THE CHEVIOT-MORE THAN JUST A BIG HILL

 

 

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t must have been with some trepidation that Daniel Defoe set off, in 1728, on his journey to the summit of Northumberland`s highest mountain. Accompanied by a guide and five or six “country boys and young fellows”, the trip seemed to take on epic proportions. As the party climbed higher their horses began to complain, the height began to look frightful and they had the notion that when they reached the top they would be on a pinnacle with a precipice on every side.

 

A hundred and fifty years later, William Weaver Tomlinson in his “A Comprehensive Guide to Northumberland” wrote “….the summit is a desolate looking tract of treacherous moss-hags and oozy peat-flats, traversed by deep sykes and interspersed with black stagnant pools”.

 

Another early traveller to the mountain, Edmund Bogg, described in his 1898 book, “Two Thousand Miles of Wandering in the Border Country, Lakeland and Ribblesdale”, “…..a long bog trot over the proverbial swamps on the long ridge of Cheviot brought us to a ring of stakes which denotes the highest point of the cold bleak back of the mountain”.

 

Three ground breaking and well respected travel writers, but hardly the words to send a stream of walkers scurrying to the 815 metre (2674 feet) summit of the Cheviot from the beautiful and lonely Harthope and College Valleys. Yet this big, broad backed mountain, which lies at the heart of the range of hills which bears its name, is a magnet for walkers from far and wide. For the visitor to the region, it is the one hill in Northumberland which must be climbed, a trophy to take home at the end of a holiday. For the local, it is an old friend, to be visited in all seasons, to be loved for its multi-faceted personality.

 

 

The summit on a fine day

 

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t is not a hill merely to be climbed, to touch the top, to turn tail and then head back to the comfort of the valley below. It requires careful exploration. It is only then that the walker will discover that the Cheviot is much more than just a big hill with a mixed reputation.

 

The origins of the Cheviot lie in massive volcanic lava flows some 380 million years ago. Subsequent volcanic activity beneath the surface cooled to form a pink tinted granite and this eventually became exposed with weathering. The intense heat of this later rock altered and hardened the earlier lava, which then resisted weathering to form tor-like outcrops.

 

Another 30 million years later, at the end of the Carboniferous Period, the Cheviot massif was pushed up and tilted slightly eastwards. A series of faults, combined with erosive action, created the College, Harthope and Breamish Valleys and formed the framework to which the Ice, Stone and Bronze Ages wielded their respective tools to help fashion the Cheviot Hills as we know them today.

 

The summit plateau of the Cheviot is unarguably a morass of glutinous peat bogs interspersed with knolls of grass and heather. However, with high rainfall and slow run off, this windswept stretch of elevated ground represents an interesting wild life habitat where cotton grass, deer sedge, cross-leaved heath and cloudberry dominate. In 1971 the discovery of two rare moths, the broad-bordered white underwing and the northern dart, suggested that this seemingly uninviting plateau might well repay a more detailed study.

 

The summit of the Cheviot is marked by a triangulation pillar perched high on a concrete plinth, supported on an 11 foot pile. This replaced two previous pillars which have long since disappeared deep into the mire. Until recently this pillar was an island in a sea of peat, impossible to reach without difficulty and perseverance.  Now, in order to prevent further erosion to a sensitive landscape, a millstone slabbed pathway has been laid running, almost without interruption, across the summit plateau. However intrusive and alien this may seem in a wild landscape, it must be seen in perspective; a narrow “bridge” across a wide, untamed ocean.

 

The choice of routes to the summit are numerous and varied and whether a direct line to the top is chosen or a more inventive or circuitous one is preferred, there is much to savour along the way. By far the most popular and direct route starts at the end of the public road through the Harthope Valley where the Hawsen and Harthope Burns meet. This is a relatively straightforward 6 mile walk climbing initially over easy and then slightly steeper ground to join the ridge to the top of Scald Hill. Following a short easy descent to a sometimes boggy depression there is the final stiff climb to the cairn at the eastern end of the summit plateau. The triangulation pillar lies just under half a mile along the millstone pathway. The return route follows the same course with good views down into the Harthope Valley and further to the Northumberland coastline.

