Country diary: A well-hidden secret in a well-wooded valley

West Dipton Burn, Northumberland: The ravine is waking to the sound of blue tits and jays. Somewhere here is a cave of local legend

The West Dipton Burn cleaves a deep, snaking ravine through the land south of Hexham. One of several streams that feed into the Devil’s Water – a tributary of the Tyne – its precipitous sides are thickly wooded. It is to this woodland area that we are heading.

To reach it via the valley bottom is difficult. The cliffs close in the higher up you go, and crossing the many fords is only possible when the water level is low. So we enter the woods from the top end, using a path that runs along the upper rim and hugs the drystone wall. Emerald hummocks of moss cushion the thruffs – the through stones that bind the wall. Down below, the sheltered dene is starting to wake up: the chink-chink of chaffinches, the busy trills of blue tits, the squeaky sawing of great tits.

After the airy openness of silver birches, the wood gradually becomes denser with dark shiny-leaved hollies, coppiced hazels and sessile oaks. Storm Arwen has left its mark: across the path a sycamore has torn down the wall with its muddy flailing root ball; huge limbs of oaks have fallen; a birch bracketed with polypore fungus lies tumbled in a heap.

From below comes the sound of the burn, and somewhere on the southern wall of the gorge is the well-hidden Queen’s Cave. The story tells of Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI, being sheltered there by an outlaw after the brief but bloody Battle of Hexham in 1464 and the defeat of the Lancastrian army. Margaret was in fact nowhere near at the time, but the Victorian historical writer Agnes Strickland wrote imaginatively: “Taking the prince in his arms, [the outlaw] led the queen to his own retreat, a cave in Hexham forest, where the royal fugitives were refreshed.”

No sun penetrates the shadowy ravine. We stick to the upper path, where light filters through the red trunks of Scots pines and fires the peeling bark of birches like alabaster. A frantic squabble of jays screech overhead and a wren twitches its way through emerging leaves of honeysuckle. The wren, Troglodytes troglodytes, the cave dweller, will soon be looking for its own secret place in the wood.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Susie White

The GuardianTramp

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