St Cuthberts Way, Day 3: The Auchope Hut to Wooler (12 miles)

The wind did not cease in the night. It cried and called and wailed over the summits like old ghosts in ancient anguish. Maybe it was. After all the centuries of loyalty and disloyalty, of bloodshed, war, honour and dishonour and deceit, of invading kings from the south and Norsemen from the east, after all the turncoats and the rituals and the suspicion and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost over this border, to see it now, just a wire fence strung in the hills and that was that, would it all seem worth it? Now the earth had soaked up all the blood, and the fires turned into cold embers, and old wounds turned to old scars and the graveyards filled up, here was just those inches of earth, left alone, in a no mans land high in the hills. Legend had become myth had become folklore and, now, that’s what all of the centuries of war had been for.

The sun rose in spirited fire, its blaze spreading quick up and over the hills. The morning mists stained red and orange between the summits and the valleys over the dark shadows of the cracked ravines. I watched it from outside the hut, my bag already packed. That much contested border that cost so many so much beside me.

St Cuthbert and War

The battles that St Cuthbert saw were long before the wars solidified to be along one border. He lived in a time when Britain was still formed of many small kingdoms under many kings; it would be another four hundred years until the Conqueror came to be seen as the first king of England in some sort of entirety.

The bloodshed he saw were in defence of far smaller parcels of land and far more fragile borders and unpredictable enemies. He may not have been one of the warrior saints, nor so much of a soldier once he took holy orders, but he seems to have come back in full force after his death to influence later battles.

Most famously, King Alfred reported visions of the saint after he had, exhausted, retreated to the marshes in 876 after the Battle of Athelney and attributes his turnaround and subsequent victory against the Danes to the holy encouragement of the long dead monk. Cuthbert’s ethereal intervention in wars throughout the middle ages was so well established that the English took to going into war carrying his banner, summoning his spirit for their guidance.

The veil of the morning haze was still thick and low, but it would rise. Hopefully by the time I summitted the Cheviot. These weren’t worrying mists, they granted me enough space to see far enough and were not looking to settle. I initially edged around the Hen Hole on my way up Auchope Cairn; one of those deep gorges sliced into the earth of these hills. I would later find out that whilst my fears of giant mountain cryptids was vastly unfounded, there was a piece of folklore about fairies in the Hen Hole. This slice in the earth is so deep and dark and sunless, that local lore says snow can still be found settled here at Midsummer, and that it is here that the fairies that live within it lure hunting parties and lost men who will never find their way out. I might not have had to fear a Northumbrian Yeti, but it seems I slept willingly alongside malevolent fairies that had chosen to leave me alone. Whether it was because I was a woman, or because of the smell I’m not sure. Perhaps both.

Much of the height gained for the Cheviot was done here at start of Auchope Cairn. The faint dark shadows of the cairns at the top, either side of the wire like crumbling watchtowers, could be seen occasionally, dancing behind the mists. I was well warmed up by the time I met them; it was an alarming push for first thing in the morning..

At most other times of the year, the ground is sodden and deep with bog. The summits of these hills are so fragilely crowned with peatland that Northumberland National Park has placed millstones over the worst of it to guide the walker and prevent further erosion. As luck, for me, would have it, Trail magazine had written a piece on the Cheviot and the climb up it in just this month’s issue. For Tom Bailey, the walk had been drenched in bog and struggle, his pictures were of sheer weariness against the sucking, cloying earth. It was mostly dry now, probably one of the few and fleeting dry times of the year for these peaks, and my struggles with the bogland were minimal. Even so I saw how the movement of the peat had already misplaced and turned some of the great, heavy millstones that had been there for only a few years. The thickness of the churned and grabbing earth spread out to either side of my path like a pot of cooking sugar, waiting to catch and stick and drag.

In a wetter time, this walk would be unbearable. The millstones aided the route, but they were not there always. Thankfully after Auchope Cairn they became more consistent to the summit of Cheviot another mile or two away. As the highest point in the range, the exposure must have lead to the most devastating erosion. There was a time when this earth was held together by trees, but with the age of agriculture, the trees would have been cleared so the sheep could graze and after centuries of that ecological instability, it was a wonder that the hills did not just sigh one last time and collapse on themselves. On the lower slopes, far from here, there were still dense forests made up of hardy spruces, pines and larches, home to black grouse and the elusive red squirrel. How amazing it would have been if the forests had been allowed to remain here on the bald and battling and barren peaks.

