Hill farms and Hill Forts: A Cheviot short circuit

Judging by the weather reports, I was best off avoiding Plan A - was for Arrochar, a good day Friday but disintegrating Saturday.  I spent most of Thursday evening weighing up the pros and cons of pointy bits versus staying over, but this one was about the camps, and 11th hour planning told me the Cheviots were escaping the worst of a nasty incoming northwesterly.  So then, 28 miles, 2 days, a bit of the Pennine way and some big skies - that'll do. 

Starting from Alwinton at 3pm, its certainly fresh on Clennellstreet going north.  Hill farms and forestry stands, smooth rolling sides of the big tops.   Later on it's amber sunset glory, before I drop down to a nice spot I read about recently called the Castles.  You've seen a sunset before, so I'll spare you.  It takes an hour or so to find a pitch even down here, the wind is still kicking up.  I move back and forth along the burn for a while eeking out a good spot.  Clear skies and then finally it calms a touch about 8.30pm.  After mac n cheese, I fool around with the torch and the camera and drink tea. 

I've brought a book but I never read when I'm out, I'm happy to listen - to the stream in my left ear, then to a section upstream in my right, wafting this way as the wind changes, now and then.  Sometimes there are voices, but thats just the debris of the week past, leaving.  I slip gently off into the night, adrift on a raft of sonic restfulness.

Usway Burn is just lovely.  Its lovely in the night and its lovely in the morning.  I don't dream and I wake with first light.  There's no sunrise proper down here in the glen but there is first light on the hillsides, and raspberry ripple skies.  This is what I came for.  That, plus instant coffee and watery porridge.  Messing around with the tent for a while, adjusting ties, then off before 9 to Fairhause and Ward Law.  Its my favourite time to walk, after the quiet of a nights camp and clouds moving fast, light zooming across the big fair bumps.  Head settled, now just the rhythm of the here and now.

Onto the border ridge at Windy Gyle after a proper grind head down bent double into the wind, eyes watering and nose running.  At the top, rainbows and chocolate.

Now, a long drafty walk along the edge between Scotland and England, along the Pennine Way, sometimes paved, sometimes soggy, to the hut at Lamb hill, a fine place for bread and miso soup out of the blow.  After Lamb hill, distracted by the friendly company of day trippers, I head towards Rennies Burn, which looks a good way to do what I'm aiming for anyway, to Black Hails.  I think next time here I'll plan a route only in the glens, following the burns, the shapes the rivers cut are good.

Meanwhile on the tops, its a little boggy and bare and navigation is trickier, but I correct myself, bear northeast to climb Wedder Hill and aim off for one of the burns thereabouts.  Bright sunshine, fast moving cloud, heading for military ground.  Along to the Roman fort at Chew Street.  Not much to see here when I'm standing on it, but ascending on Dere Street afterwards I realise it's scale and position.

From here on in, things change fairly fast.  I'm on tarmac, which is not great.  This is also MOD land, which is definitely not great.  And the weather is quickening as the light begins to slip towards dusk.

Passed by army landrovers, I heft my pack along the old roman road, and turn left for Ridleeshope. Dere Street is a long straight road on the ridge line north-south, used for moving troops, then and now.  There's a few laybys with portaloos blown over on their sides, dirty gravel with tank tracks on the road sides, fagends, lucozade bottles, miscellaneous plastic containers, and a lone, blunt screwdriver. 

My planned turning is after Ridleeshope, at another Roman fort.  I try to ignore the sign saying 'no unauthorised persons beyond this point' and duck down off the ridge.  Before you become outraged, dear reader, there's no way of telling from the OS map that this is a restricted highway - I didn't plan to break the queen's bylaws (fine £20), but lights fading and I need to get to camp...which is this way.  The red flags are not flying and its a Saturday.  I'm certainly not suggesting you come this way, I think I'll stay on the path.

As I go down into the valley bowl, I pass more serious refuse left by the army, ancient, once deadly hardware left out to rust for target practice, a cold steel middle finger raised to an idle wanderer.  Out here in the gloaming with a bruised sky of angry pinks and purples, its fairly eerie.

The upside is Southhope burn, a cluster of broken, half dead trees and a junction of watercourses.  So quiet, that's the advantage of camping where I shouldn't, just me and the sheep and the shoooosh of the wind in the trees and the burble of water in the burn to my right.  An early moon soon obliterated by cloud, the wind dies slowly down, as I strip off wet shoes and socks and cook up chilli'ed cous cous.  A second night of tomfoolery with headlamps and teacups before bed and the sleep of the dead at 9.30pm.

What makes a place a place? The tracks and bridges, the lay of burns and rivers, the slope and camber of the hillsides, the fallen rocks in this place or that place, the fallen ordnance in this case, the beetles and thistles and birdsong at 8.39 in the morning, the dead trees and muddy sheep paths to waters edge, the old crumbling crofts and some whispered memory of hard lived lives, dry stane pens and light that always changes.  Southhope burn is its own.

In the morning, I'm slow to move after 9 hours sleep, its cold but I wash to the waist and get gone after a long look around.  I always say thankyou when I leave a campsite nowadays, sometimes silently, sometimes out loud.  Over the tops now following Ridlees burn down on my left, there's more stuff - weird wooden forts and metal sentries, sandbags and trenches.

More heavy metal debris for trigger happy training.  Around each tank there are hundreds of shell holes, casings, bits of RPG, twisted metal and plastics.  Dead rubbish, at least I hope none of its live, very careful where I step.  On Clifton Rigg there are hundreds more holes blown randomly into the hillside.  Strange and awkward, on a landscape scale.

Its certainly an education, wandering around where I shouldn't be.  The army don't care about the land, that's not their job - this is just a playground to get dirty in.  Even the crows agree, and they are feeding on the debris dumped outside the camp, at the copse of trees beyond ranger hut 666 (honestly, that's the number).   Its a mucky business.

Its a relief to leave their playground, and head towards an early lunchstop, sitting on a rock in the heather atop Barrow Scar.  I disturb two grouse, then ford the river back to the car at the green at Alwinton.  Its been too long, so I'm going to make an effort to get out for more weekends this year.  Wild camping is a great invention, it always amazes me how much variety there is in only 2 or 3 days, and camping in Weirdsville, Northumberland is no exception.