There’s a battered old copy of the Oxford Dictionary on my desk that defines exploration as ‘the action of travelling in or through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it.’ I’ve decided that means I’m now officially an explorer, thanks to the incredibly daft and largely pointless morning I recently spent stomping around Northumberland’s Kielder Forest in search of the most isolated patch of ground in England.
Why did we do it? Because as far as we could tell no-one ever has, which (in my mind at least) gave us the opportunity to stand side by side with the likes of Scott, Mallory and Fiennes in the pantheon of English exploration greats. In fact, we’ve probably already elevated ourselves above them, because what’s the point in exploring far-flung wildernesses like Antarctica or the Himalayas if you haven’t uncovered the wild heart of your own island? So with that chip planted on our shoulders, we set about trying to find England’s most remote location by identifying the furthest point from a public road. We started off, as we often do, by arguing about it in the Trail office. Fur Tor on Dartmoor was the early front-runner before a road was located just 5km to its east, while Cumbria’s Dufton Fell and North Yorkshire’s Grassington Moor were equally considered and subsequently dismissed. Using every available map and online device we could find, we eventually settled on the nondescript 514m mound of Glendhu Hill, located deep in the forests of the northern Pennines.
A quick phone call to those clever people at Ordnance Survey confirmed that we had indeed stumbled across England’s most out-of-the-way hill, and that the exact point we were looking for lay a few hundred metres south-east, buried in a thick pocket of trees and perilously close to something marked on the map as Hell’s Bottom. We had our location – 7.6km from the nearest road – and more importantly it also came with a magical 10-figure grid reference: NY 58000 85879. Now all we had to do was get there!
A few days later we were firing up our GPS units on the banks of Kielder Water, and scratching our heads at the madness of what we were about to attempt. If you haven’t been there, Kielder Forest is a slightly peculiar place. From its heavily dammed reservoir and modern visitor centre to the conifer plantations and mountain bike tracks that make up England’s largest man-made woodland, everything is artificial. It felt more like a day trip to Center Parcs than the vast wilderness we were hoping for; but the stats don’t lie, so into the woods we went.
Our adventure began on the worryingly named Bloody Bush Road, which passes nothing more noteworthy than a few picnic spots and a couple of lonely houses, then 20 minutes later we were climbing above the treeline with a golden dawn burning through the mist behind us. Say what you like about manufactured forests, but on a morning like this I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. The only sounds piercing the silence were running water and birdsong, and if you fancy yourself as a twitcher it’s a great place for raptor spotting. Buzzards, sparrowhawks and goshawks zipped through the air; and it only took 30 minutes before we spied one of the famous Kielder ospreys (the first to recolonise naturally in Northumberland for over 200 years) skimming along the treetops above us.
But we weren’t there just to enjoy ourselves – we had work to do – and a couple of hours after leaving the car we’d closed to within 400 metres of our goal. It certainly didn’t feel like the most remote place in England, since we’d arrived there on gravel tracks we could easily have driven along if we’d had the keys to the barriers, but the last section was every bit as nasty as we’d hoped. We splashed through a shallow stream, handrailed through a woodland clearing with our boots sinking into the deep mulch below, then swung into the tangled labyrinth of trees. According to my GPS we were within 52 metres of our goal, which lay somewhere beneath the dark canopy in front of us. I hooked out my mobile to gloat to the Trail office we were zeroing in on our goal, but phone signal had long since deserted us, so I switched my attention back to my GPS, which then promptly died within around 6ft of our target. A fistful of new AA batteries later it was fully operational, but the electronic coordinates were shifting so wildly that I could have sworn it was laughing at me.
Eventually my trusty Garmin settled down enough to guide us to our final destination, but it’s fair to say NY 58000 85879 wasn’t everything we’d dreamed of. When we began researching this mythical location we had visions of a remote mountain ledge at the culmination of a bone-chilling scramble, but all we found with was a sodden patch of earth, a few broken sticks, a limp stream, and 300 million midges. We planted a stick, squirrelled away a geocache, snapped a couple of pictures, then turned around and strolled back to the car, chuckling at the folly of what we’d done.
It’s a slightly depressing thought that the furthest you can get from a tarmacked road
in England is less than five miles, but that doesn’t make looking for it any less fun.
Although this was hardly a walk to rival a big mountain day, it was a trip I certainly won’t forget in a hurry. If you’ve got a spare day, don’t mind trekking to the north-east of England and enjoy a bit of old-fashioned exploring, then I’d heartily recommend it.