I was working my way through a series of walks which would ultimately make up the contents of my fourth book, Walks on the Wild Side: The Cheviot Hills’ and, after more than 12 months of tramping the crumples and creases of these wonderfully elemental hills, the end was now almost in sight.
It had been an exciting journey winding my way from the gorse-filled College Valley to the snow-sprinkled slopes of the mighty Cheviot, from the postcard-pretty farmstead of Cocklawfoot to the peat-engulfed summit of Bloodybush Edge, from the wild and beautiful Windy Gyle to the rain-sodden moors high above the Upper Breamish Valley. But now, as I made my way along the single track road through Upper Coquetdale heading to where the fledgling River Coquet slips between the cleugh-indented Thirl Moor and the grass-swept slopes of Brownhart Law, I was about to start my final walk.
The tiny farmsteads slipped past, Barrowburn, Windyhaugh, Carshope, Carlcroft, Blindburn and then Fulhope, a cluster of buildings sitting close to the junction of the Fulhope Burn and the River Coquet, slumbering on this peaceful mid-summer morning. Finally Makendon, squeezed between the road and the river and the last buildings in Coquetdale, and the ultimate climb on my long undulating journey through Northumberland’s finest valley.
I pulled my car into the small parking area close to the end of the public road where a set of white gates straddled the thin line of the river-crossing tarmac. This is army territory and, on the other side of the river, the road enters the Ministry of Defence`s `live firing area` eventually joining Cottonshope Road for the descent into Redesdale. The gates were closed and a red warning flag hung from a long thin pole indicating that access was, for the time being at least, denied as the army went about their deadly business south of the river.
No matter, my route was heading northwards across the border into Scotland and well away from any present day military activities Along the way I hoped to follow in the footsteps of Roman centurians, visit Iron Age hillforts and climb to the summits of nine lonely and windswept hills. It was a bright and windless day and it promised to be quite a walk.
I quickly left the road behind and followed a rough stone track gently uphill to reach the extensive and complex Roman remains of Chew Green. Situated on a narrow plateau caught between the Chew and March Sikes and excavated in 1936, these earthworks consist of two temporary camps, one semi-permanent camp and two permanent fortlets. They were described by Nikolaus Pevsner in his 1957 publication, `The Buildings of England Northumberland` as, “the most remarkable visible group of Roman earthworks in Britain”. They are indeed mightily impressive.
With the majority of my walk ahead of me, there was little time to dilly-dally so on I went following the path signed, Pennine Way Byrness 4¾` . The grass was rich green, full grown and sprinkled with buttercups and thistles. Summer was on a roll and I stepped out purposefully, crossing the border into Scotland and heading towards Whiteside Hill, my first top of the day. Pathless and unmarked, the summit stands at a height of 436 metres and enjoys far-reaching views of the rolling hills of southern Scotland. I enjoyed a moments rest. Then a tantalizing glimpse of the plateau-like top of Hindhope Law had me scurrying off to my next objective, little more than 1 kilometre away.
Easy walking across sheep-cropped grass rapidly delivered me to the flat top of this my second hill of the day intrinsically insignificant and 42 metres lower than its near neighbour. There was little to detain me so I pressed on at a canter, sharply downhill and then an ungainly leap across the Hindhope Burn with Gaisty Law peering down at me. “Rather haughty”, I thought as I clambered through waist-high foliage to pick up the track which, from the map at least, seemed to lead to nowhere in particular. Not a problem, as I was only going as far as Blackie Hope and then I was trudging up my next hill.
The valley was sheltered and the sun was now hovering around its highest point. The bracken was deep and the air was oppressively humid as I tried, as best I could, to find an easy way up the steep eastern slope of Hindhope Hill. The occasional diagonal track helped me on my way but the going was rough and rivers of perspiration rushed down my red hot face. Finally, and with much relief, I reached the small saddle which separated my next two summits. It was the perfect place to catch my breath.
Lungs refilled, I then headed to the 411 metre high top of Hindhope Hill and the scant remains of an oval-shaped Iron Age hillfort. I soaked up the extensive panorama including an eagle-nest view of the border farms of Upper and Nether Hindhope. A blanket of grey cloud was beginning to slip in from the north and it looked as if the best of the day might now be behind me.
