Into the secret valley

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.

College Valley memorial dedicated to the lost British, American and German airmen

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.

War memorial

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.

Welcome to the secret valley

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.

Wedding bells – as loud as you like out here

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.

Aircraft graveyard

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.

Final resting place – the aircraft lost in the Cheviot Hills

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 aircrews lost in World War II crashes

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. 🙂

Next stop Scotland
You take the high road…

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.

Memorial garden – crook, but no shepherd

In bed with Seve – when Ballesteros came to Teesside

Propped up on top of the bed, back to the headboard, legs straight out in front of him, Severiano Ballesteros is talking about life, love and loss.

Next to him, mirroring his position, is Paul Kimmage, award-winning sports writer and ex-pro cyclist of some renown.

Not quite Eric and Ernie, but the scene between the pair in a North East hotel bedroom borders on the comical.

Seve immaculately attired in logoed golf gear, jousting with a journalist probing way beyond the normal safe questioning of press conferences.

Me – I’m stood about four feet away, trying to act as if media interviews on the double beds of sporting superstars are regular events I take in my stride…

Sporting genius

The talents of Seve are playing to fans old and new during the Coronavirus lockdown.

His three Open wins are being aired by golf’s governing body the R & A across social media.

Tributes flooded in from around the world on what would have been the Spanish superstar’s 63rd birthday earlier this month.

A record 50 European Tour wins, including five Majors and the heartbeat of Europe’s Ryder Cup team, Seve was the driving force of European golf in the 1980s as it overturned decades of US dominance.

All flair and feel, Seve’s skills propelled him to world number one and to global adulation way beyond his sport.

In the twilight of his career, and in what would prove to be the final years of his life, Seve made the surprise decision to stop off in North East England and bring his star spangled show to town.

The Wynyard Club golf course on the edge of industrial Teesside to be exact.

Ignoring the obvious allure of courses and regions steeped in golf history, he chose the newly built parkland layout in a relative golfing backwater as the home for his eponymous trophy.

Parmos and Pintxos

The Seve Trophy was the Ryder Cup’s unofficial ‘little brother’.

It brought together the cream of Europe’s golfers in a four-day competition based on the Ryder Cup format – Great Britain and Ireland versus Continental Europe.

Recreate as near as possible the Ryder Cup cauldron, and out of it you get your strongest team to face the Americans the following summer.

A pretty successful formula as results from the noughties verify.

So why choose Wynyard for the 2005 event after previous visits to Sunningdale, Druid’s Glen in Ireland and Spain?

North East England had two trump cards to play: The economic firepower of the regional development agency One North East and an unmatched passion for sport.

One North East made early contact after hearing the event was looking for a home for its next edition. The ambitious Wynyard Club was vocal about its desire to stage what would be by far the region’s biggest ever golf tournament.

Seve and his Amen Corner team, led by his nephew Ivan Ballesteros, ran the rule over the Teesside course set in one of the region’s most exclusive housing estates.

A meeting hosted by One North East and club officials over Pintxos and more traditional local fare in the clubhouse helped seal the deal after Ivan played the Wellington Course and gave it his stamp of approval.

One North East would be the event’s main sponsor, with its acclaimed ‘Passionate People, Passionate Places’ tourism branding for North East England being promoted across national media as part of the build up to and during the event.

And the crowds would come they were promised.

Seve and his team loved hearing about the North East’s passion for sport – its Premier League clubs, Euro ’96 hosting success, tales going back as far as Ayresome Park staging the epic North Korea v Italy World Cup clash in 1966.

On the tee…

Was the North East ready to welcome Seve, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and 22 of the world’s greatest golfers with all the paraphernalia that entails?

No, not really, but as Richard Branson famously said: ‘If someone offers you an opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, accept it and learn to do it later.’

A few eyebrows were raised about the venue and whether the course and facilities were up to the standards expected by pampered Tour pros.

And what about the North East weather in late September when the event would tee off? Would it lash down for a week and prove a washout? Some things are beyond control, but others aren’t.

A £750,000 investment by The Wynyard Club extended the clubhouse – work completed courtesy of a Trojan-like effort by Stockton Borough Council’s trades team ensuring the players would feel right at home.

Lengthening the Wellington Course, adding new bunkering and preparing the greens to European Tour lightning fast standards took place over a year.

Wynyard ops manager Chris Mounter and MD Gary Munro embark on course improvements

A marketing and PR blitz ensued across media, the centrepiece a news conference at Hardwick Hall Hotel in Sedgefield, County Durham, headlined by Seve to herald the countdown to the event.

A team of creative experts – featuring the talents of Lisa Liddell, Chris Lines and Ian Ramsay with top advertising agency Different – seized the opportunity to showcase the region’s charms to a national audience.

Offered the chance by my employer One North East to lead on public relations for the event, I found myself with barely believable access to a man who had been my sporting idol for 25 years. Luck, chance, circumstance, all rolled into one!

Lost in translation

Northumberland meets Pedrena, London as go between

The success of the Seve Trophy from the North East’s perspective hinged on Seve, his charisma guaranteeing crowds and media coverage.

I found him a fiery, complex man struggling to accept his days at the pinnacle of the game were gone and never to return. But hugely charismatic with it – his effect on people incredible to witness.

On my first encounter with him (pictured above), he told me to stop talking, struggling to understand my nervous Northumbrian twang, asking if I was from Scotland.

I didn’t disagree, incapable of meaningful conversation.

‘Caddying’ for him for three holes in a report for Sky Sports, I merely handed him the clubs he wanted and watched with a sense of melancholy as he recreated his famous fist punching reaction to holing the winning putt on the final hole at St Andrew’s in the 1984 Open.

