The Big One

Right… Back again!

I’m in Rothbury for a week-long escape with a friend I met in Wales, and my only objective? To find the Shivering Stones. Why? I’m in Northumberland, and it’s just such a pity if I don’t try and find one of North’s places! Shivering Stone, right underneath a hill called Bloodybush Edge, is one of the easiest places to reach, so why not?

This is actually the first walk I wanted to do – been planning it since I was looking for “places to see in Britain”! It took me months to mull over my decision, and when I finally decided to at least try, I found my destination virtually non-existent on the internet. Of all the walking sites I’d looked through, only one or two of them even mentioned the Shivering Stone. Bloodybush Edge was talked about a bit more, but only two or three times, I think. Most of these routes also approach them from the north side of the hill, something I did not really want to do (as I thought I’d be staying in Alwinton at first).

I asked North once I’ve plotted my first route, which involves doing a 26k loop from Alwinton to BBE to Shillmoor and back to Alwinton. He said it was “very ambitious (that is the British understatement of ‘I wouldn’t try it’)”. I agreed, and decided to cut the route in half, doing only the Shillmoor-BBE-Shillmoor bit. Two options spurred once that decision was made, and I took the more challenging one as my first choice. I was still worried though, and eventually asked the Northumberland National Park Mountain Rescue Team for help. They referred me to a few private guides, and after some chaotic last-minute organization, I was to meet one of them on the summit of BBE, who would then help me down to either Usway Burn (as I preferred) or my way up (if I couldn’t reach Usway).

So… My friend dropped me off at the end of the road in Shillmoor, right at the beginning of a well-defined public right of way which looked like this:

As the map says, I shall continue on and follow the higher of the two visible paths.

Sometimes, though, there are paths leading up the hill and I wasn’t sure if I was on the “higher” path, but this path looks so nice that I’d decided to follow it until it proved wrong…

But it didn’t! It started to turn left as it’s supposed to, that means the path right by the stone wall is the “lower” path, then.

Knowing where I was and where to go was such a relief, and I was becoming quite relaxed. I knew I had enough time to make it up to the summit (the problem was whether I’d make it or not, not when I would make it), so I slowed my pace as I gained much elevation. The hills and valleys turned out to be quite nice to look at, even in fog/mist.

I’d seen my first sheepfold with my bare eyes today, and it’s an interesting experience – though I hadn’t figured out their importance so soon. I’m fairly sure this one is still in use, but I can’t say how old this is… A couple hundred of years, perhaps?

More on the valley and sheep as I climbed the mild hills. I’d chosen the mildest paths for my route as getting stuck in the Cheviots would not be fun, and there would rarely be walkers to help me as it’s as remote as I can get in England… I’d made my way up a hill called Saugh Rigg, and then a slope called Copper Snout. Didn’t reach the “summit” of that on my way up though…

Reason? The public rights of way pointed me to a less visible path, and I wandered off it…

I wasn’t exactly lost, of course. I knew if I kept walking northwest, I’d be able to hit my designed route eventually – in fact, I’d have a much harder time if I wanted to hit anything other than my designed route, so on I went, checking my compass (which had never been used up till this point – navigation is so easy when your roads are quite visible) every now and then to make sure I was heading to the right direction. About 10 minutes on, I thought I’d trudged too much west and not north enough, so I adjusted my direction and headed north instead. This turned out I be a very good decision, as in just about 3 minutes, I saw this:

Another sheepfold! I was officially “found” (or “un-lost”) now. Checking at my map, I found a sheepfold – the only sheepfold around the area I was sure I was in – and saw a green line running around and behinds the tiny black ring. My path is right behind the sheepfold!

It wasn’t that easy, though, as the ground was getting quite wet, and although it wasn’t dangerously muddy as the Wall, it was begging quite boggy. Fortunately, I didn’t have much of a problem cutting through all the bogs as I decided getting wet/muddy is better than getting lost. Another good call, as in another few minutes with the guide of map and compass, I found this:

The experience from the Wall told me that it means the end of a segment of a trail, and in a way, it wasn’t. There wasn’t a road cutting right across the gate, and I had to trudge along the fences (without knowing how useful they’d be in the immediate future) for another 10 minutes or so to see the road.

