Tag Archives: wild-life.

CONCRETE OR FEATHERS?

25 Mar

It’s been a bad week. The Tory Chancellor has decided to take money away from pensioners ( I’m a pensioner) and give lots of money to millionaires.( I’m not a millioniare!)  Then my wife, Chris, and I found out that Wimpey’s want to build yet another housing estate on the quiet fields opposite our house. No doubt they will get their way as the Government, in its wisdom, has relaxed the planning laws that used to protect our countryside from insensitive over- development. Then we got the devastating news that the court case against an out- of- town superstore complex on another green field site, has been lost. So our small, friendly high street with its selection of independent retailers is to be put in serious jeopardy by the “alien” invader whose only interest is in making money rather than protecting local communities.

I moved to Skelton in Cleveland just over 5 years ago after living in the urban conurbation of Tyneside for 35 years. It was a big change. I exchanged the vast array of amenities and facilities of the city for the quieter more intimate life of living in the semi-countryside. Some would say I was now living in “the sticks.” I moved there when I got married and when I finally retired from the job that was tying me to Tyneside. Although it is only a few miles from industrial Teesside, Skelton is very close to the coast, the Cleveland Hills and the North York Moors. It is just up the road from the charming, old-fashioned Victorian resort of Saltburn- by- the- Sea. So we don’t have a huge array of shops, we cannot choose from a wide selection of films, plays and entertainments, we cannot watch premier League football, but we do have peace, calm and fresh air and we do have lots of lovely countryside on our doorstep. The village itself is friendly and down to earth. Everyone says “hello” and passes the time of day. In the village centre we often bump into each other at meeting places such as the little branch library, the Post office, the Coop or the pub. It’s not a particularly picturesque village. We don’t have a babbling stream or charming clusters of thatched cottages. But it a pleasant, friendly place and worth wanting to preserve. The High Street is situated on a hillside and inbetween the buildings , one gets distant views of the sea. We have a village green, the remains of a medieval whipping post, an old church ( along with a newer Victorian one), an old Board school, now converted into a house, and a selection of dwellings from the last 3 centuries. Skelton also has a castle but the original structure has made way for an 18th/19th century grand house set in extensive grounds. Up until the time of Henry VIII this was the baronial home of the powerful De Brus family whose relatives north of the border, spawned the famous freedom- gaining Scottish King: Robert the Bruce.

Unfortunately the present owner of Skelton castle seems largely to be an “absentee landlord” and has little connection with the local community. This is where our problem probably lies. The land owned by the castle estate is slowly being sold off to developers. Housing estates are now spreading down the hill like a stain. Green grass is turning into concrete. Wild flowers, insects and birds are being replaced by bricks and mortar and the inevitable cars. Ironically, the latest estate is called Castle View but most of the newcomers will just have a view of houses and double garages. One of our neighbours, lives in an older property called Woodland View. But the wood is nowhere in sight and the name of the house seems like a sick joke.

I know this post is now starting to sound like a classic piece of NIMBYISM. New houses and shops are fine so long as they don’t spoil my view and upset my status quo. I also know that change is inevitable. However, the questions have to be asked — How much development can one area take before it is ruined for everyone? The developers just want to make their money. Do they really care about destroying the peace, wiping out the wildlife or ruining the quality of life of the people who actually have to live in the place where they are building. Does our absentee Lord of the Manor really care about the people living in the village around his frequently empty castle? Changes and “developments” have to be sensitive and in keeping with the scale and nature of the area where they are taking place. I doubt if the Head of Wimpeys or the councillors on the Planning Committee would like to have a housing estate or an out-of-town shopping development stuck on to green field sites opposite them.

Which brings me to the pheasants. In our area we are lucky enough to still have a lot of birdlife. Even just in our garden we have a pair of blue tits taking up home in the nest-box, a pair of Turtle-doves cooing in the apple tree, and blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows regularly washing in the bird bath. The nearby fields often have pheasants and grouse wandering across them. Unfortunately many of them get mown down my motorists and end up as  colourful but sad feathery corpses for cars to negotiate around. The new Asda superstore, petrol station and giant car-park is to be built on one of these fields. Asda is part of the American Wallmart “family”. It makes it sound all cosy and friendly doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want a friendly family moving in next to them? Unfortunately the image will not match up to the reality. The tenant farmer who has been growing crops on that field has now been ordered not to sow any more. So it’s goodbye swathes of swaying wheat and hello polluting petrol pumps. The hedges will be uprooted, so its goodbye birds, berries and wildflowers and hello cars, noise and litter. A huge shed will rise on this green field site completely dwarfing all the buildings in the surrounding area. It will be goodbye pheasants, hello concrete. That retail shed will start to suck the trade and life out of our village. Independent retailers’ livelihoods will be threatened. Our village community life will be seriously at risk as people opt for the cheaper, big store alternative away from the High Street. This has happened and is still happening up and down the country. I hear Holmfirth, the Pennine town made famous by “TheLast of the Summer Wine ” TV series, is being menaced by a giant Tescos development. So is Hay-on-Wye in the south. My friend Vic from Brighton, is still depressed and devastated by the building of a large new football stadium and all its accompanying buildings and roads in an area of the South Downs designated as being of “Outstanding beauty” and ” Special Scientific interest.” I thought we had won the argument for protecting our  High Streets and countryside against car-orientated out- of- town develpments. But it seems I have been naive. Despite the intervention of Mary Portas, the government’s High Street “Czar”, it seems that our town and village centres are still under severe threat. Despite all the work of  Peter Scott and David Attenbrough, it seems our wildlife and beauty spots are still regarded by many as expendable. The argument for preserving the centres of our valuable communities is far from won. So is the one about protecting our precious countryside and wildlife. Apparently, our current Tory- dominated Coalition government wants to ensure that planning regulations no longer hold back economic growth irrespective of the cost to fragile environments.

