The previous week I had been reading my poems at a book launch in the Nicholas Wood Memorial Library, an incredibly well-preserved Victorian time capsule situated within the elegant Gothic building of Neville Hall, home to the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. Seven days later, I was pulling on my grubby walking boots in the tiny village of Alwinton on a cold February morning. Life certainly lacked nothing in variety.
There was no one about as I headed past Alwinton Farm with only the distinctive drilling of an unseen woodpecker disturbing the crack of dawn silence. The day was dull, a cloud-cluttered sky and a brisk north-westerly sweeping down from the hills. It was not the most inspiring start to a walk. However, forever the optimist, I kept my fingers crossed that things would improve as the day dawdled on.
The steady climb up the cross-border track of Clennell Street passed without incident and, with just under an hour on the clock, I reached the site of the former shepherd’s cottage of Wholehope. Purchased by the Ministry of Defence in 1941, this cottage fell into disrepair during the latter part of the Second World War. Subsequently a team of volunteers made the cottage reasonably habitable and, in 1949, it opened as a basic Youth Hostel. Although in decline after 1953 the building continued to be officially used as a hostel until 1965.
Ghosts, memories and the rapid passage of time occupied my thoughts as I continued on towards Saughy Hill and the start of my helter-skelter descent to the valley of the Usway Burn. Half-way down, with towering Shillhope Law peering at me from across the valley, I stopped for a bite to eat. But the day was still cold and my optimism was wearing thin. So, I dashed off my Scotch egg, washed it down with an ice-cool drink and then scurried downhill to more sheltered ground.
The Usway Burn is one of my favourites and an amble along its meandering banks is always, whatever the weather, an absolute delight. A series of small, attractive waterfalls kept me company as I headed downstream towards Shillmoor and the pencil-slim path around The Knocks. I could only guess at the origins of such an odd name as I continued on to the Pass Peth, a climb which, I suspected from painful experience, would soon have a stream of lactic acid seeping into my leg muscles. In the event, I was pleasantly surprised.
I could have returned to Alwinton by joining the downhill valley road, an easy and well-utilised way back. But why take the simple option when the alternative one follows higher ground and offers long-distance views, even on this the dullest of days? Therefore I continued my journey upwards and soon the triangulation pillar sitting on the top of unpretentious Green Side came into view.
I was now exposed to the full-on assault of the wind, so I pressed on to cairn-crowned Lord’s Seat, a mere 3 metres higher than its next-door neighbour, and then quickly to my final top of the day, Castle Hills. Also known as Gallow Law, this diminutive hill has in the past witnessed many a gruesome death. With my thoughts once again turning to ghosts, memories and the passage of time, I headed back to Alwinton.
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.