First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Our friend and walking companion Dave Richardson had only just taken delivery of his new concertina from Wiltshire master maker Colin Dipper after a decade of waiting, and had brought it down with him to Northumberland to play us a few tunes. But first some inspiration, in the form of a walk in the Cheviot Hills.
On a morning of smoking cloud and pearly light we set off along the College Valley with Dave and his wife Lucy, and their chum Liz Anderson, for company. This deep, sheltered cleft in the northern flank of the Cheviots held several sheep farms not so long ago. These days, just two farms account for some 12,000 acres of hill grazing.
It was a stiff pull up the slope of Great Hetha to the Iron Age fort at the summit. We walked a circuit of the double ramparts of stone, looking out at hills folding to the south in steamy grey waves. Below us lay the lonely farmhouse of Trowupburn. ‘Burn of the Trolls?’ queried Dave. Past generations of Cheviot dwellers lived with legends of these grumpy giants who would snatch unwary musicians to entertain them in their caves.
Near the farm we crossed the Trowup Burn – the only way for a mortal to escape the trolls, who dared not go over running water. On the far bank a splendid bull in a cream-coloured coat was swinging his tail and murmuring in the ear of a young heifer. We left them to it and climbed the bracken slopes beside the Wideopen Burn where whinchats were singing wee-chit-chit!
Up beyond Wideopen Head we found the Stob Stones, a pair of stumpy porphyry boulders where the local gypsies once crowned their kings. Here we had a breathtaking view northwards over thirty miles of low-rolling border country. A long moment to stand and stare; then we cut east along the upland track of St Cuthbert’s Way to the College Valley.
That night we feasted on wonderful music. The new concertina might have been made within sight of the Wiltshire downs, but it was pure Cheviot that Dave brought forth from it – the hornpipes, reels and jigs of these hills, while we sat and dreamed back over the day.
Start & finish: College Valley car park, Hethpool, near Kirknewton NE71 6TW approx. (OS ref NT 894280)
Getting there: A69 (Wooler-Coldstream); B6351 to Kirknewton; Hethpool signed just beyond, at Westnewton.
Walk (8 miles, moderate/strenuous, OS Explorer OL16): From car park, left along road (detour to stone circle on right, 893278). In ½ mile, fork right (891275, ‘Great Hetha’) up left side of plantation. At top of wood (888277), left up to Great Hetha summit fort (886274). Don’t turn right off summit towards Elsdonburn, but keep ahead (south-west) along green ridge (white arrow) till you look down on a white house. Half right here down grass track to stile (877269, ‘Hilltop Trail’); left down farm track to Trowupburn (876265).
Past house, bear right through gate and up grassy lane with fence on left. In 600m, left across Trowup Burn (871262); in 500m, recross burn and a stile (867261), and turn left to continue through bracken. In 200m bear right at circular sheepfold into valley of Wideopen Burn. Follow path through bracken up right side of valley to Wideopen Head. Meet a fence here, and go through a gate (861265). Keep ahead on grass track for half a mile to meet Pennine Way (854269). Right along PW for 500m (detour left to see Stob Stones, 851270), to 3-finger post (850272). Right here (‘Elsdonburn 1½’), and follow waymarked St Cuthbert’s Way for 3½ miles back to Hethpool.
Accommodation: Tankerville Arms, Wooler NE71 6AD (0168-281581, tankervillehotel.co.uk).
More info: Cheviot Centre, Wooler (01668-282123)