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The Ancient Spirit of the Simonsides

A hill that had religious significance to early settlers and is now a rock climbers' playground.

Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 820ft (250m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Generally good tracks, but steep and muddy in places

Landscape Forest, hill and moorland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL42 Kielder Water & Forest

Start/finish NZ 037997

Dog friendliness Can be off lead

Parking Large car park at forest picnic area

Public toilets None on route

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© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 From the notice board in the picnic area, go through the gate on to the broad forest road. Follow this gently uphill, swinging to the right round the long hairpin bend, then back left at the top of the hill. When the road splits, take the right-hand fork, past the communications mast and go gently downhill. When you get to the next junction, take the left-hand fork and follow the road past the sign indicating a detour to Little Church Rock.

2 When you come to the marker post, where a narrow track leads to the left, ignore this and continue along the broad track, which now becomes grassy. After passing a huge, heavily overgrown boulder, continue to the small cairn which marks the start of a subsidiary track on the left. Follow this track uphill through the forest and out on to the heather-covered hillside. You will now see Simonside's crags ½ mile (800m) away to your left.

3 Continue up the narrow track to join the broader one at the edge of the upper forest and follow this for about 275yds (251m) to the corner of the trees. A rough track, sometimes quite muddy in places, picks its way through boulders up the hillside. Follow this, keeping the crags on your left-hand side, on to the plateau and walk along the top of the crags to the large cairn on the summit, which is probably a burial mound.

4 Away from the summit, the track splits into two. Follow the right fork across boggy ground for 1?3 mile (530m). Climb the short rise keeping the wonderfully wind-sculpted Old Stell Crag to your left and move round on to the summit and another large cairn.

5 Take the narrow path down to join the lower track. This leads, in ½ mile (800m), to the cairn on Dove Crag. At the Y-junction, ¼ mile (400m) further on, follow the right fork gently uphill to The Beacon cairn, and continue downhill for ½ mile (800m) to join the road at Lordenshaws car park.

6 Turn left and follow the road for 1 mile (1.6km) until you arrive back at the forest picnic area at the start of the walk.

While the Simonside Hills are not the highest in Northumberland, they are the most distinctive. The taller Cheviots and hills of the North Pennines present a rounded, soft face to the visitor, so that it is often difficult from a distance, to distinguish one from another. In contrast, the summit plateau of Simonside, with its chopped-off, craggy edges is recognisable from as far south as Newcastle and parts of County Durham.

The rocks that give these hills their appearance are geologically among the youngest in the county. They consist of fell sandstones, deposited as river sediments on top of the older shale, limestone and volcanic layers that form the bedrock. Although they are exposed elsewhere in Northumberland, nowhere are they as impressive as they are on Simonside.

The cragbound summits, wrapped in a sombre, almost watchful atmosphere, have influenced people for as long as the surrounding land has been inhabited. The sandstones have proved soft enough for early settlers to leave their mark, yet hard enough for these marks to survive relentless weathering for 5,000 years. Throughout this time, agriculture was carried out in the valleys and across the lower slopes, but not on Simonside itself, suggesting that to generations of peoples it may have held some spiritual significance.

At many sites, most notably Lordenshaws, where the Simonside ridge tails off to the roadside, a record of human activity for the whole of this period has been preserved. Many of the rocks show 'cup and ring' carvings dating from neolithic times. The Bronze Age is represented by 4,000-year-old cairns and burial mounds, while the top of the hill is dominated by an Iron-Age earthwork built around 350 bc. More recent remains, dating back only a few centuries include walls, old tracks and the spoil heaps of 19th-century lead prospecting.

Conifer forests now cover the lower reaches of these hills, but the summit crags remain clear, to be used for an activity that many of its devotees regard as a modern spiritual pursuit. As a sport, rock climbing began in Northumberland in the late 19th century, very soon after its birth in the Lake District and Snowdonia. The early pioneers included Sir Charles Trevelyan and the historian, G M Trevelyan from nearby Wallington Hall. The crags of Simonside were among the first to be developed and are still used extensively. The forest has rendered some rock faces temporarily invisible and others less accessible than hitherto, but the crags of the northern rim of Simonside are among the most popular in the county.

Where to eat and drink

The Queen's Head Hotel on Rothbury's main street serves meals and welcomes children, as does the Railway Hotel by the bridge over the River Coquet on the Simonside road. For light refreshments, Harley's Tea Room and Restaurant opposite the Railway Hotel is quiet, child-friendly and gives very good service.

While you're there

At Great Tosson, on the road from Rothbury to Simonside, is the ruined Tosson Tower, built 600 years ago by the Ogle family as a defence against the marauding reivers. A few hundred paces along the road from Great Tosson to Little Tosson you'll find one of the best-preserved 19th-century lime kilns in Northumberland.

What to look for

The detour to Little Church Rock is only about 120yds (110m). The smooth, rounded architecture of the rock is the result of wind erosion. The surface ripple effect is caused by softer rock being eroded more than harder layers. Look for Stone-Age cup markings near the bottom of the rock.

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