REDESDALE & THE BORDER LINE

 

The village of Byrness lies in the upper reaches of Redesdale, just over 9km south of the Scottish border at Carter Bar. The Spithope Burn joins the River Rede north west of the village and has been all but suffocated by the dark green blanket of the Redesdale Forest. The village lies on the route of the Pennine Way and is a well-established night stop for weary walkers nearing the end of their epic journey from Edale in Derbyshire to the border town of Kirk Yetholm. This circular route explores the open hillsides which lie immediately outside the north, east and west boundaries of the Redesdale Forest crossing, en route, Byrness Hill, Houx Hill, Ravens Pike, Ogre Hill, The Heart's Toe, Greyhound Law, Hungry Law, Sandy Pike and, last but certainly not least, Echo Crags. Along the way you will enjoy vast panoramas across this wild and rugged border country as you follow in the footsteps of those hardy Roman Legionnaires who wandered these hills all those long years ago. Be prepared for something special.

 

Church of St. Francis, Byrness

 

The Walk

 

1. The settlement of Byrness consists of a hamlet, nestling beside the late 1793-built Church of St. Francis, and the 1950`s built Forestry Commission village, a short distance further up the valley. In 1903, a stained glass window was added to the church to commemorate the workers who died during the construction of the nearby Catcleugh Reservoir. A bronze plate alongside the window was added the following year, listing the names of all 64 fatalities. You will need to park in the village itself, finding a convenient road side place in quiet Otterburn Green (GR NT763027). Once you have prepared yourself for the day ahead, continue along Otterburn Green in a south easterly direction to a gate onto a forest track. Follow the track through a narrow avenue of fine, mature conifers and, after half a kilometre, you will reach the tiny stone-built Grade I Listed Church of St Francis. Bearing half left you will, almost immediately, reach the potentially busy A68 road. Your route now follows the course of the Pennine Way (PW) as far as the border fence, some 6 kilometres away, with the occasional PW (acorn) signage to keep you on the straight and narrow. At this point, do not cross the A68, turn left instead and keep your eyes well and truly peeled for a PW signpost on the opposite side of the road. Once spotted, carefully cross the road as the traffic here can be travelling at quite some speed, and follow the path away from the road signed, 'Chew Green'. You will soon pass a couple of properties and a small access road where you will need to keep a sharp lookout for another PW signpost on your right pointing through a narrow gap in a rather tall and dense hedge. The gap leads to a gate and onto a wafer-thin path through a gently rising field after which the path weaves through a lovely section of tall conifers crossing en route a forest track. Your route, at this point, heads straight across the track and soon exits the forest into an area which has been partially harvested and replanted. The views over Redesdale begin to open up, at least for a few more years until the trees have grown a bit taller.

 

 

4a climbing towards Byrness Hill.JPG

 

The views over Redesdale open up

 

2. The towering rocky outcrops of Byrness Hill will soon be seen ahead, as the path continues its persistent climb towards higher ground. Continue upwards, following a bracken-invaded path which twists and turns through a jumble of grey rock eventually leading to the cairn-crowned top of Byrness Hill (GR NT774032). Now high above the conifers, the view over Redesdale is impressive with Catcleugh Reservoir especially catching the eye way below. On the summit, look out for the remains of a stone lookout tower and the concrete base of what was once a hexagonal hut. Back in the early 1950's fire detection in the forest was carried out by the combined use of lookout towers, of which this tower was one of three, and regular motor cycle patrols. The towers were connected to the Forester's office by telephone with the motor cycle patrols resulting in great savings in manpower. Now continue in a northerly direction on a narrow path heading towards the rock-littered grass-covered hill immediately ahead, 427 metres high and shown on the Ordnance Survey map of the area as being Saughy Crag. Vast grasslands stretch out ahead, a succession of ups and downs, small crags and rocky outcrops here and there on a delightful uphill journey on a clear path, which passes over Green Crag on its way to Houx Hill. All the while, the Redesdale Forest lies a few hundred metres to your left whilst to your right is the valley of Cottonshope Burn and the vast tract of MoD owned land known as, 'The Otterburn Army Training Area'. This land should not be entered and, from time to time, the sound of live firing may, if the red warning flags are flying, disturb your peace and quiet. Hopefully, the Army will be having a day off!

 

 

 

Catcleugh Reservoir seen from Houx Hill

 

3. The grass-carpeted top of Houx Hill offers superb views across the Redesdale Forest with Catcleugh Reservoir and the buildings of Spithopehead particularly prominent. Keeping in the same direction you will soon cross Windy Crag and then, after a steady 10 minute uphill climb, the fine vantage point of Raven's Pike (GR NT780062). A decent 527 metres high and standing nose to nose with the boundary of the Otterburn Army Training Area, the modern cairn sits on top of a Bronze Age burial cairn and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. This is, strangely enough, the highest point of the walk and is an excellent spot to enjoy the vast views, a succession of green rounded hills rolling into the hazy distance and the volcanic heart of the Cheviot Hills.

