THE CLASSIC CHEVIOT ROUND

 

 

I

n the great scheme of British hills and mountains the Cheviot Hills are not big. The highest, the Cheviot itself, tops out at  2674 feet (815 metres) and only five other Cheviot hills climb over the 2000 feet (610 metres) mark, the height at which, it is said, a hill becomes a mountain.

 

Despite their relative lack of stature, the Cheviot Hills offer boundless opportunities for big walks and the best of these links together all six 2000 feet hills in a single days outing. Climbing the summits of the Cheviot, Windy Gyle, Bloodybush Edge, Cushat Law, Comb Fell and Hedgehope Hill, this walk is an epic 23 miles rollercoaster journey, involving over 5000 feet of ascent, across wild and lonely hills. This is the classic Cheviot round.

 

It was late July and after a fairly unpredictable summer the weather was, at last, beginning to behave itself. The forecast was for a settled day, ideal for a big walk, so it was up with the worms and an early start from the chattering Hawsen Burn, deep in the Harthope Valley. Setting out along the short stretch of tarmac towards the New Burn, and the start of the climb towards Scald Hill, the sun was already tingling the skin. It seemed that a very hot day was on the cards.

 

Heading uphill, with superb views of the majestic Hedgehope Hill opening up across the valley, the unpretentious top of Scald Hill was passed over rapidly. Just time for a quick glance over the fence into the remote Lambden Valley, then on down to the unusually dry depression before the start of the stiff pull up to the summit plateau of the Cheviot. Once there it was an easy half mile, over the millstone pathway, to  the triangulation pillar marking the summit of Northumberland`s highest hill. The pillar sits on an enormous concrete plinth, supported by an 11 foot pile, and is the third such pillar to have stood on this lofty spot, the previous two having long since sunk into the mire.

 

The Cheviot summit the highest point in Northumberland

 

The triangulation pillar on the summit of the Cheviot

 

I

t was only 9.00 am and the highest hill of the day was behind me as I continued across the beautifully peaceful plateau towards the next 2000 footer, Windy Gyle, just over 5 miles away. The millstone pathway runs, almost without interruption, across the morass of glutinous peat bogs of the Cheviot passing first a small lough and then Cairn Hill, the south western outhill of the Cheviot. The extent of the lough varies with the seasons but never totally dries up, unlike the numerous peat holes which litter the plateau. There is a story that the lough was, one 18th century midsummer, covered with ice so thick that it could be comfortably walked over.

 

Once at the western edge of the plateau, the main Pennine Way footpath was joined and a tremendous ridge walk took me along the border between England and Scotland. It was easy downhill walking, with panoramic views into Scotland and ahead to Windy Gyle, over ground that was for many centuries probably the most wild and dangerous in the country. The forest encircling Northumberland`s Usway Burn was spread out to the east like a giant green carpet, hiding the remains of the famous and illicit 18th century `Rory`s Still`.

 

Down past the triangulation pillar on King`s Seat, over 2 hours into the journey, and my first sighting of the day of another human, heading uphill. A friendly exchange revealed that he was on the final leg of the Pennine Way, having started the day from Uswayford farm. His 270 miles journey, along England`s most arduous long distance trail, was one of utter perseverance. He had completed individual sections of the walk year by year and now, after a mammoth 10 years, he was close to `the holy grail`. Soon the medieval cross border route of Clennell Street was crossed and the 1 mile climb up the north eastern slope of Windy Gyle started as the sun began, thankfully, to weaken.

 

It was 10.50 am when the impressive Russell`s Cairn was reached, sitting on top of the fourth highest of the Cheviot Hills. At 619 metres, Windy Gyle has the feeling of a true mountain and is certainly a place to admire the outstanding vista and to soak up the history that fills the clear air of this elevated spot. Thoughts of Lord Francis Russell`s bloody death near this spot in 1585 sent a shiver up my spine as I settled, on the loose stones of the Bronze Age burial cairn, for an early lunch.

 

Windy Gyle on the route of the Pennine Way

 

The summit of Windy Gyle and Russell`s Cairn

 

S

oon I had wasps for company, so it was time to make a `sharp exit`, as I hurriedly finished the remnants of a peanut butter sandwich. Nearly 9 miles into the walk, with over 14 still to complete, I headed down the grassy slopes of Windy Gyle, past Scotchman`s Ford, and then made a slight diversion from the main track to the flat green top of Little Ward Law. As I looked across to its neighbour, Ward Law, I wondered why Little Ward Law should be the higher of the two. An illogical misnomer or an ancient miscalculation? Perhaps we shall never know.

 

Leaving the hill behind and stretching out downhill, the rough gravel track leading, ultimately, to Uswayford farm was soon reached. Half a mile further on, beneath the steep-sided Hazely Law, Clennell Street was crossed for the second time of the day. It was hard to believe that, over 400 years ago, this quiet place, known in medieval times as Oswold Myddle ( ie Usway Middle ), was one of the most important track junctions of the border hills and that a drover`s inn stood here in this empty landscape.

