Nestled near the Scottish border at the top of Northumberland is an amazing man-made landscape with some surprising stories hidden within it.
Kielder Water and Forest Park forms part of the largest man-made forest in Northern Europe. Each year the Forestry Commission harvests around half a million cubic metres of timber, supplying a whopping 25 percent of the wood we use in this country; but there is more to this immense expanse of land than Sica and Norwegian spruce.
Kielder Water is the largest man-made lake in northern Europe and is capable of holding 200 billion litres of water. It has a shoreline of 27 miles and its deepest point is taller than Nelson’s Column at 52m (170ft). The lake is a gorgeous spot to spend the day, especially on its shoreline trail the Lakeside Way, which walkers, cyclists, horse riders and wheelchair users can enjoy.
Lakeside art trail
Along the Lakeside Way are six unusual shelters that were designed by artists and architects for walkers and cyclists to stop, take in the view, or take shelter when it’s raining. These shelters are the latest addition to a range of artistic pieces on show in the park – there are more than 20 sculptures to see spread over 16 square miles. This makes it the largest outdoor art gallery in the UK.
One of these fine examples of architecture is Kielder Observatory, which was designed to be in keeping with the surrounding forest. The Campaign to Protect Rural Endland (CPRE) state that Kielder has the darkest skies in the country, because of minimal light pollution; hence the creation of the observatory, which encourages the public to peruse the night sky. As well as normal opening hours, the observatory holds hold extremely popular Shooting Star Nights and Aurora Nights.
I didn’t get to ogle any celestial phenomena when I visited last year but I did chat to the Forestry Commission’s Kielder district manager Graham Gill about managing this massive, green furry forest. The open, rugged moorland that existed beforehand was transformed in the 1920s to meet the demand for wood after the First World War. Nine decades later it provides the timber for an awful lot of kitchen tables and chairs in a kitchen somewhere near you.
When you’re in business to provide wood for the masses, how do you add a little beauty to the mix? Here they’ve softened the woodland edges and brought in broad-leafed trees to make the forest that little bit more alluring for the 200,000 visitors that come here every year.
A cuddle with a tawny owl
As well as being a lumberjack’s paradise Kielder has become a fantastic refuge for wildlife. It’s home to two thirds of the remaining population of red squirrels in England, a small but thriving population of goshawks inhabit the canopy and tawny owls are flourishing helped by more than 200 nesting boxes put up across the forest.
The tawnies are tagged to keep an eye on their progress, which means it is necessary to handle them. What a shame! Ringing a baby tawny gave me the opportunity to hold one of the fluffiest and most endearing creatures alive. If you rotate in a circle while you’re holding these little fellas, their heads pivot all the way around like a cute toy.
A dam struggle
After my ‘aah’ moment with the tawny owls, I went to meet the boys from the Environment Agency who are lending a helping hand to some fish. Every summer, the rivers of the North East draw Atlantic salmon and sea trout from feeding grounds thousands of miles away. The drive to get here and breed is so strong they won’t even stop to eat on the way – the fish lose around 40 percent of their body weight as they battle upstream against the fast flowing currents.
After their already mammoth melee upstream, they hit a huge dam. Thoughts like ‘You’ve got to be kidding’ must be running through their tiny fishy minds. This is where the Environment Agency step in. Before they reach the dam the mature fish returning from the sea are caught and taken off to a hatchery, where the eggs are harvested and the fry reared.
After a spot of weighing at the hatchery, we headed upstream of the dam to release the smolts back into the river. To my cries of “Swim little fish, swim!” about two dozen slippery silver shapes slithered out of the bucket to begin their fascinating anadromous lifecycle. It left me feeling so exhausted I went home to bed.
How to get there
From Newcastle or Carlisle, follow the A69 to Hexham then follow the B6320 to Bellingham (brown-signed Kielder Water and Forest) and then the C200 to Kielder Water and Forest Park. The scenic Forest Drive is a rough surfaced road suitable for 4x4 vehicles and passable by other cars with care. It will close in inclement weather. If you are travelling to the Park via the Forest Drive, you can join the road from the A68 at Byrness.
Find out more
The Duke’s Pantry
Kielder Castle, Hexham NE48 1ER
Cosy tearoom in the 18th-century Kielder Castle.
The Pheasant Inn
Stannersburn, Falstone, Hexham NE48 1DD
Friendly, popular pub with homely accommodation and excellent food.