I retraced my steps to the saddle and then slowly climbed to the indiscernible top of Hunthall Hill. This was my fourth summit of the day and I was about to climb a further four hills in relatively quick succession. My heart began to quicken as I made my way to the Roman road of Dere Street, these days a fine green track, billiard table-smooth and a pleasure to walk on. I was aiming for Langside Law, a mere 1½ kilometres away and endowed with the only triangulation pillar I would stumble upon that day. With little in the way of additional climbing involved I was soon standing on the 394 metre high, grass-carpeted summit, my first visit to this little hill and one which would have been slightly enhanced had the sun still been shining. I had now reached the furthest point of my walk.
It was almost time for lunch as I started the return leg by heading to the top of Woden Law, named after the leader of the Wild Hunt and the Anglo-Saxon version of the Norse god Odin, and some 28 metres higher than its next-door neighbour. This fascinating hill enjoys a strategic position and the remnants of an Iron Age hillfort can still be seen on its long-backed summit. The hillfort was subsequently used by the Romans for military siege practice much like the Otterburn Training Area is now used by the Ministry of Defence. The earthworks made the perfect spot to put up my feet and enjoy a handful of sandwiches together with a much-appreciated re-invigorating drink.
Duly refreshed, off I went, first to the gnarled outcrop of Greyhen Rock and then to my seventh top of the day, Blackhall Hill. The panorama over the now ever-so-near border seemed to stretch into infinity and, in the very far distance, I could just make out the conifer-green corner of the plantation separating Grindstone Law and Ogre Hill. There was not another soul in sight only the hills, birdsong and a vast Cheviot sky.
I still had a spring in my step as I detoured briefly to claim the flat, cairn-topped summit of Gaisty Law, devoid of any distinguishing features and one for the record only. Nevertheless it was the penultimate hill of my walk and, as I set off up the gentle incline of Dere Street, I was acutely aware that the highest hill on my trip was yet to come. However, with the wind now well and truly in my sails I made rapid progress across easy ground and was soon standing next to the flimsy post and wire fence between Scotland and England.
I had reached the curiously-named Black Halls, some 450 metres above sea level and, in foul weather, a bleak and inhospitable place. But in high summer, when the heather is purple and the grasses are tall and bending in the breeze, this can be a magical spot along the margins of Northumberland and far from anywhere in particular. The distances etched on the adjoining signpost told me as much as I contemplated the way ahead.
I stepped back into England, joined the route of the border-hugging Pennine Way and headed off to Brownhart Law little more than 1¼ kilometre away and my final top of the day.
I was happy to be on my way home, content with the route I had taken and eager to finish my day with a flourish. Once on the summit, I stepped over the border fence and, after walking some 50 metres, I stumbled across a knee-high memorial stone to one `Thomas Elliot Elliot 1909-1990`. As I stood there enjoying the extensive view into southern Scotland where Sir Walter Scott`s beloved Eildon Hills where especially prominent, I wondered who on earth was Thomas Elliot Elliot and what might have been his connection with this lonely hill.
It was now time to once again re-join Dere Street for the short journey back to Chew Green and the end of the public road through Upper Coquetdale. As expected, it had been quite a walk and one which had conjured up pictures of spear-carrying, sword-wielding Roman centurians tramping across the wilds of Northumberland with a razor-sharp wind sweeping down from the high border hills. To those poor, weather-beaten souls, stranded in a foreign land, it must have seemed an awfully long way from the gently flowing River Tiber and the sun-kissed piazzas of ancient Rome. With that thought in mind, I headed for home.
Do this walk:
|Relevant Map||Ordnance Survey Explorer OL 16|
|Starting Point||Small Parking Area ¾ mile beyond Makendon, Upper Coquetdale (GR NT794085)|
|Length||17.7 km (11 miles)|
|Guidebook/Walk||Walks on the Wild Side: The Cheviot Hills-Geoff Holland (`A Roman Experience`) (http://www.trailguides.co.uk/prodpage.asp?productid=33 )|
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Category: Exploring the Cheviots