Seve liked what he saw at Wynyard: “I’m very happy that I’ve been able to see the course – it is a fantastic place and it was good to choose a place like this,” he told reporters.

“It is more a combination between links golf on the back nine and parkland on the front nine and it reminds me very much of my course back home.

“I hope the North East public will come to the event. They will see some great golf and I’m looking forward to watching Jose Maria play against Monty – I might even caddy for Jose Maria!”

At Hardwick Hall Hotel, Seve’s appearance outside to speak with TV crews turned a grown man into jelly.

Nipping outside for a cigarette break to escape a dull corporate seminar, he did a comedy cartoon-style double take before asking child-like if he could have Seve’s autograph.

The great man agreed and a lifelong story to tell was guaranteed for one beaming punter.

Other grown men were unable to speak, frozen when around him. Seeing Seve is shock enough, but bumping into him mid-week in a County Durham hotel. No chance!

Faded glory

Seve cut a lean, trim figure for the 2005 event.

On a strict training regime of daily cycling and swimming, he was in preparation for a return to play the Open the next year, convinced – despite media incredulity at the packed news conference – that he could recapture his former glories.

He was non-playing host at The Wynyard Club, his troublesome back still causing him problems, prompting him to hand over the Continental Europe captaincy to Olazabal with Montgomerie leading Great Britain and Ireland’s charge.

Seve was the man about Teesside in the run up to the event. Hosting a golf clinic at Wynyard for youngsters, guest of honour at a dinner at Ormesby Hall and unveiled to Middlesbrough fans at half-time on match day at the Riverside Stadium.

It was clear during unguarded moments that back pain was troubling him, as it had plagued much of his career.

His rapid fall from the top of the game to hardly being able to hit a fairway surely the result of crippling immobility.

He stretched out in obvious discomfort leaning from a wardrobe door in his room before meeting with Paul Kimmage, granted a one-to-one audience by top media man John Collard of Sports Impact representing Amen Corner for the event.

Londoner John (pictured centre above) found the array of North East accents as big a challenge as Seve and his entourage – Queen’s English at a premium all week as I translated for him at meal times.

Room service

Looking for a quiet space away from fans and other reporters after the news conference, retiring to Seve’s small bedroom seemed the only logical option.

Once in there, a lack of space means the bed is the obvious choice for the two to get to know each other better!

I watch on, pretty much redundant, John at the side of the room, as two masters of their respective crafts go toe to toe.

Their interview is fascinating. Nothing it seems is off limits. Love, life, golf, winning, losing, the collapse of his game.

His fiercest rival Nick Faldo is never far from his thoughts. Nor is the second shot to the 15th at the 1986 Masters, dumped into the water, and with it his chance gone of fulfilling a promise to his dying father of winning for a third time at Augusta.

On reading the interview again 15 years on, it is unsettling to learn of Seve’s curiosity about dying and what lies beyond.

He’s not sure what heaven is, that’s why he’s curious. But he tells Paul he’ll come back once he’s gone and let him know.

The interview’s appearance as a feature in the Sunday Times helps Paul pick up the prize as the interviewer of the year at the British Sports Journalism Awards once again – an accolade he would win five years on the bounce.

Game on

Seve hands the spoils of victory to Monty. Picture by Evening Gazette.

The lure of Seve attracted a star-studded turn out to the pro-am the day before the tournament start for real.

Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Steve Harmison, Mick McCarthy and Paul Collingwood are the North East sporting greats lining up with the professionals playing the course 24 hours before the first blows are traded in competition.

“Real Madrid will never be as big as Racing Santander, Michael.”

Two and a half thousand people turn out to see the action – stunning Seve’s team, one telling me that’s more than for a day’s action at the tournament proper at previous venues.

Seve Trophy hits the headlines

Over the four days of the event, 40,000 fans pack the course to follow the stars. On the final day, crowds ten deep line the first fairway. The pros speak about how it has a Ryder Cup feel and they revel in the atmosphere.

There’s controversy for the tabloids to get stuck into: Seve angers pros with comments about modern day stars – Seve clarifies remarks.

Monty rows with Poulter. Monty gives his team a ‘positive rollicking’.

The European Tour roadshow is in full swing at Wynyard – tented village, media centre and manufacturers’ huge equipment vehicles. Sky Sports’ fleet of production lorries and a thousand miles of cabling line the course.

TV ratings on Sky Sports are great, executives loving the fact it is outstripping viewers tuning in for the prestigious President’s Cup being played in the States.

The local economy cashes in to the tune of a seven-figure sum boost generated by visitor spend from the event.

Even the weather holds fair – no sane punter would have backed against it raining or blowing a hoolie on Teesside in early autumn.

On the course, Great Britain and Ireland land the spoils with a five point win.

And behind the scenes a collective sigh of relief from the North East team deprived of sleep and with signs of premature ageing brought about by a year’s worry and anticipation.

The North East’s unbridled love of sport has played out once again.

The 19th hole

There was talk of the Seve Trophy making The Wynyard Club its spiritual home, to return in 2007. It didn’t.

Instead it went to Ireland watched by underwhelming crowds and then on to France for three more outings. The last event – with Seve’s name watered down by a sponsor’s branding in the title – took place in 2013 and there are no signs of it returning.

While The Wynyard Club blazed the trail for big name top flight golf in the North East, it’s Close House, Newcastle, which has taken up the reins, due to host the hugely successful British Masters for the second time in three years later this summer.

For Seve, of course, there was to be no renaissance.

A brain tumour diagnosed in 2008, cruelly cutting short his life three years later aged just 54.

His genius lives on, his swashbuckling triumphs and gifted shot making reaching a new generation in a digitally connected age.

Teesside and Seve were good for each other. Right time, right place.

The North East unexpectedly touched by his magic as he chased one final tilt at glory.

Blog at

Up ↑