Just go with the flow on this northern trail
Walk of the Month: Never mind Hadrian's Wall. Northumberland has other beautiful spots worth exploring, says Mark Rowe
Sunday 05 October 2008
Head west from Newcastle, go up a bit, and you'll find yourself in Hadrian's Wall country. The Roman fortification still casts a spell over us, as witnessed by the popularity of the exhibition on Emperor Hadrian at the British Museum, which runs until the end of the month.
All this means that the striking beauty of other elements of the Northumbrian landscape are often overlooked. One such spot is Allen Banks, which lies just to the south of the wall. Named after the River Allen, it is today managed by the National Trust but was largely the 19th-century creation of Susan Davidson, whose husband inherited nearby Ridley Hall and its grounds.
Davidson managed the estate for 35 years, creating a network of wood walks, damming burns and nurturing mixed woodlands of conifers, native trees and ornamental plantings. She also built summerhouses, and even a wigwam in the woodlands that flank the banks of the River Allen.
The Allen is a bewitching water current, running due north where it bolsters the River South Tyne on its journey eastwards to the North Sea. October is a superb time to visit, with the leaves now turning golden.
The walk starts at the National Trust car park at Allen Banks. From here, follow the trail as it exits the car park at its south end. After a couple of hundred yards, take the right fork uphill, climbing quickly above the river and with views of Northumberland National Park over your shoulder. At a second fork, again take the right-hand path uphill. Over the river you can see Morralee Wood, once the site of a small coal mine and lead and silver workings.
Before long you reach a reconstructed summerhouse, then continue ahead to drop sharply downhill, accompanied by a stream, and sprawling, exposed tree roots, to the riverbank. Here, turn right and follow the path through Briarwood Banks, an ancient woodland with some hazel coppicing still visible, towards Plankey Mill.
On the way you pass a rope bridge across the River Allen and shortly afterwards you cross the river on a suspension bridge to Plankey Mill. Here, turn immediately right, to go over a stile, and follow the field and river edge and then head half-left towards the bank of woods. There are two sets of stiles here – take the first ones, marked with green arrows, to enter Staward Gorge. The woodland is home to a range of species, including Britain's most northerly population of dormice, along with red squirrels, roe deer and otters.
The path climbs quickly above the river with exposed sandstone breaking through the woodland on the far bank. You cross a footbridge and take the right-hand path that keeps close to the river. After three-quarters of a mile, take the left-hand upper path at a fork, following the green waymarkers and, 100 yards further on, again take the left-hand upper path. The heavy rains in September mean this stretch of the walk is likely to remain boggy for some time.
At the top of the hill, the path flattens out and swings left in front of a gate. You are now walking north and soon thrilling glimpses of the river and farmland far below can be caught through the trees. The heather was hanging on here in the last week of September, so you may even still spot some purple.
Next, you reach the stone remnants of the entrance to Staward Pele tower, built as a 13th-century border stronghold. From the end of the 14th century it had a more peaceful purpose as a place of prayer for the hermits from nearby Hexham priory.
The footprint of the tower remains, overrun by nature but enjoying a breathtaking position above the gorge.
From here, there is a steep descent back to the footbridge you crossed earlier, and you retrace your steps to Plankey Mill. Instead of crossing the bridge, turn right along the paved road and bear left in front of the farm. As this climbs uphill, bear left down a path and walk alongside the river again. A real feature of this walk, at this time of year, is some extraordinary fungi, red and white toadstools straight out of fairy tales and others that resemble candelabra, or corals.
A little further on, the path divides – you can take either because they rejoin a little further on. You then come to a footbridge. At the time of writing, the bridge was closed because of flood damage. When it reopens, you cross it and simply turn right to reach the car park. If it is closed, continue ahead through two fields and pass through a gate on to a road, where you turn left over a bridge to reach the car park.
Distance: Six miles
Time: Three hours
OS Map: Explorer 43
How to get there: Mark Rowe stayed at Craster Towers, a Grade II-listed, 14th-century pele tower in Craster, Northumberland (01665 576674; crastertower.co.uk). Prices from £625 per week. Short breaks are also available.
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