Following the trail of Longhorsley Moor

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Longhorsley Moor is about a mile-and-a-half in length, from Beacon Hill in the south west to Cross Cottage in the north east, and contains about 156 acres.

The northern half, the part you are most likely to visit, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, or SSSI. It stands on the left side of the A697 as you go from Morpeth to Longhorsley.

The main entrance is by a farm road leading to Horsley High Barns, next to a lay-by and roughly opposite a signpost to Fieldhead. The farm road divides the SSSI into two.

To your left, or south, is an area of open moorland with scattered trees. I had difficulty finding a path and did not go very far into it. Beyond it is the area not in the SSSI. This, as far as I can tell from Google Earth, is more of the same.

What lies to your right is quite different. Sweeping meadows alternate with woods, mainly of old birch trees, but rich with other trees and shrubs, including hawthorn with vast swathes of may blossom.

Longhorsley Moor has had a varied history. When Lady Elizabeth Dacre died in 1518, her estate in Horsley consisted of various 'husband lands' and meadows held by 'divers tenants'. She also had a 'free forest', governed by a forest court, which was used for pasturage. (Hodgson, History of Northumberland, Part II, Vol. 2, 1832).

Despite its legal status as a forest, meaning that it was reserved for the lord of the manor to hunt in, it had clearly been taken over by the peasant farmers of Longhorsley as a place for keeping their livestock. Longhorsley Moor may well be the last relic of that forest.

By the 19th century, many freeholders in Longhorsley had the right to stint cattle, sheep and geese on the Moor, and a common herdsman was employed to look after them. Yet other freeholders had the right to shoot over it, and no doubt many people, whether freeholders or not, went there to pick blackberries and to collect firewood and timber to mend their houses, sheds and fences.

Grazing by sheep and cattle produced a characteristic mix of vegetation known as lowland heath, which the Trail leaflet describes as “a mosaic of heather, bracken, acid grassland and gorse”.

When grazing petered out in the 1960s or so, the heath deteriorated into birch scrub. Left to itself, this would eventually become birch forest. The discovery of bog oaks at Linden in the 19th century, however, suggests that the original climax vegetation was oak forest.

The SSSI was established in 1987. Longhorsley Parish Council, which owns the Moor, manages the SSSI on behalf of English Nature.

Exmoor ponies and Soay sheep have been introduced to re-establish grazing and so preserve the lowland heath. When I visited the Moor a few weeks ago, however, the only living things I encountered, other than plants, were insects and birds, though I am assured that the ponies and sheep were there.

A narrow seam of coal called the Stanton seam runs across the northern tip of the Moor. Bell-pits were dug into it in earlier centuries, and a colliery employing four men worked it until the 1920s. And when Charles William Bigge built his new house of Linden in 1812, he opened a quarry for it on the Moor, a few hundred yards north of the main entrance.

The Moor was also used for horse races. In June 1822 the prizes for each day included a Purse of Gold and a saddle and bridle. By the 1920s, however, the races were held in October, on the same day as the riding of the bounds, and the prizes were £9, £4 and £2.

The quarry and the approximate positions of the winning post and colliery are marked on the Longhorsley Moor Trail plan. I set off with high hopes of seeing all three, but it was not to be. I think I may have found myself in the quarry, but the trees and shrubs round the sides were so dense, I couldn’t see any sign of a quarry face.

The trail leaflet, which is excellent, warns you that the trail is rough and sometimes boggy. It urges you to keep to the designated path to avoid disturbing wildlife. This, however, is impossible.

The trail starts out just beyond the gate, and with luck, you can always see the next waymarker in the distance.

I crossed two bridges. Then the trail divided. You have to follow one path or the other. The one I followed disappeared completely.

Other paths that were not part of the Trail opened up invitingly, which is how I came to be in the quarry, if that’s what it was. I went back to the place where I got lost, only to get lost again.

Fortunately, you can always hear the traffic on the main road so regardless of any path or none, I headed in that direction and found myself at the north entrance.

It’s a well-built kissing gate, like the one at main entrance, but completely overgrown on the road-ward side. The parish council has a notice on the main entrance, asking you to close the gate because of the Soay sheep, but here they don’t need to.

I walked back along the road to where I started. A bird laughed derisively from somewhere in the wood.

Setting out a second time from a point further along the farm road, I managed fairly well until I again got lost on a path that faded into non-existence. Another path appeared, and I came to the fence marking the boundary with the farmland.

I never did complete the circular tour. The day was flawless sunshine. I ate lunch seated on a grassy bank and surrounded by may blossom and the sound of birds.

Acknowledgement: Map and poster reproduced by kind permission of Longhorsley Parish Council.