South of the Border, Down Cheviot Way

SO that’s what all the fuss was about – a flat hill where the ground is so boggy that thoughtful souls have laid a path of flagstones and planks. Armies fought over this place. Men died in the quagmire. White crosses fluttered on blue. Red crosses fluttered on white. Kings came, kings went, kings perished in the mud between Berwick and Solway. Jesus Christ. The sheer bloody futility. And now all that remains to mark the dividing line between two warring peoples is a wire fence. England on one side, Scotland on the other . . .

This is the border high on the western shoulder of the Cheviot – a galvanised wire fence set on tanalised posts with the wind whining through like the ghosts of the dead. And if I was one of those ghosts I’d be pretty disappointed. At the very least I’d have expected ruined watchtowers on the hilltops, broken swords rusting in the turf, and caltrops scattered in the heather to puncture the boots of walkers.

But the only sign of man’s presence is a sodding fence and a rickety boardwalk that carries the frontier section of the Pennine Way. After centuries of blood, smashed heads, smashed limbs and smashed lives, not even a stone cross lies tumbled in the tussocks.

To tell you the truth, I don’t even know why I’m up here. Last night I’d planned to drive to the Lakes, but this morning I grabbed a bunch of maps and headed north instead. I left the car on the banks of Harthope Burn, just to the east of Langleeford Farm, climbed up the side of a fell called Scald Hill in glorious sunshine, and continued to the Cheviot, which at 815m (2,673ft) is the highest peak around here. It’s a pleasant climb and takes about an hour and a half at a leisurely pace, including a stop for a brew.

The Cheviot from the east

Looking across the valley to Hedgehope Hill

Langlee Crags and Housey Crags, on the far side of the valley

The Cheviot does “bleak” in a big way; in fact it abuses the privilege. It has acquired for itself an immense blanket of bog which stands to the depth of a tall man’s neck right across its higher reaches. It defies gravity like runny treacle on those cakes you used to boil in a tin then tip out upside down.

To compensate for its lack of interesting features, the locals have encircled the Cheviot with a girdle of fascinating place names: Snear Hill; Broadstruther; Foulburn Gair; Bizzle Crags; Bellyside Hill; Hen Hole; Crookedsike Head; Scotsman’s Knowe; Kelpie Strand and – wait for it – Skirl Naked.

To walk through this country is to step into the musty pages of a Scott or Stevenson first edition. I’m expecting an old wizened man to slither round the summit cairn and greet me with the words: “Are ye the scion son of Broadstruther of Broadstruther, come hame to Foulburn Gair ta claim the Red Horn o’ Skirl Naked and whit is rightfully thine?” But he doesn’t. Thankfully.

As I stand at the cairn, though, it strikes me that if ever a patch of land was worth fighting for, this certainly wasn’t it. If this is the wee bit hill and glen, then someone was pulling the wool. Cheviot’s summit is in England, but this is no green and pleasant land. This is bog, bog, and more bloody bog. And it remains bog down the short slope to the border and its wire fence. And bog beyond, into the sunny glens stretching away to the north and west.

And think how many wars took place, how many thousands of men perished, how many countless times the countryside between Edinburgh and York was set to the torch before this imaginary line found its final resting place on the ridge beneath the summit of the Cheviot – in a bloody bog, for Christ’s sake.

Was it worth it? Jesus. Is the question worth asking?

Two tall cairns perch on a ridge looking down into Scotland and England. They stand only a few metres apart and they might well be in different countries. Border warriors, each one waiting for the other to blink. It’s all very symbolic, and a bit pathetic.

I’m not one to sit on the fence, and I seldom have a foot in both camps – but this is the exception. As Tommy Cooper might have said: “Scotland, England. England, Scotland. A-ha ha.”

This is as far as I get – two cairns above Auchope. I turn around, retrace my steps along the boardwalks and paving slabs to just beneath the summit of the Cheviot, then drop south-east down a path to the valley of the Harthope Burn, and Langleeford Farm about four miles distant.

I had, I must admit, toyed with the notion of climbing the hills on the south side of the valley – Comb Fell and Hedgehope Hill – and making a grand circuit of the place, but frankly I can’t be bothered. I’ve had enough boglands for one day.

This is a good decision, because once beneath the bogs the valley is very pleasant, with its twisting river, peaceful green woodlands, fat fluffy sheep of a make I am not familiar with, and . . . and . . . and . . .

. . . AND FINALLY

SOME people take pictures of lost gloves. Some take pictures of pints of beer or pie shop windows. Some visit trig points and stick coloured pins in maps on their bedroom wall every time they tick one off. The world is full of odd people and is a better place for it. After all, we could, instead, be up on the Cheviot braying each other over the head with bardiches and burning each other’s pig pens down in an attempt to move the border a few feet one way or the other.

Me, I’m fascinated by old railway goods wagons abandoned in incongruous places. Here’s one being used to store fencing equipment just to the east of Langleeford, which is an extremely awkward place to get to if you’re hauling a railway goods wagon. And because I’m sitting at my computer wearing my special anorak, I can tell you it’s a BR 12T Vanfit.

