The road stretched ahead of me, weaving its way into the lonely depths of Northumberland National Park. As the boyfriend and I strolled along, the click of my walking pole on the road, the rolling mountains of the Cheviot Hills rose up around us, luring me in with their promises of high adventure.
At this point, I had a spring in my step. I was outside the concrete confines of London, relishing in the sublime English countryside, setting out to climb my next volcano (number nine) in my #40by40 quest – albeit it was an ancient one, resulting from volcanic activity when the continents of Scotland and England crashed together some 350-400 million years ago.
I breathed in the pollution-free air. Apart from the sticky humidity and spittles of rain, it felt good to be alive.
That feeling lasted all of about two hours.
The niggles had begun when we turned off the road onto the track that would take us up to the summit of The Cheviot, the highest point in Northumberland at 815 metres. It took us five minutes, and much head scratching and compass looking, to decide which of the two tracks was the right one to take.
Then the terrain got progressively worse. It was steep; I was unfit. My pack with two-days’ worth of rations suddenly seemed ridiculously heavy. I briefly wondered if a two-day walk across the Cheviot Hills was such a good idea.
We continued on – getting more wet inside our raincoats than out because of the sweat we were producing – and as we struggled uphill, the ground turned to mush.
“Gee, they must have had a lot of rain up here,” I said, while attempting to keep my boots dry and mud-free as we crossed a particularly slick and churned up section of grassy farmland.
I needn’t have bothered with the dainty footwork. Before long the bottom of my boots were caked in peat, and sang with a distinct squelch when I walked. Here, the ground was boggy, tufts of grasses and heather poking out of cold, black pools of liquid peat the colour of Oreo biscuits. Trying to find a dry spot to stand was becoming increasingly difficult. I gave up trying.
And then the rain came.
Droplets of water that came down hard and fast, whipping into us, driven by the ferocity of the wild wind on the exposed mountain side. Within a matter of seconds, we were soaked.
Well the boyfriend was – I, luckily enough, was already kitted out in my waterproofs. Yet now, at the point where his trousers stuck to his legs like a wet shower curtain, he decided it was best to don his own waterproof trousers and so proceeded to dance a one-legged jig around the bogs in the rain pulling the damned things on. I couldn’t figure out whether it was rain or tears from laughing so hard that were streaming down my face.
Once properly attired, we set off again when, out of the gloom came a troop of boys.
“You just been up The Cheviot?” I shouted against the wind.
“Yeah,” the guy in the lead nodded.
“What are the conditions like up there?” I asked, looking to where The Cheviot vanished into the grey, wet cloud.
“This. It’s like the Somme.” Well that sounded ominous.
We bade them farewell and kept walking. Up we climbed, bypassing the bogs and using a rubble track where it appeared. Up we went, bent over against the gradient of the slope. Up, disappearing into the cloud.
It was brutal.
And then, as if God had snapped his fingers, the rain stopped and the cloud lifted a little to reveal a barren wilderness of valleys and hillsides scarred with browning heather. The smooth rolling form that the hills took lent to the region’s history of ancient lava flows that had run out of steam and cooled in place.
All that back-breaking, heart-lurching hiking was worth it for that brief moment. I was alive again; this was what climbing 40 volcanoes was all about.
It was a moment of dazzle before our continued climb took us back into the clouds and towards the summit of The Cheviot.
But there was no more dazzle at the summit.
That walker dude had been right; it was like the Somme. A flat expanse, smudgy at the edges where the sky and hill merged with the grubby cloud. Muddy bogs littered the ground, tufts of grass dotted between; it was like a listless and deserted war-zone, a no-man’s land that no one wants to cross.
The eerie nature, and chill wind made my sweat cool and goose bumps break out. I shivered. You could probably hide a body in one of those bogs quite easily; an unsettling thought that didn’t make me want to hang around to find out.
So, after a quick bite to eat, we strode off into the gloom, clacking along a stone path, winding its way through the bogs until it met up with the long-distance Pennine Way walking trail.
From here we descended; not just down the mountain but down out of the cloud, picking our way gingerly over the slippery stone path where dirty bog water pooled, ready to trip us up at every step.
I was so busy looking where I was going that I almost missed the sensation that was unfolding in front of us. The clouds were dissipating, giving way to brilliant orange sunshine and yet another dazzling view. We were standing in England, but in front of us and to our right, on the other side of the wire fence a mere metre away, was Scotland.
To be honest, it looked just like England and the Cheviot hills we were traipsing – lonely rolling countryside, bathed in golden hues as the sun sunk closer to the horizon. But it was magnificent all the same. I delighted in the stroll along the border, watching the sun sink lower and feeling the wind in my hair.
We came to a “crossroads”. Turn right, over the fence, and descend into Scotland; straight ahead to the summit of Windy Gyle; or turn left through the forest towards our destination for the night.
I looked at the time on my phone. 6pmish. We should be heading to the summit of Windy Gyle in the distance but turn left now and we’d shave some walking time. Either way we’d be lucky to reach our camp while it was still light.
We turned left, our backs to Scotland, and set out towards dinner.
Read Part 2 of the boggy volcano here.