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Windy Gyle: An iconic Northumberland hill

Other posts by  |  Geoff Holland on Google+ |  March 31, 2013 | 0 Comments
The summit of Windy Gyle, the Cheviot Hills, Northumberland

The summit of Windy Gyle, the Cheviot Hills, Northumberland. Credit: Geoff Holland

Geoff Holland

Walker, guide book author and poet Geoff Holland at Hart Heugh, above Carey Burn

“An eagle has occasionally been seen on Windy Gyle”, wrote P. Anderson Graham in his 1920-book, `Highways and Byways in Northumbria` and, whilst there is little hope of the 21st century Cheviot walker spotting this huge bird of prey, there is still a multitude of reasons why any self-respecting rambler should visit the summit of this iconic hill. It is, without doubt, one of the most seductive hills in the area.

Standing at a height of 2031 feet (619 metres) above sea level, Windy Gyle is one of only six summits in the Cheviot Hills which top the magical 2000 feet (610 metres) mark, a height at which it is generally accepted that a mere hill can be classified as a mountain. It straddles the border between England and Scotland and its cairn-crowned top is crossed by Britain`s first long distance footpath the Pennine Way as it wanders from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. As a consequence, Windy Gyle receives more visitors each year than any other hill in the area with the exception of Northumberland`s highest, the mighty Cheviot.

For the walker, out for an enjoyable day in the hills, the summit can be easily reached from Slymefoot in Upper Coquetdale by following a well-walked eight-mile circular route which offers outstanding views throughout. This undoubtedly fine route heads steadily up `The Street`, an ancient high level drove road referred to on General Roy`s 1775 map of the area as `The Clattering Path, towards the border before then climbing sharply to the summit of Windy Gyle passing along the way the rather unpleasant sounding `Foul Step`.

The most popular return route generally follows the grass-carpeted ridge caught between the deep incised valleys of the Trows and Wardlaw Burns before concluding its journey along the narrow private road past the farmstead of Rowhope. As an alternative way back, many walkers follow the bridleway past Scotchman`s Ford, Little Ward Law and Ward Law to cross the track to Uswayford next to the spine-shivering, tree-shrouded Murder Cleugh. From here, the route continues to follow the bridleway, which also forms part of the Border County Ride, towards the gentle rise of Barrow Law before then descending back to Upper Coquetdale close to the farms of Windyhaugh and Barrowburn.

The remote Kelsocleuch sits below Windy Gyle in the Cheviot Hills

The remote Kelsocleuch sits below Windy Gyle. Credit: Geoff Holland

But there is so much more to this hill for those slightly more intrepid walkers who are prepared to wander off the well-beaten track and to explore some of the less-visited parts of this exceptional hill. Whether you are approaching from the south and the beautiful valley of the River Coquet or from the north where the remote farmsteads of Cocklawfoot and Kelsocleuch sit quietly beneath the wrinkled north face of Windy Gyle there are a multitude of available options.

For starters and perhaps for the less-experienced walker, a simple alternative ascent of Windy Gyle can be made by following the private tarmac road from Slymefoot as far as the cattle grid just beyond the neat and tidy farmstead of Rowhope. From here a short sharp climb north westwards alongside a well-constructed dry stone wall will lead you over Stob Hill and then onto the grass-carpeted summit of lonely Loft Hill. The wild and extensive views will undoubtedly have you lingering longer than you intended before you then set off again by following a handy guide rail, in the shape of a post and wire fence, virtually all of the way to the top of Windy Gyle.

Once on the summit you will be standing beside the huge Bronze Age burial cairn which is topped with an Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar. Described in the 1989-book, `National Trail Guide Pennine Way North` by Tony Hopkins as, “often wind-swept, and with violent and sinister associations”, Windy Gyle is, he said, “one of the atmospheric highlights of the Pennine Way”. Indeed it is.

The whole area surrounding Windy Gyle absolutely oozes history, where for centuries armies fought bloody battles, families stole cattle from one another and violence was an accepted way of life. These troubles continued until the 13th century when, in an attempt to control the violence, the border area was split into three Marches with the view to creating a buffer zone between England and Scotland. Each March came under the stewardship of a Warden appointed by the King and these Wardens would meet on regular occasions, usually at isolated places along the border. Unfortunately, these invariably ended in bloodshed and at one such meeting on Windy Gyle in 1585 one of the Wardens, Lord Francis Russell, was murdered. Subsequently the large Bronze Age burial cairn on the summit of the hill was named Russell`s Cairn to commemorate the event.

Another, altogether more exciting route to the summit continues along the road past Rowhope as far as the currently unoccupied two storey detached farm house of Trows. Instead of climbing the more popular route over the ridge between the Trows and Wardlaw Burns, this route makes tracks for the narrow valley of the Trows Burn and follows, as best it can, the remnants of an old sheep trace. Eventually, on reaching a point just beyond the deep grass-filled cleft of Inner Strand and immediately prior to the more pronounced Routinwell Strand the hard work really begins. From here a stiff climb up a generally pathless slope will, with time and a little effort, deliver you to the source of the natural spring of Routin Well. Here, a slither of crystal-clear water seeps out of the moss, rock and grass-covered southern slopes of Windy Gyle, a magical place of outstanding views over an incessant tide of green, rolling hills. This must rank as one of the finest grandstand seats in all of Northumberland.

The journey then continues to the summit of Windy Gyle by scrambling above the natural spring and then heading due north across increasingly damp and trackless terrain. However, the distance to cover is not great and the effort will already have been more than rewarded by the sheer beauty of the extensive panorama, weather permitting!

