I have a deep love for the Northumberland countryside, but with so many marvellous places around us, it would be impossible to pick a favourite. So much depends on the season, the weather and mood. There are days when the summit of Windy Gyle or The Schill fits the bill. On other days it is the coast that I need. But I guess, most people do have one place that they keep returning to, and for me it is the hills above Old Bewick. This area seems to represent so much of what is wonderful in the Northumbrian landscape and it is a somewhere that, whatever the time of year, never fails to delight.
The hills here are not the highest, nor the most dramatic, but the area provides so many delights that can stimulate the imagination. We start in Old Bewick itself, where a track runs uphill from the cottages there. It’s a gradual climb, but if you need a rest, turn around to get the most magnificent views across the valley of the Breamish and Till rivers, to The Cheviot and its neighbouring hills. As you enter the moorland, there is a stile in the fence on the right which takes you to a path that runs straight up the side of Bewick Hill. It’s just a short climb and after this it is all quite level. At the top, follow the fence around the hill and you will soon get to Bewick Hill Fort, one of the best preserved Iron Age settlements in the area. The ramparts are still high and clear, and this particular example is unique (I believe) in having two connected enclosures. We call these structures ‘hill forts’ but it seems unlikely that their primary use was to defend against other attacking tribes. They may well have had some defensive uses, but it is perhaps more likely that they were to protect the stock of these early farmers; wolves and bears would still have been roaming the land and so sheep and cattle wouldn’t have been able to have been left out overnight.
Within the ramparts of the second ‘hill fort’ there are two WW2 pillboxes, which seem incongruous, sitting inside a 2,000 year old Iron Age village. Built in 1940 as part of the defence line that ran between Wooler and Alnwick, the location was perhaps selected for its outstanding outlook; it is hard to envisage why this would be chosen as place to defend.
As you leave the two hill forts, the path takes you past a pair of large rock outcrops which are covered with beautiful cup and ring marks. These mysterious carvings can be found in many places along the sandstone ridges of Northumberland, but there are few that are so easy to find and set in such a dramatic landscape. Many have conjectured about what could have motivated our early ancestors to create such marks. Some have suggested they are maps, others that they are signs to alien visitors. The truth will probably always elude us and we are left to use our imagination; perhaps this is something we should welcome in a world that increasingly thinks it has all the answers.
Further to the east, if you are observant, you will be able to see the mounds of another hill fort. There are many tracks which you can use to navigate your way through the heather to get to this second enclosure, but today we’ll head for the ruined cottage of Blawearie which is beside a clump of trees to the left.
The cottage was lived in until the 1930s, but time has taken its toll and we are left with a ruin today. But what a romantic ruin. The views are immense on all sides. In front of the cottage are some large rock outcrops. Explore these awhile and you’ll find the remnants of what must have been a delightful garden. With the mature trees, this was a place where people made a true home and didn’t just seek to survive.
We now take the track downhill back to where we started, but there is one more place to visit. What looks like a pile of stones on the right turns out to be an exposed burial mound. It has been excavated by Stan Beckensall who has done so much to reveal our areas pre-history. Close examination will show an outer ring of stones and a slab-lined burial cist. This was clearly an important place for our ancient ancestors.
From here the track starts to go downhill until you get to the point where we turned off to climb Bewick Hill. It’s just a case of retracing your steps now, but you have the advantage of going down rather than up, and you have that wonderful view in front.
In all, this circuit is less than three miles so even with frequent stops it can be done easily in two hours. It is not what you might call a hard walk; strong shoes will suffice. But what a lot is crammed into what is little more than 5,000 paces. It is not a secret walk. It figures in a lot of walking books, but it is one that seems to be rejected by many in favour of the bigger challenges of the Cheviots. I would say, give it a go, you might be surprised!