A frail outline appeared through the sombre shimmer of the mists. The trig point was huge; placed upon a large and high base, higher than a man, and again on a floor of millstones. I expected it was in part to prevent the trig point from getting sucked into the wet and greedy ground, but made for a spectacle that was both ridiculous and austere; this huge block desperately holding the point up above the quagmire in the bleakness of the 815m summit, The mist had not yet risen, and there would be no views for me today. No matter; Cheviot was not known for views. It’s ridge like structure does not really allow for much from the top.

A small wooden cross was sat at the north side of the point, the side where the wind hit. It looked new; undented yet by the elements. A simple name, written in marker, a quote, and a beanie hat tied together quietly. Someone in mourning had made the same boggy trek up here to plant this humble memorial at Cheviot’s peak. Here was a mountain often dismissed as tiresome and dull, and yet there was some reason that a dead man had loved it so much that those that grieved him had placed his name at the top to sit among the wind in the stubborn peatlands of the highest point of these border hills.

Departing, the huge and ugly trig point was quickly swallowed by the haze. One big, grey gulp and it was gone. I picked my way along the stony side of Scald Hill and was facing the valley when the mist lifted; ripped away quick like smoke in a glass and, in seconds, the scene went from obscured to clear with the great, green valley around Harthope Burn spreading ahead in a morning suddenly cheerful, as if the covering of the mist and the crying of the night sky had never happened.

I left the fence for the last time as it turned west on Broadhope Hill and made my way down into the valley. Within the hour I was in a whole different place of tranquility and greenery along the burn, feeling a whole world away from the strange otherworldliness of the hilltops in which I had spent the night. A gate at the end of the permissive footpath was locked up, so I jumped it onto the lane by the water to wind my way up along the side of the stream on the valley floor.

It was not a long walk today to Wooler where I would re-join the St Cuthbert’s Way. Mostly I ambled along beside the water, crossing the occasional cow grid and reveling in the flowers that sprung everywhere after a night away from their colour and spread. I crossed a bridge and then turned onto a footpath that brought me over a ledge, through farmers lands, to the edge of Wooler common.

Despite being described in 1107 as “situated in an ill-cultivated country under the influence of vast mountains, from whence it is subject to impetuous rains”, Wooler has long been standing as a gateway on the English side to the Cheviots. It was not recorded in the Domesday Book because Northumbria was not under Norman control yet but, suffice to say, there has been some sort of settlement here since the Iron Ages; long enough that the origins of its name are lost in time. Absolutely none of the possible suggestions have anything to do with sheep.

Along a small and busy high street where every second shop appeared to be an antiques dealer, a cafe was advertising an all day breakfast and that hankering for scrambled eggs drew me inside faster than I could realise it. Soon I was sat with three generously buttered slices of toast and a heaving, happy pile of perfectly scrambled eggs and was absolutely chuffed. A pot of tea and a hot chocolate later and I was truly re-civilised. To the extent that a person that now has tick checks as part of a daily ritual and sleeps in tomorrow’s clothes (which are also yesterday’s clothes) can be.

Oh crap. Speaking of clothes, I had a reservation on Lindisfarne and still had enough self awareness to realise that turning up and hanging out with the locals on their pretty island home in my unbelievably disgustingly smelly clothes would probably not be a thing to be proud of. I’d really have to be tipping way more than I could afford to. Instead I rushed to a charity shop and, conscious that the small space was unlikely to accomodate my backpack without toppling everything over, I asked the saleswoman from the door if she could wave any dress in my size in my direction. There were no dresses in my size, but there was one a size and a half bigger for a fiver. The fact that it was printed in a batik pattern more appropriate for a woman twenty years my senior was irrelevant. It didn’t smell, and that’s all that was important.

I searched the street for postcards, finding a miserly and irrelevent selection at the Co-op and nowt at the Post Office, though I was thankfully directed to the Tourist Information Office where a local photographer had lovingly put together homemade cards. Now I could more stylishly invade the letterboxes of my friends and family.

The Dark Skies of Northumberland

A 2016 CPRE report declared that Northumberland has ‘the most pristine dark skies in England’. Efforts to lower light pollution have paid off, and Northumberland National Park is now one of the premier stargazing spots in the country. It was the first park in England to be awarded ‘Dark Sky Park’ status.

