Start The weapons of Wallace, Rowfoot, Haltwhistle
Distance 4½ miles
Altitude gain 215 meters away
Difficulty Moderate and potentially muddy
William Wallace and Tynedale’s bond is as bloody as a Sam Peckinpah movie. In 1297, Braveheart and his warriors tore up the Tyne Gap, sacked churches, razed three priories and, in Hexham, burned a class of schoolchildren alive (proof, if more were needed, that one should never trust Mel Gibson). That the locals chose to name a pub after this bloody villain is proof of the gruesome streak running through Northumbrian sense of humor and the historic love of a good song.
Google map of the route
It’s hard to imagine now – the only sound to be heard above the tumultuous waters of the South Tyne is semi-hysterical piping from one of the largest colonies of oystercatchers in the interior of England – but it was once one of the most dangerous regions in Europe. South Tynedale was populated by murderous clans (including the Ridleys and Fenwicks) who were “rampages”, living on theft and intimidation, and gave the English language the word “bereaved”.
The ornate Jacobean mansion and sturdy defensive tower of Featherstone Castle date from this lawless era. It is a source of bloody legend. The heinous murder of a landlord, Sir Albany Featherstonehaugh, by a gang of local disbelievers is featured in Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion (although the ‘traditional’ verses of the ballad describing the vile act of the Deadmanshaw are in fact a concocted parody by County Durham wag RS Surtees). And the wholesale slaughter of a wedding party at Featherstonehaugh by the Ridleys of nearby Hardriding has led to stories of spectral guests wandering the banks of the Tyne on the anniversary of the nuptials who did never happened. Nonsense, sure, but on a calm spring day when the sky darkens and you stroll along the edge of dripping deciduous hag wood, the ghostly white glow of wild garlic and wood anemones, the cry of a jay and the sound of branches might momentarily convince you otherwise.
Very close to the castle, by the river, can be found memories of more recent battles. Pierre Plume Camp was originally built to house American troops arriving in the UK for the invasion of Normandy, but by 1945 it was one of the largest POW camps in the country, containing 4,000 German officers captured. The camp had three orchestras, a theater, a bakery, a football league and its own newspaper, Die Zeit Am Tyne.
An old neighbor of mine drove a bus that took prisoners to work on neighboring farms. “Most of them seemed shrewd guys, but there were a few who were real Nazis,” he recalls. In 1945, eight prisoners cut the barbed wire and escaped. They had planned to hijack a plane and return to Berlin. One, Karl Kropp, drowned while trying to cross the river; the others made it to Alston before being captured by a local copper. The camp closed in 1948 when the remaining prisoners, having been “re-educated” – for some of them were indeed “true Nazis” – were repatriated. A few brick buildings and the foundations of the Nissan cabins are all that remains under the lime trees.
There is a reminder of a more peaceful past as the path takes you along the embankment of the old North East Railroad spur, past the old Coanwood station to the Lambley Viaduct, a joyous Victorian piece of engineering.
Built in 1852, it is 260 meters long and rises 30 meters above the tumultuous waters of the South Tyne. The man who designed it was engineer George Barclay Bruce, a protégé of Robert Stephenson. He continued to build railroads in more exotic places, among them the Grand National Tramway of Buenos Aires.
The viaduct once carried the line from Alston to Haltwhistle. For decades, heavy freight trains filled with the produce of North Pennine’s lead and zinc mines – once some of the most productive on the planet – have rumored on its single track (the reed beds along the river are part of a plan to tackle pollutants that still spill from abandoned wells). The passenger line survived the Beeching cuts largely because the local roads were too narrow, steep and rough for buses and trucks. It was eventually closed in 1976, although the Alston section at Slaggyford still operates as a heritage railway.
Crossing the viaduct there is a detour to the small village of Lambley, where the only vestige of the Benedictine priory sacked by Wallace is the bell hanging in the village church (the ruins were washed away by a flood in the 1700s ).
A steep, stepped path down to the west bank of the South Tyne leads to a stable, modern walkway (the original was mounted on ropes and had a whiff of peril and Indiana Jones on it). From there, you’ll have a dizzying view of the nine grand arches of Bruce’s masterpiece. The river – sherry-colored from the highland peat moss – swirls around the vast feet of gray stone. Upstream are wide, gravel-lined, tree-lined beaches: it’s a popular spot for fly fishing and also for the more adventurous (or perhaps reckless) wild swimmers. From mid-June, salmon can be seen leaping past Featherstone Dam or cautiously making their way through the shallows – their dorsal fins pointing above the water.
If you’re particularly lucky, you might see a kingfisher’s iridescent blue trail, or an otter may lift its head and observe you before disappearing below the surface, leaving a necklace of bubbles.
The Wallace Arms is a warm corner of rural Northumbrian life. In the summer you might hear the sound of the steel pucks across the parking lot (the pub’s first team play in the second division of the prestigious Allen Valley Quoits League). The small two-room bar has open fires and, if it’s not a folk night, the only soundtrack is the comings and goings of locals talking about sheep prices and Strictly. There are usually three local beers like Hadrian and Border, Hexhamshire and Allendale at the hand pump. Food is limited to chips, but you can bring your own and eat them at the bar, and on Friday nights they send fish and chips from Haltwhistle nearby. On Facebook
Where to stay
About a mile and a half from Wallace Arms, on the west side of the South Tyne, on the waterfall above the hamlet of Kellah, wink and you miss, Kella farm is a working hill farm run by the Teasdale family. It has four elegant bedrooms in what was, until the 19th century, a pub called Pitman’s Arms. Kellah Farm is in an area of dark sky and the only sound you will hear at night is the hooting of owls. It also has three independent lodgings, which can accommodate two, four or six people.
Doubles from £ 74 B&B, kellah.co.uk