THE HETHPOOL BORDER CIRCUIT

 

The Pennine Way clings to the border fence as it snakes across the high hills rising to the west of the beautiful and remote College Valley. The tiny settlement of Hethpool sits at the northern end of the valley, in the shadow of the towering Newton Tors, and is a picture-perfect start to any walk. Between the valley and the Anglo/Scottish border lies a series of wonderfully rounded hills, many of which are sprinkled with the relics of a distant and turbulent past. This walk explores some of the history of these hills whilst tasting the delights of two long distance footpaths on both sides of the border. It is a walk which will give you a taste for longer, more demanding routes from this one of Northumberland`s finest valleys.

 

 

The College Valley

The College Valley

The Walk

 

1. There is a small parking area just beyond the row of cottages at Hethpool, immediately after the cattle grid at the end of the public road (GR NT894280). Whilst the hamlet has a history dating back to 1242, its present character is largely determined by a group of buildings belonging to the Arts & Crafts style of the early 20th century. The splendid Hethpool House was built in 1919, with the distinctive conical roofed tower being added in 1928. A ruined tower still stands in the garden of the house and this was described in the 1957 edition of `The Buildings of England: Northumberland` by Nikolaus Pevsner as, “a ruin of a late 14th century tower more remarkable for its picturesque than its archaeological value”. He added that it was, “set at the end of a well tended garden, against a glorious background of hills”. So, surrounded by those glorious hills, start your day by heading south, along the narrow road, towards the distant head of the valley.  After little more than 200 metres, on the extensive area of grass to your right, you will see a number of stones lying in a fallen position. These are believed to be the remains of a Neolithic stone circle. Once at the end of the small plantation, on your right and just under half a mile after starting, you must leave the easy valley road behind and, by following the `permissive path` signposted `Great Hetha ¾` (GR NT890273), commence your first climb of the day. It will certainly not be the last.

 

Great Hetha

 

The view from Great Hetha

 

2. The path at first follows the edge of the plantation and, on reaching the stone wall at the top edge of the trees, turns to the left to make the final `assault` on the summit of Great Hetha, via a thin, disintegrating path followed by a relatively good track. As you gain some height the views open up and this will, should you need to, give you a perfect excuse for taking a bit of a breather. The 343 metre high summit, marked by a walker`s cairn, stands at the north eastern end of the hill from where there are fine views of the College Valley and the surrounding hills including the imposing north face of the mighty Cheviot. The remains of a strongly defended Iron Age hillfort lie on the top, surrounded by two ramparts of earth and stone. There is an entrance, on the north-west side, with traces of an in-turned bank where it passes through the inner rampart. Continue across the broad green ridge, in a south westerly direction, following the route of the `permissive path`, which is not necessarily always clear underfoot. When the white gable end of Trowupburn farm finally comes into view, way below, descend the hill, heading slightly to the left of the cluster of eight trees. Cross over the nearby step stile and on reaching the road (GR NT877268) turn left. Now, follow the road downhill, passing behind the farm buildings whilst turning away from the Trowup Burn, to join a public footpath. This path crosses the burn from the east and climbs diagonally up the hillside to the west. Your route heads west. Some 200 metres after passing through a metal gate leave the rough track behind and turn right uphill on a subsidiary track through an extensive area of gorse. This is at its magnificent best in springtime. When the gradient eases, with an oblong stone sheep enclosure (GR NT870265) to your right, be sure to follow the green track which angles slightly to your left, keeping to the right of the small rise. The views continue to entrance with the linear Trowupburn Hope stretching towards The Curr being particularly impressive over to your left.

