lthough standing at an impressive 2382 feet above sea level, Auchope Cairn cannot claim to be a mountain. It rises less than 50 feet above the surrounding ground on all sides and, therefore, fails to meet the criteria necessary to qualify as a separate top. It is part of the massive bulk of the Cheviot, Northumberland`s highest hill, and stands on its western extremity. It hangs on the very edge of England and has, without doubt, one of the most outstanding views in Northumberland.
In his seminal 1924 book, `The Border Line`, James Logan Mack commented, “On a clear day the view to the west and north must be one of the most extensive in Great Britain”, whilst 69 years later, in his guide, `The Border Country` , Alan Hall waxed rather more lyrically. He urged walkers to, “….enjoy the breathtaking views in all directions, the Tweed Valley, the North Sea and the Northumbrian Coast, the mountains of Tweedsmuir faint and far between the triple sentinels of the Eildons”.
But it is also a wild and elemental spot, described by Tony Hopkins in the 1989 `Pennine Way National Trail Guide` as “…..the most exposed and uncomfortable place on the whole ridge”. A place which Alfred Wainwright, in his 1985 book `Wainwright on the Pennine Way`, noted rather conservatively“……. commands a wide prospect of the terrain still to be crossed….“. It is a resting point where foot weary walkers take a deep breath before stepping out on the final 8 undulating miles of their epic journey across the “backbone of England”, from Edale in Derbyshire to the quiet border village of Kirk Yetholm.
Northumberland`s finest view?
he combined words of Messrs. Mack, Hall, Hopkins and Wainwright must surely be sufficient to lure any self- respecting and inquisitive Northumbrian walker away from the comfort of their centrally heated front room, to beat a track, hot- footed, to the exhilarating height of Auchope Cairn. There they can judge for themselves the merits of this stone-strewn summit on England`s exposed edge.
There are a variety of worthwhile routes to this must-visit spot and a particularly interesting 5 mile walk starts at Mounthooly in the remote and beautiful College Valley. Access to this privately owned valley is restricted to 12 vehicles a day and a pass may be obtained, once free of charge but now £10, from John Sale & Partners in Wooler. A track skirts the buildings at Mounthooly, now once again providing bunkhouse accommodation, 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. This is a very special place. 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 very steeply to emerge on the very edge of England.
A very special place: The Hen Hole
n alternative 9 mile walk, which combines the trip to this northern extremity with a visit to the 815 metre summit of the Cheviot, the highest point in England north of Cross Fell, starts in the Harthope Valley, 5 miles south-west of Wooler. There is adequate road side parking where the Hawsen and Harthope Burns converge, the last point of public vehicular access in this most delightful of valleys.
Once on foot, follow the private road for a further 200 metres to where a signpost directs the way, through the remnants of a small plantation, to the Cheviot and Scald Hill. With the New Burn away to the right, a clear narrow path climbs initially through heather and over two stiles to eventually join the ridge across the 549 metre top of Scald Hill. A small cairn on the far side of the fence marks the true summit. The path continues to follow the fence off Scald Hill into a short and potentially boggy depression before climbing steeply to the summit plateau of the Cheviot. Cross over the ladder stile and follow the millstone pathway to the summit trig point perched high above a sea of peat on a substantial concrete plinth. Two previous pillars have long since disappeared into the mire.
Continue along the easy stone pathway, with the fence to your left, passing first a small lough and then Cairn Hill, the south western outhill of the Cheviot, with its pile of boulders known as Scotsman`s Cairn. From here there are excellent views back across the valley to Hedgehope Hill and Comb Fell, the second and third highest of the Cheviot Hills. It is at this point that you leave the summit plateau on your return route. But first, the small matter of Auchope Cairn as you continue to head alongside the post and wire fence. On reaching the Pennine Way signpost cross over two stiles and turn onto the duckboards, constructed in July and August 1989 to control footpath erosion, before striding out north-westwards to Auchope Cairn.
The return route involves retracing your steps as far as Cairn Hill, at which point the wide expanse of the wild plateau is left behind as you cross over the step stile and head south eastwards, with the post and wire fence on your right, steeply downhill to the infant Harthope Burn. On reaching the directional fingerpost turn left. Soon you will hear the trickle of water and as you continue gently downwards the sound increases as the burn begins to gain momentum.
Continue to keep close to the fledgling burn as it journeys north eastwards between the steep sides of The Cheviot, Comb Fell and Hedgehope Hill, passing along the way, the half hidden waterfall of Harthope Linn. Eventually you will join a farm track which, in turn, passes the building of Langleeford Hope and then the white washed walls of Langleeford before rejoining the tarmac valley road back to the Hawsen Burn.
