Barry Kemp from Cold Brew Events writes about his experiences of the Cheviot Orbital and staying at the hostel
The Cheviot Orbital is a route created by the irrepressible Ted Liddle. He’s been at the forefront of cycling development in the north east for decades and has pioneered and maintained many of the routes we take for granted today. Having met him many times you can’t help but be infected by his charming personality combined with a real drive to make things happen. In recent times he was the brains behind the Sandstone Way and now his latest creation is the Cheviot Orbital, an off road loop round the Cheviots just over 50 miles in length. Mick and I thought we’d get out and give it a crack.
The Cheviot Orbital is a good addition to the active tourism offerings of Northumberland. Only in recent years has active tourism come to the fore, championed by enthusiastic individuals like Ted or private companies through events, guided tours, history sessions and more. The last ten years has seen the establishment of micro businesses or the supporting of existing ones. It’s largely done without any backing from local government type organisations but imagine the potential if they could come on board. A quick glance over the border at what’s happening with Glentress and Innerliethen should be all the incentive needed to push on with active tourism.
Mick Barker had bought the map and asked me a while back if I fancied doing the loop with him over 2 days. My first option was to just ride it in a day as it’s easily achievable but agreed to make it a leisurely ride and stay over night somewhere on the route. Checking the route it became clear for a 2 day expedition then starting at Alwinton would mean Wooler falls around half way. The obvious choice in Wooler is to go and visit Karl Wait’s place, Wooler Youth Hostel. The wheels were now in motion.
It’s late March and the winter has been serenely warm and dry. An early alarm clock goes off and I’ve crept downstairs to get some porridge and sort my last pieces of kit before grabbing the dog and taking him across to the parents. I find early mornings about as agreeable as Donald Trump but it was a necessary evil in order to meet Mick on time and get started. Rolling in to Alwinton the air was cool but clear with only a few broken clouds rolling along. This is a good starting point as it has a decent overnight car park to leave the car and also the excellent Rose & Thistle for a post ride feed and drink. It wasn’t long until Mick turned up and we got under way.
The first bit is on road up to the Pass Peth turn off. The tarmac warms the legs before a nice steep section to get up to the top of the pass. It’s then a nice grassy flier and across a stream before taking the lovely singletrack across to Shillmoor Farm at the head of the Usway Burn. A quick chat to John the shepherd and onwards wee headed into one of the nicest valleys you’ll care to find in the Cheviots. The Usway Burn is steep sided, carved out by ice and water over millions of years. Shale forms on open patches in between the grass and bracken whilst the sheep move gently away on approach. Skirting round Battlesheil it’s then on to singletrack that rises and falls, demanding attention is kept. The last section through the woods is a test of skill going up, over and round various exposed roots and rocks to pop out at the white walls of Fairhaugh.
Now in private ownership, Fairhaugh was once occupied by local farmers and Ian Tait of Barrowburn used to tell the story of the children riding over by pony to come to school all the years ago. Now it’s surrounded by trees, most of which have just been felled and dramatically changed the landscape once again. The setting is no less beautiful or remote than it’s ever been. The climb out of here however, is a bit of a bugger! If it’s wet you’re grip will be limited on steep ground but luckily enough the climb doesn’t go on for too long and just as your legs are thinking about giving up it then tops out and reveals your first view north towards the border with Scotland.
Middle Hill, oh how I remember sending people up and over this hill in the first Clennell Colossus. It was completely unnecessary as there is a perfectly good track around the side but oh how I chuckled watching distraught faces back in 2015. This time the side track was the option of choice and we worked our way along the tricky track to reach the other side and hook up with Clennell Street. This old drovers road was a main track used by people shifting livestock north or south of the border to different markets. It would have been such a hard journey given the landscape, the lawlessness and the sheer logistics of getting animals moving along it. Hats off to these people of yester year.
Next up for the ride is the lovely Hazely Law. The track through here and to the border is best tackled in reverse in a southerly direction. Heading north it’s one no-fo of a technical, steep ascent where I had the legs but didn’t have the grip where the ground turned muddy. Disgruntled at having to walk two 5 metre sections I pushed on to the top where the track goes across a lovely grassy fell. Not far along here is a nice big puddle where Mick rode through and nearly disappeared into an abyss on the far side. Love it. Sensible people opt to go round it.
With Uswayford Forest on our right and Windy Gyle on our left the border was reached and a panoramic vista of Scotland unfolded ahead of us. Rolling green hills off into the horizon. To the east and north east was the border ridge where the big hills of the Cheviot mark that line between England and Scotland. The Schill stood tall with it’s domed top but ultimately it was dwarfed by the might of Auchope Cairn, Cairn Hill and Cheviot itself. With a few photos now out of the way it was time to dip temporarily in to Scotland.