 

Licking my lips at the thought of  an ice cool glass of Guinness, I pressed on down the track to Uswayford farm, one of the most isolated in the country. In the winter of 1940/41 the weather was so bad that the farm was cut off for 17 consecutive weeks. Crossing the narrow wooden footbridge over the Usway Burn, just beyond the farm, I headed up towards the saddle separating the 540 metre Yarnspath Law and the next hill of the day, Bloodybush Edge. Tracking the trickle of Bill`s Sike steeply uphill the humidity created by the heat and the damp foliage made the climb particularly draining and I was glad to reach the fresher air of higher ground. The climb from the saddle followed an old fence line relatively easily to the unspectacular 610 metre top of Bloodybush Edge and the second, and last, human encounter of the walk.

 

Now over the half way mark and with 4 hours 20 minutes of walking in the bag, I was eager to press on to Cushat Law, just under 2 miles away. Following the fence line over wet ground I had, stretching away to the south, the vast swathe of the Kidland Forest for company. Once the grazing ground for the flocks and herds of the monks of Newminster Abbey, the area was planted with trees between 1950 and 1970. Being the most southerly point of the walk, reaching the lonely top of Cushat Law marked an important psychological watershed. I was now, it seemed, `homeward bound`. In these parts `cushat` means `wood-pigeon` and `law` means `hill` and from the shelter cairn just below the summit there were excellent views northwards to the Cheviot`s speckled, southern face.

 

The Upper Breamish Valley and the endless Cheviot landscape

 

The Upper Breamish Valley

 

T

he descent from Cushat Law to the Upper Breamish Valley involved a height loss of 300 metres in just over 1 mile of rough and pathless terrain, avoiding en route a potentially uncomfortable drift towards Hareshaw Cleugh. The superb views down to the threadlike River Breamish and the tiny farmhouses of High and Low Bleakhope more than compensated for any discomfort. The farm of Low Bleakhope, standing in the steep-sided valley where the River Breamish makes a full 90° turn, passing the powerful flanks of Shill Moor, was an idyllic place on that sunny afternoon.

 

Half a mile along the valley, on the course of the ancient Salters Road, the buildings of High Bleakhope marked the start of a tough diagonal haul up the side of High Cantle. Once at the top, the next 4 miles to the final summit of the day crossed ground never falling below 456 metres. First the easy climb to Shielcleugh Edge followed by a rough and very boggy stretch to Coldlaw Cairn. A cairn it is not, more a giant pile of boulders, perched high above the upper reaches of the Breamish Valley. Standing there utterly alone it was hard to think of a more isolated place in the whole of the Cheviot Hills.

 

With eyes firmly set on Hedgehope Hill, further along the ridge, and with just over 5 miles to go to the end of the walk, I headed on over the barely noticeable top of Comb Fell with a spring in my step. Downhill and through a short stretch of peat-hags before the day`s final climb took me to the cairn and triangulation pillar on the summit of Hedgehope Hill. Time for a final mouthful of energy drink, and a glance to the distant North Sea and the faint outline of Bamburgh Castle, before bidding goodbye to the height enjoyed for the last few miles.

 

Hedgehope Hill the second highest of the Cheviot Hills

 

Hedgehope Hill and the Harthope Valley

 

A

 faint single track footpath led me down the sharp eastern slope of  Northumberland`s second highest hill to the moorland crossing of Kelpie Strand and on to the impressive Housey Crags, poised proudly above the Harthope Valley. With the car now clearly visible, the temptation was to run down the steep grassy hill to the twinkling burn below. Sense prevailed and a rather more casual walk landed me, soon enough, at the small footbridge over the tree hidden Harthope Burn. A further 100 metres, and just over 8 hours after beginning this classic Cheviot round, I was back where I had started, dipping my toes in the blissfully cool Hawsen Burn.

 

It had been quite a day but as I sat there, quietly satisfied, my thoughts drifted back to 1981. It was the 12th August and 21 year old, Cambuslang Harrier, Colin Donnelly was 12 days into a 13 day mammoth traverse of all of the 2000 feet hills and tops in the Southern Uplands, including the six hills in this classic Cheviot round. Starting the day in Redesdale, Colin had `jogged` the 12 hilly Pennine Way miles from Byrness to the summit of Windy Gyle, before descending to Uswayford farm.

 

After depositing most of his `kit` at the farm, and a quick lunch, Colin continued his run to Auchope Cairn, the Cheviot, Comb Fell, Hedgehope Hill, Cushat Law and Bloodybush Edge and, when he arrived back at the farm, Colin had covered over 32 miles and climbed 6400 feet since setting out from Byrness at 9.00 am that morning. A truly long and lonely run in the hills.

 

But Colin had not been totally alone that grey, cool August day. As he set off from Uswayford, three of the farm`s dogs started to follow him, uninvited. A puppy petered out after a few hundred metres whilst an old sheepdog lasted a further 2 to 3 miles. However, one collie, called Tina, followed Colin the entire route-- 19 miles and 5 hours of running over wet and rugged terrain. The difficult Cheviot bogs took their toll on Tina, remember there was no millstone path across the plateau in 1981, and Colin had to extricate her from one particularly deep bog.

 

Towards the end of the run Tina was too tired to jump over any fences so Colin had to carry her over them, adding to his own considerable exertions. On Colin leaving Uswayford farm the next morning for Kirk Yetholm, Tina never stirred from her kennel in the yard and, as I sat there in the valley, with the sun on my back, the thought of a long lie in the next morning seemed the perfect idea.

 

CLICK HERE TO READ: `THE BIG ONE` THE ROUTE DESCRIPTION FOR THIS WALK

CLICK HERE TO READ: THE CHEVIOT: OCTOBER

 

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Written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2005