Chesters – Day One

 

The drive to the Village Tearoom and Emporium was stunning. As the sun was beating down on my right arm I was a little nervous I hadn’t brought the sun cream, but luckily the light was just right to make Northumberland’s hills shine gold, without turning my skin pink.

After meeting Heather, we drove to a top-secret spot where adders were frequently sighted. Due to the adder’s rarity in the UK, it is important not to broadcast locations of their possible breeding sites, to avoid a rush of human activity and potentially disturbing the snakes. As the afternoon was still very hot, we found eight adders basking, both males and larger females. In fact, in one spot there were four males writhing together, perhaps in an attempt to attract a watching female. It was my second adder sighting, but getting the chance to see them so clearly was a real treat. While maintaining our distance, we watched them bask for nearly an hour. Though I could have stayed far longer, it was time to head to Chesters bothy before it grew dark.

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Leaving the adders behind, we drove to the end of the road, where urbanisation ended and true wilderness began. Shouldering our bags for the weekend, we began the two-mile walk through the beautiful Breamish Valley, accompanied only by the bleating of sheep and the infamous scraping call of pheasants.

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As the day drew to a close, the hills faded from shimmering orange to dusky pink with a patchwork of dark green conifers and purple heather. Then suddenly a flash of brown as a hare darted up the hill, white tail flashing. He was too far for my camera to get a clean shot, but it was a great sighting on my first day in the Cheviot Hills. Fascinatingly, hares can be pregnant with two young that are not twins simultaneously. The unborn leverets may have been conceived at different times, meaning they have different growth rates.

Before long we reached a patch of conifer forest that looked like something from a fairytale. As we threaded up the pinecone-dotted track I couldn’t help but think how well a pack of wolves could fit in here, miles from interfering humans.

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Just as we emerged on the other side of the forest and paused for a breather to gaze upon some truly stunning views of the River Breamish, Heather explained how there were tales of red squirrels in the Cheviot Hills, but due to habitat fragmentation resulting in isolated patches of woodland, she didn’t think the area could support a breeding population. As if we’d been overheard, a high-pitched chattering sounded from above and two red squirrels appeared, hopping from bough to bough and scrabbling up the trunks. Not only were these the first red squirrels I’d seen in the wild, they were the first individuals that Heather had seen at Chesters, so it was a special moment indeed.

After such good luck, we almost had a skip in our step as we made the rest of the way up the hill to Chesters bothy. Almost immediately we were met by a flock of fieldfare as they swooped overhead, another new species for me.

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After dumping our bags, we sat outside on the dry stone wall and listened to the evening’s birds before the generator drowned them out. Amongst the shrieking pheasants, there was the distant hoot of a tawny owl, and later when the sun finally sunk behind the hills, the bizarre wing beats of snipe reverberated across the landscape. If you’ve never heard a snipe drumming, any description I could give would never give it justice. It’s a sound I’ll never grow tired of hearing. It reminded me that I was in the middle of nowhere. I was cut off from technology and we needed a fire to get hot water – it’s the sort of living many people have never truly experienced. Sitting outside in complete silence could seem eerie, but to me there’s a haunting beauty to the only traffic being speeding fieldfare and the occasional skylark hovering overhead. It’s like stepping back in time to when technology was an unheard of impossibility.

Later, when Cain arrived, the three of us headed over the hills in search of long-eared owls, a bird Cain was eager to tick off during our stay at Chesters. The night was as beautiful as the day had been – the sky was clear and a huge ethereal glow encircled the moon. Sadly, the owls didn’t appear, but the night walk was the perfect end to my first day in the Cheviots. When we returned to the bothy I spent some time writing about the day to jog my memory when I returned home. I knew that without a doubt, my notebook would be essential this weekend.

Species seen/heard:

Adder Vipera berus Coal tit Periparus ater European hare Lepus europaeus Fieldfare Turdus pilaris Great tit Parus major Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris Robin Erithacus rubecula Snipe Gallinago gallinago Song thrush Turdus philomelos Tawny owl Strix aluco

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