CAREY BURN & THE WITCH OF SWITCHERDOWN

 

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he north Northumberland town of Wooler has long been a popular centre for walkers and is justifiably described as `The Gateway to the Cheviots`. Three quiet, country roads amble away from the town giving easy access to the northern and eastern fringes of England`s final frontier.

 

For the casual walker, well established shorter circular routes abound, whilst a network of public footpaths and bridleways entice the more inquisitive rambler deeper into the hills. With the 2005 introduction of the landmark `right to roam` legislation, large tracts of the Cheviot Hills were opened up to walkers without the need for them to follow public rights of way. At the drop of a hat, the possibilities for `legal` exploration of this new `access land` had increased dramatically.

 

But the desire to explore every `nook and cranny` of the countryside I love seems never ending and areas which are `out of bounds` only serve to sharpen my curiosity. The creation of any new right of access is, therefore, welcomed like a blue sky in a dark and dreary December.

 

On the 14th January 2008 `The Northumberland County Council (Public Rights of Way) Modification Order (No 19) 2007` was confirmed by the County Council and, at the same time, came into operation. In a nutshell, this Order created a new public right of way running from Wooler Common, to the delightful Carey Burn via Earlehillhead and Switcher Wood.

 

 

Walking away from the Humbleton Burn Picnic area

 

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he ink on the Modification Order was barely dry but already I was planning a walk along this new right of way. A quick look at the Ordnance Survey map of the area and a promising circular route drifted out of the jumble of contour lines and field boundaries. I measured the circuit and, at 4½ miles in length, this seemed like an ideal walk to combine with a `coffee shop visit` to Wooler itself.

 

So, on a bright and promising morning, I left Wooler by Ramsey`s Lane and parked the car at the Humbleton Burn Picnic Area. With its pond, footpaths and bird feeding area, this is a relatively recent and quiet addition to the local landscape. But it was not always so peaceful. During World War I, targets were hoisted by the military on the now plantation covered slopes of Brown`s Law whilst soldiers, located further down the valley, took aim and fired. For many years the area was shown on maps as `The Targets`.

 

I checked my scribbled route notes and, with expectations running high, I took the thin Humbleton Burn-hugging footpath, signposted `Wooler Common ¾ Broadstruther 3`. With the morning sun low in the sky, the trees on Kenterdale Hill cast a deep shadow across the path and the damp air sent a cold shiver down my spine. This short section of footpath forms a part of the 1996-inaugurated St. Cuthbert`s Way, a 62½ mile long route which links together the religious sites of Melrose Abbey and Lindisfarne.

 

Once across the five bar gate and onto the gently rising hillside path, I began to feel the warmth of the sun on my back. Soon the path began to bend to the west and the buildings of Wooler Common came into view. Many years ago this was called Reastead, a name which is now virtually forgotten.

 

 

Looking back to the five bar gate and the Humbleton Burn

 

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 followed the dry stone wall on my left as far as a metal gate where the adjoining signpost pointed towards Broadstruther. It was time to leave this route behind and to make my way to Earlehillhead, which I could see surrounded by trees a short distance to the south. So, turning to my left, I headed slightly downhill on a gravel track and, on reaching the junction with the narrow tarmac road to Earle, I stayed with the track as it climbed uphill past a very sleepy Earlehillhead.

 

On reaching a large barn, I turned left to a metal gate and I paused to admire the fine view northwards towards a perfectly conical Humbleton Hill. Once through the gate I headed right on a faint, green track with the rocky top of Hart Heugh peeping above the plantation to the west. The unmistakeable form of Hedgehope Hill lay ahead, drawing me forward like a huge magnet.

 

Through another metal gate, I continued winding gently downhill keeping with the green track as it aimed for the right hand edge of Switcher Wood and yet another metal gate. Once on the other side, I headed towards a solitary tree a couple of hundred yards further on and I stopped to admire the superb view of the Harthope Valley. Beside me lay the scant remains of a dwelling and it suddenly dawned on me that this must be Switcherdown where, it is said, a witch once lived. The wind whistled through the trees behind me and I headed downhill alongside a dry stone wall and then clambered over a five bar gate.

