“A desolate looking tract of treacherous moss-hags and oozy peat-flats traversed by deep sykes and interspersed with black stagnant pools”, “a wide featureless plateau” and “an uninviting morass of peat and bog”. These are just three of the less than complimentary comments that have been made by a steady line of writers following visits to the summit of The Cheviot.
Justified or not, it is fair to say that none of these statements are likely to tempt walkers to desert their sun-shaded arbours on a hot August day for the seemingly dubious charms of Northumberland’s highest hill. Yet there is much more to this big bruiser of a hill than a vast plateau littered with muscle-teasing hags and liquorice-black peat pools. Simply look beyond the obvious.
A crimson sun rose slowly as I headed northwards for my second visit of the year to this much-maligned and highly-underrated hill. It was overcast when I reached the Harthope Valley and, as I booted up beside the Hawsen Burn, a hint of autumn brushed past on the crack-of-dawn breeze.
I was off at a canter with the heather in full bloom and jostling for supremacy with the highly-invasive dew-soaked bracken. The quiet farmstead of Goldscleugh barely stirred as I pressed on through the Lambden Valley towards the white-walled cottage of Dunsdale. Standing close to where the Bizzle and Bellyside Burns converge and with full-on views of the impressive Bizzle and Dunsdale Crags this former farmstead is now an extremely well-located holiday home. It marked the start of my climb to the roof of Northumberland.
Escorted by a string of considerate sheep, up I went, first following a rough track and then, as the sheep peeled off to my left, a thin intermittent path. This soon disappeared as I drifted along the rock-strewn eastern edge of the deep cleft of the mightily dramatic Bizzle. Eroded by glaciation, the steep cliffs of the Bizzle have near-vertical screes immediately below them, a marked ‘step’ in the valley profile and a huge hollowed-out floor. It is one of the highlights of the Cheviot Hills and I was looking straight down into its vast empty bowl. Beyond, across the valleys of the Lambden and College Burns, ripples of hills faded into the hazy distance of Millfield Plain, the Scottish border and the far-off North Sea shoreline.
I was mesmerised by the raw beauty of this wild and elemental setting but there was still a long way to go. So off I went, first crossing the sheltered upper reaches of the delightful Bizzle Burn and then on to Braydon Crag, 717 metres above sea level and totally engulfed in dense low cloud. Not for the first time during the year had I been greeted on high ground by non-existent views and the need for ‘local’ knowledge to navigate over pathless terrain. On this occasion I had forgotten my compass but undeterred I followed the tattered fringe of the thick blanket of peat covering the summit plateau of the mighty Cheviot. I knew from previous visits that this would be a remarkably handy guide rail to my next port of call a kilometre further on.
I eventually reached the two ‘stone men’ which stand high above the awe-inspiring Hen Hole shrouded in rapidly swirling cloud with the rugged crags of Auchope Cairn scarcely visible on the opposite side of the deep ravine. However, a glimmer of hope appeared in the distance as a tiny fracture in the thick cloud sprinkled sunlight across the lower hills straddling the border line. At last a lunch stop at the head of the Hen Hole overlooking the first of the four significant waterfalls on the College Burn, some 1½ kilometres away, began to seem like an attractive proposition. I pressed on hoping that the sun would soon spring into life and reveal yet another side of Northumberland’s premier hill.
by Geoff Holland © 2013
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.