Country diary: wildlife has invaded this fortified house

The Knockshield Burn gathers water from the moors of Allendale Common, where the heather is turning purple. A handful of stone-walled fields lie between the moors and the East Allen into which the burn feeds – hay fields where tractors are cutting, turning and baling, gathering up grasses, wildflowers and the emptying pods of yellow rattle.

A narrow road crosses the stream at the head of a steep gully, its sandy banks eroded by weather and rabbits. It’s a long drop from the footpath to the water, shining and rippling below as it loops in tight meanders. Young oaks and hawthorns have been planted to stabilise the banks – a suitable choice as “knock” means oak tree. Goldfinches bound between foxgloves whose seed-heavy stems bend and sway.

Mountain pansies in every shade of purple and blue

The path edges farmsteads, crossing a sike by a plank bridge, before I glimpse the tip of a chimney, half hidden by a line of ash trees. The ruin of Rowantree Stob Bastle, “stob” being an old name for tree stump, is tucked into the slope of the hill. For a bastle – a fortified Northumbrian house – this is not a good defensive position and its walls are also thinner than normal. It has, though, a classic doorway of megalithic stone cut into a semicircular arch set over massive quoins, and there’s a drawbar tunnel for a wooden beam to protect the door.

Classic bastle doorway of megalithic stone cut into a semicircular arch.

Wildlife now lives in the abandoned house. In the half-exposed chimney, a swarm of bees has arrived, thousands circling and eddying in a dark mass. Heaps of ash twigs on the threshold lie tangled with sheep’s wool; jackdaws have nested in the cavity above. I hear the ragged flap of a pigeon like a wet towel slapping in the wind. Spear thistles, tall within the shelter of the ruined room, are lively with bumblebees and hoverflies. Bats roost in the ledges created during recent repairs.

The boggy ground outside the bastle is yellow with monkey flower. Willows shade the Knockshield Burn as it curves its way to the main river, where grey wagtails bob along its dry rocks. And growing in a raised area of calaminarian grassland is a vast spread of mountain pansies in every shade of purple and blue.


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