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21-12-2020 / 11:00

Walking in Northumberland’s Cheviot Hills

by Athena Mellor

At the very north of England, at the top of Northumberland National Park, the Cheviot Hills hug the North Eastern Scottish border. Taking in views all the way out over the North Sea, The Cheviots, as they’re also known, are characterised by rolling moorland peaks intersected by verdant, winding valleys and are home to ancient forts and herds of feral, horned goats.

Despite arguably offering some of Britain’s most expansive views and wildest hiking, The Cheviot Hills are underexplored compared with their sister ranges in the rest of the country. We sent writer Athena Mellor and her partner, photographer David Harvey on a 15km hike to find out more about this wild corner of British countryside.

Being the highest peak in Northumberland National Park at 815m, it felt only natural that we would attempt to summit the Cheviot on a cold but dry day. Yet the closer time drew to our planned 15km hike in the Harthope Valley of Northumberland, the more temperamental the weather forecast appeared. Low clouds were predicted to obscure the majority of the route, paired with high winds that always make progress slow for any level of hillwalker. We considered changing plans a few times, wondering if we should stick to the lowlands rather than setting our sights so high. But for my partner Harvey and I, the draw of the wild is almost always victorious over any imperfect weather forecast, so we laced on our boots, threw our rucksacks over our shoulders filled with a few extra layers and copious amounts of trail snacks, and headed into Northumberland’s higher hills regardless.

"After a hearty breakfast and a few cups of coffee to fuel the day ahead, we hit the road for the starting point of our walk — the Harthope Valley…"

As someone who spends a lot of time exploring wild places around the UK, I have spent but a very short amount of time in Northumberland National Park. It was somewhere I saw as being rugged, mysterious and filled with history, and a part of the UK of which I was eager to explore more. Home to England’s cleanest rivers, clearest air and darkest skies, Northumberland is a nature lover’s paradise; somewhere with endless opportunities to hike, swim, climb and explore. Being so close to the Scottish border, I imagine that many people bypass Northumberland National Park in favour of the Scottish mountains, meaning it is also one of the least visited and least populated National Parks in the country. But for me that is just another reason to visit… with the hope of having the hills all to ourselves, as we did on this particular day.

Our day began at YHA The Sill at Hadrian’s Wall where we had stayed the night. The youth hostel is in a striking building, with a beautiful living roof that is designed to reflect and blend in with the surrounding landscape. We also took the opportunity to wander down to the famous Sycamore Gap at Hadrian’s Wall at dusk the night before, so Harvey could live out his childhood (and adulthood) dream of visiting the site made famous by the 1990s classic, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’. After a hearty breakfast and a few cups of coffee to fuel the day ahead, we hit the road for the starting point of our walk — the Harthope Valley, another 60 miles north into the National Park.

“We probably spent much longer than we should have exploring Housey Crag and its neighbouring Long Crags...”

I chose this valley for our walk as it is the site of Northumberland’s two highest peaks, and I am someone who loves to gain height to really get to know an area in which I wander. Yet as we approached the valley, we could see clouds clinging to the higher peaks and I was fairly confident that there would be no 800m views on this day, but all in all the hills were clear and in that moment I was overwhelmingly pleased that we had stuck to our original plan.

Housey Crags

Ascending from Harthope Burn, views soon began to open onto the surrounding hills and valleys; a blanket of textures and colours, without another soul in sight. Soon we arrived at Housey Crags, a prominent rock formation amidst a landscape of rounded peaks. The tor, formed of Hornfells, offers views across to the Cheviot herself - still obscured by cloud - and over the meandering burn in the valley below.

“With the sun beaming between clouds and views wide and vast, it was difficult to draw ourselves back onto the footpath…”

Our Ordnance Survey map showed sites of a few ancient settlements near to Housey Crags and Long Crags. After investigating for some time, we couldn’t see any traces of them, yet knowing that once upon a time in the Bronze and Iron Age there would have been people living here, on the hillside, was fascinating to us both. I later read that there were six hut circles at these sites, and that the better climate in those ages meant that people could live and farm at the higher altitudes.

We probably spent much longer than we should have exploring Housey Crag and its neighbouring Long Crags. With the sun beaming between clouds and views wide and vast, it was difficult to draw ourselves back onto the footpath for the steep ascent to our first peak of the day.

“At this point, the trail became vague and somewhat boggy, having us leaping between stones and tip-toeing across planks to avoid sinking into the mud.”

