Planted between 1953 and 1987, the Kidland Forest lies to the north of Alwinton and extends to some 2,100 hectares (5,190 acres) of which 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) are owned by the Forestry Commission with the remaining 900 hectares in private ownership. The forest is dominated by Sitka spruce supplemented by species such as Scots pine, Japanese larch, Norway spruce, Lodgepole pine and European larch.
From a walker’s perspective this coniferous forest is not to everyone’s taste. From the outside it can look uninviting, nothing but a huge blanket of uniform trees at odds with the forest’s more natural surroundings. It is a commercial enterprise involving a rolling programme of felling which creates a patchwork of plunder where the harvested remains of once proud trees lie like fallen soldiers on a 1914-18 World War battlefield. This does little to enhance its visual appeal.
Over the years I have passed through the Kidland Forest on numerous occasions and have often wondered what the landscape must have looked like before the Forestry Commission arrived all those years ago. As I have wandered along the many tracks that cut through the vast swathe of coniferous woodland, a network of disused circular sheepfolds and remote cottages have constantly reminded me that this was once sheep country, where grass-covered, steep-sided hills rose up from an intricate lace work of burns, sikes, cleughs and slacks.
In his 1825 book, ‘An Historical, Topographical and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland’, E. Mackenzie described Kidland as consisting of, “lofty, verdant hills, of conical form”, that appeared like, “a number of beautiful hillocks rising gradually in exact arrangement”, adding that, “the glens which divide these hills are of every variety of form, and exhibit, in summer, all that is picturesque in the most beautiful mountain scenery”. Fast-forward to 1951 and little seems to have changed in the intervening 126 years with F. R. Banks describing the area, in his book, ‘Scottish Border Country’, as, “still to-day purely a shepherding country”, much the same, he said, as it had been in medieval times.
From the cosy comfort of a centrally heated home this might sound blissfully Arcadian but for those living in the few cottages that clung to these remote and exposed hillsides, like Fairhaugh, Wholehope, Heigh, Whiteburnshank and Milkhope, it must have been a hard and difficult life. The single storey building at Whiteburnshank stood alongside a steep track to Clennell Street and consisted of a bedroom, living room, kitchen and two lofts. The farm extended to 1,009 acres and grazed 653 sheep. The south-facing, two-storey building of Milkhope, located on Dryhope Hill, had the comparative ‘luxury’ of three bedrooms with the farm, extending to 1,733 acres, supporting some 1,482 sheep. Both buildings still exist and are used as outdoor centres.
Change is inevitable and as the Kidland area of Upper Coquetdale continues its process of evolution the nature of my numerous journeys through the forest will undoubtedly be different for those who might follow in my footsteps in the months and years to come. Some aspects will be for the better, others unfortunately will be for the worse. However, in all my explorations of the area I have come to appreciate the Kidland Forest for its surprisingly varied qualities not least because it houses the endangered red squirrel, the rarely-seen black grouse and the shy and retiring roe deer. I have learnt to accept the forest for what it is, warts and all.
by Geoff Holland © 2014
Geoff Holland is the author of four books of self-guided walks, ‘The Cheviot Hills’, ‘Walks from Wooler’, ‘The Hills of Upper Coquetdale’ and ‘Walks on the Wild Side The Cheviot Hills’ , is a regular contributor to ‘TGO (The Great Outdoors)’, ‘Country Walking’ and ‘The Northumbrian’ magazines and is the operator of the highly acclaimed website www.cheviotwalks.co.uk. His books are available online from www.trailguides.co.uk or from all good bookshops and he can be heard reading a selection of his poems on www.listenupnorth.com. He has lived in Monkseaton for almost 40 years.