The sound of silence isn’t easy to find, but city-dweller Richard Mellor heads to England’s supposed most tranquil spot for a dose of wilderness. Is it really as quiet as they say?
I sit beside Channelbush Sike, a boulder-strewn stream of transparent water, and listen. The current rushes down a couple of chutes. A bee buzzes by; a cuckoo cuckoos. Every so often, I think I hear a car approaching along the track—but it’s just wind sighing through surrounding forest. Other than that? Nope. Nothing.
And that was my hope in visiting this remote corner of Northumberland, found just inside the Cumbrian border and less than 10 miles from Scotland. It’s known as the Kielder Mires (or the Border Mires) thanks to around 60 peat bogs—which store precious amounts of carbon, thus negating the effect of global warming—speckling the boundaries of Kielder Forest.
And one particular 500-meter-by-500-meter-square of one particular Mire (its precise location a secret but somewhere nearby) was specified as Britain’s most peaceful spot in 2006 when the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) produced a ‘tranquillity map’ of the country.
The map didn’t just consider decibels either. “We asked several thousand people for their definition of tranquility,” explains report author Graeme Willis, CPRE’s Senior Rural Policy Campaigner.
“It wasn’t just about what one heard or didn’t hear, but also visual elements.The major factors considered bad for tranquility were constant road noise, urban development, aircraft noise, pylons and repeatedly seeing other people. We did our best to map all of those, and their opposites.” Accordingly, other significantly tranquil areas—colored dark-green—in the UK include parts of the Yorkshire Dales and Dartmoor.
Is the map still accurate? “It was done over 10 years ago, so much will have changed, especially where development is concerned,” concedes Willis. Still, he thinks it’s the best available guide. And aided by the recent clamor for better air quality, more green space and stargazing, he hopes to produce an updated map within the next couple of years. “With today’s computing power and data, it would be possible now to do something with much finer grains.” Until then, though, this 2006 edition holds sway, and the Kielder Mires remain our best guess at England’s most tranquil location.
… Past farms, conifer thickets and thrillingly desolate moorland. “I’ve never been this far up,” said the local cabbie.
It sounded perfect to me. Feeling frazzled and increasingly irritated by London, I happened on articles espousing how doses of silence can reduce everything from stress to heart-attack risk. Unsurprisingly, city-dwellers get precious little of the stuff. A 2017 report by the World Health Organization declared a frightening 64 per cent correlation between noise pollution and hearing loss. In cities, it warned, people’s ‘hearing age’ is now typically much older than their actual age; the ears of male Londoners like me have apparently experienced some 14 extra years of sound. For women, it’s an average 15.5 years extra.
All of which led me to think I desperately needed some quietude. So, reinterpreting the CPRE’s tranquility map as a treasure map, I decided to make for Northumberland. Rather than aiming for a beach or museum, I was traveling specifically to seek wilderness. The nearest rentable cottage to many of the Mires was The Bothy, a spacious, cosy affair inside the three-building Churnsike Lodge, where Victorian grouse hunters have been replaced by ultra-friendly couple, Dawn and Stephen, plus Stephen’s mum, a dog, a cat, some hens and the odd red squirrel.
I took the train to Newcastle, then the charming Tyne Valley line—the narrowing waterway to one side, remnants of Hadrian’s Wall on the other—on to Haltwhistle. From here, a pre-booked taxi ferried me north along single roads. We crossed RAF Spadeadam, Europe’s largest Electronic Warfare practice range and the place where Blue Streak missiles were assembled. Targets, including a mimic Middle Eastern hamlet, littered the hillside. Then past farms, conifer thickets and thrillingly desolate moorland. “I’ve never been this far up,” said the local cabbie.
Rather than wade into midge-heavy peat bogs in an attempt to pinpoint the CPRE’s exact most tranquil spot, I reason that everywhere nearby must be almost as quiet, and so decide to keep to following bumpy forest tracks. Using Ordnance Survey maps provided by Stephen, I spend my days walking lusty circulars.
On one, I clamber to the top of Muckle Samuel’s Crags and explore an ancient farmstead; another morning sees me installing a stepping-stone crossing across the swollen Irthing river. I encounter occasional Forestry Commission workers, their harvesters tugging down 60-foot/18-meter conifers, and wave at a grand total of two passing cars—birdwatchers, perhaps, or dog-walkers. But otherwise there is no-one here.
The stillness suddenly feels eerie, and I want to make a phone call, to hear another voice. Too bad: There’s no phone signal for miles.
As such, aside from very occasional Spadeadam jets or the distant pop of a practice bomb—whose stark noise seem to amplify all subsequent quiet—my boots scratching on pebbly earth make the chief, often only, noise. So I regularly stop, sitting in mossy forest glades or yes, beside babbling brooks, to enjoy the peace. I try meditating, but at first my mind keeps running away, unable to settle. To slow down, I watch orange-tip butterflies bicker over crucifers, and admire the mottled camouflage of a frog.
There are areas which have recently been ‘cleared’ by the Forestry Commission, a mass of shocked, depilated plains of cleaved trunks and fallen branches. The sense is of an atrocity having recently been committed. Walking across one such, I hear weird drumming noises and encounter mini-gusts of wind. The stillness suddenly feels eerie, and I want to make a phone call, to hear another voice. Too bad: There’s no phone signal for miles.
Mostly, though, I smile. The views are often wonderful—as far as the Lake District while atop White Preston, and to the North Sea from Stripe Sike quarry—and the air blissfully fresh. Instead of London Underground fumes, I smell perfumed pines; instead of car alarms, I hear the prissy calls of a buzzard whose hunting has been interrupted. She swoops off in front of me, maroon-colored and mightily big. I turn in at 10pm after admiring star-filled skies—this is part of the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park—and sleep unusually deeply, feeling faintly primal.
When my three days conclude, I feel energetic and brimming with ideas. On the train home, phone-shouting passengers annoy me less, and simple kindnesses—a door held open, a bag brought down—delight me more. It’s as if I have been recharged, or even restored. Bring it on, London.
Having started off in public relations for travel companies, Richard Mellor realized he preferred writing about foreign lands to promoting them to journalists—and swapped sides. London-based, he chiefly covers less-trodden parts of Britain and Europe.