Hedgehope Hill

At 715m, Hedgehope Hill is the second-highest mountain in Northumberland National Park and the climb to its rounded peak is a steep but rewarding one. A few hundred metres from the summit, we disappeared into a thick white cloud and watched the colourful valley be obscured by an ever-deepening fog. From Hedgehope Hill, the trail stretched further into the hills while the domed figure of the Cheviot remained hidden under a foggy hat, rolling rapidly down the mountainside. I always love the mystery of what lies beneath the fog, knowing that soon I will be rambling into it and my perspective will shift entirely.

At this point, the trail became vague and somewhat boggy, having us leaping between stones and tip-toeing across planks to avoid sinking into the mud. It all made for an ever-entertaining journey, and by the time we reached Comb Fell we decided it was time for lunch.

“...We both glanced upwards towards the 800m peak we planned to ascend, hidden beneath a looming cloud.”

Scotman’s Cairn

Only around half way into our route, at this point we realised that the sun was dipping quickly thanks to the shortening days. “We’d better get a move on”, muttered Harvey while admiring the golden light that started to cast its magic over the valley. At the same time, we both glanced upwards towards the 800m peak we planned to ascend, hidden beneath a looming cloud. We discussed briefly heading back through the valley — thus bypassing the mighty Cheviot — realising there would be no view from the summit anyway and that the light was fading fast. But equipped with head torches, knowing that the descent from the summit would be straightforward navigation-wise, and drawn in by the mystery of what lay beneath the cloud, we decided to step up the pace for the following 4km to the summit.

Descending into the valley at Scotsman’s Knowe, where the Harthope Burn ends its course, we had one final chance to take the easy route through the valley home. But heads down, without even a glance at each other, we headed onwards only stopping briefly at Scotsman’s Cairn, the point where the Pennine Way joins the trail. The Pennine Way is a 268 mile hiking trail that begins in Edale, Peak District, and ends at Kirk Yetholm, just inside the Scottish border and only 30km from the Cheviot. It felt significant being so close to the end of the Pennine Way here in Northumberland, while my home stomping ground of the Peak District marks the start of it. If we’d had more daylight hours, we would have been tempted to skip down from the Cairn for just 1km to the Scottish Border, just to say we’d walked to Scotland for the day, but alas we had a destination in mind and only an hour before the sun was due to set.

“...I knew not what views lay beyond the mist but that the earth beneath my hiking boots looked just the same.”

The Cheviot

On leaving Scotsman’s Cairn, it didn’t take long before we disappeared into the cloud yet again for the final ascent towards the Cheviot. What appeared to be fairly newly-placed millstone slabs paved the trail, though we remained fully enshrouded by mist and surrounded by a floor of boggy peat that, ironically, reminded me much of Kinder Scout in the Peak District, where Pennine Way hikers begin their trail. To think that someone might begin and end their 268 mile hike in terrain so similar had me chuckling under my breath, though at the same time I knew not what views lay beyond the mist but that the earth beneath my hiking boots looked just the same.

The summit of the Cheviot is a large, flat dome. More of a plateau than a peak, marked by a distinct white cairn. Indeed, the mountain is in fact heavily eroded and it is thought it was once as high as 3000m with a diameter of around 60km. I can’t deny it was a relief to only have to climb to 800m in this case, especially as we were now just 20 minutes before sunset and still hidden inside the cloud.

“Emerging from the fog, we could see the distinct dome of Hedgehope Hill to our right on the other side of the valley…”

Descending to Harthope Burn at Sunset

While normally I would enjoy a victory cup of tea and snack at a summit, on this occasion we only paused momentarily before continuing on our way. The 2.5km track from the Cheviot to Scald Hill, our final summit, was breathtaking. Emerging from the fog, we could see the distinct dome of Hedgehope Hill to our right on the other side of the valley, while the distant peaks, woodlands and tors of Northumberland National Park faded in and out of the fast-moving mist — pastel skies and a pretty, pink sunset offering spectacular views to descend. I was thrilled we had managed to emerge from the cloud at the perfect moment to watch the sunset, and that we still had light to see us into the valley. From Scald Hill, we descended towards the burn just as the light completely faded and our final 3km tramp along the burn in darkness allowed us to reflect on the day.

Having the opportunity to hike in a new part of the country always fills me with such delight, and an eagerness to imminently return and see what more there is to discover. Northumberland was just as wild and rugged as I’d hoped, yet still remained a complete mystery. Perhaps that was partly due to the amount of fog that had covered our route. I like that though, knowing there are still more views to witness, trails to hike and peaks to discover. Knowing there is so much more than can be uncovered in just 15km and that a return to Northumberland National Park would be imminent.

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