The start of the Harthope Burn towards Hedgehope Hill
n reaching Auchope Cairn, from whichever direction, walkers will be greeted by two resident `stone men` poised silently high above the College Valley. These impressive cairns, when viewed from below, resemble walkers bending into the wind and when James Logan Mack stood here researching his 1924 book he observed that, “…….the O. S. surveyors have erected two cairns….”. For more than three-quarters of a century these monuments to those hardy surveyors stood resolutely against the elements high above the head of the remote College Valley. However, as the 21st century dawned they disappeared from view, their stone bones scattered across the lofty summit. Thankfully they have recently been rebuilt and once again guard this lonely place.
What a lonely place this must have seemed to two Pennine Way walkers who were stranded in these wild Cheviot Hills, not long after leaving Auchope Cairn on the afternoon of the 15th April 2005. Believing the end of their 270 mile, near fortnight long journey to be only a matter of hours away, the pair headed northwards towards Kirk Yetholm and into rapidly deteriorating weather. In blizzard conditions route finding quickly became impossible and the decision was made to pitch their tent and to try and sit out the storm. Gale force winds piled snow against the tent forcing the sides inwards and dangerously bending the poles. After more than 12 hours inside the tent, and realising that they were in serious difficulties, the walkers finally used their mobile phone to make a potentially life saving 999 call.
The Hawick police alerted the Borders Search and Rescue Unit who set off in search of the pair. Hampered first by severe flooding, forcing the rescue team to abandon their vehicle, and then by waist deep snow, 70 mile an hour winds and temperatures of -15°c the rescue team slowly made their way high into the hills heading for the walker`s last known location, Auchope Cairn. The walkers were eventually found nearly 5 hours after first making the 999 call and were both treated for hypothermia. After a difficult return journey, lasting 2½ hours and involving in the latter stages the use of a farm tractor, the rescuers and walkers arrived safely at Kirk Yetholm. The weather had been amongst some of the worst ever experienced during the month of April.
It is in conditions such as these when mountain refuge huts come into their own. In 1968 the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch constructed a small shelter hut just below the fence to the west of the summit of Auchope Cairn. This has long since disappeared and has been superseded by another, more substantial shelter known as the Stuart Lancaster Memorial Hut, which stands three quarters of a mile downhill on the col between the College and Cheviot Burns. This is the only such shelter on the Pennine Way between the hut at Yearning Saddle and Kirk Yetholm, a distance of some 19 miles.
It was suggested by respected outdoor writers John and Anne Nuttall, in their 1990 book `The Mountains of England and Wales ` that Auchope Cairn was named after a certain General Auchope who was killed in the Boer War. There appears to be no evidence to substantiate this assertion and, in fact, the name seems to have made a first mapped appearance more than 30 years before the start of the Boer War.
One of Auchope Cairn`s `stone men`
he first Ordnance Survey map of the area, published in 1866, shows the name of the height as one word, Auchopecairn. By the time of the 1896 revision, and subsequent publication in 1899 of the second edition, the name had become two words and this has remained unchanged ever since. The method adopted by the Ordnance Survey for recording names was to take evidence from local `worthies` and to show that evidence in a names book. If there was a dispute over a name, the Ordnance Survey would act as the mediator; otherwise it was a straight forward matter of recording the name.
The word `cairn` suggests an archaeological feature and surveyors from the Ordnance Survey were extremely careful to record such features, especially as the survey for the first map of this area was undertaken during the superintendency of Henry James, a man renowned for his interest in the subject. It therefore seems more likely that the height of Auchope Cairn acquired its name from a cairn which had probably occupied the spot for many years and by reference to Auchope, a farmstead lying less than 3 miles, as the crow flies, to the north west, and which has a history dating back to at least the early part of the 18th century. The word `auchope` itself is derived from two words; `auch` meaning `ash` (as in `mountain ash` ) and `hope` being `a glen or hollow between hills where there is a little syke or stream`.
It has been said that on a clear day the summit of Lochnagar, on the royal estate of Balmoral, can be seen from Auchope Cairn, and an indicator, erected near to the summit of the Scottish mountain might, on the face of it, give credence to this claim. However, bearing in mind that some 108 miles separate the two points, the claim must be viewed with some suspicion. You must see for yourself. So, as you stand at the summit of Auchope Cairn and however far your eye may see, make sure to take time to soak up every last drop of the magnificent view from this heart stopping corner of England`s most northerly county. You will not be disappointed.
The Hen Hole and beyond into Scotland
Written & photographed: Geoff Holland: 2006