First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The nuns of Holystone Priory must have been a tough and determined bunch, to have maintained their prayerful community through all the hard times, Border battles, reivers’ raids and lack of funds associated with the Northumbrian borderlands of the wild Middle Ages.
There is a faint whisper of their presence in the little 12th-century (but much restored) Church of St Mary, and a breath of their holy spirit on the still waters of Lady’s Well, just north of the hamlet of Holystone. Legend has St Ninian, stern pioneer of Christianity in these parts, baptising three thousand sinners in the well around 500 AD. Today the waters still dimple and run, and the brook below the well is lined with beautiful monkey flowers, gold with orange-spotted nether lips.
We followed a lane through forestry, looking for the red squirrels that inhabit these trees. Bog myrtle in the verges released a churchy incense smell as we crushed the leaves between finger and thumb.
A scramble of a path up through the pinewoods of Cat Law brought us out into the heather uplands of Daw’s Moss. Within the walls of a cross-shaped plantation stood the Pedlar’s Stone, mysteriously named and never explained.
At lonely Craig Farm in the valley below, the massively strong structure of a bastle formed part of the farm buildings. A bastle was a fortified farmhouse, its stone walls five feet thick. With the animals locked in the vaulted basement below, the ladder pulled up and the family barricaded behind tiny windows, a farmer living here four hundred years ago could hope to hold out against the reivers – buccaneers who made their own laws and rustled cattle as a day-to-day business.
From Craig Farm our way led east across trackless moor where curlews bubbled their melancholy warning cries. We passed the Five Kings, a line of rough and rugged standing stones (four in number – one’s now a gatepost elsewhere), and came down to Dueshill Farm.
The farmer went bouncing across the pastures on a quad painted up like a racing car. The sheep ran bleating towards the field gate, and an old hand of a sheepdog kept the whole show together, now bullying, now coaxing – a masterful display of crowd control.
Start: Forestry Commission car park, Holystone, near Rothbury NE65 7AX (OS ref NT 951026)
Getting there: Holystone is signed from B6341 between Elsdon and Thropton
Walk (7 miles, strenuous, OS Explorer OL16, OL42): Right along road. In ¾ mile, beside Forestry Commission ‘Holystone Common’ sign (941020), fork left past barrier along forest track. In 500m track curves left (purple arrow/PA) to cross Holystone Burn (934013). In 250m, hairpin back left up track (933012). In 200m pass PA post on left; in 100m, right (935011, unmarked) up bank, then rough path south through trees to stile and gate at top by MoD notice (935010). Ahead with wall on left for 500m to road at Pedlar’s Stone walled copse (934005).
Ahead down road to Craig Farm. At farm entrance, left (938999, fingerpost ‘Dueshill 2½’) over stile. Follow grassy track into valley, aiming for far right corner of field with conifer plantation beyond. Over gate (943995, waymark post/WP); in 100m right across Keenshaw Burn; in 100m recross (footbridge). Follow edge of plantation (WPs). In 400m leave corner of plantation (948995), bearing a little left away from fence on right for 700m over rough ground (faint track), aiming for right hand corner of plantation ahead.
At MoD notice at corner (954999), ahead, keeping close to fence and trees on left. In 200m, cross stile at angle of fence (956000, yellow arrow/YA). Keep same direction for 150m through wood, picking your way over fallen timber, to MoD notice at far side (957001, stile). Ahead, keeping uphill of Five Kings standing stones, to left corner of plantation wall (958002, YA). Half left to gate (959003, YA) and on. At WP bear half left and follow fence downhill, keeping it on your right, to left corner of plantation below (959006).
Through gate (YA); ahead (YAs) for 350m to join farm road (960009). Left to Dueshill Farm. At gates (960013), through gate, across dip, through next gate with shed ahead. Left; through field gate (YA); right up field edge. At top of plantation, right over stile (960016, YA); left down fence. In 100m at edge of trees, ahead for 700m, crossing 2 stiles (YAs) to road (958023). Left into Holystone.
Conditions: A tough walk, reasonably well waymarked on faint tracks. For experienced self-guiding ramblers, properly equipped and clad.