THE BARROWBURN CIRCUIT

At 501 metre (1644 feet) high the huge bulk of Shillhope Law dominates Upper Coquetdale between the lonely farmsteads of Shillmoor and Barrowburn and casts a deep shadow over the steep-sided valley of the Usway Burn. Whilst relatively modest in height it is undoubtedly a big hill and one which enjoys extensive views over the surrounding countryside. The Castles is a hill in miniature, grass-covered and perfectly formed. It snuggles beneath the towering, north-eastern slopes of Shillhope Law gazing wistfully at the twisting, twinkling burn below. This walk takes you on a switchback journey from the River Coquet at Barrowburn to the delightful valley of the Usway Burn and back again via the ancient drove road of Clennell Street and the subsidiary tops of The Middle, Middle Hill and Kyloe Shin. It is a walk to “stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood“. It is a pure delight with the added attraction at the end of the day of a cup of tea at the farmhouse tearoom at Barrowburn. What more could you wish for!

 

 

Barrowburn

 

Barrowburn and Upper Coquetdale

The Walk

 

1. As you drive along the narrow, winding valley road from Shillmoor to the car park at Wedder Leap you will be accompanied, on your right hand side, by the sharply rising flanks of Shillhope Law, your first and highest summit of the day. On your left hand side, where the road momentarily climbs away from the river, you will pass two 1952-built, semi-detached cottages. These replaced a large, two storey farmhouse known as Bygate Hall which, together with a shepherd`s cottage, formerly occupied the site. Immediately before reaching Barrowburn and yet another bridge across the River Coquet turn into the car park (GR NT866103) on the left hand side of the road where there is space for up to 20 cars. There is also a small adjoining picnic area. The building standing on this site is Askew Hall, opened in 1935 and for many years a popular dance venue for people who lived throughout the neighbouring hills. It is now used as a hay barn and is probably the only one in Northumberland with a first class sprung wooden dance floor. This was also the site of the last Windyhaugh School which, on closure in 1978, marked the end of a century of classroom education in this remote part of the valley. Sandwiches packed, boots tightened, now you are primed for the day ahead. Leave the car park by turning left onto the valley road and then, after less than 100 metres, bid farewell to the black line of tarmac by turning to your right and heading across the gated footbridge straddling the River Coquet. The adjoining signpost points the way to `Fairhaugh 1½ Border Ridge 4`.

 

 Barrowburn

 

Heading towards Barrowburn

 

2. Before leaving the bridge, take time to admire the fine prospect back down the valley and the cleugh-indented slopes of Shillhope Law. At the same time it is worth remembering the story of how this charming spot acquired its rather curious name. Apparently, one night many, many years ago, a dastardly sheep rustler took a nice plump `wedder` (a castrated ram) from a flock of sheep happily minding their own business on the Shillhope Law hillsides. The thief had barely started to make his getaway when the owner and his men discovered the theft and gave chase. Severely handicapped by the `wedder` tied around his neck the thief soon found that his only means of an escape was to take an almighty leap across the river. As his feet touched the opposite bank he struggled with all his might to clutch onto whatever he could but to no avail. The weight of the `wedder` pulled him backwards into the murky depths of the pool below and to a watery death. Since that time this place has been known as `Wedder Loup` or, as shown on the current Ordnance Survey map, `Wedder Leap`. Once through the gate on the opposite side of the bridge, head straight up the field with a thin tree belt to your left. At the top corner of the field, turn left through another gate and follow the slim footpath alongside a dilapidated dry stone wall. Downhill, to your left, lies the farmstead of Barrowburn. On reaching yet another gate, go through and continue as far as two buildings on the other side of the post and wire fence. The stone building, now used as a camping barn, once housed Windyhaugh School which was relocated here in 1879 from its original accommodation in a converted byre at Windyhaugh farm. The school eventually moved to its final resting place alongside Askew Hall in 1971. The wooden building, formerly the schoolhouse, is now called `The Deer Hut` and offers basic self-catering accommodation. In his 1951 book, `Scottish Border Country`, F. R. Banks wrote, “This school (which also houses a post-office, the only one in the dale above Harbottle) has often no more than half-a-dozen pupils, some of whom have to walk to it, summer and winter, by tracks across the hills.” How the world has changed in the last 50 years or so!

