Start a conversation with me about what’s new in Northumberland National Park and I’d have plenty to say.
I’d begin by announcing the return of Ratty, the loveable water vole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, to Kielder Water and Forest Park, northern Europe’s largest man-made lake and England’s largest forest. The likes of Ratty have been gone from Kielder for 30 years, after the voracious American Mink contributed to its decline. However, the minks were run out of town and almost 700 of these endangered creatures were reintroduced to Kielder this summer.
Kielder is also home to England’s largest population of the endangered red squirrel, as well as to four pairs of ospreys who will soon be able to perch on A Levitated Mass, a large-scale sculpture installation that will appear to look like a boulder floating above the water.
Since 1956, Northumberland National Park has conserved and enhanced the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of this area stretching north to the Cheviot Hills and the Scottish Border, encompassing the central section of Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, it has so many special qualities to enjoy that a brand new visitor attraction recently opened to help people explore Northumberland’s landscape, culture, history and heritage.
Named after the Great Whin Sill, the nearby geological feature of igneous rock that is noted for its steep, rocky cliffs, the building is mostly constructed of whin stone and other local stones. Its green roof, planted with local botanical specimens to replicate the surrounding grasslands, sweeps upwards like the Great Whin Sill, giving visitors a bird’s-eye view of the magnificent landscape.
Mandy Roberts, engagement officer for Northumberland National Park, had a brilliant idea to start a conversation with people about the tranquil moorland where grouse roam and heather blooms abundantly. It came in the form of a fabulous textile map.
During a two-year period, Newcastle-based fabric artist Clare Armstrong and Glare Satow of Bill Quay Fabric Workshop in Gateshead created a large wallhanging measuring almost 60 by 100 inches. They mapped out Northumberland’s rivers, forests, hills and valleys, screen-printing them on linen. Then, about 100 volunteer stitchers were invited to contribute embroidered interpretations of Northumberland’s native flora and fauna, together with local landmarks. Buildings and monuments were executed in blackwork.
Along the map’s lower edge, you can see minute representations of water crowfoot (an indicator of very clean rivers), sundew (a carniverous plant that lives on bogs), and other bogland sights like cottongrass and heath butterflies.
…and the Duergar, the ugly little dwarfs who wear lambskin coats, moleskin trousers and shoes, and a moss hat adorned with a feather. These dangerous characters from folklore lurk in the shadows of the Simonside Hills and come out at night, preying on lost travelers, enticing them with a light to make them come closer, then luring them into a bog or over the edge of a precipice.
Nighttime is exceptional in Northumberland National Park because it’s an International Dark Sky Park. At 572 miles, it’s Europe’s largest area of protected night sky. It’s also the best place in England for stargazing; it’s a prime spot for seeing meteor showers and up to 2,000 stars at any one time. The park has a world-class observatory and offers many stargazing programs.
There are many ways to get to The Sill, but the most ingenious may be the Hadrian’s Wall Country Bus AD122, which links major sites along the Hadrian’s Wall corridor between Newcastle and Carlisle. The bus, named for the year when Hadrian’s Wall was built, runs hourly between the Hexham Bus Station and Haltwhistle Rail Station via other destinations like Chesters Roman Fort, Housesteads Roman Fort, Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum. It operates daily from Good Friday until October 1.