IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF WILLIAM FORD ROBERTSON

 

 

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tep into any self-respecting bookshop in the country and you are guaranteed to discover a virtual mountain of walking books just waiting to be `bagged`. Covering almost every conceivable corner of Britain, the range and variety of these books is mind-boggling. Hill walks, coastal walks, walks with children, big walks, ridge walks, pub walks, tea shop walks, church walks and books about almost any other type of walk you can imagine have been devised and written by an amazing array of writers. It seems that everybody and their uncle are walkers.

 

But this glossy, ultra lightweight, GORE-TEX-clad world of walking seems a million miles away from 1926, a year during which the people of Britain were more concerned about the effects of the general strike than planning a day out tramping the highways and byways of the countryside. However, this was the year when a little red book, extolling the virtues of walking in a beautiful corner of the Northumberland countryside, first rolled off the printing press.

 

Entitled, `Walks from Wooler`, the book, which stretches to 185 pages in length, was written for the simple reason that the author, William Ford Robertson, “……..knew there was a distinct need for something of the kind”. Quite how he knew this is a mystery, but write the book he did and, by doing so, he laid down a template which is still followed by many outdoor writers to this day.

 

Set out in a logical and informative manner, the book opens with a comprehensive 82 page introduction covering a diversity of topics including, the attractions of the district, the geology of the Cheviots, the historical associations and, with an ever keen eye on the practical, where to picnic. The book is then divided into `Short Walks`, Half-Day Walks, `Whole-Day Walks and `Special Outings`. Finally, the book is illustrated by eight black and white photographs and supplemented with a `Route Map of Walks`. To the regular walker in the 21st century this is now a very familiar format.

 

 

Track to Tom Tallon`s Crag

 

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orn on the 28th July 1867 at the Berwickshire farm of Nottylees on the south bank of the River Tweed, William Ford Robertson`s father died when he was only 3 years old. Despite this very early loss, he 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 city`s Royal Infirmary. Displaying a talent as a medical scientist, much of the remainder of his illustrious career was dedicated to research into the treatment of mental diseases. He died in 1923, at the age of 56 years, and his services to science were recognised by the award, to his widow, of a Civil List pension of £100.

 

Before his death, William Ford Robertson had purchased an old property near 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”. His final work, `Walks from Wooler` was the result of his time spent in the area. It was published 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”.

 

It is now more than 80 years since William Ford Robertson wandered the hills and valleys surrounding the north Northumberland town of Wooler. The motor car has made access to the countryside far easier and, with ever more leisure time to play with, a greater number of people are now 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 has changed since 1926.

 

But change is inevitable, however slowly it may creep upon the world. It reaches all corners of the globe, even the sleepy heights and hollows of England`s most northerly hills. But what effect have any changes had on the route descriptions set out in `Walks from Wooler`? Can these routes still be followed with relative ease? Is the book still, after all this time, relevant? I just had to find out. So, armed with my slightly dog-eared copy of his `little red book`, I was ready on a clear crisp morning, to follow in the footsteps of William Ford Robertson. 

 

I decided to choose the `Half-Day Walk` called `Tom Tallon`s Crag by Gains Law Road`, which is walk number 22 in a book containing 60 in total. I calculated that I would cover in the region of 9 miles and would follow easy and relatively well walked territory. It seemed a good starting point, but first, I needed to check out the author`s,`Hints to the Pedestrian`. I am helpfully, but firmly, advised that “tackety boots and a stout stick are essential” and that “one of the party “ should be carrying, amongst another things, “two yards of strong twine, a box of matches, a clean folded pocket handkerchief to be kept strictly in reserve and a few ounces of whiskey, brandy or aromatic spirit of ammonia”. Having hung up my tackety boots long ago and not yet ready for a stout stick, I checked the whiskey and began my journey out of Wooler, heading up Ramsey`s Lane.

 

I continued into “the Common Road“feeling that this must have been a totally different start to the walk back in 1926. The houses lining the northern side of the road had not been built. There would have been good views across open fields to the town below and, perhaps, even the chance of catching a picturesque glimpse of a train puffing its way between the stations of Wooler and Kirknewton. I was aiming for “the ford near the Targets”, walking along a tarmac road which hugged the plantation covered northern side of Kenterdale Hill. This would have been open hillside and a rough track when William Ford Robertson passed this way and, on reaching  the Humbleton Burn, I found that the ford had  been replaced by a small road bridge.

 

 

The view from Tom Tallon`s Crag

 

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 went “to the right” as instructed, crossing a small footbridge at the rear of the `new` car park, although I could find no trace of “the Targets” I was to pass en route. Climbing through the relatively recent plantation, I was walking through an area once used as a `rifle range`, but now forming part of the Humbleton Burn Picnic Area. Once beyond the trees, the “little gateway at the top of the brae” was still there and as I began to gain further height I could see Humbleton Hill ahead in the distance.

 

After “about a quarter of a mile farther on” I was told that “another gateway opens upon the Humbleton Common Road” and that “the direction is now over the north eastern shoulder of Coldberry Hill”. Whilst this part of the route seemed much the same as it must have been 80 years ago, the delightful green track has, since1996, formed part of the 62½ mile long St. Cuthbert`s Way, a route which links together the religious sites of Melrose Abbey and Lindisfarne. I wondered if I would meet any of the passing `pilgrims`.

