I have a weakness for exploring less-than-obvious routes to higher ground. After all, there are so many diverse possibilities to choose from, so why follow the crowd over well-trodden paths and tracks when you can, in all probability, spend the whole day blissfully alone.
A year or so ago I had walked a slightly circuitous route from Upper Coquetdale to the impressive cascade of Davidson`s Linn which involved an initial climb up pathless Shillhope Cleugh to the saddle between Shillhope Law and Inner Hill. I then took a direct and rather eye-rattling descent to the twinkling Usway Burn by keeping close to the shy and retiring Lee Cleugh. It was a superb start to a fantastic day alone in the hills and one that I will remember for years to come.
I now wanted to walk the Lee Cleugh part of that initial route again but this time to climb out of the valley of the Usway Burn along a totally different line than the one I had previously followed. I was looking for something new and possibly unique and I had an idea where that might be.
It was August and I decided to park close to the former farmstead of Shillmoor, three miles from the village of Alwinton, one of the historic `Ten Towns of Coquetdale`. It is also the last village in the valley. The stone-built farmhouse and outbuildings of Shillmoor stand in a south-facing location close to where the Usway Burn collides with the River Coquet and, like so many other Coquetdale farmsteads, it was purchased by the Ministry of Defence in the early1940`s. Subsequently, in 1952, the Ministry of Defence built two semi-detached houses alongside the farmstead and these days the old farmhouse is used as a troop shelter.
The early birds were still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes as I locked up my car and headed across the 1932-constructed beam and concrete road bridge spanning the River Coquet to join the rough track into the valley of the Usway Burn. The barking of a few border collies, kenneled close to the two semi-detached houses, disturbed the otherwise peaceful morning as chaffinches busied themselves in the nearby trees and bushes.
I was quickly out of the shadows and, as I crested a small rise in the gently curving track, I entered a superb V-shaped valley and immediately I was in a fantasy world decked out in shades of green, a Cheviot version of Narnia but without the talking animals and mythical beasts. It was quite simply picture-perfect in the clear morning light. I could have continued deeper into the valley along the tempting undulating track, a more straight forward route to one of my objectives for the day. But that would have been too easy and would certainly have defeated one of the main purposes of the walk. First I wanted to climb onto rolling Inner Hill where I could enjoy a leisurely bird`s-eye view of the valley`s magnificent interlocking shanks before then returning downhill to the Usway Burn alongside Lee Cleugh.
So, off I went over grass-carpeted slopes following the handy guiderail of a nearby fence with the views back over to Coquetdale growing in depth and width as ever more height was gained. It was a steep and sudden start but with potentially harder work to come later in the walk I had no option but to knuckle under and, eventually, the gradient eased. A flock of well-turned-out sheep, looking as though they had just returned from the local ovine grooming salon, greeted me with suspicion as I crossed over a small stile and made my way to the bracken-covered edge of the shapely ridge. A succession of eyes followed every carefully-placed step.
I was now peering down at the magnificent Usway Burn, as sparkling as champagne and wriggling between near-vertical shanks. I had been here many times before but I was as mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the valley as I had been on my very first visit all those years ago. Familiarity certainly had not bred contempt in this solitary walker. I continued on across the broad ridge with a tidal wave of green, rolling hills sweeping towards me. Like a colossus, Shillhope Law suddenly appeared in front of me dominating the way ahead. No matter, I was not about to slay that particular giant as I was now going to leave the ridge behind and descend back to the valley I had left just over half an hour earlier.
A convenient quad track pointed me in the right direction and, once this had disappeared, a more or less straight-line descent rapidly brought me to the base of the slope and the western bank of the burn. I needed to be on the other side. The last time I had been here the burn was fast flowing and it was necessary to head downstream for 400 metres and to cross the burn via one of the three bailey bridges in the valley. This time around the water level in the burn was as low as I had ever seen it so, looking to avoid an embarrassing slip, I carefully forded the burn and joined the upstream-bound track on the opposite bank.
