First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The folk of medieval Upper Coquetdale were famously tough – and they needed to be. The wild cleft in Northumberland’s Cheviot Hills lay at the frontier where Scotland and England collided. This was debatable land, a lawless country. Here Scots battled Englishmen, hot-headed Border lords hacked and slashed each other in bloody ‘frays’, and the masterless cattle bandits called reivers cut the throats and broke the heads of all who stood in their way. Jane and I pictured the mayhem as we wandered the green triple ramparts of the Roman forts and camps at Chew Green, built in these remote hills two thousand years ago at the orders of Governor Julius Agricola, a man who would have brooked no law-breaking whatsoever.
Two great marching camps overspread the slopes of Chew Green, with a fort incorporated and a couple more strongholds as part of the complex. We followed the green road the soldiers built, part of the mighty highway of Dere Street that arrowed from Eboracum north to the shores of the Firth of Forth. Subject to ambush, cold and overstretched, often soaked and always on the lookout, how the Roman conscripts must have grumbled and groused on their long marches at the outermost margin of civilization. Today it was the curses of a pair of Pennine Way walkers that floated on the Cheviot winds as they limped up Dere Street, bruised and blistered of foot, towards the Scottish border on the last day of their 270-mile ordeal. ‘Lovely day!’ I carolled as we caught up with them on the Border fence. ‘Luck t’you!’ they snarled back – or something like that.
A side path led off east over the rounded backs of The Dodd and Deel’s Hill, with the deep valley of the young River Coquet out of sight in its cleft below. It was a wonderfully exhilarating march, a cold wind out of Scotland bowling us along, with far views across bleak treeless hills whose pale grasses seethed and raced as if stirred by invisible spears.
Down at Buckham’s Bridge we dropped onto the valley road and turned back past the lonely farmhouse of Fulhope where half a dozen farmers had gathered to dip their sheep. A quad bike on the steep slope above carried a shepherd and an ancient collie, while the junior dogs crouched and raced at shouted commands: ‘Left! Left! That’ll do!’ The sheep wheeled and scampered in a panic, the shape and direction of the flock skilfully managed to funnel them down to the dipping bath.
Back at the car park we met a squad of soldiers, doubling up the lane at the end of some ferocious exercise on the hills. The lad in the rear – he couldn’t have been more than 17 – was wincing with every step. ‘Hop in,’ I said, opening the car door. He grinned, sheepishly, and hobbled on after his mates. Julius Agricola would have recognised the spirit.
Start & finish: Chew Green parking place (OS ref NT 794085)
Getting there: A1, B634 to Rothbury; B6341 through Thropton; in 2 miles, minor road to Alwinton; follow ‘No Through Road’ up Upper Coquetdale for 12 miles to Chew Green. Walk (6 miles, moderate grade, OS Explorer OL16): From Chew Green Roman camp, follow Pennine Way/Dere Street to Border fence (791096). Right on path to The Dodd (797098), then bridleway over Deel’s Hill (804102) to Buckham’s Bridge (824107); right along road to Chew Green.
NB – Online map, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
Otterburn Ranges information: 01830 520569; www.otterburnranges.co.uk
Lunch and Accommodation: Rose & Thistle, Alwinton (01669-650226; www.roseandthistlealwinton.com)
More info: Rothbury National Park Tourist Information Centre (01669-620887; www.visit-rothbury.co.uk