 

 

 

Raven's Pike and the vast view

 

4. Leaving Raven's Pike behind, and continuing in the same direction, a long section of duckboards leads you nicely over a potentially boggy area of ground as you follow the forest boundary fence towards Ogre Hill, 516 metres above sea level and little more than a small green bump protruding above the surrounding ground. In his 1976-published book, 'Walking the Scottish Border', Robert Langley wrote, by early evening I was high on Ogre Hill with the great sweep of valleys and peaks curling out below me, and it is indeed a beautiful place to be with when there is nobody else around. You are now close to the most northerly point of your walk, where England and Scotland collide, and a mere 2 straight-line kilometres from the lonely end of the public road through Upper Coquetdale, yet some 5 kilometres from the busy A68 road next to your starting point in sleepy Byrness. So, continue northwards, passing a small gate into the forest on your left with an adjacent public footpath signpost and a hand painted sign stating, 'No Vehicle Access', as you now aim for another signpost a short distance ahead and a little distance to the right of the boundary fence. This signpost indicates the route of a permissive footpath which initially follows the northern boundary of the forest via the English side of the fence although this route is unclear on the ground as it takes a somewhat difficult route through the edge of the conifers. Your route follows the northern boundary of the forest via the Scottish side, thus adding an international dimension to your walk. You should now make your way to the top corner of the forest (GR NT775075), where the east boundary fence meets a second fence, and once there clamber over the facing fence (not the boundary fence into the forest) via a fixed gate. Now turn to your left, and with the forest boundary fence also on your left, begin to head through a sea of Scottish tussocks, the occasional hint of a path to follow but, by and large, a question of just cautiously picking your way through a minefield, possibly boggy, of energy-sapping lumps and bumps whilst keeping in relatively close contact with the boundary fence. Occasionally there are fine views into the forest where mature trees have been felled and the replacement saplings which were planted a few years ago have yet to reach a panorama-blocking height.

 

 

 

Fine view into the forest

 

5. The names pass in a blur of concentration, firstly Grindstone Law, over to your right, and then the curiously named, The Heart's Toe, 449 metres high and a handful of metres inside the English border. Here there is a five bar gate and a small step stile into the forest along the course of a public bridleway which ultimately leads back to Byrness, passing along the way the remote bothy of Spithope. However, your route continues to follow the northern boundary of the forest on Scottish turf, passing Hawkwillow Fell and Greyhound Law on its undulating journey to Hungry Law, which is eventually reached after a short boundary-hugging climb. The top of Hungry Law (GR NT747061), 501 metres in height, is marked by a triangulation pillar standing in front of a 90 degree turn in the barbed wire fence, a pillar which was completed on the 25th November 1953. As you stand here admiring the view, spare a thought for James Logan Mack, author of the 1924 book, 'The Border Line', who wrote, after walking from Carter Bar to this very spot, that, it was the only stretch of this desolate region which I had traversed without a companion, adding sternly, I do not advise any person to follow my example. Perhaps the fact that he wore plus fours, heavy tweeds and a large cap gave him a rather jaundiced view of the area.

 

 

 

The summit of Hungry Law

 

6. In order to plant your boots once again on English soil, without tearing your trousers on the top strand of barbed wire, back track a short distance and carefully cross to the other side of the fence via two back-to-back fixed gates. Once safely on terra firma, turn left where you will see an old and very rusty flatbed trailer, and if you haven't already had your lunch, this might well be a perfect spot, a ready made table on which to layout your goodies. Now, with the fence, which stands behind the trailer, on your left, start your slightly downhill journey through a smattering of small conifers, following as best you can a pencil-slim path and climbing along the way two deer fences via fairly steep ladder stiles. Eventually, after some 1.3 kilometres of walking, you will reach the rocky outcrop of Sandy Pike, 476 metres high and boasting two reasonably fine cairns. As you continue your generally downhill trek, take note of the five bar gate on your left giving access into the forest, as this will be your route back to Byrness after the small matter of an out-and-back visit to Echo Crags. The going on this part of the route is generally easy grass-covered walking on a faint path interspersed with occasional rocky outcrops here and there and with a few ups and downs to keep you on your toes. It is approximately 800 metres in distance in each direction and should take you somewhere in the region of 30 minutes overall. This is a detour well worth the extra effort. A short climb will finally deliver you to the western edge of Echo Crags (GR NT742044) and another airy view of Catcleugh Reservoir and the surrounding hillsides.

 

 

 

Echo Crags

 

7. Once you have sufficiently savoured the fine view it is time to retrace your steps as far as the five bar gate into the forest immediately before reaching the unmistakeable landmark of Sandy Pike and its two cairns. If the gate is locked, no matter, merely clamber over to the other side, after all you are on Access Land and the gate lies on the route of an age-old bridleway, and continue to follow the short grassy ride as far as a firm gravel forest track. Here you must turn to your right and begin your winding downhill journey, first through an avenue of tall view-strangling conifers and then, as the trees begin to thin out, enjoying excellent open views of Redesdale and the distant half-hidden settlement of Byrness. On reaching the extreme edge of the forest boundary, turn right, with fields on either side of you, to reach the A68 and the short route back to Byrness. Cross over very carefully to the opposite side of the road and, once safely there, turn left. Now, keeping well in to the side of the road, head towards Byrness, turning right at the first junction and into Otterburn Green.

 

 

 

Flatbed Trailer near Hungry Law

 

 

 

Distance

17 km (10.5 miles)

Total Ascent

543 metres (1782 feet)

Grading

Strenuous

Start & Key Grid References

On-Street Parking, Otterburn Green, Byrness, Redesdale GR NT763027, GR NT774032, GR NT780062, GR NT775075, GR NT747061& GR NT742044

Time

5-6 Hours

Nearest Town

Jedburgh/Otterburn

Terrain

A steady ascent on the Pennine Way, which is generally firm, followed by rough tussocky terrain, potentially boggy, with only a vague hint of a path and culminating in a firm forest track. This is lonely country and whilst navigation is fairly simple experience of similar terrain would be helpful

Maps

OS (1:25000) Explorer Map OL16

Accommodation

Forest View Walkers Inn, Byrness, Border Forest Holiday Park and Redesdale Arms, Otterburn

Public Transport

None

Tourist Information

www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk

 

 

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NEXT: THE HALF KIDLAND FOREST ROUND

 

Devised, written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2021