 

 

Snow-speckled Cheviot from Windy Rig

 

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far a more interesting route starts at Mounthooly in the  remote College Valley, access to which is restricted to 12 vehicles a day. A pass may be obtained, currently at a cost of £10, from Sale & Partners in Wooler. For those who prefer not to pay there is a free car park at Hethpool although a long walk along the valley is necessary to reach the base of The Cheviot.  A track skirts the buildings at Mounthooly and follows the College Burn towards the head of the valley. Where the track splits in two the route stays with the burn along the gently rising valley floor. As the narrow path enters the rocky cleft of the Hen Hole the walk assumes a totally different character. Here in this ice-sculpted, steep- sided gorge the infant burn cascades down a series of small waterfalls below towering crags. This is the most impressive ravine in the Cheviot Hills where alpine vegetation survives and folklore abounds.

 

The best known and dramatic story is recounted in a ballad called “Black Adam of Cheviot” and tells how Black Adam, a notorious freebooter who lived in a cave in the Hen Hole crags, burst uninvited into a wedding party at Wooperton, over 9 miles away. He robbed the wedding guests of their jewels and, after raping the bride, stabbed her to death. The bridegroom, who had been away seeking the priest, returned just in time to hear Black Adam`s scornful laugh. Taking his bride`s blood-stained handkerchief, he immediately gave chase, relentlessly pursuing Black Adam through storm and darkness, across wild and rugged terrain to the Hen Hole. With a desperate leap across the cleft of over seven yards Black Adam reached his cave with the bridegroom in hot pursuit. After locking together in violent combat, the pair crashed to their deaths far below in the College Burn.

 

Another slightly less dramatic story tells of a party of hunters, who were chasing a roe deer near the Hen Hole, when they were lured into a cleft in the rocks by the sweetest music they had ever heard. They were never seen again.

 

Waterfalll in the Hen Hole

 

The second waterfall in the Hen Hole

 

The ascent of the Hen Hole can be made on either side of the burn, with some easy scrambling, passing initially the delightful Three Sisters waterfall, followed by two more cascades, before climbing steeply to emerge, at a height of  726 metres (2382 feet),on the summit of Auchope Cairn. Here, from this western extremity of the Cheviot, on the very edge of England, are some of the most breathtaking views in Northumberland. This is a wild and elemental place where Pennine Way walkers pause for breath before stepping out on the final miles of their epic journey. Those lonely walkers will stand beside the resident `stone men` which are poised silently high above the College Valley. Those impressive cairns which, when viewed from below, resemble walkers bending into the wind, disappeared at the turn of the century but were recently rebuilt and once again dominate this remote spot.

 

In 1968 the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch constructed a small shelter hut just below the fence on the southwest side of the summit. This too has now disappeared, superseded by another, more substantial shelter, standing three quarters of a mile away on the col between the College and Cheviot Burns, alongside the path from Auchope Cairn to the Schil.

 

From Auchope Cairn the rest of the way to the summit of the Cheviot is without difficulty crossing, in the first instance, the recently laid stone pathway (replacing the former wooden duck boards) of the Pennine Way, and then the millstone pathway across the plateau. Soon after Cairn Hill, the south western outhill of the Cheviot, and before the monolithic triangulation pillar on the summit, lies a small lough or lake, which is substantial enough to warrant inclusion on the Ordnance Survey`s  1:25000 scale map.

 

 

The Lough

 

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he extent of this lough varies with the season, but even in the driest of summers it never completely disappears, unlike the smaller peat holes which litter the plateau. There is a story, often repeated by local topographers, that it was once covered in midsummer with ice so thick that it could be comfortably walked over. As well as having been mentioned by Daniel Defoe in his account of his ascent of the Cheviot, there is a reference in an obscure 18th Century poem to the permanence of the lough, which reads…….”We westward with the sun descend/ And weary, to our journey`s end/ Then passed the lake, not in, but near the top/ The waters drain and in this basin stop.”

 

A trip to the elevated triangulation pillar on the summit is by no means an essential ingredient of every visit to the Cheviot. There is a vast array of other interesting facets to the personality of this hill to satisfy even the most curious of visitors.

 

The Hanging Stone on the western slopes of Cairn Hill, and a mere 200 metres from the Pennine Way footpath, is a landmark referred to in documents dating back to the 12th Century. In 1249 the border country was divided into Marches, with their own laws meted out by appointed officials, and here, at one of the wildest spots on the Border Ridge, the Middle and East Marches met. Meetings, as often as not, ended in violent disagreement. The Hanging Stone is said to derive its name from the time when a packman was strangled when his pack slipped over the edge of the rock, tightening the strap around his neck, with dire consequences.

