Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Cheviot Five Valleys Challenge Ride 2008

WOW!!! What a Ride!
The Cheviot Five Valleys Challenge Ride.
Five Valleys, 2days, 50plus miles!
2000m Ascent and descent!
Bogs, Steepsided hills, crags and fords!
Mists, Great People and Good Food!
No mobile phone reception!
No Pubs!
Fantastic!!!!!! Read on.

I was idly surfing the net, and wondering what I was going to do with myself, while at the same time listening to the rain pouring down outside my front room window.
I was trawling the BHS site, when I found a reference to a series of rides called the Cheviot Five Valleys Challenge. These rides are meant to be ridden as "There and back" rides, for horse riders of an adventurous nature, who wish to stay within the Cheviot Hills, and the Northumbria National Park.
(The National Park website gives details.)
I contacted Sue Rogers, the BHS representative in the area, who kindly supplied route discriptions and names of places to stay. To Sue, we are indebted. We had the idea, to do the Five Valleys as a three day ride, but as luck would have it, it became a two day ride!

Our tale begins, with our arrival at Cliftoncote Farm, in the Bowmont Valley, not far from Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish side of the Border. The farm is run by Angela Freeland- Cooke, her husband and family, who are part of the BHS Equine Tourism scheme.

Bobby and I are, what you would call, of an age! He is 70, and I`m 55. We have been riding for years, off and on together competing in Endurance and LeTrec events. Our trusty mounts for this trip were Bobbys 15 year old Fell gelding, "Riever", and my 7 year old Irish draught cross Thoroughbred, "Gracie". ( here on in sometimes refered to as The Gruesome Twosome)
Both totally different horses, but have one thing incommon, bravery! They would need this in spades later on! I ride western, and Bobby alternates between english and western depending on how the mood takes him!

Our route was to take us from Cliftoncote Farm in the Bowmont Valley, to Well House Farm, at Cocquetdale in one day. A ride of some 38 map miles across one of the most varied landscapes in Britain. Once that was done we would return back to Cliftoncote, via Clennel Street, (an old Roman Road) across the Border Ridge! We would reach hieghts of 542 meters, and gain an insight into how tough it must have been for people to survive and work on these hills.

We left Cliftoncote Farm, at 8.15am on a warm but windy, and grey Tuesday morning, July 22nd 2008. Angela having prepared packed lunches, (enough to feed an army!) and saddle bags containing everything, including, map,compass, spare clothing and equine First Aid kit! Having left details of our route with Angela, and any route changes, due to bad ground or lack of time, Angela said she would inform Jan Hall at Well House Farm, of our intentions. We also carried mobile phones with all the telephone numbers of the Farms we would be staying at. ( There is no reception in the Cheviots, except in very rare spots, and we didnt find one!)

The first stage of our route, was a gentle, but active walk along the Bowmont Valley, the track running alongside the Bowmont Water. Gracie and Riever, both in fine spirits, ears pricked and eyes to the hills!
Bobby, who by now had settled himself into his saddle, puffing soothingly on his pipe, clouds of smoke belching from an age old rosewood, looking more like a bonfire on the move!
Myself, map in hand, enjoying the freedom of the Trail. As the miles pass, time becomes an enemy, you need to get there, but not wanting to! The trip is too good a thing to let go, so as the hoofs clip and clop, and the grass and turf give way to the wieght of a horse and its rider, both become one, together and thats what this is all about, man and horse as one.

Three miles into our ride, we passed through the hamlet of Sourhope, a small collection of houses, clinging to the bottom of BlackDean Curr. Sitting on the banks of the Sourhope Burn, which flows into the Bowmont Water. From there we pointed our mounts towards The Schill.
This hill is part of the Pennine Way, lying below the hill is the small settlement of Schillgreen, a lonely group of buildings at 277 meters. It is hard to imagine peolple living here at this hieght and raising everything they need to survive, even the weather can be against you, and the land is poor.
It was here that Bobby lost his mobile phone, at least thats what he says! ( I reckon he chucked it,)
We started to climb the excellent track towards the the point between Black Hag and The Schill. This is the cross over from Scotland to England, the Pennine Way, we decided to give the horses a rest, before continuing down the other side into the College Valley. (We usually ride an hour and graze for ten minutes). The route we would take to the College Valley, lay in front and below us, the lonely fingerpost showing the way, (reminded me of the ghost of Christmas future in "A Christmas Carol". When he points to Scrooge` headstone in the graveyard!) most of the ride did have guide posts.

