Hearing tales of red danger flags flapping in the breeze warning of military manoeuvres, troop training and ‘live’ firing it would be easy, for the uninitiated, to be put off from taking a walk in Upper Coquetdale. To do so, however, would be to miss out on visiting one of the most beautiful upland areas in the county, where waves of green, rounded hills stretch across the skyline like benign giants and where narrow, v-shaped valleys penetrate deep into the wild Cheviot heartland.
In 1910, with war clouds gathering over Europe, there was a shift in British defence policy which resulted in 8,000 hectares of land being purchased for the purposes of establishing an artillery range in the Redesdale and Coquetdale area. In 1940, with Europe again embroiled in war, additional land was requisitioned and compulsorily purchased by the Ministry of Defence. Since then, the total area of what is now called ‘The Otterburn Training Area’ (‘OTA’) has increased to nearly 23,000 hectares.
The majority of the OTA lies within the Northumberland National Park and is divided into two distinct and separate parts. ‘The live firing area’ is, generally speaking, out of bounds to walkers and, in simple terms, lies on the left hand side of the road from Alwinton to Chew Green. Unequivocal warning notices are dotted along the OTA boundary and, when live firing is in progress, red flags are flown in prominent positions alongside the valley road.
‘The dry training area’, which consists of some 12,000 hectares, lies on the right hand side of the valley road, and is ‘access land’ under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Walkers are absolutely free to enjoy this area in exactly the same way as they would any other ‘access land’. However, you may just occasionally see a group of fully kitted out soldiers tramping about on, what in all probability, will be a long and arduous exercise. They are completely harmless and will, if energy levels permit, bid you ‘good day’.
Last September I encountered one such exercise. I had just battled my way through the wet-ridden peat hags on the steep, pathless slopes of Windy Gyle when I spotted something unusual in the far distance: a small badly-camouflaged, roughly-erected tent. Standing nearby was a man with an expensive-looking camera armed with an unusually long telephoto lens and, suspecting that I had stumbled upon an early-rising wildlife photographer, I approached with caution.
In the event, he turned out to be an army officer supervising an advanced navigation training exercise for a small group of ‘squaddies’ who had ‘volunteered’ to take part. Each man was navigating his way over some 22 kilometres of extremely tough terrain whilst carrying a 45 lb pack and a weapon held in the low ready position. By comparison my trip into the hills was a proverbial ‘stroll in the park’. We chatted for a short while, happy for a brief interlude on what was a fantastic day to be out enjoying the wide open spaces of Upper Coquetdale.
In time, I wandered off and, as I made my way over the saturated, heather-covered ground, I passed, heading in the opposite direction, a squaddie labouring uphill with the hollow-eyed look of a man fighting the onset of exhaustion. Like myself, he had apparently chosen to be out and about these superb hills along ‘Northumberland’s ragged edge’ on a day tailored for such things. But I was lucky I was heading for a lunch stop high above the remote and blissfully peaceful Routinwell Strand and then back to the relative safety of Monkseaton whilst he, barely old enough to be out of school, was ultimately bound for the uncertainty of a tour of Afghanistan. I bade him ‘good morning’.
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.