Kirk Yetholm isn’t a German sitcom character, but a hidden classic Scottish riding location a stone’s throw north of the English border.
Words & Photography PETE SCULLION
Think bikes and the Scottish Borders and Kirk Yetholm probably won’t even be in the top ten places to turn a wheel on dirt, but there’s much more on offer than plantation tree slaloming – although that is an option if you’re willing to work for it. The eastern end of the frontier between England and Scotland offers some massive skies and similarly large ascents and descents.
A cursory glance at the map shows that a short loop probably isn’t going to be much of an option in this part of the world. Short, steep climbs either take you down long, undulating ridges, or the steep sides of former volcanoes like The Cheviot that dominates the skyline. Either way, you’ll be running into valleys far from the start point after either a short, sharp plummet off the tops or a long run down through the heather.
The village of Kirk Yetholm marks the point where multiple long-distance routes converge and, during a regular summer, sees visitors taking on the Pennine Way, St Cuthbert’s Way, The Scottish National Trail, Sustrans Cycle Route 1, and the Border Loop. The former terminates (or starts) at the pub, The Border Inn, at the head of the village green in Kirk Yetholm. The village also boasts being the headquarters of the Romanichal Travellers for centuries, with their last king being crowned in the late 19th century.
Meet your (route) makers
It’s here I’m meeting my guides for the day. James Knowles, an agricultural engineer from north of the border, and Tommy Wilkinson, a man of many talents, from the Northumbrian side. Both have an intimate knowledge of the layout of the Cheviot Hills that mark this part of the frontier… routes, place names, people, the works. The more we pedalled, the more knowledge came out.
It wouldn’t take long for us to leave the limited hustle and bustle of the Cheviot rush hour, climbing a steep tarmac road up the northern flank of Staerough Hill and into the Halterburn Valley where the first protracted climb of the day would start. We’d soon leave tarmac behind and wouldn’t see any more for some time, making the most of the Pennine Way as it rose steadily – short, sharp climbs within the longer ascent really working cold, morning legs. I decide early on to not try to chase Tommy and James, knowing they’ve got me covered and James has a habit of taking people on ridiculous laps of the Cheviot Hills, so I’m saving some energy for later.
We leave the last of the trees behind, protected from the sheep [and not deer? – Ed] by a tall deer fence, and begin zigzagging our way up a much steeper face as the wind starts to make its presence felt. High on the open hill beneath the romantically named Black Hag there’s little cover from the elements and The Cheviot has its head in the clouds as we assess the numerous options at our disposal.
Part of the beauty of the Cheviot Hills is the plethora of routes on offer, and you can tune your ride to cover more distance, more altitude, less tech or more gnar, depending on preference, daylight and time available. Knowledge about what and where routes in and out of valleys mean on the ground is key, as you could easily find yourself stuck in the bottom of one after a cracking descent, only to find a steep wall at the head, or a long pedal out at the shallow end.
We opt for the more direct route to get us to our main objective: Windy Gyle. A hill that straddles the frontier and is a genuine Cheviot classic (see Rich Rothwell’s love letter to climbing in issue 129 for more on the matter). With the muffled sounds of gunshot somewhere near, we crack on into a fierce headwind and dodge sheep and pheasants alike as we lose height fast down a farm track that sports the usual compressions to coax you into trying to double up to a distant downslope while mere millimetres off the deck.
As the track levels, an old cottage comes into view… “Would you live there, Pete?” Tommy asks. I mutter disapproval under my breath. “It’d be bleak as anything up here in the winter…” Rounding the corner, we see that what looked like the usual dilapidated upland cottage is in fact a very nicely done-up shooting retreat, and the muffled gunshots we could hear at the top of the descent were courtesy of a stogie-smoking party of rotund, Range Rover-driving gents out for pheasants. The spaniels that were still milling through the gorse thickets were certainly far more appealing.
Break for the border!
Out into the Bowmont Valley, we revel in a short stretch of tarmac for its ease of forward motion. Clipped grass and a strong headwind had sapped the energies for the entirety of the opening portion of the ride, with spirits only lifted by a brief chuckle at the Cocklawfoot Farm sign. Another glance at the map shows a throng of hilariously titled geographical features, including, but not limited to, Butt Roads, Hen Hole, Bizzle Crags, Beefstand Hill, and my personal favourite, Dumb Hope.
