Confession: I’m not a rambler. I dropped out of the girl guides and I’m still not great with maps. But I love exploring. And though the reason for all this sounds sentimental, it’s true: I want my kids to have the kind of fresh-air adventures I had to wait until adulthood, and a job as a travel journalist, to discover. Though the wilds of Northumberland are just an hour away, adventures can happen anywhere. So, for the sake of memory, here’s what happened on the first day of spring – weather: cold but dry, winter coats but not wellies – we decided to head for the hills.
The Simonside Hills, a few miles from Rothbury, are what Northumberland National Park does best: wild, open, rugged. It’s a popular walking spot and the ridge walk, billed as an easy out-and-back, seems a good option. Lara’s 8 and Etta’s 6, and though they can manage a bit of distance, a specific goal – in this case, the top of the ‘mountain’ – definitely helps. The route was clear, with a path just across the road from the car park leading up the ridge. Lara set off at a gallop, her sister with less enthusiasm, so Neil and I took turns to hold her hand and cajole her onwards, benignly dismissing vague complaints about sore legs/back/feet/eyes. (Getting kids to walk – and keep walking – calls upon that key parenting skill of distraction, usually honed in the toddler years. ‘Your finger hurts… ooh look, a sheep/flower/big rock!’)
We broke for lunch at the first peak, settling ourselves on the flat rocks inside the stone ring of Beacon Cairn. As we finished the Tunnocks Caramels, the stillness was broken by a brilliant cascade of birdsong, bubbling down from what looked like no more than a tiny speck in the sky overhead. Another family had just pitched up nearby, and the dad – who looked like the kind of proper rambler who knew these things – confidently identified it as a skylark.
Continuing on past more impressive cairns – in the 19th century several Bronze Age burial mounds and an impressive haul of 3000-year-old metalwork were discovered here – we reached the summit. At 43om, a clear day reveals the Northumbrian coastline but despite the low cloud we could make out the Cheviots to the north and glimpses of the River Coquet. A circular walk leads on from this point, but not wanting to push our luck with Etta’s stamina we decided to turn back. Miraculously – and before we’d even considered breaking into the secret stash of chocolate buttons – Etta’s mood transformed completely for the descent, and I enjoyed lovely chats with both girls as we ambled back down. Listening to another family group pass by, with a teenage daughter venting about her college tutor, made me feel curiously optimistic about the benefits of this sort of activity. We all picked scrubby bits of heather for our buttonholes and listened to the red grouse warbling in the bushes – ‘go back, go back, go back!’
Reinvigorated by the chocolate buttons , we added on a little foray up the hill behind the car park to explore the rampart rings of the Iron Age fort of Lordenshaws, and were rewarded with some pretty good cup-and-ring marks as well as a couple of geocaches (including our first geocoin). Lara pronounced it her ‘best day ever’ – though she does say that a lot.
For me, it was the skylark that stuck. That beautiful, exuberant song seemed to flick a switch, turning the middle of nowhere into somewhere completely magical. We should do this more often.
The route: From Lordenshaws car park (OS Grid ref NZ052988, nearest postcode NE65 7NW), cross the road and walk up the footpath, following the left-hand path that takes you up the ridge.