Well, not road. Technically, it’s a footpath/bridle way called Clennell Street, and it’s supposed to have dated from the pre-Roman eras, as one of the key ways to transport goods between heaven-knows-where. It’s quite big, coming from Alwinton through the Kidland Forest and then off to somewhere in the Northwest direction (I need to re-check the map to see where it ends up). Now, though, it’s been used by the logging companies (figured that out later)…

The other side of Clennell Street was the Kidland Forest, and that’s what I saw on my very first sight… I had been told that the forest is, in fact, a crop, and any clearings shown on the map would be chopped-off trees. I’d innocently thought the’s only chop off long, narrow areas off once every few years, but this…? Looks closer to clear-cutting!

It’s not a forest with clearings… It’s a clearing with patches of woods!

Sometimes, it looks quite nice though… That’s when I longed for a clearer day, and a path that’s easier on my feet.

Did I mention clear-cutting? But they’re also planting baby trees once the logs were out, so I’m not really sure if it counts…

And yes, you guessed it… I wandered off the path again, this time into a completely blind area. Unsure what to do, I followed the road while jumping between huge bogs and tree-trunks (or what was remaining of them). I eventually found another fence-gate thing to get back to the main path.

It turned out that I was actually still adjusting to the map’s scale. It is a gigantic map for sure, but it also covered a big part of the Northumberland National Park. I kept forgetting it was 1:25k, or 4cm to a kilometre, and expected to reach the next turn/junction in 2 minutes instead of 10 or even 15… That was, as it seemed, the reason why I kept wandering off the paths… I kept seeing things that weren’t there! Eventually, though, I got myself into the right track. The satisfaction as I watched Clennell Street branch off west while I took the path straight up north was immense…

Had quite a chirpy time walking on easy road with fair views. Clear-cutting wasn’t as visible as I headed into the forest, and I found the starting point of one of the burns!

I was supposed to head straight north instead of turning south with the road. However, the clearing I was aiming for was a bit too high above the road, and I couldn’t see the footpath from below. I didn’t want to risk not finding the path and having to come down, so I decided to follow the road around Mid Hill before reaching another clearing which was connected to the edge of the forest.

As I reached the south side of the Mid Hill, trees were much thinner and gave way for some more scenery. Looking south, I think the hill on the other side of the valley is Sneer Hill…

They’ve cleared the forest, now what? It looks like they’re gravelling the road, but I’m not entirely sure… Either way, I hate those gravels. They’re quite rough on my feet!

More snow! It wasn’t exactly cold when I was there, about 4-5 degrees maybe, but it mustn’t have been warmer than this for the past week… Or maybe it had, but the week-long rain/snow/storm was really heavy on the hills. Either way, it was such a delight to see some proper snow… Just enough to cheer me up and not as much to frighten me.

After a detour of almost 3k, I’d finally made it out of the forest. The clearing was right between Yarnspath Law and Bloodybush Edge, and this picture, taken from the edge of the forest, looks northeast at BBE. I was quite excited to make it out here, as I didn’t really expect myself to do so. But little did I know that this was actually the hardest part…

I’d been warned that the terrace would be particularly “boggy” at this time of the year. Though for some reason, I thought it just meant clusters of grass growing on good soil, a bit wilder than sheep farms but better footgrips than horse farms. I wasn’t completely wrong, of course, as the moor turned out to be a type of heather moor that only exists in Britain. It’s a mix of peat/raised bogs (green) and ling heather (brown), if my memory’s correct, and the ground is really wet… The paths were very muddy and barely visible, so I decided to go off again to try and find the Shivering Stone. Not an easy job, though… Whatever was under my feet was squishy and full of water – that’s how burns start, I suppose – and the bogs meant it was almost as hard on my feet as the gravels. There was no use trying to find easier terrace up there, it was just a preference of heather or peat. Heather was rougher, and took more energy to navigate, so eventually I settled with peat, which turned out to be slippery at times. Even so, making my way up was a struggle. I was already breathless when I spotted, from very far away, the Shivering Stone, but forgot to take a picture of them, thinking I would do that once I reach them. Too bad, as I made my way to them, I lost track of them. The result, I gave up on the stones and decided I’d find the summit first.

Not an easy job, either, as it was extremely foggy up there, I had no idea where I was, and couldn’t see the triangulation pillar at all. I also knew that, since the pillar meant the summit, I would need to keep going up, and shouldn’t be worrying as long as I’m still gaining elevation. With that belief in mind, I reached some fence… Mmmm…. I remember seeing fences on the map… The summit should be where several fences meet, really…

And there it was! I was only a few yards to the west (instead of the east)!