We pause in a pine wood on Cock Law, with the wind ever-increasing, to take on some fuel before getting blasted about the approach to Windy Gyle, which would no doubt very much live up to its name soon enough. Tommy confesses at this point to have forgotten his entire food supply for the day… Luckily, I’d overpacked, and offer up one of my four Cornish pasties to keep spirits up. With some Super Unleaded in the tank, we crack on, knowing that James has plenty of hills left to take us on after topping out on Windy Gyle.
What follows is different to the opening climb, which offered a long, steady drag with a few punches – the run up to the frontier would be a mellow affair with a looming climb that looked more ominous the closer we got. The last punch would see us gain about 120 vertical metres in barely four times that. I can’t vouch for Tommy, but I could taste that pasty again the whole way to the English border.
It’s here, looking south into Northumberland, where we’ve first to really consider our route. At our backs, the Right to Roam is enshrined in law, although a more youthful and recent law than many realise. Follow a track, a fence, a wall or a river and leave no trace. Straightforward enough. Through the gate where Scotland meets England, a signpost stands against the elements and makes it clear that the flag-paved path is a footpath. Look on the OS map, though, and you’ll see the broad, dotted line of a bridleway… The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives certain areas a right to roam, and it would seem that the borderlands fall under that act. That, combined with a fair dollop of access land, only adds to the difficulty in working out which route you can turn your wheels on in the Cheviots.
This myriad of mutually supporting rules – some entirely contradictory – mirrors the somewhat chaotic nature of the Borders since the dawn of time with a historic lawlessness and disregard for rules, the infamous Reivers who raided irrespective of nationality, and even the Romans who thought better of it and just built a giant wall some way south to simply stand and keep watch.
A world of contrasts
This in itself is reflected in my riding partners for the day. Tommy, beyond his film and photo work in cycling and the wider outdoor industry, is busy behind the scenes looking to work with landowners for natural regeneration and taking back large swathes of marginal land to return it to natural habitats for everyone’s benefit. Busy trying to get national agencies and landowners on side to try to restore the land to that which those in the Iron Age hill forts, the Romans and the Reivers, enjoyed centuries and millennia ago. James is keen to see progress, but whether for fun or not, decides to take a different tack that keeps the conversation going for the duration of the ride and he’s certainly thought about it plenty.
“Think of the disparity between the regard we hold pioneers, rule-breakers, people who stood up for something that was important to them, and the contempt and impatience that their much more mellow contemporaries are regarded with by the same society,” he offers.
I certainly wasn’t expecting such a high-brow disagreement as the wind tried to shear our epidermis from us atop Windy Gyle, one of the Cheviot’s highest summits, and the route here from the gate below could almost be as different to the conversation. On the English side, you find old millstones helicoptered in to provide swift and easy passage across the bog, while on the Scottish side there is the bog and the hazards that come with it. One is a neat, grey line that winds its way through the heather, the other a dirty, messy scar on the open hill that could do with a little love.
Just as we’re about to set off from the top to escape the wind James interjects another thought that seems like it had been stewing in his head, the eloquence of which caught me entirely off guard. “It’s also worth remembering that for centuries the men who are so heartily celebrated every year during the common ridings, rode roughshod across this ground irrespective of the laws imposed on the men of the region by a worried government in the south. A grave disservice it would be to them that their forebears would allow their paths to be decided at meetings of unarmed men with clean fingernails and no cattle…” Could James Knowles be the poet wordsmith of our times?
With frontier governance and land access thoroughly and pleasantly debated we set off down the western side of Windy Gyle, to which he gives a slightly less poetic description than his previous efforts. “It’s either flagstone or black muck.” He’s not wrong. We slither down an open wound on the hill made up of the peat that sits below the grass, offering no traction or consistency in any way. It’s an exercise in staying loose and reacting to what the bike is telling you. Thirty watery-eyed seconds later, we let the uphill of the saddle bring us to a halt, and we pick up a relic of the Roman era, simply known as ‘The Street’. Its counterpart across the valley, Dere Street, ran from York all the way into Scotland as far as the Antonine Wall. It’s here we happen across one of the feral goats that have roamed the land since the Iron Age, an animal with a beard almost exactly like that of Mastodon’s Troy Sanders.