 

 

Trowupburn

 

The white-walled Trowupburn

 

3. You are now cutting across the flanks of Madam Law where, on the night of the 24/25th March 1943, a Dornier Do 217E-4 aircraft crashed following a raid on the docks at Leith, Edinburgh. On the same night, a Junkers Ju 88 aircraft crashed close to Rig Cairn, high above the Linhope Burn, and a Spitfire crashed into Bellyside Hill on the north side of The Cheviot. In total nine young airmen, from both sides of the conflict, died in the Cheviot Hills that night. On reaching Wideopen Head (GR NT861265), which lies at the south eastern end of the saddle between White Law and Madam Law, the track you have been following heads straight through the gate, eventually, just short of 1 kilometre away, stepping into Scotland via the ancient crossing of the White Swire. Before you continue your journey by turning left and entering Scotland by a different route, why not make the minor detour to the 397 metre high summit of Madam Law. It would be rude not to. Pass through the gate, turn right and, with the fence on your right hand side, head the short distance uphill to the cairn-crowned top. This cairn is probably of modern lineage. Enjoy the panorama and then return downhill. Once back on the other side of the gate, you must turn right to follow the track uphill, with the post and wire fence to your right, towards the 429 metre high summit of White Law. For centuries the exact position of the  border between England and Scotland was the subject of considerable `debate`, and in his influential 1924 book, `The Border Line`, James Logan Mack said, “As the watershed here controls the nationality of the soil, Scotland now claims the actual peak of White Law as its own”. Not quite. On the assumption  that the border fence is in the correct position, and the Ordnance Survey map would seem to confirm that it is, then the true summit stands a few metres to the north of the small gate through the fence and, therefore, lies on English territory. See for yourself before you go through the small gate (GR NT857260) and plant your boots firmly on Scottish turf. The views are outstanding. Looking south, the border fence climbs up the beautiful Steer Rig, caught between the Halterburn Valley to the west and Trowupburn Hope to the east, as it heads towards Black Hag and the broad girth of The Curr. A plethora of small, curvaceous hills disappear into the Scottish distance.

 

 

White Law

 

The view from White Law

 

4. You are now standing on the route of the Pennine Way, waymarked over its entire length with an acorn symbol, and, with your back to the gate, turn to your right and head towards the ladder stile at Whitelaw Nick, some 300 metres away. Before you cross over the stile climb steeply uphill with the fence and the drystone wall (or, as you are now in Scotland, drystane dyke) on your right to reach to panorama-packed west top of White Law. It would be almost criminal to miss out on what must surely be one of the highlights of the day. Once you have taken in every conceivable angle of the outstanding view and perhaps have sat an enjoyed a leisurely lunch, return to the ladder stile at Whitelaw Nick. Now cross over the stile and immediately start your descent on a thin path alongside the drystone wall of the `Border Line`. This is the watershed of the Witchcleugh Burn which trickles westwards to join the Halter Burn less than a mile away. Keep with the thin path and as you reach the top of the next incline, you will be re-joining the track you left a short while ago at Wideopen Head. This is the White Swire (GR NT853268), first documented in 1222, one of the seventeen border crossings listed in a state paper of 1543 and a point of passage favoured by generations of reivers and drovers. Continue with the Pennine Way, but be careful to make a short diversion, to the left, after some 100 metres of walking at the point where the excellent green track begins its downward journey. Here you will find  the Stob Stanes, known locally as the `Gypsy Stobs`, which mark the spot where the gypsy kings and queens were traditionally crowned. The larger of the two stones, which is still upright, measures 1.65 metres in height. The true purpose of the stones is unknown, although they may have marked a medieval border line between England and Scotland. Alternatively, they may have had a more mysterious ritualistic purpose. Return to the main track, by turning right, and head downhill for a short distance until the signposted St. Cuthbert`s Way is reached (GR NT850272).