It was quite foggy, and the summit is more like a big, flat platform as North describes them, so it was very hard to see anything from the top of the hill. I tried to look around, hoping to see the Shivering Stone from up here, with no avail. They are a bit more downhill in the southwest direction (and this picture is taken from the northwest of the pillar)…

BM S8065, Bloodybush Edge, Grid Reference NT 902 143. That was where I spent the next hour or so resting and waiting to meet up with my guide. It was quite chilly at the beginning with some wind, feeling like 3 degrees or so, but then the sun started to come in, and then it felt like 7 or 8 when the wind was still. I also met a pair of walkers who had followed the Clennell Street from Alwinton. They had lunch here, and went off fairly soon afterwards. I just sat at the ladders, trying to relax my legs, which are already getting stiff from cutting through all the bogs.

My guide showed up around a quarter after 2, and was quite impressed that I made my way up here all by myself. Not exactly a hard job, let’s be frank… Sure I was nervous, but the paths were generally clear and the navigation was fairly easy, so it doesn’t feel like something to be extra proud about. To be honest, my compass was of no use for the majority of my walk, and only a map or a route description would suffice (DO NOT TRY GO INTO THE HILLS WITHOUT A COMPASS THOUGH – IT’S MUCH SAFER TO KNOW WHERE YOU’RE HEADING, ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE A TENDENCY TO WANDER OFF THE PATHS LIKE I DO).

My guide and I started making our way down the hills, this time trying to stick with the paths. With some luck and clearing weathers, I got another glimpse of the Shivering Stone, and took the opportunity to snap them. They are the two stone-like dots on the left side of the horizon, I’m not sure if you could spot them on the above picture though…

As we made our way down, the sky was getting clearer and clearer, though never completely rid of the mist. For a few fleeting moments, it was like walking in a dazy dream, except the next moment I was forced to focus on my feet again. The path itself was too muddy for me to feel safe walking on, so I was again cutting through bogs while my guide went ahead to show me where to go. I was definitely moving faster than I should, as in the few kilometers with my guide, I slipped, lost my boot, and fell into a bog hole (this came later on, though) while I had no incidents when making my own way up. Or it might just have been by chance, maybe.

It was getting rapidly sunnier as we got to the edge of the forest – the edge that I was supposed to reach earlier, but decided not to try. Being able to see the other side of the valley was indeed a very nice feeling… The moor in the foreground is the east side of Yarnspath Law, while the hill on the left side leads to its real summit. In between the two, the darker hill in the middle looks like the Hazely Law, while vaguely visible in the far back, we can see the ridge that separates England and Scotland… I was merely 3 kilometers from the border, and it was the closest to Scotland I’d ever got.

Finding the path down to the forest was easy, easier than finding the path to the edge of the forest earlier. However, as we approached the road, I realized I wasn’t going to reach it easily: there lay the little cliff that made me change my mind earlier! My guide made it down when I was still managing the bogs, so I didn’t see how he did it. I had to scramble down, grabbing handful of grass to secure myself as I make down the two-step cliff (one-step for most people… I had to use two as my legs were not quite long enough, and I was too scared to stretch them!). The first step was okay, though I couldn’t find a firm landing for my second step, and my guide had to tell me to step onto his foot to help me down. I am, of course, grateful for the hand (or foot). Though I suspect if given time, I could manage that inch by myself eventually…

And that’s when the sun decided to come out, albeit very briefly. The view became ten times nicer, though…

And with that, clear-cutting becomes ten times as sad and scary…

My guide told me that BC actually has the same timber as this forest. It makes sense, as the climates are quite alike. The bogs, as I was told earlier, are extremely valuable ecologically. At the time I figured it was because they hold tons of water, feeding the streams and preventing the land goes super dry. With some more research, though, I found out that they are also experts at absorbing carbon dioxide – peatlands, in fact, are the most efficient carbon sinks among all ecosystems.

My guide and I tried to find a different path back. I’d planned to take that path down to Usway Burn, and follow the burn back to Shillmoor, but also recognized it as being slightly more challenging. It was a very easy path to find, though virtually non-visible. The best I could see was muddy, watery ground with occasional bogs. I was slightly worried, but thought it could get better, until, just a few meters in, I stepped into a bog hole. Oops…