More broad, open hillside gives us the opportunity to make a quick diversion to the site of an Iron Age hill fort, the ramparts of which are still clearly visible. A glance across the valley showed where yet more earthworks remain and, in reality, the hills here are littered with ancient settlements from a thousand years before Christianity. With the brief history lesson out of the way, we get buzzed by the lowest flying Eurofighter Typhoon I have ever witnessed – one that seemed weirdly quiet. Perhaps he had cruise control on?
From The Street, it’s simply a grassy plummet past a crumbling ruin of a farmstead to the road below and back to some welcome tarmac. Time to shift the undercarriage about the saddle, sit on one bum cheek, or pedal out of the saddle to take the pressure off, and talk about what you’re going to have for dinner when you’re home…
There’s far more to the Scottish Borders than the Tweed Valley – the northern end of the Cheviots is definitely proof of that. Come summer when the hills are dry, you can cover a serious amount of ground here. You get a real feel of isolation very quickly, and with a distinct lack of trees above 300m, the skies are massive and you can see the sea on a clear day.
It may not be particularly close to anywhere, but neither is it all that far away. Just over an hour from Edinburgh, ninety minutes from Newcastle and just under two hours from Glasgow, you’ve a very much untapped part of the world to explore. If you want something more than the somewhat ‘classic’ mountain bike route, you can head over to the southern flank of the Cheviots to take in the trails at Rothbury and Coquet Vale to add a few more trees and corners to the equation. St Cuthbert’s Way and the Pennine Way offer solid long-distance options too.
The terrain here also makes the most of whatever bike you’ve got. James ran a hardtail, Tommy a 170mm bike with 27.5in wheels, I had a 165mm 29er, and we all had good fun. When asked about gravel options, I got the curt response from James: “You’d sink.” I’m sure they do exist though…
With liberal access options either side of the frontier, quantity, quality and variety of trails certainly are in abundance. The seasons change the feel of the landscape entirely here. Winter will be white and bleak, but get a cold day when it’s firm underfoot and you’ll cover the ground like no other. Spring sees life return to the hills, hammered by the relentless wind; summer sees the hills alive with ground nesting birds, lambs, calves and everything else that comes with an upland summer. Summer into autumn brings you purple heather, worth it for the massive splash of colour. Autumn brings shooting, grouse and pheasants, so you do need to be careful if you’re venturing out as the leaves start to turn.
If you spend money here it’s going to stay put. There simply isn’t big business here.
- Distance: 39km
- Elevation: 990m
- Time: 4–5 hours
- Map : OS Landranger 80
Kirk Yetholm and Town Yetholm have a few inns, B&Bs and hotels, plus myriad private options and Airbnbs. With Scotland’s Covid-19 rules differing to the rest of the UK, all services below will either be closed or operating at reduced capacity.
The Border Hotel. Right on the green in the middle of the village. Five en suite rooms available, plus a self-catering cottage nearby. Bar and restaurant on site.
The Mill House B&B. Just above the river, funnily enough, when you enter Kirk Yetholm. Three rooms, two suites and self-catering options.
The Plough Hotel. On the main street in Town Yetholm. Five rooms, all dog-friendly.
Parking is limited and you will likely have to find a spot somewhere on Main Street, Kirk Yetholm.
There’s very little in the way of shops of any kind in Kirk Yetholm.
Simon Porteous Cycles is your nearest bike shop – it’s in Kelso, some 8.6 miles from Kirk Yetholm, and deals in Giant and Bergamont.
You’d best bring specific and general spares for your ride, because there are few shops and remote riding.
The Border Hotel is right at the start/finish point of this ride. Bar and restaurant meals available.
The Plough Hotel in Town Yetholm, offers similar fare to its Kirk Yetholm counterpart.