Shillhope Law

My New Years Resolution for 2017 is to get some experience of solo wild camping, having been tied to study and home for the last couple of years. I tried to think of somewhere that could legitimately be described as wild within reach for my first wild camp on my own, and Upper Coquetdale in Northumberland came to mind.

When I looked back at my first group camp which was in summer time, I realised that this trip would be very different. It was January, which presented me with a completely different set of challenges and required a very different kit. Coquetdale was planned partly as a practice trip to test out some of my old and new winter gear, which had spent a year in storage while I completed my studies. This is the way I approach all my trips now, having made my share of mistakes in the past.

Windyhaugh to Shillhope Law

Overall this was probably only about a 7 mile circular hike with one night of camping, but nonetheless it does qualify as my first solo wild camp. After a long and winding drive up the valley, I parked the car at the junction just beyond Windyhaugh, beneath Barrow Law. When I turned to look back from Barrowburn, I was struck by just how tiny my car looked in that setting amongst the hills. It is worth noting here that the journey to this sparsely populated area would have been very tricky, if not impossible, by public transport.

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Upper Coquetdale lies deep within Northumberland National Park adjacent to the Military Training Area which paradoxically occupies 23% of the park. The River Coquet forms a natural border between the MoD land and the rest of the National Park, along which red flags fly when live firing is taking place. This is some of the wildest and emptiest countryside in the county.

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My pack was heavier than usual with all my winter stuff and lots of water in as I headed towards Shillhope Law, a 501 metre Dewey and Marilyn. The ground was quite wet underfoot but the hills looked wonderful in the low winter sunlight.

I finally pitched just beyond the highest fence on the hillside on a shoulder of the hill. I was tempted to sleep on the summit but decided it might be too windy for my lightweight Force Ten tent. There was a tiny stream nearby so I needn’t have carried so much water, and the ground was flat and soft enough to plant the tent pegs in, so I angled the tent to point eastwards for the sunrise.

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Sunset over Coquetdale

I had a technical problem pitching my tent which made it a bit lop sided so I didn’t take pictures of it, but it did stand up to the strong westerly wind which buffeted one side all night. (This turned out to be a problem with the tensioning). Once I had pitched, I took a few photos and retired for the long dark winter evening with a good book to read. It was quite liberating to be unreachable for once, and I eventually just turned my phone off until the next morning to save my battery. I was really snug inside my new winter bag and I drifted off feeling confident that I would survive the -11C windchill.

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I emerged just in time to catch the first rays of sunshine hitting the hill opposite – my first solo wild camp sunrise, complete with a rainbow – which gave me quite a thrill. I packed everything up, which was tricky in the wind, and continued up Shillhope Law.

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View from Shillhope Law, Upper Coquetdale, Northumberland

Unfortunately just as I set off, the chest strap on my rucksack broke and it became obvious that I wouldn’t be able to complete the route I had planned, which was a bit of a disappointment. I lurched unevenly to the summit cairn to take in the views all around, although it had now clouded over a bit.

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So, although I accomplished my mission of spending a night alone in the hills, I was sadly unable to complete my full itinerary which involved a second night. In the end the trip was partly designed to highlight any weaknesses in my kit and it did just that, so I will revise what I take next time in the light of this trip. I was aware that my rucksack was packed to the limit of it’s weight capacity but I didn’t have an alternative pack of that size, so I am not blaming the manufacturer.

I found with my campsite backpacking that these practice trips were essential to ensure that I didn’t arrive at the start of a long trail (or camp) with a kit that wouldn’t work for that trip.

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I descended back into the valley where the morning air felt quite mild and springlike. I stopped for a sit in the sun to watch the lively River Coquet and the farmers going about their business, before returning reluctantly to the car. I never used to write up trips like this, feeling that I wanted to present only blue skies and positive outcomes, but I have gradually realised that it is unrealistic and unhelpful to exclude the unforeseen problems and the bad days that beset us all sometimes.

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So it was cold and a bit muddy, but stunningly beautiful up there on my own in that huge, wild landscape. In spite of all my apprehensions, I actually felt safer in that remote, out of sight spot than I would have done in a more populated and accessible area. Thanks to the people who have remained supportive on my journey towards wild camping on my own.

The rucksack chest strap has been stitched back on so it won’t slip off again.

Best bits of kit: PHD Ice Camp Expedition Bag, Petzl Tikka Headtorch.