 

 

The view to Hedgehope Hill from Switcherdown

 

I was now in the valley of the Carey Burn and I could see, some 200 yards to my left, the pretty burn as it slithered under the 1956-built road bridge and then merge with the Harthope Burn. However, my route headed against the flow so, turning to my right, I made my way up the rapidly narrowing valley. The pencil slim path cut across the `glidder` covered south-west facing flanks of Hart Heugh before passing a series of small waterfalls. Occasionally referred to as `Careyburn Linn`, this was a perfect place to take a breather and, on a full days walk, would have made an ideal picnicking spot.

 

 

Careyburn Linn

 

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owever, without sandwiches to detain me, I was all too quickly back on my way and, as the valley turned towards the west, I passed a small open wooden shelter before reaching the southern, tree-fringed slopes of Watch Hill. In time the path met with a fine, green track and a directional fingerpost marked the spot where the two routes merged. This was a parting of the ways, the point where I needed to bid farewell to the Carey Burn. I turned sharply to my right and started the breath-stealing climb of the track known as the Hellpath.

 

This name is said to be a corruption of `hill path` but, as my legs started to question my fitness level, I began to wonder if the name really had a more literal meaning. Climbing diagonally up the slopes of Watch Hill, the track lies on the route of the 1955-inaugurated, Wooler-based Chevy Chase Fell Race. Compared with the 20 mile undulating route of the race, my walk seemed like the proverbial walk in the park. Despite the relative steepness of the short climb, every single gram of effort was well rewarded with fine views down to the valley of the Carey Burn.

 

Soon I was at the top of the hill and out of the trees crossing the saddle between the summits of Hart Heugh, on my right and Watch Hill and Fredden Hill to my left. Looking back over my shoulder, the whale-back bulk of The Cheviot dominated the view, with Braydon Crag particularly outstanding. No wonder, I thought as I soaked up the panorama, that the crag-crowned summit of Watch Hill was an important lookout post during the 15th and 16th century border troubles.

 

I continued across the open moor, a favourite breeding ground of the curlew, and I hoped that I would be lucky enough to hear the distinctive call of this, the curved-beaked emblem of the Northumberland National Park. As if pre-ordered online, a pair burst across the empty moor, an area which is scattered with the remnants of an ancient and `lived in` past. Many of these remains are classified as `Scheduled Monuments` and as such are protected by law.

 

 

Looking back down the Hellpath

 

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he gravel track made for easy walking and soon I reached the tidy cottage of Wooler Common. After crossing two small step stiles, the first signposted `Brown`s Law ¼ Wooler 1¾` , the second ` Brown`s Law ¼`, I turned away from the buildings and followed the green track westwards. With barely time to lengthen my stride the track made a sharp turn to the north and headed downhill alongside one of the many tributaries of the Humbleton Burn.  At the bottom of the hill, I splashed my boots through a stream and then the burn itself before climbing sharply to join the `Common Road`.

 

The gorse covered flanks of Brown`s Law lay straight ahead with Coldberry Hill rising away to the north-west and I was now within shouting distance of the end of my walk. I turned to my right and followed the thin tarmac road past Brown`s Law Cottage and then on past the much larger buildings of Petersfield. As I turned the next corner, the Humbleton Burn Picnic Area came into view and before I had time to `whistle a happy tune`, I was easing off my still wet boots.

 

The day had treated me well and, with thoughts of that cup of coffee I had promised myself at the start of the day, I made my way back to the stone-built streets of Wooler.

 

 

Looking towards The Cheviot

 

FOOTNOTE

This route was walked within weeks of the Modification Order becoming operative and, at that time, there were no signposts on the route from Wooler Common to the Carey Burn via Earlehillhead. Whilst wayfinding was straight forward the Northumberland National Park Authority have now erected some signage along the route of the new right of way. Since then Switcher Wood has also been harvested although it is clear where it once stood.

 

This article first appeared in June/July 2008 issue of THE NORTHUMBRIAN MAGAZINE.

 

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Written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2008 (amended & photographs added 2017)