Having mounted the gruesome twosome, we were forced to dismount within about two hundred yards, the ground here was extremely wet, and very soft.
The last two months have been excessivly wet in this area, causing landslips, which we could clearly see, as we entered some of the other valleys. We reached the settlement of Mounthooley after a short descent, and we headed down the track along the valley past newly built cottages, and farm steads.
The grass verges were covered in flowers of every discription, Campion, Wild Hare bells and Meadowsweet. birds were singing, and all was well with the world?
Gates are either good or bad! Most were good, with horse friendly catches. Unfortunately, this next one at Fleehope wasnt. As we approached we saw the gate was tied with rafts of string, all possible colours!
It wasnt until we untied the gate that we realised why! The gate didnt fall off, it was the fence next to the cattlegrid, that collapsed.
The whole thing wieghed a ton! After much huffing and puffing, we finally got it re-tied and led the horses through.
We remounted and made our way to the Sutherland Bridge crossing. Throughout this whole carryon with the gate, Gracie and Riever, just munched grass! And as much as they could get in! By now the day was warming up considerably, hot and still in the valleys, with a warm breeze on the tops, and an azure blue sky above, what more could we ask for?

The Bridge crossing, was one of those good things, because alongside was a ford, and as the weather was warming up to a wonderful 70deg, the horses plunged headlong in! Both stopping to drain a 12 foot wide river! Well it sounded like that. As I was riding Gracie in a Bosal, she had an easy time of drinking, poor Riever, he had to dip his nose right in.

Leaving the College Valley behind, we headed the horses up another small valley, running south east alongside the Lambden Burn. Passing Dunsdale Crags on our left, we could hear the calls of Perigrine Falcons echoing across the valley. As we drew further on, Gracie and Riever both stopped dead! Wouldnt move! With there ears pricked as a warning and there heads held high, we new something was wrong, not knowing quite what both horses had seen, we waited for a few moments. Then right out of the dense bushes and trees, trotted a small herd of Red deer! At least six doe`s, marvelous!!! and then as quickly as they came, they just melted into the bushes, Gracie and Riever, never shied, but looked and moved on.
At the head of the Lambden Burn, is a small group of buildings, totally hidden from view, this is Goldscleugh, a remote Farm, nestling quietly amid some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. As we rode past the farm and under a grove of ash trees we crossed another ford, (these would become a welcome essential as the day wore on,) heading along the valley, and keeping to the north of the Burn, below the Southern side of Preston Hill, here the track bears right and travels through a small plantation coming out below Broadhope Hill. Then it turns east between Blackseat Hill and Broadhope Hill.
As the Bridleway rises up to the 460m contour, views are excellent down to the Harthope Valley. The gruesome twosome, had had a long pull up from Goldscleugh, as it was almost 12.30pm, we decided to have an hours rest for the horses to graze and for us to have lunch, and relax a little.
Bobby and I, untacked Gracie and Riever, laying the saddles and blankets in the sun to dry. Bobby, now seventy years old spent over 40 years herding sheep over the hills around Ettrick and the Cheviots, on horseback, for the next hour he entertained me with tales of lost sheep and winter storms!
While I listened to Bobby, I watched as Gracie immediately got down and had a good roll!
Riever, not to be out done, followed suit, only he was unable to roll all the way over! After several tries, he finally made it, a 14h dynamo!
For us, it gave us a chance to relieve aching limbs, and check the horses over for any injuries. (Gracie got my lunch apple and orange! Riever only got Bobbys apple.)

We were now standing looking down the Hawsen Burn, and could see the next stage of the route over The Dod, and Langlee Crags.
With dry saddle blankets, and newly curried horses, we set off once again heading ever East down to the Harthope Valley. The tracks being fairly dry and in good nick. The route down the Hawsen Burn is good, passing shooting butts and giving great views. This whole area is packed with grouse and partridge, every step the horse takes, coveys of birds fly up!
As we reached the road just one km NE of Langleeford, where the Hawsen Burn meets the Harthope Burn, we joined a "crocodile" of school children and adults, heading for their buses parked along the road. It was like being suddenly dropped into a school playground! Teachers standing by buses, holding up cards with class numbers on!