 

 

Stob Stanes

The Stob Stanes

 

5. Now turn right and start your 4 mile journey back to the College Valley. You will climb uphill on a good track towards the border and before long you will, once again, be stepping into England. A St. Cuthbert`s Way signpost will welcome you `home`. Opened in 1996, St. Cuthbert`s Way links together the religious sites of Melrose Abbey and Lindisfarne and is normally walked in a west to east direction. You will be going with the flow of `pilgrims` much of your return route. Within 20 metres, a thread thin path cuts away to the left heading towards your next vantage point, Eccles Cairn, from where there are superb views back into Scotland. If the air is clear, the triple tops of the Eildon Hills, so much loved by Sir Walter Scott, will be plain to see. Return to St. Cuthbert`s Way by heading in a south easterly direction, towards the directional fingerpost, and, once reached, continue downhill, to your left, to cross the damp ground of Tuppie`s Sike (GR NT859276). The path rises away from the sike, heading towards the north-west corner of the small coniferous plantation, climbing into the dark green canopy via a step stile. After all the wide open vistas enjoyed over the last 6 miles, the tight, dark confines of the plantation are mildly claustrophobic. Pick your way through a maze of tree trunks always keeping some semblance of light to your left hand side. Daylight will in time come as something of a relief!

 

6. Now that you are back in the open, hopefully with a warm sun on your back, a thin path cuts down Scaldhill Shank, in a north easterly direction, crossing Shank`s Sike, before passing through a five bar gate and then rising as a track to another five bar gate. The track then bends to the left and heads towards the buildings of Elsdonburn, contouring the steep lower flanks of Ell`s Knowe. As you approach the bungalow on your left go through yet another five bar gate, possibly already open, first swinging left with the rough track and then turning right past a signpost. Ignore the route to `Elsdonburn Shank`. You are now alongside the Elsdon Burn on a good tarmac road and you will stay with this for just over half a mile of pleasant walking. On your left rises the part harvested plantation that sweeps across Haddon Hill to Laddie`s Knowe. Eventually, the road merges with the Trowupburn access road and, just beyond this junction, a signpost (GR NT883282) points the way, via a `permissive path`, to Great Hetha. This is your route, although your destination is the somewhat nearer, the barely noticeable top of Little Hetha.

 

 

View to Elsdonburn

 

Looking back towards Elsdonburn

 

7. Leave the road to your right and begin your climb up the green hillside, accompanied by a post and wire fence. When you reach a directional fingerpost, turn left and almost before you have time to say “Iron Age defended settlement” you have reached the 210 metre high summit. The remains of this settlement stand on a spur surrounded by steep slopes and two ramparts. This is an impressive site with excellent all round views. Return to the tarmac road by the same route. Now turn right and continue your journey hugging the Elsdon Burn and in the company of a selection of beautiful rolling hills. When you reach, after ¾ mile, the single track road to Westnewton, turn right. As you make your way onwards watch out for the small post box, set into the reverse side of a circular stone pillar at the entrance to Hethpool House to your left (GR NT895283), and, as you re-enter the College Valley nearing the end of your day in the hills, admire the picture postcard cottages standing to your right. These 1926 built cottages have been described as, among the finest cottages to be seen anywhere in Northumberland, something for you to think about as you walk the final few metres back to your car and the end of a fine border-crossing circuit.

 

 

Post box at the entrance to Hethpool House

 

 

Distance

14. km (9.2 miles)

Total Ascent

717 metres (2352 feet)

Grading

Moderate

Start & Key Grid References

Small car park area at Hethpool, College Valley (GR NT894280), (GR NT890273), (GR NT877268), (GR NT870265), (GR NT861265), (GR NT857260), (GR NT853268), (GR NT850272), (GR NT859276), (GR NT883282) & (GR NT895283).

Time

5 hours

Nearest Town

Wooler/Kirk Yetholm

Terrain

Mainly good green tracks/paths with some stretches of tarmac

Maps

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

Accommodation

Numerous & varied in Wooler including Youth Hostel & caravan parks

Public Transport

None

Tourist Information

www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk

 

 

GO TO MAP

 

 

HOME PAGE

NEXT: PICTURE GALLERY

 

Devised, written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2007 (re-visited with amendments 2017)