first stumbled across the book `Walks from Wooler`, by W. Ford Robertson, at a book fair a number of years ago. After a quick thumb through the slightly `foxed` pages my curiosity was aroused but, priced at a budget-busting £17.50, I hesitated to put my hand in my pocket. Despite what I thought was a pretty impressive attempt on my part to barter, the bookseller was determined not budge on the price and I walked away.
Back at home, I quickly regretted my decision so I decided that the very next time I saw a copy of the book I would buy it. However, it was to be another three years before I came across it again but, this time around, the price was a very modest £6. Sensing a bargain, I made no attempt to haggle about the price and before you could say, “all things come to those who wait”, I had unlocked my wallet, dusted away the cobwebs and splashed the cash! I was not disappointed.
William Ford Robertson
orn on the 28th July 1867 at the Berwickshire farm of Nottylees, on the south bank of the River Tweed, W. Ford Robertson`s father died when he was only 3 years old. Despite this sad and very premature family loss, William went on to study medicine at Edinburgh University and on graduation in 1891 he took up his first professional position as a house physician at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Displaying a talent as a medical scientist, much of William`s illustrious career was dedicated to research into the treatment of mental diseases. He died in 1923, at the tender age of 56 years, and his services to science were acknowledged by the award, to his widow, of a Civil List pension of £100.
Before his death, W. Ford Robertson had purchased an old property near the north Northumberland town of Wooler and had turned it into, “a charming holiday retreat with a most beautiful garden, in which he could carry out experiments in hybridising flowers, and from where he could sally forth to explore the surrounding countryside”. The book, `Walks from Wooler` was a direct result of the time he spent exploring the area and it was to be his final work. It was published in 1926, some 3 years after his death because, as the Reverend W.I. Moran said in the foreward to the book, “……so many of us felt that the rich fruits of such labours ought not to be lost and that to lovers of the district it supplies a very real need”.
The Black Bull, Wooler
ore than 85 years have now passed since W. Ford Robertson wandered the hills and valleys surrounding the stone-built town of Wooler. Since then, the motor car has made access to the countryside so much easier and, with ever more leisure time to play with, a greater number of people are heading for the hills. However, the Cheviot Hills remain remarkably quiet and it is not unusual to walk all day without meeting another person. In this respect, very little seems to have changed since 1926.
But change is inevitable, however slowly it may creep upon us. It reaches all corners of the globe, even the sleepy heights and hollows of England`s most northerly hills, and as I read and re-read the book `Walks from Wooler`, I began to wonder what effect, if any, had these changes had on the route descriptions set out in this wonderful little book. Could these routes still be followed with relative ease and was the book, after all the intervening years, still relevant? I just had to find out.
To satisfy my curiosity, I selected a 9 mile “half-day walk” which I knew followed easy and relatively familiar territory. This would, I thought, be the `acid test`. So, armed with my slightly dog-eared copy of his `Walks from Wooler`, I was ready, on a clear, crisp October morning, to follow in the footsteps of W. Ford Robertson. The results of this pleasant stroll into the past were published a year later in the 20th Birthday Issue of `The Northumbrian`, a bi-monthly magazine for people who love `England`s finest county`. And that, I thought, would be that.
But curiosity is a funny old thing. It takes hold and it is very difficult to shake off. It niggles away and there seems to be no instant or easy cure. I kept thinking about the other walks in the book, after all there were 185 pages bulging with 59 more walking routes together with a huge amount of fascinating information. I kept thinking about, “the 9.25 a.m. train from Wooler, going north“ and what it must have been like to alight at the long since closed Kirknewton Station, in the shadow of Yeavering Bell, at the start of a, “whole-day walk”. Was it just nostalgia tugging at my sleeve or was my journey into a walking past just beginning. Time would surely tell.
The former Kirknewton Station
In the autumn of 2007, unable to contain my curiosity any longer, I embarked on a project which would take me along many of the tracks and paths that W. Ford Robertson had wandered all those many years previously. It was to be a fascinating journey and one which ultimately would lead to the publication of my own `Walks from Wooler` book the following year.
I decided at the very outset not to follow W. Ford Robertson`s footprints step for step preferring instead to use the 1926 book as a catalyst to get out into the Cheviot Hills and to compare the rambling world of a more innocent age with my own present day walking world. For the sake of variety I made the decision that only two of my walks would actually start from the streets of Wooler although all walks would be centred on the town, with a visit at the start or the end of the day always an easy option. Also, whilst there would be fewer walks in my book than there was in its predecessor, the variety of places visited would not in any be compromised. The vast majority of the ground that I covered would, at some time or other, have had W. Ford Robertson`s well-worn `tackety boots` firmly planted on them.
