The deserted village of Old Middleton

We were drawn to this walk by the Northumberland National Park Poems in the Air project. Earlier this summer, we’d listened to Simon Armitage recounting his Proposal Stone poem on the Simonside Hills – a quite magical experience, so we were keen to explore more of these walks.

On a extraordinarily perfect autumnal day last week we set out to walk to Old Middleton to find the deserted village, and hear another Simon Armitage poem.We parked the car near Middleton Farm, and walked up the track, past berry-laden trees and the curious cattle …This is a beautiful spot – but I wouldn’t care to live here.  Just look at these pylons dominating the farm (tucked away at its feet)!We are all too familiar with complaints about wind farms in Northumberland, but I’ve never heard anyone moan about the pylons, and when you meet them like this, you do wonder why ever not …But never mind the pylons and the current disputes raging about how we mark the landscape – we were here to find habitations that long pre-dated these arguments.  Stephen found them on his phone first …Just a little way on, and we saw the old enclosures …And got our first glimpse of these deserted buildings …It’s not unusual to find old barns and outhouses that have fallen into disrepair and been abandoned, but what is strange about this place, is the house nearby – hidden by the overgrown trees.We couldn’t resist looking inside … the overgrown trees making the pathway difficult …Look down amid the overgrown nettles at those muddy hoof prints – it’s clearly a home for the local sheep now …Where the nettles haven’t taken over completely …We peered in gingerly …Not sure what we’d find …The old range …And the water pipes connecting to nothing now …But once (presumably) they led to this bath …And the toilet …Look up, and there’s the water tank.  Ooh dear, it does look very dodgy ….As do other things …In fact, it’s probably best not to look up …In many places the plaster has come off, but the mid twentieth century fireplace is still there in what must have been the living room …And another older (and in my opinion prettier)  fireplace in the single bedroom …On sunny days like this, how fine it is to look out of this bedroom …What views from this cottage …And the sheep glimpsed outside …The old electricity meter, all rusted up now …It feels intrusive – especially when you come across objects like this odd shoe …So we left the cottage and walked back to explore the old barns …Overgrown with nettles and small trees …To peer through the little window at the sheep …And admire the quality of the quoins in the stone doorway …Before settling down to listen to Simon Armitage, the curious sheep warily coming to watch us … I can’t remember the poem, nor did we write it down (that would spoil it for others rather), but I can tell you that he spoke of abandonment and renaturing.

“We are tenants only …” Too right, Simon – applicable to so much that we think we control in our everyday lives.Villagers have fled their homes in this Northumbrian/Borderland area for many centuries.  The constant raiding in the sixteenth century (Scots and English marauders pillaging over their borders) took a huge toll on the ordinary farming families trying to eke a living out of this land.

But this cottage was clearly inhabited in the last century so we were curious to know more about Old Middleton.  Very little is written about it, but I did find this interesting little reference in Edward Baker’s “Walking the Cheviots”.

“Only the earthworks of this abandoned village are visible today. Originally it comprised of two rows of cottages north and south of a village green.  In 1580 Thomas Gray of Chillingham had eleven tenants living there.  Today only a ruined shepherd’s cottage marks the site.  These abandoned villages are often the result of farm mechanisation causing a drop in required manpower, resulting in rural depopulation.”

We looked around at this beautiful place – green fertile lands, trees, water – and wondered about the people who had to leave.Casually – as though dropped in a rush – somebody had left this curious cast-iron object on the ground near where we were sitting.We had no idea what it is, but it was clearly marked: R.A.Lister, Dursley, according to Wikipedia makers of agricultural equipment. Somehow the rejection of this object made even more poignant the ending of the agricultural enterprise that was Old Middleton.We left Old Middleton and walked on – our route highlighted in red on the map below.As we looked back at these deserted buildings, we could see strip farming marks highlighted in the fields, showing where in the middle ages this land would have been farmed under the open-field systemOur route took us along the hill slope, through a large field of very noisy cattle …Who – most disturbingly – were walking parallel to us, lowing furiously as though gathering for a meet …The track was extremely boggy in places …So we were glad when we escaped the noisy cattle and the marshy ground, and soon found ourselves on better terrrain … and heading down to the treeline …A brief glimpse of the beautiful Coldgate Water in the valley below …Our path took us past a little lake (map consultation taking place here) …No Swimming!And down down down ….To the Coldgate Water …The trouble was – it was much deeper than we had expected!Or had the map-reader brought us to the wrong crossing … hmmm. Either way, we had to cross, and what else to do, but strip off our sox and walking boots and paddle over barefoot ….It was very beautiful ….But very very cold! I guess it isn’t named the Coldgate Water for nothing …Ah, but the pleasure of sunning your wet feet when you’ve crossed the stream!Especially when Stephen realises he has some kitchen roll to dry our feet with. Softies aren’t we!The other side of the bank the path was tricky – muddy (trampled by the cattle) and seriously overgrown …So – imagine our pleasure when we came out into the plain of the Happy Valley!Much easier walking here … (even if the defaced waymarker was no help) …Through dappled woods …At times, it did appear that we were being watched … Or is that face in the tree just my imagination?Then we crossed back over the Coldgate Water – thank goodness a proper bridge here …Past the thoughtfully placed bench …And back to Middleton Farm and our little white car!It was a glorious walk, but I cannot help feeling sad that people had to leave their homes in a place called the Happy Valley.