On a clear night, both the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy can be seen with the naked eye and the park now hosts an annual Dark Skies Festival with stargazing and astronomical discussions and photography lessons galore. This year, the Aurora Borealis turned up in time for the festival. Unfortunately, due to Covid, the whole event was online only. Thankfully, the Northern Lights is not a completely rare occurence in the region’s winter and will hopefully be back in time for next February’s festival

I had already walked past the chocolate shop five times and decided it was time to make the visit that I was going to make eventually anyway. I clattered my way inside. The owner looked at my attire and asked where I was walking. I told him I’d been walking the St Cuthberts Way but had detoured last night to spend a night in the Cheviots at the hut.

cheev-y-its” he said

“What?”

“They’re the cheev-y-its, not the shevy-ots” I processed this.

“So I’ve been going around the last few days sounding like a tit and everyone’s been too polite to say anything?” I demanded with more outrage than intended.

“Yep” I must have looked distraught because he followed this up with “but some people DO say shevy-ots” which may or may not have been true, but the fact remained that it wasn’t right.

He then told me about Ron Shaw, the man who had devised and worked to put together the St Cuthberts Way. Now 84 years old, he had tirelessly and lovingly crafted the route and stubbornly engaged the support of all the different councils, authorities, parks and bureaucrats to make it happen. It opened in 1996, and has since brought extraordinary footfall to the in between and oft forgotten border towns. The shop owner cracked out a picture on his phone of Shaw receiving an award for the work he has done that has brought tourism, trade and interest to the region.

Usually these paths are put together by organisations; The Ramblers most usually, but occasionally you get one that is manifested from the sheer will and vision of one person. And here that man was Ron Shaw, whose name was on my guidebook. I was now more than a little in awe of Ron, this was not a small undertaking; the path spread through two countries, national parks, by numerous historic buildings, through areas of incredible natural beauty and was waymarked clearly the whole damn way. It was no small feat for one man to pioneer and rope in all the support needed to make happen.

It was with more than a little respect and deference I left the shop, munching on my twist of chocolate (bought at a discount because I clearly looked so miserable over the mispronunciation) and made my way to the hostel to check in. A real bed and a shower were going to be welcome things. I had already been informed that Covid restrictions had meant the laundry room was closed, so instead I had the fantastic idea of scrubbing my clothes with me in the shower. Torrents of murky brown water fell off my body carrying away days worth of dirt, and a few stray pieces of leaf and twig fell out my hair. I attempted to wash out the worst of the sweatiest of my clothing at the same time with my camping soap but got the distinct impression that I was being stunningly ineffective. This turned out to be incredibly true as, after I returned home, the clothes would need two heavy sports washes to get them smelling and feeling remotely normal again.

Because restrictions also meant that the normal bunking of a hostel could not happen, any individual household had to have a room to themselves. Fortunately this meant that I could hang out and spread out my clothing on a radiator without intruding on anyone. Unfortunately it seems I hadn’t done quite enough and just ended up with a sweaty smelling room as they dried. My great plan had been a miserable failure and now, instead of dry smelly clothes, I had a bunch of damp smelly clothes that I had to hope would dry by morning.

I wrote my postcards and munched on my dinner, approaching the last of my rations, but found myself falling asleep with a mouthful of food and a pen in my hand a couple times before I got the message.

Tonight I had a duvet, tonight I was clean, and tomorrow I would arrive at the coast.

  • Distance: 12 miles
  • Ascent: 600 metres
  • Terrain: hill paths, both grass and stone paved, peatland, quiet roads
  • Toughness: 5/10
  • Maps Used: Harvey Maps XT40: St Cuthberts Way and Ordnance Survey Explorer OL16 (The Cheviot Hills)

Day T-1: Melrose to Bowden (4 miles)

Day 1: Bowden to Cessford Moor (19 miles)

Day 2: Cessford Moor to Auchope Hut (18 miles)

Day 3: Auchope Hut to Wooler (12 miles)

Day 4: Wooler to Beal (13 miles)

Day 5: Beal to Lindisfarne (3 miles)

6 thoughts on “St Cuthberts Way, Day 3: The Auchope Hut to Wooler (12 miles)

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