Forest gumption

It’s a man-made lake with enough water to flush all the toilets in the world, surrounded by England’s biggest working forest. Mark Holdstock reports from Kielder

As white elephants go, this one is pretty stunning, a product of an industrial boom, anticipated, but never properly realised. In the 1970s, the steel industry of Teesside was busy, and expecting to become busier. One of the raw materials steel needs, in vast quantities, is water. Although the River Tees was close by, the worry was that it might not always have the water needed, particularly in the heat of summer.

The ingenious solution was a new reservoir, not on the Tees, but at the head of the North Tyne, 90 miles and two river systems to the North. Tunnels were built under the intervening hills to link Tyne to Wear, and beyond that the Tees, to boost the water supply in that river when needed.

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Back in 1979, Jonty Hall became a local star when he helped get the project under way. “They wanted a child from Kielder school to start the who thing off by closing the sluice gate at Bakethin reservoir, which was the reservoir next to Kielder,” he says. “My job was to come down and press the button and stop the water in its tracks. Two-and-a-bit years later, in May 1982, the Queen came and she did the ‘proper opening’, she closed the reservoir as opposed to opening it.”

Almost 30 years later, Jonty Hall is one of the senior managers at the site for both water operations, and for the myriad of leisure opportunities offered by this massive lake – at its deepest point twice the height of Nelson’s column. Kielder would have been a godsend for the steel industry, but almost as soon as the site was commissioned, the industry went into a tail-spin and the water was never needed. What was left behind has not only consigned the local hose-pipe ban to history, it has also provided a wonderful holiday destination, especially for people who want combine serenity with serious exercise.

The water itself has room for sailing, canoeing and water skiing. There’s a ferry called The Osprey running between Tower Knowe close to the dam and there’s the Leaplish Waterside Park which has a restaurant, self-catering lodges and caravan pitches, and the Belvedere viewpoint on the Northern shore of Kielder, complete with an unusual but striking award winning shelter.

Much of the forest surrounding Kielder Water is made up of Sitka Spruce, a lot of it of it planted in the 1920s and 30s, in response to a feeling that more wood was needed for the country following the First World War. Within this forest, the development trust has constructed almost 60 miles of Mountain Bike Trails, ranging from the easy to the severe. These spruce trees, and the lack of buildings, and the big skies give Kielder its Nordic feel.

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A 27-mile trail around the edge of Kielder Water itself, open to walkers, cyclists, horse riders, and wheelchair users allows people to get closer than ever before to the water. This trail also gives people the chance to see many of the artworks and novel pieces of architecture that have been placed around the water on the edge of the forest. There is a giant timber head created by a group of American sculptors called SIMPARCH, almost scary with its giant mouth it is described as a “watcher”, on the northern side of Kielder water is shelter, that acts as a viewpoint. It was awarded the Stephen Lawrence prize in 2000 as well as awards from RIBA and the Civic Trust, another artwork is three rotating seats made from Stainless Steel on a tiny spit of land jutting out from the Northern shoreline. The three chairs, called the Janus Chairs, are shaped so that when the are turned in on each other they form a roof, in effect another shelter.

One of the most remarkable buildings around Kielder sits on a hillside looking straight down to the reservoir, and up at the stars. The Kielder Observatory is another piece of award winning architecture, which narrowly missed the short-list for The Stirling Prize in 2009.

The clear dark skies that surround the forest and the lack of urban light pollution makes it a popular spot for what could be described as “astro-tourism”. First opened in April 2008, they run about 18 events a month, where people can come along for a lecture on the planets and the origin of the universe, followed by a chance, if the sky is clear, to have a look through one of the two telescopes in the wooden observatory.

Gary Fildes, the professional astronomer at the observatory, says “There’s one through that door, that’s the research instrument, and there’s one down the bottom which is a hybrid designs of a Newtonian reflecting telescope which is a 20-inch aperture, so it’s got good ‘light grasp’. With that one, you see things that are really distant you see them well. This one next door has got a few more bells an whistles on it. Controlled by a computer, it’s ideal for research purposes.”

Getting there

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By car. From Newcastle or Carlisle, follow the A69 to Hexham then follow the B6320 to Bellingham (brown-signed Kielder Water & Forest) and then the C200 to Kielder Water & Forest Park.

Public transport. the Route 880 runs from Hexham Railway station on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays all year round.

Accommodation. Close to the lakeside at the Leaplish Visitor centre are more than 30 four and five star self catering wooden lodges which cost between £335 per week and £1,145.

Leaplish waterside park also has more than eighty hard-standing pitches available for caravans and motor homes.

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