THE WOOLER FIVE

 

The North Northumberland town of Wooler has often been described as the “Gateway to the Cheviot Hills” and, whilst other towns and villages in the area might well wish to claim a similar title, this stone-built town is undoubtedly perfectly situated for any number of walking routes into the surrounding hills. It boasts a variety of `tourist` facilities and is the natural place from which to explore this fascinating part of north Northumberland. This walk offers a splendid introduction to five of the nearby hills which, whilst modest in height, afford excellent views from their lonely windswept summits. From hillfort-topped Humbleton Hill to cairn-crowned Akeld Hill, from grass-carpeted White Law to craggy Watch Hill this is a route of ups and downs and for much of the way you will be utterly alone. So, fasten up your boots and enjoy the far-reaching panoramas that stretch out to the wild Cheviot heartland whilst you experience a little of the history that litters this fascinating part of Northumberland.

 

 

 

Whiskey Cleugh

 

The Walk

 

1. “From Wooler northward, a procession of singularly bold hills, each about a thousand feet in height, rise like an array of flanking buttresses to the mass behind” is how A. G. Bradley, in his 1908-published book, `The Romance of Northumberland`, described the area you are about to explore, whilst, in his 1926-published book, `Walks from Wooler`, W. Ford Robertson said that nearly the whole of the district could be explored on foot from Wooler with, “occasional assistance from train, motor car or horse conveyance”. Whilst the train no longer runs and horse conveyance has gone somewhat out of fashion, the motor car is now the preferred method by which to reach the starting point of many a local walk. So, leave the town via Ramsey`s Lane and make your way to the Humbleton Burn Picnic Area where there is adequate parking space (GR NT976272). For many years this area was shown on local maps as, `The Targets` a name which dates back to the 1914-18 Great War when targets were hoisted by the military on the now plantation-shrouded slopes of Brown`s Law whilst soldiers, located further down the valley, took aim and fired. These days it is a peaceful place frequented by locals, many of whom come here to walk their dogs, along with a steady trickle of day visitors. Once you have gathered yourself for the day ahead and with your back to the road you arrived on head over the car parking area to the small footbridge on your left which crosses the Humbleton Burn and go to the other side. You are now entering the plantation covering the lower eastern slopes of Brown`s Law, so be sure to watch out for the small marker post with the circular black cross symbol signifying that you are about to follow the 62˝ mile long St. Cuthbert`s Way as it climbs relatively steeply towards a small gate at the upper edge of the plantation. In his book, `Walks from Wooler`, W. Ford Robertson described this gate as, “a little gateway at the top of the brae” and in that small respect, nothing much has changed since 1926. Go through the gate and continue straight ahead on a clear green track rising across the north eastern shoulder of 237 metre high Brown`s Law with the 208 metre high unnamed hill over to your right, until another gate is reached (GR NT972275). Go through.

 

 

St. Cuthbert`s Way through the plantation

 

2. You must now part company with St. Cuthbert`s Way although you will meet up again for a short time later in the walk. So, turn to your right and, after passing through a second gate, start the gentle descent towards, but not as far as, the tiny hamlet of Humbleton. On your left hand side there once stood the cottage of Drythropple, which was described in 1926 by W. Ford Robertson as, “the old ruin” and was referred to on the 1866-published First Edition of the Ordnance Survey map as simply a, “Shepherd`s House”. Eventually, after some 450 metres of easy downhill walking, you will spot on your left hand side, slightly set back from the track and immediately after a 90 degree turn in the drystone wall, a five bar gate (GR NT973279) and, beyond the gate, the steep eastern slopes of Humbleton Hill. This is the first of your five hills of the day. Go through the gate and head straight on, picking up as you go a clear uphill path. Continue upwards and, in time, you will pass through the tumbled ramparts of one of the finest Iron Age hillforts in Northumberland and second only in size to the hillfort on Yeavering Bell. The impressive remains include a central `citadel` containing the remains of a series of hut scoops together with an outer enclosure. The summit area also sports a fairly large cairn and there are outstanding views over Milfield Plain and towards the heart of the Cheviot Hills. As it is invariably exceedingly windy on this exposed top, you might not wish to overstay your welcome so take your leave by following the clearly defined footpath which follows the southern edge of the hill in a generally westwards direction. This will soon deliver you to a step stile and, once on the other side, turn to your right and continue your downhill journey on a splendid green track until you reach another path, this time arriving from your right (GR NT966288). On the 14th September 1402 this area was the scene of the Battle of Homildon Hill. The Scots, led by Archibald, Earl of Douglas, were returning from a raid in Northumberland when they were intercepted by the Earl of Northumberland and his son Harry Hotspur, accompanied by a force of English archers. The archers were in nearby Monday Cleugh when they rained a devastating shower of arrows on the Scots who were standing on the slopes of Humbleton Hill. The Scots were soundly defeated and news of the battle is immortalised in Shakespeare`s play, `Henry IV`.