My first walk took me to the Backwood Burn which W. Ford Robertson said was, “one of the most pleasant places within easy reach of Wooler”, and one that, “nature has most cunningly hidden away in the heart of the hills”. I was not disappointed as I followed the burn away from the popular Harthope Valley towards the quiet and windswept summit of Cold Law. The views across the valley to Easter and Wester Dean and the neighbouring crags of Langlee, Middleton and Housey were particularly outstanding.
The Backwood Burn
or my next walk I had planned to visit the summit of Northumberland`s highest hill, The Cheviot, and in his book W. Ford Robertson had suggested that, “it is of the utmost importance to make an early start”. I duly took his advice despite starting my day much closer to my ultimate goal than he did all those years previously. Perhaps I was cheating by parking close to the Hawsen Burn but to have started from Wooler would have made the length of the walk beyond the reach of much of my intended audience. Nevertheless, I wondered whether we had all grown a little soft around the edges since the early part of the 20th century. The day went well and I was pleased that I had climbed to the summit of this, the most popular hill in the range, via the deserted northern slopes. It was extremely satisfying to get a different perspective of a familiar face.
Next up, and I was off to Tom Tallon`s Crag close to the northern edge of the Cheviot Hills. In the great scheme of walks this one was a pretty straight forward one making for a very pleasant and relaxing day out. As I sat enjoying my lunchtime sandwiches, staring out across a vast expanse of heather moor, I suddenly remembered W. Ford Robertson`s helpful advice on the subject of picnics. He suggested that, “on the whole, it is best to leave the kettle behind” and advised instead, “the vacuum flask” filled with, “hot milk, coffee, cocoa or tea”. He was, I recalled, of the opinion that some walkers might prefer, “certain concentrated forms of food” such as, “raisins and almonds, dates, ordinary chocolate and sanatogen chocolate”. Indeed they might.
The Hawsen Burn
s I wandered through the quiet streets of Wooler at the start of my fourth walk, I found it hard to believe that W. Ford Robertson`s book had been published in the same year as the General Strike and, I wondered what had happened to the two banks, “the British Linen in the Market Place and the Bank of Liverpool and Martins Ltd in the High Street,” which had once served the town. I was heading to Switcherdown where according to W. Ford Robertson, “there once dwelt a witch” whose ghost was said to have still haunted the place back in the 1920`s. In the event, this Gortex-clad 21st century walker was greeted, not by some haggard old woman stirring her hot, bubbling cauldron, but by a sublimely peaceful scene and, “a fine view of the lower part of the Harthope Valley, of Langlee Crags and Housey Crags, and of Hedgehope towering in the distance”.
I was now half way through the projected eight walks in my very own `Walks from Wooler` and I was beginning to feel that I was becoming acquainted with the walking ways of W. Ford Robertson. It seemed that on each of those four walks I had been accompanied by a constant companion, someone who knew the Cheviot Hills like an old friend, someone who I could rely on to keep me from straying too far from my intended routes.
The months moved on and eventually I completed the remaining four walks of my book. I felt privileged to have made the journey and to have had the opportunity to take a peep into the walking world of previous generation. As I sat down to put the finishing touches to my book I concluded that, in the big picture, little had changed since W. Ford Robertson wrote his 1926-published book. The windswept summit cairns, the quiet hidden cleughs, the purple heather moors, the bracken-covered hillsides, the rain-filled peat pools, the February snowfields, the Spring gorse, the busy burns, the billowing clouds in a big Cheviot sky. I had seen them all.
Spring gorse in the College Valley
here had, of course, been changes. The roads, in so far as they existed, had become more accessible to the motor car, better access had brought a greater number of walkers to the hills, way markers had been erected, popular footpaths had become eroded, triangulation pillars had appeared and had subsequently become redundant, afforestation had altered the face of many hillsides, farm cottages had become holiday homes, shepherds had become quad bike riders, shooting butts had been built and distance-shrinking Land Rover tracks had been constructed. Small detail perhaps, but changes nevertheless.
However, in his delightful book, W. Ford Robertson wrote, “If you are in walking trim……an outing among these solitudes…..is a happy experience that can never be forgotten”. And so it remains. The air is still as fresh, the rain is still as wet, the wind is still as cold and the views are still as lovely. Eighty years or so have done nothing to diminish that.
Goldscleugh in the Lambden Valley
Written, photographed & revisited: Geoff Holland 2013