The first two walks (21st May 2011: South Shields to Bill Quay Farm and Bill Quay Farm to Blaydon) went really well. My thanks to Matt, Keith and Tina for their invaluable help, knowledge and company. And many thanks, too, to Alex, Tom, Clare and Ian for accompanying me!
I had envisaged that the ‘theme’ of the first few walks would centre around the term “Edgelands” – a term coined coined first by Marion Shoard (who wrote a number of important books including The Theft of the Countryside) and recently revisited in a new book by the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.
Their book begins ‘In the English imagination, the great escape might go something like this: you get into your car, merge into traffic, and join a busy motorway via one of the feeder roads from the city; after an hour or two, you leave at the correct junction and join an A-road, which you follow for a while before turning off on to smaller, quieter roads that elide into narrow lanes; eventually, the lane dips and climbs through wooded hollows, affording sudden views as it follows the line of a ridge, then descends to a track where an ivy-clad cottage awaits …. and so on’
Farley and Symmons Roberts then explain that ‘for a long while, an entire childhood in fact, we wondered were the countryside actually was, or even if it really existed. Growing up on the edge of two cities (Liverpool and Manchester) in the early seventies, it was easy enough to walk for a short while and soon find yourself lost in back lanes or waste ground, to follow the wooded perimeters of a golf course, an old path leading through scratchy shrubland, or the course of a drainage ditch. It was easy enough to find yourself on the edges of arable land, to follow the track bed of a dismantled railway or descend into an abandoned quarry. But none of this ever felt like the countryside – the sunlit uplands of jigsaw puzzles and ladybird books, the rolling hills of biscuit tin lids..’
Farley and Symmons Roberts call this territory the Edgelands. It is a land I remember well – indeed as I reflected upon my own childhood experiences, growing up on outskirts of Liverpool myself (not a million miles away from Farley) I remembered that I spent hours, days, and weeks in a local place we (my brothers and friends) called ‘Froggy Meadow’. This seemed like a ’wild’ place to us. It was an environment with lots of frogs (self-evidently), as well as toads, newts, birds and rodents, etc. It sounds idyllic, but in reality, it was actually adjacent to the local refuse tip and on the edge of a local industrial development. And of course I went fishing in the nearby Leeds-Liverpool Canal, often sitting on the bank overlooking industrial units (our area was not ‘pretty’), nonetheless engrossed in a myriad of wildlife. These were my early, formative, happy memories of wild places! It is just these sort of places we visited over this weekend.
Highlights and notes: Walk 1 – South Shields to Bill Quay
Weather – it was chilly down on the coast and all day a stiff breeze followed us up the river to Bill Quay. The temperature was around 14 degrees and the sky was cloudy with sunny spells. Having spent an exhilarating hour at the waterfront, where we watched Artic Terns, Common Terns and Sandwich Terns fishing just 20 yards away, diving vertically into the water before rising again with a small fish, we moved on.
Near to the Customs House, we stopped at a ‘close’ called Comical Corner. Here was a small patch of wasteland; it looked as though someone had removed the paving stones (nicked them!?), and someone else had disposed of cement waste. The result was what had, over a short period of time, turned into a veritable wild rock garden. In a very short space of time, we counted over 20 species on this small area of no more than 12 square meters, including a beautiful Wild Pansy, Kidney Vetch and Comfrey – and Matt assured us that if we stayed for an hour or more and got down on our hands and knees with a magnifying glass, we would probably have seen over 50 different species of grasses, mosses and plants. Extraordinary!
Along Commercial Road, we spotted Procumbent Pearlwort in the wall adjacent to the B1344 and in the nearby Redheads Landing (where Keith’s father and Grandfather had worked), we saw 16 Kittiwake’s nests (inhabited by those crisp, clean, smart birds), as well as a lovely Woody Nightshade (also known as Bittersweet or, colloquially, Banana Plant). Later, as we turned off the Jarrow Road onto the B1297 around Jarrow Slake we crossed an area of shrub and parkland; here we saw three different varieties of Orchid – Northern Marsh, Common Spotted and Bee (not quite open); 400 meters further along this road and under the old Jarrow Bridge, we found evidence of Otter Spraints; but the highlight of the day? This was in a very unpromising patch of scrub and wasteland with broken bottles and rubbish a-plenty underfoot next to Wagonway Road in Hebburn. It was at first sight a miserable, not to say intimidating patch of land. However, here we heard Whitethroat and Greenfinch singing and caught fleeting glimpses of the elusive and rare Dingy Skipper as well as a Wall Brown and an Orange Tip butterfly.