 

The impressive Bizzle Crags, an exposed mass of granite, lie on the north facing side of the Cheviot, sandwiched between West and Middle Hills high above Dunsdale in the lonely Lambden Valley and, like the Hen Hole, are remnants of the late Ice Age. A deep rift in the crags, known to rock climbers as the Bizzle Chimney and graded as very difficult, was first climbed in 1899. These crags and the burn which tumbles through the chasm are extremely interesting but can be very dangerous in winter with snow overhangs having caused several fatalities over the years. Other crags on the north side of the Cheviot worth a visit include Bellyside Crag, the highest of all the Cheviot crags, and the slightly lower Woolhope Crag.

 

The Bizzle

 

The Bizzle

 

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he Cheviot has seen more than its fair share of fatal accidents and no less than nine aircraft from various air forces have, over the course of time, come to grief on the plateau. Perhaps the most renowned occurred during a late afternoon blizzard in December 1944 when a bomb laden U.S. Army Air Force B17 Flying Fortress crashed on the summit. Before the bombs exploded, two local shepherds from Dunsdale and Southernknowe, guided by sheepdog Sheila, found four of the crew alive sheltering in a peat hole whilst a further three found their own way off the hill to Mounthooly. Sadly, two of the nine man crew died in the crash. As a result of their actions the two shepherds both received the British Empire Medal and border collie Sheila, for her part, received the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. The medals of one of the shepherds and the one awarded to Sheila the border collie were sold at auction in December 2005 by members of the shepherd`s family for a sum in excess of £25,000.  But the story does not quite end here. On the 20th September 2005, George Kyle, the pilot of the B17, died in his home town of Fort Lauderdale at the age of 82 years. His final wish was that his ashes should be scattered across the site of the crash, near to Braydon Crag. So, on the 4th October 2006, George Kyle`s daughter, his long term friend and companion and the son of George Kyle`s co-pilot, were airlifted to the crash site and on the most perfect of October days his final wish was granted

 

On the first Saturday in July the normally peaceful and often deserted summit of the Cheviot explodes into life as runners of all shapes and sizes race by. The Chevy Chase is a classic fell race and, at 20 miles, is the longest one in Northumberland. Named after an old Border ballad, the event, which started in 1955 as a walk involving boots and rucksacks, became a true fell race in 1967. The race, which has followed various routes during its history, starts and finishes in Wooler visiting en route the summits of the Cheviot and the neighbouring Hedgehope Hill, the second highest hill in Northumberland. The race involves 4000 feet of climbing and the current course record, set in 1992, of 2 hours 40 minutes is held by R. Hackett. The female record of 3 hours 4 minutes 20 seconds was set a year earlier by T. Calder.

 

In 1970, with the race being held in mid-April, there were several feet of snow on the hills, and although it did not actually snow during the race, the intense cold and the underfoot conditions made all high ground a potential danger area. In fact, one competitor in the junior race collapsed from exposure 300 yards from the summit of the Cheviot and was brought down from the hill by mountain rescue personnel and taken to Berwick Infirmary. The race date was moved the next year.

 

Bellyside Crag

 

Bellyside Crag

 

The weather on the Cheviot can be very much a `Jekyll and Hyde` affair offering, in winter, a wide range of conditions, from deep snow and sub-zero temperatures to still days and bright sunshine, from thick wet cloud and low visibility to crystal clear and far distant views. Summer weather conditions are equally variable. This is a snapshot of the Cheviot. It is there to be climbed. Whatever the season, whichever way it is approached, there is some nook or cranny to be explored, something of interest to be discovered on Northumberland`s highest and best known hill. Don`t take my word for it!

 

 

 

READ: THE CHEVIOT: DEATH`S DOOR

READ: THE CHEVIOT: OCTOBER

READ: ON BRAYDON CRAG: FOR GEORGE KYLE (& SHEILA)

READ: THE BIG ONE

 

NEXT ARTICLE: WINDY GYLE – DUAL NATIONALITY & A DRAM OF MOUNTAIN DEW

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Written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2005 (new photographs added 2012 & 2013, text revised 2013)