The heather-coated Simonside Hills stand high above the River Coquet and enjoy unrivalled views northwards. They overlook the market town of Rothbury and are a popular destination for walkers of all shapes and sizes.
It had been more than five years since I had last tramped across these sandstone hills so, as I left a deserted car park at Lordenshaw on a dull September morning, I was looking forward to re-visiting the well-loved Simonside summit. But first, I wanted to visit Coquet Cairn, a solitary landmark 2½ miles to the south west and located just outside the boundary of the sprawling Harwood Forest.
I instantly joined the route of St. Oswald’s Way, a 97 mile footpath running from Holy Island to Heavenfield near Hadrian’s Wall, which guided me on a rolling journey across Caudhole Moss. The sweet smell of flowering heather filled the fresh morning air. As I approached the tree-sheltered former shepherd’s cottage of Spylaw, a single roe deer skipped uphill and the sun made a brief cameo appearance. It was then downhill to the deep, tree-lined hollow of the meandering Forest Burn, something of a surprise in the vast expanse of heather moor.
With Coquet Cairn now in sight, the distinctive crag-faced Simonside Hills dominated the skyline to the north. To the south, the views stretched endlessly across a softer farmland-rich landscape. The cairn is, I discovered, a turf-covered mound, probably natural, which nowadays has a small walker’s cairn sitting on top. It lies on the boundary of the Northumberland National Park and is a fine viewpoint.
I stepped into the forest now bound for the remains of Blackcock Hall, a farmstead which was known to be in ruins as long ago as 1828. In a small clearing a grass-covered, bracken-inundated pile of stones marked the spot. Next on the agenda was Selby’s Cove, a superb rocky outcrop containing a number of good quality climbing routes and once the reputed hideout of a renowned border reiver. A tumble of boulders filled the narrow valley floor and I wondered whether this had, in days gone by, been the most remote pied-à-terre in the area.
As I continued onwards, a series of wind-felled trees and a thin heather-hidden path made rapid progress difficult. Eventually I arrived at the foot of the summit crags. A quick burst of energy and a mountain goat ascent soon had me sitting next to the hill-topping Bronze Age burial cairn enjoying a well-deserved breather. Sandwiches quickly followed as I happily recalled the many times I had crossed this summit whilst competing in the annual Simonside Fell Race.
The highest point of the day had now been reached and all that remained was the much-favoured route over Old Stell Crag, Dove Crag and the cairn-capped Beacon. The recently laid erosion-combating path eased the way and, once back at Lordenshaw, I rounded off the day with an exploration of the nearby cluster of cup and ring marked rocks and the double ramparts of the adjacent Iron Age hill fort.
by Geoff Holland © 2011
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.