Discover Kielder: A guide to this magical forest
Getting away from it all doesn't get better than this, says Ann and Steve Toon. If you want to escape the madding crowd, wander for miles without encountering a soul, drink in mind-clearing Champagne air, marvel at the Milky Way, watch wildlife, enjoy modern sculpture al-fresco and discover a rich, dark history more thrilling than a TV murder mystery, head straight for Northumberland's beautiful Border country. There at its beating wild heart you'll find all of the above in the Kielder Water and Forest Park and its immediate surrounds. Photographs also by Ann and Steve Toon
In winter, snuggled under a blanket of snow, the place is a silent, scenic wonderland. The sheer sense of space is breathtaking. Setting off through pristine, fresh accumulations of white powder along the 26-mile Lakeland Way path that circles Kielder reservoir, or on one of the many, well-marked forest trails, is like walking into a Christmas card. After all this forest does supply the Christmas tree for the Houses of Parliament each year. The only sound you'll hear is the 'crr-unch' of your boots on the snow. If you're lucky you may even catch a glimpse of a shy roe deer nervously watching between the tall spruces before bounding off effortlessly into the dense forest with a flash of white rump.
But it's not just in the sparkling winter sunshine that the peace and stillness of this forest landscape impresses. Kielder, the home of Europe's largest man-made lake, is located in England's least populated county and was voted the most tranquil place in the country by the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Its coal dark skies, free from light pollution, have been given gold tier designation from the International Dark Sky Association and the forest, together with next door neighbour Northumberland National Park, was granted Dark Sky Park status in 2013. The combined 572 square miles comprise Europe's largest protected area of night sky. It's also the third largest dark sky reserve in the world, making official what us locals have known all along – that this is the best place in the country to count constellations, spot meteor showers and wonder at the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). The place even has its own award-winning, space-age observatory tucked away in the trees where hugely popular astronomy and stargazing events are frequently held for the public.
Being free from crowds makes Kielder a magnet for wildlife too. The area is home to around 60 per cent of the country's charismatic red squirrel population, has a unique population of wild goats, and made headlines in 2009 when a pair of ospreys returned to breed, raising the first brood to fledge in the region in 200 years. They're now regular visitors during the summer months and you can watch them in comfort, feeding their hungry chicks on the nest, via a live web-feed in the waterside cafe at Leaplish. Look out for them too swooping down to take fish at Bakethin Reservoir at the north end of the reservoir - one of the best places to see them hunting. Rare goshawk thrive in these parts as well and can sometimes be spotted from the wonderfully scenic, 12 mile, unsealed Forest Drive, one of England's highest roads, at East Kielder.
If you want an idea of just how rich the place is for wildlife, Forestry Commission ornithologist Martin Davison is your man. He has the job of checking all the owl and bird of prey nest sites in Kielder each summer as well as ringing the new chicks, including the famous ospreys. In a good year that's getting on for 200 nest sites and up to 150 chicks. It's a full-time task single-handedly covering 250 square miles of rugged terrain across England's largest working forest, but he doesn't seem to mind. 'I live for it and still get a thrill each year checking all the nests,' he says. The park is also renowned for its pioneering conservation salmon hatchery where almost a million fish are reared from eggs each year to restock local rivers and mitigate the impact of the man-made dam on natural spawning grounds. You can find out more about this fascinating project at the Kielder Salmon Centre which is open to the public. Small groups can book a behind the scenes tour and see the process in action.
With all that's going on in the Kielder landscape today it's tough to believe that less than 100 years ago the area was undulating moorland and sheep farming country as far as the eye could see. The area is steeped in a brooding, bloody history as haunting as the surrounding moorland landscape. For 300 years, from the late thirteenth century to the beginning of the seventeenth, the Scottish and English borders were rife with fierce clan vendettas characterised by violent raids, livestock rustling, arson and murder - all carried out by colourful local characters known as Border Reivers. You can still see the relics of this lawless, turbulent past in the local landscape today (see box on page xx). Thankfully these days the marauding has been swapped for mountain biking and it's fellow walkers, water-sport enthusiasts and wildlife-lovers, rather than fearsome cross-border raiders, you'll cross paths with on peaceful meanders by the lake.