 

I continued up the side of Coldberry Hill and imperceptibly I “joined the track over the high moor”, heading westwards towards Gains Law. In his book, William Ford Robertson mentioned, “a small fort on the south side of Coldberry Hill”, but added no further detail. There are, in fact, two adjoining enclosures on the south east slope of the hill and, within the main enclosure, traces of two hut circles can be seen. As I walked across the “high moor” the views stretched out ahead of me unfolding a canvas containing some of the higher Cheviot Hills; Hedgehope Hill, Comb Fell, the Schil, Dunmoor Hill and, of course, the Cheviot itself.

 

I headed “around the head of the Glen between Gains Law and Black Law” and a quick look at the Ordnance Survey map revealed that this was the watershed of one of the many tiny tributaries of the Humbleton Burn. From here, William Ford Robertson stated that “the path curves around the eastern slope of Black Law to the corner of a wall and then continues south westwards on the south eastern side of the wall” and then “at a gate a little further on it crosses to the other side of it“. So far, so good, but further on I found no remnants of “the gate in the wire fence”. No matter, the path was easy to follow and headed, over exceedingly damp ground, in exactly the same direction as the 1926 version. The small plantation to my right, at the other side of the Akeld Burn, was, however, a more recent addition to the moorland landscape.

 

I was soon approaching “the gate in the wall on the south side of the Knowe” where I found that a near vertical ladder stile had superseded the more sedate gate. Once over the stile I needed to “go up the hill to the right to Tom Tallon`s Crag which will now be in sight”. It was, and very quickly I settled down to peanut butter sandwiches and a high energy drink. Perhaps not the kind of picnic William Ford Robertson had in mind. He advised that “on the whole, it is best to leave the kettle behind” and suggested instead “the vacuum flask” filled with, ”hot milk, coffee, cocoa or tea”. He thought that some walkers might prefer “certain concentrated forms of food” such as “raisins and almonds, dates, ordinary chocolate and sanatogen chocolate”. Oh for a bar of sanatogen chocolate!

 

 

Gleadscleugh from the “pleasant little dene”

 

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oon it was time to leave behind the expansive view and to retrace my steps “as far as the track which rises along the north western bank of the Akeld Burn”. This lay just before the small plantation passed on my outward journey and, at that point, I turned left through a five bar gate. With the Akeld Burn a short distance to my right, I headed downhill on a track which followed a line similar to the one taken by William Ford Robertson. The dark slopes of Harehope Hill rose away to the east and the double topped Akeld Hill dominated the skyline to the north as I stopped, to read the route description, immediately before the buildings of Gleadscleugh. I was advised that “the track crosses the burn near Akeld Hill House (Gleadscleugh)” and then “skirts the south side of a field”. I crossed the burn, which was situated in a pleasant little dene, and began to climb the lower slopes of Harehope Hill, following the field boundary before turning eastwards and traversing the site of “an old British Camp”. In a position enjoying extensive views of Milfield Plain, this was, in fact, a type of defended settlement of the early Iron Age, and consisted of an enclosure contained within banks of earth and stone. 

 

 

Akeld Hill from the “old British Camp”

 

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eyond the remnants of the settlement I was directed to pass through another gate from “which magnificent views may be obtained” and then, “at the head of Bendor Dene, a wicket gate”. I was not disappointed. The views were superb, although the two gates now had ladder stiles as close neighbours. Leaving behind the northern slopes of Harehope Hill, Humbleton Hill lay immediately to the south and before long I passed a small pond on my left. I sensed that something was missing and then I remembered that there were two “mill ponds” at this spot when William Ford Robertson stopped to admire the view. On reaching the gate, I turned left, descending past a pretty cottage, to reach the “village green” at the hamlet of Humbleton where I then turned right. The nearby telephone box would certainly not have stood there in 1926, a time when there were only 45 subscribers to the telephone service in the Wooler area. The pond, which had been at the centre of the “village green”, had long since disappeared.

 

I continued down the lane, hawthorn hedges lining both sides, and, on reaching the bend, I heeded William Ford Robertson`s advice and took a short cut “by a path across a field”. I joined the road into Wooler next to the magnificent stag adorned entrance to the Highburn House Caravan Park. Soon I was passing the 1856 built St. Ninian`s Church which, in 1926, would have marked the extreme north western edge of the town. From there it was all gently down hill to the far end of the High Street where I had parked the car a few hours earlier. As I eased off my boots, at the end of an illuminating walk, and  was packing away my `little red book`, I wondered how many of the current crop of walking books would still be receiving the same careful attention in 80 years time.

 

 

The one remaining “mill pond”

 

FOOTNOTE

Readers wishing to follow in the footsteps of William Ford Robertson but not wanting to undertake the full route should leave the “track over the high moor” approximately 400 metres before reaching Gains Law. A way marked footpath to the right descends between Harehope Hill and Humbleton Hill and turns right, towards the “mill” pond, when the track from Gleadscleugh is reached. The total distance of this shortened walk is just less than 5 miles.

 

This article first appeared in October/November 2007 issue of THE NORTHUMBRIAN MAGAZINE. Why not visit www.thenorthumbrian.co.uk by clicking here

 

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Written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2006