Country diary: sheltering from a hailstorm took me back in time

Country diary: sheltering from a hailstorm took me back in time

The early morning sunshine was too good to last. Driven by an icy north wind, dark bellies of cumulonimbus dropped a grey curtain of hail across the fells. Before it arrived, there was just enough time to slip into the steep-sided valley of Stanhope Dene, to find shelter behind a tree.

An ominous hiss grew louder, as ice pellets bounced on last autumn’s bronze carpet of dry beech leaves. A brief, ferocious bombardment, then the clouds parted and the sun broke through. As I left my refuge, so did two woodcocks, rising from almost under my feet; they too had been sitting out the storm, unseen, mottled brown feathers rendering them almost invisible among the woodland debris.

The dene was full of birdsong this morning, but early 20th-century visitors came here to listen to different music. In 1891, this cleft in the hillside was laid out as a pleasure ground. Two miles of footpaths were created, linked by rustic bridges. Trees – mostly beeches – were planted, and a bandstand was built in a natural amphitheatre on the west bank of Stanhope burn.

In Edwardian times, the good folk of Stanhope would have gathered around a bandstand in the dene on summer evenings.

By 1911, it was sufficiently established for a guidebook to advise that “the dene is much resorted to in the season”, and to describe the scenery to be “generally of a romantic character”. Some of that sentiment must have influenced whoever carved the initials “CD” within a heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow, in the bark of a giant beech that might well be a survivor from that original planting.

Looking down on the former location of the bandstand, the hiss of hail on beech leaves closing in again, I struggled to imagine those Edwardian summer evenings, with the good folk of Weardale in their Sunday best, listening to tunes, played by the celebrated Stanhope Silver Band, drifting through the trees. Today, they would have needed their warmest hats, overcoats, shawls, scarves – and a hip flask of something strong – to linger and hear music supplied by the burn tumbling over its rocky streambed, and recently arrived migrant warblers, including gloriously melodious blackcaps, the “nightingales of the north”.

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