t had been a frustrating few weeks. On each occasion we had chosen a day to stretch our legs in the hills a dismal weather forecast had persuaded us to postpone our plans. But, as they say, everything comes to those who wait and, finally, the forecast for the next 24 hours was promising. However, with snow still covering much of the Cheviot Hills and an overnight frost expected we decided against any walking heroics and agreed to meet at Powburn. Once there we would consider our easier options.
I left home at the crack of dawn and, as I joined the A697 north of Morpeth, snow was beginning to fall. By the time I reached Longframlington visibility was down to less than 100 yards and driving conditions were rapidly deteriorating. So much, I thought, for the weather forecast but, undaunted, I pressed on to a very white and strangely quiet Powburn.
After waiting in the shelter of our cars for less than half an hour the sun woke up, wiped the snow from its sleepy eyes and wandered cheerfully into a beautiful blue sky. We were, at last, ready to roll but with road conditions still somewhat tricky we decided to head into the nearby Breamish Valley and to tackle a winter round of the Hillforts Trail.
The view from Brough Law
have been wandering the Cheviot Hills for longer than I care to remember but I have never got around to walking the full circuit of this well-trodden, waymarked route. So, as we left a deserted Bulby`s Wood car park, my expectations for an interesting walk in the hills were running high.
In normal conditions, the main path up Brough Law is distinct and easy to follow but with shin-deep snow covering much of the hillside it had now become somewhat indistinct. But it is not a difficult hill to climb and with little in the way of alternative routes upwards we made steady progress, stopping only to peep at the just visible, white blanketed remains of a Roman Period (AD43-AD410) farmstead lying along the edge of a plantation towards the upper part of the hill.
After slipping through the stone ramparts of Brough Law`s impressive Iron Age (800BC-AD43) hillfort we walked across the flat, 984 feet high top and found ourselves gazing at the most perfect winter panorama. To the west, Shill Moor lay across the horizon like a slumbering polar bear whilst the nearby cloud-dusted Dunmoor Hill kept a watchful eye. In between, the great expanse of whitewashed moorland was punctuated by a number of small plantations and the occasional snow-free, south facing hillside. The farmsteads of Greensidehill and Hartside were mere specks alongside the snowbound, single track road.
We now turned to the south and, after re-negotiating the stone ramparts, we followed as best we could, the normally clear, undulating track towards Ewe Hill. There is something very special about planting your boots on virgin snow and, despite occasionally plunging knee-deep through the slightly frozen surface, we made light of the conditions. After all, days like these are few and far between.
Heading towards Middle Dean
e skimmed across the upper slopes of Ewe Hill as we made tracks for the deep trench of Middle Dean and our second Iron Age hillfort of the day. Situated on the upper edge of a dramatic and narrow ravine, Middle Dean`s hillfort consists of two impressive and well-preserved ramparts which, despite being covered by a substantial layer of snow, were easily identifiable. Inside the ramparts, hidden from our view, lay the remains of two hut circles.
We now turned our attention to Cochrane Pike, little more than half a mile away and, at 1099 feet above sea level, the highest point of our walk. But first, the small matter of a short, sharp descent to Middledean Burn followed by a steep, lung-expanding climb. Despite the knee-deep snow we were soon cresting the hill and catching a whiff of the stiffening breeze.
The rounded summit of Cochrane Pike is a tremendous viewpoint and, still breathing heavily from the uphill exertions, we soaked up the extensive panorama. We particularly enjoyed the distant view to Cushat Law and the cone-shaped Hogdon Law whilst the nearby rolling ridge, consisting of Old Fawdon Hill, West Hill and East Hill, looked extremely seductive. From our airy vantage point we visually mapped out what seemed like an interesting route across the rollercoaster skyline. One, we agreed, for another day.
After quickly checking out the remains of an irregular-shaped Iron Age settlement, lying slightly south-east of the summit, we headed down towards Wether Hill and the more substantial ramparts of another Iron Age settlement. The sun was still shining across an ocean of snow-smothered hills as we turned towards our next target, Turf Knowe, and then started the half mile descent to Middledean Burn. This was the second visit of the day to this terrific miniature valley and, now sheltered from the breeze by steep slopes on both sides of the burn, we decided that this was the perfect place for a bite to eat. We lingered over an early lunch.
Looking across Middle Dean towards Cushat Law and Hogdon Law
uitably refuelled, we climbed away from the dean and quickly reached an area of very damp ground which, although partially frozen, required care in crossing. A slip at this point would have been embarrassing at best. Safely across, we soon arrived at Turf Knowe and yet another tremendous eagle`s nest-viewpoint. Standing at a modest height of 820 feet, Turf Knowe is essentially a spur of Ewe Hill and from here we could clearly pick out the fine line of high moorland which stretches between the Cheviot Hills and the beautiful Northumberland coast. Accentuated by the deep covering of snow, the series of cultivation terraces on the slopes of Wether Hill also looked particularly impressive.
Although the surface was concealed by a thick overcoat of snow, Turf Knowe is, as the name implies, a grass-covered hill and the site of a rare tri-radial cairn consisting of three walls of different coloured stones. These walls meet at a single point and, when the cairn was excavated a number of years ago, two food vessels and the remains of an iron spearhead were uncovered. Two Bronze Age (2500BC-800BC) burial cairns were also discovered offering clear evidence that Turf Knowe had been used as a ritual/burial site for a period of some 2,000 years.
Turf Knowe`s tri-radial cairn
rom this historically fascinating location it was now an easy downhill stroll to the Breamish Valley visiting en route the final and lowest lying hillfort of the day. At a mere 558 feet above sea level, the circular Iron Age hillfort on Ingram Hill also contains the remains of several rectangular stone buildings dating back to the Roman Period.
Now with the finishing line in sight, our momentum quickly carried us back to the winding, single track road and, as we wandered happily back to Bulby`s Wood, we wondered what the valley would be like at the height of an English Bank Holiday weekend. With that thought in mind, we savoured the last few crumbs of a delightfully peaceful day in the hills.
The cultivation terraces on Wether Hill
The route of this walk is shown on the Ordnance Survey 1: 25,000 scale Explorer Map of The Cheviot Hills (OL16) by red dotted lines, indicating that it follows a `permitted footpath`. The vast majority of the area crossed by the walk is classed as `Access Land` under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The distance of the walk is 4½ miles and an information board about the walk is located within Bulby`s Wood car park.
Thanks are due to Dave Hurrell of Alnwick, my walking companion for the day, who very kindly loaned me his camera when my mine decided that it was too cold to be out and about and stopped working.
Written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2010