Towards the end of a three day backpack around the Cheviot Hills last autumn, the vista of broad grassy tops was suddenly interrupted by a deep plunging cleft marked on the map as Hen Hole. A dramatic glaciated gorge with a high waterfall and steep craggy slopes about a mile or so west of The Cheviot summit. The dense gathering of contour lines on the map suggested a decent spot to spend the night, back in October I didn’t have the luxury of time and light to go and explore and made a promise to myself to head back and camp out another time.
‘Another time’ turned out to be seven months later, an early Saturday in May far brighter and sunnier than expected. Over the last few years I’ve got into the habit of waking before 5am and setting out bright and early (okay maybe not bright), it’s almost as good as having an extra day on the hills and usually guarantees a good nights sleep in a tent. It paid off well today and I was in the small town of Wooler a little before 10am.
A circular route started down in the beautiful Harthope Valley near Carey Burn Bridge and followed the path of the burn upstream in quiet valley, stunted trees dotted the banks amongst bright yellow gorse bushes. Within a few minutes of setting out I came across an inviting deep plunge pool, it seemed a shame to not pass by without stopping to take it all in and stop for an extended break. I knew the fine weather wasn’t going to last longer than the day so endeavoured to make the most of it today with regular stops, tomorrow was more likely to be a ‘head down hood up’ march on in the rain day.
One of these days I’ll find an adder, today felt like it could be the day, open countryside and woodland edge with warm sunsine to bask in. I’ve developed a tendency to keep my eyes fixed to the ground hoping to catch sight of one when up on the moors in the sunshine, out of fascination rather than caution. It wasn’t to be, when I do finally get to meet one, I hope it’s a case of I see it before it sees me.
The route passed by Broadstruther, which was until recently a remote dilapidated farmhouse now rescued from the verge of ruin. It’s hard t imagine a more stunning and dramatic setting to have a house (though I’m guessing it will probably just be for the use of shooting parties to shelter in). The doors and drainpipes freshly painted pillar box red and fully locked and bolted up to stop me from nosing around, at first sight I had high hopes for it to be a new five star bothy waiting for it’s first guest to come along.
I walked higher past burnt heather to wilder ground over Great Moor and past Coldburn Hill where the boggier wetter areas thick with white cotton grass. The further you walk here the greater the sense of the vastness of the place, the odds of meeting another person felt minute, there’s a beautiful sense of emptiness and isolation here and a feeling that you could walk for days in silence without seeing a soul.
The rest of the country was doused in heavy rain today but the far corners of the north east seemed to be escaping it, as the afternoon passed on the feeling grew that the weather was closing in. Strange clouds gathered in the distance over Braydon Crag, patches of darker blue against a dull grey, there looked to be a few ghostly faces in the sky as the afternoon ended. Make your own mind up whether you see this or this below.
I arrived at the edge of the Hen Hole just as the weather started to come in, a deep scarred fissure in the hill side with a white waterfall cascading to a stream that flows out to form College Burn. I camped high where the water first levelled out, on a clearer night the sun would have set right at the end of the valley and given quite a view, tonight it was a blessing to still be dry. I saw no hens in the hen hole.
The benefits of waking up at 5am and spending most of the day walking with a pack are that, come nightfall, you’re guaranteed to sleep soundly through anything. It’s always a pleasure to drift off to sleep to the gentle sound of rain on canvas, sadly there is not an equivalent satisfaction to be found in the morning when waking to the cacophony of heavy rain drumming away above your head.
Sunday morning was damp and cool, mist smothered all but the lower slopes of the hills, I waited for the heaviest showers to pass before accepting that they weren’t exactly passing. Climbing out of the hen hole kept me warm enough and walking early in the chill of a misty grey morning wasn’t unpleasant, the damp air was refreshing and being out in a remote area despite fairly challenging conditions brings a certain resilient smile. I only passed two people that day, a couple in the final miles of the pennine way, inches away from Kirk Yetholm on the map they were both in good spirits laughing at having had decent weather for most of the walk only to have the views stolen and the weather turn at the last leg.
The rain eventually subsided but the mist remained, the stone path marking out the detour to Cheviot always snaking off into the grey with every step.
I left the murk of the higher ground and descended to the source of Harthope Burn which would guide me all the way back to where I’d started, a simple route home following the burn downstream as it grew in size and force. The walk ended as it had begun, under blue skies alongside yellow gorse smiling in the sunshine.