They line a track deep within the conifer plantation. A row of tall beech trees – miles from any other beeches, miles from any road. Behind them is the ruined farmhouse of Westshiels.
The farm here was abandoned in the 1950s and sold to the forestry company Tilhill as part of the postwar conversion of huge areas of the UK’s uplands to timber production. I grew up an hour’s walk away from Westshiels. It was an oasis of childhood interest among miles of sitka spruce – a place to picnic, to play hide and seek with my brother, and to collect snowdrops in the spring.
Today the air is heavy with summer thunder. I descend the gravel track towards the abandoned farm, crossing an old drove road, the Wheel Causeway, which once provided a link south-west to Liddesdale. A little further on, a fire-engine-red Portaloo has been left by the track for the workers who are harvesting deep in the forest.
And then, there they are: the familiar stand of beech trees; and behind them, the ruin. The beeches are in much better shape than the house. Just the western gable end of the building remains standing. The other walls have collapsed, and the roof is long gone – the only evidence of it is broken slates and some lead flashing down in the nettles.
It is hard to remember that this was once the beating heart of a farm. Hunting horses from the lowland parts of the Lethem estate (to which Westshiels belonged) were sent here each summer to roam and graze freely, and the rough pasture supported a flock of sheep. A family friend remembers a girl from another of these remote farms who rode four hard miles to primary school every day. Pupils’ ponies were tethered outside the school, and in winter a huge stove dried out the children’s sopping clothes and boots. Life at Westshiels was always marginal: it never had electricity, nor a paved road, nor mains water.
I pick my way over blocks of sandstone into what was once the farmhouse kitchen. I notice, by the fireplace, a pile of bone-flecked pellets, and look up to where the distinctive brindled feathers of a tawny owl cling to the stonework. The bird has made a home for itself in the old chimney stack.
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