The poet Basil Bunting called it ‘a little river in Northumberland’ and, in the great scheme of such things, that is exactly what the River Coquet is. But the essence of a river cannot be defined by its length or breadth and what the river lacks in size it more than makes up for in personality. In that respect the River Coquet is a big river.
For the first ten miles of its forty mile journey to the North Sea, from lonely Coquet Head to the tiny settlement of Alwinton, the river wriggles between a multitude of sublime hills. It is a fabulous journey through some of Northumberland’s finest and most remote countryside, and for the most part the river is closely followed by a narrow, single track road.
A scattering of properties stand within sight of the road although some, such as Makendon, Carshope and the old farmhouse at Shillmoor, are no longer permanently occupied. These isolated properties are now used as troop shelters as part of the vast Otterburn Training Area, whilst others continue as sheep farms, much as they have done for generations.
One such farm is Barrowburn, which nestles beneath the imposing flanks of Shillhope Law close to a sharp and picturesque bend in the River Coquet. Run by Ian and Eunice Tait, the farm extends to some 353 hectares over the grass-covered curves of Lounges Knowe, Kyloe Shin and Barrow Law.
Ian is the fifth generation of his family to run the farm, which supports a flock of about 900 sheep. Lambing takes place from mid-April onwards and then, between September and October, the lambs are sold by auction to farmers with low lying land to be wintered on grass. They are sold for meat between February and April.
The four hay meadows on the farm provide winter feed for Ian’s sheep and these meadows are managed in a more traditional way, particularly regarding the sequence and timing of cutting. This method encourages a rich mixture of grasses and flowers, such as wood cranesbill, pignut, bitter vetch, rough and autumn hawkbit, cat’s ear, selfheal, common bird’s foot trefoil, yellow rattle and oxeye daisy. These, in turn attract a large number of insects and birds including meadow pipit, skylark, swallow, martin, wheatear and the little-seen ring ouzel. These rare and therefore internationally important meadows reach their very best during late June and early July.
Since 2008 Ian and Eunice have operated a tearoom from the farmhouse, in the long-established Coquetdale tradition of offering hospitality to passing travellers. They attract visitors from far and wide, including Australia and the USA, with one regular diner having been born in Outer Mongolia.
The tearoom has already acquired almost iconic status and is a welcome sight to weary walkers, mud-splattered mountain bikers and valley-hugging motorists alike. So, if you happen to be up that way this summer, close to where the twinkling Barrow Burn slips into the beautiful River Coquet, why not pop in to Barrowburn; you are sure to be given a warm Northumbrian welcome.
by Geoff Holland © 2016
Geoff Holland is a regular contributor to a number of magazines and the author of four books of self-guided walks, ‘The Hills of Upper Coquetdale’, ‘The Cheviot Hills’, ‘Walks from Wooler’ and ‘Walks on the Wild Side: The Cheviot Hills’. All books can be purchased online from www.trailguides.co.uk. Geoff, who has lived in Monkseaton for over 40 years, also operates the award-winning website www.cheviotwalks.co.uk. His poems have appeared in a number of publications.