Kielder is one of the most isolated corners of England with the clearest night skies; yet it doesn’t feel like England at all.Gemma Hall, author of Slow Travel Northumberland
England’s largest forest, covering 230 square miles of remote, upland terrain, is one of the most isolated corners of England with the clearest night skies; yet it doesn’t feel like England at all. As you motor into Kielder along the lakeside road, the tall Sitka spruce trees close in on you, and for a while the landscape takes on the appearance of the great Highland forests. The scenery is made all the more Scottish in character by vast areas of open moorland, ospreys and red squirrels.
Kielder is no untouched wilderness, however, this being a plantation forest surrounding the largest reservoir in northern Europe and supplying 25% of England’s domestic timber. It may be a young landscape, created in the aftermath of World War I to replenish timber supplies, but it is still astonishingly scenic. The Campaign to Protect Rural England described Kielder as the most tranquil place in the country with the darkest night skies. If you’d like to be convinced of this, I recommend a dusk walk to the Observatory.
Activities in Kielder Forest
Off-road cycling and mountain bike trails range from family-friendly green routes such as the Borderline Trail from Kielder village along an old railway line, to red routes like the Deadwater Trail (and its black route extension) that climbs to the summit of Deadwater at 1,900 feet. At the top you can see the Pentland Hills, just south of Edinburgh, and the Lake District.
Another exhilarating circular ride that actually takes you into Scotland and offers views of the Solway Firth starts out from Matthew’s Linn and follows the Bloody Bush Trail to Newcastleton; the return is via the Cross Border Trail. Hire bicycles (including electric bicycles) at The Bike Place. Download routes from visitkielder.com.
A superb network of trails for cyclists, walkers, horseriders and wheelchair users is maintained by the Forestry Commission. One of the most accessible is the Lakeside Way, which circumnavigates the reservoir in 27 miles. If you don’t want to walk (8–10 hours) or cycle (3–4 hours) the whole way round, you can return using the Osprey Ferry.
Gentle walks are plentiful around the reservoir and many routes encompass Kielder’s public art works (pick up a free Trails Guide in one of the visitor centres). The more adventurous may enjoy a hike into Kielderhead National Nature Reserve.
Ospreys, goshawks and tawny owls breed successfully at Kielder because of the remoteness of the forest and the protection from persecution afforded by the Forestry Commission. There’s an organised osprey viewing station at Kielder Waterside, but for your own private encounter you may want to continue west in the direction of Kielder Castle to Bakethin Nature Reserve and nearby viaduct where ospreys are not infrequently observed catching fish.
A large extent of Kielder is open moorland dominated by heather and sphagnum mosses and inhabited by wading birds and grouse. Dragonflies and damselflies hover over damp ground where you may also see cranberry, bog asphodel, sundew and bog rosemary.
Water voles were reintroduced to Kielder in 2016. You’ll need to be exceptionally quiet to see one – or hear the ‘plop’ of ‘Ratty’ entering a waterway. Try the wildlife hide off the Forest Drive located two miles from Kielder Castle, or in one of the burns above Kielder village.
No need to be an astronomy buff to go to the Kielder Observatory: the enthusiasm of the staff and volunteers at the observatory will soon have you hooked. Even without the astronomy bit, the experience of travelling to this remote place, the hilltop views at dusk and the building itself are worthy of the drive alone.
The striking timber structure juts out of the hillside on stilts; inside there are no windows, except for two roof shutters that become ‘your eye into the universe’ when they open to reveal a dark sky dusted with millions of stars. Two huge telescopes crank into gear as soon as the shutters open. They turn automatically on a room-sized circular track like sunflowers searching for the sun, except they are seeking planets, of course.