On your Northumberland trip in England, go foraging in the woods, explore the coastline, moorlands and hills, and you may even see the Northern Lights, says writer Janet Morris.
The Easter Bunny arrives late this year on April 21, but hot on his heels is Earth Day on April 22. The theme for 2019 is Protect our Species, and one place well worth visiting for a diversity of plant life and scenery is Northumberland.
Perhaps less well publicised than the coastal charms of the south of England, this is an ideal destination for walking off the chocolate eggs and discovering beautiful landscapes. And local drinks firm Fentimans is supporting the ecological theme over the holiday with specially curated cocktails at bars across the country to raise awareness of our threatened botanical plants.
A “soppy southerner” myself, I have somehow never ventured to this part of the country despite my many decades on planet Earth. So the Kielder Water & Forest Park is a revelation of sweet air and exploration on my Northumberland trip. The remote area is known for the quality of its clear night skies – you might even see the Northern Lights from the Observatory – and also contains northern Europe’s largest man-made lake, with a variety of water activities available.
Foraging and botanicals
But I’m here to learn about foraging in the woods, and the wild plants that are safe to eat. Our forest guide picks and passes round some ground elder to try, a plant introduced by the Romans. It’s a common herb and recommended for salads and soups, but you certainly need to know what you’re doing before you go gathering. Apparently it has neighbours that look similar, but if you eat the wrong one “you won’t have time to get to the hospital before you die”. Wild garlic, however, is easy to identify, and if you’ve got a dog with you they’ll soon sniff it out.
The bilberries are not yet out but we’re introduced to the young shoots. Overshadowed commercially by the blueberry, our guide says they are even more plentiful and nutritious, and make a delicious jam.
While these plants are still abundant, others are under threat from habitat destruction. Fentimans, a family-owned company which uses traditional botanical brewing methods with essential oils and herbs, has highlighted some of them in its Earth Day project with conservation charity Plantlife. Over the launch weekend selected bars are serving cocktails named after some threatened species, with packets of wildflower seeds that can be used at home.
The Red helleborine orchid is on the Critically Endangered list, while the aromatic blue spiky Meadow clary is declining due to the loss of grazing land.
The white Lesser butterfly orchid emits a clove-like scent which attracts hawkmoths for pollination, but it is under threat from diminishing grasslands. The red crested cow-wheat can now only be found in East Anglia.
What to see in Northumberland
To discover wild plant life in Northumberland, Duncan Hutt from the county’s Wildlife Trust – which manages 60 nature reserves in the region – recommends visiting the North Pennines, where there are good hay meadows. Coastal areas include East Chevington Lindisfarne and Annstead Dunes. Bakethin is a wildlife haven at the north-western end of Kielder Reservoir wetland, woodland and grassland habitats.
A straw built visitor centre at Hauxley Wildlife Discovery Centre with no concrete and wood heating offers an education in sustainability.
“We have a great mix from sweeping coastline to moorland and hills,” Says Duncan, whose highlights include the Hadrian’s Wall area (Sill Visitor Centre); coastal areas including Northumberland Wildlife Trust sites on Druridge Bay; Lindisfarne with its large nature reserve and heritage; Kielder; and the Redesdale area including Whitelee Reserve.
Needless to say, birdwatchers are well catered for.
Walking and cycling
For walking and cycling, there’s Sandstone Way Cycle Route, and the Kielder Circuit for walking or cycling. Long walks include Hadrian’s Wall Trail, though at 84 miles you may not want to tackle it all. It takes in Roman settlements and forts as it winds from coast to coast, with plenty of places to stay along the way.
St Cuthbert’s Way is a 63-mile trail from the market town of Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Northumberland’s Holy Island of Lindisfarne, passing through places associated with the 7th-century saint. Route highlights include the banks of the River Tweed and the Cheviot Hills, Dryburgh Abbey and St Cuthbert’s Cave.
For shorter walks, Lindisfarne has plenty to offer with many historical sites, Duncan also recommends coastal walks such as Embleton to Craster. From Harbottle Crags you can enjoy a circular journey to the 30ft Drake Stone – a sandstone boulder believed by some to have mystical powers –with great views in Coquetdale.
Find out more for your Northumberland trip on the official website.
Janet Morris is a London-based freelance writer and sub-editor.