The ground really was on fire!
Darren, Margaret and I were standing on the Keelman’s Way, near Ryton Golf Course. We were looking, with some amazement, at clouds of acrid smoke, drifting from cracks in the surface of the path.
“Look, over there,” said Darren. More smoke, this time rising from the riverbank.
‘Maybe it’s peat, under the surface,’ I said. My companions agreed. Margaret wrinkled her nose. “Quite pungent isn’t it?” It was, but we didn’t let it spoil what had been a very enjoyable day.
We’d set off from Newburn Riverside Park and headed along the Wylam Waggonway. The morning was bright but a wee bit on the cold side. We were all well wrapped up, with breath steaming as we tramped along, boots striking a crisp tattoo on the frosty ground. A most striking image were the snow covered hills. South of us, Pontop Pike, one of the highest points in the area, was fair gleaming with snow.
Me, Margaret – a new-comer to the Launchpad Wanderers – and Darren, strolled along the waggonway, periodically stopping to more fully enjoy the peaceful ambience of this place. There were the views too: Fields rising to Heddon-on-the-Wall and, to our left, trees growing thickly, sleekly covering the river shore.
“We’ll be able to get better views of the Tyne later on,” I told my companions. Coffee break was at Stephenson’s Cottage. This is the birthplace of George Stephenson (June 9 1781.) The café was closed but fortunately we had come prepared with flasks.
“So this was a railway?” Margaret asked.
I nodded. “A very busy one too, with engines running the line, taking coal from pit to river.” It must have been quite a scene, I thought, and a noisy one. Locomotives sweating steam and smoke, the air full of coal dust. But now, this is a quiet, scenic spot.
From Stephenson’s Cottage our route took us into Wylam, basking in sunshine. One of the first things we noticed was the noise. It sounded at first like traffic. A quick survey of quiet leafy roads soon dispelled this theory, however. But that didn’t explain the noise – not until we’d reached the bridge over the Tyne.
The din was being made by the river. It swept east, wide and at high tide, a deep, deep rumble echoing across the village. “Wow, just look at it,” said Margaret, gazing out over the great river.
It certainly was an impressive view. But a river has many moods: In places the water was a deep blue and fast flowing, in others brightly sunlit and swirling and murmuring, around little rocky islets and shingle covered bays. Some of these were framed by the mighty, moss covered roots of ancient trees. In other places, the water was very still, becalmed, reflective green under the trees.
Lunch today was at the Boathouse Inn. We tramped inside, eager to get warm. Darren and I enjoyed a pint of Guinness while Margaret went for a soft drink. This is a smashing little pub and even better, the free food provided courtesy of the management was most impressive.
We found a table by the window, which is just as well because the pub quickly filled with people. Quite a few of them had brought their dogs with them. It wasn’t long before the resourceful canines had found the warmest place in the pub, the sunshine streaming through the window and onto the floor! This spot was right by us and we had to shift our chairs around, to make room for the rapidly growing pile of slumbering dogs. One of them snored like a trooper!
The second half of the day took us along the southern banks of the Tyne and the Keelman’s Way. This walk and cycle trail can be followed for miles along the river. It is named after the Keelmen who worked the Tyne on the boats after which they got their name: keels.
It made for lovely walking, the path undulating and twisting and turning through woodland. Many of the trees were covered in wild green creepers, sunlight slanting through the foliage, alighting on ferns and bracken, gushing little streams created by snowfall.
And it was as we approached the golf course that we saw the billowing smoke. It was a real eye-opener. It was such an amazing sight that we stayed here awhile, taking in the scene. It later transpired that the cause of the smoke was an underground fire in what had once been Clara Vale pit. It was the result of two ponds of old spoil, which somehow, someway, caught fire.
We pushed on, saying to each other that this was one incident to remember! And then we met a couple out walking their Yorkshire terrier. I told them about the smoking ground and advised that maybe the dog should be carried.
“Oh whey no,” said the man. “We’ll just have a … hot dog.”
That had us all groaning and the man’s wife slapping his arm and saying, “That’s terrible!” The man grinned. But he picked up the dog and carried it over the smoking ground.
On the last part of the walk, about seven miles, we approached Ryton Willows. Echoes of the Tyne’s past can be glimpsed along the way, including the stark wooden stumps that were once part of docks or staithes. There were also the remains of a ferry landing. I told my companions about how there used to be row-boat ferries.
And so we came to Ryton Willows. “Look at all the gorse,” Margaret said.
And indeed, there was masses of it, the thick green growth aflame with yellow buds. In places, the bushes were smoky black, charred. “They’ve been burning away the old year’s growth,” Darren said. The blackened bush looked like the ribs of some pre-historic creature. It was quite eerie.
We arrived, finally, at Newburn Bridge, stopping mid-way to gaze west into a glorious setting sun. This was a glowing presence behind the hills, out there beyond the valley. “Wow, look at that,” I said. We had to shade our eyes in the sun-glare.
Beyond the Tyne Valley, hills rolled back and back, ripples of red in the dusk, and then the fainter, higher peaks, a faint smoky blue/grey.
So, footsore but content, the Launchpad Wanderers headed for a rather nice little café in the Newburn Riverside Park!