> Countryphile - Dave Hicklenton


The harbingers of spring arrived early in our corner of the north-east.  Swallows and House Martins arrived in mid April and there were daffodils flowering on St. David’s day.  Walking up the Harthope Valley, deep in the heart of the Cheviot National Park, there are reminders everywhere of the unusually mild weather.  Drifts of Greater Stitchwort and Lesser Celandine are in full flower along the roadside and Yellowhammer and Dunnock squabble in the hedge.  The clouds are slowly drifting just across the tops of Hedgehope and Cheviot and the weather is set fair for the day.  This is just one of many such valleys in the National Park; the pair of Buzzards wheeling overhead a reminder of the importance of such a wild area for many species.  At the head of the valley the road peters out and from a distance the collection of cars and tents seems incongruous in such a remote location.  It is the start of a fell race  - a new one to the summit of Cheviot and back.  A Wheatear flutters away along the track as a runner in a purple vest emerges from behind the wall.  The runners have gathered behind me by a small white bridge over a tributary to the Harthope Burn. On the slopes of Scald Hill I hear a whistle and pause by the path as the multicoloured pack pant their way past.  A Curlew cries in the distance and as I swing the binoculars round, two ducks fly past in close formation.  I am wary of Adders and clump my boots down even though I have not seen any yet this year.  Looking up towards the slopes of Cheviot, the runners are now snaking their way up the steep path.  Most are walking with heads bowed and I am reminded of pilgrims on Mount Fuji.  Grateful for the downhill grassy slopes before the long climb to the summit plateau, I stretch my legs over the springy ground – very dry for this time of year.  By the time I am on the steep uphill some runners are returning – hurtling down the hillside with encouraging shouts both to and from those still ascending.    The sun breaks through and dappled patches move across the rounded hillsides, the worn down ancient volcanoes that this land emerged from, long since silent.  Tormentil and Rock Rose peek out from the edges of a rocky outcrop and I toil upwards to the stile.  An unknown army has placed huge rocky slabs on the summit bogs and although I have to step aside to allow one of the tail end runners to pass, the peat is like chocolate sponge.  The Mountain Rescue who have manned the checkpoint on the summit are coming down and then they have passed and all is still and quiet again.  A crow (or is it a Raven?) wheels past and it’s anguished cry is lost in the light breeze.  Far away in the valley the tent is still there with the tiny cars and Heather Glendale is receiving her winner’s trophy.  There are still a few people around when I return to the valley later – the women sounding like lyrical  pre-Raphaelite muses.  ‘Stephanie’, ‘Veronique’, ‘Rachel’ and ‘Patricia’.  The men, in contrast, are monosyllabic chunks – ‘Will’, ‘Syd’, ‘Phil’, ‘John’, ‘Dave’  It is as if they reflect the two faces of the landscape – the  unexpected beauty of the flora, shyly clinging to uncompromising hillsides and  on the other hand, the hard uncompromising rocks themselves, chiselled by the elements.  As I return to the trappings of civilisation a Barn Owl silently quarters over a boggy field and then drops onto unsuspecting prey.  I thought I might have had the wilderness to myself on this most perfect of days.  Bloody fell runners.

“Upland Rambler”

Dave Hicklenton

Dave Hicklenton keeps an eye out for adders
on the Cheviot Summit Race (photo: Pat Dunn)

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