FOR HIGH-RES VERSIONS OF THE PICTURES, CLICK ON AN IMAGE:

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About McEff

Alen McFadzean. Journalist (under notice of redundancy) on The Northern Echo, former shipyard electrician, former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still.
This entry was posted in Climbing, Death, Environment, Ghosts, Hiking, History, Mountains, Railway goods wagons, Railways, Walking and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to South of the Border, Down Cheviot Way

  1. Greg. says:

    Nice one Allen. When i lived in south Shields we used to go up there quite often. The best time to visit is in deepest winter when the bog is frozen solid. Don’t remember all those board walks mind you.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Greg. I like the idea of winter up there. I’ll file that one away in the “things to do when I get a chance” file. I also like the idea of living in South Shields. We go up there quite a lot, leave the car at the ferry, cross to North Shields and walk along the front to Tynemouth, calling for refreshments at the Fish Quay on the way. It’s a great walk. Must take some pictures sometime.
      Cheers, Alen

  2. rthepotter says:

    What extraordinary beauty to come from a place which is by your account such a dismal bleak quagmire. (I didn’t mean your rant, :) though that definitely has a charm of its own too.) The Romantics must have put a permanent kink into our collective psyche to allow us to enjoy a place like that.
    Battles – I don’t know if it’s more uncomfortable to visit the site of a battle on a remote spot like this, or somewhere like (say) Bosworth, with beautiful green fields and trippers with pushchairs.

    • McEff says:

      Thank you for that, Mrs P. That’s an interesting thought about Bosworth (which I’ve never been to), because in reality it would have been anything but beautiful green fields, I suppose. I visited the site of the Battle of Hastings a few years ago, and that was quite a pleasant place to sit in the sun, but I don’t think King Harold would have appreciated the car parks and information boards giving his positions away. It’s hard to appreciate what occurred in these places when they are so far removed from the historical reality.
      Interestingly, since I posted this article this morning I have discovered that the very last battle fought between the kingdoms of England and Scotland took place just a couple of miles along the border at Carter Bar. The Scots won.
      Cheers, Alen

  3. I love pictures taken ‘off the beaten path’ & not just of the usual typical tourist sites. Through other people I am able to see what I usually don’t get to. Thanks.

    • McEff says:

      Hi. Thanks for that. This area is certainly off the beaten track. The only people I spotted during the entire day were a couple of shepherds. This was my first visit. It’s an area I don’t know at, but one I think I should visit again.
      Cheers, Alen

  4. Crikey Alen, I thought my trip at the weekend was bad enough for endless bogs, but your trip seemed to have topped that. At least a reasonable amount of yours was covered with flagstones.! Contrast these walks with some of the stuff I have been reading about in the USA recently, nice firm dry trails. It makes men of us all ( except the women walkers of course) :)

    • McEff says:

      Hi Mark. When I clicked on your blog the other day I thought: “Bloody hell – he’s got there just before me.” Then I realised you were in the Peak District and I was further north. It makes you think just how much of our country is covered with quagmires. Rather more than any of us imagine, I expect. And yes, firm dry trails sound very appealing.
      Cheers, Alen

  5. Jo Woolf says:

    Stunning views, despite the endless bog. I was surprised to see the paved walkway! So much of what you say is true about the futility of lives lost. Love the pics of the wagon!

    • McEff says:

      Hi Jo. The paved walkways are on the Pennine Way sections. There are also paved sections on the Way where it runs through the boggy parts of Teesdale, in County Durham, so I’m guessing this applies to the whole route from Derbyshire to the Borders. I wouldn’t like to have attempted the route in its pre-paved days. Glad you like the wagon pics.
      Cheers, Alen

  6. Hanna says:

    These are some good pictures, Alen. Maybe it was the view, they were fighting for, and not the bog!
    I like the slogan: Choose your battles wisely. It makes good sense.
    All the best!
    Hanna

    • McEff says:

      Hej Hanna. Perhaps they were fighting for the view. It’s a subject I need to look into more because the wars went on for hundreds of years, up and down, backwards and forwards. Still, if it hadn’t all happened, we would have less to write about.
      Cheers, Alen

  7. alan.sloman says:

    Where’s your soul, Alen?
    Those Cheviot bogs are absolutely glorious! Gloopy sloppy bogs with frogs and toads and newts and tadpoles and frondy things and flowery mossy stuff and and and and It’s just wonderful!

    It also keeps the trippers away, so you can have the place to yourself.

    • McEff says:

      I didn’t see any of those things, Mr Sloman. I did come across a dead grouse with its head in the mud and feet in the air – looking very much as if it had been shot mid-flight and cartwheeled into the mire.
      But I did have the place to myself, which was very pleasant I must admit. So when I return I will endeavour to be more upbeat about it!
      All the best, Alen

  8. alan.sloman says:

    I think you saw one of the last kamikaze grouse. Probably a stuka type dive that missed his shooter. Better to drown in the bog than be shot down.

