Monday, 24 October 2016

Wooded Dales of Northeastern England:
Visiting Causey Arch near Newcastle

Tucked into a sea of fields, Causey Gill of County Durham houses the oaks of the ancient English uplands. A walk under Causey Arch reveals all.

The journey from London to Newcastle exposes England to be a truly agricultural country. In the north, woods can only be seen in the niches and ravines that form seams between the broad fields.

Agricultural scenery from London to Newcastle
Rolling out of King’s Cross London on the train, through the suburbs and golf courses of the North Downs, we see the sky open up around Peterborough with Constable clouds towering over the fens. The black earth of the former peat marshes, the fenlands, is the best vegetable gardening soil in Britain, but the landscape northwards continues to be overwhelmingly agricultural: a patchwork quilt of fields in a score of green colours whatever time of year. Where are the grand trees of the ancient English wildwoods? In the tiny dales of northeastern England survive the oaks and hazels of the English uplands.

Past York to Newcastle, sheep-studded hillsides and shadows of medieval ridge-and-furrow field systems stretch away from the tracks. In the east, the thin flat ridge of the North York Moors rises from the horizon, while dark clouds pile up on the Pennine Mountains, England’s backbone, to the west.

English histories of landscapes and woods

The deforestation of Britain began some 5500 years ago, in the Neolithic; by the early Iron Age, 2500 years ago, half of the land was agricultural, and by the time of the Domesday Book 900 years ago, woods covered only 15% of the land. The agricultural landscape so obvious to the traveller today has been the face of England for over a millennium. Stands of woods provided building timber and have commonly been coppiced and pollarded as well, forcing the trees to send out new shoots that were harvested for tool hafts, fencing and firewood. In the north, such woods survive in the tiny upstream valleys – so different from upland forest of the south.

Whereas valleys are ‘vales’ in the south, a word originating in Latin and coming into English through French, in the north, valleys are ‘dales’, originating in Anglo-Saxon and related to Dutch. Each of the major rivers draining the Pennines towards the North Sea has its own valley collectively known as the Pennine Dales: Wensleydale, Teesdale, Weardale.
Roddam Dene near
Wooler, Northumberland

Following the rivers upstream in the big dales, 
the country-side still wears its agricultural
cloak, with more sheep and drystone walled
field boundaries encroaching on the heather and
moorlands that crown the high hills. Beautiful
and breathtaking as they may be, these are not 
the objective of our travel. To see the forests of
northeastern England, head for the gills and denes!

‘Dene’ may have Anglo-Saxon roots as ‘dale’ does, but ‘gill’ is an Old Norse word (ghyll), reflecting the later Viking conquest of northeastern England. Denes and gills are best imagined as ravines or gorges: deep-sided, dark enclaves of native vegetation through which run not rivers or even streams but ‘burns’, another Anglo-Saxon gift to English. Most of these ravines are also criss-crossed by paths — natural routes along waterways — but some are developed as nature areas or local parks. Causey Gill is a case in point.

Causey Arch in Tynedale, 
an industrial archaeology bridge
Causey Arch in wooded
Causey Gill, County Durham
 South of Newcastle, Causey Burn runs north through Causey Gill, eventually flowing into the Tyne in — you 
guessed it — Tynedale! But what about the placename 
Causey? It comes from ‘causeway’, a stone bridge built 
to cross the gill in 1725-6 and now known as Causey Arch.

A marvel of engineering of its time, Causey Arch was
built with Roman arch technology under the guidance
of a leading northeastern stonemason, Ralph Wood,
who took his life by jumping off the 80-foot-high
structure before it was completed. For thirty years after its construction, Causey Arch had the distinction of being the longest single-span bridge (100 feet) in the world. It was used, however, for
Old coal wagon from Tanfield Collieryhowever, for
barely ten years to haul coal out of
Tanfield Colliery before the mine was
closed down after an explosion and fire
in 1740. First hosting double rail tracks
for wooden carts pulled by horses (each
loaded with 4 tonnes of coal), Causey
Arch remains the world’s oldest
surviving single-span railway bridge,
though now disused.

Today, walking down the gill, one is surrounded by thick, lush foliage under a thin canopy of oaks, silver birch, hornbeam and sycamore maple. The burn has cut through layers of sandstone which line the gill as cliffs in places. A wren scuttles to a fence rail, while great tits and chiffchaffs twitter and buzz from above. A cuckoo calls in the distance. Below grow ferns and fragrant ramsons, betony and a variety of crane’s bill.
Sandstone cliff in Causey Gill

Though woodland areas have remained stable for centuries through careful resource management, many now are threatened by development and overgrazing. If, however, the woods were ever to reclaim British land, it would be a jungle.

Anon. (1995) “Causey Arch picnic area & the Tanfield railway”. Pamphlet, Durham County Council Environment Department.
Rackham, Oliver (1986) The history of the countryside. London: JM Dent & Sons.
Watts, Kevin (2006) “British Forest landscapes: the legacy of woodland fragmentation”. Quarterly Journal of Forestry, May 2006:273-279
Floralocale (2005) “Restoring ghyll woods” 

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