The going was easy and within a handful of minutes I had reached the southern boundary of Batailshiel Haugh and the end of the gravel track. This sheltered farm is known locally as `Battleshield` and was referred to in the 13th century charter of Newminster Monastery as, “ the shiel of Henry de Bataile” .The word `shiel` derives from the Norse meaning `summer pasture` and the word `haugh` means `flat land beside a river or burn`. The former two-storey farmhouse was demolished in 2003 and the site is now occupied by a bungalow which whilst extremely neat in appearance lacks some of the character of the original farmhouse.
I now hugged the outside boundary of the farm and once I was level with the bungalow I had reached the point where I had planned to leave the valley behind. I turned to my right and as my eyes followed the almost vertical hillsides upwards I suddenly began to wonder if I had chosen my `exit strategy` wisely. Quite simply, it looked like a wall of rough and pathless grass heading straight for the bright blue Cheviot sky. I wondered how my legs and lungs would cope with such a severe gradient. I questioned whether I bitten off more than I could reasonably chew. I reminded myself that my youthful `mountain goat days` were well and truly behind me. But all to no avail. I am stubborn by nature and I was certainly in no mood to throw in the towel without giving the hill my best shot.
So off I went, eyes focused on a small rocky outcrop far enough uphill to give me a good indication, when eventually reached, as to whether I should continue on my hair-brained upward jaunt. I huffed and puffed on a zigzag course, pausing from time to time to admire the view and presently I reached the grey stone outcrop. I felt surprisingly good, if a little breathless, as I stood there looking down at the diminutive cottage of Batailshiel Haugh with the huge bulk of Shillhope Law rising steeply behind it. To my right, the deep depression of Mid Hope wound smoothly uphill whilst the twin-topped Castles scrutinised the twisting Usway Burn way below its grass-covered slopes. It was an unusual view of a familiar valley and one which was well worth the effort expended so far. But with much more climbing still to do, I needed to keep my momentum going.
On I went and, much to my surprise, I soon joined a convenient quad track which sliced a clear route through the long grass and lead me nicely to the flat-topped summit of Saughy Hill. Standing at a height some 494 metres above sea level this is a hill of little consequence except for the fine views it offers towards the border hills. I paused for a quick drink and then made my way towards the cross-border track of Clennell Street a little less than 800 metres away through a dizzy maze of flowering heather and endless clumps of ankle-twisting grasses.
I finally reached the firm if slightly uninspiring track where great swathes of the Kidland Forest had been felled a few years previously leaving behind dead stumps of once proud trees littering the landscape. I turned left and pressed on passing, to the north of Hosdon Hope, an area of forest in the process of being harvested. Views not seen for many years were once again beginning to open up as felling operations moved across the steep sided slopes. Large piles of logs, waiting for the arrival of huge articulated logging trucks, lined the track and filled the air with the sweet smell of pine resin.
I was now on extremely familiar territory having walked, run and cycled along this medieval route on numerous occasions in the past whilst following in a legion of other tracks made by drovers, reivers, smugglers and other walkers. Now as I tramped along the well-worn, age-old track, I thought about how much the landscape must have changed as the years have trundled by. I knew for sure that little more than sixty years ago there would have been no forest swamping these fine rounded hills that sweep down to the River Alwin and the Usway Burn. I also knew that any passing traveller would have had magnificent unimpeded views to distant horizons before the foresters came and planted the hillsides with their Sitka spruce and their Scots pine, their Japanese larch and their Norway spruce, their Lodgepole pine and their European larch. But such is the march of progress and we enjoy what we can, when we can. The moment is precious.
I soon turned off Clennell Street and made my way downhill through a series of hairpin bends along a gorse and broom-lined track to the isolated holiday dwelling of Fairhaugh. Situated on the banks of the Usway Burn in a delightful clearing in the forest this two storey whitewashed property was once a 519-acre hill farm which formed part of the Kidland Estate. Prior to the early 1920`s the property only had one storey with the sole means of access from the other side of the Usway Burn being via a the nearby ford. However, these days, pampered, hi-tech walkers can now choose to keep their feet dry by utilizing the small and elevated wooden footbridge a few score metres upstream. Shrouded by mature trees this footbridge makes the ideal place to take a breather whilst listening to the sound of water tumbling over stone. I did just that whilst sipping my high-energy drink.
