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  • Julie Muller

ST CUTHBERT'S CAVE - Rest For A Saint And A Refuge For Squirrels

(Nearest post code TD15 2UL)

Two sheepdogs, one red and one black and white sit ting in front of a large cave tunnelled into red sandstone
Bruno and Shep pose in front of St Cuthbert's Cave

It has been four weeks since we moved up to Northumberland and Bruno and I are now living in the most north-eastern part of the county.

We live in Laverock Law – a tiny hamlet which is a few miles from Lowick, and a further ten miles south of Berwick upon Tweed which is our nearest town.

It is so beautiful here, and, on our morning walks we are frequently alerted to V-shaped skeins of geese honking instructions to each other as they fly overhead. Round brown hares dart across our path, roe deer flash their pale rumps at us as they skip across the fields and pheasant crash excitedly out of the scrub and scramble into the sky.

We certainly live in a very magical place.

Just a short drive away, the countryside changes from rough flattish fields interrupted by babbling burns to much wilder open moorland which covers the slopes above Holborn village. This has become one of our favourite walks.

Julie had discovered the walk almost by accident. She is always keen to discover walks that are on the doorstep and whilst poring over the local maps, she had been intrigued by the symbol on the map for St Cuthbert’s Cave.

So, one sunny afternoon, just before sunset we went in search of the cave. We parked at Holburn Grange and made the steep muddy ascent towards the moors. There were all kinds of interesting scents as we climbed up the hill and Bruno couldn’t resist patrolling the fence line.

When we reached the moors, we headed off to find the cave.

The ground was soft and springy to our paws and the slopes were covered with rusty brown bracken interspersed with heather and bright yellow but very spiky gorse. It was good to feel the wind in our fur coats as we raced along the path.

We soon reached a metal gate which led us into St Cuthbert’s Wood, a wood which is owned by the National Trust and here we hoped to find the cave. There was a notice on the gate at the entrance to it which asked our humans to keep us on a lead whilst inside the wood because of the red squirrels and other animals that lived there.

So, Julie put us on long leads which gave us just enough freedom to explore but, not too much, so that we didn’t accidentally disturb the resident wildlife.

Julie was excited at the prospect of seeing a red squirrel because they are not seen very often these days – ever since the introduction of the grey squirrel back in Victorian times.

The red squirrel has lived in Britain for the last ten thousand years. They like to eat fresh green shoots and flowers in the spring, but in the autumn, they feast on nuts, fruits, and seeds. People used to think that they hibernated throughout the winter, but they don’t. They just lie very low when the weather conditions are at their worst .

However, about two hundred years ago, it became fashionable for wealthy landowners to populate their estates with exotic species of plant and animals and so, the grey squirrel was introduced into Britain from North America.

It was only a matter of time before the grey squirrels escaped into the wider countryside and began competing with the native red squirrel for food, shelter, and territory. What is more , they carried squirrel pox – a virus quite innocuous to them but fatal to the red indigenous squirrels.

Because of this, it is impossible for red squirrels and grey squirrels to live side by side.

The grey squirrels have taken over many of the places once occupied by their red cousins.

And so, where red squirrels do live, it is very important not to do anything that could harm or disturb them.

Our humans scoured the woodland for a sighting of the little rodent, but it was all in vain.

Most of the trees in the wood were conifers which is the perfect home for the red squirrels but sadly so many of the trees had been knocked flat by the recent storms and they lay splintered and broken on the ground.

St Cuthbert’s cave, itself was very impressive. It is thought that the body of Saint Cuthbert was laid here on its way to its final resting place in Durham. It certainly wasn’t the hole in the rock that we expected to see but rather an elongated aperture, and huge red sandstone cliffs towered above it perched on further sandstone pillars. Many humans had etched their names into the soft rock.

Additional enormous slabs of stone littered the area in front of the cave. They were also etched with human graffiti but more impressively bore the signs of immense geological forces in action with deep clefts and slots carved into them in parallel lines. Bruno and I felt tiny standing next to them.

Sadly, we had started our walk a little late in the day and, by the time, we had finished exploring the cave, the sun was setting over the Cheviot Hills. The sky was changing from red to orange and we decided to make our way home!

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