Bottomless bogs and barn owls: A backpack in the Cheviots

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37km over a day and a half

In an attempt to save a few hours I drove up to Northumberland after finishing work at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon in early October. The rationale being that I could park up somewhere quiet and sleep in the car and make an early start on Sunday morning. The first part of the plan more or less worked, though driving around in the pitch black on a tiny winding road in the middle of nowhere with some scribbled directions and only an OS map felt like throwing caution into the wind. With a little luck, lots of stopping and turning around I somehow ended up at Blindburn and parked up for the night.

As it it turns out I’m not the type of person who can sleep in a car, it felt far too creepy and cramped, the hobo life is not for me. There were plenty of hills surrounding Blindburn that looked far more comfortable, after a quick uphill trudge in the darkness I pitched a tarp. There was a faint gloomy light of a farmhouse lower down in the valley, it felt distant enough to sleep soundly without waking until dawn. The morning brought a colourful sunrise and the plan of setting off a day early felt like it was paying off. It felt like a shame to leave the hills temporarily to return to to the road and collect the pack from the car.

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After an hour of walking upstream to higher ground, the landscape unfolded into a endless stretch of soft rounded sandy coloured hills and open moorland, virtually silent except for the sound of the water running back down into the valley. A mountain shelter was marked on the map, it looked like a shed from the future and served as a fine spot to enjoy the morning sun with a coffee and the first of many snack stops.

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Most of the days walking involved borrowing the Pennine Way following the high ridge that snakes over Windy Gyle and over to The Cheviot. Even on the higher ground, it was incredibly boggy and wet in parts, after jumping a fence at Lamb Hill to take a photo by the trig point the ground looked innocent enough, just dry grassy tussocks, an unfortunate step resulted in an unexpected plunge into a hidden slimy black bog right up past the knee. It’s a good thing the Cheviots are so empty and there was nobody around for miles to hear all the swearing. The clouds drifted over as the morning passed leaving pockets of sunlight shining through the gaps.

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Aside from a small group of four fell runners far in the distance there didn’t seem to be anyone else out, after a few trips to Cumbria this year the sense of isolation and openness was striking. All around was a visual reminder that Northumberland is the most sparsely populated and least visited national park in the country.

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I left the security of the Pennine Way flagstone path to find a way across some rough trackless ground near the Hen Hole to join the summit of the Cheviot, it was a pleasure to stomp across such untamed moorland with not a soul in sight. The highest point for miles was also the boggiest, endless detours and backtracking were needed to find some kind of stable ground to get to the top. Its always eerie to test how deep the bogs are by pushing a trekking pole in and it just keeps going in all the way to the end. The trig point itself sits high on top of a plinth, from the top I could see a few ships in the north sea and the Southern Uplands further inland whilst bands of rain hung around on the pennines further to the south.

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The summit felt cold and barren, maybe the first time this side of summer I’ve had to put a pair of gloves on. The last of the day’s light shone below the clouds and illuminated the plantations in the valley and colures the ground golden. The smell of pine hung in the air as I crossed the valley to reach the side of Bloodybush Edge to find a camping spot.

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It was impossible to get a photo of the days strangest episode. After pitching up for the night and walking out to get water it was fully dark by the time I got back, a few stars dotted the sky and I made a quick brew before bedding down for the night. I became aware of movement overhead and could see a large shape moving very close but silently overhead, I switched my head torch on to be greeted by the large white face of a barn owl circling a few metres directly above me. There’s not much meat on my bones so I was spared and the owl flew off silently down into the valley leaving me feeling like I’d just seen a ghost.

Northumberland was granted with ‘Dark Sky Status’ last year as it is largely void of any light pollution, what a perfect place to sleep.

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Monday morning brought a spectacle of a sunrise. The clumps of cloud that had been swarming above the higher ground and covering the tops to the north looked to be creeping down towards the plantation and engulfing the valley, there wasn’t much else to do but watch the approaching clouds and the changes in the light with a cup of coffee and some peanut butter sarnies. Simple pleasures.

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I packed up a tent sodden with cold morning dew, the route back to the car was over Bloodybush Edge and Yarnspath Law. Both hills were flanked with mist, lucky then that aa handy fence guided the way up and over the tops before it all suddenly lifted revealing the now familiar landscape of gentle autumn coloured hills cut with the neatly cut shapes of forest plantations.

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As I left the hills behind the route dropped down and crossed a track near a remote farmhouse deeply tucked away amongst the hills, the woman who lived there was working outside and I stopped to ask which was the best way to reach another a footpath on a nearby hill. I couldn’t help but ask her what it was like to live in such a remote area, she mentioned that they usually get cut off with heavy snow for a few weeks on any given winter. Apparently Asda will deliver though.

I made sure she knew I was available for housesitting…

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7 thoughts on “Bottomless bogs and barn owls: A backpack in the Cheviots

  1. Great post, Rich, some fine pics too. The only conceivable improvement would be changing the title to ‘Bottomless barns and bog owls’, but you can’t have everything.

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