Article 35 : We're leaving
2020, that is, the year that just kept on giving! A year with its ups and downs to be sure, some literal some metaphorical. But if you have been listening to the pastoral podcasts, partnering with ‘Hope’ might make the road ahead into 2021 a bit easier, which made me think, maybe you would like to go for a walk? Ah, caught that groan. Fresh air is good for you, raising all those endorphins and all that -and it is only a five miler! Five for me that is – for you it’s just down the screen. See how kind I am? Now get your boots on, Donna Warmcoat!
It is a beautiful day with deep blue skies, astonishingly cold and crisp which is good because the path is a bit muddy in places. Out of my street, turn right and there is a little urban crawl along to the roundabout, straight across and up Strawberry Bank. It was ’Strawberry Tea and Leisure Gardens at the end of the 19th century so you will need to fire up that imagination to replace the houses with a nursery and pick-your-own strawberries in summer. Up the bank – a slight incline – and across the inner ring road. It is another 50 kilometres to our first left turn onto Maiden Paps, otherwise known locally as Tunstall Hills, a nature reserve that at the top gives you panoramic views south to The Tees and north to South Shields. Turning round you can see across the countryside to Houghton and beyond. It’s a place of pilgrimage when every Easter the local churches meet together to carry a cross up here. If you need vision to pray, you can see most of our church from here! The Paps are a geographical feature; twin hills with the shape of human breasts that you will also find in the Scottish borders and beyond. A great place to birth hope. Our local ones were used as a navigational aid by sailors which gives you some idea of their height as a viewpoint. Feeling suitably informed?
Speaking of ‘Hope’, that’s where we are headed next, Hope Valley. The road itself can be a bit of a race track, being the ‘back way’ to Houghton but we’re not on it for long and the verge is wide enough, so single file please. OK. We’re at the bottom of the hill now, so let’s turn left through this gate into the hay meadow. Protected from the sea winds by tree cover on the steep west side of Tunstall Hill and on the west by the rising railway embankment and High Newport, the sheltered path is almost soundproof to urban life and instead full of nature’s sounds; bird song, the wind in the trees and gurgling water. It’s remarkable at this point that we are only a mile and a half from Sunderland city centre, yet we are surrounded by countryside. In these lockdown days, getting out into some green space is really beneficial. I feel privileged that this area is so close to home.
The hay meadow in winter has a different beauty from its summer dress. The stark architecture of a hundred unique seed heads, each one enhanced by a rime of ice catching the morning sun outlined against a deeply blue sky, creates a magical landscape. Elstob House is the only building in view at this point as your vision is filled with the deep brown winter ploughing on the horizon of Elstob farm and the forest of trees awaiting the rise of sap. I’m glad of my boots now as the recent rains have yet to drain from sections of the foot path, leaving the famous ‘muddy pwuddles’ of the little people! I’ve started a nature notebook, inspired by my reading so you’ll have to trek off the track with me for a moment while we capture these magnificent specimens to the right. They’re almost chest height, with amber-brown stems and a myriad of tiny offshoots each crisp with frost. Stand next to them and you can be in the photo too if you like.
We’re out of the sunlight here so let’s move on. Watch your head as we duck round the shrubs and up this little rise. It is a bit muddy here but you’ll soon be on the cinder path of the old railway track. The line ran from Silksworth Pit down through Ryhope (more hope) to Seaham and would have been busy with coal trucks in the past. Now it’s a popular path for dog-walkers, families on bikes and you and me. The embankment rises on our left, hiding the houses of Silksworth, many who have built back gates onto the path, or in one instance onto a small enclosure where they keep ducks and chickens. In summer they create quite a rumpus when you pass though I expect now they are safely indoors, like you! When you first gain the track there’s a drop of about 50 meters through the undergrowth to the valley floor, down which some enterprising youngsters have made a death-defying cycle track. Watching which ones will ride it egged on by their peers is always entertaining.
The landscape opens up again now as we continue slightly uphill on the railway bridge over The Hope to High Newport. There are fields on both sides, some already sown with spring crops. Tunstall Hills are visible again in the distance, as is the sea sparkling in the winter sunshine. It’s a great place to pause for a drink here and to stop and listen. You can’t totally escape the distant traffic but there’s a blackbird singing on the tree above us, sparrows squabbling in the hedge, the wind which is picking up creating quite a roar in the silver birches lining the path and everywhere the gurgle of running water as last night’s downpour drains from the fields on the right. It’s a very musical soundscape. If you are trying to juggle work, home schooling, persistent re-runs of Peppa Pig or even the shouts and laughter of teens on their devices, it can be medicinally soothing to the ears, or theirs too if you can drag them out!
Ahead up the line, I can see clouds building into Everest-like proportions, so let’s move on while the sun is still shining. We’re right out of the valley now and passing Newport Dene on our seaward side, a handy shortcut home if you need one, but we need to cross the road now to Silksworth Leisure Complex. Built on the slag heaps of the old mine, it now boast two lakes, a dry-ski slope, tennis centre and swimming pool. There are numerous pitches, a running track, an adventure playground complete with zip wire and plenty space for walkers. It never feels particularly busy but my favourite part is the lower lake, so let’s drop down the steps to the left here. The dense undergrowth either side shields your view of the lake until the last minute and it appears as a surprise. With two central islands it is a haven for wildlife, though it is actually just at the back of Sainsbury’s Supermarket! This year, the resident swans produced five cygnets. On one visit last spring, I actually saw the female open her wings and the tiny cygnets nestling in underneath. It was incredible. And just on cue, here they are. Almost as big as the parent birds now, they still retain some tell-tale fawn feathers marking them out as teenagers. The lakes feed a stream which sometimes flows above ground, sometimes under a succession of culverts into Hendon Burn and into the sea. We’re actually going to walk alongside it now even when it’s hidden from view.
The path rounds the bottom of the lake here and we can now follow the cycle track that leads to Sunderland city centre. You have been off-road now in the countryside or park for almost all our journey and in fact only half a mile of our route runs through a built up area. The beauty of that is now I can treat you to a warming coffee at the garage here. Or would you prefer hot chocolate? The staff here are very friendly and I have come to know them well. You might be served by Sam. He and his wife are expecting their second baby soon. He’s very gentle with our Little Man when I bring him here for ‘cookies’. Attached to a small supermarket, it has been very useful in lockdown!
We can drink our coffee en-route. Apart from this next few meters alongside the school, there is a cut through to Brookside Gardens so we are off the main road again. Our walks for exercise take us this way often so we might see Michael and his cat, Moffy. Brookside has gardens opposite the houses with a path through the middle. People often talk to you, if you have a dog or a child so we have made quite a few new friends. Michael gardens almost all of the verge and it’s becoming quite a little community. He also has many bird feeders in the trees here which are a source of constant interest to Little Man. There, we are almost home now and you are five miles or a few words healthier. Get out if you can or at least stand at the front door or lean out the window! It’s good for you.
Perhaps it is fitting that in our household, we cooked roast lamb for our exodus on New Year’s Eve from 2020. Maybe there is a long road ahead and we will need stamina and resilience to keep following the pillar of fire and the cloud. However, the good news is that if we keep listening and respond, we can take the most straightforward route. We were not destined to tread the dessert, but for a land of milk and honey. Keep the faith, born of hope and remember we are in this together. And don’t forget to clean your boots for next time. See you later.