THE CHEVIOT VIA COLLEGE VALLEY – 16 miles – Wednesday 5th October 2016
This was day four of a week-long walk over the Scottish Borders and Northumberland. Roughly 3 miles into England I stopped for two nights at Hethpool House at the head of the College Valley, 5½ miles north of the Border Ridge. I had a day planned to fulfil a long burning ambition to explore this intriguing valley from north to south. On the final day of the Pennine Way in 1994 I looked down from Auchope Ridge mesmerised by the scene that stretched to the north and one day hoped to return. A day of unknown pleasures awaited as I set off at 9:45. At the end of the drive, I turned left then immediately right with the bend of a road that runs deep into the valley, immediately passing a row of estate cottages. The 12,000 acre College Valley Estate was purchased in 1953 by the James Knott Trust with funds provided by trustees of the notable north-eastern industrialist, shipping magnet and politician turned philanthropist who died in 1934. The estate office is at Hethpool House which was built in 1919 on the site of a former 17th century seat of Admiral Lord Collingwood who fought with Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar on HMS Royal Sovereign. The current house was refurbished in the arts & crafts style in 1928 and today is a Grade II listed building.
I came to a car park and information board saying, ‘Welcome to the College Valley, private road ahead.’ For decades College Valley has operated a limited vehicle access policy with no more than twelve cars a day allowed. I was intrigued to know how this was policed and half expected to see a gate with a guard on duty. The info board gave a clue by saying cars beyond there needed to apply for a permit in advance from Sale & Partners, 18-20 Glendale Road, Wooler. NE71 6DW. I made a mental note to count the number of vehicles that passed me along this road… but I soon forgot! Later that evening I asked my host at Hethpool how the twelve car rule was controlled and she told me that basically it wasn’t these days, although there was a time when someone used to sit at the gate in a hut. Sometimes the farmers might ask people driving into the valley where they were going, but generally it all sounded a bit hit and miss. It seemed to be a rule that relied more on people’s willingness to comply. I guess if you are a visitor who wants to drive up the lane to take a nose you could do just that, personally I would recommend getting a permit to take the stress out of your day, especially at weekends and during the busier summer months. Better still, leave your car at this car park and explore it all on foot.
The opening miles were along the comfortable surface of the road with the College Burn down to the left. A place called Whitehall was the only property passed for the first 2 miles to a junction of roads. The tiny settlements of Southernknowe and Goldscleugh were directed off to the left with Mounthooly 1¾ miles directly ahead and the Border Ridge beyond. Next to this was Cuddystone Hall, some sort of village hall in the middle of nowhere, opposite that was a circular stone wall memorial with three benches surrounding a monument. The Cheviot Memorial marked the 50th anniversary of VE-Day in memory of Allied airmen who lost their lives on the Cheviot Hills between 1939 and 1945. I read the list of all the aircraft involved and where they came down, it was a grim rollcall. They included a Spitfire, Wellington, Lancaster, Stirling, Halifax and Hampden bombers, plus a B17 Flying Fortress. These hills that had begun to encroach on all sides were peppered with crash sites where countless young men had lost their lives. Most seemed to centre around the Cheviot and Bizzle Crags, a few still have wreckage and visitors are respectfully asked to leave it there.
As two dudes passed me on quad bikes I couldn’t decide if they counted as cars, it was becoming a minefield trying to categorise vehicles along this road. Beyond the eastern slopes of Blackhaggs Rigg I approached the mass of West Hill, a formidable rise with Braydon Crag at the top looking like a broken castle. Behind that, in almost permanent cloud, was the Cheviot, Northumberland’s highest peak. At 3 miles I passed Fleehope as the road went over a cattle grid and Fleehope Burn into an exposed and windy section. The Border Ridge directly ahead looked like an impassable barrier with scampering clouds kissing its surface. A mile later the eastern flanks of the Schil closed in on the buildings of Mounthooley just in front of a plantation. This was as far as the road went. This remote youth hostel was an exciting launch for some rougher walking as the path made for the last of the farmland and the rise of the Border Ridge. The two quad bikers were rounding up cattle to where I was heading and as I walked past I had a quick chat with the farmer who told me this herd was roughly sixteen months old. They had just been brought down from the ridge where they normally roam to feed but that was it for this year, they were down in the valley in preparation for the coming winter.
An obvious path headed up into the gulley and some wild open countryside. As I gained height, College Valley looked different from when I had first looked down in 1994, though nothing had changed this walk from Hethpool had altered my perception. Cuddystone Hall was on my Pennine Way photo but it never registered until now. It was an agreeable climb with constant looks back at a valley bathed in sunshine. Halfway up and my telephone sprung into life, it was the first signal I had met for two days and a flood messages began agitating for my attention, so I turned it off! At the top of Red Cribs I wandered over to the line of the Pennine Way. I was up on the Border Ridge. Just to the left was the Auchope Mountain Refuge Hut which stood at 498 meters or 1,633 feet. This was the second of two such huts along the Pennine Way Cheviot section, so I made my way over to that for a few moments respite from the maniac wind that blasted across this exposed grassy plateau. It was half an hour past midday.