To choruses of "Ride `em Cowboy!" and other friendly remarks, ( are`nt kids lovely?) we bade our fond farewells, and jogged on to the Langlee Bridge
Another ford, and turning right at another lonely fingerpost, we started along a good grassy track towards a sheepfold, and one of the steepest sections on this route, and I mean steep! As you climb this section, note the views behind you! Unless you`re out of breath, and walking alongside your horse! Like me!

Once you can breathe again,!!! ..........and have remounted, the track follows a stone wall, and comes to a gate, this has a Blue Bridleway arrow on it, do not go through it!!!!!!!!!! As the Bridleway on the other side is dangerous, and exceedingly boggy! The cleggs here are vicious little b******s.

Sue Rogers in her route guide, explains that you must take the track to the left of the gate. DO THIS. Follow this around Langlee Crags, past shooting butts, and onto the corner of the plantation, and then onto the track at The Dod.
Unfortunately, mistakes are made and they can be costly, in our case we came across many bogs, and sometimes we were
lucky and other times we were not. This type of ground needs care!
Its no good if your horse gets stuck! If in doubt get off your horse!

Bobby and I were caused to detour several times, during the ride, costing us at least two and a half hours in lost time. But this should be expected, as ground changes, and weather alters everything.
Past The Dod, another high farming outpost, standing bare among miles of open moor. Going right past the Bridleway sign at The Dod, which points into sheep pens! We picked up the proper route about a half mile further on by an old stone sheepfold.

Across ground that hadnt seen a horse for some time, following the map, and dodging bogs, we were thinking that perhaps we had missed our vocation as potential "bog dodgers!" Once south of Cunyan Crags, the going became easy, and the track grassy and firm. We enjoyed the pleasant going, this gave the horses a good rest from soft ground. Passing the site of an old long since gone Medieval Village, we carried on, down beautiful slopes of green grass and freshly cut bracken, to Linhope.

Linhope, in the Breamish Valley, is really quite beautiful, and remote, the road is deserted, and the only moving things were sheep! The day had progressed rapidly, it was now 6pm and time was not on our side. It is at times like these that you must have a
plan B.
We had arranged two alternative routes in the event of problems, either with the horses or the time. From Linhope Village, our new route changed at Hartside, and went south along a broken old road, towards Alnhammoor Farm. ( We could have pushed the horses harder, to make up the time, but this is not what we are about! The horses always come first, and there welfare, this is most important, remember Richard 111, "for the want of a horse"? )

Crossing the River Breamish at Alnhammoor Farm we took the higher of the two Bridleways, that leads to the corner of a plantation of trees at Cobden Cleugh. This was the worst gate of the day! It was stapled shut!. However, as intrepid explorers, we had anticipated things like this and, Bobby produced a pair of small bolt cutters from his saddle bags! Snip,Snip!

The staple was removed and the gate opened. We retied the gate with a small piece of chain link carried with us. Sorry! But this is a Bridleway, and no we are not activists, just riders.
After our epic battle with the Cobden Gate! The next two miles were heaven. That is until we saw our next section.
Our route takes us past the Bridleway above Alnham, here we were to turn West and follow the Salters Road to the WhiteGate.
Having headed that way, for some 300 yards, once again we were up to the horses knees in sluther, and soft peat.
Time was pressing.
We returned to the Alnham Bridleway. After a discussion, as to the options, we took the route to Alnham Village down the hill and past the site of Alnham Castle, and onto the road for Scrainwood and Cote Walls. Then before long we arrived at Well House Farm!
The site of a light in the doorway of the farm house was wonderful. !

It was almost getting dark, 9.30pm to be exact, , and as we approached the Farm house, we could see the owner looking for us, Jan Hall, and her husband Jimmy, who farm this land, were brilliant! Jan had been on the phone talking to Angela back at Cliftoncote, checking our route and worrying!
A couple of cold beers were produced by Jimmy, and after putting the horses to bed!
It was the same for us!
Due to the non existant mobile phone reception in the hills we couldnt let anyone know of our changed route. Just as well we had left a note of our routes, and any changes. Plus BT has now removed nearly all the phones in the area, after making them usable only by cards! The one we did find was......yes, you guessed it, "Out Of Order."

The next day should have been our next section to ride, but we were enjoying the hospitality and good food so much, we stayed for that day, with Jan and Jimmy. (The real reason was that Bobby and I needed a rest).
Excellent home cooking, ice cream!(cinder toffee, home grown lamb!). It also gave the horses a good rest, as the grass was brilliant, Gracie and Riever, never looked up.

