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  • Julie Muller

ALLEN BANKS AND STAWARD GORGE (NE47 7BP) - On the edge for dormice?

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

Two sheepdogs and their owner walking at Allanbanks and Staward Woods, Northumberland - a property owned by the National Trust
A walk at Allenbank and Staward Woods with Julie

When the skies are heavy with rain and the views blurred by mist and murk, the best place to be is in the woods and so our humans headed for a National Trust owned woodland property which was only a stone’s throw away from Hadrian’s Wall.

We had come to Allen Banks and Staward Gorge – a property tucked at the bottom of a long narrow lane reached from the busy A69.

The rain was still falling as our humans drove us into the car park but there were chinks in the clouds suggesting that the sun might just break through.

In spite of this, everyone suited up for the weather and Bruno and I were eager to explore, tempted by the mighty roar of the fast-flowing river Allen which was swollen with rainwater.

Our path took us parallel with the river and was overhung with trees bright with crimson, russet, and ochre-coloured leaves. As we walked the sun was beginning to peep out from the clouds throwing out a wonderful golden light and the winds were gusting showers of leaves fruits and seeds to the ground.

Bruno and I were in our element as we crunched through the thick carpet of leaves. The river raced past below us splashing and gurgling over the large stones and boulders strewn within it.

It was so beautiful. Our humans had decided to take us on the shorter orange circular walk this afternoon, but this wonderful, wooded valley becomes even more special as the path follows the river up the valley and takes you to the Stawardpeel Wood SSSI.

There was a steep sided cliff above us, mostly shrouded with trees and shrubs with hints of bare rock in certain places adorned with ferns.

This acute slope results in a difference between the trees which are growing at the top of the slope and those growing further down. This is because as the water drains down the slope it takes much of the soil and associated nutrients with it producing different conditions which support different types of vegetation.

As a result, thinner, drier soils at the top support Pennine- stunted oak trees with acid-loving bilberry bushes and foxgloves growing beneath them. The more nutrient-rich soil at bottom supports alder and goat willow both of which like to dip their roots in the water and the mid slopes, which are awash with bluebells and wild garlic in the springtime, are home to wych elm and ash trees, their tree trunks and boughs festooned in moss and lichen.

It looks like there has been forest growing here for a very long time as there seems to be swathes of tiny, green-flowered dogs mercury growing everywhere. Over the years the introduction of non-native trees such as beech, larch and sycamore have produced an even richer mosaic of vegetation and this, in turn, has provided homes for over half of Britain’s native mammals. Otters swim in the river, red squirrels forage in the forest, and deer roam through the undergrowth.

The trees are interspersed with a mid-shrub layer comprising hazel, holly, hawthorn, and honeysuckle which provide vital aerial walkways and fodder for Britain’s most northerly race of dormice. Over the past years, human activity has unwittingly destroyed and fragmented this little rodent’s habitat and now, big efforts are being made to try to put things right.

Bruno and I thoroughly enjoyed crashing through the leaves and jumping over the fallen logs, but it is important to understand that we share this wood with so many other woodland creatures.

Although our walk did not take us up into the SSSI, our humans were aware that wild animals do not recognise human boundaries and there was always a chance that we might disturb some of the rarer inhabitants of the forest.

The path took us back up the very steep slope. Bruno and I easily covered the ground which was damp and green with ferns of all shapes sizes and textures. As the path flattened out, we saw a strange wooden structure hidden away between the trees. Numerous slim wooden pillars formed its frontage which gazed across the valley, and a fact-filled book lay on a table revealing something of the history of the woods and surroundings.

During the 1800’s the woodland was owned by a very keen gardener called Susan Davison who devoted a huge amount of her time, love and energy into creating wildflower gardens around her home and, also, nurturing and managing this beautiful woodland. As part of her vision. she built two wooden buildings, like the summer house that we chanced upon, as tranquil and quiet places where humans could soak up the sights, sounds and sensations of the woods.

She also built an amazing wobbly suspension bridge which used to span the river Allen before it was washed away in the floods. The National Trust, who own the woods now, raised money for it to be rebuilt, only for it to suffer the same fate, demonstrating the sheer power of a river in full spate.

The woodlands were given to the National Trust in 1942 so that Susan’s wish that everyone would be able to enjoy the beauty of this special place could be realised.

Bruno and I reluctantly returned to the car with our humans - very grateful that we had been able to experience this amazing place too.

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