There was a hint of winter in the air as I wound my way along the narrow, minor road from Glanton. The low morning sun scattered an assortment of shadows across a succession of frost-fingered fields as the settlements of Little Ryle and Prendwick slipped slowly past. I was still mulling over my options for the day when it suddenly occurred to me that more than 20 years must have passed since I had last started a walk from the tiny and slightly fragmented village of Alnham, Northumberland, about 10 miles west of Alnwick. A re-visit was obviously well overdue and, with the morning set to remain cold but bright, I settled on my starting point.
Lying just outside the south eastern boundary of the Northumberland National Park, Alnham boasts a splendid looking Grade II* Listed late 14thcentury `Vicar`s Pele` along with the fine Church of St Michael and All Angels. The church, which has a history dating back to the 12th century, had been in a derelict condition for many years prior to its restoration in 1870 and, consequently, very few of the original features remain. The `Vicar`s Pele`, which lies slightly to the west of the church, has had a rather chequered history including being used as a Youth Hostel between 1944 and 1958. It is now a private residence.
I parked on the grass verge close to the church`s lych gate and, after a quick peep inside the eerily silent churchyard, I headed past the `Vicar`s Pele` and on to Salter`s Road, my route to higher ground. The signpost indicated the way forward, `Restricted Byway Shank House 3 Low Bleakhope 5`. As I passed by I wondered why this recently erected signpost should still refer to the farmstead as `Shank House` when the Ordnance Survey map clearly names it as `Ewartly Shank` and has done since at least 1983.
The badly rutted track was far wetter than I would have wished for and, after a few weeks without any serious exercise, I laboured more than usual uphill. I certainly needed to blow away the cobwebs. By the time I had reached the dryer ground of Northfieldhead Hill my boots were well and truly caked in mud. However, a superb `cloud inversion` over the lower ground to the south-east was more than ample reward for my uphill efforts. The higher hills of the Cheviot heartland stretched out in front of me with the snow-sprinkled top of the mighty Cheviot particularly eye-catching. It was November and already winter was beginning to signal its intentions.
I was now on familiar ground having passed this way the previous month on a long circular walk from Ingram in the Breamish Valley. On that occasion I had acquired, along the way, an unexpected companion. I had just left the summit of Old Fawdon Hill when out of the blue up popped a boisterous young hound anxious to be my best friend. Despite valiant attempts on my part to shake off this lovable doe-eyed pooch she stuck to me like a shadow for the remaining 10 miles of my walk. Fortunately, at the end of the day I managed, by various ways and means, to re-unite her with her owner. The memory of that eventful day brought a smile to my face.
Before continuing along Salter’s Road I decided to visit the nearby Hart Law, at 341 metres above sea level a relatively small hill but one which offers big views over the peaceful Vale of Whittingham to the brooding Simonside Hills. So, turning to my right, I followed a red gravel track to the first 90 degree bend where I then made a bee-line ascent to the summit-topping triangulation pillar. A herd of happily grazing cattle eyed me with suspicion as I wandered around the grass-carpeted hill top taking photographs from every conceivable angle.
Once I had finished with the view, I headed back to Salter`s Road where I continued my journey north westwards splashing through the Coppath Burn as I strode out towards White Gate. This unspectacular five bar gate, with no distinguishing features, is probably named, not as you might think because of its colour, but more likely as a consequence of it lying at the entrance to an area of bleached grasslands known locally as `whitelands`. Once I had climbed over the adjoining ladder stile, I had reached the point where I needed to turn to my left and to make my way downhill on a faint waymarked path.
I was aiming for the lonely and sinuous road which leads to the isolated farmstead of Ewartly Shank along a public bridleway shown on the Ordnance Survey map as passing through a narrow, linear plantation. As I drew close to the plantation edge and the small gate through the boundary fence, a marker post indicated that an alternative route lay to the left. Preferring to avoid the trees, I followed this alternative route as it wound its way downhill, on a clear green path, close to the fast-flowing Spartley Burn. I soon reached the road, just below the steep slopes of Castle Hill and the intriguingly named Grey Yade of Coppath, where the adjacent signpost indicated my onward route to, `Old Hazeltonrig ¾ Hazeltonrig 1`. I crossed the pencil-slim road, took one final look at the conical-shaped Hogdon Law away to my right and then stepped over the burn via a narrow wooden footbridge.
I was starting the final leg of my walk so, with a spring in my step, I struck out for Old Hazeltonrig along a fine grass-covered path taking care, when the path split in two, to follow the right hand spur. It was only 11:00 am and already the sun was beginning to hide its face behind the ever-increasing, breeze-blown cloud. The farm buildings of Old Hazeltonrig seemed deserted except for a pen full of sheep being held in position by three border collies. I walked quietly through the pen trying hard not to disturb the dogs at work and headed downhill to another crossing of the Spartley Burn. Once over the spindly wooden footbridge I wandered past the rather bland looking brick-built bungalow of Hazeltonrig. The nearby stone buildings, which possess considerably more character than the bungalow, were in the process of being renovated and I wondered whether these might ultimately be intended for holiday accommodation, with `all mod cons`.
It was time to leave the Spartley Burn behind and to follow a rough track sharply uphill close to the southern edge of Hazeltonrig Plantation. Once the gradient had eased the now fading track guided me across two flat, grass-covered fields and then, as I made my way gradually downhill, I spotted the Church of St Michael and All Angels ahead. On reaching the next marker post, indicating that the public bridleway turned to the east, I was sorely tempted to continue on a straight line course to my now clearly visible car. However, with energy still to burn, I stuck with my intended route, passed through the adjacent gate on my right and headed towards the road to Alnham. When my feet finally touched the thin band of tarmac, which to the right headed off towards Alwinton, I was standing next to the Alnham War Memorial Hall, a sobering reminder of the huge human cost inflicted by the 1914-18 War on small rural communities like Alnham.
As I stood there for a moment reflecting on what might have been for so many young men who never returned from the trenches of France it struck me how fitting it was that this bricks and mortar memorial should have been used, between 1932 and 1943, as a Youth Hostel for another generation of young people. I took a sip from my water bottle, turned downhill and quietly walked the short distance back to my car.
Do this walk:
|Relevant Map||Ordnance Survey Explorer OL 16|
|Starting Point||On verge adjoining Church of St Michael and All Angels, Alnham (GR NT991109)|
|Length||9.25 km (5¾ miles)|
|Guidebook/Walk||The Cheviot Hills-Geoff Holland (`The Alnhammoor Round` which gives directions for a walk which covers some of the same ground although from a different starting point) (http://www.trailguides.co.uk/|
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Category: Exploring the Cheviots