Country diary: going with the flow through the Debatable Lands

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Warksburn, Northumberland: The river twists and loops through a landscape steeped in history

Perched on a tussocky slope, we eat our sandwiches in the winter sun, sit-mats sinking into damp moss among leaves of betony and St John’s wort. Heather stems nudge against my knees. Young hawthorns make a spiky canopy above my head. Through backlit stalks of knapweed, a field lies way below us, held in a crook of the Warksburn. The far side of the river is bordered by a cliff seen through a lattice of riparian alders. Atop that is a sheep field and above that the wide Northumberland sky.

The Warksburn gathers water from a series of sikes or rills – including Nameless Sike – in the south-east corner of Kielder Forest. It’s a crimped blue line on the map like a pulled thread from a knitted jumper, twisting and looping through boggy ground between mist-caught ranks of conifers. Nearby, there are signs of the farming past in the shielings, stells and stack stands: shepherds’ huts, circular sheepfolds and mounds for drying fodder for winter.

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