Seeds for the dramatic transformation of Kielder's landscape into the one we enjoy today were sown back in the 1920s when planting of the forest first started. Plans for a huge reservoir, to meet an expected rise in demand for water from UK industry, weren't hatched until the 1960s, and it wasn't until 1975 that construction work on the dam finally started. It took six years to build and a further two to fill the lake behind it. In the end, however, the expected increased demand for water never really materialised, and although the dam continues to regulate and store the waters of the Tyne, the seven-mile lake and surrounding forest have become more famous today as one of England's stand-out recreation and nature conservation areas.
Heavy industry's loss has been the tourist's gain. In 2013 the park's tourist experience was awarded Visit England's 2013 gold award for excellence. But Kielder's not a place a to rest on its laurels. Even for those living close by like ourselves, the park continues to evolve and surprise. Walk around the miles of purpose-built trails, for example, and you're as likely to be distracted by imposing pieces of striking outdoor modern art and architecture as you are to see one of the famous red squirrels foraging among the pine cones. There are three dedicated art and architecture trails visitors can explore and trail guides can be downloaded from the Kielder Water and Forest Park website. Whether it's the elegant curves of Lewisburn Bridge's contemporary design, a maze in the middle of nowhere, a futuristic shelter, or the 'giant forest head' sculpture of Silva capitalis, Kielder's striking art installations are certainly not what you'd expect to find on a walk through a remote forest setting.
The heart of Border Reiver territory may not exactly be your average gallery setting, but it's exciting stumbling across and enjoying them all. The sudden, unexpected contrast between natural landscape and artwork is arresting, thought provoking, and huge fun whatever your age. Come to think of it, this sharp collision of the man-made and the natural is perfectly apt. After all it's what this fine, fresh-air destination and its complex recent history has always been about...
The Tarset Bastle Trail
Kielder area is dotted with some remarkable and picturesque stone ruins bearing testament to the region's blood-curdling history.
These are the remains of fortified farmhouses, known as bastles, dating back to the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. They were built to protect local people and their livestock against cross border raids by the infamous Reivers ('reive' means plunder or rob) who rampaged across these lawless uplands for around 300 years.
Originally made of wood, bastles were the first local stone built dwellings of the post-medieval period. None survives in its original form today because the stone was re-used in walls and farm buildings, but some examples, like the Black Middens bastle, are almost intact, allowing visitors to step inside their sheltering thick walls and imagine a world where existence was harsh in the extreme, survival a daily battle and where life was often cut short.
One of the best ways to uncover the fascinating and grisly story of this period is to follow the newly-created Tarset Bastle Trail. Designed by the archive group of the local Tarset Valley, in conjuction with the Forestry Commission, this discovery trail, in an unspoilt corner of the Kielder Water and Forest Park, is an update of a previous 'reivers trail'. There's a choice of waymarked routes to explore with varying lengths up to eight miles - taking in some of the best examples of this aspect of local heritage. There's even an Iron-Age site that's at least 2,000 years old along the way.
Planning Your Visit
By car. From Newcastle (Kielder is 52 miles away) or Carlisle (Kielder is 40 miles away) follow the A69 to Hexham then follow the B6320 to Bellingham where there are brown signs, and then the C200 to Kielder Water & Forest Park.
Where to stay:
Battlesteads is an award-winning pub, hotel and restaurant in the nearby village of Wark with double rooms from around £115 including breakfast. Tel: 01434 230209 www.battlesteads.com
Alternatively Stable Cottage run by Tarset Holiday Cottages in the tranquil valley of Tarset has attractive self-catering accommodation for four from £320 to £565 a week and is just a short drive from Kielder reservoir. Tel: 01434 240235. www.tarsetholidaycottages.co.uk .
Kielder Water and Forest Park– Tel: 0845 155 0236
Kielder Observatory – Tel: 07805 638469
Kielder Salmon Centre – Tel: 01434 250269