Walking St Cuthbert’s Way in late summer: Heather in late-summer emperor’s purple, lit up by the last burst of warmth

The Cheviots and St Cuthbert’s Way are the right setting for reflection and remembrance, as Fiona Reynolds finds on her latest walk.

Sometimes, it’s the dying days of summer that provide the most spectacular walking experiences. The trees are beginning to turn, leaving spring’s fresh greens a distant memory. Clouds lurch across the sky and rain is often hovering on the horizon. The sun’s rays have an intensity strengthened by lower angles and the last burst of warmth. And the heather is out: burningly, intensely purple.

I’m in Northumberland for a sad family event: the last ritual of my dear sister’s life, as we leave her ashes somewhere she loved. Before she left to live abroad, she worked in Newcastle for the (then) Countryside Commission on the team that pioneered Countryside Stewardship. As a result, she knew and loved, with an intensity born of intimate knowledge, the countryside and the people of the north Pennines and Northumberland.

We’re here to remember her, staying in Wooler, and, in the early morning, I take a walk up Humbleton Hill. It turns out to be both beautiful and a good place to reflect.

Wooler is a lively market town (we’re delighted to find butchers, grocers and bakers) on the edge of the Cheviot Hills. To the east of the town, it’s flat to the coast at Lindisfarne and Holy Island; immediately behind it are the heather-crowned, rounded hills of the Cheviot range.

A walker on St Cuthbert's Way National Trail on Gains Law in the Cheviot Hills, Northumberland.

A walker on St Cuthbert’s Way National Trail on Gains Law in the Cheviot Hills, Northumberland.

I walk up Ramsey’s Lane as a ragged dawn is breaking, the sky tinged with pink and vast grey, hovering clouds through which shafts of light strike the sodden ground.

Soon, I’m on Wooler Common, from where Humbleton Hill looms large. I can see already that it’s a brilliant vantage point, with views encompassing the distant coast, so it’s no surprise to discover that on its top is an Iron Age hill fort. I learn later that it was also the site of the 1402 Battle of Homildon Hill, fought between the English and Scottish armies.

Next, I walk through a dense, aromatic and damp pine forest, partly along St Cuthbert’s Way, which runs from Melrose to Lindisfarne Castle. It’s an inviting, green path that eases the first ascent, but I curve off it to tackle the summit. After a short, steep pull, I reach the top where the views are, indeed, spectacular, intensified by early sunlight gleaming on broken stones and distant valleys.

Welcome to England signpost on the Scottish border along St Cuthbert's Way.

Welcome to England signpost on the Scottish border along St Cuthbert’s Way.

Due west is Yeavering Bell, another prehistoric fort, the slopes of which are crammed with the remains of huts and burial mounds. It’s a tempting diversion for archaeologists, but I’m heading back to St Cuthbert’s Way, so I drop off the summit to re-join the path.

Incredibly quickly, I feel totally alone and surrounded by beauty. The Cheviots roll, dramatically for hills of such (relatively) little height and, once within them, there’s a feeling of scale and grandeur far beyond their size. Here’s the heather, too: huge expanses of it, utterly, bewitchingly glorious in its late-summer emperor’s purple.

Purple heather Cheviot Hills.

I descend at speed into a steep, scree-encrusted valley to pick up a path that climbs straight out again, a bright-green stripe within purple. Rejoining St Cuthbert’s Way, the path runs west past Gains Law and Black Law with only whirring grouse for company. As I walk, I’m watched with mild curiosity by slender-horned, black-faced sheep. I get the impression they don’t have many visitors.

St Cuthbert’s Way winds on, deep into the Cheviot Hills, and I’m tempted to follow it. However, sad duty — and time — beckon, so I turn south to join a long footpath running directly east back to Wooler. It’s been tarmacked, disappointingly, but understandably, for those who live up this long, long track.

Before long, I’m back in Wooler, inspired and ready for our day. Afterwards, as we drive south, we agree that Northumberland has the magic ingredients to sustain the memories of our dear sister forever.