THE HEN HOLE CHEVIOT CIRCUIT

 

Wild, rugged and completely unspoiled, this romantic gorge, down which the College Burn flows in a continual series of cascades and waterfalls, is, of its kind, the most outstanding feature of the Cheviots. This is how H. O. Wade described the Hen Hole in his 1967 booklet, `Exploring the North East The Northumberland National Park`. It cuts a gigantic slice out of the steep west facing slopes of the mighty Cheviot, a primeval place where legends abound, where cliffs and buttresses climb relentlessly to the surrounding high ground, and where ravens nest and Arctic flowers flourish. It is, for those folk who are seeking the ultimate Cheviot experience, a must-visit spot. This walk starts at the end of the private road through the beautiful almost-linear College Valley and, whilst not especially long, it will take you on an unforgettable journey, from two of the quietest valleys in the Cheviot Hills to the summit of the area`s premier hill, the mighty Cheviot. It is a walk on the wild side, and one for the connoisseur. So, fasten your seat belts and let us begin our adrenalin-fuelled journey.

 

 

 

 

The College Valley beyond Mounthooly

 

 

The Walk

 

1. Starting this walk from the end of the private road requires you to either be staying at the Mounthooly Bunkhouse, one of the properties in the College or Lambden Valleys belonging to the College Valley Estate or, alternatively, to purchase online one of the limited daily permits to drive to the starting point immediately prior to the Mounthooly Bunkhouse. For information about all three options have a peep at the website www.college-valley.co.uk. A fourth, more taxing, option is available to those folk who are prepared to walk to the starting point from the small car park at the end of the public road at Hethpool and back again, an additional 7 miles (11.2km) to your day`s walking. The choice is yours. Now that you have arrived at this quiet spot, where the tarmac ends and the slopes of the Schil climb sharply to your right, it is time to start the serious business of making your way towards the Hen Hole. Head through the gate at the end of the road and follow the track which skips behind Mounthooly Bunkhouse continuing along the clear track into `Wilderness Wood`, and out through a gate. In the mid-1990s, 35 hectares of conifers were felled in this area and these were replaced by the planting of 75 hectares (50,000 trees) of native broadleaves. The scheme was grant aided by the Northumberland National Park and the Forestry Commission with the first tree, an oak, being planted on the 7th April 1995 by Viscount Ridley, the then Chairman of the College Valley Estate. Once beyond the plantation, where the College Burn slips away to your left, near a circular sheep stell, (GR NT878213) leave the main track behind, and follow the burn past a corrugated iron-roofed animal feedstore. Continue to keep close to the burn as you head upstream on a faint path taking care to ignore any side track. As the path turns towards the hungry open mouth of the Hen Hole, steep slopes begin to close in as you are about to enter a totally different environment.

 

 

 

Approaching the Hen Hole

 

 

2. To your right lies the route of the Pennine Way as it descends from the blowy heights of Auchope Cairn towards the Mountain Refuge Hut at the head of the College Valley. To your left, climb the steep western slopes of the Cheviot towards the aptly-named West Hill and a delightfully elevated rocky grandstand view of the Hen Hole and the rolling border hills. But for now, your route follows a lower, more exciting course as you make your way upstream with the College Burn close to you on your left hand side. `The Three Sisters` waterfall (GR NT884202) is the first of four splendid cascades to be negotiated on your journey through this very special place. Here the burn spreads out ready for one giant step, slips over the ledge, and falls in three pronounced strands as it plummets to the huge rocks below. With some minor scope for variation, there is an element of personal choice how each cascade is approached and passed. Immediately before the waterfall, carefully cross over to the left hand side of the burn and, to avoid the rocky outcrop, climb the grassy part of the slope to reach the head of the waterfall. As you stand here high above the waterfall it is worth thinking about the folk tale about, `Black Adam of Cheviot`. This tale tells how a notorious freebooter, who lived in a cave in the Hen Hole, burst uninvited into a wedding party at Wooperton more than 9 miles away. He robbed the wedding guests of their jewels and, after ravishing the bride, stabbed her to death. The bridegroom, who had been away seeking the priest, returned just in time to hear Black Adam`s scornful laugh. Taking his bride`s blood-stained handkerchief, he immediately gave chase, relentlessly pursuing Black Adam through storm and darkness, across wild, rugged terrain until they eventually reached the Hen Hole. Then, with a desperate leap of over seven metres across the cleft, Black Adam reached his cave with the bridegroom following in hot pursuit. The pair, after locking together in violent combat, finally tumbled to their deaths far below in the College Burn.