  9. I went up from the bothy at Auchope a few winters ago.Up to The Cheviot,along to Kings Seat and then Windy Gyle.It was foul weather,absolutely foul.Place was a swamp and even some of the flagstones were under water.On the plus side though I did get to bag three trig points :)

    • McEff says:

      Ha ha. Glad to hear about the trig points. Alex. I wouldn’t like to be up there in foul weather. It’s pleasant in the sunshine, but in the clag I think I’d find it – shall we say – challenging.
      Cheers, Alen

  10. Wonderful photos Alen. I’s been on my mind lately as you mention all the hub bub and brutality at these historic sites and now nothing but a few grouse. Will we humans ever calm down a bit?

    • McEff says:

      Hi Dohn. Thanks for that. It’s strange, I read your blog and I come across wars and strife in the States that I’d never heard of, and I read Hanna’s Vandreture blog and discover wars between the Danes and the Swedes I’d never heard of, and I arrive at the conclusion that war must have been pretty much our natural occupation for a long, long time.
      Here’s to a brighter future. Alen

  11. David says:

    Amazing place in a bleak kind of way. Like Greg says it definitely looks like a place to go when the ground is frozen. I seem to remember reading there are one or two crashed planes from the war on the slopes, did you spot anything?

    • McEff says:

      Wow. No I didn’t know that David. I shall look into that because the more comments I read, the more I’m determined to go back and get to know the area more intimately. A fine, crisp winter’s morning sounds like the ideal time – and with a bit of luck there will be a few of those coming up in the immediate future.
      Cheers now, Alen

  12. vishnevats says:

    Hi Alen, I am getting to your blog a little late this time. I discovered them not too long ago and I love the beautiful pictures and your ramblings about your hikes. This time I am a bit puzzled about the fence. How long has this been in existence? I can’t work my mind around the fact that this is the United Kingdom and all. Is there a fence between Wales and England? Best, Magrid

    • McEff says:

      Hi Magrid. Good to hear from you. The fence in the pictures, besides marking the boundary between two countries, probably also marks the boundary between two private estates and stops livestock straying from one person’s land onto land owned by someone else. I am assuming that’s why the fence is there. This, I think, highlights the futility of war – and the wars between the English and Scots raged for several hundred years. What we see now, after all the death and destruction, is not a fence to keep armies out, but a fence to stop someone’s sheep nibbling someone’s else’s grass.
      I don’t know about a fence between England and Wales. I might walk the Offa’s Dyke path one day and have a look. That’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a considerable time.
      Cheers now, Alen

  13. Tracey says:

    A friend of mine described The Cheviot as “not worth visiting”, although, if you like bleak, the views are class. On the other hand The Cheviots are a wonderful place to walk, all rolling and green, and much less bog – like the Howgills, just not as steep. Loving reading your write ups. :-)

    • McEff says:

      Hi Tracey. Thanks very much. Yes, I agree with that – I’m a big fan of the Howgills. I’m not familiar with the Cheviots at all, though, so it’s about time I ventured up there. Rolling green hills sounds very pleasant indeed.
      Cheers, Alen

  14. Adele says:

    I’ve walked up Cheviot a good few times using various routes, before and after the paving slab path was there.Used to live at Middleton Hall cottages just up the road from the infamous Skirl Naked in fact (and cycling up that hill from ‘Happy Valley’ to Skirl is a killer I can vouch!). Your post really made me laugh because what you say is just so true. Much as I love those Cheviot hills for their wonderful quiet isolation and echoes of times gone by, they really do define what is meant by ‘bleak’ if you catch them on the wrong sort of day – and, in my experience, there’s plenty of ‘wrong sort of days’ to be had there! Your pics are beautiful though and, for all the harsh words, I think you’ve really captured the beauty of bleakness (!) Anyhow… tomorrow I plan to wander up Scald Hill once again, along with a skeptical friend. I shall pass him the link to your blog so he knows, in no uncertain terms, what’s he’s in for. Thanks for sharing. Best wishes, Adele

    • McEff says:

      Hi Adele. Thanks for your wonderful comment. It’s made my day. And it’s made me all the more determined to make the long drive north for another visit to the Cheviots soon. Have a pleasant walk with your friend.
      All the best, Alen

  15. John says:

    Adele’s skeptical friend here … Yes, we did do the walk yesterday but (sorry to disappoint): no bog! We had a stunningly clear day — as in your wonderful pics — but the temp never got above 1, and so from half way up the Cheviot (we went up the same way as you did via Scald Hill), everything was frozen solid (as recommended by Greg, above). The walk couldn’t have been easier! Except for the ice …. in fact my lovely companion concentrated on talking more than walking for a split second on the way down, and she was down! Got a nasty crack on the hip and the shoulder. Thank goodness nothing so badly broken that she couldn’t walk, and we enjoyed the rest of the descent wondering how we would have got out of that one, because in all our four-hour walk we never saw a single soul: blissful solitude, in an immaculate landscape! Thanks for your great blog Alen.
    John

    • McEff says:

      Hi John. I’m so glad you had a great day. It’s been perfect weather this weekend for crunching across frozen wastelands. Sorry to hear about the accident, though. I hope the bruises aren’t too painful. Greg was right. Wait for cold crisp days and the going is so much more pleasant.
      All the best, Alen

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