Eastwards: the Cheviots in Spring.
Low, red-roofed Homildon Cottage forms the gatepost to Northumberland National Park and St Cuthbert’s Way all the way to Lindisfarne. It nestles below historic Humbleton Hill (the cottage keeps the older name) and its garden gives way to bilberry, heather and the unfurling fiddleheads of bracken. There are lapwings nesting beyond the back gate and curlew calling from the hill. All the luxurious lie-ins we’ve promised ourselves are irrelevant in an instant.
We are out first thing on the high, domed Cheviots, mountain biking, walking, birding. The dry stone walls are limed and whitened with lichen, punched through with oak and sycamore roots, haunted by wrens and redstart and threaded through with hunting stoats. The hills are alive with meadow pipits, skylarks, bright-billed oystercatchers, wheatear, whin and stonechat. And an evocative soundtrack to die for.
Red grouse display and call ‘like a duck falling downstairs’ according to my son, and follow with their famous, ventriloquistic ‘go back, go back’. But we won’t, not yet. Snipe ‘sing’ with the sound of someone sawing through wet wood and when one goes up drumming above me, my heart catches at the sound: atmospheric and all but lost at home. As this small, slender bird with a long bill flies, it makes silvery twists and dips, shouldering in to scoop the sound out of the very air, making it flow over right angled tail feathers that stick out like horizontal stabilisers on the tail of a plane. The sound is a thrumming, a wuthering, a kite on a string that swoops and rights itself before hitting the ground: a sound like someone furiously bowing a cello.
We are here at such an exciting time. The migratory spring birds are coming in off the East Coast, the numbers of willow warblers doubling daily, their song a lilting laugh. Harthope valley is full of golden gorse and its scent of coconut ice cream. We walk alongside the beautiful Carey Burn as it tumbles round rocks marked by otters. I scan warm shale slopes for ring ouzels and get left behind as I try to take it all in.
The boys bike over Hart Heugh and Broadstruthers for some exhilarating descents whilst my daughter goes for a wild swim with the dogs in a mountain pool below a waterfall. The rest of us are in fleeces. A dipper pipes back and forth over her head and a lizard skitters over golden saxifrage. And we are there the moment the sand martins return, all dusky brown and glittering as if the Saharan sand is still on their wings.
On the wide, white sands below impossibly romantic Bamburgh Castle, we gaze out to The Farne Islands and hatch plans among the incoming puffins.