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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 August 2010 by John Richards

Native Northumberland alpines. Entry 157.

Deadwater Fell

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate to be given a lift onto the summit of Deadwater Fell in Northumberland, on the Border Ridge right against the Scottish border at  571 m. This is part of the Kielder Forest and is open to walkers (and mountain bikers!), but you are not usually allowed to drive there, although there is quite a good unsurfaced road. My companion was Tom Dearnley who takes care of all things wildlife in the Forest (including the ospreys and goshawks, we saw a lovely female goshawk), and our particular aim was to visit one of the few real alpines that occur in our county, the least willow, Salix herbacea.

Salix herbacea is a classic member of British tundra communities, usually where there is late snow-lie, and is found in Snowdonia, the Lake District and Scotland where it can be common, even dominant, but is usually restricted to sites over 600m altitude, and south of northern Scotland, 800 m. Consequently, the Deadwater site, where one lonely male has presumably survived since the ice-age, is abnormally low. It is also an odd site in other ways, as it occurs here in a north-west-facing vertical crevice, whereas it usually grows on level sites, where it is only 1 cm tall, truly the 'least' willow! It is a good garden plant, which I have grown for more than 40 years since I brought a cutting back from Austria, and sometimes has been seen on the show-bench, where some judges like it, and others don't! Here is a photo of the site, with Tom, followed by a picture of the plant.

To Ecologists, Deadwater summit is better known as a superb stretch of high-level heathland, dominated by heather, Calluna vulgaris, unusually so this high up, which was in superb flower for our visit as the first photo shows. Bilberry, Vaccinium myrtillus, cowberry, V. vitis-idaea, crowberry, Empetrum nigrum and Cloudberry, Rubus chamaemorus are also very common, even co-dominant. Cloudberry is quite common on our tops, but it is shy flowering, and dioecious, forming big clones, so often only one gender is present in a locality. Furthermore, sunshine and pollinators are often very scarce when it flowers in June. Not surprisingly, it rarely sets fruit in our county, unlike the Arctic, where jams, wines, liqueurs and even ice-cream made from Cloudberries are popular and form the subject of local festivals.

Imagine our delight therefore when we found hundreds if not thousands of Cloudberries on Deadwater summit this year!

The Henhole and Cheviot


There are other alpines on Deadwater, for instance the sedge Carex bigelowii and the fern Dryopteris expansa, even an extremely rare clubmoss, Diphasiastrum x issleri, but they are scarcely charismatic or of interest to alpine gardeners. 

Of course, there are bigger mountains in Northumberland, also on the border ridge, but far to the north. The biggest and best known is  Cheviot (815 m), and a week later, two days ago in fact, I climbed Cheviot for the first time. Together with the 'Wednesday botanists', our walking group I have mentioned before, we climbed Cheviot via the Henhole, a ravine on the north-western side. This is by far the most interesting botanical locality on a mountain which is mostly a dull peaty lump, but because the core of the mountain is composed of ancient granites, it is poor by Scottish or even Lake District and Pennine standards. 

The Henhole is not easy to reach or ascend. It is a very long walk in, but you are allowed to drive in if a £10 permit is purchased in advance, and then the walk to the base of the ravine is only 4 km. It is quite a tough scramble up the ravine, and most of the interesting plants are specialities such as alchemillas, euphrasias, ferns and grasses. The two special plants we were particularly seeking are alpine sawwort, Saussaurea alpina and Alpine Foxtail Alopecurus borealis. Through the magic of a modern GPS we walked more or less straight to both, but neither were in flower. Apparently the sawwort rarely if ever flowers here now.

There are also some classic but widespread alpines like the two alpine willowherbs, roseroot, Sedum rosea and Saxifraga stellaris and S. hypnoides. Here is S. stellaris, Starry Saxifrage.


Here are views of the Henhole from the bottom and the top, and two ferns, the Alpine Buckler Fern, Dryopteris expansa, and the beech fern, Phegopteris connectilis.


Over the 20 years we have lived in our present house, the biggest bugbear of our sheltered, humid, rather shady garden has been the row of mature lime trees, Tilia x vulgaris which dominates our southern boundary. On occasion I have complained about these in this forum. Although they have helped to screen us from the new estate that has been built across the road over the last few years (when the leaves are on), there are trees on the other side of the road which are equally effective. To set against this modest boon has been a vast swathe of disadvantages. Foremost, perhaps, the roots spread horizontally for at least 30 m, taking sustainance and water from much of this part of the garden. I have made repeated efforts to garden here, only to find that in summer the raised humus-rich beds become dry, desolate, and covered with debris. And what debris! Limes are the filthiest of trees, with no redeeming features whatever. There is no time of year when they are not dropping twigs, branches, bud scales, flowers, fruits, leaves, and, especially, aphid frass, honeydew, which becomes infected with a black powdery mould which covers all the ground dwelling plants within many metres.

Originally there were five lime trees in a row. They were planted in 1882 when the house in part of whose garden we now reside was built, and they have become massive. Four were originally in our property and a fifth next door. It so happens (nothing to do with us!) that the boundary of the Conservation Area runs along the boundary between us, so that singleton is protected, but the others were not! We had the two easternmost trees felled 15 years ago. One was not killed, and the stump left to grow a Clematis alpina on (with great effect). However the epicormic growth (another real problem factor of Tilias) has given ongoing problems, and I have to shear it every year.

This left two trees. One is right on our boundary and shelters our leaf-heaps. It is very much influenced by trees over the road, so is not too huge, and the roots are relatively well-behaved, so it has been spared. However the other one has been responsible for all the problems. In addition to all those listed above, it (was!) smothered with ivy, so it had become very dark and top-heavy, and, as it now transpires, was rotting from the crown down. It was probably only a matter of time before the top fell on the passing traffic from nearly 30 m altitude.

So we have had it felled. It cost £800, which we thought good value seeing it took two men two days, it was a truly massive tree swathed with ivy, exceptionally difficult to climb, the space was very restricted, everything was removed, except some sawn timber we asked to be left, and the site was left looking pristine. Here are some photos, first of the tree half down, then of the mess before it was tidied away, and then of the lads resharpening the saw (the main trunk had metal buried deep inside).

As you can see the diameter of the bole at the base was massive, about 1.3 m. This was sliced into 22 roundels which I asked to be kept, as I shall use them as edging for a new raised bed in an area which was formerly 'no go' because of tree roots, but which is now freed up. Here are the roundels, stacked, followed by the site for the new raised bed (a winter job!).

What of the smaller timber? Well, we are not smokeless and rely heavily on a fire in winter. We are advised by the tree surgeon that the timber is best split while green and then dried out for several months before burning. Here is part of the logs (about half) stacked under the wide eaves of our Swedish-designed house. Our new next door neighbour, a doctor recently returned from Afghanistan where he worked in the Wakhun, our Editor would be interested to learn, has taken about the same amount.

A bit of colour to end with! Not an alpine, but Sheila's lovely Ligularia dentata 'Desdemona' in the border. It is so unlike L. przewalskii which also appears in the photo behind it and now well over flower.

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