoast mainline train track. So Network Rail arrived in force to construct a new drainage pipe under the railway line.So muddy was it, they constructed a roadway – with of course road traffic signs!All long gone now, of course, and on an ordinary wintry day, it looks like this as Berwick appears in the distance … We’re coming to the end of our walk now …At the end of this field, we’ll turn up the hill and are on our way home …This muddy patch was the site of the old rubbish tip, and sometimes we find interesting bits and pieces in the mud here. So on  good day we’ll come home with treasure …But it’s a good walk, even without treasure!

With grateful thanks to:

  • Northern Northumberland’s Minor Railways: Volume Two.  Colliery and Associated Lines by Roger Jermy
  • Relics of War. A Guide to the 20th Century Military Remains in the Northumberlan Landscape by Ian Hall
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Hard lives

Beached up on the north Northumbrian cliffs, we are exposed to all that the weather can throw at us.  Over this winter so far we have endured violently squally and bad-tempered Southerlies bringing rain, rain and more rain. Recently the winds have changed to sea-salty and much colder Easterlies.

But whatever the weather throws at us, we sit tight in our small sandstone cottage, and are good at keeping busy and toasty.seaview cottageMy eye is always drawn out – when the grey allows ( and we’ve had a lot of grey this winter)  – to Holy Island on the horizon, and to wonder how the monks there coped with the wind and the cold and the rain.Sunrising behind cloudsWe know about these monks because some of them were so exceptional, so saintly, that Bede (himself an exceptional early historian) recorded their history. In the early 7th century,  King Oswald of nearby Bamburgh had summoned the monks from Iona to bring Christianity to his kingdom.  It was St Aidan who stablished the monastery, and St Cuthbert was to follow there as bishop.LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMatt

We don’t have Bede’s histories alone to tell us about these early monks.  We have inherited from this place and these early years one of the most remarkable and beautiful illustrated books of all time, the book of the Lindisfarne Gospels, apparently made by the later Bishop of Lindisfarne, Eadfrith, in honour of God and St Cuthbert.

First page of St Matthew’s gospel.  Image made available to the public domain by Wikipedia.

These are the ruins of the monastery church on Holy Island today.  Life in these buildings would have been hard and rough enough, but, in fact, these aren’t the buildings Cuthbert, Aidan and others knew. These are 11th century buildings. The early monks would have had oak buildings thatched with reeds.Holy Island ruins of prioryFrom the security and warmth of our windows, I often look out on Holy Island and wonder about the monks’ lives.  And that manuscript – how on earth could the scribes do this skilled, delicate work in such bitterly cold conditions – no windows, remember?

Hard lives. Hard and dangerous lives.

Extreme danger, in fact, with the earliest known Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793.  Eventually (in 875) the monks fled, taking with them what they valued most: the body of their beloved St Cuthbert.  A life-size wood carving in the church on Holy Island commemorates their journey.  It gives a sense of the struggle to carry the coffin and body, but what of the panic, the fear, the gut-wrenching terror.wood carving of monks carrying Cuthbert's bodyFrom our small cottage we can see the sea and down the coast to Lindisfarne, and when there are large bonfires on Holy Island, we can often see their smoke too.  Farmers here might have seen the approach of those terrifying Viking longships, or the smoke from their destructive fires.view out of garden to seaSkip through the generations to the 13th century, and people here endured a new menace: the Reivers.  The Border lands, the ungovernable country between the separate kingdoms of Scotland and England, experienced years of lawlessness (right up to the Union of the Crowns in 1603) because of the depredations of the Reivers.

Novels have been written and ballads sung of the Reivers, the wild lawless men who grabbed and took whatever they wanted – especially if it belonged to another family that they were at odds with.  It was Sir Walter Scott who really put the Reivers on the map.  His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border established the tales of the Reivers as romantic, glamorous, and exciting.  Actually, they were nasty, cruel and vicious.Minstrelsy of the Scottish BorderThese Border lands were divided into six Marches, and Berwick lay in the English Eastern March.  It was better governed than most.

But it was bad enough.  It’s not hard to find examples of defensive architecture.  In our adjoining parish of Ancroft, the church itself had a secure tower to offer safety when the Reivers swept in. The walls are 1.35 metres in thickness, the upper windows are tiny.  You can climb to the top of the tower, and there are fine views around.  It might have been used as a look-out, and it’s possible warning beacons may have been lit from here.  This tower is certainly no ecclesiastical adornment.Ancroft churchEven in more recent times, life was miserably hard in these parts.  Coal was mined under the neighbouring fields, and the tramway bearing coals to transport ships runs across our view ( it’s the uneven shrubby line of trees running from the top right of the landscape across to where it meets the modern Eastcoast Mainline running along the coast).old railway trackIn the local churchyard, there are several sad gravestones which tell of deaths at the colliery.  One of them is for John Harbottle who was accidentally killed on the 21st November 1865, aged 45 years.  We don’t know how he died, but you can read more on these accidents at Scremerston Colliery at the Durham Mining Museum webpage.  No Health and Safety Inspectorate in those times.  John Harbottle's grave stoneBut of all the troubles in this part of the world, it was surely the sea that caused most grief.Spittal beach promenadeJust up the coast at St Abbs, these small statues stand as a reminder of the terrible cost of fishing disasters.  These are the wives and children of Charles Purves and James and William Thorburn who lost their lives in the great storm of 1881.  189 fishermen from the east coast of Scotland perished in that storm.St Abbs statuesAnother extremely dangerous (but potentially very lucrative) sea-faring enterprise was whaling.  Berwick’s last whaling ship, the Norfolk, left on its last voyage in 1836.  She sailed over to the North American coast in the spring, but come winter, found herself trapped by ice in Pond Inlet (of Baffin Bay) with several other ships.  The Captain of the Norfolk recorded on 15th January 1837: “…The frost is very severe and the ice has been pressing to a great height all around us.”  They did not escape the ice until mid-March.  Many, many men died of scurvy as well as frostbite.

One Berwick whaling-ship owner proudly announced his trade on his front door.No 1 Wellington TerraceThose are harpoon heads on the front door panels.Detail of door of no 1 Wellington TerraceThese balustrades on the roofs of local Spittal houses are sometimes know as widows’ walks.  From them pacing wives and ship-owners might scan the sea, looking for sight of ships.widows' walksThe whale oil was processed in the manufactories where the last Spittal chimney now stands.  It was a foul-smelling and obnoxious process. Spittal chimneyIs it surprising that people fled, leaving this beautiful area for places where they hoped they might have a better life?emigration noticeI am left to reflect on my twenty-first century luck to be living here, safe and warm and healthy – so as to be able to enjoy it in comfort.

Oh, alas for all those poor souls who lived in these parts for whom life was such a miserable and dangerous struggle.Poe in front of fire