 

 

 

 

The `Three Sisters` waterfall

 

 

3. Now, keeping on the left hand side of the burn, follow the intermittent trace over a mixture of grass and large tumbled rocks, negotiating carefully a small waterfall and then a larger single strand cascade. Here, at the heart of this hanging valley, buttresses and crags tower above you on either side of the burn, on which there are a number of rock climbing routes, the majority being classified in the easier grades. They have names such as, Honeymoon Corner, Jacob`s Ladder, Yellow Slab, Tombstone and, for obvious reasons, Black Adam`s Corner. Once beyond the waterfall, the cleft begins to broaden as you reach a grassy corrie and a sharp right hand turn in the burn (GR NT892203). Take time to enjoy this delightful spot, a million miles away from the bustle and noise of your everyday life, and prick up your ears as you think about another of the Hen Hole folk tales. This tale, slightly less dramatic than the previous one, tells of a party of hunters who were chasing a roe deer near the Hen Hole when they were lured into the cleft by the sweetest music they had ever heard. They were never seen again. Adding a little more spice to this tale, Agnes Herbert wrote, in her rather quirky 1923 book, `Northumberland`, that should you be near the weird chasm of the Hen Hole at just the right moment, on just the right day, you will hear the horn of the hunters who were, lured into the sombre glen by a mountain fairy.

 

 

 

The heart of the Hen Hole

 

 

4. Now, as you too make a sharp right hand turn, keep to the left hand side of the burn and contour the steep pathless, grass-covered hillside staying a comfortable distance above, but parallel to, the burn and the angled waterfall. This can be an energy-sapping stretch of the walk but perseverance will soon have you walking on flatter terrain as you seek the easiest line forward by criss-crossing the narrow burn as you consider necessary. At the base of a small, partially concealed rock-splitting waterfall (GR NT893197), climb to the left of the burn to reach the head of the falls. This waterfall, seen from above, appears out of the blue, a tiny fracture in the ground bounded on both sides by grass-covered, rock-dotted slopes as it turns a full ninety degrees, drops abruptly and then tumbles in three distinct steps before dispatching the burn on its winding downhill journey. Now step over the burn and turn immediately right on a thin path, and then, after 75 metres, turn left up the rough slope, continuing south-westwards through small peat hags to the now paved route of the Pennine Way. At this point, it is worth making a short detour right, to visit Auchope Cairn which, in the right conditions, is a superb eagle`s-nest vantage point. Some 8 miles (12.9 km) from the end of a south to north walk along the 268 mile (431 km) long Pennine Way, Auchope Cairn can currently boast two tall, beautifully constructed cairns, something which has not always been the case. In 1859, after trundling to this elevated spot whilst carrying out a survey for the first Ordnance Survey map of the area, the Ordnance Surveyor wrote in the official `Names Book`, There is no cairn on the top of the hill, the name applying to the hill itself. Years later, in his fine 1926 book, `The Border Line`, James Logan Mack described Auchope Cairn as, a prominent hill seen from almost any part of Berwickshire, adding that, on a clear day the view to the west and north must be one of the most extensive in Great Britain. You cannot say much better than that.

 

 

 

 

Auchope Cairn

 

 

5. Now head back along the paved-Pennine Way as far as a jumble of fencing and a three-fingered signpost. You are now standing on the 743 metre (2438 feet) high summit of Hangingstone Hill, the historic county top of Roxburghshire. Sadly, you will not find it named on the Ordnance Survey map of the area. Your route now turns left towards Cheviot summit, an undulating paved pathway over a vast peat-covered plateau, passing along the way, the site where, on the 23rd July 1946 a Vickers Warwick aircraft crashed whilst en route to Fife in Scotland where it was due to be scrapped. The wreckage, and the bodies of the three crew members, was found by hillwalkers two days after the crash, and to this day substantial parts of the aircraft, including an engine, can still be spotted. So, as you wander merrily along the paved pathway, keep you eyes peeled to the left. Soon you will reach Cairn Hill, marked with a circular shelter cairn, known as Scotsman`s Cairn, on the opposite side of the post and wire fence and, in quick succession, two small loughs, both of which are marked on the 1:25k Ordnance Survey map of the area (GR NT904197). Continue across the vast and, in bad conditions, extremely bleak summit plateau and in time you will reach the huge plinth-mounted triangulation pillar marking the 815 metre (2674 feet) high top of this, Northumberland`s highest hill.