I asked for help, obviously, and not so calmly. For some reason (obliviousness on my part, probably), I’d never learnt how to deal with having one of my limbs being sucked into the ground. I know what not to do, as in not panicking, not struggling (as it’ll make you sink deeper), and not trying to stand straight. I also knew that if I didn’t want to sink deeper, it’s probably the best if I spread out my body, so I did just that. But apart from being paralyzed where I was, I had no idea how to actually get myself out of that hole. My guide held my hands and told me to simply pull my leg out. I was a bit skeptical about that advice at first, but since he told me to do it twice, I tried. Though I didn’t try to pull it out as it went in, and it was very hard to move my foot up even by an inch. It was when he told me I wasn’t “in the right position” that I realized what I should do, but he decided it would be better if he simply grab me out of it. For some reason, I also didn’t get the impression that he was going to do that, and he took me not releasing his hand as a sign of panicking. It was scary, I admit, but my thought immediately went to how much worse it could have been if I was alone. It was more of a moment of bewilderment for me to understand what we were going to do, rather than pure, overwhelming fear and desperation. It would be just that, though, if it happened when I was alone…

When I was finally standing up right, both of my boots are completely soaked with water (turned out they were fairly absorbent, too, as I couldn’t squeeze the water out), and my sweat pants were soaked till mid-calf. It wasn’t really cold, so I decided not to get changed, and let my clothes dry on their own. I also decided that carrying on with this new path was not a wise idea, as I would eventually have to finish the final stretch down to the Burn on my own. So with that, we turned back to the road, and as I carried on to trace my footsteps back to Shillmoor, my guide made his way back to the other side of the hills where he parked his car.

I might have relaxed too much while walking on that road, and forgot where I came from. As the road turned an unfamiliar turn, I started doubting if I had passed my turn. I decided to carry on till the edge of the forest. There was really no need, though, as a few minutes on, I saw the fence that looked suspiciously like the one fencing off the forestry area. Taking a bold yet sensible guess, I doubled back, and saw the pole that directed me back to the barely visible public footpath.

It was quite scary, as I realized I had no idea where the path would lead me, and on my rush to get up the hills, I made the blunt decision to go generally northeast. It was much harder to do the opposite now as I won’t eventually hit a road or a forest, and risk wandering off to steep, unknown cliffs lining above Usway Burn. My only bet was to cut to the fence (which was barely visible from where the road was) as soon as possible, and see from there. It was a good idea, though still scary as I wasn’t sure if I was following the right fence. I felt like I was, as I vaguely remember all the gates I went through earlier, but I was never really sure until I saw this:

Again, the joy of knowing exactly where I was and that I was on the right track was particularly relieving and overwhelming. Quickly, I cut from the sheepfold to the other fence, went through the gate, and let out a deep breath when I saw the nice, visible path I’d followed in the morning. The rest? The rest was easy.

That’s Usway Burn down in the valley… A bit of pity I didn’t get to walk it, but I’d rather not risk it.

More grazing sheep as the terrace became perfect again!

High above River Coquet, just before I turned to the other side of the hill with the path. On the other side of the river was the military training ground.

This is from above an unnamed burn, formed by the joining of Wholehope Burn and Flushey Sike about 1km upstream. The burn eventually joins River Coquet (which is just by the road on the right side of the picture).

I got back to Shillmoor around 6pm, and knocked on a random door to phone my friend. The person was friendly and helpful, and I suspect the inhabitants here had seen a good number of walkers knocking on the doors for all sorts of help. I was picked up just a bit after 7pm. It had started to drizzle by then, though I didn’t really mind the rain as it was probably still 11 degrees down here!

The above are my route for the day, as recorded on my OS Map App. I can give you more details if you want… Oh and it took me about 6 hours, and one more as I waited for my guide!

Well, in summary… It was a very good walk, with lots of goods and some bads. Fear was there almost constantly, but it never got too overwhelming, and I had proved to be able to make sensible decisions in the wild as long as I’m not overwhelmed. Guess that also means I’m not a bad navigator, either, and just need some more getting-used-to to really enjoy the outdoors. However, it might be too much to do a four-day marathon walk across the Cheviots to Scotland before I go home, and if I really want to do that, I need to figure out a route that has well-defined paths and mild slopes. Quite difficult, that.

A bit of a regret as I didn’t get to approach the Shivering Stone, and the weather, although quite dry (drier than usual) and warm, could use some more sun and less fog… But there is really no need to be dissatisfied, as I’d successfully walked 20k in the most remote hills of England, found one of the two things I had been longing to reach, and got back successfully. Really, what more could I ask for?

Finally…

Lessons Learned:

  1. Heather moorlands are a pain to navigate, though they are of special ecological importance
  2. Sheepfolds and fences are my best friends out in the wild. They can be better than marked paths at times
  3. Wandering off the path is not the wisest decision. If the terrace is really scary, it might be better to walk beside the path, while still following it…
  4. It’s probably better to not enjoy the view too much, and spare some thoughts and energy in tracking myself on the map

Lessons Still to Learn:

  1. How to get out of a bog hole by myself

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