If someone had told me a week ago that I’d be spending the following Saturday evening sitting still and silently in a cold corner of Kielder Forest in the dark with one hundred others, appreciating the sounds of dancing tree trunks creaking and the wind brushing earnestly against the leaves while pre-recorded raven calls were played from hidden loudspeakers, I would have been surprised. However, that’s exactly what I did on the evening of Saturday 25th October, and it was a worthwhile, deeply relaxing and hugely inspiring experience.
The event was commissioned by Jerwood Open Forest, which is a partnership between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and the Forestry Commission England, and it’s supported by the University of Surrey, the Arts Council England, Forest Artwork and Kielder Water and Forest Park. Entitled ‘Hrfan: Conversations with Odin’, it was created by Chris Watson and Iain Pate and the Jerwood Open Forest team, and delivered with the help of a group of marshals, of whom I was one. We were led on a mile-long walk through the forest from Stonehaugh as we were told interesting stories about raven lore and the history of Kielder Forest. A small bridge marked the official entrance to the site, and the point after which human words were banned and the sounds of ravens, as heard by Odin in the halls of Valhalla, took precedence. With immense anticipation, we settled down on the forest floor of a Norway Spruce plantation to enjoy a unique acoustic production. The sounds were conveyed effectively, sheltered by Wark Burn to the south, and a steep slope to the north of the site. The production was contributed to by the ‘live’ sounds of resident robins, crossbill, chaffinch, mistle thrush and blackbirds. Apart from the unscheduled cacophony of the Air Ambulance helicopter at its mid-point, the event was a resounding success. These things happen, apparently, when your cinema is situated in an open forest, beneath the stars.
As we left the venue, in complete darkness, I could appreciate Kielder’s dark sky, and the crystal clear stars piercing through it. Kielder Water and Forest Park is now marketed as a single destination for tourists by the Kielder Development Trust; and its isolation, situated south-east of the Anglo-Scottish border in Northumberland, is being marketed successfully through the construction of an observatory in the forest and the recent award in December 2013 from the International Dark Skies Association of Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status. This award is well deserved, in my opinion. They have recently opened a circular, timber stargazing construction complete with seating in Stonehaugh Village, which, I found, also works well as a picnic area at lunchtime.
Stonehaugh is an area of Kielder Forest which I had never visited previously. It was established by the Forestry Commission in the 1950s, to house forestry workers involved in logging, sawing and generally preparing the timber for transportation. There are 35 houses in the village, but around 150 houses had been planned originally, before mechanisation kicked in and reduced the number of forestry workers needed. The planners reacted by reducing the programme of house building substantially, by around 80%. Surprisingly, it’s a lot further south than Kielder Water and Leaplish Waterside Park, taking approximately one hour to drive from Stonehaugh to Kielder Village, yet both lie within Kielder Forest. This demonstrates the scale of Kielder Forest explicitly. On my way there, I discovered new roads, and new panoramic views of the immense plantations, as the southern boundary of Kielder Forest stretched out before me, edge to edge. Quite eerily, I spotted a very large, abandoned piece of rusty, heavy machinery on the open moorland quite close to the forest boundary. I think its purpose, before abandonment, was to dig trenches in the forest, but I can’t be sure; it might well have been a piece of general agricultural machinery.
Above all, attending the event inspired me to think more about the senses in the environment beyond the visual, which tends to take prime position in human appreciation of landscape and environment. Recently, I’ve been reading quite a lot about the sub-discipline of acoustic ecology. These ecologists are breaking new ground in developing narratives and theories in
relation to how the sounds of the landscape have changed as a result of industrialisation, the development of transport and energy supply infrastructure. I’m trying to tune into sounds I have previously ignored in the present landscape and also when I’m reading documentary sources in the archives, with some success. The sounds, and indeed smells too, of the historic Tyne have been written about in many different documents and they are there to find, if your mind is alert to them.
As a final thought, I had hoped to spot a couple of red squirrels in return for my 7-hour round trip from Yorkshire, but unfortunately I had no such luck. I did spot a poster, however, reminding us of their vulnerability.