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A walk on the Simonside hills

It’s a very damp overcast day as I write this,  so it’s hard to remember what glorious weather it was when we were out on the Simonside Hills last week. It brings most sharply to mind how lucky we are to have photographs to preserve our memories.

It’s a particular pleasure for me to do these walks (which I think is well-conveyed by our Simonside photos) because as a child I was never encouraged to embark on “proper” walks.  These were seen as my father’s preserve. Here he is on Dartmoor in the early 1970s, and, my goodness, did he equip himself thoroughly for his walk!!  I now have the binoculars which he was wearing round his neck in their fine leather case, and even without the leather case they are very heavy to walk with indeed.While my father marched over the moors, we children were left with my mother and grandmother for (usually) damp picnics under the rocks of Hound Tor.So I grew up believing I could never be a hill walker.  What a joy it has been to discover in Northumberland that this is not the case!

Our walk last Tuesday took us up the Simonside Hills. They are near Rothbury, about an hour’s drive away from where we live.  We started our walk at the Lordenshaws carpark, with a helpful noticeboard and the path stretching on and up into the hills.It was a day of brilliant sun, barely any breeze at the start – and hardly any other walkers either.  The flora was abundant and beautiful.But what struck me most forcefully right at the beginning of the walk and further as we walked along the summit of the Simonside ridge was how managed the path was. Just look at these carefully constructed stepping stones!I guess this shows how inexperienced I am with hill walking.  The Simonside Hills, not far from Rothbury and the more populated south of Northumberland, are heavily walked – and quite rightly so, because they are a magnificent walk.  But walkers (and this, of course, included us) wear away the paths they love to walk.  Where the path hasn’t been laid with slabs and steps, it was heavily eroded and very uncomfortable walking – the elements must bear some responsibility here!Further on the path was slabbed – much more comfortable walking.We laughed to see that some of these flagstones bore evidence of a former life – can you see the metal marks on this flagstone?  In some places there were metal protuberances still well-proud of the stone …. hmm, what happened to Health & Safety we wondered … ?  They did look a bit like re-used gravestones, and I half-expected that if you turned one over you would find names and dates.Touchingly, a flag stone remembers Dr Alan Reece. So many greats to attach to his name.  A fine place to be remembered.On the path went … With fine views already back to the carpark and our little white car …Past the empty bags that must have delivered the stone for the recent path repairs …(Later on we met this helpful sign explaining all.)Before long we’d reached the first marker, the Beacon Cairn.With magnificent views stretching down and around to the wind farms of the south …And back to Rothbury.The route stretched out from here pleasingly along the ridge … (you can see here most clearly how people have made new paths in the heathery peat to avoid walking on the uncomfortable old pebbly path) …And the start of the climb to Dove Crag …Glorious walking through the heather – not quite at its best yet but heavy with bees ….And whortleberry sustenance! (actually known as bilberries in this part of the world.  Whortleberry is its Devonian name).Stephen following me (quite a way behind!) at this point, so I’m feeling a bit smug …Bit off a show-off really …To Dove Crag and more sustenance ….And, oh the views!Accompanied by a glorious sense of well-being!Further on and further up (as the children exclaimed at the end of C.S.Lewis’s Last Battle) …At one point you are redirected onto a completely different path – you can see the old path veering away to the right behind the fencing, and the blue notice explaining that this is because of erosion control.A colour change as we passed through red grasses …With the odd curious conifer standing in striking contrast.  We met several of these conifers on our way – presumably seeded by the birds from the large conifer plantations at the foot of the Simonside ridge.On and up again to the highest point …The colours are amazing! #nofilterThen just a little way ahead to the final cairn – which seems curiously suburban garden to me … Isn’t this the effect rock-gardeners strive to create?And the path curves round to the final crag …Where people cannot resist leaving their marks …But we just climbed up to enjoy the view …What caught me unawares was this huge leonine stone monster of a crag – yes, that’s what I was standing on above!  Seems almost an imposition for such a fine beast.  Curiously nowhere have I read about this wonderful stone shape. One can imagine the stories of the Simonside beast loose and roaming the hills ….And with that our route took us back, retracing our steps … Well, not quite – there was a small diversion. Stephen had found the proposal stone …To our surprise no path led the way to the Proposal Stone over the heather – do so few people visit it now?  You have to break all the National Park rules and climb through the heather to get to it.We had a bit of banter because I too am a K …”So who was this J?” my Stephen demanded, and then …. magically we connected to the app and Simon Armitage’s poem about this place. The poem isn’t written down, so the only way to hear it is to climb the Simonside hills with a smart phone.  Disappointingly neither of us can remember much of the poem – just odd words and phrases stand out: the Taj Mahal of this empty space, the heather, the bilberries and the cotton grass – all as bridal accompaniments. Despite our failing memories, it was a rare and remarkable experience to hear the poem spoken in this place like that. Thank you so very much Mr Armitage and technicians of the Northumbrian National Park.

What a place for a proposal!  Did she say yes?  Nobody knows.  In fact, nobody knows who put the proposal either – or when.

(Although you can’t hear the poem, you can listen to Simon Armitage speak beautifully about this project here.)What a walk!