Thursday. We had arranged for an early breakfast, 6.30am, to be able to tack up and be away by 7am. However! The NE coast has a tendency to be awkward, and sure enough, a Haar, had arrived! The thick moisture laden fog was everywhere, you couldnt see more than ten yards in places!

What to do? Couldnt stay another day, or we would have put at least ten pounds on! Afte consulting with Jimmy, his advice was that the Haar would burn off after the sun warmed up, say 2-3 hours.
It was out with the compass, and map and off we went, down the road, then a Bridleway to Alwinton. Past sleepy eyed cottages of yellow stone, hidden cosily in glades of shady trees. It took us just an hour to travel three miles. Not bad really, from Alwinton we bore right at the footbridge and still in fog, began the climb up to the Border Ridge.
Clennell Street, was the only route across into Scotland for hundreds of years, and is still in excellent condition today. Built by the Roman Army, it has stood the test of time.

About half a mile past Alwinton Farm the track begins the climb up past an old fortified settlement, known as Castle Hills. Heading North, the mist still clamped down, we walked on and upwards the warmth of the day beginning. As we reached Cross Dyke the sun finally broke through, Jimmy was right. This is also the route of the Border County Ride and is easily followed in good weather.
We reached the sheepfold at Wholehope, just a few sheep pens next to the edge of Peat Law, a forested hill. By now, the day was wonderful, clear bright and getting hotter! Nestlehope hill, great names! This is where the track for the Border Ridge, deviates left down to Well Cleugh, below Yarnspath Law. Before we reached Well Cleugh, and while we were still in the forest, we could clearly see the structure of the old Roman Road, and as we came to the edge of the forest, Bobby and I had to look in awe at the view! The Border Ridge was clear to see, stretching out in front of us, Windy Gyle and Hazely Law, heather strewn mounds of ancient earth, cast up out the ground, millions of years ago, being trodden across by two insignificant humans on horse back. It makes you humble.
From here we wended our way downhill to the waterfall above Murder Cleugh. The farm at Uswayford can be clearly seen and used as a stop over in an emergency. We rested the horses and had some food, noting the views along the Border Ridge.
Gracie and Riever were showing no signs of fatigue or any slowing down, infact I believe they sensed that they would be home soon. We made our way up Hazely Slack, a burn to the west of Hazely Law hill, the climb here gets steep, the track rutted and worn, with an exceedingly long drop on the west side! This leads to open ground and a gentle track to................................... the Border Ridge! The sights are fantastic, so we stopped and dismounted for some pictures.
Getting my camera out, I took several of us looking towards Windy Gyle, and then the camera packed in! And this was my new all singing all dancing digital! Give me film everytime!
Well if things can go wrong, they will! Luckily, my good lady, had given Bobby and I two disposables to take just in case!
How astute you women are.
Once again, we were off downhill to the Bowmont Valley, from where we had started. Dropping slowly past Outer Cock law, skirting earthworks and old cultivation terraces, we dropped even further towards Cock Law. Passing below White Knowe, we came in sight of Kelsocleugh , an occupied farm, and for the first time we met another human being. He was mending sheep fences.
Finally we reached Cock law Foot, this is the start of the end of our trip, here the track becomes a road, which winds its way past Sourhope and Belford, and finally back to Cliftoncote! It was sad, but good. The gruesome twosome, were stepping out with an excitment that horses have when starting out!

At 2.30pm we reached Cliftoncote, and a welcome cup of tea from Angela. The horses got good hay, and plenty of water, before loading to go home. 16 miles, in 7.30minutes, (about).

A truely great ride! We reckoned on around 54 miles in total, over two riding days, not bad considering there was over 2000m of ascent and descent, ( we did this ride at the walk, as the horses carried everything), Five valleys, and numerous rivers, gates and bogs.
Brilliant. We would do it again tomorrow!

Our thanks to Sue Rogers, who provided the route discriptions, Angela Freeland-Cooke, who gave good advice and plenty of food. Jan and Jimmy Hall at Well House Farm, who looked after us for two nights and one day, did our washing, and fed us to bursting point!

Many thanks to all. Yes we would recommend this ride, but please make sure your horses are fit, and you are too. Take a map and compass, know how to use them. Do not do the first part of the ride on your own unless you are very competent.
Take spare clothing, and food, and leave your route with someone you trust, make alternative plans, in case of emergency`s. Do not deviate from the planned route without letting someone know.

Finally, have a damn good ride!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We did!

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