Walking with Simon Murray on 26 August 2010

 South Tyne Valley

I am walking with a new-ish colleague and friend, Simon Murray. Or Simon Henderson. (The fact that Simon goes by two names drew me to him immediately.) Murray is his mother’s name; Henderson, his father’s. They are both good, Scottish names but I learn today that Simon was actually born in Godalming, Surrey (another coincidence – see ‘Walking with Dorinda Hulton).

Simon has chosen a walk in the North Pennines, close to where he used to live in the 1970s. His mum’s family are from these parts, and in the 1970s Simon bought a dilapidated cottage (for £2000; outside loo, no heating). It was located on his great Uncle Stephen’s farmland so maybe it felt like homeland. The North Pennines also suited Simon’s rather romantic self-image of the rugged loner, but by 1986 he realised that this was no longer who he was (if indeed he had ever been that). So he sold up.

We start our walk at Lambley. The forecast the day before had been heavy rain. But in fact it’s a glorious day – so hot that Simon needs to slap a bit of suntan cream on his head. Simon knows I have a fondness for forests and trees and this walk indulges me – but it also adds plenty of other startling sites and sights into the mix. The beginning of the walk takes us in front of a row of cottages, the path cutting through their gardens (still heavy with flowers). From here, we follow a tree-lined track, above an old railway line, now nothing but a grass plane. This path leads us down some wooden steps, and then up some iron ones, to the top of the Lambley Viaduct, high above the dense forest canopy. We look vertiginously down upon the South Tyne river, more than 100 feet below. Coals from the Alston mines, on their way to Haltwhistle, would once have passed over here (the line opened in 1852 and closed in 1976).

Having surveyed the stunning landscape below, we retrace our steps and make our way down to a small foot bridge that crosses the river, peat brown and fast. We pass through some deep-green mossy-carpeted deciduous woods that gradually become pine, and then up a steep forest track that eventually leads us out of the dark and into the bright sun at the top of the plantation. Following a path that runs along the top of the forest, with shafts of sunlight breaking through the cover, we stop to eat our picnic (sandwiches courtesy of Simon). The plantation leads again to natural woodland though the boggy land here requires some agile detours, with Simon leading the way nimbly, a forest faun. At one point, unexpectedly, we encounter an old tree saw, its round blade rather ominous even in the daylight and the idyll.

When Simon showed me the route on the map, it looked as there were some well-marked paths to follow but soon we seem to be pathless. Simon has been here before, though, so has a sense of where we should be, and leads us up a steep hill. Sure enough, we find a stile and soon arrive at the most remarkable remains of industrial activity. Running up/down the steep hill are rusty wagon rail tracks, slowly disappearing into the grass. At the bottom of the hill, like a ghostly still life, the winch hut (with an empty, office-like chair sat in front of it). Nearby, the entrance to the coal pit – though pit might not be the right word as the mine does not descend further into the hill but rather cuts into it horizontally.

We can’t see anything remotely resembling a path here but Simon knows that we want to end up down at the river, so we scramble down a steep bank and use stepping stones to cross a narrow stream. The environment is suddenly totally different; green, flat fields, the floor of a valley, grazing sheep. Another bridge carries across the river and following its course we reach Brown’s Pool – it’s not really a pool, but it is nevertheless a moment in the river’s journey that is calm and still. Two dark cormorants, disturbed, take flight. The pool is hemmed in by an impressive slab of layered, grey rock, home to bright, sunny yellow flowers. Simon had advised me to bring swimming costume and towel, which I did, but it looks cold and a short paddle confirms impressions. As we paddle together, Simon recalls the time he came here in the 1980s with a men’s group; they were engaged in consciousness-raising activities. Simon’s past draws him endearingly closer to me. Feeling remorseful that I’ve not gone for a dip, I suggest that we come back one summer, with Simon’s partner Wendy and their daughter Isla. There’s no doubt that fearless Isla would splash happily here, putting us both to shame. As we’re talking, a huge brown fish – a trout? – leaps high out of the water.

We continue following the river till we reach a rocky outcrop, and then traverse inland and up another short hill, Simon spotting a deer bolting through the trees. Soon, we’re back on the disused railway track, a perfect route for walking ‘homewards’, back to Lambley. The viaduct comes into view, a different perspective, still striking. The verges are lined with bunches of the tall wildflower that I’ve seen most readily this summer – the Rosebay Willowherb. Walking in this direction, we pass below what was once Lambley Station and is now a beautiful home. What used to be the waiting room, made of wood, still looks smart, though I wonder what it is used for now.

Finally, we are on the other side of the viaduct again, retracing our footfalls up the wooden steps in the steep hillside, walking back towards the village of Lambley, having travelled full circle. It’s been a marvellous walk, filled with different views and viewpoints, different lights above and textures underfoot, different paces and breaths, different stories of past and present, woven together with the shared rhythm of walking. When I first met Simon, I sensed a certain in-step-ness. I was not wrong.

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