It is surely the last of summer. The sky is vivid blue and wispy white. The sun gives off furnace heat and open spaces are bleached with light. A strip of woodland offers meagre relief. Speckled wood butterflies dance in shafts of light. Emerging from the trees, we see her ahead of us: The Lady of the North. She is one hundred feet high and a quarter of a mile long. A woman sculpted from stone, clay and soil. She lies on her back, curves softened by grass. Paths spiral up to her summits.
It is too hot to climb. Winston was panting before we even started to walk. We follow the path around the Lady. She is surrounded by rough ground, sepia with seed heads and thistledown. Small tortoiseshells take what they can from the few flowers that remain. Dragonflies dart across the landscape. Goldfinches flit in and out of hawthorns laden with berries. The Lady is reflected in still, clear ponds, amid waterlily pads and a resting group of tufted ducks.
The Lady was designed by Charles Jencks. She is part of the restoration of land from an adjacent surface mine, designed as something for the community while the mine is still in operation. She will evolve into the landscape over time. Right now she doesn’t really speak to me. She is hard lines and stark paths. A caricature. It is in her rough edges that she comes to life, in the dart of dragonfly and goldfinch, and the scrubland where butterflies feed.
Later in the week, we enter another strip of woodland. A steep and shady lane ends abruptly. A padlocked wooden gate leads directly onto railway lines. Paths branch to left and right. Just beyond, the Tyne flows towards Newcastle. Trains sound their horns as they clatter past and we hear the warnings of a nearby level crossing. It is a strange mix of old and new, of tranquillity and noisy civilisation.
We are walking with a hawk. Horatio is a young Harris Hawk, native to the Argentinian desert. His plumage is chocolate and chestnut, with splashes of white. He has yellow-rimmed eyes and a hooked yellow and grey beak. Long black talons sprout from the end of yellow scaly feet. We take the left hand path, through rough ground dotted with Himalayan balsam and honeysuckle flowers. Horatio swoops up into the trees and then back to our gloved hands for morsels of chicken.
We wander up and down winding paths, through beeches and hollies. Horatio is much lighter and gentler than I would have expected. He peers into the trees, hunting. For a while he is distracted by a squirrel. Later, he is entranced by a pair of woodpigeons. We cross a stream, skirt the edges of an old churchyard with leaning graves. In these woods there was once an Edwardian fairground. There was once an ice rink where curling was played. And a 17th century battle was fought here leading up to the English Civil War.
Our walk ends with owls. We meet Sabina, an Indian Eagle Owl and Marty, a young Spectacled Owl. Both are stunning, but Marty steals our hearts. It seems the year has come full circle. Last year I went into autumn seeing images of owls everywhere. This year, autumn begins in the owls’ amber eyes.