 

Monday Cleugh and Harehope Hill

3. Now turn left along the extreme northern edge of the Northumberland National Park above and parallel to the A697 Wooler to Coldstream road whilst contouring the northern slopes of Harehope Hill. Eventually, after passing through two small gates with adjacent ladder stiles, you will reach a third small gate next to an abrupt turn to the north-west (GR NT 953288). Pass through the gate and start heading downhill towards the two storey dwelling of Gleadscleugh passing through a five bar gate along the way. In time, after crossing the Akeld Burn, which lies in a delightful dene, you will reach a gravel track which, to your left, climbs gently uphill to join the route of St. Cuthbert`s Way whilst, to your right, heads towards the tiny hamlet of Akeld, described in W. W. Tomlinson`s 1888 book, `Comprehensive Guide to Northumberland` as being, “once a village of some consequence, now a large farmstead with a few labourer`s cottages”. Immediately to your right stands the attractive, stone-built dwelling of Gleadscleugh. Now cross over the track and head slightly to your right, on a clear track, climbing adjacent to Glead`s Cleugh towards the col (GR NT949293) between the top of Akeld Hill and the smaller, but no less attractive, subsidiary top. Continue uphill, ignoring the first track on the right, until you reach a distinct path on the left. At this point, head right across rough grassland aiming for the col between the two `tops` of Akeld Hill.  Once on the col, turn right to reach the substantial walker`s cairn on the 238 metre high subsidiary top where there are superb airy views across the River Glen towards Milfield Plain. Now, head back across the col to visit the true top of Akeld Hill standing at a height of 254 metres above a very distant sea level. There are two medieval shielings on Akeld Hill both of which survive in good condition and retain significant archeological deposits. Continue in a south westerly direction, crossing the bracken-infested neck of land leading to the steep climb of White Law.  There is a thin intermittent trace across this rough ground which, if located, will help you along the way. This, in turn, links up with a useful quad track. As you head towards the hill-clinging drystone wall aim for the small gate. Once there, and before you let out a huge sigh of relief, turn to your left and begin the lung-bursting, muscle-aching climb always keeping the wall within sight. You will, inevitably, need to zig-zag as the gradient rapidly steps up a gear. Eventually, after much puffing and panting, you will arrive at the barely noticeable summit of White Law (GR NT 942290). At 302 metres this is the highest point of the walk so far and from here you will enjoy extensive, wide open views towards many of the higher Cheviot Hills. You will experience a sense of great emptiness on this wind-blown hill.

 

 

 

Akeld Hill subsidiary top

 

4. Cross over the wall, via the summit-hugging ladder stile, and immediately turn to your left. For the next 1.3 kilometres you will be following this boundary wall over predominantly rough grassland with superb views over to your right of conical-shaped Yeavering Bell the proud possessor of the area`s largest Iron Age hillfort. Whilst this is an undulating part of the route you will also be gradually gaining height as you make your way, following as best you can a thin sheep trace and then a helpful wall-hugging track, to Tom Tallon`s Crag which, at 353 metres, is surprisingly the highest point of the day. In order to reach this small, but well-situated, rocky outcrop you will need to leave the guiding wall behind as it begins to drop towards St. Cuthbert`s Way, a point which is conveniently marked by a large rock a little to the right of the track, and then to head to your right through a short section of ankle-tugging heather (GR NT 933281). Once again, a thin trace will make the going just that bit easier should you happen to locate it. This is a fantastic viewpoint across acres of spacious Cheviot countryside towards a distant incoming tide of superbly rounded hills; Great Moor, The Cheviot, Preston Hill, Broadhope Hill, Hedgehope Hill, Newton Tors and many more besides. Spend some time to see how many you can name before returning to the wall and continuing downhill towards St. Cuthbert`s Way. Once reached, next to a five bar gate and an adjoining near-vertical ladder stile, clamber over the stile and continue forwards, initially at least, on a fine green track. You will be following this track for roughly 850 metres, in the first instance slowly losing height as you head towards the fledgling Akeld Burn and the lowest, and wettest, point on this stretch of the walk before then beginning to imperceptibly rise again. Along the way, across an area of grassland interspersed with patches of heather, you will pass a small plantation close to your left hand side with a much smaller strand of trees further over to your right. Be sure to be careful, at the edge of the left hand plantation, to leave the firm track behind and to follow the rougher waymarked route of St. Cuthbert`s Way. You will soon pass a moderately sized walker`s cairn before then reaching the curved corner of a drystone wall (GR NT 940275). It is now time, once again, to leave the pilgrim`s route of St. Cuthbert`s Way by turning to your right and, with the drystone wall immediately to your left, striking out along a clear green track towards the Commonburn road.

