It was the height of summer, the sun had long since slipped away to the west and the billion year old light of an unimaginable number of stars pierced the huge cloudless sky like tiny silver pins. The moon was full faced and the surrounding, border-hugging hills were draped in a cloak of semi darkness, a rollercoaster silhouette set against a slightly paler sky.
I remember that night as if it was yesterday, yet it must have been more than twenty years ago when I settled down in my cosy little tent just inside the entrance to the Hen Hole, one of the most heart-stopping places in the Cheviot Hills. Here in this ice-sculpted, steep-sided gorge, the infant College Burn cascades down a series of delightful waterfalls beneath dark, towering crags. This is without doubt the most impressive ravine in Northumberland where alpine vegetation survives, where ravens nest and where folk tales abound.
One such tale is recounted in a ballad called, ‘Black Adam of Cheviot’ and tells how a notorious freebooter, who lived in a cave in the Hen Hole, burst uninvited into a wedding party at Wooperton more than 9 miles away. He robbed the wedding guests of their jewels and, after ravishing the bride, stabbed her to death.
The bridegroom, who had been away seeking the priest, returned just in time to hear Black Adam’s scornful laugh. Taking his bride’s blood-stained handkerchief, he immediately gave chase, relentlessly pursuing Black Adam through storm and darkness, across wild, rugged terrain until they eventually reached the Hen Hole. Then, with a desperate leap of over seven metres across the cleft, Black Adam reached his cave with the bridegroom following in hot pursuit. The pair, after locking together in violent combat, finally tumbled to their deaths far below in the College Burn.
Another story, this time slightly less dramatic, tells of a party of hunters who were chasing a roe deer near the Hen Hole when they were lured into the cleft by the sweetest music they had ever heard. They were never seen again. Adding a little more spice to this tale Agnes Herbert wrote, in her rather quirky 1923 book, ‘Northumberland’, that she had been told that should you be near the weird chasm of the Hen Hole at just the right moment, on just the right day, you will hear the horn of the hunters who were, “lured into the sombre glen by a mountain fairy”.
As I lay there half asleep all those years ago, with the soft breeze brushing through the long grass outside my tiny shelter, it would have been easy to let my imagination run riot, to fancy that I heard a distant, blood-curdling scream from somewhere deep inside the Hen Hole or perhaps the seductive sound of sweet music echoing through the rocky chasm. It would have been so very easy to let my defences down and allow the perceived evil and mysterious forces of the night to invade my thoughts. But I am made of sterner stuff, so I pulled the padded top of my sleeping bag over my ears, closed my eyes tightly and started counting sheep instead.
by Geoff Holland © 2014
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.