 

 

The Deer Hut

 

The Deer Hut

 

3. Cross over the adjacent step stile, turn right along the stone track and then cajole your hips through the aptly-named `squeeze stile`. Keep with this track until, after some 400 metres, you are level with a green track which climbs away to your right (GR NT870109). This is your route and the start of a steady uphill walk to the summit of Shillhope Law. By the time you reach the cairn-capped top and breathe a deep sigh of relief you will have gained some 224 metres (735 feet) in height in just under 1 mile of climbing. Take time to enjoy the ever-changing views as you go. The track initially swings to the right to take a south-easterly course across pleasant, grass-covered terrain in the direction of a post and wire fence. On reaching the fence and five bar gate climb over and head steeply uphill over the heather-spangled, peat-worn, cotton grass-covered hillside. A post and wire fence on your left will keep you company until you reach flatter ground close to a left turning kink in the fence and a five bar gate. Here you will need to turn right on a clear, if slightly damp, path to reach the summit (GR NT873097). Standing 501 metres (1644 feet) high the top is adorned with a triangulation pillar, a slightly rambling cairn and three small loughs. The views in all directions are outstanding, particularly those to the north and north-west where a vast canvas of border-hugging hills can be seen. Now facing south and with your back to the triangulation pillar take the thin path heading diagonally left which soon descends to the saddle between Shillhope Law and Inner Hill. Once on flatter ground, climb over the post and wire fence via a gate, and head upwards to the 436 metre (1430 feet) high top of Inner Hill. The hillsides fall steeply away to your left and there are superb, near vertical views down to the thread-thin valley of the Usway Burn. Continue along the fine, grass-covered ridge before beginning your descent down to the valley below. Keeping close to the fence and then to a stone wall you will soon reach the rough gravel track running just above the Usway Burn (GR NT886078).

 

 

Usway Burn

 

The view from Inner Hill

 

4. A little way to your right stand the buildings of Shillmoor and the place where, in the words of David Dippie Dixon, “the Usway, by far the finest of its many tributaries, joins the Coquet after a run of eight miles from the very foot of the great Cheviot itself”. Whilst your journey will not take you as far as Northumberland`s mightiest hill you will, however, over the next 2¼ miles, experience at close quarters some of the delights of this undoubtedly fine burn. So, without further ado, turn left and follow the track through this tightest of Cheviot valleys. As you make your way upstream you will cross a series of bailey bridges before finally reaching the cottage of Batailshiel Haugh where the valley briefly broadens to let a little more sunlight fall onto the meandering burn. This farm, known to locals as `Battleshield`, was mentioned in the 13th century charter of Newminster Monastery as the shiel of Henry de Bataile .The word `shiel` derives from the Norse meaning `summer pasture` and the word `haugh` means `flat land beside a river or burn`. The old farm building was demolished in 2003. At the farm gate, leave the track and follow the footpath as it heads slightly uphill behind the cottage crossing, en route, Mid Hope. When the path decides to head back down towards the burn, just as you are reaching Barley Sike (GR NT881103), it is time for you to put on your ascending legs and to start your uphill walk to The Castles by taking the right hand fork marked with a public footpath yellow arrow. The pleasant green path soon leads you to a small step stile and, once this has been negotiated, continues upwards close to a post and wire fence. On reaching a small saddle, turn left, cross over the five bar gate and head to the highest point of this grass-covered mound. This is the diminutive Castles which stands above the Usway Burn at a height of little more than 340 metres (1115 feet) in its bare feet. It is a fantastic and serene viewpoint and one where you will, perhaps, choose to tuck into your sandwiches. Picnic spots certainly do not come much better!

 

 

The Castles

 

The Castles

 

