Exploring the Estate: The Secrets of Ford Moss

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Ford and Etal Estates is a quiet and remote part of the country, filled with hidden gems, with many walking trails around the villages and farms. But one of the wildest parts of the estate is a place many visitors don’t get to: the nature reserve of Ford Moss. Situated east of Ford village, it lies away from the main roads, accessible by foot from Ford, or by car along a narrow, winding lane followed by a short walk. The Moss itself is a bog, dangerous to walk on, but a circular path allows visitors to explore the area safely.

As a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, it’s one of the best places on the estate for wildlife and plant enthusiasts. But hidden in the area around the bog is also the fascinating history of a vanished mining community, and clues to an even older past.

Ford Moss is a lowland raised mire – an area of bog and scrub, with a deep layer of peat, formed over thousands of years, lying on the limestone bedrock. We know that many thousands of years ago, after the last ice age, it would have been a small lake, the water caught in the hollow at the top of the hill. Peat is formed from rotting vegetation, and has gradually filled up the lake, forming the bog. Lined with woods of Scots pine and oak, the Moss is a wilderness of heather and bog myrtle, sphagnum moss, sundew and cranberry, cross-leaved heath and cotton grass. Among all this live heath butterflies, adders and lizards, red grouse, meadow pipit and woodcock. Above the bog, buzzards and kestrels can be seen wheeling and hovering.

Traces of the more recent history can be found in this landscape, half-hidden amongst the nature. From the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, coal was mined on Ford Moss. A village grew up around the mine, and the resulting activity has led to the drying out of areas of the bog. Traces of the people who lived and worked here are still visible; a tall brick chimney is the easiest to spot, but the remains of an engine house and foundations of some of the old cottages are also to be seen, and a patch of rhubarb still grows in what was once a garden. The coal mine was last used in 1918, and when the village was abandoned, most of its residents moved into the surrounding villages, where some of their descendants still live. In 2015, a public dig organised by the Flodden 1513 Ecomuseum discovered remnants of everyday life at Ford Moss, including part of a tiny teacup from a child’s tea set.

We know far less about the ancient people who lived in this area, but we know that they were there. Goatscrag, the hill to the west of the Moss, gives stunning views across the estate to the Cheviot Hills, but at the bottom of its crags, in shelters created by the rock, cremated human remains have been found. Dating to the early Bronze Age, around four thousand years ago, some of the burials were in pottery urns, and they are surrounded by pits and post holes of the same era. The discovery of broken flints in the topsoil takes the history of the site even earlier, to the Mesolithic period, between five and ten thousand years ago. Exactly who these people were, and what they did on Ford Moss and Goatscrag, is unknown, but this was a period of climate change, of the earth warming after the ice age. A nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle was starting to give way to more settled agriculture, and it’s believed that many Mesolithic dwellings may have been seasonal.

In another rock shelter, animal carvings are visible on the rock surface; these are thought to be Romano-British or early Medieval. And not far away, at Routin Lynn (a name meaning Roaring Pool, a reference to the beautiful waterfall in the woods) is a stunning example of cup and ring marks, as well as earthworks suggesting the presence of a settlement or enclosure of some sort. Cup and ring marks, circular carvings made in outcrops of rock, can be found in many places in Northumberland, and were made in the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, so they may have been made by the same people who buried their dead under Goatscrag.  

Walking from Ford Moss to the ridge of Goatscrag, with a fresh breeze blowing, birds singing, and no sight or sound of busy roads or crowds of people, it’s easy to understand how this could have been a special place thousands of years ago. In the landscape lie layers of inhabitancy and use continuing for thousands of years, some on the surface, some hidden below it, and some secrets perhaps still buried beneath the peat, still to be found.

Rebecca Harris, July 2017

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