In a sick PR stunt, our local council of Redcar and Cleveland, involved innocent local primary children in the naming of the lane that will lead to the green-field superstore development. The naive children decided to christen it “Pheasant Fields Lane”. It makes sense — as the field that the road runs alongside often has pheasants running and flying around in it. However, if the Councillors and developers get their way, there will be no more pheasants because there will be no more field. They will just be seeing a larger number of squashed birds on the road as the traffic vastly increases. As a writer to our local newspaper noted, maybe they should call it “Dead Pheasants Road” instead. In a contest between feathers and concrete there is only one winner. Unfortunately, the same has to be said about a contest between a small village High Street and a giant retailer. The landowner, the developers and the outside retailer will all make a heap of money but the people and wild-life of our area will be the ones who will pay a heavy price.

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Walking the Northumberland Coast — Day 1.

10 Oct

INTRODUCTION. — When my friend Colin suggested tackling the NCP, I at first imagined we would be walking around a very large car-park! But then I realized that this wouldn’t take 6 days, even if it happened to be a multi-storey! It was in fact the Northumberland Coastal Path that we were to walk. It goes from Cresswell, near Ashington to Berwick upon Tweed, a distance of around 66 miles.

Wanting to be different, we decided to walk it backwards — not literally of course, but starting at the end and finishing at the beginning, if that makes sense. Colin’s reason was that we would be walking home.( he lives in Morpeth, not that far from Cresswell.) This made good sense, except that when we actually did the walk, we were constantly meeting more conformist walkers who never failed to ask us why we were doing it “the wrong way round.”

As explained in my last post ( “Getting up from the Couch…”), we were to do the walk with our mutual friend: Clive. However he was tragically killed in a road accident  2 months previously. So we did the walk in Clive’s memory. He may not have accompanied us in the flesh but was with us in spirit every step of the way.

BERWICK UPON TWEED. — We started in Berwick, the town that for much of its history hasn’t known whether it’s English or Scottish. Even today, though officially part of England, its football team Berwick Rangers, plays in the Scottish League. Then there is the accent — definitely more Scottish than English. At times it was difficult to decipher as it was usually spoken at speed and I kept having to say “pardon?” or had to get Colin, a born and bred Northumbrian, to translate for me.

Up to 1836, Berwick was technically an independent state and even after that was mentioned separately in international treaties. There is a delicious and persistent rumour that Berwick is still officially at war with Russia due to its “independent” participation in the Crimean War but its omission from the subsequent peace treaty. However, this story was debunked by a report on the BBC’s “Nationwide” programme in the 1970’s, so we cannot argue with that can we? Also in the 70’s, a nice man from Pravda smiled and shook hands with Berwick’s Mayor to ensure that hostilities would not erupt again in the near future.

Colin and I stepped on to the platform of Berwick railway station one sunny morning in late September, 2011. This is the station responsible for the near demolition of the town’s medieval castle, the sorry remains of which you can see if you look left as the train pulls in. The railway smashed through the castle courtyard in the mid 19th Century.

We slipped into England’s most northerly town with slightly sheepish expressions on our faces. We quickly took cover in the dense foliage of a park that descended to the river. This was not because we were Russians or Ukrainians from the Crimea, but because we had failed to pay for our train journey from Morpeth up to Berwick. We had tried twice but the ticket man didn’t have his machine to hand. So as we got up to disembark, I muttered to Colin:” We’re on the run!” Perhaps I had watched too many episodes of “The Fugitive” when I was a kid!