In his 1985-book, `Wainwright On The Pennine Way`, the world-renowned guidebook writer known affectionately as `AW` described Windy Gyle as, “a superb viewpoint, both retrospectively over the ridge just traversed and forward to the continuation of the Way, the next four miles being clearly in sight backed by the highest of all the Cheviot summits, the Cheviot itself”. Who are am I to argue with such a hill walking authority?

Another exciting way to the windswept iconic summit which will appeal to the rather more adventurous walker starts once again from Upper Coquetdale and initially follows the most popular summit-heading route along `The Street` as far as the sheltered saddle between Swineside Law and the steady climb to heather-carpeted Black Braes. Here a handy quad track leaves `The Street` and descends to the secluded valley of the Rowhope Burn.

Once beside the thin-trickle of this delightful burn there are two possible routes upwards. The simple way is to turn left and follow the burn-hugging sheep trace between the steep slopes of the surrounding hills to a point approximately 100 metres after Foulstep Sike. Then, facing roughly north and after a deep intake of breath a steep climb over grass-covered slopes will eventually bring you to the Pennine Way close to Windy Rig. After a short breather, a simple uphill tramp and you will arrive at the top of the hill which, if luck is on your side, you will have to yourself.

However, rather than take this relatively straight-forward option there is, for those experienced hillwalkers with energy in abundance to burn, a more difficult and muscle-teasing way to reach the elevated heights of Windy Gyle. It is rough and generally pathless but the views towards the border are outstanding. First cross the burn and then, with Outer Green Cleugh and the large animal feed store over to your right, head uphill in a northerly direction to the top of Rough Knowe. The climb is pretty steep but there are absolutely no technical difficulties and it is just a matter of flexible lungs and a load of determination.

 

The view from above Cross Cleugh, The Cheviot Hills, Northumberland.

The view from above Cross Cleugh, The Cheviot Hills, Northumberland. Credit: Geoff Holland

Once on more level ground follow the edge of Cross Cleugh in a north-easterly direction, cross the upper end of the cleugh and then continue roughly north with the Rowhope Burn way below you on your left. There is little in the way of paths or tracks to guide you so you will have to rely on choosing the best line which avoids too much descent as the general trend should always be in an upwards direction. Any loss of height will only have to be regained at some later point.

Eventually, you will reach the top end of the Rowhope Burn where a jumble of reasonably substantial peat hags will appear to block your progress. Ahead you will see the border ridge with a number of distant hills popping their heads above the `parapet`. Do not fear you will be able to pick your way through the hags without too many difficulties to soon reach the border post and wire fence. Now, it is a simple matter of clambering over to the Scottish side of the fence and, after turning right, following the fence and the clear path to Windy Gyle`s summit.

The Northumberland - Scottish Border at Hexpethgate

The Northumberland – Scottish Border at Hexpethgate

For walkers wishing to climb Windy Gyle from Scottish soil there are two delightful routes to the summit which can be nicely combined into a great circular day out. Starting from the public road end at Cocklawfoot the route follows the line of the ancient cross-border drove road of Clennell Street over Cock Law and Outer Cock Law to reach the airy border at Hexpethgate, also known as the Border Gate, approximately 1.8 kilometres north east of Windy Gyle summit. Once over the border-stepping stile a quick right turn and the neatly-laid mill stones of the Pennine Way will, along with the fence, guide you easily to the cairn-capped top.

The weather can, more often than not, be of the rather difficult variety on Windy Gyle, a fact well-recorded by various writers over a long period of time. In his 1926 book `The Border Line`, James Logan Mack wrote, ”Beyond the `col` ahead on a bleak New Years Day was Windy Gyle, and never did it better deserve its title”. By 1976, when `Pebble Mill at One` presenter Bob Langley wandered this way, the weather had not improved one iota. He wrote, in his book, `Walking the Scottish Border`, “I have never been there when a gale has not been blowing,” adding, “ I stood on Russell`s Cairn as the wind ripped into my face with the fury of an express train”. Thirty years later and another case of poor weather, as broadcaster Eric Robson recounted, in his book `The Border Line`, how, “It was blowing a hooley by the time I got to the cairned summit of Windy Gyle”. So come prepared to sit with your back to the wind, your jacket fastened close to your chin, your hat pulled down over your ears and then to enjoy the all round extensive views.

The return journey to Cocklawfoot continues with the Pennine Way for a short downhill stretch and then veers off to the north to follow first Windy Rig and then magnificent Kelsocleuch Rig. The views towards the Cheviot heartland across the huge bowl of the Gyle Burn and your outward route are exceptional. After passing through the remnants of a harvested plantation the way continues downwards past Kelsocleuch Farm and onto the track back to the road end close to Cocklawfoot.

These are just a few of the routes which explore the many facets of Windy Gyle. There are other ways to approach this Cheviot Premier League hill, either as a totally unique route or on a variation of a theme basis. You will have your own favourite. However, whichever route you choose to walk I hope that you enjoy your trip to Windy Gyle as much as I have enjoyed my many visits to this border-straddling beauty. May the weather be with you!

Do this walk:

Relevant Map

Ordnance Survey Explorer OL 16

Starting Point

Slymefoot, Upper Coquetdale & Cocklawfoot

Length

Various dependent on route taken

Nearest Town

Rothbury

Toilets

Northumberland National Park car park, Alwinton

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 all contain detailed route descriptions to & from the iconic summit of Windy Gyle

Refreshments

Barrowburn Farmhouse Tearoom (www.barrowburn.com), Rose & Thistle, Alwinton (www.roseandthistlealwinton.com)

Discover more walks on my website.

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Category: Exploring the Cheviots

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