After Mike and Bruno had left I sat in the Bongo for a while and made a coffee. I waited for a convoy of 4×4’s towing quad bikes to pass along the road, the hunt was clearly over. I did not want to come face to face with a vehicle on the narrow ribbon of tarmac whilst driving to the head of the valley.
The drive up to the parking place near Chew Green was slow, given the state of the potholed road. I got a real sense of getting away from it all as I progressed further up the valley. The final building was Makendon which has been taken over by the military. Near the old farmhouse was this sign.
As I drove up the hill I noticed that the surface became smoothly tarmaced, the military doing a better job at maintenance than the local authority. Just before the gate that sometimes bars traffic from the firing range there is a small parking area. I spent a peaceful night there in the van, totally undisturbed by passing traffic once it had got dark. It was cosy laying in my sleeping bag listening to the wind and the rain.
It was still dark when I got up. I made a coffee and wandered around the van whilst Reuben sniffed about. The weather had cleared in the night and the sky had turned a glorious shade of pink in the pre-dawn air. A few pockets of frost had formed on bits of the grass that was sheltered from the wind.
After breakfast I quickly packed a bag with my camera and a few snacks and we set off up the military road. The flags would not be flying for another couple of days which meant that the gate across the road was open. It was a steep haul up the smooth tarmac, giving views back to where I had spent the night. As we got higher I could hear the sound of dreaded trail bikes, unseen they sounded like a hornets nest that had been disturbed. With the noise growing louder I could see a convoy of about a dozen riding the border ridge a couple of miles away. Riding illegally and churning up the soft ground. Bastards.
Strictly speaking you are meant to stick to the rights of way when crossing the Redesdale and Otterburn firing ranges, open only when there is no firing taking place. However there was a hill I wanted to bag. The sheep on the moor had all their limbs present so I made the assumption all was well, crossing rough ground to the summit of Thirl Moor. There are what appears to be several tumuli and a few metal posts with star symbols on them. I assume they mean there is some archeological remains. The best feature of this hill however is the view. It sits in the middle of nowhere and the surrounding moors stretch unbroken to all horizons. There are no modern man-made structures to break up the landscape. Cloud drifting above the distant Kielder forest just added to the perfectness of it all.
A quad bike track to the north soon petered out and we descended through deep heather before finding a contouring path. This gave a cracking view down the Upper Coquet, the van a tiny white spec in the distance.
With the building of Makendon directly below us we made a steep descent through the heather which did its best to trip me up. It was slow going trying to stay upright. Finally we made it to the river bank, crossing at the far end of the old farm and exiting through numerous sheep pens. We timed this to perfection as a farmer came up the road at that very moment and we were not on a right of way. Thankfully he waved as he passed.
A track took us up pastures on the other side of the valley where I came across evidence of trail bike riders. The bridleway was a wide boggy mess from numerous wheels, mud flung in all directions. It took a while to carefully pick my way to the summit of Brownhart Law, ducking briefly into Scotland just because I could.
The Cheviot sat large and brooding in the distance, a long march away via the Pennine way.
It was an easy yomp back to the Bongo via the Roman Camp of Chew Green, not particularly noticeable on the ground as you walk though it. You need to head across the valley and view it from there to really appreciate the scale. Back at the van I got the stove on and made lunch whilst watching the clouds begin to lower onto the hills. I sorted out my pre-packed backpacking rucksack and added a few extra bits such as a bow saw. It’s not very often that I head into the wilds with a bow saw strapped to my pack! I set back off towards Chew Green with Reuben in tow, stopping almost immediately to put on waterproof trousers as a fine drizzle set in.
We passed a hiker out for a day walk from Byrness, we were the first signs of life he had seen all day on these remote border hills. After a chat we continued on our separate ways and I stopped after a while to watch him as he moved across the wide open and increasingly murky landscape. Watching the small speck finally disappear just seemed to enhance the sense of bleakness.
I had left the comfort and security of the van to head for a tiny bothy five kilometres away. I had stayed there a few years previous on a lovely summers weekend and had always planned to return in the winter. I was a little nervous hoping that it would be empty, four would be a crowd in the single room. I was not carrying a tent as pitching options are pretty non-existent outside. If it was occupied and no room for me and the dog it was going to be a long walk back to the van across the moor in the dark!
The first section of the path was fairly easy-going, following the course of the Pennine way. This was soon left for a boggy and tussocky squelch towards the bridleway at The Heart’s Toe. However I soon got fed up with the rough going and hopped the fence, fighting my way across a section of felled forest to a gravel forestry track. It was then an easy downhill walk all the way to the bothy.
It’s amazing how often the mind plays tricks on you. Whenever I approach a bothy I get a whiff of wood smoke, whether there is smoke or not. Is it the way my brain anticipates the people who may already be in residence? The tiny building sat below me amongst a scene of devastation. Pretty much the entire forest that surrounded it has been clear felled. The last time I had visited it was secretly nestled deep in the forest.
I found a recently felled small pine tree in the forest and dragged it down the steep slopes towards the bothy. I was keen to have a roaring fire that night. As I approached it was evident that no one was in residence, the door was bolted from the outside and no smoke was coming from the chimney. The carved wooden sign welcomes you in.
Less welcoming however is the new ‘Bothy watch’ sign. The bothies in the Kielder area have unfortunately become notorious for some of the people that they attract. A few have been shut down recently, including the lovely one at Kielder Head. A draw for complete f***wits for a spot of mindless vandalism, parties and drug taking. At least Bothy watch is a positive commitment to keep these shelters open rather than letting the mindless few ruin it for others. On my walk down I had been wondering ‘who’ I might end up sharing with rather than ‘if’. On the positive side, strangers do not know that Reuben is a completely soppy hound!
The bothy as it turned out was completely spotless. There was not even a scrap of rubbish or any of the ubiquitous wine bottle / candlestick holders. The floor was swept and the stove still had warm embers from the previous occupants. Even better was the basket of bone dry logs. My earlier worries quickly faded away.
I spent a pleasurable afternoon drinking coffee and sawing the tree into smaller pieces so that it would fit in the woodshed. A constant drizzle sent me inside where I lit the fire. The stove was soon roaring, Reuben claiming his spot for the evening. I love bothy nights and this was one was very enjoyable. The wind and rain picked up as the evening progressed, enhancing the general feeling of coziness.
The morning dawned dull and grey, however after a good and long sleep I managed to get up early. After breakfast I set about replenishing the wood that I had used the night before. Half an hour with the bow saw and there was a satisfying pile of dry logs stacked in the bothy. A good sweep and an idiot check to make sure I had not left anything and we set off across the bridge and up to the forestry track.
The walk back to the van was a bit of a trudge in the rain, more chore than pleasure to be honest. I was pleased to see the Bongo was still where I had left it. I worry about leaving a vehicle in such a remote spot but figure it is no more risky than somewhere more populated. I suppose it’s just luck of the draw.
The red flags were still not flying so I took the opportunity to drive home via the military road rather than returning back via Alwinton. The Cottonhope road is marked as a bridleway on the map but is often open to civilian traffic. It’s a cracking drive over the moors to near Byrness, the steep sections something you would not want to attempt in snow or ice. Driving the empty road after being alone on the moors it felt like human life had been wiped from the face of the earth.