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The Cheviot

Thereís a haunting look in my face today, and itís not simply due to the prospect of a 10-mile hike to the top of the Cheviot, Northumberlandís highest point. Rushing out of the house yesterday morning, I grabbed the childrenís sun screen, and having splashed it all over my face, I realised that id doesnít Ďrub iní, but instead stays glacial-white on my skin. Iím pale anyway, and in the early morning light, Iím ghostly.

Angus the photographer, meanwhile, is looking decidedly green. Having feasted on a fine Northumberland breakfast this morning, heís now concerned heíll meet it again on the ascent.

My other walking companion is Jon Monks, creator of the successful Shepherds Walks, and until recently a working shepherd nearby. He politely suggests that there are better walks in the area, but I stick pig-headedly to the walkerís rule that you have to walk to the countyís highest point.

So here we are, just before nine in the morning, staring up at the great brooding presence of the Cheviot, all 818 metres or 2,676 feet of it. The vertically challenged mountain (too short by just 324 feet) is doing nothing to welcome us, glowering in the distance, dark clouds crowning its head like a marvellous halo. And there seem to be dark forces at play, a covey of grouse bursting from the heather with a witchís crackle. Even the heather is playing hard to get, refusing to offer more than a glimpse of its purple to anyone but the bees busily gathering pollen.

Our first summit is Cold Law, and itís a proper hilltop, complete with a trig point and spectacular 360-degree views. Weíve been walking for less than 45 minutes, but with the hills completely to ourselves, itís a spot to stop for a moment, catch our breath and take a slug from our water bottles.

From this lofty vantage point itís easy to see the management of the moors, with wide squares of new green heather, dark areas where old heather has been burnt. Breath caught and sweat wiped from brows, we lose altitude before slogging up Broadhope hill. The land seems bleak and wild, as if it would never support farming, but Jonís shepherding knowledge brings it to life. Different weights and grades of sheep fences suddenly make sense, and I start to understand the varied use of pens and shelts, and a thousand other clues to a working landscape. Here and there tufts of wool cling to wire, or drown in puddles, like toupees blown off in a gale.

The path seems clearly defined as we head for the top of the Cheviot, and the weather is warm, which is a sentence bound to tempt fate as we press upwards in T-shirts. This may only be a hill, but it feels like a mountain in its relentless climb to the horizon. Jonís GPS tells us we only have another 700 feet to climb, and we try to kid ourselves that you canít trust a digital altimeter. Later at the trig point, the GPS is accurate to the nearest foot.

I wish I could tempt the sun with the same success that I can tempt fate, because the breeze turns into a battering ram, and within minutes the temperature has dropped savagely. We clamber into fleeces for the final punishing climb before we can Ďtop outí on the roof of Northumberland.

But after all the effort of the ascent, the summit of Cheviot comes as a major disappointment. Itís a colossal peat bog, and even Steven Spielberg ever wants to recreate the wastelands of the Somme trenches, heíd be hard-pressed to find a better location. I offer silent thanks to the team who managed to install the phenomenal flagstone path right across to the Pennine Way, as we cower below the trig point for lunch, the tops of the cotton grass blowing horizontally, like miniature windsocks. The summit is so broad that there are no views beyond, bar the sky.

The decent from the summit is short, steep, barren and brutal, dropping us into a narrow and seemingly never-ending valley. Initially we follow the mere gurgle of an underground stream, before it reveals itself as a clear, peaty watercourse. Our path repeatedly crosses the stream, and our tired legs are forced into ever more athletic leaps across as it widens.

After the wide open hills, this shallow bracken-lined corridor of a valley feels claustrophobic. But as we sit on the car boot and unlace our boots, itís terrifically satisfying to know weíve walked to the highest point in Northumberland.