STORY MIDSUMMER IN NORTHUMBERLAND


Words by Diana Pappas
Photographs by Diana Pappas & Tom Bland

I am standing at the center of an old hay meadow, surrounded by buttercups, hay rattle, clover and plantain as the sun disappears into the misted horizon. The gradual handover from day to night has begun. Countless rabbits watch me, warily, darting in and out of their burrows and yet the swallows seem untroubled by my presence as they patrol the skies for insects. The trees at the forest edge are looking on with stillness but the grasses are shivering. I too can feel the cool easterly breeze on the back of my neck. A moth floats past looking for a favored wildflower as I settle in to watch and listen to this June evening unfold. There are distant sounds of agriculture, farmers taking advantage of the dry weather and long daylight hours to cut, turn and bale hay, preserving summer at its peak for wild and wintery days ahead. As the blackbirds, wood pigeons and sheep say their goodnights to one another, the color drains from distant hills, a myriad of greens turning various shades of graphite. Wisps of peach clouds become dusty rose, then a glowing salmon before reluctantly surrendering to the half-light. A curlew flies overhead, an easily recognized silhouette with a long, curved beak, making its way back to its nest on the moor, and I, too, decide to head home.

When we come to Northumberland in the northeast of England, it’s always for a month, and this time we are here in the month leading up to midsummer. Northumberland is expansive and varied, with Roman ruins, castles and dramatic coastline, and on previous trips we wouldn’t hesitate to set off on many adventures, but we have a baby now and it’s a different trip this time. We take one camera instead of two and spontaneity gives way to thoughtful consideration of nap times. Trips further afield seem a bridge too far so we content ourselves with our little corner of Northumberland, where Tom grew up, just north of the border with County Durham.

Staying local means seeing deeper and for the first time I take full stock of the many ecosystems that are in fact just outside the front door, beyond the garden, a stone’s throw from the stone house over the stone walls. There is the old hay meadow, but also forest, fell, moor, heath, pasture, bog and woodland. It’s an ever-changing patchwork quilt of the natural world to explore, stitched together by hedgerows and dry stone walls, old roads, byways and public footpaths. All it takes is an engagement of the senses to look, listen, smell, touch and sometimes taste what nature has to offer. June in particular provides quite a bounty.

Tom’s family has a myriad of names for the walks they take from their front door. There’s the forest track, the mushroom walk, the green lane, we can walk around the field or up through the top field, up the gorse path, up the hill, over the moor, and each time we come back to the house we recount what we spotted on our walk – a bullfinch, a hovering kestrel, two hares darting out of sight, a cep mushroom. Sometimes the nature sightings are so extraordinary that the walk has to be repeated the next day and the day after that, everyone looking out to see the tawny owlet in the oak at the bottom of the field that Tom saw the previous night. We bring back leaves and seed pods to look up in the naturalist books and spend days wondering if we have identified an English elm or a wych elm. We stop to smell sweet cicely, take a bite of lemony wood sorrel, and we take care to avoid brushing against the stinging nettles (but of course we love the Northumbrian nettle cheese that is made with them). We resolve to make elderflower champagne, or at least elderflower vinegar, and we eye the ripening currants, gooseberries and strawberries with anticipation. The south of England will already be gorging on these fruits, but up north, we have to be patient.

Each day there is an exciting new reveal – the first foxglove in flower, the first red admiral butterfly, the first churring of a nightjar. There is also a subtle disappearance – the fading bluebells, the fallen apple blossoms, the last call of a cuckoo before it flies south to Africa, leaving almost without us noticing, not to be seen again until next spring.

Some creatures we hear and seldom see, like the nightjars, and others we see and rarely hear, like a barking roe deer. Then there are the truly mysterious and elusive creatures that we always look out for like red squirrels and barn owls. We get brief glimpses of skylarks as they ascend out of sight and disappear into the bright blue above as they sing and trill and celebrate the English summer. At night we hear the conversation of tawny owls in the poplar trees just beyond the house unless the wind has kicked up and the only conversation we can hear are among the trees themselves in and around the forest.

Willow, aspen, alder and silver birch, scots pine, larch and oak, rowen, hawthorne, elm and ash, the trees around us are displaying every shade of green, full of new leaves, needles, seed pods and pinecones. Underneath the canopy are unfurling ferns, budding heather, tough brambles and carpets of moss. The verges are full of flowering umbels of wild carrot, cow parsley and cow parsnip, all alike and indistinguishable to the untrained eye. The gorse is a sea of yellow blooms, filling the air with its heady, coconut scent. Summer here is lush and verdant, vibrant and varied.

It has been a perfect June this year, and it is with some reluctance that we pack our suitcases to head back across the Atlantic Ocean. We savor the last few long days and short nights of midsummer, and take every opportunity to squeeze in a walk whenever we can. We have had so much sunshine that cloudy or misty weather is almost a welcome change, and reason enough to head outside. On our last night, long after dinner and after our daughter was fast asleep for the night, we looked out of the window and saw mist filling up the Tyne valley. It engulfed hillside after hillside as it climbed steadily up the field towards the house. Looking wasn’t enough, I needed to be immersed in it, so I set out along the track, down the hill, and into the lower field. The waist-high grasses were wet and windblown, and each step forward into the mist soaked my clothes a little more. A peachy, lavender light broke through, and the mist cleared just enough to see the corner of the field. There, perched on a fence post was a barn owl, the barn owl we are always looking for and hoping is nearby, glowing white against the dusky palette. For a minute or two it was unaware of me and I could drink in the atmospheric sighting, but my excitement gave way to the stinging realization that our trip was coming to a close and this gorgeous English summer would continue on without us. The barn owl took off and silently made its way along the line of oaks at the field’s edge, weaving its way in between them before disappearing out of sight.