5. Suitably refuelled, it is time to continue on your upwards journey so, after re-crossing the five bar gate, turn left and follow the green track as it bends uphill away from the valley. As you climb, be sure to pause from time to time to admire the tremendous views of the grass-covered slopes of Shillhope Law rushing pell-mell to the twisting burn below and of the vast array of border hills that sweep across the distant skyline. The track, which follows the route of a public footpath up the south western spur of Nettlehope Hill, is simple to follow and, as the gradient eases, becomes exceedingly damp. Eventually, just over 1 mile after leaving The Castles the track splits in two. Be careful to follow the left hand fork and to make tracks for the nearby step stile and five bar gate. Once on the other side you will step onto the ancient drove road of Clennell Street (GR NT894109). Turn left and follow the gravel track as it heads initially north along the edge of the vast Kidland Forest where a large area of trees has, in the recent past, been harvested. This has, for the time being at least, opened up views that have been obscured for many years and, if you look carefully, you will see the seductive tree-free top of Sneer Hill. Just prior to Hosden Hope, where the track breaks in two and there are signs of very recent forestry activities, stay with Clennell Street by taking the left hand fork downhill. The track is generally firm until, after passing a side track to Fairhaugh on the left, it deteriorates and becomes badly rutted. However, before long the track re-emerges from the forest, via a step stile, onto the open lower slopes of Yarnspath Law. The way ahead is clear. So, follow the track downhill and, when you reach a broad wooden footbridge, cross over the Usway Burn and follow the path up the short bank on the other side. At the top, cross over the five bar gate (GR NT875136) close to where a small wooden shed stands. Writing in 1977, in his booklet, `On Foot in the Northumberland National Park and the Border Forest Park`, H. O. Wade called this place, “the four track ends” and a quick glance at the Ordnance Survey map shows just why. He then went on to add that, “this notable spot is said by some to hide ten old tracks”, although he was only able to find, “the remnants of six, all of which can with care be followed”. Your route now turns left across a small step stile and up the north facing end of The Middle on a clear, delightfully green track. After letting your boots brush the 399 metre (1309 feet) high summit continue down the other end to a five bar gate and a ladder stile into the recently (as at 2017) harvested forest.

 

 

Kyloe Shin

 

The track to Kyloe Shin on the left

 

6. Once inside the former forest continue uphill and, when the track splits in two at a badly rutted junction, take the right hand folk. When this track bends to the left be sure to make a very brief detour to the 396 metre (1299 feet) high top of Middle Hill by turning right across a relatively short `minefield` of grassy humps and bumps. Returning to the main track, continue in the same direction and very quickly you will merge with a track climbing up from the isolated building of Fairhaugh. A five bar gate and ladder stile leading out of the former forest can now be seen a short distance ahead. Once on the other side, a clear green quad track leaves the main track to your left and climbs steeply uphill in a south easterly direction towards the 433 metre (1421 feet) high Kyloe Shin. The top, which you will want to visit, lies a tad to the left of the track just before your route begins to head for lower ground. There are tremendous views of the hills rising up from the opposite bank of the Usway Burn, with The Castles particularly prominent and impressive. Leave the summit by choosing the easiest way down the southern slope of the hill and, when flatter ground is reached, follow a thin path towards a small but obvious knoll. Cross over the top and then join a quad track across the grass-carpeted saddle towards Shillhope Law, now dominating the way ahead. Before the gradient begins to rise again keep your eyes peeled for the track (GR NT872106) which carried you here from Wedder Leap all those many hours ago. Now you must turn right and head downhill along your outward route back to the car park and the end of a tremendous day in the hills. But first, once past the Deer Hut, take the track downhill towards the buildings of Barrowburn where you will find a conveniently situated farmhouse tearoom where you will be able to refuel before your journey home. Eventually, as you head back down the valley, a single mile into your homeward journey, keep an eye out for the ford which cuts across the river. It was here, wrote David Dippie Dixon in 1903 that “the road crosses the Coquet at Bygate Hall Ford, near the base of Dumbhope Law, and ascends the southern shoulder of Shillhope Law, along by Shillhope Cleugh, at a dizzy height above the bed of the stream. Here the road bears the name of Shillhope Racks.”  If you look carefully, you will be able to see the course of this old road cutting across the hillside. These days, the road stays with the right hand bank of the river until slightly further down the valley. Now it is just a matter of sitting back, slowing down and enjoying the warm `after-glow` of your trip into the `Hills of Upper Coquetdale`.

 

 

Shillhope Law

 

Grass-carpeted saddle towards Shillhope Law

 

 

 

Distance

18.7 km. (11.6 miles)

Total Ascent

867 metres (2844 feet)

Grading

Moderate

Start & Key Grid References

Northumberland National Park car park, Wedder Leap near Barrowburn (GR NT866103), (GR NT870109), (GR NT873097), (GR NT886078), (GR NT881103), (GR NT894109), (GR NT875136) & (GR NT872106).

Time

6 hours

Nearest Town

Rothbury

Terrain

Generally clear paths and tracks over undulating countryside with a number of reasonable steep ascents and descents.

 

Maps

OS Explorer (1:25000) OL 16. Harveys Superwalker (1:40000) The Cheviot Hills

 

Accommodation

The Camping Barn & The Deer Hut at Barrowburn (www.barrowburn.com), The Rose & Thistle & Clennell Hall at Alwinton otherwise a variety at Thropton & Rothbury

 

Transport

None (except to Rothbury & Thropton)

 

Tourist Information

www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Devised, written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2014 (slightly amended & new photographs added 2017)