We emerged from the park right on to a path by the river, spanned by its 3 bridges, 2 for road traffic and 1 for rail. The Royal Border Bridge is the most magnificent. Opened in 1847 and  officially “blessed” by Queen Victoria 3 years later, it triumphantly sweeps the railway across the Tweed on its 28 slender arches. Today, its classic outline is marred slightly by the pylons carrying the overhead powerlines for the high-speed trains. However it is still a wonderful sight, especially on a clear, sunny day such as we experienced. The spectacular brick and stone structure looked like an ancient Roman aquaduct, set against a bright blue sky and reflected in the bright blue water. We stood and stared, no longer worried about our potential pursuers, just drinking in the view. It is a view created partly by man, partly by nature, an intoxicating combination. As if to emphasise this point, we watched a heron fishing, perfectly framed by one of Stephenson’s graceful arches.( the 4th or 5th one from the right I think!)

But we couldn’t afford to stand and gaze for very long. A 6 day, long-distance walk lay ahead of us and we had to make tracks.

TWEEDMOUTH and SPITTAL —– We crossed the older of the two road bridges, built from sandstone in the early 17th Century and disappointingly only containing 15 arches. ( Colin counted them.) We now surprisingly discovered that we were walking in the footsteps of the artist L S Lowry, famous for his pictures of matchstick people scurrying through industrial townscapes. It seems that he loved to escape to the North-East coast, stay in a hotel in Sunderland, and make day trips up to Berwick to paint the town, river and coast scenes. The enterprising local tourist office has erected a series of illustrated information boards so visiters can follow the “Lowry Trail.” We followed it into Tweedmouth, now a quiet, down-at-heel little port which has obviously seen better days. It used to be a hive of activity with ships transporting both people and goods in and out. There was even a regular packet service to London. However the coming of the railways killed off most of this seafaring trade. When we walked through, one solitary ship from Hamburg was berthed on the quiet quayside. Clues of the port’s once busy past were revealed through buildings’ names such as Stevedores’ House and Custom’s House. But the streets were calm and largely deserted on this Monday morning.

Colin talked to a couple of leathered-up German bikers leaving the Rob Roy Guest House. We both thought of Clive, our recently departed biker friend who should have been on this walk with us. I bought a Mars bar and an Independent at a newsagent’s to contribute to the obviously depressed local economy and we walked on to Spittal, where the Tweed finally flows into the sea.

Spittal — what a name! Apparently it was once a popular resort frequented by thousands of holiday makers from the Scottish border towns. Imagine sending postcards home — Greetings from Spittal. Wish you were here! We noted the lovely beach, a short promenade and a few children’s amusements. What we didn’t see were holiday-makers. Only a couple of dog walkers and ourselves enjoyed that glorious sunny morning on Spittal seafront, and all the promanade’s seats were empty. When the local railways were wiped out by the Beeching cuts of the 1960’s, the holidaymakers simply melted away. So it seemed as if we were strolling through a ghost town.

SOUTH TOWARDS LINDISFARNE. — The rest of the walk that day was straight down the coast, the path squeezed inbetween the railway and the sea. We walked on clifftops, past beaches, bays and shining rock formations. We climbed up and down dunes held together by wiry grass and had our picnic by a ruined 2nd World War look-out tower. The whole coast was strewn with war-time relics — concrete towers, pillboxes and long lines of stone blocks that served as tank-traps. We also skirted past the first of many golf courses that we were to encounter. “Another day at the office?” one of the happy golfers called to us, a smile on his face.

Eventually we had distant views of the conically shaped Lindisfarne castle and the vast bulk of Bamburgh castle, though this was still merely a dark speck on the horizon.

As we neared Lindisfarne. we passed the coastal wetlands of its Nature Reserve. Swan swam around, constantly dipping their heads into the water of a small mere. Behind them, 2 snowy-white egrets were fishing amongst the reeds. We gazed at large, spectacular formations of honking geese, making constantly changing, swirling patterns in the sky. We even thought we spotted a Godwit with its curved beak. Now, is that the one where the beak curves up or down? Clive would have known.

Another line of tank traps and we were at the start of the causeway to Lindisfarne or Holy Island, complete with parked cars, tourists and an ice-cream van. It was hardly a spiritual scene as befits a place of pilgrimage over many centuries. The tide was in and so the sea completely covered the access road, which was only identifiable from its gaunt marker posts and white refuge boxes, raised above the water to rescue stranded walkers or motorists, caught out by the rushing tide. The ice-cream van stood at the entrance to the drowned road, water gently lapping over its front tyres. We could have waited for the waters to recede in order to visit the Holy island, but that was 4.5 hours away. So we turned inland, tramping up the hill to Beal and then on to the Lindisfarne Inn which was actually on the busy A1, the Great North Road. This is where we were to rest and spend the night.

As we settled into our comfortable lodgings, I imagined I was a passenger on a horse-drawn stage coach, pulled in for a change of horses on the long journey to Edinburgh ( or London), but the succession of lorries and cars driving in to the adjacent fuel station soon dispelled this romantic notion. However, I was more than happy with our experiences on day 1 of our trek. It had taken us past spectacular bridges, a faded port and resort, 2nd World War defences, beautiful coastal scenary, rich bird life, an artistic trail, the remains of a castle and a sacred place of pilgrimage. Not bad for 11 miles!