Clennell Street from the border to Cocklawfoot is absolutely superb. To think I’d never been down this stretch of track before. Long, steady descent that’s largely grass and rutted with tyre tracks and punctuated periodically by patches of larger stones. You’re travelling fast so you need to pay attention to line choice because the consequences of getting it wrong as being spat off in to the scenery. It’s not the kind of place you want to be waiting for Mountain Rescue to come and pick you up off the floor. This fantastic track brought us out at Cocklafoot farm where a cheery farmer pointed us in the right direction.
This section between Cocklawfoot and the Auchope refuge hut can best be described as “optimistic”. It’s when the map becomes pretty hard to follow without enough detail to make line choice easy. In the end we managed to get most of the route correct but opted not to take the very steep offshoot (correct route on map) and follow the track we were on along the Cheviot Burn. It turned out that it was a case of 6 and two 3’s really as both routes need a bit of pushing to get to the final destination of the hut. Once at the hut we sat looking at the splendour or The Hen Hole, a dramatic valley with sheer rock sides to be found at the end of College valley. The hut would be a fantastic spot to get out of the elements should you be having bad weather on the trip.
Following a bit of food it was time to join the track down to Mount Hooley which was a nice little challenge in itself. With an eroded channel on your right hand side you need to tackle several natural steps with tight turns before it levels off a bit and eventually hits the flatter valley floor where a ot of speed can be gathered on the way to the hostel at Mount Hooley itself. We were lucky enough to get a huge helping of wind assistance as the track turned to road and this made light work of the following 4 miles to the head of the valley. It’s a shame that soe much road is in this section but completely understandable given the English rights of way laws. Tarmac would be the order of the day all the way round to Akeld on the A697.
The final stretch to our digs in Wooler involved some linking up of bridleways. A nice steep track heading up in the direction of Commonburn House is the location of my only off. Lesson learnt: don’t read maps when riding up a steep hill covered in loose stone! The track went upwards and the churning was only briefly stopped as Mick turned on the patter to a lady who passed in her car. Once we had passed a stunningly situated house there was a thankfully short but steep climb and then a gentle traverse all the way round to our drop in to Wooler. It’s worth noting that the actual track doesn’t go to Wooler but it’s an easy diversion if you want to stay over like we did.
We dropped sedately in to Wooler high street around 3pm so with plenty of time to kill we took seats outside the Terrace Cafe and tucked in to jacket potatoes just to plug the gap until a full eat later on. The sun beat down as the cappuccino found a new home in my stomach and after a mandatory toothbrush purchase from the co-op it was onwards to the Youth Hostel. Locking the bikes up we made plans to meet up with Karl after food and then got showered. After nearly drifting away several times it was good of Mick to keep popping in to make sure I couldn’t.
Restaurant Milan does a selection of gluten free options so it was a natural choice for a ceoliac like myself. Mick had a beer starter as I was overpowered by garlic on bruschetta. The pizza was then plentiful but firmly in the 5 to 6 out of 10 bracket. The place itself was good and the staff were friendly so overall I’d say it was worth the visit. We hooked up with Karl in the nearby pub after he had realised he had lost a day and it was in fact Thursday and not Wednesday. Now it dawned on him that he had a shed load of jobs to get through in the morning after his several drinks. He told us several tales of the old days and it was funny to find out that Milan used to be the local nightclub where several rowdy nights were spent.
Back to the delightful Wooler Youth Hostel. Taken on just over a year ago by Karl and his wife the place is a hidden gem on the eastern edge of the Cheviots. Home of the Chevy Chase there are comfortable beds, a fully stocked kitchen and walls adorned with local history. Bike friendly, walker friendly or available for large events I’d highly recommend it as a place to stay. Just make sure Karl knows what day it is.
Up early and time for a strong coffee before setting off out in to the hills once more. The day was bright and warmth penetrated our bodies even at 8am. We climbed up and out towards Broadstruther and there was a marked contrast when out of the sun with a cold air moving the mass of golden daffodils by the side of the road. The ascent rose ever onwards and topped out with a fantastic view of the Cheviot massifs in the distance and open fell all around. I’d looked at this place from a distance of Cold Law summit and dismissed it as not too interesting. The next bit of the ride would blow that idea out of the water.
Dropping in to Carey Burn was the revelation of the ride. What a beautiful little stretch alongside the small bubbling river. If I was going to pick a spot for wild camping then this little spot would be pretty high on the list. In fact I might head back here with the dog for a quick night under the stars. The riding is genuinely interesting from here all the way over to the Harthope valley. Picking through gauze bushes and then popping out to Broadstruther then crossing a grassy bridleway to be met with a fantastic view of Hedgehope being touched by a wisp of cloud on its summit. The rough track drops steeply into the valley but you need to be switched on not to miss the turn off that skirts round the hill to the floor of the valley. You don’t want to miss it, it’s excellent.
n Harthope itself we chose not to follow the route which tracks east and then back west to make lighter work of the climb. Instead we straight-lined it with a push up to the wide track then rode to hook up with our bridleway to head across to Threestoneburn Wood. This was the only time I reverted to using my Viewranger app as the ground had been scorched to reveal new buds for the birds. The gos had us bang on top of the bridleway and searching 50 metres on either side showed no sign of any discernible track. After humping the bikes over rough ground and sticking our feet in pretty much every bog going we made a decision to head further east. Soon we picked up a decent track which went to our destination by the edge of the forest. The actual track on the ground is pretty far away from that on the map. So, if you’re here… track along the fence line until it leaves towards the forest and you won’t go wrong. DON’T follow the bridleway as the actual track is around 100m off to the east.
