Remote, undisturbed and rammed up against the Scottish border lies a stunning expanse of Northumberland, little known even to those from round about.
The mysterious College Valley slices through the surrounding Cheviot Hills, overlooked by Iron Age forts and the sites of crashed World War II aircraft, its tranquility broken only by the babbling College Burn.
It’s difficult to picture it now, but dozens of Allied and German airmen perished in these scenic hills.
Caught out by poor weather, basic navigation equipment and lack of familiarity with an unforgiving landscape, the rolling peaks topping 1,500 ft proved a barrier 19 aircraft could not pass.
A stunning, recently renovated memorial in polished granite and bronze in the shadow of Cheviot ensures they will never be forgotten, in a place where time seems to have stood still for generations.
It’s oh so quiet
College Valley is quiet, eerily so for urban visitors attuned to a digital life of surround sound and background traffic hum.
The scale of the hills overlooking the valley floor for visitors like me from low level living draws the gaze upwards and keeps it fixed there.
Its solitude, reached via a ‘B’ road from the A697 north of Wooler, means it’s often bypassed by visitors intent on reaching the Scottish Border and Coldstream, lying out of sight and mind for many motorists.
It’s a place I first heard of as a youngster living in Morpeth, 40 miles south. A place I’d always wanted to go to, but unsure whether it actually existed.
Strange local names like Yeavering Bell, Trowupburn, Madam Law and the appeal of supposedly being able to walk out of the valley into Scotland, rather than crossing the border sitting in the back of a Ford Fiesta driving past Berwick, only heightened its allure.
Back in 1995 I missed out on the opportunity to visit College Valley for the first time.
A ceremony was held in the valley to remember the Allied and German airmen lost when their planes crashed in the treacherous hills that overlook the valley.
Working as a journalist way out west in The Journal’s Hexham district office meant I couldn’t report on the Duke of Gloucester unveiling a memorial to the lost airmen 50 years after the end of the war. My colleague, and top writer, Christine Harle, had that honour.
Then a few years later, my interest in the valley was piqued further when Matt Baker took the BBC Countryfile programme into its pristine beauty, triumphantly stepping over a hillside fence, standing half in Scotland, half in England.
As a Northumbrian, I felt duty bound to get there – trumpeting his county roots in his Twitter biog but with next to no knowledge of such an untouched expanse of the county.
And get there I eventually did, finally dragging my carcass to the valley in my late 40s – and discovering it to be a special place indeed.
Into the valley
The long and winding road into College Valley begins at the car park at Hethpool village – a cluster of stunning cottages built by a rich Tyneside industrialist, some of which look as if they’ve been transplanted from The Cotswolds.
Cars beyond this point deeper into the hills are restricted to special permit only, to preserve the peace. The valley sits within the Northumberland National Park and is managed by a dedicated team.
As you step out into the valley, look to the skies and if you’re lucky, you’ll see gliders being towed into place by a bi-plane from a local air club.
Riding the currents from the valley floor in total silence, they circle the hills like modern day pterodactyls, offering what must be an unparalleled view over Cheviot and into Scotland.
The valley below is a wildlife haven, home to Peregrine, wild goats, Roe Deer, hare and Curlew. Its isolation is a commercial opportunity in itself and resourceful locals have tapped into the lucrative wedding and hiking visitor markets.
Tying the knot at Cuddystone Hall – surely one of the UK’s furthest flung village halls – offers a backdrop to die for with late night noise complaints from neighbours highly unlikely.
At Mounthooly Bunkhouse even further up the head of the valley, there’s self-catering accommodation with wi-fi to boot, nestled at the foot of Cheviot.
The memorial garden overlooked by Cheviot, lists the crash sites, the aircraft and the crews who lost their lives. Remnants of a B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ US bomber are still to be found on the summit 2,600ft up.
A Spitfire, Hurricanes, Avro Lancaster, Vickers Wellingtons and Mosquito fighter/bombers are included on a stunning new memorial plaque, pinpointing the areas they crashed and the dates they came down.
Seven planes ploughed into Cheviot alone – while two German bombers, a Junkers 88 and Dornier, were lost nearby.
The Dornier which crashed into Madam Law peak was most likely damaged as a result of being engaged by night fighters at Kelso, unable to climb over the hills as it headed back south.
The heavy toll of lives lost proves just how dangerous these remote hilltops were to war time aircraft. A nightmare to navigate in poor weather and in the dark for men inexperienced as pilots, unfamiliar with the remote terrain – and wrestling with the most basic of flying technology.
In total, 58 died in 19 crashes peppering the Cheviot Hills between 1939 and 1946. Sixteen of their colleagues managed to escape the wreckage with their lives.
The newly refurbished memorial stones stand in a tranquil walled garden.
The elements had eroded the original slate memorial – replaced in 2018 after a £25,000 Royal Air Force campaign led by the Alnwick and Rothbury branches of the RAF Association.
Twenty-three years on from his first trip north, the Duke of Gloucester was back to unveil a new polished granite and bronze memorial.
The time taken to research the flight crew and list all their names is striking, as is the quality of the craftsmanship. The absolute stillness of the location a contrast to what must have been the noise and chaos of the aircraft pitching into the hillsides above 75 years ago.
A series of ‘Crash Trails’ are available on an app for hill walkers courtesy of the national park, keeping alive the memory of men forever part of the valley’s history.
Heading to Scotland
There’s something about borders that fascinates me – maybe it’s the anticipation of what lies beyond, yet to be discovered.
Despite casting a disdainful eye down the years at tourists stopping for photos at the A1 border crossing point lay-by, the prospect of walking into a new country off the beaten track is one I’ve always wanted to savour.
College Valley visited, several times. Tick.
Cross the hills into Scotland. Pending on the to do list.
There’s a canny boozer, The Plough over the hills in Yetholm, Scotland, apparently, waiting to rehydrate knackered Northumbrians staggering over the Cheviots into town.
Too lazy to do anything about it to date, content to read about it or watch a You Tube video from someone more adventurous.
But no more. After lockdown lifts I intend to finally right this wrong and cross into the ‘mysterious wilds’ of Scotland, via a route like this. 🙂
So, the challenge is clear, and the excuses have ran out. Hardly K2 without oxygen, but a challenge nonetheless.
When the lockdown straitjacket is finally removed, I’ll be back to enjoy the silence.
Nice article – interesting and informative. I’d never even heard of the place but you’ve certainly piqued my interest. As you say, one for the post-lockdown days.
Really kind of you to say so Andrew. The WWII history attached to the place took me by surprise – it’s the sheer number of aircraft that came down in the Cheviots and the number of lives lost, in a place so remote and detached from modern life. Incredible place, most people I know from Northumberland have never heard of it.