Time was racing along and I had an idea that I would stop for a bite to eat once I was back on high, open ground. The place I had in mind was Kyle Shin. So, I shouldered my sac, headed over the bridge and started the steady climb through the western fringes of the forest towards the ladder stile just south of Middle Hill. Soon I was out of the trees and happy to be in full daylight once again. Ahead, the steep climb towards the top of Kyloe Shin looked slightly intimidating but on I went picking my way uphill along yet another useful quad track. Once the gradient eased I headed across the top of the hill and then, after descending a short distance, I found a soft grassy promontory and settled down for a quick lunch. Half way through and savouring every single mouthful of my peanut butter and tomato sandwiches, I turned my head and spotted, higher up the slope, two fine looking horses roaming free as the wind. Sensing my presence or perhaps catching a whiff of my mouth-watering lunch on the stiffening breeze, they glanced up in perfect synchronization, slowly checked me out then, being satisfied that I was of little interest, lowered their heads and proceeded to munch at the lush mid-summer grass.
I sat there finishing what little remained of my lunch whilst visually plotting the next part of my route across a superb grass-covered ridge, peppered with sheep, to the start of the stiff climb to the summit of Shillhope Law. Finally I stood up, dusted the crumbs off the front of my micro fleece and then, with a spring in my step, headed towards what ultimately would be the highest point of my walk. I quickly covered the easy ground and within no time at all I found myself clambering over a five bar gate and starting my climb up the heather and cotton-grass blanketed northern slopes of Shillhope Law.
I had been to the 501 metre high summit of this excellent hill many times before and, from hazy recollection, a fair proportion of those visits were completed in conditions ranging from simply drab to absolutely appalling. Today was, alas, no different as the beautiful weather conditions of the morning had now given way to a grey and overcast afternoon. No matter, I had achieved what I had set out to do and was perfectly content to pass the summit-crowning triangulation pillar quickly by as I made tracks speedily downhill towards the end of my walk at Shillmoor less than 3 kilometres away. It was an undemanding climax to a rewarding day in the hills.
Geoff Holland is a Northumbrian by birth and the author of four books of self-guided walks, `The Cheviot Hills`, `Walks from Wooler`, `The Hills of Upper Coquetdale` and `Walks on the Wild Side The Cheviot Hills`. He is a regular contributor to a number of publications including, `TGO (The Great Outdoors)` and `Country Walking` magazines and can be heard reading a selection of his poems on the spoken word website www.listenupnorth.com. Two of his recent poems about the Hartley Pit Disaster 1862 appear in the book, `Still the Sea Rolls On` published by Northern Voices. He also operates the highly acclaimed website www.cheviotwalks.co.uk . His books are available online from www.trailguides.co.uk.
Do this walk:
|Relevant Map||Ordnance Survey Explorer OL 16|
|Starting Point||Shillmoor, Upper Coquetdale (Grid Ref: NT884077)|
|Length||16.2 kilometres (10 miles)|
|Nearest Town/Village||Nearest Town Rothbury. Refreshments Barrowburn Farmhouse Tearoom (www.barrowburn.com), Rose & Thistle, Alwinton (www.roseandthistlealwinton.com)|
|Toilets||Toilets Northumberland National Park car park, Alwinton|
|Guidebook/Walk||Guidebooks/website The guidebooks `The Cheviot Hills`, `The Hills of Upper Coquetdale` & `Walks on the Wild Side The Cheviot Hills` written by Geoff Holland (published & available from www.trailguides.co.uk) & the website www.cheviotwalks.co.uk & the website www.cheviotwalks.co.uk|
Discover more walks on my website.
Category: Exploring the Cheviots