Threestoneburn Wood has dramatically changed in recent years. Once a moody sway of trees withstanding strong winds whistling in around Hedgehope it’s now a pretty barren landscape with heavy felling operations ongoing. Biddy and Ruben live in Threestoneburn House and have benefited greatly from these work with fantastic views in all directions. What a beautiful spot they have out in the middle of nowhere.
After the horror show of the rough open fell it was great to feel a firmer track under our wheels and our 4.4mph average speed was to increase dramatically as the track down to The Dod (good bunk house!) was quick and essentially down hill. The route on the map now cuts across country to Greenside in the Breamish valley but since we had skipped breakfast and it was now past lunchtime we opted for a diversion to the road and nipped down to Ingram cafe to refuel. It’s actually a small diversion and you can rejoin the route at a later date. There were plans for a bunk room here but it’s not ready yet.
Ingram Cafe is an oasis among the desert. The Cheviots are incredibly remote with very few eating opportunities so there was no way we’d be missing out here. Biddy does some fantastic food and Joe is regularly judged on the standard of his coffee. He wears a hat indoors and this marks him out as a dedicated coffeecianado, perfecting his craft with various beans and dosages. After a great big feed on fine food it was time to get back on the trail.
Ingram is the home of the Breamih Behemoth but for once the regular starting track over to Prendwick would be ignored in favour of a gentle trot down the road towards Greenside to pick up the actual track. There are a load of options available from this point but we’d decided to stick to the actual route as closely as possible. Passing the cars parked at Hartside we headed across to Alnhammoor before cutting south east to a nasty climb familiar with thise who had taken part in the first ever Behemoth. This grassy leg buster was tackled in bottom or second bottom gear and the legs groaned but the tread gripped and soon enough we’d hit the top and looked out over the high basin towards Chesters in the distance.
The rough track heads south and gently rises as you pass hardy sheep and even the ultra rare Valais Blacknose reared by Jamie Wood at Prendwick. Ignoring the turn off for Salters Road we headed down the hill as Simonside crags filled the horizon. A quick cut across a field and we hit a great bit of singletrack down to Alnham that we took at high speed. Fun was curtailed by a downed tree and the odd heart-in-mouth moment through deep mud. At least a trip over the bars would have resulted in a soft landing. Passing a stunning old peel tower we popped out on to the road. The route headed down to the connecting road and we hooked up on to this all the way across to Clennell. There is a good parallel off road section to Scrainwood but we kept to the given track as per the map. I’d recommend doing the off road route should you reach this point.
This stretch of the Sandstone Way nips past Rookhope and Rob Dyson’s extra long and rugged driveway to Puncherton farm. A grassy stretch before Clennell gives great views of the farm off hill forts on Clennell Hill and above Clennell Street. The track whips quickly down through some trees and you arrive at the old keepers cottage, a delightful building with impeccably kept grounds. What I’d give to live somewhere like that 🙂
We cycled passed the back of our old caravan park. We had a static there for years and this is why I know the Cheviots so well. Heading out to talk to farmers or wandering the nearby hills to scope the lay of the land. The Alwin valley is mystical and timeless and you could literally sit for hours on those steep slopes just watching the world go by. Today we twirled the legs and passed by, just another fleeting journey through this rugged landscape. The Rose & Thistle was reached in the afternoon and Gareth ensured we were supplied with refreshments before heading home.
Overall it was a good, laid back, 2 day ride. It’s easily done in a day for fit people. It’s also quite a good option to make slight diversions like we did if you want some overnight accommodation and to make an adventure of it. In terms of bike packing there are bucket loads of opportunities from the quite valleys up to the wind swept tops. You’ll see next to no-one on the entire route so wilderness features strongly alongside that sense of being out-there. In terms of a single off road track through the Cheviots I would make some changes but that’s only because I know the area so well. Road sections could be replaced with off road bits and add in distance to visit desirable tracks and locations. Don’t get me wrong, the route as it is will be just fine for 90% of riders. The map is OS based but quite difficult to read in one or two places as not all tracks are shown. An additional mapping device like Viewranger or similar can be useful.
In summary this is a cracking ride and one not to just to ticked off but to be revisited time and again. The isolation, dramatic views, loneliness and good riding all contribute to a great times on a bike. The Cheviots have a wild beauty of their own so don’t be afraid to immerse yourself deeply in it. Another fine effort from Ted Liddle and an excellent addition to active tourism in the area.Find out more about Wooler Youth Hostel