 

 

 

Cheviot summit on typically dreich day

 

 

6. Over the years, various writers have been less than complimentary after visiting the summit, describing it variously as, a desolate looking tract of treacherous moss-hags and oozy peat-flats, traversed by deep sykes and interspersed with black stagnant pools, a long bog trot over the proverbial swamp, an evil blanket of peat and, last but by no means least, by the indefatigable A. Wainwright as, an uninviting morass of peat and bog. These, you would think, are hardly the types of review that would have anyone, other than the truly foolhardy, rushing up the steep slopes of this brute of a hill. But this is a popular top, and one that lies on the official route of the Pennine Way. Some folk think it is an unnecessary detour towards the end of a long Pennine journey from Edale in Derbyshire to the border town of Kirk Yetholm for very little gain except, perhaps, for the satisfaction of knowing that you have climbed the county`s loftiest hill. Now, continue along the pathway as far as, but not over, the ladder stile (GR NT914207). Instead, turn left, and then after 60 metres or so begin to move away from the fence passing a stone shelter cairn on your right. With a clear damp track over heather-covered slopes to follow, the long descent to the Lambden Valley is relatively straight forward navigation-wise. Over to your left, you will get the hint of the deep cleft of the Goldscleugh Burn, unnamed on the current Ordnance Survey map of the area, whilst ahead and slightly to your right you will spot a rocky outcrop across an vast ocean of heather. This is Woolhope Crag one of a number of crags on this side of the Cheviot, including Bellyside Crag, Bizzle Crags and Braydon Crag. Across the valley, lie Coldburn, Preston and Broadhope Hills.

 

 

 

Woolhope Crag viewed from below

 

7. At the base of the descent (GR NT914228), turn right as far as a forest track. Once there, turn left and head downhill, passing through a deciduous plantation, to the isolated farm of Goldscleugh. This is the last property in the Lambden Valley, served by a narrow private estate road from Cuddystone Hall in the distant College Valley, and which was described by W. Ford Robertson in his excellent 1926 book, `Walks from Wooler` as, a shepherd`s cottage. The original cottage, which lies to the south of the more recently built white-washed bungalow, is no longer occupied. Continue along the narrow road around the outside of both the original cottage and the bungalow. This is the quiet private road serving Goldscleugh and now leading, as far as you are concerned, to the holiday cottage of Dunsdale a mere one mile (1.5km) away. The road rises and gently falls as you wander along high above the valley floor and the winding Lambden Burn. Eventually, when the road splits, turn left to the cottage gate (GR NT899231). You are now crossing over the Bizzle Burn, which rises high on the Cheviot plateau and almost within touching distance of the summit-topping triangulation pillar you passed earlier in your walk. Looking upstream, you will see the impressive Bizzle Crags where, once again, their are a number of climbing routes, twenty one in fact, each bearing an evocative name such as, `Spitfire`, `Devious Flightpath`, `Flying Fortress`, `Where the Hills Meet the Sky` and `Lost World`, names reflecting both the history and location of this very special place. However, in his 1926 book, W. Ford Robertson described this place as, the gloomy chasm on the north side of the Cheviot, which he considered easy to explore, but rather an uninviting place. I beg to differ. The cottage of Dunsdale was once home to John Dagg who, in December 1944, along with his dog Sheila and a fellow shepherd rescued 4 members of the crew of a bomb laden U.S. Army Air Force B17 Flying Fortress aircraft which had crashed into Braydon Crag. As a result of their actions both shepherds received the British Empire Medal and border collie Sheila received the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

 

 

 

The Bizzle Burn and Bizzle Crags

 

 

8. Now go through the gate and follow the green track to the left of the buildings, rising to the edge of a part-harvested plantation on Fawcett Shank. Keep within touch of this edge until you reach a broad forest ride on your right (GR NT884223). Time now to head sharply downhill and then, on reaching a rough track, to turn left. After a short distance you will get the opportunity to splash your boots, and anywhere else that pleases you, as you step carefully across the College Burn, via a ford, continuing as far as `Wilderness Wood` on the opposite bank of this beautiful burn. Now turn right on the track you started your journey on and return, around the outside of the Mounthooly Bunkhouse, to the end of the private road where you parked your car all those hours ago. If you have not already eaten all your supplies, now is the time to do so as you soak up the peace and quietness of this very beautiful valley.

 

 

 

Mounthooly viewed from above Fawcett Shank

 

 

Distance

15.8 km (9.8 miles)

Total Ascent

769 metres (2523 feet)

Grading

Strenuous

Start & Key Grid References

Prior to Mounthooly Bunkhouse, College Valley GR NT882227, GR NT878213, GR NT884202, GR NT892203, GR NT893197, GR NT904197, GR NT914207 & GR NT914228

Time

5-6 Hours

Nearest Town

Wooler

Terrain

A steady ascent through a rock-strewn and remote cleft which can be a little tricky in places. Experience of similar surroundings, requiring very mild scrambling, is helpful. Otherwise, there is a paved pathway, a private valley road and fairly obvious tracks and paths.

Maps

OS (1:25000) Explorer Map OL16

Accommodation

Mounthooly Bunkhouse/Cottages in the College & Lambden Valleys or various types in Wooler including Wooler Youth Hostel

Public Transport

None

Tourist Information

www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk

 

 

GO TO MAP

 

HOME PAGE

NEXT: PICTURE GALLERY

 

Devised, written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2020