There are a number of ways to reach the Hen Hole and I would have been happy on the day to follow whichever one took my fancy. Each has its own special appeal. However, the night before I left Monkseaton, I decided on the long and relatively flat approach from Hethpool at the northern end of the College Valley. This, I thought, would give me an extremely gentle introduction to my walk to one of the most remote and primeval landscapes in the Cheviot Hills.
The College Valley forms part of a 12,000 acre estate and is a haven for an impressive array of wildlife, as well as being home to the largest semi-natural woodland in the Northumberland National Park. The valley itself is considered to be one of the finest in the county and, as I wandered along the private single track road, I saw absolutely no reason to disagree. The sun was shining, the sky was impeccable and by the time I had reached the end of the thin tarmac line at Mounthooly I had already encountered a buzzard, hare, stoat and red squirrel.
A clear, grass-carpeted bridleway, bordered by ferns and foxgloves, guided me away from the last signs of habitation. Then, turning to the south-east, I followed as best I could a barely discernible path alongside the thin College Burn. The rock-impregnated slopes of West Hill climbed steeply away to my left as I headed into the jaws of the narrow Ice Age-sculptured Hen Hole. On reaching the impressive ‘Three Sisters’ waterfall, I crossed to the opposite side of the burn, one foot in the ice-cold water, whilst a raven flew overhead.
Once above the falls I clambered relentlessly upwards between towering crags and, quickly after passing a second cascade, I reached the first of two splendid corries. The lush, green vegetation contrasted sharply with the mass of steel-grey rock. It was like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World’ without the dinosaurs, a dramatic mountain amphitheatre far removed from any hint of civilization. I had it all to myself and I wallowed in the tranquility of this very special place.
Eventually, I continued on, climbing alongside a further waterfall and into the second corrie of the day. Ahead the burn snaked between velvet hillsides before disappearing around a 90 degree bend where a delightful cascade tumbled through a half-hidden fracture in the rock. I stepped over the burn above the waterfall and, somewhat reluctantly, headed for higher ground across a river of weather-worn peat and wind-blown heather.
I had left the secluded hanging valley of the Hen Hole behind and now, with my boots firmly planted on the route of the Pennine Way, I was rapidly heading towards the highest point of my walk. Minutes later, as I sat beside the stone men on the shattered edge of Auchope Cairn enjoying one of the most extensive views in the area I speculated on how many walkers must have passed this way without ever having delved into the depths of one of the highlights of the Cheviot Hills.
by Geoff Holland © 2012
Geoff Holland is the author of four books of self-guided walks, ‘The Cheviot Hills’, ‘Walks from Wooler’, ‘The Hills of Upper Coquetdale’ and ‘Walks on the Wild Side The Cheviot Hills’ , is a regular contributor to ‘TGO (The Great Outdoors)’, ‘Country Walking’ and ‘The Northumbrian’ magazines and is the operator of the highly acclaimed website www.cheviotwalks.co.uk. His books are available online from www.trailguides.co.uk or from all good bookshops and he can be heard reading a selection of his poems on www.listenupnorth.com. He has lived in Monkseaton for almost 40 years.