Half an hour later I departed the hut with everything fastened down as I had a feeling it was going to get very cold the higher I got. Alongside the opening of Hen Hole I passed the 6th mile over a wide grassy concave ridge to the ascent of Auchope Cairn, a challenging climb of 718 feet from the hut. It was compensated by several breathers to take in some stupendous views to the west across the Scottish Borders. Despite the wind, this was now a fine afternoon with plenty of sun and blue skies. The photos showed nothing of the battle I had just to stand upright whilst taking them. These were the views denied to me in 1994 as I endured two days of driving rain and cloud over the Cheviot Hills with nothing of the panoramas promised by the guide books. Like General MacArthur I vowed to return in better weather and reclaim that which had been denied to me and there I was in the digital age taking endless photos of some of the most stunning views along the England/Scotland borderlands without having to wait a week for Jessops to print them off.
At 2,381 feet Auchope Cairn is easily reached from the northbound Pennine Way route but from the western approach it’s a different ball game. The wind was worse than it had been down by the hut but I was rewarded with some fine views to The Schil, the last great climb of the Pennine Way. The mountain hut was just a spec on my horizon now. I turned to walk south-easterly into the teeth of this gale over a flagstone Pennine Way surface to a corner junction of the border fence which I crossed to follow the signpost pointing to the ‘Cheviot Summit 1¼ miles.’ Beyond the 7th mile I continued over flagstones that had only just been laid when last I walked them in 1994. I closed in over an uninteresting landscape with the whitewashed trig point the most prominent point on an otherwise bleak horizon. Across a black and wasted area of marsh I came to the highest point in the northeast of England. I had reached the Cheviot (2,674 feet) at 14:25, my halfway point for the day.
I was blessed with the clearest skies of blue as the sun lit up the whole summit, a meteorological phenomenon that I suspect doesn’t happen too often here. I was very lucky indeed. Continuation from the trig point signified my departure from the Pennine Way which will come as some relief to readers of this article as I won’t keep banging on about 1994 anymore… jeez I was starting to bore myself! I continued to a fence where a ladder stile took me onto a path that began to descend. The views ahead of me were as clear as a bell and I could see exactly where I wanted to head for, in fact so clear I could almost see the North Sea. Harthope Valley with the enigmatic rise of Hedgehope Hill beyond now dominated my horizon, this distinctive valley is usually the most popular way up to the Cheviot. I took a quick photo then put my hands back into my gloves, I could only leave them exposed for a few seconds. This wind was really taking it out of me, but I was enjoying myself.
It became a steep drop to the 9th mile which was boggy at times. Some bits I had to leap over Gregg Rutherford style which did my right leg no favours at all. The path then climbed over Scald Hill and dropped to the far side alongside a fence on my left. The large hill I had watched during the descent was Broadhope Hill, this path went up and over that but I needed a left turn beforehand to start my preferred descent back into College Valley. After dropping to the gathering grounds of New Burn another climb brought me to a stile on the left which took me in-between grouse butts whilst following the reassurance of a compass reading. A brand new set of stunning views now opened to the west down into the Lambden Valley.
Through heather then along a track I turned right towards a plantation, for the first time in ages I felt warm. Hills were now rising on either side of me again; Preston Hill to my right and the Cheviot, a big lump away to my left. From the plantation I followed an overgrown path between bracken, a pleasant walk along a steep grassy hillside with the early trickle of Lambden Burn below. I needed a spot for lunch as the Border Ridge and Cheviot summit were too cold to stop in the howling wind. Lower down into this valley I passed a boulder by the path for a make-do lunch which at 10 after 4pm was a late one. I dropped to a stile and wooden gate and after two difficult crossings of the Lambden Burn joined a track from the back of Goldscleugh to plod my way past the 12th mile below Bellyside Hill. From there I would stay on a steady surface for the remainder of the walk. With the sun lowering into a blue sky I followed the lane and its many bends beneath plantations and Coldburn Hill with looks back to Mid Hill. Eventually I arrived back at the Cheviot Memorial and the lonely Cuddystone Hall at half past 5pm.
I had come full circle with just 2 northbound miles back down the College Valley to Hethpool remaining. I looked back up to the Border Ridge from there and noticed the Auchope Mountain Refuge Hut just over the lip of the dark rise, how curious having been up there that it had suddenly become visible when previously I had not noticed. This is what I mean by your perception of a landscape becoming altered once you walk through it. From there I wandered back up a valley in shadow with the peaks on either side still in sunshine. Once back at Hethpool House and the walk completed, I could finally say the College Valley was out of my system, I could get on with my life and stop going on about it like what I had been the previous 22 years!
I timed my arrival back at 18:15 and as I removed my boots and walked back into the cottage I was greeted by the welcome sight of some homemade scones on the dining room table. This was such a good walk, but not one I would recommend doing unless you were blessed with good visibility, if only for the section east of the Cheviot. College Valley was easy enough all the way up to the Border Ridge, mostly on a metaled surface, then follow the Pennine Way all the way up to the Cheviot. However, the section from there needs good visibility to see what aligns with the map. Had it have been adverse weather I probably would have turned back and retraced my footsteps. Yes indeed, it was an excellent day of walking but a very tiring one.