It was the worst start to winter in living memory with huge amounts of snow being deposited countrywide. Vast tracts of northern England, particularly towards the east, had taken the brunt of the severe weather and there was, unsurprisingly, widespread travel chaos. The prospect of a trip to the Cheviot Hills for my annual pre-Christmas walk looked mightily slim, even for this the most optimistic of walkers. However, I had no intention of sitting on my hands waiting for a sudden thaw.
So, on a morning when Monkseaton was covered by a blanket of the purest snow and the sky had turned to an almost unblemished blue, I pulled on my boots and headed north along the old ‘Avenue Branch’ railway line. Once linking the village with New Hartley, this pencil-straight track is now a superb artery for walkers wishing to explore the area’s network of public footpaths and old waggonways.
Despite the shin-deep snow I quickly left the bricks and mortar of Monkseaton behind as I literally made tracks past picturesque Brier Dene Farm and on towards Holywell Dene. The tower of St Alban’s Church at Earsdon, standing on a hill a mere 55 metres above sea level, dominated the surrounding fields and drew my eye south westwards. Once past Crow Hall Farm I stepped off the old railway line, crossed into Northumberland and followed the Seaton Burn upstream on a winding path through a band of mature trees. Suddenly to my right, disturbed by the sound of my footsteps, a grey heron rose majestically from the burn and settled on a field a few hundred metres away.
I then passed through the high stone archway of Holywell Bridge blissfully unaware of any traffic travelling overhead and continued uphill on a gently curving snow-covered track. I was now turning to the south and the fields stretched out towards the horizon. In the far distance, I could see the disused and dilapidated winding house of the former Fenwick Colliery and the smooth curves of the recently reclaimed and re-contoured spoil heap.
The line of a conveniently placed field boundary then guided me, in the footprints of an earlier solitary walker, as far as Holywell Grange Farm where I joined the main track to the former colliery site. As I plodded on through the soft snow towards Earsdon village I found it difficult to believe that until 1973 the surrounding area was a bleak and desolate landscape of coal mining activity.
At hill-topping St. Alban’s Church, designed by Tyneside architects John and Benjamin Green and completed in 1837, I took the time to visit the large thought-provoking memorial to the 204 miners who died in the pit disaster at New Hartley on the 16th January 1862. A single shaft of sunlight spotlighted the names of those who had perished on that cold winter’s day nearly 150 years ago.
I was now nearing the end of my walk and as I headed down a snow-snarled Earsdon Road I wondered whether a glass of warm Christmas-celebrating mulled wine might be waiting for me when I finally reached home.
by Geoff Holland © 2011
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.