 

Walker`s cairn on St. Cuthbert`s Way

 

5. Before you have time to sing all verses of Bob Dylan`s, `Like a Rolling Stone` you will join the Commonburn road (GR NT 940268) which, from here back to the Humbleton Burn Picnic area, is a mixture of tarmac road and firm gravel track. Over to your right you will spot a small rocky outcrop, the ideal place for a breather and some much needed sustenance. The view is extensive. Once refreshed, turn to your left and head off in the direction of a very distant Wooler, but be aware that you will be leaving this stretch of easy walking after a mere 550 metres or so. Almost immediately after you have passed over a culverted trickle of a sike and at the end of a slight bend in the road, be sure to watch out for a rough and easy to miss track which heads off to your right through a swathe of deep heather. This is the way forward as you make your way, above the Common Burn, towards the fourth and the penultimate hill of the day, Watch Hill. In his 1926 book, `Walks from Wooler`, W. Ford Robertson said that the heavily tree-shrouded valley to your right was called, “Whiskey Cleugh” a name which has long since disappeared from common usage. The trees are a more recent addition to the area and it was once possible to walk along the opposite side of the burn on a clear path. Keep with the rough track, enjoying great views down to the cleugh, for just over 1 kilometre to a point where you are more or less level with a rocky outcrop higher up the slope on your left  (GR NT952261). At this point leave the track behind and begin to climb the pathless slope, briefly through some heather, to reach, after scrambling through a waterfall of tumbled grey stone, the rocky and tiny cairned top of this well-situated hill. In the understated words of W. Ford Robertson, this is a hill from which, “very fine views can generally be obtained”. You can now judge for yourself as you take a well-earned breather.

 

Watch Hill

Watch Hill

 

6. When you are ready to leave this elevated spot turn to face northwards and descend a short, pathless distance to join a clear track towards Fredden Hill. This is a relatively easy stretch of moorland walking and, when you ultimately reach some small crags (GR NT 954267), be sure to follow the track which heads off to your right. You will soon spot a few flat stones which, whilst marking the summit of Fredden Hill, also act as a fine viewing platform from which to enjoy the wide angle panorama northwards. In the foreground you will see the striking white cottage of Bell`s Valley and the glacial deposits of The Trows, whilst behind, rise, on the right, Humbleton Hill and, on the left, Gains Law. In the far distance, the wild North Sea coast can be clearly seen on a fine day. For such a small prominence, the breadth of the view is outstanding. Leave the summit by following the track the short distance to a small post and, once there, turn left to head downhill passing, on your left, a series of half buried and well-camouflaged shooting butts. At the base of the hill continue with the thin path as it turns to the right, in time, passing through a gap in the remnants of a drystone wall. On reaching the road, which is the Commonburn road, turn right passing, over to your left, the photogenic cottage of Bell`s Valley seen earlier from above, and, on your right, the scant remains of the four ruined cottages that once lined this stretch of downhill track. When W. Ford Robertson wrote his book, `Walks from Wooler` way back in the early 1920`s these cottages were already in a ruinous state and one can only speculate as to when they were last lived in and what life must have been like for those hardy souls. Your route continues to follow the road back to the Humbleton Burn Picnic Area passing along the way the occupied cottage of Brownslaw and the fine house of Petersfield where none other than W. Ford Robertson once resided. As you reach the end of this walk over five of the small hills on the outskirts of Wooler it is perhaps time to think about where your next walk will take you. The choice is huge.

 

 

One of the ruined cottages

 

 

Distance

15 km (9.3 miles)

Total Ascent

641 metres (2103 feet)

Grading

Moderate

Start & Key Grid References

Humbleton Burn Picnic Area, Wooler (GR NT976272, GR NT972275, GR NT973279, GR NT966288, GR NT 953288, R NT949293, GR NT 942290, GR NT 933281, GR NT 940275, GR NT 940268, GR NT952261 & GR NT 954267 )

Time

5 hours

Nearest Town

Wooler

Terrain

Generally clear paths and tracks, some tarmac and the occasional rough and pathless stretch.

Maps

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

Accommodation

Numerous and varied in Wooler

Public Transport

None

Tourist Information

www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk

 

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Devised, written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2018