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Elsdon, Heart of Reiver Country

A once-lawless landscape of rolling hills and valleys, with one of Northumberland's most interesting villages.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient 623ft (190m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field paths and tracks

Landscape Rolling farmland surrounding village of Elsdon

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL42 Keilder Water & Forest

Start/finish NY 937932

Dog friendliness Dogs on leads

Parking Signed car park in Elsdon, by bridge on Rothbury road

Public toilets In village hall at start of walk

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1 Follow the 'Toilets' sign past the village hall and through a gateway. Climb the lane past the Mote Hills, pass the house and cross gravel to a gate. Cross the small field and go through the next gate, then head half right to go through a gate near some trees. Follow the path up a sunken lane then along the field edge to a gate.

2 Go through the gate and turn left over a cattle grid. Follow the metalled lane through farm buildings and down to a row of cottages. Opposite them, turn right in front of a barn, cross a stream and go through a gate.

3 Walk ahead through the field with a bank on your left and, at the top of the rise, bear left across the bank, making for a gate in a crossing wire fence. After the gate, bear half left again, towards the left-hand end of a crossing wall.

4 Turn right and follow the wall downhill. Go through a gate in a crossing wall and continue to follow the wall on your left to reach a waymarked post. Turn right, cross a small bridge, then go uphill to a gate beside a barn. Go straight on, then take a metal gate on your left. Curve right to another gate on to a road. Turn left along the road, crossing a cattle grid and a bridge, to a second cattle grid.

5 Cross the cattle grid, then turn immediately right, signed 'East Todholes'. Cross the stream and go through a gate, then cross a second stream. Follow the wall on your left-hand side to reach a ladder stile by pine trees. After the stile bear half left to go round the right-hand side of East Todholes farm and cross over a stile on to a lane.

6 Follow the lane past the next farm and up the hill to join a road. Turn right. Opposite the 'bend' sign go right over a stile. Follow the old wall downhill towards Elsdon, bending right, then left, at a fence to go over a stile. After another stile bear right to a footbridge, then left to another. The path eventually brings you to larger footbridge near the village.

7 Cross the footbridge, then turn right to a stile beside a gate. Go up the track between some houses to a road that takes you to the green. Bear right, along the edge of the green, go over the bridge and back to the start.

For hundreds of years in the Middle Ages, Elsdon was at the centre of some of the most lawless land in England. It was the capital of the remote Middle March - one of three Marches or protective areas set up in 1249 to protect the border lands. Local historian G M Trevelyan wrote that Elsdon was 'the capital of Redesdale when neither Scotland nor England existed.' The chief threat to the area was from the reivers or mosstroopers - bands of marauders, mostly from north of the border, who carried out raids on local farms, burning the crops, destroying homesteads and, above all, stealing cattle, sheep and horses. Such was the seriousness of these raids that they influenced the design of the village. Its wide green, more than 7 acres (2.8ha) in area, was used to pen animals during a raid, and the entrances to the village were shut off.

Another important reminder of those anarchistic days is the Vicar's Pele at Elsdon, just by the church. A square, defensive tower that could be easily defended, it was probably built in the 14th century, and rebuilt in the 16th and 18th. Its walls are up to 9ft (3m) thick. Lewis Carroll's grandfather, later the Bishop of Ossory, lived in the tower from 1762 to 1765.

The remains of earlier defences are a highlight of the first part of the walk. What are known locally as Mote Hills are the spectacular remains of a motte and bailey castle. Sitting on the steep banks of Elsdon Burn the castle has a lower area - the bailey - surrounded by a deep ditch and bank, while the tall hill behind - the motte - once supported a timber castle. Put up by the de Umfravilles in the 12th century, Elsdon Castle had a short life - in around 1160 the family moved its headquarters to Harbottle, and left Elsdon to slumber.

The walk takes you from the village to the tiny farming hamlet of Hudspeth, which shares its name with a county in Texas, and up the slopes of Landshot Hill before descending to the hamlet of Landshot and on to the farms of East and West Todholes. From Elizabethan county records we know that in January 1582 Thomas Routledge of Todholes issued a complaint against Kinmont Armstrong of Canonbie, in Galloway, who he claimed had stolen '40 kine, 20 sheep, and 1 horse, value 300 pounds sterling' in a reivers raid.

The return to Elsdon, which offers good views of the village and the Mote Hills, is partially along a decayed medieval stone wall, once part of the outlying village defences. Look out, back on the Green, for the figure of Bacchus above the door of one of the cottages, which was originally an inn.

Where to eat and drink

Elsdon's Bird in Bush Inn is a traditional country pub which serves evening meals from Tuesday to Saturday, and Sunday lunches (children are welcome at reasonable hours and dogs are allowed in the bars). The Impromptu Café in the old school house near the Vicar's Pele Tower offers good home-made produce and refreshments.

What to look for

A visit to the curious Elsdon church on the green is rewarding. One of the places where St Cuthbert's body rested on its century-long journey from Holy Island to Durham, the church dates mostly from the 14th century, and has an odd interior, with very narrow aisles and enormously thick walls - another defence against raiders. More than 1,000 skulls and other bones were found by the north wall in 1877; they were soldiers killed in 1388 at the Battle of Otterburn. Also in 1877, a box containing three horse skulls was found inside the little spire. Explanations range from pagan sacrifice to improvements for the acoustics. Look out for the tombstone of a Roman soldier in the north aisle, brought here from High Rochester fort.

While you're there

Winter's Gibbet, beside the road 2½ miles (4km) south east of Elsdon, is a grim reminder of 18th-century justice. William Winter was executed in Newcastle in 1791 for the murder of an Elsdon woman, and his body was then hung here as a stern warning to others. Eventually the body rotted and fell, to be replaced by the wooden head that still hangs on the gaunt gibbet.

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